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Hanna Cruisers : Off to the Races

I had to drop into the local Bumper to Bumper location a couple of months back to meet with Joe Schnurer. I was arranging to photograph him for a piece my daughter was putting together about his volunteer football coaching for her school’s Web site. While there, he asked me if I might be interested in photographing a drag racing and car show event being put on by a local club — the Hanna Cruisers — towards the end of June on the 21st and 22nd. I was a bit nervous as this was somewhat outside of my regular photography routine.

Upside down car
“I’m fine, why do you ask?”

Most of the cars I shoot haven’t moved in decades. If there is movement, it’s probably the ground settling. Trying to capture something moving at 150 kph is a lot more challenging than 4-H rodeo photography, which is my usual action photography outlet. Horses just aren’t that fast. The goats are, but the tethers they’re on prevent them from reaching their top speeds.

There’s also the fact that I’m not a motorhead in the true sense of the word. Yes, I own a Grand Am GT with a bit of pep to it, and, yes, I can lay claim to having owned a 1978 Gold Special Edition Trans-Am in years past, so I do appreciate a sporty ride. Just don’t ask me to change the oil in it — that’s an all day job for me and you’ll be lucky if the motor runs for ten minutes without seizing when I’m finished. It’s safe to say that I don’t fall within the Hanna Cruisers’ key audience demographic for this type of event. I figured I would show up, get my shots, and get going.

I didn’t expect to have as much fun as I did.

Racers were asked to show up at 9 am on their race day. All cars got a technical/safety inspection that cost about $50.00 and were intended to make sure that neither the driver or the audience were placed in jeopardy during the 1/8th mile drag race that took place on the main landing strip of the Hanna Municipal Airport, just outside of town. It was a great time to wander around and meet the drivers, all of whom were super friendly and eager to show off and talk about their hoopties. Many of them are were also quite happy to pop the hood for you as well when they weren’t too engaged in a bit of friendly trash talk with their competitors. They all seemed to know each other from previous races and it showed.

An insane amount of money and work has gone into these hot rods and many of them could be considered functional pieces of art. I’m also pretty sure that the majority of the engines on display were probably cleaner to eat off of than the surfaces in most commercial kitchens. Insane.

Green and white Chevy Vega
Aptly named?

My vote for the craziest mofo out of the bunch of drivers I met probably has to go to Hanna local Hugh Archbold, driver of Loose Screws, a white Chevy Vega with lime green accents. I’d have to say the car is an extension of the owners’ personality, and he’s hell on wheels (but in a good way). Other notables were junior dragster driver Jessica Lamal from Drumheller who quite literally chased down and caught a bunch of younger boys, and the Schnurer Family, with two generations racing three vehicles at the event. The Camrose Fire Department had a very tricked out International truck called Rapid Response. While our own Hanna Firefighter’s racing Camaro may not have been as fancy and could probably have been named Rural Response, I felt we held our own pretty well against that high-toned bunch of city slickers with their laced corsets and dainty parasols.

Hanna Fire Department’s ‘Rural Response’ vehicle.

The time trials started at 10 am of each day. Drivers first pulled up to a spot before the starting line where a crew of volunteers — students from the local high school mostly — had been wetting the pavement to help with the pre-race burnout. Burning a bit of rubber brought the tires up to temperature, providing more traction. It also made for a great show with lots of hooting and clapping from the audience.  Here’s what I learned from photographing burnouts:

  1. Earplugs are mandatory. Some of the hot rods rattle your brain hard enough to cause a concussion. One young fellow apparently backed off the headers on his truck because it wasn’t loud enough. My wife reported that everyone in town several km away heard everything just fine, thank you.
  2. These suckers spray gravel like a mother. Wear jeans, not shorts. You’re going to get dinged in the shin with something no matter where you stand.
  3. Creeping onto the track ahead of the vehicles to photograph a burnout is a really bad idea. Some of these cars rocket 20 meters down the track faster than you can blink because of how much traction their back tires provide. You can’t react fast enough to jump out of the way.
  4. The rumbling and roaring of the engines is primal and fun. You wind up looking forward to the badder and louder vehicles making frequent appearances.

A lunch break was called just after noon hour on the first day and the crowds descended on the food trucks en masse. It was a personal toss-up between steak on a stick and a smokie in a baguette from Dawg’n It, but I had to go with the smokie. It was served with a sinfully good dijon mustard that was obviously scratch made and fresh cut fries. There were also mini-donuts from a different truck, but I avoided those as I can only take so much waggy-finger from my personal physician (middle age is no fun). Everyone was happy with the food, to be sure, and there were some rave reviews of the steak stickettes.

My daughter's fantasy vehicle. Not.
My daughter’s fantasy vehicle. So not happening.

