Johnny Ahten 2
Al (left) and Johnny Ahten prepare their Top Alcohol Dragster for competition. (Ahten Racing photo)

NHRA’s Eclectic Top Alcohol Dragster Class

For Ahten, whose crew includes his 76-year-old father, Al Ahten, as his crew chief, racing is secondary to a primary-income job, but it’s comparable. “I’ve got to have some type of crazy adrenaline, whether we’re running into burning buildings or going down the drag strip,” he said.

“There are a lot of similarities between the two,” Ahten added. “In the fire department, it’s a team, and everybody has their job to do. And we rely on each other. If someone doesn’t do their job right, it can get somebody hurt or killed. And there’s a lot of pressure when it comes to that. When people are trapped inside a burning building and we’re trying to get them out, there’s a lot of pressure. And you just react to it. Afterward, when it’s calmed down, that’s when you sit back and think, ‘What just happened?’

“It’s kind of the same in racing. There are highs and lows, just like here (at the firehouse). So they’re very similar. At times, when I’ve worked a ton, I can’t wait to get out of here and go racing,” Ahten continued. “And then when I’m on the road, racing a lot and things can be tough and grueling, I can’t wait to come back to the fire station. It helps me mentally, I think, on balancing everything out.”

Jasmine Salinas 2
Jasmine Salinas makes a Top Alcohol Dragster pass at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. (Scrappers Racing photo)

Top Alcohol Dragster driver Kim Parker drives a school bus in Puyallup, Wash., for a living. Another one besides Tony Stewart owns a thriving race track: five-time class champion Joey Severance operates the drag strip in Woodburn, Ore.

Salinas works at “an idea factory” in San Francisco and can speak Mandarin Chinese. Minnesota’s Dean Dubbin competes against some of his clients — he’s an awning manufacturer who sells his products to racers, among others. Shumake’s claim to fame so far is as the first openly gay racer in the NHRA. It’s an eclectic group of folks.

“It’s really cool that you get to run with really young people versus people that are even older than me in this class,” Stewart, 51, said. “And there are drivers that are almost a hundred pounds lighter than me and drivers that are 40 pounds heavier than me. So it’s kind of a neat mixture of young and old and small and big.”

And men and women – the gender balance is a unique factor. Besides Nataas, Parker, Payne, Salinas and Smith, the class has Sarah Allen, Jackie Fricke, Karen Stalba and Taylor Vetter.

“The thing that I did really enjoy last year when I ran in Vegas,” Stewart said, “was how much the competitors in that division really welcomed me with open arms. I’ve been to a lot of dirt tracks and race tracks where the locals (were wary of) you … coming into their backyard, and they didn’t always treat you with respect.

“Especially when I ran a dirt late model that I owned, there were guys in the field that couldn’t outrun you, so they wanted to be able to sit there and tell their buddies that they tore your car up,” Stewart said. “And so I was really worried about that when I went to Vegas last year. What are the competitors like? How are they going to treat me? Are they going to have the attitude of ‘This guy thinks this is going to be easy and he’s just going to come in here and do this and that?’ It was the polar opposite of that. It was really great to meet people that I had not met yet in the staging lanes and drivers and crew people at the end of the day that came over to our pit and just talked and that we had a chance to get to know.

“I think that’s one of the things that adds to the excitement of this year is that you go into an atmosphere where there are some really cool people that are in the sportsman categories that you don’t always get the time and ability to meet when you’re in the pro pits. I’m looking forward to spending time with all of them.”


This story appeared in the May 3, 2023 edition of the SPEED SPORT Insider.

Insider Banner Ad