Two muscle cars line up side by side at a dusty strip under a blue sky - hoods rattling and engines snarling as the hot cams do everything they can to stall the engines. These cars, blessed children of the gods “Edelbrock” and “Holley”, rev up as the lights on the tree drop. The green lights flash and they release – both cars launching forward down the spectator lined track. This feels like something out of a movie. It’s too perfect, too old school grit American, but it’s real. It’s happening in front of me.
Just one problem. I am in the middle of nowhere in Brazil.
The challenge with Brazil for non-Portuguese speakers is that almost no one speaks English. The constant collisions with the language barrier serve as a small prod reminding you that you’re not from here. But as the Taxi bumped down the dusty road to the race I could feel myself returning home. Classic cars from the 50s, 60s and 70s stuffed the parking lot and my ears were greeted by the sound of popping crossplane V8s. Once past the cattle gate entrance, Nascar hats, cheap beer and 80s Metal was everywhere. For a homesick American, this felt like an oasis in the middle of a desert.
The event itself felt as casually run as that time you and your friends decided to recreate Fast and Furious in the abandoned parking lot behind 7-Eleven. The barrier keeping spectators off the track was habitually left open, and the only thing keeping the cars away from the audience was a two-foot-high dirt reinforced brick wall complete with chicken wire fence. The cars themselves were freed from any ludicrous notions such as “safety” and “driver protection”. Roll cages were not mandatory, helmets were absent sans one driver and the dirt trap was a narrow gate at the end of the track that led to farmland.
The return road for the main straight was a dusty strip which also doubled as the pits. Teams unfortunate enough to suffer a component failure did the repairs in the dirt under cars held up by a variety of jacks and jack stands. Every time I walked up and down the pits I would see two or three different cars propped up with several pairs of legs protruding out as teams struggled with hand tools to undo the damage to their cars.
That’s not to say that the pits were all sweaty dirty men grunting under hulking metal beasts. Since the cars were in the pits, the pits served as the defacto headquarters for the teams. And with the responsibility of being a headquarter came the rest of the family, charcoal grills and cheap beer. The tailgate game there was so strong that any one of those parties could have been Wizard of Oz tornadoed to your local NFL stadium and they would have fit right in. Except for the Portuguese.
So how did this realization of the romanticized ideal of Drag Racing find itself in a dusty Podunk town two hours away from São Paulo? The immediate answer is that Brazil is less developed than the United States. However, here is the problem with that. Brazil is a bureaucratic nation – even getting a gym membership requires a quarterly checkup with a doctor to sign off that you’re fit enough to work out. If it is deregulated, Brazil will make sure it becomes regulated. But this entire event was nothing close to regulated. Aside from the token ambulance on site and a couple of town police officers, the government was surprisingly (for Brazil) absent from the event.
The real reason requires a bit of a digression. All communities are built around a central story. Without that central story for everyone to buy into, it is hard for that group to develop. A great example of a group lacking a central story was the Occupy Protesters. Their decision to not have a singular cause resulted in an amorphous conglomerate that couldn’t define a main function. As a result, they became hard to define and lost relevance.
For drag racing the core tale is this idea of homegrown gearheads dragging their cars out of their garages and racing down the main drag in town. No turning, no other competitors to get in your way – just you and me in a white knuckle competition to see who can finish a quarter mile the fastest.
The problem is that while the central story is static, the community is constantly changing. In drag racing, the advent of the NHRA and regulations quickly moved competition out of the hands of the everyday man and into the realm of professional teams. That’s not to say it was a bad change – safety updates and targeted technical regulation made for a safer sport, more permanent sport that was guaranteed to last for some time. But, this really meant that drag racing could never reach its idealized central tale, even though that core is what attracts people.
And that’s where Brazil comes in. While the central tale may be false, it is broadcasted as “The Essence of Drag Racing”. And despite Brazil's long history of drag racing stretching back into the 80s and 70s, the details such as the confederate flags and the Harley motorcycles (to name a few) were iconic American touches. I surmise that over the decades, via various forms of media, the Brazilians picked up on the core of American Drag Culture. By only grabbing that core, it’s possible that they have hit dead center on American drag culture, complete with on the fly DIY gritty repairs, an obsessive demand for straight line speed and a grilling culture to rival our own. Furthermore, what if our status as the origin of the sport means that we are forced to constantly change and regulate the way drag racing is done. Does that signify that Brazil will always be closer to the essence of drag racing than America?
If that’s true, then in many cases the only way to truly experience the “essence” of something would be not to go where it originated, but to a place where it was transplanted. Now wouldn’t that be something?
More Pictures can be found here.
(FYI: This event was an amateur level event where the goal was to provide a relatively safe place for owners to let loose their home built machines. Hence the seemingly low safety regulations. Other higher level events have appropriate amounts of safety regulations.)