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Horsepower hunting in the Middle East: part one, exploring the drag racing scene

11 July 2015


If you’re looking for one of the most professional and competitive drag racing scenes anywhere in the world, you may need to check out what’s going on in the Middle East

So, you’ve been to Australia for the annual pilgrimage to the Winternats, trotted over to the States for a lick of NHRA action, maybe taken in Santa Pod when you did that OE? Some of you with a desire for adventure may even boast a trip to Hockenheim for the NitrOlympX, or quite possibly you’ve taken in some other drag racing destination considered to be off the beaten track in our world of straight line action. 

Well, for those who yearn for a little more excitement, maybe, just maybe, the next time you’re heading to Europe, a stopover in the Middle East might give you a reprieve from the monotony of 29 hours in the air, as you wing your way to the northern hemisphere. 

Nowadays, a stopover does not have to be Bangkok, Singapore, or Hong Kong. At present, Emirates, in company with the Dubai Government, is working hard to lure you to the centre of its travelling universe. Unfortunately, for most travellers, the plane change at Dubai International usually means a few hours cruising the terminal. But, those who plan their attack a little better might find that a few days hanging out in the Middle East could just satiate their appetite for drag racing in exotic locales.

The Arabian drag racing season does sit smack dab in the middle of our Kiwi summer, but a 17-hour flight will put you amongst the world’s best doorslammer racers. We’re not talking Zappia, Kapiris, Fabietti, or even Yearbury here. The guys who host the Arabian season invite America’s NHRA and PDRA Pro Modified top echelon to compete against the cream of the Middle East and beyond.

Anyway, earlier this year — three weekends at the beginning of February, to be precise — the Arabian Drag Racing League (ADRL) hosted its annual International series in Qatar. Taking advantage of the northern winter, the ADRL flies in stars and their cars to race for glory, a fair chunk of cash, and some very nice family-heirloom trophies. 

For those of you who are geographically challenged, Qatar resembles Coromandel Peninsula in size, and is positioned midway up the Persian Gulf. Flanked by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and in close proximity to Bahrain and Kuwait. Yes, Qatar is smack dab in the middle of oil and gas country — and it sure looks like it as you fly in over platform after platform in the Gulf. A quick one-hour flight from the Emirates terminal at Dubai International will have you in the land of the Soccer World Cup 2022.

Approximately eight years ago, drag racing took off in the region — and, when things take off in the Gulf States, it doesn’t happen by halves. Feel free to look up the achievements of any nation in the Gulf and you’ll soon be holding your breath in astonishment. Probably, the standouts for occasional tourists are the Burj Khalifa — yes, that monster building vaunted as the world’s tallest tower — and the seven-star Burj Al Arab, the hotel resembling a sail that is built on the beach at Dubai. These two buildings make every luxury TV show, and front many travel brochures worldwide, but be ready for a cash strain if you ever visit their environs. Even a glorified cup of coffee will set you back nearly NZD$200.

Yes, the locals know how to do things extravagantly, and in the case of their drag strips there are no short cuts. The Kuwaitis are acknowledged as the first to have taken on our sport, upwards of 30 years ago. Today, the majority of racers in the region are from that tiny Arab state. Strangely, though, they lost their one and only strip a decade back, so the nearest strip for them is approximately 700km south across the desert: Saudi Arabia’s Dirab Motorsport Park. 

Abu Dhabi built the Yas Marina Circuit back in 2008, and immediately toured American and European Top Fuel racers. Sadly, the management has since left their drag strip to street racing, but feel free to google the name, and you’ll see it isn’t some hick track to be sneezed at.

 Saudi Arabia’s Dirab Motorsport Park in Riyadh opened in June 2012 to mainly street racing. Once again, the facility is worth checking out on YouTube and Google. Surprisingly, the racing is heavily slanted in the direction of staunch American muscle, as opposed to an expected presence from Japanese and European vehicles.

