Issue 8.6: December 2005/January 2006

Saturday Night at the Races

story by Ric Valdez
photos by Kyle Rothenborg


There might be another Kukini street somewhere on O‘ahu, but there’s only one Kukini Boulevard. This two-lane quarter-mile strip of smooth asphalt—the island’s only sanctioned drag strip—is on the grounds of Hawaii Raceway Park at Barber’s Point. For the last forty years, it’s been the place drag race enthusiasts and assorted adrenaline junkies have stirred up red dirt, tripled the speed limit and, above all, tested their mettle—and their metal.

There’s always something happening at HRP. The park features drag races, stock car races, motorcross, even driving lessons. For $8 a night, you can run your racecar, or you can watch others run theirs. The Saturday night I visit the park, things are loud and fast-paced; some 400 to 500 competitors and spectators are in attendance. The first checkered flag has yet to wave as the sun sets on the nearby Wai‘anae Range, but the oval pit is bustling with activity. The sound of idling engines echoes through the air. Pit teams are busy, fine-tuning their vehicles. They don't seem to mind observers looking under the hood—as long as they don't touch anything.

My mechanical inclinations lean toward reading the odometer at Jiffy Lube, but you don’t have to be a gear-head to feel the vibe at HRP. If you appreciate the aesthetics of the automobiles that rolled out of Detroit in the 1950s and ’60s—Mustangs, Camaros, Novas, Dusters, Chargers, El Caminos—you’ll be happy to see that these muscle cars are very much alive at HRP. And there are also “rails,” flashy, low, long and lean, the rear-engine monsters most identified with the sport of drag racing. They have tiny wheels at the front; in the rear, they’re endowed with curvy pipes, huge block engines and towering blowers, all propelled by meaty tires. These land rockets are not street legal: Let loose, they burn the quarter-mile track in under nine seconds, reaching speeds of over 165 mph. They even have a parachute pack on the back to slow them down. Definitely not H-1 material.


 

 

 
Paul Giovanetti

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!”


 

 
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