Topeka — Legends of the quarter-mile gathered Thursday on the north steps of the Statehouse to honor the heritage of Kansas motor sports and celebrate a promising future for drag racing.
The event jump-started what organizers hope will be a record-breaking weekend as Heartland Park Topeka hosts the Advanced Auto Parts National Hot Rod Assn. Nationals.
"While the NHRA was founded and developed in its birthplace city of Los Angeles, there's certainly an important grass-roots heritage for the organization here in the Midwest," said NHRA president Tom Compton.
Compton said NHRA, formed in 1951, considers Kansas its second home. The first sanctioned national championship was held on a runway in Great Bend in 1955. Paul Flynn, owner of one of the winning cars, brought his trophy to the Statehouse ceremony.
Gov. Bill Graves said those bonds will be enriched by national attention from May through September, with the opening of Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan.
"It's always a great weekend when the NHRA comes to Heartland Park," Graves said.
John Force is a 10-time NHRA funny car champion and the current points leader. He said cool temperatures and track improvements will make for a good show for fans and fast racing.
"We're certainly going to be shooting for the national records in speed and elapsed times," Force said.
In 1993 at Heartland Park, Jim Epler was the first driver to break the 300-mph barrier in a funny car. Tim Sipes, the track's general manager, said improvements, such as a new surface, bode well for speed.
About 200 fans turned out for the noon event, eager to see the cars and drivers up close. Among them was Dennis Roberts a self-described racing fanatic.
"I eat, breathe and sleep drag racing," said Roberts, who has more than 700 die-cast models of race cars.
The Missouri City, Mo., resident, who also races cars, said the Topeka track and Kansas Speedway are just what fans need.
"This is the biggest thing we have here in the Midwest," Roberts said.
For the first time, the Topeka event is being held in May, moved from its traditional September date. That's because NASCAR officials chose September for their inaugural race at the Kansas Speedway.
Heartland Park owner Jay Lendrum said while the conflict originally posed some problems, it turned out to be good for the event.
Topeka's drag races will join two other national events, the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, N.C., to get major television time and attract more than 800,000 spectators combined.
"We'll be the third leg of the racing stool," Lendrum said.