After a relatively long off-season, professional athletes of all sorts need somewhere that they can stretch out their competitive muscles and get ready for the regular season to resume. For baseball, it is the grapefruit and cactus leagues of MLB Spring Training. For football and hockey, it is the preseason. The same goes for auto racing. On Friday, Jan. 17, the stars of the National Hot Road Association (NHRA) allowed the paying public to attend one of their most important preseason test sessions; the PRO Winter Warm-Up at the Palm Beach International Raceway.
Thousands of spectators wandered through the garage area, interacting with drivers and teams prior to the practice runs for Top Fuel and Funny Car, which had to be moved earlier in the day to accommodate deteriorating weather conditions. The assembled crowd included racing celebrity Graham Rahal of IndyCar fame, who was seen hanging out with Courtney Force, daughter of racing legend John Force, and a legend in the making herself. Also in attendance was retired NHRA Top Fuel driver Joe Amato.
The event, which was originally scheduled to run on Friday, Jan. 17 and Saturday, Jan. 18 from 4:00 p.m. until 8:00 p.m., had it's hours adjusted to 1:00 p.m. until 6:00 p.m. in order to try and get the action done before darkness fell, when cold wintry air was expected to arrive. A cold front moved into the area on Thursday, causing patchy frost, and making grip tough to come by on the concrete track after sunset.
The action on track did not disappoint the dedicated drag racing fans. During the first of two rounds, driver Ron Capps of the NAPA Funny Car electrified the crowd with a time of 4.00 seconds at a speed of more than 320 miles per hour, just a fraction of a second from world record time. In the second round, Al-Anabi racing driver Shawn Langdon added to the speed fest with a 3.72 second run, at a speed of nearly 330 miles per hour, also fractionally slower than the record.
The PRO Winter Warm-up, presented by Bennett Auto Supply, features an impressive group of drag racing's elite including: Newly crowned NHRA Funny Car champion John Force, 2009 Funny Car champion Robert Hight, 2012 NHRA Rookie of the Year Courtney Force and 2013 Rookie of the Year and Top Fuel driver Brittany as well as Al-Anabi Racing drivers, 2013 Top Fuel champion Shawn Langdon and Khalid alBalooshi.
Additionally, in his return to Don Schumacher Racing, Tommy Johnson Jr. will join teammates seven-time Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher, 2012 Top Fuel champion Antron Brown, 2012 Funny Car champion Jack Beckman, 2011 Funny Car champion Matt Hagan, Ron Capps and Spencer Massey. Kalitta Motorsports drivers Del Worsham and Alexis DeJoria will also be in attendance. Other drivers racing at PBIR include Chad Head, Bob Tasca III, Cruz Pedregon, Terry McMillen, Richie Crampton and Bob Vandergriff Jr.
Of course, it isn't only about the driving talent that is on hand, but the shear sensory overload that you experience at an NHRA Drag Racing event. The ability to literally, smell, hear and feel the action is something that most other sports can't even come close to replicating. The sensation of your eyes burning and the taste of nitromethane in your mouth, though it may not sound appealing, is quite exhilarating. The deafening (and I do mean deafening) roar of 10000+ horsepower motors as they accelerate from 0-to-100 mph in less than a second has no equal. The vibrations in every bone of your body as the air literally shakes when the engines roar cannot be described adequately in words. Truly, it is something that must be experienced with all your senses to be believed.
Fans of sportscar racing also had a bit of eye candy on Friday, as the No. 51 Spirit of Race Ferrari 458 of the TUDOR United Sportscar Series was lapping the 2.058 mile road course in preparation for next weekend's Rolex 24 at Daytona.
For people who haven't been out to Palm Beach International Raceway in awhile, you're in for a pleasant surprise. The IRG Sports + Entertainment team, which own and manage the facility, have made a major investment of money and personnel in an attempt to improve the track. The staff is better trained, the facilities are much improved, and the security, provided this weekend by the Florida Fish and Wildlife commission, is excellent. Even trackside concessions now feature more selection, and higher quality products than in the past.
"It’s always got the prime conditions – at the right time of year, you don’t have to worry about snow hitting the ground – and it’s not far for us to travel to from Indianapolis where the majority of us are based," Brown continued.
Tickets are still available for the Saturday session of the PRO Winter Warm-up, and are reasonably priced at $35 for adults, $15 for children ages 6 to 12, and free for children 5 and under. Parking is free at PBIR for all guests. For more information, call 561.622.1400 or visit the track website.
2014 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Palm Beach International Raceway, and they have a full schedule of racing that showcases the new energy that seems to be emanating from the track. The facility is featuring a total of ten major events this season, with numerous smaller races and other track activities also on the schedule. The West Palm Beach Motorsports Examiner is proud to be able to share in some of the spirit of the reinvigorated PBIR, and wishes to thank Aidy Alonzo and the rest of the people at IRG Sports + Entertainment for allowing me access to report on some of the great things taking part there.
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