Legal Amateur Drag Racing Is Hot

During the week, Lailani Ryan and her husband, Jimmy, run a custom embroidery business out of their home in Glen Burnie, Md. But on Saturday night, they leave the workweek behind and shift gears — literally.

Most weekend nights, they can be found amid the sounds of screeching tires and revving engines and the smell of burning rubber at a nearby drag-racing track.

It's a kind of therapy for weekday stress.

"We get really stressed out and then we get to come here and let it out," Lailani says. "And that relieves it."

Every weekend, thousands of amateur drag racers like Lailani and Jimmy come to tracks across the country to do what would be illegal on the street: go as fast as they possibly can.

"The fastest I've had it is a 112 [mph]," says Tom Bubonovich of his red 2000 Ford Mustang GT.

Bubonovich — who teaches physical education to elementary school students — has been racing for about a year and a half.

"It's just fun. It's exciting," he says with a smile. "You get a rush out of it going down the track."

Growing in Popularity

On a typical night, hundreds of drivers line up for the chance to test themselves and their cars.

Legalized drag racing has been around for decades. But with cars becoming more high-tech than ever, its popularity is growing. The National Hot Rod Association, for example, sanctions events at 140 tracks nationwide, a record.

And the smaller International Hot Rod Association reports that in 1998, it had 40 member tracks in the United States. That number has more than doubled to 91 today.

Many of the drivers who drag race are young, but not all of them. Rich Van Iderstine says drag racing is something he's wanted to do his whole life. His wife suggested he get a racecar as a project that he and his son could work on.

"I figured, I'm 56 years old. I'd better do it," says Van Iderstine, who describes himself as a "bureaucrat" who designs safety standards for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Drag racing draws a lot of families and people of different backgrounds. Most of the drivers are men, but that's changing.

Women Are Getting Behind the Wheel, Too

Lailani Ryan says she used to watch her husband race, but got bored and decided to try it for herself. She has only raced a few times so far.

"And now I like it. I like it a lot," she says.

When she first started, she practiced by driving a minivan.

"Everyone laughed, and it was funny, but I learned," she says.

Now she drives a maroon 1985 Monte Carlo. On a recent summer evening and after some last minute coaching from her husband, Lailani readied for her race.

She pulled the car into the staging area, revving the engine. She spun her rear tires until they began to smoke, which helps improve the traction on the asphalt.

Alongside her opponent, Lailani eased the car up to the staring line, her eyes glued to the "Christmas tree," a row of lights that signals drivers when to hit the gas.

Amber lights alerted that the race was about to begin. A few more seconds, and the green lights brought a squeal of tires that sent the cars speeding down the track.

The maroon Monte Carlo was fast — fast enough this night to win.

"I'm so excited!" said Lailani as she drove off the track. "I can't believe it. I just got lucky."

For the Ryans, a night drag racing is a far cry from the embroidery business or other pursuits.

That's the whole idea.