Speed racers

The old school street-style drag races at the Reno-Fernley Raceway attract a wide and wild variety of racers

Jay Reynolds is largely responsible for the fast and furious goings-on of the Reno-Fernley Raceway.

Jay Reynolds is largely responsible for the fast and furious goings-on of the Reno-Fernley Raceway.

Photo By Nick Higman

All types of people driving modified cars descend on Reno-Fernley Raceway every other Saturday or so. Some are nice old men, some are sharks, some are amicably insane, and some have all the fine taste and refinement of a sewage treatment plant. At the “street drags,” damned near anything goes.

But I must explain the essence first, lest you call the police. During the “street drags,” drivers putter onto the front straight at Reno-Fernley Raceway. Official-looking men with interesting facial hair make lots of hand gestures, the racers lie to each other about how fast their cars can go and then, when they finally make it to the front of the line, another interestingly bearded man sends them off into a haze of tire smoke, clutch dust and glory. All perfectly legal and disappointingly safe.

This all comes about because the owner of Infinite Velocity Motorsports, Jay Reynolds, has a good grasp on marketing. He started out doing tech inspections, which is where car experts make sure the racers don’t have broken seatbelts, unsecured batteries or terrorists in the trunk. Reno-Fernley Raceway, then just a dirt oval, was already allowing drag races on a nearby airstrip. About eight years ago, Reynolds stepped in, took responsibility for insuring the events, marketing them and collecting entry fees. His street-racing clientele moved from McCarran Boulevard to Reno-Fernley Raceway, popularity ensued, and racing on the airstrip faded into the past.

“We had good enough turnout we could move it onto the road course,” he says.

So why call the races “street drags?” Well, two reasons. The races are informal. There are no classes, there are almost no illegal modifications, and there are very few rules. The other reason is that many of the participants used to spend a lot of early mornings breaking the law on Rock Boulevard.

“Every one of [the IVM team] who races out there used to street race,” Reynolds said.

And by “used to street race,” he means that he and his Mustang racked up tickets like Hugh Hefner racked up girlfriends. He means “street racing” in the car-insurance-costs-more-than-a-reasonable-mortgage sense. Not only was that sort of expense savaging Reynolds, it savaged his customers too. The new, legal street drags therefore mean Reynolds’ customers have money to spend on cold air kits, nitrous oxide and blown-up transmissions instead of legal expenses.

Novice on the course

And so I venture forth unto Reno-Fernley Raceway so that I might understand why 150 people per event jump at the chance to abuse their cars while paying the $30 entry fee to boot.

The first thing I notice is how pretty it gets. Granted, the junkyard across the highway looks like hell, and you do have to drive through Fernley to get there, but once you watch the sun set over the hills to the west, suddenly all that ugliness fades away.

The second thing I notice is just how laid-back the pits are. Strewn all over the dirt and asphalt lot, next to the main straight, racers share air pumps, give each other advice and ogle at the really cool stuff.

Jay Reynolds also owns Infinite Velocity Motorsports.

Photo By Nick Higman

The third thing I notice is the betting. Just like street racing, a bet precedes about half of the matches. Reynolds said most of the bets are in the $20 range but that they can get as big as $2,500.

The last thing I notice is that it’s simply very, very fun. Fire-breathing Volkswagens buck and squirm at 130 mph, the nutcases on big motorcycles touch 150 mph before the end of the quarter, and men in Camaros pop wheelies as their cars shake and pull violently to the right. I can say from personal experience, it’s hard not to get excited when your car bucks and squirms at 130 mph.

Gentlemen drivers

Retired automotive body repairman Tom Vaughan fits into the nice older gentleman category. Weathered- looking with a salt-and-pepper crew cut, he smiles a lot when he explains his comfortably-faster-than-a-Ferrari Volkswagen Dune Buggy.

It’s technically a Manx Buggy—and for those of you who don’t remember James Bond killing bad guys on the beach in a dune buggy in For Your Eyes Only, I shall elucidate. You start with a VW Bug, you throw the entire body in the garbage, you shorten the frame by about a foot, and then lower a fiberglass roadster body on top. The end result will weigh a little more than a Harley Fatboy with two people on it, and, if you’re Tom Vaughan, you can get it all moving with a 240 horsepower motor.

This former hippie-mobile can run the quarter mile in 10.9 seconds. For perspective, a brand new Corvette runs the quarter mile in about 12.5 seconds.

“We’ve been Volkswagen fanatics forever,” Vaughan says.

Also from the nice older gentleman category, Jim Setterberg runs a race team otherwise composed of developmentally disabled young adults. The 77 Chevrolet Nova, on only its second outing, isn’t breathtakingly fast, but it is very cool.

His son, Eric, decided to start the project and recruited his girlfriend, Courtney, and friend Brian to build the little Nova. They did almost all the work except building the motor and transmission.

Wildmen of the road

Now we move on to the amicably insane. Jeremy Hardcastle checks in at about 5 feet 6 inches, smiles a lot and has tattoos up and down his arms. He seems normal enough until you see his racecar. He races a purple 2003 Suzuki Aerio, a car that nobody hot rods and a car that is about as sporty as filing taxes. But then, Hardcastle is nuts.

“I wanted to drag race,” he says. “But I knew I wanted something different.”

Cecilia Vega with the stock 1997 Acura Integra she and husband Manuel Vega own. The car may not look like much—until it’s speeding out of sight.

Photo By Nick Higman

In this case, different means a turbocharged, nitrous oxide-injected Suzuki econo-box with no interior, the scars from somebody tap dancing on the roof, custom fabrication for most of the spinning bits of the motor, and a special strap to keep the transmission from exploding.

Hardcastle financed all this madness—and the three motors he’s blown up—by working full time at Best Buy and living with his parents. The good news is he’s reasonably certain it will finally work right by this year’s Hot August Nights, a mere five years and 20 grand after he bought it.

Also amicably insane, Jeremy Sandefur drag races a 2007 Kawasaki ZX14. It develops 175 horsepower at the wheel, about twice what a Honda Fit makes, and will do almost 200 mph. And remember, this is all hooked to what is basically a glorified bicycle. Running mid-9-second quarter miles, he likes to joke about the body bag under the seat. I don’t doubt it.

Drag queens

Finally, we move onto Manuel and Cecilia Vega and their stock 1997 Acura Integra. This car doesn’t look at all impressive. Inside, it’s missing the radio and has a child safety seat in the back. Outside, it’s a frumpy forest green import with deluxe, plastic hubcaps. A reasonable person on a moped would believe he could go faster, but he would be wrong. Let me describe my trip down the quarter mile with Cecilia.

In the line waiting for our chance to race, our opponents roll down their windows.

“Hey,” a young man asks, “What you got done to that?”

“Nothing,” Cecilia says. “My husband’s just a really good driver.”

I wonder about the whining noise coming from under the hood. It’s probably just a loud air conditioning pump.

“You sure?” he asks.

“Yeah,” Cecilia again says. “We have kids—kids are expensive.”

Stock Integras normally can’t run with Mustang GTs, as I’d seen this car do earlier in the day. Maybe Manuel really is just an insanely good driver.

Then the green light flashes on the tree, Cecilia revs the motor to two grand and dumps the clutch. The tires spin just a little too much, and the guy racing us feels a half second worth of hope. Then the probably-an-air-conditioning-pump screams as Cecilia grabs second gear.

I wonder how a 1.8 liter four banger can make so much torque as she grabs third. Mr. Gullibility fades quicker than a Paris Hilton pop album, and we cross the finish line a good second faster than him.

“No,” Cecilia repeats. “It’s just stock.” ž