When Valencia resident Chris Demke hops in his car and heads to his day job in Gardena as a project manager, he’s only able to exceed 60 mph if the clogged Southern California freeways allow him to.
When he suits up for what he calls his “hobby” as a National Hot Rod Association drag racer, he hits 60 mph in nine-tenths of a second — and 270 mph in five seconds.
“The car is nothing short of a land missile,” said the 53-year-old Demke. “The people at my day job know that I’m a drag racer on the side. They definitely think I’m crazy when I tell them how fast the car goes.”
Demke, who competes in the Top Alcohol dragster field, is preparing for his the final race of the season — the Auto Club NHRA Finals — taking place today through Sunday in Pomona. Demke currently stands in sixth place in his field, still seeking his first win of the season.
“We won the championship in our field in 2014 but we’ve been trying out some new things since,” Demke said. “The thing about this sport is that you can’t sit back and just do the same thing and expect the same results. You have to be innovative.”
Some of those innovations this year included a new clutch and different engine combinations. Demke said the best his team is hoping from the finals is to climb to fifth place in the standings.
As a sportsman, he isn’t considered a professional by the sport’s definition. His credentials speak for themselves, though.
Demke joined his current team in 1993 as part of its pit crew but was selected to drive in 2002. Along with his national championship, he’s racked up 18 career wins.
“Sportsman races don’t make a lot of money to start, so most of the guys out there are just doing it for the love of the sport,” Demke said. “That’s what has kept me going all this time.”
The grizzled NHRA veteran believes the sport picking up more mainstream attention. He gives Fox Sports, which purchased the NHRA’s television rights in 2015 following a partnership with ESPN, some of the credit for that.
But Demke strongly suggested TV can only do so much for the sport.
“Seeing these races and feeling the power of the cars in person is pretty incredible,” he said. “People who go to events are allowed to get free passes to watch pit crews work live. That’s something you don’t really get anywhere else.
“The driver is only about 25 percent of the operation. Some people are more fascinated with the intricacies of the cars themselves.”
Demke acknowledged he’s one of the older drivers around in the circuit. While the job is not absent of danger, especially when dealing with cars equipped with 3500 horsepower, he’s not in a rush to call it a career.
“We’re already talking about adjustments we’re looking to make for next season,” Demke said. “I’m not looking to give up this seat anytime soon.”