Tales from the Tower: The Timekeeper of Drag Racing

In the middle of the plains sits an old tower, ominous and waiting as the sun rises. The tower controls what happens around it and seems to know everything about those who come near. You never see who goes into the tower and no one can follow – the door bears a warning that crossing the threshold is expressly forbidden to outsiders. You feel like the building itself is watching you, always in view wherever you wander. Windows line the face of the top floor, but all you can see from the ground is a figure flitting back and forth then disappearing. A booming voice echoes from the tower, but the figure never speaks. When sunset comes, the figure is gone and the tower falls silent again.

No, that isn’t the intro to a D&D session. That’s me in the timing tower at my local track! I’m the ever-watching, anonymous figure who’s trying to contain the chaos during drag race weekends and keep cars launching at Interstate Raceway in Minnesota.

Marissa's Scion xB parked next to the timing tower at Interstate Raceway

There are three workstations in my tower office and I move across them frequently for different tasks, so I’m on my feet for most of the day. Folks on the ground can’t see much due to the height and angle, so I’m not easy to spot despite all the windows, and only staff members are allowed in the tower. Sometimes I have an announcer with me to call competitors to the lanes, but you won’t ever hear me on the mic and I can only be contacted via the staff radios. Most drivers have no clue who’s up here running the system beyond “a timekeeper”.

What Goes on in the Timing Tower at the Drag Strip?

As cars pull forward to the burnout box I’m verifying and keying in driver numbers and dial-in values written on the vehicles, setting the timing tree, and monitoring for safety issues (leaks, open windows, etc). I try to keep things queued so we can stage a fully entered pair every 25-30 seconds while simultaneously entering tech cards, switching between class groups, prepping winner payouts, and watching the length of the track for crashes and debris. Cars can’t stage up and launch until I set the tree and I hate slowing the other crews down, so anything that costs me time is frustrating. My biggest peeve is illegible numbers on vehicles, but if you want that full monologue you’ll have to join the Out Motorsports Discord 😉

Over the course of a day we clock several hundred runs, so my own race is on to get all the runs finished before the track’s curfew at sunset. My only break is a 10-15 minute interlude after morning time trials finish to grab lunch from concessions before competition starts. During crashes and oil-downs when the track surface is being cleaned, I’m doing data entry and still moving quickly. It’s a lot for one person to do, but I enjoy the pacing and challenge.

drag racing a "Long Rail" against a very built Pontiac GTO

How Did I Get a Job at the Track?

If this was cinematic, I would answer that I raced my way to the top or won a tournament or something super exciting. But no, I responded to a job listing for a “computer operator” on the track’s website. I’m a software engineer by trade, so learning the system was easy. I’ve been with the track through multiple owners.

At one point I did race the previous tower operator in my Scion xB because he also drove a Scion xB – racing toasters made for a silly show – but I was told it had no bearing on my employment status. I still blew his doors off for good measure! That timeslip is bookmarked among the mountains of race data in the archive.

"toaster racing" the Scion xB

Gathering Data in the Tower

Each driver has a unique number and the sensors along the track log everything as the vehicles pass through. I catch the reaction time at the start, the speed and elapsed time at various intervals along the track, and the system even shows me the margin of victory in both seconds and inches. Some of our bracket races come within a fraction of an inch at the finish line! Many of our drivers are regulars that participate in a lot of events, so I’ve memorized a majority of their vehicle numbers and stats including personal bests, average reaction times, and win rates. Point at something (or someone) in the pit row and I have the details.

I don’t just gather data on cars. From my vantage point I can see the entire facility. You just tripped and fell on your camping chair? I’ll page the EMT if you stay on the ground too long. The last burnout blew your hat off? I’ll have the starting line crew grab it for you. The happy dance you did while driving back on the return road? Own it, I saw your race and you’re gonna love that time slip. I have tons of fun anecdotes about what I’ve caught as the eye in the sky.

two Dodge Challenger Demons on the starting line for a drag race at Interstate Raceway

Drag Racing is Slowing Down

There are some things I wish I’d see less often, like bigoted slogans on vehicles and jaded old racers having toddler tantrums over losses. I roll my eyes as they pull up, and I cheer loudly when they lose. The drag race audience is dwindling as racers age out of motorsports and costs to host the events climb higher. I’m here every year as long as the races are running, and I’m doing my best to keep the line moving smoothly even if I’m seen as the anonymous timekeeper in the tower.

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