Tuesday, November 19, 2013



In Russia lived a girl with a passion for horses. So encompassing was her obsession with the magnificent beasts, she could not get enough of them. She collected three hundred horses and yet she yearned for more. Five hundred, then a thousand horses still did not please her. When she had acquired fifteen hundred horses, the girl - now a woman - nearly broke into a grin. Meet Maria Panova. She's smilin' now. And her equestrian passion continues to progress, unabated.

Like many of my human connections, this one took the scenic route. My Kiwi friends Fingerz Mullan and Andi Whitley recently posted some new photos of their Nitro Ape Altered on Facebook. I was so taken with the images that I sought out the photographer. That quest delivered me to places foreign and wondrous.

Fingerz, Andi, and the infamous Nitro Ape are featured in my as-yet-unpublished Racing to America book. They're doing all they can to help me confront a series of challenges to that goal. Meanwhile, they've also been running the Nitro Ape ragged on tracks around the globe. Andi is making her first licensing passes here, while Fingerz breaks in a new steed... (Photos by Maria Panova)

This Fiat may not boast the history of the Nitro Ape (formerly the J&J Muffler Special) yet, but is about to amass some solid track cred in New Zealand. It already has enough surly snot-flinging Brahma bull attitude to keep Fingerz awake. (Photo courtesy of Kiwi Drag Racing.com)

To consider Maria Panova just another photographer is a gross disservice to her and a mistake. She's a full-on photojournalist staffer for Russia's Tuning magazine. She covers the action wherever it happens on earth, firsthand.

Some of Maria's fingerprints on Tuning magazine. Maria also participates in many of the events she reports on. Living in the vortex of motorsports offers Maria a distinct advantage in the press room. She can reach right into the cockpit and clutch the very essence of a story that her contemporaries can only desperately grasp at. And she's most definitely an action figure. That kind of credibility comes across loud and clear to readers.

Maria makes her home in Nakhodka, in eastern Russia (on the Sea of Japan). She races an All-Wheel-Drive Toyota Soarer that is based in Moscow - 10,000 kilometers (6,214 miles) away. Maria racks up ungodly frequent flier miles. Her ascent to the top of Russia's quarter mile hierarchy has been remarkable. I can't assimilate Maria's accent, so will let her tell the tale, while I perform some moderate editing and seat-of-the-pants translating, in an attempt to dodge the language barrier...

"There are no racers in my family. I'm the only crazy one. That's why, when I began street racing in 2003, my family objected, a lot. I soon came to the detour road - my car. That was a Toyota Chaser Tourer V, with 280 horsepower. It ran 12.80s. That was actually pretty fast at the time. Drag racing was riding a new wave of popularity in Russia then, because of the Fast and Furious films (laughs)."

"One pass made me very popular in Russia, in the year 2007: From 2005 to 2008, a group of people organized a very cool race - a mega event - the only one of its kind in Russia, where came the fastest cars in the country. People dreamed about this event and built cars just to win it. It's called Drag-Bitva (or Drag Battle). I dreamed to participate, too. My husband sold his car, and for our anniversary, gifted me a 500 horsepower Toyota MR2 with a manual transmission, which I'd never driven before. Can you believe it? I went to the most prestigious event in Russia without knowing how how to drive my car! I practiced while driving there, and we discovered the shifter wasn't working right."

"On race day, the best cars in Russia were on the line. Among them was the winner of the event in 2005 and 2006 - the fastest car in Russia - a Nissan Skyline GTR R-32. It held the record at 8.80 seconds. I qualified with an 11.40. Other cars were much faster - 10 and 9 seconds - and that guy, Mr. 8.80, was at the top of the list. Some cars behind me broke, and I found myself in 8th position. I had the slowest car, and had to race against HIM, 8.80, Double Champion. I was very nervous. First, I made a false start (at that time, one false start was permissible). My second try was epic: His driveshaft broke and he slowed, but was still very fast. Everything came down to reaction time. Mine was 0.04, his was 0.40." Maria sent me a link to that final round: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xe9LUzb7UhM You better have a hanky at the ready. Epic, indeed.

