Holly Leilani Nitta
George Nitta harbored a passion for racing even before the park was built in 1963; ten years ago, with just two cars, he started a program for juniors, determined to pass on that passion. The program was designed to teach kids to win, says George, but also to stress overall competency: “There is one stipulation that covers all of the kids, and that is grades. You must maintain a C grade level and higher. No grades, no racing.”
George’s daughter, Holly Leilani Nitta, a student at Sacred Hearts Academy, is now a racer in the program. She wears a racing jumpsuit, competes in the junior dragster class, reaches speeds in the seventies in her mini-dragster—not bad for a teenager who isn’t old enough to have a driver’s license. Holly says she feels very safe doing her runs. “Juniors have to wear, like, a whole body suit, and you have a helmet and a neck brace and arm restraints,” she explains. “If the car turns over, your arms don’t come out of the car, and there’s the roll cage to protect your head if the car flips over, too.” Though she doesn’t mention it, there is an EMT on duty at all times also.
Like the Nittas, the Hamada family has a long history at the park. The family’s team name is Joint Venture; watching them operate, you realize the name fits. As Itsu, the Hamada patriarch, slides out of his purple Camaro after a blistering run, his daughter in-law Lisa, clipboard in hand, immediately briefs him on how his competition performed, where he stands overall and who his next opponent is.
Lisa married into the sport. “My in-laws got into this because their kids—my husband Wayne and his sister, Kari-Lyn—were into racing, and it was something good that they all could be involved in,” she tells me. “My husband and his sister have been racing since high school. Now my son and daughter help, too. Everybody has a job to do. Even the little ones know to keep their eyes out to check if the battery charges are unhooked—and there’s always the good-luck kiss to the driver before the race.”
Off to the side, standing amongst the dragsters, the matriarch of the Hamada crew is holding one of her infant grandchildren. The sound of gunning engines doesn’t startle the infant, who casually rests his head on his grandmother’s chest. Mrs. Hamada stands next to her daughter Kari-Lyn’s Camaro and proudly states that her daughter is “Hawai‘i’s fastest woman driver.” She herself doesn’t race, and she admits that as a mother she worries about her family and monitors from the sidelines with crossed fingers. “They are,” she says, “going over 100 mph.”
What is of equal concern to the Hamada women these days is the fate of Hawaii Raceway Park. The land the park sits on has been sold, and unless a new park is built or HRP’s lease is extended, the drag racing tradition on O‘ahu will end by April 2006. “We would not only be losing our family get together,” says Lisa. “Most of the people who come to Hawaii Raceway Park have invested a lot of money in their racing. As you can see, this is what we do. It’s what we’re passionate about.” HH