2525 F.M. 565 South
Baytown, TX 77520
Track: 281.383. RACE
April 2004–A few miles outside of Houston, lies a structure only 1/4-mile long. It is a paradise for performance and beauty. Reputations can be broken and legends are made here. Only popular recently, this place holds years of memories. Houston Raceway Park has been Houston’s and South Texas spot for N.H.R.A. and amateur drag racing. Total attendance numbers for 1999 past 588,400 people with the N.H.R.A. O’Reilly Nationals attracting nearly 104,000 fans in one weekend. Since opening the gates in 1988, it has seen numerous drag racing titles, including the most popular current title as fastest TS (trap speed) 1/4-mile track in the US.
As I cross the Houston ship channel bridge four lanes wide, I look across only to see a vastness of the usual east Texas-nothing but trees. The ship channel lies beneath almost signaling your entry into sacred territory. However, as you wind your way through the small outskirt city of Baytown, with nothing but a few small shops and houses sparsely set away from each other, you find signs reading “Houston Raceway Park: this way.” Just the sight of the bright neon green signs incites excitement throughout me. Almost an hour outside the city, the trip over creates nerve tension like an upcoming test. The road leading up to the park winds back and forth in S curves with evergreen trees rising on both sides, only a few feet from the pavement. With no lights or signs of civilization, it can seem like entering a new world. As if the Red Sea were parting, the landscape opens to a 440-acre lot, all green flatland, with a three story building in the middle, a small circle dirt track, and a 1/4-mile drag strip streaming out of it into the distance. The sun is setting, making the sky shades of red, orange, and even a little purple. Clouds are non existent making the vastness of the sky unending.
The staff has already powered up the huge grandstand lighting like at a stadium on the track, lighting the strip, the spectator area, and the surrounding parking lot. As I turn in and roll down my window, the smell of VHT and fresh concrete fill in over my windows. The lighting fills the car, and sounds of huge motors and loud exhaust are heard in the distance. I hand the lady at the check-in booth a crisp new twenty dollar bill and she hands me the tech sheet to fill out and give to the tech-in staff.
As my car passes the initial inspection testing, the technician looking over every inch of my car’s body and engine compartment, I get out and open my hood to cool off the engine from the drive over. By this time, a line of amateur and semi-professional racers have lined up to tech-in and get ready for their first run down the track. Everything from Mustangs to diesel trucks are in the waiting line.
Set in the outskirts, the staff seems to have a more country culture than what is normally found in Houston city limits. If not accustomed to the accent, one may have trouble understanding some of the staff. Everyone there has lingo and slang for almost every car term or word. Two people could be having a conversation and one might not even know what the discussion is about. “I just put my new head and cam swap on the 383 stroker. The cam has got a 241 to 581 lift with a 112 lobe separation. I also had to throw in a four link suspension along with a Ford nine inch carrier.” This is a good example of many of the conversations that go on inside the pits. We make a few last minute changes on tire pressure, clutch adjustment, and timing. I start my motor and allow it a few moments to find a steady idle. I make the turn to enter the waiting line with 150 other cars to run my car for the first time.
The sheer size of the track’s building is intimidating enough, and at this point you can not even see down the track. The building houses VIP sections, official timers, and announcing box. Being three stories tall and nearly one hundred yards wide, it definitely distracts attention from the race before a car even enters the staging area. Finally, the announcers tell everyone to get ready because the lanes have been checked and are ready to go. The line moves slowly as a few races start and finish. The low rumble of a cammed out fox body Mustang shakes the muscles in my body, adding to my nervousness. The large motors of some cars are felt sitting in the driver’s seat as they pound your chest as if you were in an airplane. The driver in a full fire suit, race helmet, and sitting on drag slicks assures me that his pro street car is fast and given respect. As you drive through the two small entrances under the three story tower, the enormous white lights and the grandstand filled with people standing become obvious. I imagine myself launching my car at the green light, front end coming off the ground, and flying down the track at record setting speeds; winning the crowds approval with a large applauding roar. I envision myself setting a track amateur car record as everyone is on their feet giving a standing ovation for the spectacular performance.
The quarter mile strip has seen many historical racing events in it’s history, most notably the first ever under five second elapsed time run in NHRA history. The track hold four of the five records in the professional classes. Larry Dixon in Top Fuel ran a fastest 4.486 seconds in the quarter, as Mike Dunn crushed the speed record and put down a 331.61 miles per hour. Warren Johnson in pro stock achieved a high trap speed of 202.36 mph, while Matt Hines in Pro Stock Bike ran a speedy 191.48 mph on two wheels!
