The Hockenheim Experience
Pictures and text by Andy Willsheer

See below for photo gallery.

I’ve been fortunate in my forty+ years of photojournalistic involvement with the straight-line sport to visit tracks throughout the UK, Europe, Scandinavia and the USA. Each has its own merits and some have become firm favourites over the course of time, with a personal preference on this side of the Atlantic being the Hockenheimring in Germany. When drag racing was introduced at the famed Formula One track some thirty-odd years ago by former European champion Rico Anthes and partners I initially declined his invitation to get along because it was only an eighth-mile event. This is something that doesn’t really appeal to me insomuch as when I first made it along to Santa Pod Raceway back in 1972 the quarter mile was, of course, the universally accepted standard racing distance upon which the niche sport was established and today’s 1000ft shortened ‘Big Show’ Fuel deal is something that long-time fans just have to get used to.

Anyhow, after a very few annual August ‘short’ events conducted along the start and finish line straight of the ’Ring, the quarter-mile track proper was instated on another section of the Motodrom, a wise decision that proved to be pivotal in the success that the event has largely enjoyed over the past three decades. I duly went along to the first 1320 deal, found it very entertaining and have been attending the event ever since. It’s now a three-day affair and over the course of time has expanded to the point that it currently hosts a round of the FIA/FIM European Championship Series, as well as unequivocally also being the country’s biggest and best drag race.

An astute move was made in 1991 when the Saturday Night Show was instituted, this inaugural evening entertainment being expanded over the years to become the don’t-miss attraction for a majority of racegoers that get along primarily to see what’s on offer at the two-hour, non-stop spectacle. With a comprehensive programme of demonstrations from all manner of competition and exhibition machines, as well as a variety of other attractions, the whole shebang is invariably well received, even the one I recall so well a while back where Rico determinedly choreographed the scheduled programme to a conclusion in spite of rain pelting down incessantly! But heck, the show must go on...

I’ve always tried to make my way to foreign races by road as I feel it’s less hassle than air travel, simply a case of putting everything in the car and setting off, accompanied in more recent times by fellow photojournalist, Roger Gorringe, programme editor and media marshal at the Pod. Travelling to Finland for the Nitro Nationals involved taking four ferries and the costs became rather high over the course of time and almost the same scenario was involved in getting along to Sweden. In contrast, attending the event in Germany has invariably been relatively straightforward insofar as it necessitates a quick run to Dover, catching a DFDS sailing to Dunkerque and pressing on from there, stopping overnight in Essen where it was a case of sorting matters relating to the Essen Motor Show (the promoter of which I worked with for over 25 years) before travelling onwards to the ’Ring. A number of Brits whom enter the NitrOlympX have tended to make a holiday of the excursion, stopping at a camping area en route and availing themselves of the recreational facilities both before and after the race.

The ’Ring has all mod cons associated with a modern day circuit: on-site hotel, capacious campsites, pit space aplenty – including use of Formula One pit boxes for those with deep pockets -- shower block and refreshment amenities. With the venue being of primarily concrete construction partly enclosed by high grandstands, it is particularly appealing how the unmistakable ‘bark’ of a supercharged, nitromethane-guzzling, big-block Hemi melodiously echoes around the joint whenever a Fuel car throttle is rapped during warm up...

Some competitors and crew feel the strip security personnel may seem, er, over officious at times, but this is a minor peccadillo in the grand scheme of things and, safety-wise, ensures only those with signed waivers enter the busy starting area. With the large number of participants that nowadays pre-enter the event it’s as well organisation of the various classes is generally pretty good, the Tannoy announcements preceded by the stentorian instruction achtung fahrerlager (the country’s version of NHRA announcer, Alan Reinhart’s, distinctive bass directive of attention in the pits so often heard at Mello Yello national events in the States) keeping everyone in the pits fully informed of what’s happening and when. Long, wide staging lanes are ideal for regimented assembly of all categories required to run at specific written times that are precisely detailed to the minute; a prime example of Teutonic efficiency, I feel, even if the printed schedule can all too easily go awry due to unforeseen circumstances.

Track prep over the years has expanded from minimal to the point where it nowadays occupies many days of toil insofar as part of the strip is where circuit racers also exercise their speed machines, with Formula One cars at the top of the roundy round performance league. Drag racers have historically run over a section with the proviso that any accrued rubber was removed from the track before the F1 series rolled in to town. This generally involved scraping the last 800ft or so of the strip, and aside from at least one questionable year (2004) which saw an embarrassing lack of traction for the event, the racing went off reasonably well until, that is, 2012 when the FIA mandated the whole of the strip should be denuded of all traces of rubber. This was duly accomplished through use of high-pressure hoses, but the process unfortunately had a deleterious effect on the Tarmac layer. Holes were left in the racing surface and, all in all, the end result was to present the Ringmeisters with an insoluble task. NitrOlympX Race Director, Jerry Lackey, and his track-prep crew worked diligently to try and return some grip to the racing surface, a convoluted procedure that involved application of copious quantities of resin, track bite and protracted periods of sledging.

But as matters transpired, all efforts were largely in vain, leaving the Rico Anthes Quartermile with traction leaving much to be desired. It was a shame that nothing could be markedly improved in time for the NitrOlympX event, but hey, that’s life. It quickly became evident that right from the get-go on Friday, racers would somehow have to dial-in their entries to cope with minimal grip, something that by and large was accomplished by the majority of Sportsman entrants. Okay, there may have been a plethora of smoky, fishtailing runs, but at least drivers and riders managed to travel from the start line to the stripe without too much drama.

