FORTVILLE — Aaron Vail spends most of his weeknights running the Fortville NAPA Auto Parts store. The interior of his shop is decorated with dozens of photos of him surrounded by friends and holding first-place trophies next to dust-covered, but sharp looking, muscle cars.
At closing time, the 53-year-old Fortville resident usually shuts off the lights, drives home and heads straight for the barn next to his house, which he re-purposed as a workshop for his dragsters.
The walls are decked with giant checks, trophies, photos and other racing memorabilia. He goes to work in the barn, tuning up his silver 1973 Trans Am or his red 1996 Firebird.
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Preparing for an upcoming race weekend might seem like a lot of work, but for a gearhead like Vail, it’s the kind of work he lives for.
Vail’s passion is what drove him to compete in bracket drag races in Alabama on Sept. 22 and Oct. 22, winning $20,000 in each race. Vail, who has been racing in competitions across the country for decades, won with the same car that he drove in high school, which he modified and fixed up himself.
Vail has competed in ET (Elapsed Time) bracket races nearly every weekend since 1993. He got his start in smaller races hosted on the Muncie Dragway, but has recently focused on higher-stakes tournaments with considerably larger prize purses.
Vail has won hundreds of races over the years, stocking up a healthy collection of trophies and prize money. But drag racing is a risky and expensive hobby, Vail said. So if you want to compete in the big times, you really need to invest in it.
“You won’t find a lot of losers in the drag racing game,” Vail said. “Because you’ve got to have money if you even want to participate.”
Vail’s girlfriend, Niki Cook, has assisted his racing crusade since the two got together in 2002. She is Vail’s self-described “pit pigeon,” supporting him by providing help with fuel, tires, vehicle maintenance and cooking whenever they are on the road for a race weekend.
“I don’t usually drive the things, but I do everything else for him,” Cook said with a laugh.
In their racing expeditions, Vail and Cook have made acquaintances from around the country. While Vail often finds himself racing alongside fellow Hoosiers, they’ve also made friends with racers from all over the continental U.S., Puerto Rico and Canada.
“You learn to love the community of people in the sport,” Cook said. “On the starting line they might be your opponents, but afterwards you’ll be heading back to put some burgers on the grill together. It’s like a big family.”
Bracket racing is unlike other forms of drag racing in that each driver is assigned a handicap based on their vehicle’s initial trial run on the track, which is 1/8 of a mile long.
At the starting line, drivers react to the “tree” based on their vehicle’s performance potential. This factor makes it so any two vehicles can feasibly compete against each other, regardless of their speed or acceleration capabilities.
Due to the handicap, bracket races are more often about timing, reaction times and mental math than they are about sheer speed, Vail said. He has competed against other drivers as young as 16 and as old as 70.
“React to the tree, hit your starting line and drive,” Vail said. “It doesn’t matter how old you are or how much money you make. You can win if you know how to play.”
Vail knows what he’s doing, even if it’s a hobby.
“Where else can you go where you can take a car like that and go win up to $100,000 in a single weekend?” Vail said. “There’s a lot of luck involved. It almost feels like going to a casino. But when you win, you win.”