x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 17 August 2017

Emirati motorsport driver Khalid Al Balooshi gets quarter-mile's worth

Dubai resident and teammate Shawn Langdon find traction in bid to be top fuel stars in US, writes Gary Meenaghan.

Qatar Al-Anabi Racing Top Fuel teammates Khalid Al Balooshi and Shawn Langdon finished 1-2 at the Toyota NHRA Summernationals in Englishtown, New Jersey last month. Photo Courtesy of Dave Kommel
Qatar Al-Anabi Racing Top Fuel teammates Khalid Al Balooshi and Shawn Langdon finished 1-2 at the Toyota NHRA Summernationals in Englishtown, New Jersey last month. Photo Courtesy of Dave Kommel

It features high-speed, high-tech racing teams worth millions of dollars. It features drivers risking their lives every time they get behind the wheel. It features a 10-month season with more than 20 races. It features engineers working flat-out to find hundredths of a second. It features six-figure broadcast audiences, posturing, politics and even a dominant driver called Schumacher.

It is not Formula One.

The NHRA Mello Yello Drag Race Series is based in the United States and consists of four different categories of racing. The principal class is top fuel dragsters, which is the fastest licensed drag racing category in the world and can produce top speeds of 530 kph.

To put that in perspective, the fastest recorded speed of an F1 car during a grand prix is 371.7 kph.

Also, unlike F1 races that can run for up to two hours, a drag race is essentially an acceleration contest that lasts less than five seconds.

Blink and you miss it has rarely rang so true. Any given race weekend will feature several elimination-style knockout duels with the different winners facing off until there remains only one champion.

This year's championship features 32 Top Fuel drivers, including a 33 year-old male called Khalid Al Balooshi. Born and raised in Dubai, he is the first driver from the Middle East to compete in a major US motorsports series. He drives alongside American Shawn Langdon for Al Anabi Racing Team, a Qatar-backed marque based out of Indiana who spend between US$7-10 million (Dh25.7m-36.7m) on the team per season.

"Balooshi is a great teammate," Langdon said."Very upbeat and a bit of a jokester; always trying to make people laugh and keeping the mood very light. Last year was his first year as a driver so he had a lot to learn, but his progress has been impressive. And he's a popular guy."

The Emirati first visited the United States in 2004 when he and his brother travelled to Texas for college. Although first impressions were not the best, he returned a few years later and has now embraced the American dream.

"My brother does not like racing cars, so the first time we came was for his college, and I did not enjoy it so much, but when I came back with the intention of racing dragsters, I started to really like it," said Al Balooshi, who owns an apartment in California and spends eight months of the year in the United States.

On Thursday, ahead of this weekend's NHRA Nationals near Cleveland, Ohio, Al Balooshi celebrated American Independence Day with friends in his hotel swimming pool.

At a time when stereotypes are strong, being an Arab driver and racing for a Middle Eastern team in America could have been expected to bring increased attention to Al Balooshi - and it has.

Yet other than the odd close-minded comment on social media, as Langdon told The National earlier this week, the heightened focus has been almost entirely positive.

"We obviously read and see on the news all the stuff that is going on in the Middle East, so there are a lot of questions from the fans," he said. "But basically Al Anabi is helping to open minds and helping to educate fans on what Qatar and the region is all about. People are starting to understand that better."

According to the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA), the Yello Mello Series ranks second only to Nascar's Sprint Cup Series in terms of popularity.

Nielsen, the market research specialists, recorded a television audience of close to 900,000 for a race last season in North Carolina.

This weekend's event could draw as high as 30,000 spectators to the stands, Langdon said.

Resultantly, while Al Balooshi remains largely anonymous in the Emirates despite having competed in the Arabian Drag Racing League, he has been known to get recognised on the streets of the US.

"Racing here is big business and I am with a top team, so I get a lot of attention," he said by phone from Ohio.

"The pits are open to the public throughout race weekends and we get many fans coming by and talking to us. We have had Al Jazeera come and shoot some stuff, too. The fans like the fact I have moved far away from my home to race in their country."

The Emirati goes into the second half of the season today in sixth place in the standings, looking to build on what was such a solid rookie season that he was nominated for ESPN's Next Great Motorsports Star.

"I'm trying to do my best and I am learning a lot," Al Balooshi said.

"Experience is so important in this sport and I am getting that now. We are looking to push on now and finish the season strongly."

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE and @gmeenaghan