Our fighter pilot goes (Jeepster) Commando: Part 2

Josh Arakes

For Part 1 of fighter pilot Josh Arakes’ drag-racing Jeep adventure, click here.

“I think there’s something wrong with my aircraft.”

“Copy. What are your indications?”

“There’s a rhythmic clanking near my feet.”

“Yeah, that’s your radar.”

All modern fighter jets have radars. Older fighters have a mechanically scanned radar array, meaning the radar dish in the aircraft’s nose moves side to side and up and down as it sweeps. Modern fighters have an electronically steered array, which allows the array itself to remain in a fixed position while the magic of Maxwell’s equations permit the non-moving dish to “sweep” the sky for threats. What my buddy felt that day was the mechanically scanned array hitting the stops as it swept back and forth.

There’s no such thing as a dumb question. Almost. The dumbness level of a particular question can’t be in the eye of a beholder; we’ve all been #newbs before. In this particular fighter, the “rhythmic clanking” of the radar is always there, though my buddy was inexperienced enough in the jet that he hadn’t noticed it on previous sorties and it concerned him. Ergo, it was a sincere, and not dumb, question. Granted, this particular query is memorable due to its phrasing and I still laugh about it years later, but I also recognize it as a good question asked by someone without the knowledge or experience to know better.

Keep all that in mind as you read this question my wife asked me after an afternoon of drag racing:

“So, when you’re racing, do you typically push the gas pedal all the way to the floor?”

About two months ago I went drag racing for the first time. Our local track had an open night of “run what you brung” style racing and I took my 1969 Jeepster Commando. Naturally, I was smoked by a buddy’s 1969 GTO, not that my 1.049 second reaction time helped, but it was fun and my wife enjoyed watching and hanging out in the stands with friends. On the way home I was pleasantly surprised when she mentioned she’d like to run her Miata ND against my Jeepster the next race night. Unfortunately, that was the last event of the season, meaning we’d have to wait until spring. Fortunately, a couple weeks later the track decided to do one more race, so off we went.

We ended up with a three-car caravan: my wife in her Miata, me in the Jeepster, and my parents in my dad’s 2016 VW Touareg V-6 turbodiesel. Prior to leaving the house, I talked my dad through the process at the track, to include the registration, tech inspection, getting in line to race, the burnout area, a discussion on the start’s light tree, the finish line, and how to exit the track and get his time slip. After we arrived at the track, I pointed out a couple key features and we watched a race or two from start to getting slips before he felt comfortable to proceed. As I was doing the pointy-talkie (finish line there, slips there …), I realized my wife needed the same info (she’d missed the discussion at home, too), but she was with my mom. When they returned I told her I’d talk her through all that later as it was time to race my pops.

The plan was for my dad to race his Touareg against me as I drove both the Miata and Jeepster, after which my wife and I would run Miata vs. Jeepster. At that point, we’d see how we were doing on time and settle any remaining grudges. My dad requested to race against the Jeepster first as he wanted a practice run before racing the Miata (he, correctly, wasn’t concerned about beating the Jeepster). I agreed and said I’d give him the right lane so he could more easily see the tree.

As you may recall from my earlier drag racing exploits, the Jeepster can’t be launched and its clutch was none too happy at my previous efforts to do so. Strangely, I never adjusted the slipped clutch after the last race and it seems to have healed itself; gotta love old cars! Thus, once we both had staged, I held the clutch with my left foot and my right hovered over the gas pedal (no revving) until I saw the green light.

I really only had two goals for my second attempt at racing. The first was to not embarrass myself at the start (something like a 0.5 second reaction time seemed reasonable), and the second was to hit 60+ mph and sub-18 seconds in the Jeepster. I figured the reaction time was achievable, though the 6 inches of travel to drop the clutch would certainly add to my time, but I was more skeptical at reaching the 60 mph and sub-18 second goal.

While I may be a fighter pilot, I have relatively little formal training in aerodynamics. Knowing I was driving a brick and trying to shave thousandths of a second wherever I could, I kept both the driver and passenger windows rolled up. Really, it was all about aerodynamics and achieving laminar airflow via a low Reynolds number, and had nothing to do with the fact that the passenger window decided it no longer wanted to roll down (manual crank windows ftw!).

