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By Susan Wade
Photos by Ron Lewis and Jeff Burk

Step right up -- hurry, hurry -- It's a fascinating circus with Clydesdale-sized manure buckets, sizzling pork butt on a stick and more than enough dynamite to excite the average pyromaniac. Meet Mark, Mace, Mike, Pete, Big Jim and some of the other U.S. Nationals "stage-hands" who help bring you a production worthy of the U.S. Nationals.

CLERMONT, Ind. -- In pyrotechnic parlance, it's a "fireball effect with concussion." To NHRA fans at Indianapolis Raceway Park it's a series of blasts only a few decibels shy of a military assault on Baghdad. But it's part of what makes the U.S. Nationals the U.S. Nationals.

Drag racing is a sport of excess. And what's more fitting than the sequence of detonations that's triggered when the last pair of nitro cars spurts across the finish line in the night qualifying sessions?

"It's a rock-'em-sock-'em show. The NHRA's theory is you can't be spectacular if you can't get louder than the noise of a Top Fuel dragster," says Mark Hopkins, who owns Pyrotechnic Productions, Inc. in Brazil, Ind. Along with co-worker Mace Terry, he orchestrates the fireworks displays and the columns of flames that flank the racers during driver introductions.

The 48-year-old Hopkins, who confesses that "I blew up every model car I ever
built when I was a kid," and the 37-year-old Terry, who melted a platoon of G.I.
Joes in his youth, have the right mindset to entertain NHRA fans. "We'd rather
dazzle you for five minutes than bore you for ten," Hopkins says.

Glen Cromwell, NHRA's Director of National Event Marketing, took one look at their handiwork several years ago at a muscle-car event at IRP and said, "I've
got to have that!" Glen, if you shell out a few more bucks, get a load of what you could have: These guys already are fantasizing how titanic it would be to extend the explosions all the way to the sand pit and cap that with an explosion of a 55-gallon drum of color, sparks and flash. "Immense explosions . . . that would be cool. The only thing that limits us is proximity to the grandstands," Hopkins and Terry say.

If these two untamable overgrown Toy Terminators supply the flash and sparkle of U.S. Nationals, Pete Peterson guarantees the grandeur. He's head driver and supervisor for the hitch of famous Budweiser Clydesdales trucked into IRP from San Antonio in three massive semi trailers to haul the Budweiser Beer Wagon.

Peterson and his six cohorts daily exercise these horses for 30 minutes, then shampoo their massive shanks and braid their manes for their trot down the return road. Some of the Clydesdales (aged 2 to 16) have appropriately strong names -- Champ, Yankee, Bud and even Shack (not Shaq) -- but who knows the rest are named Kyle, Andy, Jeff, Jake, Lee and Doc? And who knows each pair has a designation as it is harnessed to the three-ton wagon? The two closest to the wagon, the ones weighing about 2,300 pounds, are called "the wheel." In front of them are "the body." Next ahead is "the swing." In the front, aptly named and in diminishing weight at about 1,900 pounds, is "the lead."


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