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Pull over, Mario! Drag racing hits the 'burbs

Deep in the cornfields, on a starlit countryside night, a lanky auto mechanic named Bill Mueller has come to satisfy his weekly need for speed.

It's "Street Night" at the Route 66 Raceway, and two quarter-mile drag-racing lanes are open to normal street vehicles - everything from sedans to station wagons. Anyone and everyone, from mechanics to ad execs, can pay $30 to race their cars or trucks or motorcycles, just like the professionals on TV with their slicks and carburetor stacks the size of condominiums.

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In decades past, these speedsters plied two-lane country roads or long stretches of late-night city streets.

But drag racing has now gone legal for average drivers with visions of Mario Andretti in their heads and curiosity about the cubic inches under the hood. And in this era of economic plenty - as automakers have replaced fuel efficiency with engine gusto - it's taking off in the nation's heartland.

"America is enjoying a return to celebrating the automobile," says Ken Kohrs, the affable Route 66 Raceway administrator.

From 4 p.m. until 10 p.m. every weather-permitting Wednesday for the past year, Route 66 has opened its track to amateurs and their Corvettes, Firebirds, Chevelles, Hondas, or Kawasakis. There's even one guy who outfitted his snowmobile with wheels - and hits 120 m.p.h. The typical driver gets times of 14 seconds with speeds of 90 to 100 m.p.h. (Professional rocket cars do it in fewer than 5 seconds.)

Racing to the scene

People bring their vehicles across the backcountry roads to this place about 50 miles south of Chicago. It's the newest of three such raceways within 100 miles of the Windy City.

Its horseshoe-shaped stadium wraps around the starting line and has seating for 60,000. But tonight most of the racing fans are down on the track in their cars, and just a few friends and family members populate the stands.

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Clad in a leather bodysuit, Mr. Mueller sits astride his racing fuel-fed motorcycle. As he revs the throttle, his bike lets out a chest-thumping roar. In an instant, he's hurtling into the night, wobbling at first, but then hitting 130 m.p.h. His time: 11.38 seconds. Moments later, the next pair of racers sees the starter lights flash and starts gunning for infinity.

Mueller, who's come around for another run on his bike while his wife and son wait in the seats, says simply, "They're here, but I'm the one having the fun."

Bob Seeger blasts from the sound system. The sweet smell of racing fuel mixes with the stench of burning rubber. And smoke from spinning tires settles like a pot lid over the stadium.

Out in back, two lines of open-hooded cars stretch across the parking lot. As drivers wait their turn to race, they stroll around, inspecting one another's muscly - or not so muscly - cars. Indeed, while many folks are here in their souped-up Corvettes or fired-up Camaros, anyone in any car is welcome.

Battle of the suburban four-doors

Advertising exec Scott Emond has come from Chicago's suburbs. His steed of choice: a silver 1999 Acura - complete with baby seat in the back.

What does his wife think about all this racing nonsense? "She said she's coming next week. It'll be the battle of the suburban four-doors," he says chuckling. "White-collar racing at its best."

Or there's his fellow ad exec Dave Pauli, who's piloting his brand new VW Beetle. "I get the award for the slowest car out here," he says, grinning as he dons his helmet. His top speed so far tonight: 76 m.p.h.

Why are these amateur nights so popular? Well, what's more American than pedal-to-the-metal racing? Also, says Mr. Kohrs, the administrator, "The automobile is the great equalizer among athletes. If I want to succeed in basketball, I need to be tall and quick. But in racing, it doesn't matter how quick I am or how old I am."

He adds that with racing being one of the fastest-growing spectator sports in the country, people want to try it themselves.

And now, in the heartland, they've figured out how to do it legally. But lest anyone be tempted, a police car sits at the raceway's exit, its flashing lights reminding these speed-racers that road rules do apply as soon as they leave the gates.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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