At the third yellow my dad jumped forward, clearly leaving early. On green, I roared out like the late Chuck Yeager – if he was earth-bound and strapped into a brick-shaped anchor in place of the Glamorous Glennis – pushing my Commando towards the elusive 60 mph and sub-18 second barriers, which, much like Mach 1.0, had been deemed unobtainable. Unsurprisingly, my dad positively smoked me, beating me down the track by 2.069 seconds, and he clearly eased off as his top speed was merely 60.20 mph. The Jeepster made it in 18.297 seconds and reached 57.31 mph. My reaction time was marginally better at 0.850 seconds (progress!) and my dad’s was -0.274 seconds, giving me the auto-win and improving the Commando’s drag racing record to a highly respectable 1-1. We had a good laugh about it back in the paddock before I jumped into the Miata and led him back into line.

I took the right lane this time and we pulled up to the starting line and staged. Unlike the Jeepster, as the yellows started illuminating, I revved the engine and dropped the clutch as soon as I saw green. My dad beat me off the line (insert pithy comment about age and experience triumphing over youth)—0.454 seconds to my 0.672 seconds—but I had staged perfectly and quickly accelerated and pulled ahead of him.

This was a different race than my two previous ones. I 100 percent expected to lose the other races so there wasn’t a competitive aspect to them at all; it was mainly just goofing off. I certainly enjoyed them, but it wasn’t racing like this was. As I shifted into second, I glanced in my side mirror and couldn’t see him so I knew he was in my blind spot and close. Into third gear I glanced over my shoulder and saw him slowly falling behind and I knew I had him. I crossed the line in 13.342 seconds and 76.27 mph (recall that this is on a 1000’ track, so 320’ short of ¼ mile). My dad finished in 14.753 seconds at 62.22 mph after easing off again at the end. As I braked into the track’s exit I pumped my fist (I don’t fit in the Miata wearing a helmet so the top was down), and exulted in the win. I finally understood the thrill of racing and it was glorious. It reminded me of the feeling at the end of a successful dogfight, wherein I had max-performed my fighter and vanquished my training foe. Drag racing in a brick is like playing a kazoo in a symphony orchestra, you can do it and it’s kind of fun, but it’s a totally different experience than having some training and a real instrument.

We pulled into the paddock and had a good laugh. He mentioned while we were in line he did some quick math and decided his 6300-pound Touareg with 240 hp wasn’t well matched with my 2350-pound Miata’s 155 hp. I had the clear advantage in the lb/hp ratio (15.2 vs 26.25) and he presumed he was going to lose. Not that lb/hp tells the whole story as the Commando’s is 20.1 and I still got crushed, but it’s certainly a reasonable thought.

My wife and mom arrived from the stands and we had my parents wait in the VW during our race so my mom could warm up. I grabbed my kazoo (Jeepster) and my no kidding classically-trained cellist wife settled in with the Stradivarius (Miata). A moment later in line, I realized I hadn’t ever talked to her about what to expect as I had intended and she was blindly following me, not really knowing much more than green means go. Fortunately, the line was moving slowly and I could text her a couple quick pointers, though it wasn’t nearly as complete as the chat I’d had with my dad.

I gave her the right lane and “staged” the Jeepster. As I did so, the announcer started talking about our vehicles.

Announcer: “Here’s Josh Arakes in his 1969 Jeepster Commando …”

My wife pulled too far forward and both white lights went out. I hadn’t covered this in my texts. Uncertain of what to do, she stopped. The starter yelled at her, leading to a strange juxtaposition between the announcer, which the crowd could hear, and the starter, which only my wife and I could hear.

Starter: “You need to get on the line!”

My wife crept farther forward, even while thinking that wasn’t right.

Announcer: “This is one of my favorite vehicles here!”

(Personally, the 1993 Toyota pickup that sported a no-kidding parachute pack out the bed and ran a 10.98 was my favorite.)

Starter: “No!”

Announcer: “I’m not sure why he has that Commando here.”

Wife: “What?”

Announcer: “He should have that thing up in the hills doing some off-roading.”

Starter: “BACK UP!!”

Announcer: “I think that’s his wife he’s racing in the 2016 Miata.”

“Okay, okay.” My wife started backing up.

Announcer: “I don’t know if that Miata is modified or not, but it could be really fast.”