The Pro classes elected not to run on the Friday, citing safety issues with the strip. They did, however, make an appearance on the Saturday, where they were afforded three qualifying sessions, during the course of which there was just one misfortune; Dutch Pro Mod entrant Robert Joosten losing control of his Camaro during his initial burnout and nosing the car in to the guardwall. The Chevy fortunately suffered minimal damage and the owner/driver was completely unscathed. The only consequence was that this incident may have unsettled others in the class, but certainly did result in Pro Stock competitors being very wary about undertaking full-bore runs.

The Saturday Night Show went ahead as scheduled, with an entertaining mix of everything from helicopter stunt flying and Nostalgia Funny Cars to jet- and rocket-powered machines that had the packed house reluctant to depart after it was completed.

Surprisingly, the two-wheeled fraternity quickly accustomed themselves to the less than ideal conditions, and although there were never going to be any outstanding passes, competitors just got on with the business in hand.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the European Drag Racing Championship Pro competitors, whom elected to boycott Sunday’s final eliminations. The one class that did run full eliminations was Top Methanol Dragster, where a democratic vote by drivers saw those in favour of running outvoting the naysayers, four to three.

Sportsman eliminations went ahead as per normal and the event ran to a conclusion, albeit not exactly what spectators were expecting to see...

Following the regrettable fiasco, new Tarmac was laid and other improvements made in time for the 2013 edition -- which went off fine -- but come 2014, when the F1 race was again biennially hosted by the Hockenheimring, further strip problems arose, leading to the Swedish Pro Stock octet on hand to pull out of proceedings altogether after their initial qualifying session, citing dicey track conditions. To cut a long story short, the event went ahead without the factory hot rod drivers and it ended without further histrionics.

Track matters have gotten better since and the venerable event continues to draw competitors and spectators from parts far and wide. Over the years, quite a number of occurrences have been imprinted in my memory; one being the time in 1999 when NHRA racer Dannielle De Porter was involved in a big top-end crash in one of Knut Söderqvist’s Top Fuel dragsters – in this instance an ex-Lori Johns machine – caused either by wing strut or chassis failure, the exact reason never being determined. The Scottsdale, Arizona-based lady was remarkably unfazed and thankfully uninjured, and I well recall the looks of incredulity from Knut and tuner Alan Jackson when she returned from the hospital check-up intent on carrying on at the meeting if another ride was available! Unfortunately it wasn’t...

A point of note is that the meeting in question was then termed by Rico as the Nitro- Olympics, the name change to NitrOlympX coming about following intervention by the International Olympic Committee, an august authority that will veto any unauthorised use of the name implying a commercial connotation with the quadrennial sporting games.

Two years before this, the big talking point was when Sweden’s Kent Persson ran Europe’s first four-second Top Fuel pass. Driving compatriot Peter Lantz’s Optima Batteries rail, he recorded 4.98secs/472km/h (293mph) over the quarter on a Saturday qualifier, following which the place collectively erupted in applause. The history making run was a long time in the making, though there must have been an element of regret from the promoter insofar as it wasn’t him being able to make the four in front of partisan fans, Rico’s first foray into the four-second zone eventually coming in 1998 at his event. The turn of the millennium was also the year in which ’99 FIA Top Fuel champion, Gordie Bonin, returned to the ’Ring with involvement from and a welcome passel of their models in attendance. Someone suggested a lunchtime photoshoot, which was duly conducted on a seemingly secluded part of the circuit, only to see the harmless titillation session interrupted by a line of racers who’d stopped on the way back to their pit spaces to ogle the lissom ladies posing in the buff. We were later informed that track CCTV had caught everything on camera! True or not, everyone saw the amusing side and I trust there was some suitable material for the online website’s mooted Day at the Drag Races feature.

I was fortunate to be nominated for a ride in the Eagle Racing two-seater, my chauffeur being Shelley Pearson, Fuel Funny Car driver Kevin Kent’s significant other. This unexpected treat was just the ticket and will be a notable experience of many years making trips to the Hockenheimring. Rico, by the way, had a twin-seat Top Fueller built some years ago and Brit Gary Page was chosen to drive what was then a world first at the 2007 event which, incidentally, also marked Herr Anthes sporting swansong. It was unlucky the Hemi engine kicked out a rod on the burnout when the dragster was scheduled to make its first pass, but it did manage to make an early shut-off run later with a member of the public riding shotgun as it swayed down the strip. The expression big cojones comes to mind, but heck, the crowd loved it and hopefully the same could be said of the plucky gentleman in the passenger seat. The drag strip, by the way, was named the Rico Anthes Quartermile (sic) in 2008 and the entrepreneur himself continues to attend the extravaganza, generally maintaining an eagle eye on proceedings from a VIP suite at the very top of the main grandstands.

A pertinent personal point of note has to be the simple fact that there has always been a warm welcome from the organisers and those manning the busy media centre, reporters’ specific requests always being handled with aplomb. Add the fun trophy presentation affair held in the Top Eliminator Club marquee – where there’s an omnipresent air of bonhomie among Sunday evening attendees (to say nothing of the buckshee hot buffet replete with unlimited beer and other beverages on tap) – and it’s small wonder that for yours sincerely the German summer excursion continues to rank near the top of annual don’t-miss drag racing dates. And here’s hoping this year’s Covid-19 postponed race can be rescheduled rather than losing it altogether. Time will tell...

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