The Emirati Top Fuel drag racer has adapted to life in America with ease, and made some friends on the way, writes Gregg Patton
Drag-racer Al Balooshi is up to speed and cooking with gas
Khalid Al Balooshi's workplace is the driver's seat of a Top Fuel dragster, the fastest class of race cars in the world. The vehicle the Dubai native runs for Al-Anabi Racing is essentially a rocket on wheels, reaching speeds in excess of 515kph in less than four seconds.
The 8,000-horsepower engine and its nitro-methane fuel produce teeth-rattling vibrations, a deafening crackle and roar, and a sharp, pungent odour spectators taste as well as smell. A Top Fuel car is a unique place to make a living.
Nine months ago, Al Balooshi had never driven one in competition.
Nine months ago, he also spoke limited English, knew few people in the upper circles of National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) racing, and was just getting the hang of life in the United States - another unique place for a 33-year-old Emirati to make a living.
No problem. And no problem. Last weekend, Al Balooshi completed his rookie Top Fuel season on a dramatically competitive upswing and comfortably at ease in America, where his gregarious nature and quirky sense of humour have played well.
"The guy is a complete character," said Steve Torrence, a Texan and fellow Top Fuel driver. "When people get to know him, they realise what a great guy he is. He'll do anything for you. He ended up being one of my best friends out here."
If Al Balooshi experienced any culture shock, it evaporated quickly. He had raced in the US before, winning an NHRA mid-level class season championship, Pro Modified, in 2011. But he usually went home to Dubai between races.
After the Al-Anabi owner, Sheikh Khalid bin Hamad of Qatar, promoted Al Balooshi to one of his two Top Fuel teams last December, the Emirati began adapting to life in America, which meant much more do-it-yourself.
"In my country, at home, laundry is done, my food is ready, my car is washed," he said last weekend, during a break at the NHRA finals in Pomona, California, adding with a small grin: "Here, if I leave laundry, it's there when I get back."
He also discovered the kitchen in his rented accommodation in Los Angeles.
"I cook everything," he said. "Chicken and rice, lamb and rice … everything. If I stop racing, I will become a chef."
He said "chief", a minor flaw in his surprisingly fluent English. He taught himself the language the old fashioned way. "I talk to everybody," he said. With relish.
"He's the biggest jokester," said his Al-Anabi teammate Shawn Langdon. "At first, he was kind of quiet, feeling things out. As he began communicating better, his personality starting coming out.
"He likes to have fun, saying stuff to get you riled up," said Langdon. "He's competitive, but he wants to get a smile out of you. He always tells me he's going to beat me."
Torrence said Al Balooshi has reciprocated with language lessons, sometimes for laughs. Once, Torrence said, Al Balooshi prepped him with "some colourful Arabic phrases", then called a friend back home in Dubai. "Balooshi handed me the phone and had me rattle off the phrases," said Torrence. "He and his friend were cracking up."
Al Balooshi is known for dressing well, but Torrence said that did not extend to sunglasses. The Texan said he led his friend into an upmarket shop and made him replace a garish pair with something classic.
After that, it was on. Torrence said Al Balooshi showed up at his hotel room with a box. "He told me my shoes were ugly," Torrence said. The box contained an expensive new pair. "They were too small, but he made me put them on."
In the US, while socialising and travelling, Al Balooshi wears western dress. Not that people do not ask him about traditional clothing.
"Everybody thinks I should wear [a kandura]," said Al Balooshi, who picked his moment to show it off.
The NHRA was in Las Vegas in late October, and a couple of countrymen - a revolving corps of friends from Dubai have visited him during the season - were in tow. "I wore it one time, for Halloween," Al Balooshi said. After that one of the US drag racers had a request. "Mike Neff said he wanted one. I'll bring him one for next year."
Al Balooshi said the demands of driving a dragster for a living in America do not always mesh easily with his religion. Fasting for Ramadan, for example, is difficult.
"If you don't eat, no way you can [drive]," he said, adding that he continues to practice his faith within the framework of constant travel and odd working hours. "When I am alone, I do everything that I can do."
While Al Balooshi managed the social/cultural transition with grace, none of that would have mattered much if he had not made the tough professional leap from Pro Mod (top speeds 400kph) to the world's most powerful race cars.
Of course, his entire life had prepared him for the moment, beginning with his love of speed. Al Balooshi said: "When I was seven, eight years old, I would tell my father, 'Drive fast, go faster'."
He said he began working on cars as a teenager, and raced for the first time in 2001.
Fear has never been a factor, from his early days in the Street Stock class to his 515kph-plus life.
"You may be a little bit scared … but you do it step by step," he said. "You keep thinking everything will be perfect, and don't do anything stupid."
Every driver's life includes people who worry, and Al Balooshi is no different. His parents, Rashad and Fatma, have weighed in.
"At the beginning my mom says, 'What you do is dangerous' but my dad was cool," Al Balooshi said. "My mother is more settled now, but you know moms."
He worked his way through various divisions of dragsters, winning 158 races and several championships in Dubai, Qatar and the US before leapfrogging to the Al-Anabi gold car this season. He and Langdon, in the silver car, replaced Del Worsham and Larry Dixon, who had won the 2011 and 2010 titles for Al-Anabi. No one was expecting instant successes from Al Balooshi, just progress
"The biggest thing with Balooshi was communicating," said his crew chief Jason McCulloch. "There's still something of a language barrier, but he's picked up on things and understands what he needs to do."
McCulloch said Al Balooshi's even temperament helped. "Some drivers tend to point fingers and complain when things go wrong," said McCulloch. "His personality is always up."
Still, it took time. Al Balooshi was beaten in the first round in the first 12 events of the season. When he finally won his first duel, it was a big one, taking down the seven-time Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher at Denver in July.
He was eliminated in the first round in the next event, but that was the last time it happened. He reached at least Round 2 in the final nine events of the season, and finished 11th overall in the standings.
He shocked the Top Fuel establishment when he won the event at Reading, Pennsylvania, in October, becoming the first Middle East driver and only the third from outside North America to win a Top Fuel event.
He also made the semi-finals in Las Vegas. Over the final six events - the NHRA "play-offs" known as The Countdown - he posted the fourth-highest number of points and was unbeaten in three head-to-head races against the year's Top Fuel champion Antron Brown.
His finish to the season, simply, answered all the questions.
"I know this was a big jump … people said. 'You can't do it'." said Al Balooshi. "I know I can do it."
Langdon was able to watch his teammate's progress from the inside, with admiration.
"He was competing against guys who've had thousands of runs," Langdon said, noting that all Top Fuel drivers go through a "ride-along" period. "You're in the car, just riding down the track. Then you get a feel for the car and you're actually driving it. By the time Al Balooshi got to Reading, he was driving. He won that race. You can see pretty quickly whether a driver has it or not. Al Balooshi has it."
The rookie impressed one of the key men he had to impress, as well.
"Nothing could have prepared him for this, other than just getting in some runs," said Alan Johnson, the team manager. "He started off not afraid of the car, just a little overwhelmed. He spoke little English and he was driving for the Sheikh's team. That was a lot of pressure on him. But he worked and worked. I'm surprised he got this good that fast."
The team will reconvene in January for testing, then return to Pomona in February for the start of the 2013 season. "I suspect he'll have to knock some rust off," Johnson said. "But he'll be a competitive driver next year. He'll be top 10."
Maybe something even better.
Al-Anabi's public relations man Rob Goodman has watched Al Balooshi mingle with fans at numerous autograph and photo sessions.
"He's got a magnetic personality," he said. "When he starts winning out here, he'll be a superstar."
Plus, he can cook.