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Al (left) and Johnny Ahten prepare their Top Alcohol Dragster for competition. (Ahten Racing photo)

NHRA’s Eclectic Top Alcohol Dragster Class

Johnny Ahten, a captain with the Los Angeles County Fire Dept. and an NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series team owner and driver, describes his Top Alcohol Dragster as sometimes “angry and ornery,” but always “unpredictable” and “bad-ass.”

And, of course, it’s irresistible.

The experience, he says, is “sensory overload, very addicting,” just like an 11,000-horsepower Top Fuel dragster. But the alcohol dragster engine — supercharged, nitro-burning engine; supercharged, methanol-burning engine; or an injected, nitromethane combination — produces “only” 4,000 horsepower and tops out around 286 mph.

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Tony Stewart after winning the Top Alcohol Dragster event at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. (NHRA photo)

The quickest anyone has rocketed a Top Alcohol Dragster down the quarter-mile is in 5.090 seconds. Megan Meyer Lingner did it in 2020 during the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis Raceway Park. And the next year, Aaron Cooper clocked a 286.62-mph speed at Texas Motorplex as the fastest in class history.

That’s compared to Brittany Force’s 3.623-second and 338.94-mph records in the other, more powerful 300-inch-wheelbase race car.

“An A/Fuel car is as close to a Top Fuel car without being a Top Fuel car,” Ahten told Anthony Caruso III in an episode of The Capital Sports Report podcast. “The procedure’s the same. You’re burning nitro. Chassis are the same. The controls are all the same. And we drive it the same. Obviously, the fuel cars are much quicker to the half-track, 660-foot — they just keep accelerating. There’s a harmonic in the car. There’s a vibration. There’s a thunder. It’s hard to do it when we’re not doing it. It makes you want to get back in the car.”

He repeated “Big Daddy” Don Garlits’ assertion that “it’s like trying to tell someone what chocolate tastes like: You just have to taste it.”

Many Top Fuel racers started out in or have risen through the ranks from the Top Alcohol Dragster class, including Justin Ashley, Krista Baldwin, Brittany Force, Josh Hart, Steve Torrence and Jordan Vandergriff.

Adequate sponsorship is all that’s holding back such aspiring young legacy racers as Julie Nataas, Hunter Green, Madison Payne, Jasmine Salinas, Travis Shumake and Megan Smith.

However, many of the regulars are content to stay in the class rather than graduate to a bigger beast that’s confined to the 1,000-foot course. The alcohol dragster’s 3 to 4 g’s on the launch and negative 6 g’s when the parachutes pop out to “whoa” it down are enough excitement.

At least two drivers — Dan Mercier and Will Smith — also race occasionally in Top Fuel.

The class certainly has gotten massive publicity outside NHRA with Tony Stewart’s entrance. But it was a growing class before he arrived. Some might liken it to the AAA level in professional baseball, but it isn’t, really — AAA ball is a level at which everyone either is wanting to step up to the Major Leagues, is rehabbing or is on the way down.

TAD is full of racers who don’t have Camping World Drag Racing Series desires and are happy remaining right where they are.

Finances play a significant role in the decision, even for business-savvy competitors such as Stewart.

“I’m not ready for it, first of all. I’ve driven a Top Fuel car 16 runs and every run I make in it, every time I finish that run, the more I realize that I am not ready to drive a Top Fuel dragster and I don’t belong in one right now,” Stewart said. “It’s fine to test with it, but the thing with that series and that division, those cars are so fast that my brain is so far behind the car that if something happens, I don’t know that I could catch it or be ready for it. And that bothers me more than anything.

“The second thing is the last thing I want to do is have to race against my wife (Leah Pruett), because I like my side of the bed every night when I go to bed,” he said. “You are either going to have to throw the race away and red-light, or you’re going to have to shut it off at half-track or something if I accidentally got out in front of her. I don’t know how well you know my wife, but it would not be a matter of, ‘Hey, you’re going to sleep on the couch tonight.’ I don’t know what state I’m going to have to sleep in. So, at some point, you got to pick your poison.

“And honestly, we don’t have the resources to run a second Top Fuel car at this point. I wanted to make sure that I’m doing the best job of giving Leah’s team and Matt’s (Matt Hagan) team all the resources they need and making sure that we’re paying the bills right now before we try to add anything more to it. Those things don’t run for free. To add a third car is something that I’m definitely not ready for right now,” Stewart said.

Lingner noted, “It’s more about racing with your own team/family and being a bigger part of the picture than being in the spotlight.”