Jet dragster team brings its burning desire to fair

Special to the Sun-StarJune 9, 2014 

For Madera’s Jeff Atamian and Merced’s Mike King, performing an exhibition of burning a car with a jet engine dragster all started with the question: “What would happen if ...?”

Having had the satisfaction of getting that answer like boys who pulled off a back-yard science experiment without their parents knowing, Atamian and King have now burned about 150 cars. On the second night of Merced Speedway’s two-night fair program this week, they’ll show fans just what keeps them wanting to do it again.

“It’s like a fireworks display, but better,” Atamian says. “Or so I’ve been able to tell from photos and videos.”

Atamian sits strapped into the cockpit of “The Beast,” his jet dragster. The brakes are locked and the Westinghouse J34 aircraft engine is starting to make its familiar whirring sound.

Never seeing what is happening behind him, Atamian is totally focused on King, whose job it is to make each burn safe and successful. King, standing at the front of the dragster, checks to see if anything is out of the normal routine as the jet engine gets hotter.

“Jeff is looking at me – all the time,” King explains. “The gauges tell him what he needs to know about the engine. It’s my signals to him – right down to the expression on my face – (that) lets him know how the show is going.”

For King, it’s all about safety.

“Familiarity with procedure is key to safety,” he says. “There cannot be any distractions. They’re can’t be any debris that can be sucked into the intake of the jet engine. There can’t be any people in harm’s way.”

All the burns have gone well. The target car is tethered with heavy chain to the jet-powered dragster. Separation of the burning car and the dragster cannot happen.

“In the 10 years we have been performing and racing, Mike has never let me down,” Atamian says. “I would not do this without him.”

The duo learned that small cars burn through, and big vehicles – like campers and buses, tend to break into pieces.

“When we first started, it was scary,” Atamian says. “We didn’t know what to expect.”

Stainless steel turns orange at 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and when the jet’s afterburners fire up, the tailpiece of the jet car turns transparent. The passenger car receiving the blast also turns orange, with the interior and engine parts disintegrating like water evaporating.

“We never reach full power,” Atamian says. “We see the car destroyed at 75 percent of the jet engine’s power.”

Atamian ran a “piston car” dragster and always wanted a jet car since he saw one in Fresno when he was 12 years old.

“When you buy a jet car, there’s no test drive,” he says with a laugh. “I always wanted to be a big-game hunter, but I chose to be a jet car pilot instead. I would have saved money if I chose hunting.”

King was a racer at Merced Speedway in the 1970s. He drove a 1956 Ford stock car – a far cry from the jet car for which he’s crew chief today.

“I decided I did not have enough talent and I did not have enough money to continue stock-car racing,” he says. “So, I decided to become a crew chief.”

Despite all the fun the two men have burning up cars, their hearts are in drag racing. “The Beast” is wicked fast – its elapsed time is in the low six-second range on the quarter-mile strip. It does 300 mph in a blink and has to be stopped by two 16-foot-diameter parachutes.

Men and beast travel from home to Spokane, Denver and Tucson, racing and burning cars to the delight of crowds of race fans and fairgoers.

“Burning cars is fun,” King says. “But racing is still our favorite thing to do.”

Merced Speedway Fair Schedule

The speedway will hold programs on Wednesday and Thursday night this week.

A $5 Merced County Fair ticket and two cans of food for the Merced Food Bank will be admittance into the Wednesday night program. The track’s premier racing division, the International Motor Contest Association modified stock cars, will share the card with the Hobby Stock division.

Thursday night will see a complete program of qualifying races and a feature event for the IMCA SportMod division. Racing will be followed by the jet car demonstration. Admission will be $5 with the purchase of a $5 fair ticket.

The programs will begin at 7 p.m. each night.

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