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Drag Princess

Photos by Cole CoonceWith all the hoopla surrounding 23-year-old Indy Car phenom Danica Patrick and her fourth-place finish at this year’s Indy 500 and Sports Illustrated cover (d'oh!), you’d think a girl had never put on a fire suit before. Meet Mendy Fry, a fresh young face from San Diego who says she is “29-ish” and acknowledges that she has been driving at speeds over 200 mph since she was a teenager. Yes, like Patrick, Mendy is a veteran racer, but also a rookie — this is her first full year as a “hot shoe” driving an AA/Fuel Dragster, arguably the gnarliest contraption that relies on internal combustion for propulsion. And unlike Patrick’s methanol-powered Indy Car, Fry’s dragster runs on nitromethane, a chemical the feds consider to be a Class A Explosive. “I’m going to be mixing fuel now.” Thus beckons Fry with a mocking and self-effacing nod to Norma Desmond and the histrionics of show business, as if she, Mendy, were ready for her close-up. But this ain’t Sunset Boulevard — it’s Bakersfield and Fry is more like a star on the rise.We are in the “hot pits” of a racetrack located about one and a half beers north of the honky-tonk where Buck Owens sings to drunken cowpokes every Friday night. Here, Fry is competing in an annual drag race run at an abandoned Air Force base, and she’s busy helping prep her race car for competition. “We can talk while I cut 20 gallons of 100 percent nitro,” she says.Adjourning to her dragster’s trailer, a romper room of tires, tools and exotic metallic engine parts, she mixes expensive combustible chemicals in a makeshift laboratory. On orders from her crew chief, her assignment is to come up with a cocktail consisting of 94 percent nitromethane, cut with 6 percent alcohol. The alcohol will calm down the explosive effects of the liquid nitro, like vermouth to gin.I ask Fry about the metaphysics of working with what, in essence, is a rocket fuel.“The job of mixing fuel gives me a better understanding of what makes the car haul ass,” she says. “And it does make me feel more connected with my team. It’s a very simple, yet precise, job that helps me focus.” Ah yes, nitromethane. CH3N02. The stuff that drag racers have torched for over 50 years, as an elixir guaranteed to transform a hot-rodded engine into a beastly leviathan. When it burns for six seconds, it will send Fry down the drag strip at 250 mph, with a Sturm und Drang that makes the observer wonder if the sky is tearing itself apart and the Hand of Doom is reaching into hyperspace to pull out the Big Bang’s moment of singularity, only to dump the whole heapin’, smolderin’ enchilada in Fry’s lap. (Ten years ago, convicted terrorist Timothy McVeigh laced his fertilizer bomb with nitromethane and then carved a hole into Oklahoma City and the nation.)Fry’s means are far more benign and altruistic, of course. Still, it was kind of disconcerting to hear her ruminate about the most explosive of fuels.“I just learned how to mix nitro yesterday,” Fry grunts, struggling with the heft of a 5-gallon plastic jug loaded with the Armageddon juice. “I really don’t want to spill any on the car right now . . .”It's her first day? That’s slightly incongruous because her press kit says she has been around the sport of drag racing since she was born. In fact, under her dad’s tutelage, she drove her first race at age four. 4. F-O-U-R.“I was my father’s only boy,” Fry explains, wiping her brow. “He was an engine and chassis builder and wanted a son. He got me instead, so he cut his losses and introduced me to racing. I started racing quarter-midgets before I was in kindergarten. My family did not take vacations, we went to the races.” Fry continues multitasking, her gaze focused on a “hydrometer,” a glass beaker that holds a sample of the volatile mixture she will pour into the tank of the Mastercam/Plaza Hotel AA/Fuel Dragster, owned by a 60-something SoCal drag-racing legend who answers to the drag de plume “Root Beer.” She is quiet for a second, staring at the mixture and the glass tube floating in the concoction. “I don’t know the technical terms, but the gauge is off 3 percent on Root Beer’s hydrometer, so I have to do the math in my head and make up the difference.”“Well,” I say, “they split the atom and landed on the moon using punch cards, so a little adding and subtracting shouldn’t make your race car blow up, should it?” The question is rhetorical.