x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Tearing up the straight

On a dank, gloomy night, petrolheads and muscle car fans travelled to the Umm al Quwain Motorplex to watch cars smoke their way up the drag strip.

Drivers get the green light to tear down the strip at the Umm al Quwain Motorplex.
Drivers get the green light to tear down the strip at the Umm al Quwain Motorplex.

Nick March Travelling to the Motorplex, the home of drag racing in the northern emirate of Umm al Quwain, it feels like I am journeying to the ends of the Earth. The complex is a distance away from the emirate's fishing port and the E11 stretches away from the town deep into the chilly December evening. In the collecting darkness, the countryside looks desolate, uninviting and a little uninspiring.

The gloom is eventually broken by the floodlights illuminating the Motorplex's 1.2-kilometre racing strip. The track and its powerful lights act like a flame for motoring moths to fly towards. It is where petrolheads, pitmen and would-be participants gather to watch old cars fry. In the stands, a few hundred people are here to witness the racing unfold. There are some ironic cat calls from the galleries when a tractor is sent down the track in between races to sweep up some race detritus.

The air is thick with the sharp smell of burnt tyres and the pit area is full of customised relics from the 1980s. Mustangs and Skyline GTRs are the cars of choice here. There's even the odd Camaro and a street-legal Corvette with a Dubai number plate. It's enough to warm the hearts of downtrodden Detroit motor executives. In one of the 20 or so pit garages that line the Motorplex's perimeter fence, Abdullah Mabuoa is preparing his 1984 black Ford Mustang for a turn on the straight.

He's 24, has been drag racing for a year or so and, predictably, he loves the adrenaline rush of kicking off the line with several hundred horsepower under the bonnet and seeing if he can beat his competitor to the end of the straight. When I ask him why he does it he says, simply, "It's in the blood. We all love speed here." And that is the attraction of drag racing. It's racing in a very pure, joyous form. It's like pulling up next to a Porsche Cayenne at a set of traffic lights on the Corniche and telling yourself you will be quicker away from the signal. Your opposition may have the power, but you in your little, old car have got the guile. It's guts and glory, plain and simple, and relatively cheap too. In fact, most racers like to take a banger, a wrecker, a scrapper and then polish it into a drag car named Desire.

Faisal al Shamsi and his friend Mohammad run a tuning shop in Sharjah. Most of the time, they work on customer's cars, but they also love to race. Mohammad's drive tonight is an imported, right-hand drive, cerise-and-black Nissan Skyline GTR. Faisal races a 1992 Skyline. Faisal bought his Skyline for Dh2,000 from a scrap yard and now, after spending a further Dh97,000 improving the car, he's competing for a Dh3,000 prize if he wins his race tonight. So, to put it in context then, for about the price of a Dodge Durango you can get yourself a tarmac-munching hot rod that will rattle your teeth as you tear up the straight into the gloom at the far end of the Motorplex's strip. That's big-budget thrills at low-rent prices.

These guys love the competition and the camaraderie of the pit garages and they don't mind the cost. Faisal tells me he'll use Dh600 worth of high-octane performance fuel tonight for his high-octane performance. It is, you sense, a small price to pay for the big smile he is currently wearing. It was not to be Faisal's night, however, as the tension of racing envelops him on the start line. "I've recently changed the position of my nitrous button for launching the car. It used to here and now it's here," he says as he motions towards two plastic buttons on the Skyline's stripped out steering wheel, which provide a primitive form of launch control, "I was pressing the old button instead of the new one. No matter."

Not all the racers are as phlegmatic as Faisal about losing their races. A dispute rages between one driver, Khaled al Housani, and Motorplex officials about whether the starting lights that start all tonight's races are faulty. Al Housani believes they are. He tops out at 136 kilometres per hour in a Corvette and trails a long way behind his opposition, who hurtles into the night at a speed close to 200kph.

Al Housani wants a rerun of the race, but Motorplex officials deal swiftly with his complaint and tell him that the only thing defective is his reaction time. In other words, the race result stands. The contrast with high-end motorsport could not be greater. If this was Formula 1, a dispute such as this would rumble on for months and be settled in a faraway civil court by a group of bespectacled and besuited lawyers.

There are motorbikes here, too. Suzuki is the brand of choice, particularly for a bunch of boisterous Saudi speed freaks. Khaled al Dossary has made a 1,000km journey to be here tonight and bags a prize for his 250kph performance astride a 1,300-cubic-centimetre Suzuki which has been tuned by Lee's Performance Center in North Carolina, USA. His hands are shaking as adrenaline courses through his body several minutes after his run. "It's not about the track or about the crowd," he says, "It's simply about the speed."

His friends are in the mood for celebrating. Rafat al Sharif, another Suzuki-riding Saudi and al Dossary's teammate, is busy strapping his blue bike to a trailer on the back of his Hummer pickup. Rap music is blaring from the car's cabin. I ask him why he dragged his way up all the way from Saudi to the drag strip? "Because it's better that we do it here than out on the road." The whole Saudi crew will be back in Umm al Quwain in a month's time for another tilt at the track.

Their enthusiasm is infectious. Even if this is really is the end of the Earth, I want to come back soon. nmarch@thenational.ae