August 01, 2011

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What a DRAG!

T.J. Deemer

Sometimes you just have to give into the need for speed.

By Loyd McIntosh Photography by Beau Gustafson

It’s the third weekend in March, and a small crowd is beginning to trickle in at Lassiter Mountain Dragway in Fultondale for a night of racing. The sky is cloudy and rain is threatening to cut the evening short before it ever really begins. Warrior resident T.J. Deemer, a 30-year-old local legend in the street and drag racing scene, is tinkering with his 1994 Camaro, trying to get it ready to make its first run on the eighth-mile track of 2011.

“Right now I’m getting my nitrous bottles out and making sure everything is on the car like it should be and making sure we’re not going to have any problems,” Deemer says.

The speed junkie is meticulous when it comes to his race car and what he can learn from the data it provides. Each time he heads to the track, Deemer carries a laptop that he plugs into the car after each run. From it, he extracts all kinds of information about temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, and fuel mixture. He logs that information into a notebook, his personal automotive Bible that can guide him regardless of the situation or condition.

“Every run when I come back, I plug the laptop up and I look at the data log from the pass,” Deemer says. “We pull the plugs and look to see where the timing was, how the fuel looked and how everything looked. So when we do go to a race, we can just look at the log book and see that it’s this track temperature and this humidity we can put this gap in, this much timing in and this nitrous fill and this fuel fill, and it should work perfect. It’s really about keeping a good log on the car.”

With rain starting to fall and the night’s racing in jeopardy, Deemer is frantically trying to get his car ready for at least one run down the track before packing it in. If the track gets too wet, the night’s action will be canceled; it’s just too dangerous to run 100-plus on wet asphalt. Still, Deemer is concentrating on getting his car ready, all the while talking about how it’s been performing recently. ”It made 7.10 the other night running really rich at the dyno,” Deemer says, slipping into the jargon of a long-time drag racer. “The air was horrible the other night.”

“Last year it was trapping 117 and it was running 5.90,” he adds. To the lay person, that means his car will run go from zero to 117 miles per hour in 5.9 seconds on an eighth-mile track, like the one at Lassiter Mountain. “In a quarter mile, we only ran two quarter-mile passes last year, and the best one was a 9.42 at 155 miles per hour,” Deemer says

Almost any time T.J. is at the track you’ll see his girlfriend, Amanda Lackey. A tough-as-nails hottie from western Jefferson County and something of a speed addict herself, she helps Deemer take care of the Camaro, films every pass he makes, and occasionally makes her own runs down the eighth-mile track. Now living in Inverness, the 25-year-old is currently recovering from foot surgery—presumably from pinning the gas pedal to the floor of her Pontiac Trans Am—and hasn’t been as active behind the wheel recently.

It’s just as well, anyway. While she does race the Trans Am in the organized events at local and regional tracks from time to time, her car is the couple’s main “street legal” ride. But that doesn’t mean it won’t make you look silly on a deserted stretch of highway. “That’s what I like. My car is a sleeper,” she says. “It looks less than stock. I mean it just looks like a base Trans AM, but it’s fast.”

With intermittent rain stopping the action and, most likely, keeping many of the area’s drag racers home, it’s definitely a slow night at Lassiter. These mid-week sessions are mainly a chance for the local hot-shots to test their rides and get them ready for the more organized weekend action. Wednesday nights are also a great chance to build a reputation and maybe make a friendly wager or two on some mano-a-mano action.

But mainly it fulfills that desire that burns within the souls of people like Deemer and Lackey: the desire to go really, really fast.

The Beginning

T.J. Deemer moved to Warrior from Gary, Ind., with his family at the age of 13. The son of a mechanic, the younger Deemer remembers always being around racing of some sort. He raced dirt bikes until the age of 15 and raced go karts. Deemer acquired his first car at the age of 14, a car he remembers, let’s just say … fondly

“It was this piece of junk Camaro,” Deemer says of his first set of wheels. “Basically me and my dad went through it and rebuilt the engines, transmission, suspension, everything on it.”

Like many teenagers, Deemer believed he had the fastest car in town and set out to prove it on the favored testing ground for most young car nuts—the street. “I did a lot of street racing in my 18, 19, 20-year-old days,” Deemer says. “This was back when street racing was really big around here.”

“We’d meet in downtown Birmingham, we’d race on the horse track road (John Rogers Drive) and then we’d meet on Lakeshore, 41st Street, Highway 31,” he adds. “This was before Lakeshore was finished. It was actually one of the first places we’d meet.”

Amanda Lackey

Lackey’s story begins in Hueytown, the Mecca of Alabama’s stock-car racing scene. Bobby, Donnie and Davey Allison, as well as Neil Bonnett and Red Farmer, all made Hueytown their home while competing in NASCAR and making the town famous as a center for all things gasoline-powered in the process. Without a family member interested in auto racing at all, Lackey must have picked up her knack for cars just by drinking Hueytown water.
“I’ve always liked cars for some reason,” she says. “I’m just a tomboy I guess. When I got my Camaro—it was V6, RS ‘96 Camaro—I thought it was great back then. It was my first car and it was something I thought was pretty cool, and I always wanted the faster version.