Finally staged, the yellows started, then the greens, and off we went. We got similar starts, both just under 0.800, and she quickly left me behind. She crossed at 15.565 and 51.32 mph (clearly easing off and braking early), while I failed again to go sub-18 or over-60 with my 18.061 and 57.16 mph. Back in the paddock, she wasn’t very happy and seemed reticent to go again. It was totally my fault as I’d failed to teach her what she needed to know. We talked through what happened, I filled in her knowledge gaps, and encouraged her to go again. She agreed, and we got back in line.

The second race was much better. She didn’t have any issues at the start, though I got out in .407 and she needed .897. Quickly passing me, she crossed at 13.875 and 75.78 mph, while I needed 17.903 and reached 58.04 mph. I finally went sub-18, but I don’t think it’s possible to get over 60 mph in 1000’ driving my lovable yellow brick. In the paddock, my wife was all smiles and had loved it. Relieved, and knowing they were closing the track in a few minutes, I grabbed the Miata and hopped back in line for one more run.

This was the first time I’d race a stranger in a random car. As luck would have it, I was in the last race of the day and I paired up with a Sonic LT. I’d seen the Sonic around the track, to include twice when it was in the race immediately ahead of me. I knew it was fast, pink wheels notwithstanding, especially considering what it was. I’d seen it run in the 13s, which was what I had previously run in the Miata, so it was going to be close.

While waiting for our turn, I had an epiphany. For hours I’d been hearing and seeing cars in the burnout area revving their engines and, for the most part, smoking their tires to warm them up. There were many times I heard lots of noise, with the engines making high-pitched sounds (like a whining child) mixed with lots of popping, but I didn’t see any smoke. Other times, there was a deep-throated roar with lots of actual tire squealing and smoke (once, the smoke was so thick I legit thought there was a fire). My epiphany was realizing that the whiny child engine sounds, the ones without any smoke, all came from modified Honda Civics. There were so many Civics covered with stickers, hoods off to make room for turbos and superchargers, and racing slicks for front tires (that looked really strange), but none of them actually smoked their tires in the burnout area or went as fast down the track as their looks and whiny engine noise would lead one to think they could go. In that sense they remind me of a duck-billed platypus: lots of extra parts bolted on in seemingly random fashion, but it’s unclear whether said hodgepodge assortment of animal (or car) parts actually provide any overall tangible benefit aside from inspiring bewilderment in the observer.

I got greedy at the line. My first race in the Miata I’d revved the engine just right and got out quickly without spinning the tires. Feeling confident from my first run and knowing this would be a close race (and not wanting to lose to a pink-wheeled Sonic LT), I revved the engine more than I had previously. I beat him/her off the line, .571 vs .726, but almost immediately got into tire spinning and shaking. With the entire back end of the car angrily protesting, I had to pedal it, rapidly getting off the gas before getting back into it. By that time, the Sonic was gone and the race was over. It crossed the line in 13.313 and 84.71 mph, while I was at 14.434 and 72.67 mph.

Frustrated, I got out of the car in the paddock and uttered words that indicated my transformation into a (mediocre, at best) drag racer was complete, “I’d have totally beaten him if I hadn’t spun the tires!” I’m pretty sure logic dictates otherwise as the Sonic was 8 mph and .5 seconds faster than I’d been on my perfect-feeling first run, but I was sure that I’d have won if only…

Back at the house, we were talking through our runs when my wife asked the aforementioned question, “So, when you’re racing, do you typically push the gas pedal all the way to the floor?” Her question dumbfounded me as, obviously(?), the idea of a race is to go as fast as you can, and a car generally goes faster when the gas pedal is pegged to the floor, right?. As we chatted about it some more, with me good-naturedly giving her a hard time, she explained that I’d just been talking about getting out too fast on my last race and the resulting tire shake. She said she thought there was a sweet spot wherein you could still go plenty fast without necessarily flooring it, and this held true through the entire race (not just at the start).

I was skeptical. And then I looked at our time slips. My first race in the Miata, clearly the better of my two runs, took 13.842 seconds and I reached 76.26 mph, and, aside from shifting, I was flooring it the entire race. Her second run in the Miata took 13.875 seconds and reached 75.78, and she insists she didn’t floor it and only went as fast as she was comfortable going. I would have beaten her head-to-head, but only barely.

The lesson, as always: There’s no such thing as a dumb question, especially one posed by my wife!

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