"At that 2007 race, I met my future team: Total Race, from Moscow. The next year, I returned to Drag-Bitva, depressed because I didn't have a fast car, but I couldn't miss this event. When I arrived, I met with the Total Race team and they had brought their car (the Toyota Soarer) to test, but needed a driver. They had been building it for five years and nobody knew. No one was more happy than me at that moment! But I didn't know what I was in for... I see the car for the first time, and it looks fast. The fastest I'd driven at that point was 11.40."

"But I did it. The first run was a 9.40. Then it went faster. I updated the Russian record from 8.80 (remember that R-32?) to 8.70. I know it sounds like a story about Cinderella! From there, we went faster and faster. I bought parts, but we had many technical problems. In 2011, we tested the car at a race. Our record had been broken and the best time in Russia was now an 8.32. We bit that record down to 8.23. Another epic day!"

Maria calls up some drag zen in the staging lanes...

... and rides it to glory. The Soarer runs low 8.20s at 277 kilometers (172 miles) per hour. Its single turbo 3000 cc 2JZ-GTE engine employs a 400-shot of nitrous to cool the charge that makes 1,500 horsepower at the wheels. A 3-speed Lenco-drive controls the torque curve. Maria believes there's more in it. She uses the power and AWD in combination with surreal reflexes to produce ethereal reaction times. Dig that crazy track surface - Yeow!

Since many of Russia's drag strips are improvised, you can imagine how short some of the shutdown areas are. Racers get their money's worth with a rush that lasts until the car comes to a complete halt - sometimes still on the track surface.

"I live in Russia from spring to fall, during the race season. Then I leave for New Zealand (specific location undisclosed), to work." Jeez. And I thought was living the life...

When in New Zealand, Maria partners with her friend Paul to run this mid-nine second big block Cuda. Paul provides labor and transport, while Maria supplies parts and wheel skills. There is no "off-season" for Ms. Panova.

Maria also runs this drift car, a discipline she's very capable at, but downplays: "Yes, I drift, but I don't participate in the Championship (points chase). I'm just training, for fun." Maria's Nissan Sylvia S-14 runs a single turbo SR-20 DET engine on 98 octane gasoline, throwing "about 320 horsepower" to the tortured rear wheels. A hydraulic handbrake helps control some of the chaos.

A conspicuous figure in motorsports, Maria's every move is well documented. I selected a few images depicting a life lived in the eye of the coolest storm on the planet...

(Photo by Popeye Pics)
(Photos courtesy of Maria Panova)

But it's the imagery that Maria transmits from her discerning eye to her camera that puts food on her table and parts on her cars. This is but a small taste. You'll find a veritable feast, online. Attention Editors: Maria is available to supply photos to your publication. Her agreement with Tuning magazine is not exclusive.

From the starting line to the back steps of the timing tower, Maria Panova covers every aspect of motorsports, from the inside out. When I grow up, I want to be her.

Proof positive: When open to life's possibilities, humans can exceed even their own expectations. And the ripple effect of their actions can inspire others, even as far away as... America. Thanks Maria. I needed this.




In last week's announcement of Jim Lindsay's Modified Roadster entry, it was erroneously reported that Jim's flathead V-8 will run a 6-71 roots blower. Chassis fabricator and all-around swell guy Marty Strode corrects, "(Engine assembler) Justin is going with a centrifugal-type. I guess the main thing is to keep the boost at ten pounds or under, or it will blow up!" Thanks, Marty. And our apologies to all parties for the confusion.



In keeping with our post-Soviet theme, this week's squirrel was sourced from Russia. That's what the supplier claimed, anyway. The squirrel's gentleman friend appears to be wearing a 49ers stocking cap, but that may just be a reflection of international trade agreements. The Craftsman rollaways were shot at Dr. Lockjaw's Custom Metal shop in Applegate, Oregon. They have many drawers and I have a bad memory. Consequently, Doc gets to experience the thrill of the hunt when he needs a tool. Messing with your buddies is almost as satisfying as bagging a cool squirrel. The tube axle in the foreground is slated to go under Doc's Cobra. (Scotty shot)

NEXT WEEK: The biggest news ever! Start working out now - you'll need every ounce of strength you can muster to digest this monster post! You've been warned.