The thunder of engines drowns out the racetrack announcer on an early spring afternoon at Monroe County's Milan Dragway. It's one of the first race days of the 2016 season at the dragstrip, located roughly 20 miles south of Ann Arbor.
Two cars, both drag radials, are pulling up to the starting line for their first qualifying runs of the season. Their engines whine as their rear wheels do burnouts, sending up smoke from the blackened pavement. This continues for a few seconds as the drivers warm up their tires and lay down rubber on the track. Then they back up into the box until they're about 7 inches away from the starting line.
As a column of lights indicates the race is about to begin, they rev up until their engines are screaming somewhere north of 130 decibels, almost as loud as a gunshot at close range. The lights turn green, and the cars roar out of the box, their front ends lifting a few inches off the ground as they begin powering down the facility's 3,000-foot dragway — longer than some airstrips.
For the Beebe Motorsports race crew gathered on one side of the strip, all eyes are on the green Chevelle. By the time the car has gone 600 feet, it's hurtling along at 145 miles per hour. And after the cars have blown their parachutes, the timing towers light up with good news: The car has gone an eighth of a mile in 4.93 seconds, just a thousandth of a second away from the team's best time. Before the season is over, their new record will be 4.79 at 148 mph, but with the race season just begun, the statistics are plenty of reason to celebrate.
It's a real achievement for the group, including race crew chief Matt Beebe, but much of the glory will go to the car's driver, Karri Anne Beebe, his wife.
In her drag radial category, she's the fastest woman in the country, with a 10-year career that includes three championships and being named one of the 10 hottest women in drag racing by Drag Illustrated.
The 45-year-old is also a professional accountant, an accomplished flute player, a Titanic maven, a sewer and quilter, and a readaholic who burns through almost a book a week.
She's bluff, frank, and on the loud side, with a quick wit that can get a little salty. All of which makes her an entertaining person to listen to. And when she revs up the big block 632 in her green grudge car, her 48-year-old husband Matt's face lights up like a Christmas tree.
How does a gal from a white-collar family, the daughter of an attorney, end up behind the wheel of a grudge car?
"I married into it," Karri Anne says, watching cars end their runs at the "top end" of the racetrack. "I grew up in Holt. We moved here when I was 13 and we lived in West Bloomfield. I went to North Farmington High School. I didn't grow up with cars. I'm not a car person."
Unlike her buttoned-down family, Karri Anne was a tomboy. ("Girls are too emotional," she says. "I don't like all the crying and the whining. Just suck it up, cupcake.") Romantically, she says she'd been a "loser magnet" until she married Matt Beebe (pronounced BEE-bee). Matt and his brother were both into racing, and by the time Matt and Karri Anne were engaged, Matt was racing himself, in a '68 Chevelle that Karri Anne loved. They took it to Autorama in 2005, painted purple.
"Halfway through 2006, he says, 'I'm going to teach you how to drive.' I said, 'OK.' Why would I say no? If you had the opportunity to try anything and everything barring a physical limitation, why wouldn't you try it? Really, why wouldn't you try it?"
"So he starts teaching me how to drive the car," Karri Anne continues. "We eased into it. We really did. I got put into a car in 2006, so technically, I'm a total newbie as far as driving goes. But if I wasn't good, Matt would have taken me out of the car years ago. And now he and I have one more thing in common.
"There is another woman in Illinois, she runs a different kind of drag radial tire. But in my tire size, I'm the fastest woman in the country. Women don't do this kind of racing. More women do bracket racing. The 'open comp' class is full of women. The 'heads-up' class, the really fast stuff, there are very few."
Karri Anne says that when she first started, it was an issue for guys who weren't used to racing with women. "So I battled that for a few years," she says. "Two years ago we went down South. Racers wouldn't even talk to me."
These days, she's well-known and well-liked on her own stomping grounds, but can still get a cold shoulder elsewhere. "These guys all know me and they know that I can drive," she says. "It's just the people who race at other tracks who don't know me or don't know of me."
Asked if it's driven by male chauvinism, Karri Anne laughs.
"Oh, you're all knuckle-dragging pigs," she says. "It's a preconceived notion that women can't do this. But I can guarantee you that the car doesn't know if you're a man or a woman. It doesn't know. So what's the big deal?"
On a Friday afternoon when Karri Anne isn't racing, she's able to offer a tour of the track. She wants to show off the pit side of the track, reserved for competitors, and off-limits to spectators. "This is where all the big dogs park," she says, pointing out the crews who do "getting-paid racing," with bus-sized trailers tricked out into garages on wheels to service the top race cars. She points out Brian Wolfe, the head racing guy at Ford Motor Co. "I understand he's stationed in Germany," Karri Anne says, "and he flies home to do this — and then tomorrow he'll get on a plane and fly back to Germany and go to work."
