John Force's car unloads at the New England Dragway in Epping, N.H. (NHRA Photo)

HOFFMAN: My First NHRA Experience 

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to cover the NHRA New England Nationals — my first NHRA Mission Foods Drag Racing Series experience.

I’d attended a drag race before, albeit a special event in Michigan 13 years ago that featured a jet car and the famed Grave Digger Monster Jam truck racing another Digger-themed truck, but it was something completely different. 

Between some hefty Google searches, an email chain with an NHRA team PR rep and a couple hours of YouTube watching, I felt prepared — or so I thought.

Within five minutes of arriving on the grounds of Epping, N.H. at New England Dragway, I’d already been thrust into an interview I’d scheduled. Talk about going in head-first. 

The pit area, which is open to any fan who purchases a race ticket, was swarmed with fans. In a way, it reminded me of an NTT IndyCar Series paddock.

Antron Brown’s pit at the New England Nationals. (David Hoffman Photo)

At many IndyCar road and street course events, teams utilized their trailer and set up shop with a canopy over their work area. It’s a cool aspect to give fans an up-close look at the teams fine-tuning their race cars.

While the majority of the pit area was packed, there was a noticeable mob around a certain pit area. Further investigating, it became clear where the people were clamoring around — John Force Racing’s pit area.

Specifically, John Force, the 16-time champ’s blue-colored Peak Antifreeze race car was a hot attraction. Why wouldn’t it be? At 75 years old and still going strong, Force has been a significant part of NHRA’s identity for decades.

Soon after getting my bearings straight, I was thrust into what I’d heard mixed reports about — warm up. 

From some, I was told to steer clear of the fumes and loudness. From others within the sport, it was “must-see” attraction for my first NHRA event.

Of course, being curious, I went head-first. While waiting for an interview, I stood next to a PR rep behind a Funny Car. I was told I was in a safe spot because of the way the wind was blowing.

However, as the 11,000-horsepower dragster was fired with multiple crew members in gas masks, the wind quickly changed and I was inhaling the fumes. 

Burning lungs and a sensation of “why the heck am I standing here?” rushed over me. However, in the same instance, “This is just plain cool,” was fighting with the first thought.

A handful of seconds later and it was over.


I noticed a good bit of fans not too far away with tears streaming down their faces. I didn’t have that effect, which I found out is because contacts are a secret weapon to protect your eyes. Who knew having bad eyesight would be a positive? 

I later learned there’s an art to withstanding warm up. “Breath in fresh air seconds before they crank it up, then slowly push it out until they’re done,” is what I was told. This rookie mistake had me feeling the slight burning sensation for a little while longer.

After some more interviews, avoiding warm ups and scooping out the area, it was time for some on-track action.

For fun, I decided to stand against the fence along with many of the ticket-buying spectators. With earplugs courtesy of John Force Racing jammed in my ear, I felt prepared for what was ahead. 

Seconds later, I was not. 

A sea of fans at New England Dragway. (David Hoffman Photo)

The rumble of dragsters lighting up the New England Dragway concrete made the ground shake like an earthquake. Startled by the feeling of uneven ground beneath my feet and shaking within my bones, the sound aspect came next. 

Watching the Christmas tree, I braced myself. 

Within a second or less after the green lights blinked on either side of the tree, off the dragsters launched in a loud, thunderous blast.

I’ve heard NASCAR Cup Series cars, 410 sprint cars, Indy cars and the wheeze of a dying 2004 Ford Escape in person. Nothing compared to these beasts in front of me.  

No matter what sort of earplugs you possessed, the dragsters were going to make their presence known. Within seconds, the sound went screaming down the dragway as peace was restored at the starting line. 

Stunned and feeling the burning sensation in my lungs again, that was enough for me. Off to the media center I went as I laughed profusely — “This is just insanity,” I thought to myself and smiled. 

All forms of motorsport are dangerous and require nerves of steel. This was different. 

To succeed in this form of racing required a certain type of craziness and fearlessness that seemed impossible for the drivers to possess.

Taming a race car at 330-plus miles per hour — while keeping it in a straight line? Crazy. 

I spent the majority of eliminations in the media center, where it felt a tad safer, despite the building shaking with every pass. 

However, I did mosey my way over to Daniel Wilkerson’s pit after a round two victory against Ron Capps, where I saw the art of tearing down an engine.

Every crew member had a crucial job to do and everyone communicated with clarity. It was the fastest flowing poem I’d ever seen. 

It was effortless and chaotic in the same sentence. But with each passing round, every team succeeded in rebuilding its engine in time to reach the starting line. 

John Force’s Funny Car after winning the New England Nationals. (David Hoffman Photo)

After hours of passes came the moment of the day. It was the Funny Car final, with Force against his prodigy, Austin Prock. 

With both drivers at the starting line ready to battle for a Wally, fans and media members stood. The past, present and future of perhaps NHRA’s most storied race team collided in a simple 1,000-foot drag race.

Off the starting line they went cleanly. While the two gladiators were practically even, Force eventually pushed forward to earn victory No. 157.

An eruption within the crowd was heard as fans thrust their arms into the air. Meanwhile in the media center, “wow” became the word of the afternoon.

Force had done it, again. 

Two more incredible battles ensued in Top Fuel and Pro Stock, with reigning champion Doug Kalitta topping eight-time champ Tony Schumacher. While in Pro Stock, Jeg Coughlin Jr. outpaced six-time champion Erica Enders with a holeshot. 

Post-race media sessions wrapped up, the sun was setting and it was time to leave. 

As I walked out of the gates and reflected on the day, all I could do was smile and ask, “Man, when do I get to do this again?”