Fumes are like fresh air to NHRA nitroheads

It was a little past 11 a.m. in the paddock at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Saturday when I met Joe Shover, a government contractor from Washington, D.C., and his pal Tony Bigford, a tool specialist at the Boeing Company of Seattle.

They were wearing shorts and gas masks.

They had been standing in the line of fire, directly behind the 8,000 ponies under the carbon fiber bodywork of Robert Hight’s NHRA Funny Car. I had never heard ponies whinny like this.

Burp … burp … burp … Vroom! … Vroom! … Vroom! … EEOOOOOWWWWWWW!

The ponies were out of the starting gate. Boy were they ever.

What was it the horse racing announcer Chic Anderson said when Secretariat thundered around the final turn on his way to that 31-length victory at the ’73 Belmont? He is moving like a tremendous machine?

Well, the engine in Robert Hight’s tremendous machine was moving like 8,000 Secretariats.

When its candles are lit, as the drag racing people like to say, an NHRA Funny Car produces 8,000 horsepower and a roar that can be heard on distant planets.

So this is what a hungry baby in the middle of the night or Rutgers basketball practice must sound like.

I shoved the florescent orange earplugs the speedway people had given me as far as they would go into my ear canals, beyond where the earwigs would lay their eggs in those old “Night Gallery” episodes that totally creeped me out when I was a boy.

But I had nothing for the CH3NO2.

CH3NO2, no relation to the “Star Wars” robots, is the chemical formula for nitromethane racing fuel, the smell of which Joe Shover and his pal Tony Bigford love in the morning.

The way it was explained to me by Don Schumacher Racing co-crew chiefs Brian Corradi and Mark Oswald, nitromethane has two free oxygen molecules, and then Oswald got even more technical with the jargon as if I were the Fram Oil Filters guy or somebody. And then my head was spinning like John Force’s when he does his tax return with a ballpoint pen.

So I went to their driver, reigning Top Fuel champion Antron Brown, who laid it out in a way I could understand.

“It’ll make you cry, drain your sinuses, drop the snot right out your nose,” Brown said.

Nitromethane also is used in the dry cleaning business, which would explain why two of my work shirts came back with blown-off buttons. It is used to manufacture pharmaceuticals, pesticides, dyes, textiles, explosives. It can be dangerous if it falls into the wrong hands; some fell into Timothy McVeigh’s hands before the federal building was bombed in Oklahoma City.

Contact with nitromethane can irritate the skin and eyes; inhaling it can irritate the nose, throat and lungs. It can cause headache, weakness, lack of coordination, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea.

Drag racing fans love it. This explains the gas masks.

“The NHRA is the only place when a grown man can cry like a baby, and crap your pants, and nobody says anything about it,” Shover said after the nitroheads, as they are called, began forming a queue outside the pit ropes a full half-hour before the engine in Brown’s Matco Tools dragster was fired, and the assault on mucous membranes began.

I was convinced of the crying part, because my eyes haven’t been this red since “Brian’s Song.” I said I’d have to check with Force about the second part.

But that is a big part of the attraction of professional auto racing, isn’t it? That, and the halter tops among spectators.

Auto racing probably is the most visceral of the spectator sports, and this is why it probably never will be as popular on TV as the stick-and-ball sports, at least not until TV develops technology to capture how auto racing smells and feels when one is at the track.

(Or until Danica Patrick wins a stock car race with the GoDaddy girl riding shotgun.)

One doesn’t watch an auto race; one experiences it with all the senses. The Fox Gopher Cam and a set of Bose surround sound speakers don’t do it justice.

It was one of the drag racing people who told me about the nitroheads, about the gas masks, about how the nitroheads sprint from pit to pit when the engines are fired, because it is not enough to feel ponies rumble and drop snot just once or twice.

It sort of reminded me of when Geraldo goes out into a hurricane to show it’s raining outside, or when the neighborhood kids would frolic in the pungent wake of the bug sprayer truck, with the primary difference being your mom doesn’t scold you when you get home.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

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