I’m quickly awakened by the lane staff waving me to pull up into the burnout box where nothing but burnt rubber slowly creeps into my nostrils. Spectators line the stands and people watch from a standing area trying to get closer to the action. The race ahead of me finished quickly and the two cars turn off the road and await their private time slips. The road now feels slick under my tires because of the wetness in the box. It has just enough water to spin my tires, but I quickly let off the gas pedal, letting the thick gray smoke from my tires blow away in the wind. I try not to inhale the pungent odor from the rubber that was heated in the burnout. I pull up to the staging lights and get into position. I can see all my friends anticipating my run. I look down the track and it seems so long to the end, with almost a never-ending braking area for safety. I wonder how fast I can get there. The white hard walls of the track are taunting me, begging me to hit one of them and completely wreck my car. They are lined with black streaks from cars that have suffered the horrible tragedy of colliding or brushing these walls. However, I have the wind behind me and the cool night air brushing my face assures me that it is the best weather conditions I could have to race. The actual concrete of the track is covered in a solution to promote grip with tires to try and assure traction otherwise known as VHT. On the other hand, the beginning is lined with rubber from previous cars that did not achieve a good traction point and roasted the rubber on their tires.
In December of 2003, HRP staff and workers from the Angel Brother’s construction company go to work resurfacing the entire drag strip. The project added 260 feet to the original starting line. They are planning to have new surface on the remaining asphalt track and quarter mile shutdown area. The addition surface totals the whole track to a new 660 feet long racing surface. VHT, a special asphalt mix, will be used in order to withstand the wear and tear of the 8,000 horsepower, 330 mile per hour cars that race each season. Wishing my car was this fast, realization sets in.
The lights go from yellow all the way down to green, I immediately dump my clutch locking my drive-train in place. I start to roar down the track and the sound of tires spinning and my high revved motor fills my ears with every shift of gears. I kick my stiff clutch in as hard as I can and slam the shifter into the right gears as quickly as I possibly can. The grandstands start to quickly pass by and the sponsor signs on the walls become almost unreadable. The gigantic time signs at the end of the track seem to grow and grow as I make my way to the finish line. Just as the engine is at 5,500 rpm’s and I have no gear left, the winner’s lights go on my board as I cross the finish line. I finally make it to the end safely and I let out a breath of relief as I wipe the sweat dripping from my forehead, trying not to breathe in the smell of my smoking brakes as I come to a halt.
I turn off the track onto the road leading back to the pits. The road is quite uneven and has many dips and bumps to hinder my car. Only grass lines this road and no lights are visible so it is crucial that one use their headlights or have another vehicle tow them back to their pit area. After a few moments me come to a small booth like the check in booth that prints and distributes the actual track times that they record when you run each time on the track. A lady inside rips the slip off the printer and thanks me for a good safe race. I look down at the slip which has a multitude of numbers recorded for every category and section of the race.
After leaving the booth, I wind shortly back to the pits. Here’s a variety of people from a diverse background modifying their cars and prepping them for a good run down the strip. The amateur racers have only their cars and maybe a friend’s car to help carry common tools in case needed. The professional racers also are found amongst the group with their fully equipped eighteen wheeler transports.
The gigantic, spacious pit area can hold up to 400 full size racing rigs and additional pit parking on grass. The spectator parking lot has a capacity of over 10,000 cars with a VIP lot allowing another 600 more vehicles inside the lot. The grandstands alone can hold over 23,000 race fans. Additional seating is brought in for major events and is used to accommodate reserved seating requests.
They store and work on the cars in these big rigs and even are housed in the front portion of the monstrous carriers. People are conversing about previous races and dutifully preparing for the next. Many are inside engine compartments tearing out broken parts, tuning certain aspects, and even refilling the ever popular nitrous bottles that help motors become more powerful than they have ever been. Once again I step out of my car and inspect it for problems. The air is filled with car motors screaming down the track and fans yelling at the top of their lungs rooting for their favorite cars. The smell of oil, rubber, and exhaust consumes every in the pit area where all cars try to keep maintained after the racing.
H.R.P. is Houston’s great alternative to the street racing scene. It provides a controlled, safe environment to the many Houston racers around the city. Accurate timing also persuades racers to come discover just how well their pride and joy is doing. Houston has many people that contribute to the fact of why there are so many cars here. The fact that Houston Raceway Park is so popular, is no wonder why many people come to just witness great races or simply visit the great facilities of the track. National racing events and amateurs can come together to spectate or race in a place to worship their cars, a hobby enjoyed by several Houstonians.
NOTE: All pictures actually taken at Houston Raceway Park