x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Khalid Al Balooshi wasting no time in making drag racing impact

From start line to finish in under four seconds, the Emirati is making an impression in the world of drag racing.

Khalid Al Balooshi is only the third driver from outside North America to win a Full Throttle Series race. Courtesy Gary Nastase
Khalid Al Balooshi is only the third driver from outside North America to win a Full Throttle Series race. Courtesy Gary Nastase

Everyone remembers the 100m race at the London Olympics. It was billed as the race between the world's fastest man, Usain Bolt, and his younger training partner Yohan Blake. Bolt triumphed, in 9.63 seconds. Blake crossed the line 0.12 seconds later.

If you think that is quick, imagine if a race when it is all over and done with in less than four seconds.

Last week, Emirati driver Khalid Al Balooshi of Qatar Al-Anabi team won his first race in the Top Fuel class in NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing - the top level of drag racing in the world. His winning time was 3.735 seconds, less time than it takes to read this sentence.

Athletes often describe their winning moments as a blur. In Al Balooshi's case, that is not far from the truth. And all the time he has to keep an eye out for the car in the next lane, while driving at speeds of over 320 mph.

"When I first started racing it was difficult to get a sense of how well you had just done, but with time you acclimatise, and now I instinctively know when I've won a race," said the 32 year old, who exceeded 526kph in his winning drive. "It helps to look at the scoreboard, too."

The enormity of what he has achieved is just starting to sink in now. Winning that race in the US, as a rookie and in only his 22nd try in the top division, is the stuff of dreams.

In defeating points leader Antron Brown, he became only the third driver from outside North America to win a Full Throttle Series race.

"My ambition was to win one round out of the 23 and to achieve it is incredible," he said. "I was looking at other drivers and thinking I've got the same car and I've got the ability, so there's no reason why I can't win. I also needed that little bit of luck, and thankfully the opportunity finally came."

To put his achievement in context, this class of drag racing is second only to Nascar in popularity, and Americans, understandably, have dominated the discipline. Al Balooshi had won three Pro Mod Championships and 158 race wins in various classes, but this he says is like being "on top of the world".

Not surprisingly, Al Balooshi and his team have had to overcome the doubters.

Al Balooshi says the Qatar Al-Anabi Racing Top Fuel Team, the two-time defending NHRA Full Throttle Top Fuel World Championship team owned Sheikh Khalid bin Hamad of Qatar, have had their success put down to money in some quarters.

It is an accusation he has little time for.

"Of course, money talks. But it talks for all the other teams, too," he said. "Drag racing is huge business in the US and all the other teams are sponsored by major corporations, and get at least US$4 million [Dh14.68m] in funding each season."

Although his team has Qatari owners, Al Balooshi is proud to be raising the profile of Dubai, and the UAE, among North American race fans.

"Of course they have heard of Dubai, but for someone like me to win here was unexpected," Al Balooshi said. "It is very difficult for foreigners to break through. What we are doing is sending out a message of what we are capable of."

Indeed, he is probably more renowned in the US now than he is in his own country. Abu Dhabi's Yas Marina Circuit has in the past put on drag racing exhibitions or one-off events, but no major competitions take place there yet.

"We have nothing on this scale here in the UAE and one of the main reasons for that is the safety issue," he said.

"At this level of racing, safety is more important than winning for the teams, and that is something that needs to be put in place here before drag racing takes off here."

With two races - in Las Vegas, Nevada later this month, and in Pomona, California in November - remaining in this season's series, the best position Al Balooshi can hope for is 11th, were he currently stands.

Fellow Al-Anabi driver Shawn Langdon, whom Al Balooshi defeated in an earlier round last week, can still win the title. But the Emirati driver is already looking forward to the next campaign.

"I feel that this year we have taken a big step," he said. "At first things didn't go our way but we kept improving. Next year we hope to get ahead from the very beginning."

By then, he may even have a loyal fanbase in the UAE. It should not take too much time out of their day.

akhaled@thenational.ae

twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE