Discoveries: Amateur gearheads gather at Samoa Drag Strip to burn rubber

Published: Sunday, Sep. 30, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1H
Last Modified: Friday, Mar. 1, 2013 - 12:34 pm

Some guys they just give up living

Start dying little by little, piece by piece

Some guys come home from work and wash up

And go racin' in the street

– Bruce Springsteen

SAMOA – Another late-summer Friday night here on the edge of the continent has brought out all the regulars.

Mitch has swapped the slicks for road tires on his Dodge Challenger to make his machine street legal. Jose's got his white Acura purring in the pits, raring to run. Suzy's here all the way from Modesto in her Honda Civic EG CX hatchback. Hakim's best car, his choice '95 Mitsubishi Eclipse, is in the shop, so he's behind the wheel of a "crappy" Lincoln LS with a child's seat in back. But he's here. Wouldn't miss it. Got to represent.

"We're all just out here to have fun," Jose Garcia of Fortuna said. "There's not a lot to do out here in this area, you know."

So, these guys (and a few women, such as Suzy Valdivia) cut out of work early on a Friday to start their weekend racing each other, two-by-two, down a quarter-mile stretch of shimmering asphalt at the Samoa Drag Strip, a former World War II tethering base for blimps, as far west in Humboldt County as you can get without splashing in the Pacific.

Samoa's strip, opened in 1952, has played host to many a pro drag racing event and boasts being the second- oldest National Hot Rod Association venue in the state, behind the Redding Drag Strip.

But tonight, these aren't pros. These are friends and neighbors, gearheads all, the "shut-down strangers and hot rod angels, rumbling through this promised land," as Springsteen sings.

See them on the street, and they stand out. Theirs are the cars that roar and rumble up to the stoplight, as frustrated as leashed greyhounds ready to bolt. Here at the strip, they are in their element. They let out the clutch and let go their inhibitions. They seek speed, that 12-second rush of burning up the strip, something that law and decorum prohibit on the police-prowled roads.

"This is like an extended family out here," said Jim Lowsley, Samoa Drag Strip's tech official for street-legal racing. "I love these people. We all know each other and are friends. But we let anybody come out and take a run."

Speaking of which, yonder comes a new guy pulling into the pit and lining up for a run in – can this be possible? – a forest-green Volkswagen Vanagon.

Behind the wheel is Robert Sherman, 66, of Arcata. And yes, mister, he's here to race. He took his van all the way to Stephan's Auto Haus in Sacramento to get it totally tricked out, the engine converted to a 1.8- liter turbo with 240 horsepower at 5,500 rpm. He's ready to kick some fuel- injected butt.

Well, actually, Sherman seems a bit tentative while waiting in line for his first run.

"I've never raced before," he said. "This'll be my first race. I love drag racing, but I'm just really nervous right now."

You can tell. Sherman has both hands gripping the wheel and he is still three-deep in line.

Across the way, veteran racer Mitch Valentine orbits his metallic-green Dodge Challenger, giving off a confident vibe. Lowsley has just checked on the Dodge's specs, as he does with all cars beforehand, given it a thumbs-up.

Valentine likes his chances tonight. He's not racing for a prize or money, just to reach personal goals.

"It's only the second time I've raced this one," he said. "Last weekend and now this weekend. I was at mid-11s (seconds, over a quarter mile), but I think I can get into high 10s tonight if I get traction."

Ask Valentine about the Dodge, and he talks as fast as he drives.

"The engine," he said, "It's a 440 that's stroked to 500 cubic inches, with nitrous (oxide), running 650 horsepower without the nitrous. I bought it pretty much the way you see it. It went direct from the drag strip to my garage to convert it. I drive it around town.

"Yes, it can be loud. But the mufflers are still on it and everything. It's what they call tubbed and back-halfed. … They basically cut out the whole back of the car, from the seats back, and then (put in an) all-new frame, chassis, suspension. It's what they call a 4-link suspension. It makes the launch better."

The launch, a newcomer soon learns, is the start of the race, when the "Christmas tree" lights at the starting line flash from red to yellow to green and the combatants peel off in a smoky cloud of burned rubber.

Racers say a quick launch is pivotal because there's scant time to slingshot back into contention from a slow start.

"That's the whole race there," said Hakim Wyllie of McKinleyville, idling in his Lincoln. "That, and you need smooth shifts along the way."

As Valentine positions his Challenger against Dave Cummerow of Modesto, driving a 1961 Chevy Bel Air with a 409 under the hood, he warms up the tires with a burnout, making a deafening screech and sending up plumes of acrid smoke skyward.

Then, at the green, they floor it. Valentine has an early car-length lead, but swerves a little to the right, traveling well over 100 mph, before correcting. Cummerow shuts it down halfway, later discovering he'd shredded a belt. Valentine isn't happy with his time, high 12s.

"If I had the slicks on," he yells over his engines' roar. "I'd be having a good ol' time."

Valentine's friend Bob Johnson, leaning against the fence near the start line, has another view.

"He was sleeping at the light," he said. "Let's see how he does in the next run."

As Johnson speaks, Sherman rolls to the start in the Vanagon. (His opponent is a guy on a motorcycle.) Johnson does a double-take, chuckles.

"If it makes him happy, good for him," he said of Sherman. "Guy's living the dream. Nothing wrong with that."

But the Vanagon gets smoked by the motorcycle, which pulls away quickly. Sherman gamely shifts on. Back in the pits, he smiles broadly.

"It was surprising, I spun the wheels, and I didn't think this thing was capable of that," Sherman said. "I had no idea how fast I went. I should've looked down at the speedometer. But I'm over my nervousness. I think I'll do a lot better next time."

And, no doubt, there will be a next time. You could see it in his eyes, hear it in his engine.

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