The two facilities in the region that scream world-class are Qatar Racing Club (QRC), and the Bahrain International Circuit. While I didn’t manage to visit Bahrain, it most certainly is on my bucket list. 

This trip, however, was wholly encompassed by a visit to QRC, which is built in the industrial sector of Doha. A quick 25-minute drive from the centre of town will set you back NZ$15, so if you’re planning an excursion, have no fear of taxi expenses. Remember, this is the centre of our petroleum universe, so a tank of gas costs approximately NZ$30. As our taxi filled at the local gas station, I smiled as the bowser clicked over at 60c per litre.

Fahad Bahzad is responsible for the day-to-day management of QRC. He has links to motorcycle and engineering industries in the region, and has pioneered platforms to develop the local drag racing, drifting, sand drags, and land speed activities. Unfortunately, participants still heavily outnumber spectators. However, efforts are being made to lure crowds with international events and live television/internet streaming. 

First impressions of any real estate that has money thrown at it in the Middle East is the inclusion of lush lawn as part of the landscaping. There’s an abundance of sand, so when you strike a healthy meadow it generally indicates that there is some wealth backing the build. So, driving through the gates of Qatar Racing Club to be greeted with expansive hedging and lawns sets the scene for what to expect with the rest of its facilities. An impressive four-storey control tower behind the start line is the landmark most will remember from their first trip to QRC. Marble floors, an elevator, full air-conditioning, and multiple command and meeting rooms, all fitted out with the comforts of a top corporate headquarters, should give you an indicator of the pride taken in the development.

Flanking the pit side of the 1250-metre, west-facing racing surface, a very VIP grandstand features gold-emblazoned thrones for those who have paid for the privilege of using them, or received that special invitation. Across the other side of the start line, elevated bleachers are free to the general public, as is entry and parking in the venue, along with billboard-size live/repeat action video screens. 

As far as on-track facilities are concerned, once again no expense has been spared. Considering that QRC is a non-profit organization, it takes its obligations to create the best and safest racing conditions very seriously. The track was built in accordance with NHRA’s highest specification, right down to being equipped with state of the art grooming and safety equipment. For February’s three meetings, the management imported 50 drums of VHT to ensure the surface was at its stickiest — and it wasn’t just some random person on a tractor doing the grooming; QRC enlisted the cream of NHRA and PDRA’s track crews to keep the surface in pristine condition. 

Operations are headed by former Ohio resident Scott Valetti; he is ably supported by a team of ex-pat Americans, Canadians, French, and Australians, along with a team of locals to manage activities. These guys are about as good as it gets, going above and beyond in their pride in and preparation of the racing surface. In fact, I now tentatively wonder: is there such a thing as too much traction and track prep in this world?

As far as racing is concerned, its all heads-up. In this particular Arabian series, the distance is 660 feet (an eighth of a mile for the uninitiated). On the subject of eighth-mile racing, Qatar certainly has grasped the excitement and positives of this distance for competition. Pro Mods terminal near 200mph in under four seconds, while the slowest cars in the series were running around the 150mph mark for their 200-metre sprints. As an indicator of what eighth-mile racing is becoming, just count: 1 and 2 and 3 and 4. Yes, that’s right, under four-second times come regularly in the Middle East, and the cars reach speeds that we in New Zealand would be happy to see from most of our quarter-mile doorslammers.

The positives for track operators are financially measurable as well. An eighth-mile facility takes up a lot less real estate, meaning less track prep, less chance of high-speed disasters, and, for the spectators, the race literally happens in their scope of vision. No more straining to look down track for a result — it all goes down right in front of you. Consider the excitement of half-track burnouts and you may just get the picture. Eighth-mile racing isn’t as bad as many quarter-mile purists may think, and, in my opinion, the heads-up start is certainly more spectator friendly than our predominantly staggered handicap racing.

