The ultimate prize for an amateur drag racer was just seconds away.
Paul Comeau sat in Ol’ Gold, the 1939 Chevy sedan that has brought so much joy to his family, and focused on the lights. A perfect start on this November afternoon at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif., and the Comeau clan from Vancouver would be at the pinnacle of their sport.
For nine races in a row, Paul had been just about perfect at hitting his light — accelerating at the exact instant required to travel a quarter mile in the desired time and eliminate the driver next to him. On Nov. 13, he thought he had done it again, but a Minnesota teenager proved to be a fraction of a second better.
To be precise, 18-year-old Brandon Schmall in his 1970 Challenger turned a starting-line advantage of 0.06 seconds into a victory in that final Pro Class race at the National Hot Rod Association Summit Racing Series national championships.
“It was fun,” Paul said. “Second in the whole U.S. is not too bad.”
Bob Comeau, Paul’s father and the driving force behind the family’s racing hobby, agreed. Just seeing Ol’ Gold sharing the track with drag racing’s elite was a thrill for the 72-year old, who caught the racing bug in the late-1970s after attending an event with a friend.
The walls of the garage where the Comeaus work on the car attest to the success that Bob and Paul have enjoyed for more than three decades in the sport.
“I could write a book about all of the fun times we’ve had,” Paul said.
The sport has been a passion for the whole family. Paul’s daughter Katryn serves as his crew chief, monitoring race-day details such as track and weather conditions, tire pressure. Now a freshman bowler at Robert Morris University Illinois in Chicago, Katryn flew to California for the NHRA national championships. She didn’t want to miss the family’s first trip to the nationals.
Only the winners of the seven NHRA Divisional championship events advance to the national finals. Paul once lost in the divisional finals, but 2011 was the first time a Comeau won such a prestigious event.
That might have been part of the reason Bob couldn’t bear to watch the last of Paul’s seven runs at this year’s Division 6 finals in Boise.
“I just looked at the scoreboard and when his win light came on I couldn’t talk,” Bob said. “That was a thrill.”
Paul certainly agreed.
“Winning in Boise,” Paul said, “was the thrill of a lifetime.”
Cars and racing have been a lifetime passion for Bob. When he was 15, Bob’s dad gave him a 1939 Chevy, and Bob said he learned much of his understanding of automobiles by keeping that car running.
Bob once owned 14 ‘39 Chevys. The car that Paul drive to the brink of a national title is actually the second Ol’ Gold. The first was purchased in 1980 and was wrecked in the fall of 1996. This second Ol’ Gold has been racing since 1998. In addition to success on the track, the car has won auto shows and been featured in magazines.
The mementos that fill shelves and cover garage walls are special because of the friendships they represent, Bob said. The connection with people who share a passion for racing cars is the true reward for the time and the money he has poured into the sport.
“If you won every race you entered, you wouldn’t earn enough to cover your expenses,” Bob said.
The road to the last race of the 2011 season started with success at Portland International Raceway, where Paul Comeau finished second in Pro Class points. The season also included winning the nostalgia series at Woodburn Dragstrip. In 2011, Paul Comeau made the final race an impressive 15 times.
At the nationals in Pomona, Paul won two races to reach the finals. He was thrilled to beat a very tough foe in the semifinals to earn a spot in the final of the year.
His reaction time at the start of that race just wasn’t quite as precise as his opponent’s.
Estimated time (ET) drag racing is a sport designed to test and reward the skill of a driver. The winner is not decided by which car is faster. Slower cars are given a head start and the race comes down to which driver can start quickest — without starting too soon and being disqualified.
In this case, 6/100ths of one second was the difference between coming home $5,000 richer and as a national champion instead of bringing home a nice little trophy and plenty of memories. Ol’ Gold roared down the track at 140.08 mph (its fastest run is 148 mph, just under the 150 mph threshold that requires parachutes to slow down the cars), covering the quarter mile in 9.521 seconds. Schmall’s Dodge Challenger went 119.52 mph in the finals, but with the dial time head start that was just enough to edge Comeau.
“It’s a humbling sport, just like any other sport,” Paul said.
When years of dreaming and experimenting and training come down to a fraction of a second, a loss in a national championship race might seem devastating. But Paul and Bob Comeau each said that the thrill of getting to nationals easily outweighed any disappointment.
“We know going in if it’s your day, it’s your day,” Paul said. “There’s so much luck involved you wouldn’t believe it.”
Not that he, or his dad, is satisfied.
“There’s always next year,” Bob said.
Did you know?
• In ET bracket racing, drivers advance through a single-elimination tournament-style based on head-to-head results.
• Slower cars in each race are given a head start based on the time the drivers predict it will take to reach the finish line. Drivers who reach the finish line faster than that predicted time lose.
• In 2008, Ridgefield’s Steve Kelly won the championship in the same NHRA Summit Racing ET Series classification that Paul Comeau was runner-up in this fall.