BACKSTAGE AT INDY
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.
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.
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."