By Brian Paglia
The young man leaned against the car that made him a champion. Its paint was as black as Chris Stripling's world for the three months he was in a coma. It was a midnight black, a perfect camouflage to avoid police when Stripling used to illegally street race.
Now, it is the perfect car for Friday Night Drags at Atlanta Motor Speedway, one the Stockbridge native guided to a championship in the Street Outlaw class last season. Stripling and the 10 other class champions defend their championships Friday when the points portion of the Friday Night Drags season begins.
Last season, Friday Night Drags attracted nearly 5,000 fans and 225 drivers on a weekly basis.
This season, the schedule was expanded from 14 to 17 dates. All of which underscores that drivers, like Stripling, have found an outlet and venue for their passion and fans have found a well-priced form of entertainment.
But for Stripling, there is an emotional pull to Friday Night Drags. It simultaneously provides him with an avenue to avoid the illegal street racing he indulged in for 16 years, and it gives him a physical outlet to continue his rehabilitation from a horrific ATV crash that left his prognosis for the future uncertain.
"Racing keeps me motivated," Stripling said.
"It gives me something to look forward. ... It keeps you off the street. I'm retired (from street racing). I retired once Friday Night Drags started. It helps out.
It really keeps kids off the street racing."
Friday Night Drags keeps Tony Morse, of Grantville, from dwelling too much of the economy.
Since Morse graduated from high school at 18, he's been welding.
For the past 10 years, he's owned his own business, a modest one with no more than six employees, but an honest and good one.
When the precipitous fall of the housing market began, it trickled into the commercial real estate market, which is where Morse's company does most of its business in the Atlanta metro area.
But the Pro class champion last season has been coming to Friday Night Drags since its inception.
"It's cheap," Morse said.
"I still probably spend $150 to come down here with the fuel and everything, but if you go somewhere else, you've got to drive for two hours to get there and spend twice as much."
The affordability of Friday Night Drags allows Morse to make the event a family affair. Each Friday, the Morse family -- with Tony's wife, 14-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter -- park their motor home in the AMS infield for the day. He runs the one or two practice rounds and tinkers with the car with his son before the real racing begins.
Morse's said his son has developed an obsession with racing, and with Morse's Chevy Camaro SS in particular.
"He can't wait to get in there," Morse said. "He think it's going to be his."
Morse recently had a wrap of hot orange flames on a pitch-black background put on his Camaro.
His wife wants him now to name the car "Hot Stuff." Regardless, Morse knows his car won't go unnoticed on Friday nights.
Morse hopes it gets more attention, which he says with no detection of ego. It's all in the spirit of Friday Night Drags.
"It's all about having fun," Morse said.