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Rymarz sets record, wins class at Hot Rod Drag Week

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(Submitted photo)

(Submitted photo)

By Steve Van Kooten

 

“I didn’t know I was going to set the record until I was in the car, getting ready to make the first run,” Mike Rymarz said.

Rymarz sat behind the wheel of an orange and black missile emblazed with a cobra on the side. It was his fifth raceway in six days, part of the grueling schedule that made up Hot Rod Drag Week, an annual circuit that covered more than 1,000 miles between the Carolinas and Tennessee.

“When I was in the car, making the pass, I heard him [the announcer] say, ‘If he goes too slow, he’s not going to get it either, so he’s probably not going to even try.’” 

Each racer got two attempts–maybe three–at each course to set a time. Rymarz and his car were in the Street Machine Eliminator class, which required all vehicles to make the best time in a quarter of mile track without going faster than ten seconds. In his first attempt that day, Rymarz had “broke out” and delivered a 9.91 second run, 0.09 too fast for a qualifying time.

Rymarz needed a time between ten-flat and 10.1 to win the event, but, blared over the radio in Rymarz’s cab, the announcer said he probably needed a “ten-double-zero” to get the record. He couldn’t go too fast, he couldn’t go too slow. Less than a tenth of second decided everything.

 

The Man

Mike Rymarz has participated in six “Drag and Drive” events, four of which were Hot Rod Drag Weeks. He debuted in 2017, then returned for 2021, 2022 and 2023.

Rymarz has worked in Prairie du Chien, WI, where he serves as Fillback Automotive’s Service Manager at the Prairie location. Computers and charts surrounded his desk situated in the service area, and his desktop was lined with schedules, keys and notes. He’s been at the location for nine years, predating Fillback’s ownership and Blackhawk’s before them.

During the school year, students from Southwest Technical College have driven to Fillback’s lot where Rymarz has taught “Pathways to Pistons” one night a week through the school year.“ We teach shop safety, basic mechanical skills,” Rymarz said. 

“I’ve been drawn to drag racing for the last ten years,” Rymarz said. Drag racing has been one of Rymarz’s passions; he read stories in magazines and online and wanted the competition and the camaraderie. “It’s like a rolling party: you get to meet new people. You get help from your friends, your competitors and you get to help your competitors.”

 

The Machine

In 2020, Mike and his brother took a junked 2011 Shelby GT500 into the garage and got to work. The vehicle was obliterated.

“It was all smashed up in the front,” Rymarz said. “We took it down to the bare shell, then cut the damage off the front.” Rymarz housed the vehicle in his garage to excise the engine and transmission then a lighter, tubular front was affixed. Next, the guts were packed back inside and the roll cage was installed. The car, originally black with several blue parts used to repair it, was then sent for a new, orange paint job. A black line cobra was placed across the side with SHELBY above it.

Hot Rod Drag Week isn’t just five races. Rymarz, like hundreds of other competitors, had to drive his vehicle on prescribed routes between each track without the use of a support vehicle.

“It’s an endurance thing,” Rymarz said. “It’s part of the competition.” Drag Week has dubbed it “The Torture Test” because, on average, 20 percent of competitors succumb to attrition each year. Needless to say, Rymarz’s vehicle made it; however, that camaraderie with other competitors has come into play the past.

In 2017, Rymarz spotted another contestant on the side of the road with a bad tire. Rymarz lent him his spare, and, because another tire could not be located in time, the spare stayed on for several races. The consequences were significant. “He won his class by borrowing a tire from us.” It was one of the moments that have stayed with Rymarz.

 

The Event

In its nineteenth year, the Hot Rod Drag Week event has attracted national attention and participants from across the country. In releases, the event has been called a “race to determine the fastest street car in America.”

In 2023, the event entailed five races over six days, between Sept. 17-22. Tracks included Darlington Drag Way, Hartsville, SC; Rockingham Drag Way, Rockingham, NC; Bristol Drag way, Bristol, TN; Carolina Drag Way, SC; then back to Darlington for the finale. Rymarz had exchanged the lead throughout the circuit with times at 10.057, 10.003, 10.067, and 10.024 before the final showdown at Darlington Drag Way.

There were 228 total competitors in 17 classes and 132 cars in Rymarz’s class. Of those 132, the winners were decided by less than tenths of a second. “It’s a good class to be in to be competitive,” Rymarz said. The Street Machine Eliminator class was the largest at Hot Rod Drag Week.

 

The Record

The old record in the Street Eliminator Class was 10.0336, and Rymarz was on the cusp of breaking it. Before the final race, attrition had set in for the second place racer and they dropped out. There was a bit of breathing room.

“I thought, ‘I can be a little less conservative to get the record,’” Rymarz said. The decision to lift the foot off the gas pedal meant mere feet, fractions of fractions of a second,  delineated success and failure. It wasn’t even enough time for a layperson to have a passing thought. 

After Rymarz’s first attempt that day was too fast, the heat was on to deliver.

“It made the second run even more stressful because, if I slipped and went too slow, I could lose first place,” Rymarz said.

On video, the difference was imperceptible. Rymarz took off, wheels squealing, rubber burning, a cloud ballooning behind him as he went for a miniscule window of time. At the end of the raceway, a board lit up with a number: 10.006.

Rymarz won the race by 0.019 seconds. His combined time: 10.0303, just over three one hundredths of a second better than the previous Drag Week record.

“I did it almost perfect.”

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