Drag-Racing ER Doc: "I'm an Adrenaline Junkie. Always Have Been"

By Lois Baker

Release Date: May 2, 2005 This content is archived.


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Drag racing has fascinated ER physician Richard Krause since he was just a kid.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- One would think that an emergency-medicine physician who spends hours in the clamor and chaos of a hospital's emergency department would want to pass his non-working time in a serene, peaceful activity, like fly fishing.

One would think. But in the case of Richard Krause, one would be wrong.

After work Krause is immersed in the roaring, raucous arena of drag racing, where automobiles morph into speed monsters capable of covering a quarter mile in a few blinks of an eye; where top fuel dragsters traveling 300 miles an hour leave the starting line at five-times the force of gravity.

Krause is fast, but not that fast. "Doc," as he is known around the drag-racing circuit, can cover a quarter mile in 10.22 seconds at "only" 140 miles an hour in his street-legal-but-extensively-modified '95 Camaro.

"I'm an adrenaline junkie," he concedes. "Always have been."

Krause, 55, spends his working hours as an attending physician in the emergency departments of Buffalo's two largest hospitals and directs the emergency medicine residency in the University at Buffalo's School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

Real-life emergency medicine bears little resemblance to the drama depicted weekly on the Learning Channel's popular "Trauma: Life in the ER" or on the classic show "Emergency," says Krause. "One hour of what they show on 'Emergency' is probably a year's worth of emergencies in a normal hospital."

But because an "Emergency" emergency could happen any time, constant alertness and the ability to react instinctively are essential, precisely the talents that make a good drag racer. Being a life-long motor-head also helps.

Krause was born in Cleveland, Ohio. Like many boys growing up in the industrial heartland when automobile manufacturing drove the economy and the car was king, he was infatuated from the time he could see above the steering wheel.

"I've been fascinated with cars since I was a kid," he says. "I drove junk cars and motorcycles before I even had a driver's license. They would break down, so I learned by necessity how to work on them. My interest in racing is a natural outgrowth of that.

"Racing was part of the scene growing up," he says. "Street drag racing was big. It was illegal, but kind of tolerated by the police. We would find an isolated industrial park or sparsely inhabited street, where there were no cross streets. There was that compelling element of outlaw-ism. It was a different era then."

Drag racing got its name from the slang word for street or road, as in "the main drag;" therefore "drag racing" is synonymous with street racing. No matter: For participants, drag racing has always meant two cars competing side-by-side wherever. Drag racing today is a main-stream sport supported and regulated by two sanctioning associations. Races now take place at commercial drag strips around the world (drag racing is especially popular in Europe).

Krause raced for money during his teens, winning a $100 or $200 here and there. He once rolled his car in a street race, but survived unscathed. The time and money demands of college and medical school (Cleveland State University and the Medical College of Ohio) forced a hold on racing for nearly a decade, but Krause was back at the strip as soon as he could afford a race car.

He now owns two cars. One is the 383-cubic-inch supercharged Camaro outfitted with a nitrous oxide system (allowing the car to go very fast, very quickly). He calls it his "stealth fighter," because by appearance nobody would know how fast it is. He also has a "real" race car, a 1927 Model T roadster body housing a 454-cubic-inch, electronic-fuel-injected, methanol-burning engine, which he is building at Kennedy's Dynotune on Niagara Falls Boulevard, North Tonawanda.

For better or worse, nobody tunes a racing engine manually any more, Krause says. "Computers have brought sophistication to drag racing. It used to all be done by the seat of the pants. Now there are sensors all over the car to retrieve data on clutch slip, wheel speed, RPM, rate of acceleration and air-fuel ratio. Computer software is used to tune the car so it can run as fast as possible."

Technology even has made obsolete the concept of "stepping on the gas" at the starting line. Krause says many cars now are equipped with an electronic device called a delay box that brakes the transmission while the driver holds the gas pedal to the floor. If everything works perfectly, the programmed-in "delay" time expires at the precise instant the "go" light flashes, the transmission engages and the car leaps forward.

None of this gadgetry and horsepower comes cheap. "In drag racing there is always a conflict between making racing competitive and making it affordable," says Krause. "The more money you spend, the faster you go. In a 'heads up' race, where you leave the line together, the person with the most money often wins because he has the fastest car."

One alternative that evens the odds is called "bracket racing." Krause explains how it works: "In a given class of car there is a minimum time allowed to cover a quarter mile called the index time, which is determined by the national racing association. The first person who gets to the finish line closest to that time without going faster wins.

"It takes a lot of skill or technical tricks to do that," says Krause. "You have to adjust constantly to atmospheric conditions -- the barometric pressure, temperature, humidity -- the condition of the track. Differences are measured in thousandths of a second."

Yet another type of competition is called "dial-in racing," or handicapping. Both drivers predict -- "dial-in" -- how fast they will run the quarter mile. The slower car leaves the starting line first. The difference between the two dial-in times determines when the faster car leaves. The first car to reach the finish line wins, unless it runs faster than its dial-in time. Then it loses.

One feature common to all drag races is the decibel level, which might be a deterrent to the uninitiated, but to aficionados, it is one of the attractions.

"It's incredibly loud," concedes Krause. "That's one thing we love about it. My new engine is incredibly loud, but sometimes we start it up just to listen to it."

Not a scenario common to a hospital emergency department, where the loudest noise is likely to be an ambulance siren's wail.

"This is very different from medicine," says Krause. "Maybe that's why I like it. It's mostly blue-collar guys, but I think I'm kind of a blue-collar doctor. After all, emergency medicine is really shift work.

"But it's not just the people. Drag-racing is very simple, very elementary. It's mano-a-mano, no holds barred. One person wins, one person loses. Simple."