LOWELL | Dave Hirata can't get over all the crazy drivers these days.
"I've been told that I drive like an old grandpa," said Hirata, 50, of Lowell. "I'll be on I-65 cruising at about 62 miles an hour, and all these cars are zipping past me.
"Are these people crazy?"
Maybe as owner of Hirata's Lowell Body Shop, Hirata knows how expensive careless driving can be. Or maybe when it comes to extreme fuel-injected speed, Hirata knows of the proper time and place.
"Believe or not, I feel safe," Hirata says about being strapped in a nitromethane-fueled dragster on the verge of being propelled more than 270 mph within a blink or two of the eye.
"In that 5.3 seconds, it's amazing how the mind can slow everything down and how much you can process in that short period," Hirata said. "I guess you can relate it to how a major league baseball hitter can face a 98 mile per hour fastball or a 80 mile an hour curve that dips down sharply after coming toward the head. Those guys seem to be able to slow things down to make contact."
At the Summit Racing Equipment Nationals July 4-7 in Norwalk, Ohio, Hirata won the Top Alcohol Dragster division when he defeated favorite Ray Martin in the finals.
"Actually, our car broke down on the track," Hirata said. A safety mechanism malfunctioned, shutting off the engine.
But with Martin disqualified after "red-lighting" the start — basically hitting the gas pedal too soon — all Hirata had to do was coast to the finish line.
"We'll take it," said Hirata, who won his fourth career Wally — the nickname for the trophy awarded to winners of National Hot Rod Association national events.
The three previous Wallys all came in 2000, the same year in which he had five national runner-up finishes. Since then, Hirata has had other national runner-up finishes, and has won numerous regional-level races.
"It has been a long time (between national victories), but there are a lot of guys who have been doing this longer than me, and they're still waiting their first Wally," Hirata said.
Racing since 1997, Hirata is a second-generation dragster competitor. His father, Ken Hirata, is considered one of the pioneers of the sport and was recently inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame.
"He hasn't raced since 1973," Hirata said of his father, who as a Japanese-American teenager growing up on the West Coast during World War II was forced to live in an interment camp. Later, the elder Hirata served the country during the Korean War, and afterwards moved to Lowell to start the family business as well as get into drag racing.
"But he's a part of our team," Hirata said of Hirata Motorsports.
The next big race for Hirata and his team is the NHRA U.S. Nationals held over the Labor Day weekend at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis.
"It's like the World Series or Super Bowl of drag racing," said Hirata, who was runner-up twice at the U.S. Nationals.