This season, Qatar’s international show was topped with a 10-car Pro Modified field, featuring racers from Qatar, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, the USA, and Sweden. The stars of the tuning show were certainly Shannon Jenkins and Rickie Smith. Both of these guys took their time in Qatar to fine-tune nitrous and new ideas before heading back to the USA for their looming race season. That didn’t mean they were on holiday; the rivalry these two have on track in the USA most certainly showed on the start line as their respective steeds came to the beams for battle.

The show was hosted over Thursday and Friday on three consecutive weekends, with the track opening at 3pm each day, and the event continuing into the cool air of Qatar’s winter evenings. Altitude was corrected to 1800 foot, and the evening temperature was around 20°C, with a start-line surface temperature around the 25° mark.

Every pit garage had a connection to the USA and/or Europe. Joe Lepone Jr was enlisted to help the fledgling Kuwaiti Al Azraq Camaro driven by Hussain Al Shammari. Even Australia had representation, in the form of SubZero Motorsport’s Ivan Pavlovic, who has the enviable position of managing Al-Anabi’s engine building and workshops.

Included in the Pro Modified field for the first time since the track’s inception was Europe’s 2014 FIA Pro Modified Champion from Sweden, Mattias Wulcan, who had freighted his blown Hemi–powered Pontiac down for the winter season but made the mistake of not bringing his eighth-mile artillery. The Pontiac’s back was against the wall from the get-go, being heavy and under-geared compared with the rest of the field. 

It was Mike Castellana from the United States who eventually triumphed in the three-meeting series. His best pass of 3.776 wasn’t the quickest of the Pro Mods, but his obvious experience on the lights came to the fore as he won two of the three meetings. His best reaction was a 0.000, while his worst came in at 0.0410. Castellana’s only loss came at the hands of number two in the series, Qatar’s Mahana Al-Naemi, who trailed just one point behind to become ADRL Pro Mod runner-up in 2015.

The quickest pass of the series went to Qatar’s Khalid Al Balooshi in the sister Speedtech car to Castellana’s Camaro. Balooshi’s 3.766 equates to a 5.79 on the quarter mile, and is recognized as a new world record for nitrous-equipped Pro Mod cars. On the other side of the solidus, Rickie Smith’s Al-Anabi Camaro, driven by Mahana Al-Naemi, set the standard for speeds over the series. His best was a 200.17mph. As an indicator of just how fast that is, compare these Qatar performances with John Zappia’s recent record-setter over the Christmas break in Perth. He went 5.68 in the quarter with a mid track time of 3.74 and 202mph. Yes, racing would be tight if ever the Arabs, Americans, Europeans, and Australasians met on an eighth mile.

Super Street 8 is the class one step down from the big boys. Once again, heads up and hope you’ve brung enough is the order of the day. Mainly populated by Pro Mods retired from active 200mph duty, these guys are the hardest of the hardcore in the region. While they have access to American technology and know-how, many have moved on to develop their own power and thought processes. Sending parts back to the States for repair isn’t in their budget. Yes, these guys are just like us when it comes to racing: spending money they don’t have to go as fast as they can! A comment from Saudi Arabia’s Sulaiman Al Quraishi made me chuckle: “I’d like to thank my sponsors, Mastercard and Visa”.

Fifteen cars made the call in SS8 for their three-week racing vacation at QRC, with a performance of 4.237 and 191.87mph tripping the beams as a new record and best for the ADRL. This came from Kuwait’s Abdullah Khudadah in his home-built back-half ’91 Foxbody. To say the team was happy with the achievement would definitely be an understatement — emotions certainly ran high for the low-budget team, who work out of a glorified tin shed with no home track to play on. For those quarter-mile purists who refuse to do the 1.54 conversion multiplication, Khudadah’s twin-turbo BB Ford would scorch the traditional distance in 6.52 if he drove it full length and out the back door.