But aside from a few showy outfits, a humble sort of campground vibe prevails: You'll find as many trailers as at a KOA, often occupied by racers, their crews, and family members. Karri Anne points them out, and what they do when they're not racing: who's the retired metallurgy engineer, who's the insurance person, who's the architect and Star Wars geek.
"One of the things I like about drag racing is that people bring their kids," Karri Anne says. "We have a friend who races, his son just turned 1. That kid was at every race last year. There are people who bring their entire family — brothers, sisters. We know a guy, his parents travel with him."
Hardly a minute goes by when Karri Anne isn't waving at all the people she knows. The kids, dogs, and card tables with food give it the feel of a country picnic ground. Karri Anne's interactions only enhance the perception: By the time she has made a pass of the area, she has already hugged a few children, apologized for not bringing a book she'd promised to, and asked a woman she knows for a baked eggplant recipe.
"It's pretty neat," Matt says. "It's our version of camping. Some people go camping to ride their bikes and go swimming and go fishing. We go camping at the track to race."
"It's like high school," Karri Anne says. "We all sit in the same seats sometimes."
If that friendliness among competitors seems strange, she says, note that the races at Milan provide a springboard for a crew to "go national," racing in other states. Make no mistake, she says, the races at Milan are competitive, but other racers are often longtime friends who'll lend a hand to help fix a car — even when they're running against you.
"It's like a family atmosphere," Karri Anne says. "Everybody knows everybody. Everybody's going to help everybody."
Karri Anne's tour leads past the tower into the stands, where she introduces a friend and longtime racing fan. It's Terry Farynk, a guy who could make a decent color commentator. For the better part of an hour, he chatters on, trying to describe why he finds drag racing so thrilling, in between marveling as he watches the colorful cars wind their engines up and throw themselves down the track.
"Watching a supercharged car take off is quite a rush," he says. "I've talked to people for hours about this. They don't understand until they come out to see it. I got my friend to come out — he had no idea! I said: 'I've been trying to tell you for years!' He had no idea: The art of these cars, how much is invested, what goes on in the pits, the passion of the drivers. It's just really beautiful to see the cars make a clean run and get down there safely. There's quite an art to it."
Down below, on the track, one of the cars takes off and begins to scoot sideways until its driver brings it under control. "Oh, boy!" Farynk cries. "He almost hit the wall!"
As Farynk explains, the sport of drag racing isn't just stepping on the gas when the light turns green. It's about being able to control all that vehicle's power and guide it down the strip, and to ease up as soon as things start to go awry.
"See, everything has to be working in unison to make a 200 mph pass in an eighth of a mile," Farynk says. "They all wanna run a 3.95 at 200. But to do that, you have to have everything working. And he had to let off. Did you see how quick he would have gone out of control? The car is 3,000 horsepower. They're so powerful they're very difficult to control. It's an art. And it's not easy."
"You have to have reflexes," Karri Anne says. "Because things get out of control fast. Real fast."
"You can feel it," she says. "You absolutely can. You feel it in your ass! I mean, you really do. I can feel tire shake, I can feel tire spin, I can feel chatter. I can feel it. When I crashed, I got 100 feet out and the back end just came up and it just pivoted the car right around and I went smack into the wall. Obviously, you're just a passenger at that point, but we pulled the log and I reacted, like, one-tenth of a second after things started to go wrong. Within a tenth of a second I was off the gas and reacting to what was going on. So you absolutely feel it. You have to."
Relaxing in the "pub room" of their Westland home, Matt and Karri Anne show off the various tchotchkes they've collected in a decade of racing together. Along with the photos and awards are a few relics that hint at how dangerous racing can be, among them damaged engine parts — one in a mason jar, another turned into a shelving bracket — after they had an engine "grenade" on them a few years ago.
That's an experience that chastened them a bit on motor design. "Matt and I agreed that there are two ways to build a motor," Karri Anne says. "One is where it's maximum horsepower. But the downside of that is when you beat up a motor you get 'shelving' parts and 'mason jar' parts. We want reliability over horsepower."
The Chevelle has an entirely new motor built to their specifications by Chris Holbrook of Holbrook Engines: an all-aluminum 632 with 14-degree Dart heads, fuel injection, and a Rossler transmission that shifts around 7,800 RPM. The motor alone puts out 1,200 horsepower. With nitrous, they can coax another 600 horsepower out of the engine.
This is a step up from the old big block 632 that used to be in the Chevelle. As a racing "platform," everything involved with a 632 gets expensive: Matt points out you need bigger tires, a stiffer chassis.
In fact, as sports go, drag racing can cost staggering amounts of money. As Karri Anne colorfully puts it, "It costs gobs and gobs of money."
