Qatari Sheik Aims for Drag Racing Dominance

The most important figure in drag racing this year isn't some good-ol' boy who grew up hot-rodding around the sport's birthplace in southern California.

He is 22-year-old Sheik Khalid bin Hamad Al-Thani of Qatar, who offers both wealth and commitment to a sport in which the best-funded team often ends up on top. A drag-racing fanatic since age 12, Mr. Al-Thani has made a long-term commitment to the sport and is spending an estimated $10 million this year to support a team with the best cars, crew, equipment and research available. All the Pretty Horsepower

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In the highest levels of professional drag racing — where cars surpass 300 mph in less than four seconds — even the top drivers and team owners can spend endless time hunting for corporate sponsorship money. It costs at least $4 million a year to fund a top team, with expenses including everything from $70,000 Funny Car bodies to $2,500 per racing weekend for nitro-methane fuel to $140 for clutch discs, a couple of which need to be replaced nearly every time the cars speed down the track.

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Come race day, while other crew chiefs are wolfing down barbecue pork sandwiches and hobnobbing with sponsors, Alan Johnson, the team's co-owner and chief engineer, sits in front of two 24-inch computer monitors in his sleek trailer, quietly crunching data as he enjoys a plate of deep red tuna sashimi the team chef had flown in from Chicago for $20 per pound.

It's this level of financial support that convinced Mr. Johnson to join forces with Mr. Al-Thani to form Alan Johnson Al-Anabi Racing. "It's no different than the Yankees," Mr. Johnson says.

While drag racing looks simple, it's really a scientific chess game where engineers play as large a role as the driver stomping on the gas pedal. The trick is to synchronize the engine and clutch during a massive controlled explosion as track conditions change. Intricate adjustments, such as the addition of just a few grams of weight in the clutch, can be the difference between winning and losing, or even a fatal crash into the wall at 300 mph.

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Long-term financing is essential because the costs are so high. A complete engine with a clutch, computerized data recorder and drivetrain system costs about $200,000. A dragster's chassis costs $50,000, while tires run $1,500 for a set and need to be replaced after every other pass down the track.

Most teams have the same equipment, but more money allows for more research and testing, which makes for smarter decisions on race day about an infinite number of adjustments. Mr. Al-Thani hopes his investment will one day make him international drag racing's dominant owner.

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