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Speed on the prairie: Rural Moorhead drag strip embraces purest form of racing

The drag strip south of the Moorhead airport has been there since 1959. It's now called The Top End Dragway. W. Scott Olsen / Special to The Forum1 / 18
At a recent race, a snowmobile with wheels where the skis go raced a Corvette. The snowmobile won. W. Scott Olsen / Special to The Forum2 / 18
David Tibert and his motorcycle leap away from the starting line. W. Scott Olsen / Special to The Forum3 / 18
A driver gets the tires ready for the next run. W. Scott Olsen / Special to The Forum4 / 18
Forget ready, set. Just go. Go fast. Go as fast as you can. W. Scott Olsen / Special to The Forum5 / 18
Danny Gruhot prepares to race his Mustang. W. Scott Olsen / Special to The Forum6 / 18
Scoreboard shows time and speed. W. Scott Olsen / Special to The Forum7 / 18
Dr. Ben Noonan, an orthopedic surgeon for Sanford, races a 1962 Chevy Nova. W. Scott Olsen / Special to The Forum8 / 18
Street tires are not race tires, so drivers have to swap them out before the race starts. W. Scott Olsen / Special to The Forum9 / 18
Todd Oberholtzer tweaks his car between races. W. Scott Olsen / Special to The Forum10 / 18
Junior racing features drivers between 5 and 17 years old. W. Scott Olsen / Special to The Forum11 / 18
Ready to go. W. Scott Olsen / Special to The Forum12 / 18
Adults and children enjoy the spectacle of racing from the bleachers at the starting line. W. Scott Olsen / Special to The Forum13 / 18
Time and speed are displayed on nearby scoreboards. W. Scott Olsen / Special to The Forum14 / 18
The top 10 fastest street legal cars in town. W. Scott Olsen / Special to The Forum 15 / 18
Ryan Keller and Matt Sandbeck, owners of Sandbeck Race Deveopment and Top End Dragways. W. Scott Olsen / Special to The Forum16 / 18
Ethan Seigel, track manager for Top End Dragways. W. Scott Olsen / Special to The Forum17 / 18
Marissa Berresford times every run. W. Scott Olsen / Special to The Forum18 / 18

RURAL MOORHEAD—There is something inevitable about racing. Give two people a finish line and both of them will want to get there first. Age doesn't matter. Kids and geezers. First one to the tree, the store, the mailbox, the office.

Forget ready, set. Just go. Go fast. Go as fast as you can.

There is a drag strip south of the Moorhead airport, in what is actually rural Glyndon. It's been there since 1959. And even though I've lived in this town since 1987, even though I am often guilty of driving faster than I should, my college days filled with speeding tickets, I never knew it was there.

The other day, looking at the Moorhead airport with Google Earth, I saw what looked like a strangely displaced runway. So I zoomed in. Then I smiled. Top End Dragways, my computer told me.

"Zoom" was exactly the right word.

We desire few things more urgently than speed. Fast food. Fast data. Fast time in the marathon.

Fast horses in the Triple Crown. Usain Bolt. Michael Phelps. Semehar Tesfaye. Few things give us such clear joy as winning a race.

Give a human being an engine — it does not matter what sort — and speed becomes an essential question. Think pinewood derby, 100-yard dash, Indianapolis 500.

* * *

There is something elegant about a drag strip, too. It's a pure form of racing. No strategy or tactics. No drafting behind a lead car until the last lap, saving your gasoline while exhausting theirs. No hugging the rail or sling-shotting. The drag strip is just a straight line, two lanes, one quarter of a mile. Wait for the green light. Whoever gets there first, wins. You race to beat the guy next to you. You race against the clock to beat everyone else.

Top End has new owners this year. Matt Sandbeck and Ryan Keller own Sandbeck Race Development in West Fargo. There were more than 30 cars in the lot the day I visited, high-end exotics and backyard projects alike, all of them in the process of changing from fast to very fast.

The company has outgrown its shop size twice in the last six years. In the racing community, this is a prestige auto-shop and only 30 percent of the customers are local. The Moorhead site is perfect for their growing business and the track was part of the deal.

Opening day is street legal day. If you have a car and you want to see what it's got, fill out the form and pay the fee. Get in line. Go as fast as you can.

Bracket days come next. Every car looks like a race car, all stickered up and gleaming in the sunshine.

"Anyone else have a large knot in their stomach?" Matt asks in the race tower. The day's racing has just begun, the first under his ownership, and only a few cars have run the track. It rained last night, though the day dawned sunny, windy and clear.

I ask if he has any reports from drivers.

"So far," he says, "everyone says it's awesome."

A snowmobile with wheels where the skis go races a Corvette. The snowmobile wins. The tractor of an 18-wheeler burns rubber. Mustangs race Camaros and the Mustangs win. New cars race old cars and more often than not the old cars are rockets.

There are cars from Bemidji, Grand Forks, Jamestown. There are cars from Canada and Montana, too. The track grounds include a campsite and hookups for RVs.

I ask Matt what top speed on the track has been.

"Insane," he says.

Matt's own car, street legal, has reached 170 mph. The bracket racers — cars not allowed on the streets — have passed 200.

"When you let off the trans-brake," he says, "you're pulling close to three g's."

The bleachers are at the starting line — not the finish. The start is where anything is possible.

The noise of engines. The smoke from tires. The lights and then the leap of metal. Men and women and children watch the spinning tires, the staging lights, the explosion of speed on the prairie. Every time it's faster than you think is possible.

The concession stand and picnic tables are about halfway down.

* * *

There are plans to expand, Matt tells me. Not just the shop, but the track as well. He's going to pave a drift and autocross track just north of the drag strip.

Trailers open to reveal motorcycles and hot rods. Street tires are changed for racing tires. Car hoods are open, an invitation to stop, admire, trade stories and secrets. Men and women crawl into and under their cars and bikes, tinkering and adjusting and repairing and searching for that one last dial-up that will shorten their time.

Crash helmets appear. On street legal days, a few brave drivers enter the field with cars just as they came off the dealer's lot. Others tune their rides for the quarter mile. On bracket days, tuning and dial-ups are a form of art.

The cars form two lanes at the east end of the track — the opponent next to you just the luck of the moment — and are marshalled to a staging area where the drivers can spin their tires, get them hot and sticky, the classic look of the American dragster.

When the track is clear, the drivers pull up to the starting line. The starting lights are on a tree between the lanes. A series of yellow and then the green.

Go. Go fast. Go as fast as you can. Then come back and do it again.

In the race tower, a member of the racing staff keeps track of every ride and every time.

Ryan tells me the oldest racer in town is 85 years old. Most of the younger drivers race street legal, he says. The older drivers tend toward the bracket cars. There are a good many women racing motorcycles as well as cars.

"The racing community is very close," he tells me, "very connected."

In so many ways, I think, this is classic Americana. A warm summer afternoon. Two hot cars at a stop light. One of them is going to press for a lead. It's loud and it's fun. It's a little bit dangerous, too. Yet more than anything else, it's exciting. It's a race. One straight line. First one to the finish.

I doubt my Jeep would make much of an impression, but I admit I'd love to try.

Sometimes my wife and I arrive at gatherings from different starting points, which means we each have our own car. Leaving the event, I smile and say, "Race you home?"

"It's not about racing," she says.

She always beats me home. 

W. Scott Olsen is a professor at Concordia College. He is the author of several travel/adventure books. His recent work combines nonfiction and photography to illuminate common but usually unseen places.

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