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Professional drag racer steers toward a winning finish

By Cindy Atoji Keene

A lot of things can go wrong when you’re accelerating to 210 miles per hour in six seconds, said drag racer Ryan Ondrejko. A tiny turn on the steering wheel could mean you’re in the other lane, and if the track surface is slippery and the car isn’t going straight, “there is a point when you’d better abort a run or something bad will happen,” said Ondrejko, 27, a Roslindale resident who competes in the National Hot Rod Association, with his home track in Epping, N.H. The sport has more than 40,000 licensed NHRA drivers who compete at 130 NHRA member tracks around the country and claims to be second only to NASCAR in terms of attendance, fan appeal, and sponsorship commitment. Ondrejko’s “ride” this season is a 2012 Chevy Camaro that sports a 792-cubic inch engine with 1650 horsepower. “This new car, engine and components comes with a learning curve, but the most important thing is that I stay focused, confident and ready as a driver,” said Ondrejko, who has accumulated 25 race wins and six championships since he started racing seven years ago.

Ondrejko, who also works as a mechanical engineer for Barletta Engineering in Boston, is gearing up for his next race Oct. 12-14 in Reading, Pa., the NHRA Pennsylvania Dutch Classic. Racing is second nature for him, so it’s not about training anymore but about making sure his car is in prime condition – after one recent race, the engine blew, with rod bearings destroying the inside of the engine block. “There’s a saying that goes, ‘there are a million ways to lose a drag race and only a few ways to win,” said Ondrejko.

Q: What exactly is a hot rod?
A: It’s a vehicle that has been modified or rebuilt to spruce up its performance. My car is not a normal car at all; it was built by a race car builder in Missouri and is completely customized, from the bigger engine, swoopy carbon fiber body, plexiglass windows instead of glass, and all the safety features. It weighs 2,000 pounds less than a Camaro SS off the factory line.

Q: Racing can be an expensive endeavor. How do you support your racing team?
A: My car has tons of stickers on the sides of it. Each decal is given to me when I use a product, and if I win, I get paid by these contingency sponsors. My tires, for example, are Mickey Thompson Tires, and if I win a race, the company will pay me $300. So if I have 30 decals on my car, that’s $9,000 in earnings.

Q: You’re a mechanical engineer – does that help your racing?
A: If definitely doesn’t hurt. In school they taught us thermal dynamics, aerodynamics and fluid mechanics, all of which help me maintain my race car.

Q: How are the races held?
A: I compete in about 12 races a year and am currently in first place with one more race to go. It’s an accumulation of how you doing during the season. It’s not like NASCAR; everyone doesn’t start at once and then go around a track; it’s more like a NCAA bracket. Only two people race at one time, with points earned based on what rounds you win.

Q: What led you to compete as a professional racer?
A: My father builds race cars for a living, and every day since I was a kid, I’d run out to the back yard and help him. One day when I was 19, my father’s friend said, “Why doesn’t your son race?” and my dad said, “We don’t have enough money to build our own car right now.” He replied, “I have a 1962 Corvette sitting in my garage that you can race.” We restored it and went up to New England Dragway, where I made my first few passes down the track. It was exhilarating.

Q: How do you deal with the fear factor?
A: I’ve been around racing my whole life, so there is no fear factor. It doesn’t scare me anymore. If you understand what you’re doing and how everything works, it makes it easier. My mom, on the other hand, has a huge fear factor for me.

Q: Is racing a good way to meet girls?
A: Sure, but the wrong kind of girl. And my girlfriend doesn’t like that either.

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