I've traveled to Santa Pod Raceway in England for the FIA Finals. Everything's different here, yet everything's the same.
They have Top Fuel, but no nitro Funny Car. Instead, the kings of the sport are complimented by Pro Mod, Pro Stock, Top Methanol Dragster, and Top Methanol Funny Car. (The methanol classes are very similar to our Alcohol categories.)
Of course we drove on the wrong side of the road to get to the track in a "hire" car that features a steering wheel on the right rather than the left. They have odd words for things -- race rigs are lorries, you remove the bonnet, not the hood, to get to the engine compartment, and work on the motor with spanners instead of wrenches -- but that's all semantics.
The overriding theme is the same -- this is drag racing. It's all about horsepower and passion, lifelong friendships and rivalries born on the quarter-mile, line-'em-up boys and let's see who has the baddest hot rod. Maybe it's a Vauxhall against a Rover instead of a Chevy versus a Dodge, but the concept is unchanged.
It's great fun to walk the pits and see flags from all over Europe and the world. Teams seem to take as much pride in representing their native lands as they do their own racing efforts.
Having come straight from the USA's biggest race, the U.S. Nationals, to Europe's premier event, it's easy to see that the level of excitement among the fans is the same. Just as we walk around the hallowed ground of Indianapolis and think, "this is the U.S. Nationals, man, this is big," our counterparts on this side of the pod make the pilgrimage to Santa Pod and say, "this is the FIA Finals, mate, this is massive."
Races here are much more of a carnival. The campers, pop-ups, and tents are spread across the grounds, despite the perpetual rain, and a traveling circus full of amusement rides has been erected by the main gate.
Crewmen gather in the pits and talk crap about the other teams, tuners walk the track and scuff at the ground, bitching about the surface, and the safety personnel catch naps in their emergency vehicles. The grounds buzz with a head-spinning amount of different languages, and the media center fills with journos from across the continent.
With only five races on the FIA tour, and the prerequisite number of rounds lost to weather, all the points races are tight. Switzerland's Urs Erbacher, a frequent competitor on the NHRA tour, leads Top Fuel by half a round over Risto Poutiainen of Finland. A pair of Swedes, Michael Gullqvist and Johan Lindberg, are tied atop Pro Mod. American fans might remember that Gullqvist won Atlanta this year filling in on Roger Burgess' team.
Pro Stock leader Michael Malmgren of Sweden is the most comfortable of the lot with a nearly insurmountable 76-point advantage, while Top Methanol Dragster leader Timo Haberman of Germany (up 37 points) and Top Methanol Funny Car frontrunner of Dan Larsen of Denmark (up just two points) have some work to do before they can celebrate anything.
American star Melanie Troxel is here to compete in Pro Mod. The car she's driving, owned by Burgess, owns both ends of the FIA record for the class and she raced to the final round of the last FIA stop in Germany before it was washed out by rain so she's a heavy favorite here.
We're already behind with the schedule, so as I mentioned, things here are very similar to what we're used to in the states.
The bottom line is anticipation is high. We'll see the 2010 FIA champions crowned before we leave, come hell or high water, the second of which is a real possibility. Dreams will be realized, hopes will be shattered, and memories will be made.
It's drag racing, mate.
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