I spent the next 45 minutes frantically photographing the vehicles at the Show & Shine, which was Saturday only. My personal fave was an older, hot pink Chevy truck. My daughter has seen it around town several times and hinted that she would certainly appreciate something like it as a Sweet Sixteen present (yeah, right). The craziest ride was a Fargo truck that had obviously run afoul of several steroid injections at the local gym. What a beast. The sweetest ride was an old red and white Crown Victoria (in my opinion at least).

Unfortunately, exhibition driver Nitro Mike was called up to perform during the lunch break and I had to high-tail it from the Show & Shine back to the track. I got there just in time to see the world’s beefiest Dodge PT Cruiser being hooked up to the most souped-up golf cart known to man. Frig. You just can’t be everywhere at once. It was personally disappointing as it’s rare to see a PT Cruiser that can break the speed limit, let alone one that can break wheelie speed records. It’s kind of like getting a photo of Bigfoot, y’know?

I parked next to the track and spent the next ten minutes working on my upcoming heart attack in the form of my baguette-wrapped smokie while I swapped out flash cards and batteries. Then the eliminations started.

I had never been to a bracket race before and a member of the Hanna Cruisers was kind enough to explain it in terms easy enough for someone who can’t change his own car’s oil to understand. Bracket racing is all about the consistency of performance. You need to come as close as you can to your dial-in time without breaking out (crossing the finish line under your dial-in time). It’s all about the reaction time and skill of the drivers, and less so about how fast your hoopty is, although that counts too. Vehicles are grouped into various classes like semi-pro, pro, and super-pro. That’s why you’ll see a racing motorbike going up against a dragster. There are also handicaps dialed into the lights with cars getting green lights in the elimination round based on their dial-in time. Explaining why you’ll see one car leave the starting line a second earlier than the other sometimes.

You can tell who the winner is in a race because a red light goes on on their side of the track when they cross the finish line. A lot of the time the winner wasn’t necessarily the vehicle that went the fastest.

Nitro Mike Kunz' alcohol powered wheelstander.
Nitro Mike Kunz’ alcohol powered wheelstander.

I was thrilled to see Nitro Mike make a second appearance near the end of day one, and I worked very hard to get some good shots of him in action. It was important to me to get a shot of him with his PT Cruiser lifted up on two wheels with the crowd in the stands blurring past in the background. I nailed that puppy, although I failed to get a good shot of him shooting flames out the back on day one because my camera was giving me attitude. I was able to get that shot on the second day of the event.

Here are some things that stand out to me from the two-day event…

The fun was absolutely infectious. Those present were out to have a good time and share it with all around them. Everyone was helpful and pleasant to talk to ranging from the long-haired, leather-clad dudes who looked like they could have been gun-toting extras on Sons of Anarchy to the folks wearing the button-down polo style shirts.

It is mind-blowing how fast some of the newer, stock vehicles are. One that stands out in particular was a 2011 Cadillac CTS-V Coupe. It had a 556 HP Vette engine and there was speculation that it may have had a slightly modified exhaust system, although the twin ports at the back certainly looked like they came from the factory. The Caddy was blowing away supercharged classic muscle cars with huge racing slicks on the back.

The AC Cobra Roadster a.k.a. "Sex on Wheels"
The AC Cobra Roadster a.k.a. “Sex on Wheels”

The most drool-worthy vehicle for me had to be an AC Cobra Roadster. Most likely a replica, but I didn’t care. The damndest vehicle award came down to a tie between a very sexy, supercharged Ford Pinto and an even more supercharged Chevy Chevette that appeared to be about 75% motor and 25% everything else. I think the Pinto threw off the fire department folks because the smoke coming from the vehicle was intentional — messed with their heads. Notable mention: the Hanna Cruisers Dragon Wagon, a “re-purposed Chinese food delivery vehicle.” It’s mean, it’s green, it’s the club’s racing machine (for those without their own hot rod, I suspect).

The event was very well run, as is typical for Hanna where the locals always manage to take it to the next level. The organizers were on the ball, the announcing was top-notch, the services provided were excellent (good selection of food trucks), the portable washrooms were well-maintained, garbage was put into garbage cans rather than dropped all over, the audience was extremely well-behaved, and there wasn’t a drunk in sight. Members of the Hanna Cruisers seemed to be everywhere just waiting for an opportunity to be helpful.

Most of all, I had a blast attending that weekend. So much so that I will definitely be going next year, and I will do my level best to get my family to come with me. It says a lot about the Hanna Cruisers that they can host an event so entertaining that it even rooks in non-gearheads. It’s a good, clean fun for the whole family and worth taking a trip out to come June of 2016.

I will be sure to wear earplugs on both days next time, however. And there’s a steak on a stick with my name on it.

Photo album:

I came out of the event with approximately 1400 images for the client, all of which are being offered for download at print resolution through their Facebook page. The hope is that everyone who came out that weekend is able to go home with some shared memories, if nothing else. The event photography was donated by myself (McCormick Photography) and also the Hanna Chamber of Commerce. Here are my favorites from the event:

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