Five years ago today, I was doing the sort of thing a car guy likes to do, spending an evening at a racetrack with one of my pals. Only things were a little different than usual. The buddy I was with was named Mishaal al-Salal, and the track was in the middle of the Kuwaiti desert.
At the time, I was working for the television side of FOX News, overseeing the temporary bureau we had set up in Kuwait City to coordinate our coverage of the U.S.-led assault against Saddam Hussein's regime. By May 1, things had started to quiet down, and I'd sent most of our operation home or north to Baghdad, leaving me to turn out the lights.
Mishaal was one of the local fixers working for FOX who helped us navigate the ins and outs of Kuwaiti society. He'd already taken a few of us to one of the camel races the locals enjoy so much, but he knew I liked cars, so he found out where the Kuwaiti racers hung out and suggested that we check it out.
I'd be heading home myself in a couple of days, and had a lot of work left to do before I could, but after eight weeks of Scud missile attacks and nearly around-the-clock coverage, I wasn't about to say no to the chance to experience something like this.
"Kuwaitis like speed," yelled a smiling Abdul al-Shaty as he stuffed his well-fed frame into a 1991 Mustang fitted with a 347 short-block for a quick 6-second run down the 1/8th mile Sheik Salim al-Sabah drag strip, where Kuwaiti Kenny Bernsteins go to race everything from street-legal '60s Chevys to trailered-in Datsun rods.
It was Thursday night — the beginning of the weekend in much of the Islamic world — and a couple of hundred people filled the stands on that balmy May evening to watch about three dozen drivers wring out their cars after a long winter in the garage.
"The war messed everything up," lamented Mark Perry, one of the few Americans among this mainly Arab group of drivers. An ex-pat from Texas with a job in the oil industry, Perry was a "jockey" for the sheik himself, racing a stable of cars for his amusement, before the royal passed away in 2007.
"The season usually runs from October to March, but with the situation at the border, we had to cancel it this year," he said as he took a final look at a '76 Celica GT with a Mopar 440 under the hood that he claimed would run 5.5 on a good day. "We'll just be testing for the next four weeks to get ready for the fall, after that there's too much sand and heat. Gotta put them away until October."
Perry was one of the best drivers of the bunch, and the other guys looked on in envy as he hopped into a heavily modified '98 Trans Am the sheik had just imported from Bahrain — the mecca of drag racing in the Gulf region. It had a 565 Chevy V-8 with nitrous under the hood, and Perry expected it to run a 4.7, no problem.
On the passenger-side window next to his name Perry's blood type was listed — O+ — just like soldiers heading into combat write on their boots. In a country where you're just as likely to get worked on by a military-trained medic if something goes wrong, it's a smart regulation all of the drivers followed.
One spin around Kuwait City and it's no surprise to find such an American institution thriving halfway around the world. Open space and boatloads of oil wealth led to the construction of a series of big, wide, interstate-style highways that stretch far into the desert.
Sport utility vehicles and full-size American sedans are the cars of choice, and if you ever wondered where all of those '94 to '96 Impala SSs ended up, just look in your rearview mirror, there's probably one about to blow by you. Add to that all of the exotic European metal cruising down the glitzy Arabian Gulf Street, and you'd be forgiven for thinking you were in Southern California or Miami.
Unfortunately, Kuwaitis are also known for being some of the worst drivers in the world — in country where alcohol is banned, no less — and the roadsides are strewn with almost as much wreckage as was left here after the 1991 Gulf War. It's the policy of Kuwaiti police to leave what's left of accidents on the medians for a few days, a "scared-straight" program that doesn't seem to be working. Better to take it to the track.
While Perry was the man to beat, Abdullah al-Mullah was clearly the fan favorite and on this night was surrounded by a crowd of onlookers while about a dozen of his friends helped prep his 1970s vintage Camaro for a run. With a supercharged 538 under the hood, it was the only blown engine in town and ran in the Super Pro class with Perry, laying down runs in high the 4s.
Cars are categorized into five classes based on engine size and elapsed times (ETs), the fastest doing the 1/8th mile run in 4.5.
"She's running good," Abdullah told me afterwards. "A little loose out of the blocks, but we'll fix that."
No way to know exactly how good, though, as the Christmas tree and timing equipment were turned off for this tuning day, just so the guys didn't get the wrong idea. They'd have to wait until the fall to go head-to-head.
"The racing started east of here, at a facility closer to the sea back in the 70s," remembered a driver named Sa'ad, as he gave his '67 Nova 421 a post-run once-over. Just like in the States, development closed that track, moving the cars here, to the outskirts of town.
And it's set to happen again, with plans for a new track further out in the desert. If it ever happens, the drivers look to come out on top, with a state-of-the-art 1/4 mile track under consideration, like the in Bahrain.
I asked Sa'ad if he saw a Gulf Nationals event in the future. "Anshallah," he answers. Arabic for "God willing."
Until then, they race for the Martyr's Cup, the track's championship trophy. With local sponsorship from the likes of McDonald's and Burger King — yep, they love junk food there, too — and a couple of bucks the sheik threw into the pot, class prizes were paying up to $6,000 in 2003. But that's pocket change for most people in the country; the real challenge is getting their hands on parts for all of the American iron on display.
Al-Mullah, who worked as a oil-industry wholesaler, told me the sheik would help all the drivers out, making sure they had a fresh supply of tires and Sunoco racing fuel from the U.S. If there were any customs issues with parts, he'd smooth it out. He really liked to watch them race.
Clearly, so do the locals. From a distance, the place could be any local strip in the U.S. It's only when you get into the stands, where half the fans are decked out in the traditional white dishdasha many Kuwaitis wear, that you realize you're in a different world.
But not so different, I thought, as the crowd came to its feet in appreciation of a particularly smoky burnout courtesy of al-Shaty's silver Mustang. They'd be back in the thousands when racing resumed in the fall.
I like to think that some of the American servicemen and women stationed just a few miles north had the chance to join them, to get a little taste of home. They may have been too busy.