Paul Giovanetti has been drag racing in Hawai‘i since the late 1960s and has been president at Hawaii Raceway Park for the last eight years. Racing, he says, appeals to all kinds of people. “We have teenagers and people in their seventies. Doctors and computer programmers. When you start racing, it’s kind of like an addiction,” he laughs. “Once you get hooked, you get hooked.”
Exhibit A is Kalei, a nineteen-year-old who’s just made three runs; he’s on an adrenaline high, reliving the highlights of the last run he just made against his friend. Having won two out of the three runs, he’s won bragging rights in their unofficial match-up. “Pretty much I’m leading right now, but we’re going to go again,” he says. Kalei and his friends drove their cars directly off Farrington Highway and into the park. “This,” he says, “is way better than racing on the street.”
Next I meet the “Van Lady,” Char Vowell, a nurse from Waialua with a middle-aged-mom-in-spectacles look. But don’t be fooled: Once she puts on her helmet, she’s as fierce a competitor as anyone at the park. Why’s she hooked on the sport? “Any time you can face danger and combine it with speed and a whole lot of noise and power... you’ve got an adrenaline rush package,” she says.
Char’s first vehicle was a Ford Aerostar six-cylinder van she brought to the Islands from Alaska. The van ran a hard seven seasons and made her a local race legend. It ran the track in eighteen seconds initially; by the time it was retired last December, it was down to fourteen seconds flat. Char explains why Hawai‘i is a special place to race: “You can race twelve months out of the year, and the price is right. You can run all night. The weather is great—we may get rained out a handful of times a year. People bring tents, picnic tables, and everybody eats. It’s family.”
Char’s new racecar, Adrenaline, is a 1991 Mustang—but its days are numbered. “Sometimes when I was driving down the street in the van, little children would wave and jump up and down and say, ‘It’s the van!’ It was hilarious. Now people come over and say, ‘Where’s the van?’ They don’t even want to look at the Mustang. So the van is coming back.”
According to Char, females have the advantage in a drag race. “Actually, if you want the honest to God truth, scientifically speaking, women have better reaction times. I’m faster off the line, and as a general rule, we’re a little more bloodthirsty,” she laughs. “We love everybody in the pits, but when we line up, we don’t go out there to play games.”
“Now they’re frying them weenies!” From atop a red and white checkered tower, the enthusiastic voice of Dennis Muehlenhard is amplified throughout the park. Dennis is not referring to the cooks in the Pit-Stop Café (who do, nonetheless, make a juicy hot dog) but to two cars in mid-burnout before they take the green light. The burnout is yet another part of the drag ritual, one part spectacle and one part necessity: The smoke excites the fans in the bleachers and the burning rubber helps the cars grip the track. Dennis’ commentary provides the soundtrack for the park. His play-by-play lets the audience know what class is running, who the drivers are, where they stand in the overall points race, what they’re running under the hood. Over the mic, he incites a friendly rivalry between the drivers—and his words capture the conscience of O‘ahu’s tight-knit racing community: “I’d like to send a big mahalo out to all of our sponsors...you see all our sponsors participating, you see how our racers participate, and I appreciate you fans coming out here participating with us...remember now, come out here as much as possible and support this scene here...juniors are down in three minutes!”