“That’s funny — but the measurements have to be dead on,” Fry says, not laughing. She's been on the receiving end of a catastrophic engine explosion once or twice.“Last year I had a supercharger blow up in my face at almost 240 mph. There was a flash of fire that singed my eyebrows and there was all of this hot, burning oil in my face, and I couldn’t see snot. Imagine roller-skating down a hill in San Francisco and suddenly someone puts a paper bag over your head. The lights go out, and I am reaching for the brake and the parachute and just have to trust that the car is still going straight, that the end of the track isn’t too close, that the other car didn’t come into my lane. And then I had to unpucker my ass from the seat when I tried to get out of the car.”That was one of her first rides down the drag strip in a Top Fuel. But the misfires (if you will) have been offset by the triumphs. Earlier on the same day as the explosive oil fire, Fry made history as the first female driver to turn a five-second clocking in a nitro-burning AA/Fuel Dragster, recording a time of 5.87 seconds. On the same trip down the drag strip, she earned passage into the exclusive AA/Fuel Dragster “250 Mile Per Hour Club” — only its sixth member. All of this after a mere handful of passes in an AA/Fueler. Fry continues her personal story: “I worked in my dad’s chassis shop in the Bay Area as a teenager, answering phones, placing orders, paying the bills, etc., and then building race-car bodies. I moved to San Diego when I was 19 and built dragster bodies and components while going to college.” While she was at San Diego State, Fry’s father died suddenly, and everything changed. She got away from racing and concentrated on her studies, graduated, and then became a wife and a certified public accountant. But drag racing kept re-appearing in her rearview mirror, an apparition of her past that would wormhole itself into her future.“I was the San Diego Chapter president of the American Women’s Society of CPAs for the year 2000,” she notes proudly, while wrestling with the container of nitro, but that same year, she revisited the drag strip.“I was absolutely blown away by the evolution of the sport and the fact that a lot of people remembered me and even missed me.” She was back. But this racing stuff does not come without a human cost.“In high school, my first serious boyfriend told me that I would have to ‘grow out of this’ because he wasn’t going to put up with it. He had to go very soon after that. Racing definitely put a strain on my marriage, too, which ended a year and a half ago. But the positives certainly outweigh the negatives. I have met and forged strong friendships with so many people because of drag racing.”Sloshing around the nitro and alcohol, she tells me about her relationship to nitromethane.“It’s definitely an adversarial relationship. I have been chasing this explosive fuel almost all of my life. And y’know, I may have been brought up around this sport and worked my ass off for and in it, but I’m not one of drag racing’s elite. I’m not one of its guaranteed heirs. I’m a member of its blue-collar work force.” She stops and catches her breath. “And nitro weighs a lot more than alcohol — Jesus, this stuff is really heavy!”I laugh.“Sometimes I have to wonder,” says Fry, “is the girl mixing the nitro or is the nitro mixing the girl?”Fry pours another sample into her beaker and examines it as I get behind her, stepping out of her light.“Are you looking at the crack of my ass?”I assure her that no, I am just watching a hard-working woman sweat out a nasty job. Does she have the right mixture yet?“Oh, I am definitely doing the math — do you smell smoke? It’s dangerous for me to think around nitro because there are sparks coming out of my ears.”The next day, eventual winner Howard Haight would beat Fry when her car’s engine produced more horsepower than the tires could actually process and control. And in her next race, at Sears Point, Fry was crossing the finish line at over 200 mph when her engine exploded. Except for singed eyelashes and eyebrows, she climbed out of the dragster’s cockpit unscathed. Mendy Fry and the Mastercam/Plaza Dragster will compete in the Eighth Pomona Nitro Nationals, August 5–7, at the Pomona Fairplex.