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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Tucson dragstrip junkies get their fix

    It’s not the cell phone in your pocket causing those vibrations. It’s two machines rocketing past at 140 mph making your spine shiver.

    In the outskirts of Tucson, dry desert flatlands lend space to the Southwestern International Raceway’s drag strip, located at the Pima County Fairgrounds, 11300 S. Houghton Rd. Here, a diverse crop of adrenaline junkies take part in a world all-but-hidden from the mainstream sports scene.

    Where do they get their adrenaline fix? Speed.

    And not the amphetamine type, either.

    “”It’s almost better than sex,”” said drag bike team owner Glen Welchko, laughing. “”It’s a great rush. You’re like being shot out of a gun, and you’re just hanging on and trying to get to the other end of the drag strip.””

    Welchko retired at the age of 55 to pursue racing drag bikes. Three years ago, he had the opportunity to buy a factory Harley Davidson drag bike and hasn’t looked back.

    After all, it’s hard to look back at speeds great enough to cover a quarter mile straightaway in 9.8 seconds.

    Now, the 62 year old retired UA parking and transportation employee has taken an ownership role of Wide Open Racing. He overlooks a small racing team that competed in the July 11 race at SIR, just their fourth race together.

    “”We’re making semi-finals,”” he added. “”We haven’t won anything here yet.””

    But the Harley-loving characters such as Welchko only account for a portion of the raceway’s demographics as drag competitions don’t only bring out the points-hungry competitors.

    Ten year-olds jumped in their proportionally small dragsters – ones that mirrored their adult counterparts – to square off against others within their age group.

    Meanwhile, the track was open to stock vehicles as well, track manager Dennis Scheepstra said.

    In one of the more humorous match-ups of the evening, this became apparent when an Isuzu Rodeo SUV pulled beside a stock Shelby Mustang – you can probably guess which vehicle won.

    Witnessing the antics at the starting line was only a portion of the evening’s entertainment.

    Off the track, race fans walked amongst trailers large enough to carry a garage’s worth of tools and of course, the owners race car, drag bike or dragster. The general list of needed items for a day at the SIR include a generator to keep that trailer functional, lawn chairs for lounging and even an ATV or small moped to move about the large parking complex.

    Quickly, it becomes apparent that race fans come out for more than the competition; they enjoy the camaraderie as well. But that’s not the case for participants.

    They expect to win.

    “”I get out here at about 4 o’clock-ish on a points race and I’ll leave when I lose,”” said Noel Zweigler, a 1966 UA graduate. “”You get plenty of camaraderie when you’re up there with your buddies racing.””

    Although it wasn’t in front of a NASCAR-like fan frenzy, Zweigler, a retired Hughes Aircraft employee, now spends his retirement in points races, hoping to make a little money. Granted, he’d rather not spend his days off beneath his car.

    “”It’ll run high (10 seconds), but I’ve got it detuned to run high 11’s so I can try to get it more consistent and less taxing on parts every week,”” he said, “”seeing as how I’m not getting any younger.

    “”It’s not easy to lay under these things and work on them every week.””

    Zweigler views racing his 1972 Chevy Vega as a pleasure but a business as well. Such things are understandable when, after years of work, someone finally has the time to fully commit to doing what they love.

    Growing up in Chicago during the 1950s, Zweigler watched drag racing boom at a local track. Not having a car, he went through excessive means to get his first taste of racing.

    “”I didn’t have enough money to afford a car,”” he explained. “”I stole my mother’s ’57 Chevy once – she had a stick-six – and ran up (to the track) and won the class. That was fun.””

    And with the adrenaline rush of racing, even if it is your mother’s car or an Isuzu Rodeo, the competitors know the risk of danger. Whether they race bikes, dragsters or hot rods, safety is everyone’s biggest concern.

    The raceway doesn’t have its own ambulance – complete with SIR tags – without justification.

    “”We’ve been real lucky but yeah, there’s fatalities in this because things happen, mechanical things and tires that go bad,”” Welchko said of his bikes. “”You’re pretty well geared up: full leather, helmets, armor underneath.

    “”You’re pretty well protected but when you fall from 150 mph, you’re bound to get hurt,”” he added.

    In the end, the reward is greater than the risk.

    “”I just got hooked,”” said Zweigler, reminiscing about a 1966 Corvette that became his first racecar. “”Hell, what’s that 39 years ago, something like that? I’m still doing this.””

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