Drag Illustrated Issue 168, May 2021 - Page 52


On the Road with Van Abernethy

To put in perspective just how long it had been since I last visited US 41 Dragstrip , consider this : The Dallas Cowboys won the Super Bowl that year ! No kidding , until just recently the last time I had visited this Northwest Indiana dragstrip I was still using a 35mm film camera , Bill Clinton was President and Hootie and the Blowfish had just burst onto the musical scene with a catchy little number called “ Hold My Hand .”

Hard to believe , but it had been more than a quarter century since I had last visited this former IHRA national event facility tucked away in the tiny town of Morocco , population 1,127 . The year was 1994 and I was 21 years old when I first drove through the gates of US 41 Dragstrip .
Back then , I was working for Bryan Epps , who ’ s now a veteran photographer , but at the time we were both quite young and traveled the country in his Trans Am during our early to mid-20s . Bryan had a thriving 8x10 picture business ( and still does ) we just did it a lot differently in those days .
We shot photos using 35mm film cameras and we would go through the pits on foot and take orders from racers who wished to purchase a photo package , which consisted of a couple 8x10s and a few smaller ones . Bryan would eventually go home and have the film developed , produce the enlargements and then mail out the orders C . O . D . Looking back , it seems like an unbelievably outdated business model , but at the time it was all we knew !
These days , the process is quite streamlined with photographers being able to shoot digital photos , and then print stunning enlargements onsite and deliver them to the customers in the pits within minutes – framed in a beautiful plaque no less !
In the early 1990s , though , Bryan and I did business the old way , and we chased many a race together ,
which is what brought us to Morocco , Indiana , for the IHRA Summer Nationals in 1994 . US 41 Dragstrip had just opened that very year and it was a gem of a facility – without question IHRA ’ s premier track in that part of the country – and I have some very distinct memories from that event .
It was at this track during the Summer Nationals that I encountered something I had not come across before or since . I vividly remember walking down the midway where all the normal food offerings were available for purchase , when suddenly something caught my
eye that I ’ d never before seen at a dragstrip : A rotisserie corn on the cob vendor !
I walked up , took a gander and realized this was something I had to try . This guy had a rotisserie machine with ears of corn ( still in nature ’ s wrapper ) slowly turning and being roasted to perfection . Best I remember I gave the guy a dollar and he reached inside the rotisserie machine , took out an ear of roasted corn and removed the husks ,
then dipped it into this huge pot of molten butter and handed it to me . So help me , I ’ ve never tasted corn any better in my life ! This was 27 years ago and I ’ ve never forgotten it .
The odd occurrences didn ’ t stop there , though . At this same event I was walking through the pits and looked down and spotted a rock about the size of a peach . One half of the rock was covered in pyrite , AKA : fool ’ s gold ... or so I assume . I ’ m no geologist by any stretch , but this rock was stunningly beautiful . I reached down , picked it up and took it home with me .
It sat on my desk for years ; its function was that of a paper weight . During one of our moves I put the rock in a box and it ultimately ended up in the attic , where it remains to this present day . Just for kicks I really should have it examined for authenticity . I ’ d hate to think I ’ ve been sitting on a fortune I found at a dragstrip all these years !
Also in the attic are some old 35mm prints from that 1994 race , and for an even cooler trip down
memory lane I recently watched the ESPN broadcast of that event via YouTube . Even without the internet I distinctly remember the high drama in Top Fuel between Rhonda Hartman and Jack Ostrander , which became incredibly tense in the shutdown area – all while the ESPN cameras were rolling . Yes , I recommend you watch it !
Probably my favorite memory from that weekend ( other than the roasted corn and shiny rock ) was the Pro Stock final , which came down between a pair of 23-year-olds , Robert Patrick and Billy Huff . They were great friends and dreamed of going to finals together , and I feel fortunate to have been there to see it unfold .
I ’ d be lying if I said I don ’ t miss the IHRA of old . Those are some great memories , although I ’ m thankful to still be making them with many other great racing experiences .
So , fast-forward 27 years to this past weekend when I finally made my way back to US 41 Dragstrip . So much has changed with the facility , which I ’ ll detail in another story coming up soon in the “ Dialed In ” section of the magazine .
I don ’ t know what it is about this place , but unusual things happen here . The latest bizarre experience associated with my Morocco homecoming is that my old photo boss , Bryan Epps , was also in attendance , and he told me it was the first time he ’ s been back since 1997 ! He walked up to me and says , “ What are the odds of us both being here this weekend ?”
Well , that got me to thinking about that shiny rock up in the attic . I realize the odds of it being real gold are slim , but there ’ s something about US 41 Dragway that simply defies logic , so I should probably get it examined . Hey , if nothing else , the memories from that place are solid gold , so I guess I ’ m a winner either way . DI
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