Life is anything but drag for racing family
Makinna Clevenger wants you to believe she’s a normal teenager. She just graduated from Oak Ridge High School, where she was a good student, played rugby and was a popular cheerleader.
But unlike the other cheerleaders, this 18-year-old spends her free time rocketing down a race track at 200 miles per hour.
So much for normalcy. When Makinna was just 10, parents Melanie and Curtis Clevenger enrolled her and her younger brother Josh, then 8, in the National Hot Rod Association’s junior drag racing program. Makinna earned a competition license for the family’s blown alcohol dragster when she turned 16. At 17 she became the youngest “Advanced E.T.” license holder in the nation, and hit the 200 mile per hour mark.
What’s that much speed like? “Things happen real fast,” Makinna said. “It’s like trying to describe sky diving.”
Makinna and Josh have the full support of their family, Team Clevenger, including their grandfather Ron, who makes three generations of drag racers. The soon-to-be Sierra College student has hopes of turning professional, if a sponsor or two comes forward.
What makes a good drag racer? It starts with having a father and grandfather who are expert mechanics with a history in the sport reaching back to the late 1970s. And it helps to have a mom that’s as crazy about the sport as her husband and father-in-law.
Having picked the right parents, Makinna said that next most important factor in becoming a successful drag racer is reaction time.
Dragsters are paired in a single elimination. The familiar “Christmas tree” lights signal the race’s start. When the yellow light illuminates she releases the transbrake, a button on the steering wheel that releases the hounds or, more accurately, the horses, 1,700 of them. Drag racers call it a “launch.”
There’s both a lot and a little going in inside the cockpit. There’s no shifting and very little steering. The transbrake puts the pedal to the metal, but locks the dragster in place. Four-tenths of a second after she releases the button the light turns green and she’s off.
One second later she’s traveling 100 miles per hour. The “G force” is between three and four times that of gravity. Makinna brushes it off as “no worse than a good roller coaster.”
The true test of a drag racer’s driving skill occurs when the wheels break free of the pavement. “It happens all the time,” she said. The resulting tire shake can be violent and even lethal.
Curtis tinkers with hundreds of performance and weight distribution variables before each race, trying to deliver optimal power while keeping the tires on the track. He likens it to toeing up to an invisible line. Occasionally, he said, “We step over the line.”
When that happens, Makinna lets up on the gas quickly, then back on.
According to Melanie, her daughter has earned a reputation on the circuit for having an uncanny knack for quickly recovering from tire shake. “That’s something you can’t teach,” said Melanie. “You have to feel it.”
Joshua, a 16-year-old Oak Ridge student, became his big sister’s crew chief last year. His dad Curtis is the team mechanic but also races his own car, so Josh is responsible for last-minute adjustments to Makinna’s car, including fine tuning the compressor, or “blower,” to adjust the performance so that she’s fast but not too fast.
Makinna is currently limited to a 6.6 second quarter-mile. Any faster and she’s automatically disqualified. In her most recent outing, she ran a “six seventy,” which in drag racing parlance means a 6.7 second quarter-mile.
“Every time she goes out she’s ready for a little more horsepower,” said Melanie.
Curtis and Melanie met at a race track, and are passionate about drag racing.
When junior drag racing was introduced in 1993, the couple dreamed of the day they’d strap their kids into a cockpit and launch them down the track. That day arrived in 2003.
Josh and Makinna remember how frightening their first run was. But like, their parents, each was soon hooked. Team Clevenger was born.
Friends and relatives questioned Curtis and Melanie’s sanity at the time. “It’s even worse now that they’re going faster,” said Melanie. “We hear it all the time.”
Curtis readily trots out statistics that demonstrate the safety of his sport. “They have roll cages, safety harnesses, helmets and fire suits,” he said. “The cars are all certified and carefully inspected at every race.”
In an estimated 1,000 runs down either the eighth-mile junior track or the quarter-mile track, the Clevenger kids have only one crash to report
When he was 9, Josh raced inexperienced dragster who was enjoying a strong run and was ahead of Josh as they approached the finish line, he said.. Her problem was that she was about to surpass the allowed “E.T.”, elapsed time, for her class.
She should have lightly tapped the brake, Josh explained; when done properly that action diminishes speed without sacrificing momentum. Instead, she braked hard and swerved into his lane. The ensuing collision destroyed the front end of Josh’s car and flipped hers upside down. They both slammed into the guard rail, terrifying everyone, especially Team Clevenger; the family rushed to the scene.
In a testament to the safety standards in the junior dragsters, neither young driver was injured.
What’s it like being a cheerleader on Friday night and racing at 200 miles per hour on Saturday? Makinna shrugs and simply said, “It’s all I know.”
Josh concurred. “I’ve been doing this almost half my life. It’s totally normal to me.”
The Clevengers admit that their hobby is expensive, but insist that the startup costs weren’t that bad. Josh’s first car cost $1,200, said Curtis, “and it earned him 11 consecutive victories.”
His current car is worth about $18,000. The replacement value of Makinna’s car is just south of $100,000. Curtis and his dad assembled it for much less than that, he said.
Makinna is still learning her big car, so she hasn’t enjoyed the success that both she and her brother enjoyed in junior drag racing.
Racing took a back seat to life as a high school senior this year. Her Oak Ridge cheerleading squad won nationals. She played rugby, took finals and graduated.
Josh’s junior racing schedule kept him busy on weekends. He also plays football and lacrosse.
The next step for Makinna is “top alcohol” racing, which would allow her elapsed times down to five-and-a-half seconds, said Melanie. That car upgrade is an investment currently beyond Team Clevenger’s reach.
The family racing habit is funded from Curtis’s salary as a superintendent for Johnsen Construction in Diamond Springs.
The family hopes to land a sponsor, and thinks their photogenic 18-year-old daughter just might attract one. “It’s hard to turn your 18-year-old daughter into a marketing item,” said Melanie. “But I know that what she needs is now beyond what we can do as hobbyists.”
Sacramento country music station KNCI recently did a radio spot on Makinna. She’ll appear at their concert in the park later in the summer.
Recently in Redding, Makinna got a taste of the rock star treatment that could be in her future. “They announced that they had a 17-year-old girl going 200 MPH out there and really played it up,” said Melanie. “She was signing autographs and these little girls were idolizing her.”
Josh’s next race is at Sacramento Raceway on June 26. Makinna races in Medford, Ore., on July 4.
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