“That’s what got me into it even though it was a piece of crap, honestly. It would break all of the time. Eventually I just learned how to fix it myself because it was the only way to go anywhere,” Lackey adds. “When you’re 16 and you want to go out and don’t have any money to have it fixed, you have to fix it yourself.”

Before long, Lackey was a regular on the street racing scene, first getting rides in other people’s cars, and then trying her hand at it after trading in her Camaro for her Trans Am, the car she drives now. She remembers that time challenging the dudes to races on the public roads as being a lot of fun, even if she did have to sweet talk out a few scrapes with the local smokies from time to time.

“I have been pulled over several times and gotten out of there with a warning with the cop saying ‘you need to get out of here,’” Lackey says. “Usually they would just break it up and we would go on to the next spot.”

Street Racing and Johnny Law

For most serious drag racers, there comes a time when they have to move on from street racing and onto private tracks, like Lassiter Mountain and Alabama International Raceway in Steele, a quarter-mile track in rural St. Clair County. There is no doubt that street racing is extremely dangerous and highly illegal. Still, this is America dadgummit, and what’s more American than having the po-po chase you around a bit when you’re too young to know any better. The stories you can tell alone are worth it. Case in point, this little nugget of Deemer’s from almost a decade ago.

“I was just racing and playing around with a friend who had just done some stuff to his car, and this other Trans AM kept circling us,” Deemer says. “So I stopped and waited for him in the middle of the road and we raced. As we topped the hill on 31 in North Birmingham, Birmingham was sitting there waiting on us.” Deemer recalls this with a glimmer of mischief in his eyes.

“They followed me as I came out on 41st Street, and then I saw the interstate and figured he’s not going to keep up with me,” Deemer says. “We hit the Interstate and left him. I get off in Gardendale, and they’re sitting there waiting on me and boxed me in. That was a night in jail. Eluding charges and all kind of stupid charges like no turn signal, stuff like that. If he could write me a ticket he wrote me one.”

It was that experience that led Deemer to take his racing to the track and off of the streets. As much fun as he had when he was a little younger, it was only a matter of time before he got into real trouble or, heaven forbid, somebody got hurt.

“That was kind of a wake-up call. I think I had just turned 21 and right around the time I stopped street racing,” Deemer says. “I guess as I got older, I kind of realized the risk that’s involved in street racing and it turned to racing at the track. It’s a little safer, the cars have gotten a lot faster, and it’s not as illegal.”

For her part, though, Lackey hasn’t quite let go of the thrill of finding a “Porsche or two to stomp” when the opportunity presents itself. “I’ll be just driving my car daily going back and forth to work and I’ll find someone fun to play with, you know, to pick a fight with, like a Vette or a Cobra or something like that,” she says. “If something comes up beside me I kind of have to rev at it.”

“I do some track racing, but not nearly as much as he does,” Lackey says. “Street racing’s free. I’ve learned a lot about race cars and I don’t want one. I’ll leave that to him.”

Lackey’s car, the sleeper, is the ride the couple takes when they’re out together and, even though Deemer has for the most part retired from street racing, occasionally he and Lackey will accept a challenge if the competitor is worthy of a challenge—or humiliation.

“We were in her car, and I was driving up I-65 to visit my parents, and this older gentleman in a Porsche 911 Carrera gets on the interstate,” Deemer says. “I see him and I say ‘I’m going to mess with this guy and see if I can get him to race.’ He just kind of shrugged his nose up and gave us a look like ‘Yeah, whatever,’ and his wife kind of laughed, and he decided to try to take off and leave us.”

“Before he knew it, he was falling back a couple of car-lengths,” Deemer continues. “When I got back up next to him to give him a thumbs up and tell him ‘good race,’ his wife was busy laughing at him and he looked way too mad to return the favor of a thumbs up.”

A Day At The Races

These days Deemer concentrates on racing at all of the regional tracks, including Lassiter, Steele and Montgomery, as well as some larger events around the Southeast. He’s also started his own business in his hometown of Warrior called FP Performance, an automotive performance shop that specializes in customizing cars for people who want to drive very fast. In fact, much of the data he has collected over the years in his laptop and notebook has served as a bit of R&D for his company.

Still, Deemer says he loves the sport of drag racing and would like to step up his competition schedule in the future. However, he says that all comes down to available time and money.

“We have two races we’re definitely going to out of state, maybe a third,” Deemer says.”It just depends on how things fall into place and if anything breaks on the car. If you want to go fast, it’s going to cost some money. It’s like the old saying ‘fast, reliable and cheap. You can choose two.’”

Despite the costs and the time spent pursuing the sport of drag racing, Deemer says there is just nothing like it in the world of auto racing—not round-track stock car racing, not motocross. Nothing, he says requires the amount of skill, stamina and know-how, or is as personally rewarding, as drag racing.

“There is just a huge rush running fives in an eighth-mile,” Deemer says. “Running 120-125 miles per hour and doing it in an eighth of a mile is not as easy as everyone thinks. There’s a lot more to it than just holding down the gas and going straight.”

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