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Charly Haley, Published July 29 2013

Jamestown drag racers have need for speed

JAMESTOWN, N.D. - When the lights turned green, the engines roared, and the spectators were left with puffs of smoke and the smell of rubber on the track.

In a matter of seconds, some drivers could reach 120 mph – but their goal wasn’t speed; it was consistency.

The Jamestown Drag Racing Association held its annual races at the Jamestown Regional Airport Saturday and Sunday.

Drivers lined up their cars – some, just ordinary street cars – for three trials of the 660-foot race, trying to get their reaction times and fast speeds as consistent as possible.

Before the race, drivers turned in times based on how fast their cars are. Those times determined how fast each car’s starting lights are set – a faster car would get the green light a little later when running against a slower car.

This means drivers could race against each other in cars at different performance levels and get fair matches. It’s not about who has the faster car but who has the better reaction time.

At the end of each trial, racers got tickets noting their times.

There were about 150 cars at the airport Saturday, and more than 600 spectators, said organizer Brian Kamlitz.

“It’s one of the best turnouts we’ve had so far,” he said during Sunday’s races. He didn’t have a count for Sunday, but said there are usually a few more people for the second day of racing.

Jamestown’s drag races are the only ones held at an airport in North Dakota, Kamlitz said.

“Every year the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) has some new requirements to accommodate their letting us be out here,” he said.

Hooked

The cars raced two at a time on the airport’s runway. Drivers wore helmets and went through tech inspections to make sure their cars were up to safety standards. Any licensed driver could participate.

And whether it was the adrenaline rush, the strategy or the camaraderie of fellow racers, participants said there’s something about drag racing that keeps them hooked.

“Once it’s in your blood, it’s tough to get out,” Kamlitz said.

Bob Bauman, 63, of Jamestown, has a few cars for drag racing.

“It’s just a lot of fun,” Bauman said. “It’s always a competition, but it’s a friendly competition.”

Bauman has been racing for about four years, and he likes to do ride-alongs with some spectators. Two girls whom he let ride along with him at a Fargo race earlier this summer were driving their own cars in the Jamestown race Sunday, he said.

David Claude, 49, of Fargo, became hooked on racing when his dad let him ride along once when he was young.

“Ever since he took me on a ride in that car – I’ll never forget it,” Claude said.

Now, for Claude, it’s not about the speed, but the competition to get a consistent reaction time.

“It’s the strategy of it,” said Claude, who has been racing his own car for about 15 years. “The thing that appeals to me the most is getting a good reaction time.”

Claude said he was a point champion in 2002 and 2003 at the Sabin, Minn., drag races.

Family affair

For many people, like the Rathjen family who traveled from Beulah, N.D., for this weekend’s races, drag racing is a family affair, Kamlitz said.

Both 17-year-old Alex Rathjen and his father, Dana, raced this weekend.

“You get an adrenaline rush, I guess, and you get to do it with your dad,” Alex said. “And you can go fast without getting in trouble.”

Alex raced a rail dragster that he said hit 103 mph in 6.6 seconds. He’s been racing since he was 8 years old in the junior races.

Like his son, Dana said he likes racing for the adrenaline rush. His car hit 121 mph Sunday, he said.

JoAnn Rathjen said it can be a little scary watching her son and husband racing, but she knows it’s safe.

“Once they get down the track once or twice you feel a little bit better,” she said.

The whole family usually comes out to watch Alex and Dana race, and Dana said his grandkids are his biggest fans.

He can’t wait until they’re old enough for the junior races, he said.

“It’s a good family thing,” JoAnn said. “Everyone has to work together.”

Dana added that the racers have a strong sense of community. “The people are phenomenal,” he said.

The Jamestown Drag Racing Association formed in 1999, and had its first races in 2001, said Kamlitz, who is vice president and co-founder of the association.