Brake Dancing

Gold Cup Classic

Hupertz, proving that amber means "speed up," not "slow down."
Hupertz, proving that amber means "speed up," not "slow down."
For just under 11 seconds, conversation at the Thompson Drag Raceway in Thompson is pointless. The explosive force of two aggressively tuned engines splits the rural air -- forget about rock and roll, forget about the announcer. Open exhaust and the absence of mufflers means 10.90 class racing is a loud weekend affair. The engines run at about 8,000 rpm -- more than double what civilian cars run on the highway -- and have no sound-deadening insulation.

"It's very loud. I wear earplugs," says Mike Hupertz of Madison, who drives the 10.90 in a red '71 Chevelle painted with white rally stripes and the logos of local sponsors -- the team name, Hupertz and Zapp Racing, prominent among them. "They're completely stripped out, with the headers right underneath you. They have a roll cage, tachometer, and the electronic necessities, but they're basically gutted."

This weekend, Hupertz will race in Thompson's Gold Cup Classic -- a racing extravaganza with 10.90s, funny cars, and other drag categories. He's jockeying to regain first place in the track's series after holding the position through July. Cars built for one purpose rip, snort, and lay down rubber in a straight charge for the finish line, but in the 10.90 series, it's not just speed and power that win the race. Drivers try to run the quarter mile in as close to 10.9 seconds as they can without going under, so strategy and reaction time rule.

"The car shudders and launches," Hupertz says of the race. "You grab three gears, and in about 10 seconds, it's over. It's time to shut down."

In those few seconds, drivers pay attention to each other's speed, anticipate moves, and try to decide whether to stay on the gas or touch the brakes. To say that Hupertz is intimate with his car (which actually belongs to his uncle, drag sage Richard "Buckwheat" Zapp) is to flirt with understatement: He built the motor. Hupertz, a tool and die maker by trade, puts in part-time hours building race motors and in his spare time runs his own engine-building business, Hupertz Motor Sports. But on the strip, how to retool an ignition system is the last thing on his mind.

"I think about what I'm going to do if this guy is coming up on me," Hupertz says. "I'm constantly looking. There's a lot of parameters. Sometimes the track doesn't bite the same way it did the time before. You've got to decide whether you're going to stay in it and run it out the back door, or hit the brakes and send the other guy on through. It's a gamble."

A 130-mile-per-hour gamble. Drivers wait for the amber light on the Christmas tree, release the transmission brake button, and stomp the gas to the floor. Blink, and you lose the bet.