McKinney hits final phase of junior dragster career

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR Staff

   Entering his senior year at Hampton High School, Brandon McKinney will have one graduation under his belt before his classmates.
   He is already in his "senior year" of racing junior dragsters at Bristol Dragway and other dragstrips in the area with a graduation date due the end of the 2003 racing season.
   Highlights thus far have included scoring three wins at Bristol during the 2001 season. Last weekend at Shelby, N.C., Brandon added to his racing resume, taking top honors in a big event at Shady Side Dragway. Where the next couple of years takes him is a mystery, but McKinney has some definite goals about moving up in class.
   "Obviously you would love someone to come up and just give you a ride," said McKinney. "I don't expect that to happen. Most people have to work to get where they are. I want to do what it takes to meet people, to talk to people. If that doesn't work, I want to go to a technical school.
   "I will work for a team. Hopefully after a few years working for a team, I can move up to the driver's position."
   Drag racing is an inherently dangerous sport, witnessed recently by injuries to Top Fuel star Brandon Bernstein and car flipping wrecks in the Pro Stock ranks. Despite this and going speeds in excess of 200 or 300 miles per hour depending on the machine, McKinney has little hesitation when it comes to going fast.
   "It would be nice to race Top Fuel," said McKinney about being a part of the NHRA's top circuit. "It's scary to watch. You think you want to do that, then you see what happens to someone like Brandon Bernstein. You think that could be me in a few years. You don't want that to happen, but you realize every time you get into a race car that could happen. I'm not going that fast now. These cars only go about 65 miles per hour, but I'm ready to go fast."
   Although he likes full-bodied drag cars, Brandon has stated a preference for the rail-type cars his junior dragster resembles.
   "The dragsters are where I started and it feels like my home," said McKinney. "I won my first race in it and I've never had any luck in anything else. A dragster is what I would like to race, but I realize getting a ride in a Super Pro car is more likely than getting a ride in a Top Fuel car."
   McKinney has been around street cars converted to drag cars for most of his life as both his father Greg and uncle Todd are veteran racers. He knows if he follows their paths, there will be some adjustment from the rail cars.
   "There are different driving techniques that you use," explained McKinney. "The views are a lot different. You don't see the center of the track in a car. You have to put yourself in one groove. In a dragster, you pull yourself in the middle of the two grooves and you are there.
   "I have raced a car and it is a little harder for me. I think I would do better in a dragster. As I said before, I'm home in a dragster and there's nowhere else I would feel as comfortable at."
   Unlike many racers, Brandon enjoys the part of the sport that is as much about selling products as it is about going down the track.
   "That's one of the most fun parts of racing, the challenge of getting a sponsor," remarked McKinney. "I've been pretty successful at it. I tried getting some major corporations and that didn't work, but I can do pretty good with some minor sponsorship.
   "It's amazing what they do to. The help you get makes it so much easier to race. I look at it as if will make me a better driver or give me a better chance at becoming a driver, I'm all for it."
   In his years behind the wheel of a Mike Boss junior dragster, Brandon has gained a knowledge of working on the car after watching both his father and uncle make chassis and body adjustments. While he is still learning more about the motor, he has developed the basic feel of knowing how to diagnose a problem.
   "You can tell halfway down the track if it is going to be a fast run or not," said McKinney. "You can tell by the way the car pulls, the way it sounds. You do everything so often, it becomes natural to catch it when something is wrong.
   "It's part of learning to drive. When I first started racing, I hit the gas whenever it felt appropriate. Now, I can time the lights as they come down."
   Those skills were never more evident than on one pass last season, when Brandon posted a perfect reaction time.
   "I figured I better not retire without cutting a perfect light," joked McKinney. "I try to do that all the time, but I do sometimes red light. If you don't red light every once in a while, you aren't trying hard enough."
   The thing McKinney has learned exceptionally well in these formative years is to be grateful for those who have helped him get to this point.
   "First and foremost, I have to thank God because he has put me in the position where I can do this," said Brandon. "My dad and my uncle, I have to thank them for teaching me about racing and helping me. They have always been right there for me.
   "I have to thank my mom for putting up with this. We will come in at 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning with a win and be jabbering a mile a minute. Then my best friend, she lives in Butler and I won't say her name, but she helps me so much. She supports me and tells me good luck every week. Anytime I need help with anything, she's there for me."
   Like any good racer, Brandon doesn't forget those who display logos on the car.
   "Of course there are all the sponsors -- Prosound, Protype Engines, Volunteer Painting and Sandblasting, Elizabethton Powersports and Buchanan's Upholstery, I have to thank all of those. They get me through the year, helping out a huge amount with the expenses."