The smell of motor oil and mustard filled the air on Saturday at the Auto Club Raceway in Pomona. The 2020 drag racing season was underway with the 60th Annual Lucas Oil Winternationals.
The Winternationals, hosted by the National Hot Rod Association, began on Thursday and ran through Sunday. Qualifying rounds ended on Friday and Saturday was full of the first elimination races of the year.
“It tells me I’m at the races and I’m ready to compete,” said Chris Demke of the atmosphere. “It means I’m here to have some fun. I’m here to go head-to-head with some of the best.”
Demke is a Top Alcohol Drag Racer who hails from Valencia. He’s been behind the wheel for 18 years now and has found success on tracks across the country, including a win at the NHRA National Championship in Brownsburg, Indiana.
However, Demke wasn’t the only racer representing Santa Clarita on Saturday. Johnny Ahten, a fire captain from Newhall, was in Pomona for the start of the new season, as well.
“For us, we knock off the cobwebs,” Ahten said. “We’re itching to go racing again.”
He’s been behind the wheel for 20 years and finished last season strong with a win at a regional event in August in Kent, Washington. His win in Kent awarded him a Wally Trophy, a big accomplishment in the racing community.
“How hard is it to win?” said Howard Katano, one of Ahten’s crew members. “As hard as winning the lottery.”
Bud Fizone, a seasoned member of Ahten’s crew chimed in with his take on a Wally.
“It means everything,” he said. “Take all the hard work and energy that’s put into it, and every one of the people out here, it’s their heart and their desire.”
Although the race is the purpose of gathering, the atmosphere at the Pomona Raceway feels as if it’s much more than that. The drivers meet on Parker Avenue – the racetrack – but outside of the race, the event takes on a different atmosphere.
The pits are a gathering place for the racers and their fans. At any moment outside of a race, racers are hanging out with each other or tuning up their cars.
“This is like my extended family,” Demke said. “From the burnout to the turnout, its competition, but back here (in the pits) we’re all friends. We see each other on a regular basis. We share food, family and conversation. We always look forward to coming out to races and spending time with our competitors.”
The friendship and good times are a large draw for NHRA race events, but a fan favorite is definitely the Top Fuel Dragsters. They are the fastest-accelerating machines in the world and produce over 11,000 horsepower.
No one has truly experienced a drag racing event until they have experienced a Top Fuel Dragster. The overwhelming amount of pure power is intense and an experience like no other. When the cars take off, the entire grandstands shake, and every fan’s vision goes blurry as their eyes vibrate inside their head and the raw power of the machine moves through their bodies.
Many fans and drivers believe it is a hard experience to capture without firsthand experience. Ahten believes it’s one thing to watch the races on television and another to see them in person.
“You don’t experience this internal organ vibration and all the smells on TV,” he said. “It’s indescribable, but there’s nothing like it.”
Ahten dreams of someday upgrading to the Top Fuel Dragster class and enjoy the most intense form of his passion.
“That’s part of why this is so addicting,” Ahten said. “The rush, the sound, the fury, the tearing of atmosphere, whatever you want to call it, it’s a lot of fun.”
Demke agreed with his colleague. It’s not enough to just see it, it’s an experience that has to be felt.
“People who watch that on TV, you try to explain to them that’s not the full effect,” Demke said. “You don’t understand what’s going on there until you see it in person. You feel it much more than you hear it. That sound permeates your body.”
Although the duo had fun hanging out with fellow racers at the racetrack, they were there for a reason: and that was to race. Unfortunately, they both were eliminated in each of their respective first races.
“I’m kind of bummed that we lost,” Demke said. ”Overall it was a good weekend with the changes we made to the car. If you look at the cars that ran that round, our car was the second quickest of all those cars, we just were paired up with the car that was the quickest.”
Ahten shared similar feelings.
“I’m a little bummed out, a little frustrated because we got beat,” Ahten said. “I leaped on Duane; I was out on him. I never saw him until about 1,000 feet. I was already cheering in my helmet. All of a sudden I saw his wheel and just kept going around me.”
Despite the disappointing end, the Winternationals and the Pomona Raceway hold a special place in the hearts of all racers.
“For drag racing, this is hallowed ground,” Ahten said. “There are certain races that are a big deal, Pomona is one of them.”
The 2020 Winternationals will conclude on Sunday. Demke’s next race will be in Gainesville, Florida in March and Ahten will travel to Las Vegas in April.