Next down the performance ladder comes Outlaw 10.5 class. Populated by a field of eight, everything from nitrous-snorting 800-cube Fords to twin-turbo small blocks was squeezed into frames running the 10.5-inch footprint. Basically, if you know how to put power through a small slick, then this is the class for you — no breakouts, just get on with it and hope you make it to the bottom end in one piece. It was Kuwait’s Abdullah Al-Soori in his bright-red Super Shop Camaro who went the distance to grab the 2015 title. A 4.32 (6.65 qtr) and 167mph bests were enough to take all three meetings and a resounding win in the championship over his runner-up.

Heads-up index racing is alive and well in the Middle East. Rather than concerning their technical governors with controlling regulations in staggered-start class racing, they have created a budget category for racers who don’t have the urge to go balls to the wall. At this year’s ADRL, the class hosted 14 entries, and they all pretty much ran spot-on their nominated 4.50 index, requiring a tight reaction to win races. Bahrain’s Mohammed Salama, in his immaculate 2000 Pontiac GP, took the series, with a best, unsurprisingly, of 4.50 and 156.01 mph in the eighth. A 4.50 index equates to 6.90 on the quarter, in case you were wondering.

As a stepping stone to possible future development of an Alcohol Dragster division, Al-Anabi and QRC have imported a fleet of 4.80 heads-up index (7.40 qtr) dragsters. All cars are similar in set-up to Reher Morrison, Musi, or Sonny’s big-block Chevs for powerplants. The cars are then leased or sold to prospective drivers to compete in the only open-wheel bracket in the Middle East. Ten cars, with drivers representing the full contingent of Persian Gulf States, contested the event, with Qatar’s Mohammed Al Khalaf winning the 2015 ADRL series by just three points. 

To complete the heads-up racing, QRC also has what could be considered the tightest and most competitive bike racing in the world. Three divisions are catered for. The big boys compete in Pro Mod Bike, with a combination of nitrous and turbos strapped to a wheelie bar–equipped frame. In New Zealand, Ian Wilkins’ bike would be considered a Pro Mod. Electrifying is the best way to describe these beasts — and talk about competitive! Most teams had US or Canadian tuners helping out over the series — Billy Vose, Dan Wagner, Ronnie Mitchell, Scott Gray, and Terry Schweigert were just a few recognizable faces in the pits and on the start line. Performance wise, I’ll leave you to work out what a 4.0 eighth-mile time equates to on the quarter. Suffice to say, Athol Williams might have a hard time beating these guys, even with the help of nitro and a monster rear slick — remember, the eighth to quarter conversion is 1.54.
At the end of the series, it was Kuwaiti Meshal Al-Saber who beat out Qatar’s Mohammed Aldarwish on the heavily supported Al-Anabi entry by just four points to take the title. Best time from the Pro Mod Bikes came from Al-Saber, who went 4.034 at 175.30mph.

To cater for the growing import-racing scene in the Middle East, a heads-up division for Japanese-powered, small-tyre cars is contested within the Super Street 6 bracket. Presently dominated by Toyota 2JZ powerplants, these engines are transplanted into everything from Nissan GTRs through to Foxbody Mustangs and early model Datsun 240Zs. In this ADRL series, the bracket hosted 25 entries. The quickest was Bahrain’s giant-killer Mohammed Haji, driving his GTR, who went as quick as 4.450 and 171.95mph. He ended the series with a win over the Ivan Pavlovic–tuned Al-Anabi Supra entry of Nasser Al Suwaidi.

So that’s it! Once again I say: if you ever get the chance to travel through the Middle East during its cooler months, make a minor diversion off the beaten track and have a look at what’s going on in the Persian Gulf. Plenty of Google/Facebook information is available to give you a heads-up on the racing action. While you’re there, make sure you get out in the desert to catch some of the mad dune bashing that the Arabs are famous for. There’s heaps going on, and they’re just like us — mad for speed, mad for life, mad for fun. 

Photos: Cameron Sharft and Snapper Reid