Pedal to the metal [originally posted 11/1/09, West Hawaii Today]

Posted: October 10, 2010 in Published Articles
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Sunday, November 1, 2009 7:32 AM HST

Some say it’s a chance to hone their skills. For others, it’s a family affair. But ask driver George Berdon and he’ll say, with a smile, racing is “all about the rush.”

Brothers Mitch and George Berdon Jr., of Kailua-Kona, make the trek to the Hilo drag strip at least twice a month to get their racing fix. The two-man team, despite only racing for three years, have produced a competitive car, thanks to many dedicated man hours and of course, cash. Mitch, the mechanic of the team, said they have spent more than $20,000 on their Volkswagen Beetle drag car. With wide slick tires and an obscenely large turbo charger hanging off the back, the car does not look like something that would generally be seen on the road.

The Big Island Auto Club oversees daytime operations during the 10-month racing season, which begins in January and ends in October, with races occurring once monthly over a designated weekend. Current BIAC President Brad Miprano said on any given event weekend, there can be anywhere from 60 to 120 cars participating, not to mention motorcycles and trucks. Some weekends, however, are busier than others.

“Labor Day was crazy over here. There were 3,000 people in the grandstands, 150 cars and tents all the way down the drag strip. It was pretty awesome,” Miprano said.

Drivers compete for trophies and cash, depending on the times their cars post, but the real prize seems to be bragging rights. Cars are categorized by how fast they can move down the 1/4-mile track and assigned a time bracket. This occurs during a qualifying period, which often takes place the day before the actual race. Cars with similar times are pitted against one another to keep the race fair.

For some people, racing is often a family affair with several generations of racers competing throughout the event.

Denny Duquette, owner of Island Performance in the new industrial area of Kailua-Kona, brings his entire family with him to the races. Not only do they help with setting up cars from a mechanical standpoint, they also race. His father, Roger, and wife, April, race their own cars as well. With his son poised to begin racing next year the family will be running a total of four cars next season.

“I just got tired of watching from the sidelines. I spent a year doing that then decided I would give it a go,” April said after being asked how she got into the sport. In her ’08 Dodge Challenger she has posted some impressive times; her best is in the high 10s.

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During a time trials run, George Berdon Jr. (Volkswagen Beetle) gets the drop off the starting line against another racer. – Brad Ballesteros | Special To West Hawaii Today

For those who just want to get on the track and race without the formalities and restrictions of bracket racing, there are the Outlaw races, which typically take place in the evening and go on throughout the night. The Outlaw races are open to all people and are overseen by the Big Island Hot Rod Association.

Kohala resident Sky Olson, an Outlaw racing regular, has spent nearly $100,000 on his 2005 Subaru WRX Sti. Olson said the main reason he prefers the Outlaw races to the more formal bracket racing is that drag racing allows him to troubleshoot and fine-tune his car, which is an ongoing process.

“I’m not out there to beat anyone, I’m there to dial my car in,” said Olson, whose times in the low 11s means that no matter what his intentions may be, he is still pretty quick out there.

From the event coordinators to the announcers in the tower to the helpers on the track, all of the men and women who make the races possible do so on a volunteer basis.

Announcer Geoff Lauer has been involved in the drag racing scene on the Big Island since it began back in Kona at the Old Airport in the early ’70s. During his time as an announcer at the Hilo Dragstrip he has only seen a handful of injuries and no fatalities. To ensure safety there are paramedics and an ambulance on standby.

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Mitch and George Berdon Jr. team up wrenching and racing their ’65 VW Bug. The 2332 cubic centimeter engine propels the Bug down the quarter mile in 10.9 seconds at a speed of 125 mph. – Brad Ballesteros | Special To West Hawaii Today

It costs up to $10 per race, and all vehicles must past mechanical and safety inspections. The Outlaw races charge an additional $20 dollars to race all night long.

Hilo Dragstrip not only offers an International Hot Rod Association-approved 1/4-mile strip but also a kart track, a dirt track and a 1/4-mile dirt oval.

Paul Maddox, of Holualoa, hopes Kona will one day soon have a facility similar to Hilo’s.

“It’s important to have a place for the younger crowd to race, so that they’re not racing on the streets,” said Maddox, an ex-racer who understands the need for a place where people can fulfill their competitive urges in a safe and controlled environment.

His project, the Kona Motorsports Park, has been inching forward over the past 14 years but the biggest obstacle he has encountered so far is a lack of funding. In order for the project to move ahead, many things still need to be done to satisfy county and state requirements, not to mention taking into consideration the preservation aspects of cultural burial sites. An environmental impact survey will need to be performed and the cost for that alone is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The cost of the proposed race course is easily in the tens of millions. Not one to be daunted by protocol, Maddox is optimistic that perhaps when the economy recovers, there will be a renewed interest in the park and an environmental study will happen.

In the meantime, West Hawaii residents will continue making the journey to Hilo’s drag strip for their racing fix.

For those interested in finding out more information on racing at the Hilo Dragstrip, contact the Big Island Auto Club track office at 961-2456. Those interested in more information about the Kona Motorsports Park project are encouraged to visit hawaiimotorbeat.com.

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65-year-old Roger Duquette roars down the quarter mile in his ’93 Chev, S-10. Roger has been timed doing the quarter mile in the 10 second range for speeds up to 130 mph. – Brad Ballesteros | Special To West Hawaii Today

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