Susan Wade

The Show Goes On

SNOHOMISH, Wash. —  The show went on.

The NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series left Alex Miladinovich on the West Coast in February. His souvenirs from the season-opening Winternationals were sore muscles, a crumpled Funny Car and a plan B to execute following a wild crash that likely ended his season in February.

Likewise, Bobby Bode had to watch the other Funny Car teams hit the road, while he and his Ar-Bee Ford Mustang team recovered from a flaming, body-shredding engine explosion at Houston Raceway Park in April.

He had to go back to Arizona State University to prepare for final exams, while the team hauler bearing the remainder of his race car returned to suburban Chicago.

Neither driver was exactly sure when he would return to action.

They aren’t championship contenders. They’re part-time racers who stepped into the pro ranks in 2020. But without them, the NHRA is missing two of its most valuable assets.

Bode, who turned 20 the day before his spectacular blow-up in the final round at Houston, is exactly what the sport needs. He’s a young, intelligent second-generation racer who is becoming a fan favorite.

He embodies the demographic the sanctioning body has been seeking as its core audience skews older than many other sports. And he had to sit out a handful of events, erasing any chance for the NHRA to build on his rising popularity.

The mere fact Bode had advanced to the final round in his 15th race, with just one elimination round-win to his credit before that day, was a truly fun sight to see. He represented, win or lose, a triumph for the underdog.

Bode’s final-round opponent was three-time Funny Car champion Matt Hagan, who drives for Tony Stewart Racing. Bode said he and his team “used every part we had in the trailer” and almost didn’t make it to the starting line.

Bode’s reaction when his Mustang’s body exploded into carbon-fiber confetti caught Stewart’s attention. Bode slammed his helmet and gloves to the pavement, then fetched one of the gloves and threw it again.

“It wasn’t even the fact I lost the race. It was the fact that we worked our butts off just to make it up there. We had to have teams help us. We put so much effort into it. And then just to destroy everything again, it just started hitting me all at once,” Bode explained. “And once I threw one of my gloves, it just kept escalating. It wasn’t even in the back of my mind that I was being watched, like on TV and all that. That was just me, in the moment. I was just mad that the car did that.”

Stewart said, “Bobby Bode, I’m going to buy him a brand-new helmet … because I want guys like him who are that passionate about wanting to win races — that’s the kind of guys I want in my race cars. I like hanging out with people like that. I like that kid. I can appreciate a kid like him that has some passion. That kid’s going to win some races.”

Hagan said he was “super-proud of him. We need youngsters like that coming up in the sport. The kid, he’s a good kid, and he’s passionate about it. That passion is what you need in this sport.”

Miladinovich has passion, too. He cried for joy simply for qualifying in his debut at Pomona two years ago. He said it took “35 years to get here,” sharing that he, his brother and volunteer crew built the engine at his brother’s garage in Orange, Calif.

That made him an instant hit with the crowd, but how could fans not love Miladinovich?

He’s only 46, a lifetime older than Bode, but he’s more like 46 going on 16. He’s vintage drag racer through and through, a throwback to the sport’s roots, when hot-rodders wrenched on their cars in their own garages.

“I don’t have the big, polished, shiny shop. It’s at my house,” Miladinovich said. “I got low overhead. You come over; we clean up after the dog, move the bikes. When we’re done, we’ve got to put all the bikes away. It’s fun. I’ve got cool neighbors. We’re regular people. Lots of barbecues.”

Miladinovich, a shipping-container mechanic for the Port of Los Angeles, describes himself and his team as “working stiffs” who are having to dig deep to find ways to make it back on the race track after the violent crash he casually referred to as “the whammo.”

He’s genuine. He’s unpretentious. He’s comical. He’s fun-loving. He volunteered to entertain during the inevitable oil down clean-ups, saying, “They’ve tried the T-shirt cannon guys and the dancing bears. They need to try something different. I could come up and sing! I’m tone-deaf and out of key, but I’ll do it. We could do driver Karaoke.”

So it’s no surprise Miladinovich said fans “just want to come out to the races and have a good time. So that’s why I’m going to make sure they get their money’s worth when they come to the drags. I don’t work on the car at the track. I’m always available to anyone who wants to talk. I’ve got friends I just haven’t met yet.”

But he, too, is on the sidelines. And the sport is the loser for that.

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