"The new motor is $32,000. And I put $10,000 into one that blew up, so I just pissed away 10 grand. I was very, very mad. I put 10 grand into a motor that I got 11-and-a-half passes out of. In June 2014, I bought a $10,000 transmission. And two years before that I bought a $5,000 transmission. The rear end I bought was $5,600 or something like that. Just the paint job on my front end is $2,000."
Karri Anne estimates a typical racing team will put "hundreds of thousands of dollars" into the sport.
"Not only is it in the cars, but look at the trailers!" she says. "The golf carts. All of it. We don't cheap out!"
And then there are the costs that go into safety equipment. As Karri Anne puts it, you don't want to cheap out on potentially life-saving equipment that ranges from fireproof underwear to head and neck restraints that start at around $1,100.
The punishing expenses of the sport help explain why crews try to wring every last second of running time out of an engine. "It always depends on what's the weakest link in your engine, how well it was built, how hard you hit it, how much you abuse it. Some guys will go a whole season and not have a problem, and send it out in the winter to have it freshened up. The goal is to make it through a season."
That also explains why cars are pushed or towed to the starting line and from the finish line by everything from golf carts to Smart Cars. In fact, most of the racers shut their engines off right before they release the chutes.
"Every time you start the engine, it's wear and tear," Karri Anne says. "When you see a car started up before the starting line, it's only to warm up the motor."
In fact, making sure a car is performing at its peak is something of an obsession with drag racers. A lot of the cars have cameras mounted on them from different angles to record just how a car performs so they can "watch tape" later like a football coach. Karri Anne says it's something that happens as soon as a racer's car comes to a stop: "They're thinking in their head from the starting line to here what they can do in the tune-up to make it better. How'd it feel? Where'd it shift? Did it drift?"
That analysis gets seriously juiced up by engine software that measures 45 different variables and records every race onto an SD card, which is then loaded into Matt's laptop for evaluation. It measures car speed, engine RPM, driveshaft RPM, accelerative G-force, lateral G-force, oil pressure, nitrous, fuel flow, 02 correction, and more, all down to the thousandth of a second.
The program renders line graphs for all this data, which is another way to look at all the power Karri Anne has to manage as she shoots out of the box. As far as most people's experience goes, this data is off the charts. "People who aren't into the racing read Car and Driver magazine and are used to seeing how fast a Bugatti or a 2015 Corvette goes from 0 to 60." For instance, the Porsche 918 Spyder goes from 0 to 60 in 2.2 seconds.
"So I looked it up," Karri Anne says. My car goes from 0 to 60 in 1.3 seconds."
"You get all this data," Karri Anne says, "but what do you do with it? Someone's got to know what you're looking at."
That's why the Beebes rely on Kevin Neil to look at the log and program a nitrous tune-up, which determines how much nitrous is fed into the engine by electronically controlled solenoids. It's just enough to goose several hundred more horsepower out of the motor without melting it down.
The Beebes offer a tour of their 32-foot trailer and their shop out back, where they're working on a "twin" Chevelle with an LS7 motor — just for spinning around the neighborhood. They'll put both of them in Autorama eventually, a kind of "His and Hers" display.
The couple wheels the supercharged Chevelle out of the shop onto an apron of pavement to start it up. In this peaceful suburban environment, it seems louder than ever. Karri Anne gets into the driver's seat and starts fussing over the gauges, looking for any sign of trouble. Meanwhile, Matt lights up with a megawatt smile.
"You feel it, right?" Matt asks. "When people watch the big NHRA drag racers like John Force, it's one thing to watch it on TV — but when you're there, it's 10 times the pound in your chest. 'Cause there's 10,000 horsepower. So two of them at the line is 20,000 horsepower. And when they hit the throttle, you can feel it in the stands. It almost takes your breath away, even though you ain't even driving."
Karri Anne gives the engine a bit of gas and revs it up into a blasting volume that rips through the air. There are almost certainly no birds within a quarter mile, and nobody without earplugs could be taking a nap nearby. Meanwhile, Matt is beaming.
The scene brings their relationship into a kind of focus. Karri Anne has a mind so restless it finds solace in being focused: playing in a flute trio, making elaborate quilts, tearing through more than 40 books a year. Her restless mind also makes her the perfect pilot, the person you want fussing over all those dials and gauges, straining to sense anything out of tune in her 3,400-pound vehicle. And it not only delights Matt to be able to put her there, he has the rare joy of a man who shares a "man's passion" with his wife.
Not that the setup doesn't have its challenges. "My husband is my crew chief," Karri Anne says. "Sometimes that gets hard. You are husband and wife. When we go home, there's only one bed in that house — and I'm not sleeping on the couch. So there is this level of relationship between us that makes communication different than it does for you and I."
"Because of our relationship," Karri Anne says, "I have to trust that, if I couldn't do this, he wouldn't keep me in it."
She adds with a laugh: "Unless he really wants that insurance money!"