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Grudge Racing

Two lanes, two drivers, two cars, thousands of dollars, and only one winner. At the drag strips of Orlando, Florida, you’re only as good as your last winning bet.

I’m outside in the middle of nowhere on the outskirts of Orlando, Florida. There are buzzards circling overhead, maybe a dozen of them. A faint smell of burnt rubber lingers in the air, and the pavement all around me is literally on fire. I’m surrounded by thousands of people, and where I am, nothing is what it seems. It’s December, but it’s hotter than hell.

The crowd is getting excited to see John Gotti and the Chosen One compete for the championship belt. But despite the way it sounds, this ain’t some backyard wrestling competition.

This is a gathering of gamblers from all over the country, who get together in Florida every year for four days to bet sky high with each other on head-to-head, pedal-to-the-metal, all-out drag racing.

No Guts No Glory is held at Orlando Speed World, which is an NHRA member track. The NHRA is the National Hot Rod Association, the governing body for drag racing in America. It holds all sorts of sanctioned races—what it calls “class racing”—among professional drivers.

This, however, is not an NHRA event. Grudge racing is more like pickup basketball. There’s no governing body, no official rules or leaderboards. Simply put, grudge racing is any two drivers in any two cars that can agree to race.

That’s right. The John Gotti I mentioned before isn’t the deceased New York City mob boss come back to life to wrestle someone for a belt. John Gotti is a cherry-red 1969 Camaro, and a man named Marcus “The Axeman” Birt has hauled it all the way from Macon, Georgia, to challenge a car called the Chosen One from North Carolina for the title of the fastest grudge car in America.

“This is what we call the Super Bowl of grudge racing,” says Prostock Joe, host of the popular internet show Smack Talk TV. “We’ve got cars present from almost every state of the union.”

Grudge racing has been a part of motorsports for as long as there has been professional racing. In the 1930s and ’40s, grudge races were just that: side races between professional drivers who had grudges against each other.

Not like group races on oval tracks—this was two drivers who were pissed off about something that happened in a race, who decided to take each other on head-to-head.

While class racing matches up similar cars that should be equals under the hood and leaves the rest of the work to the drivers, grudge racing allows any two cars to match up on the track, so long as the drivers can agree to a bet.

In that sense, my 2010 Ford Escape could beat John Gotti, as long as I could get Marcus to give me a 650-foot head start.

So you can see how the negotiations, or the “hustle,” is everything.

“You got to know the car you’re running, do some research, because everybody’s out to try to [win] whichever way they can,” says Marcus. “The stipulations is the hard part, because you try to make the race, even if you’re slower than that person.”

Knowing the car you’re up against, however, is no easy task. Even if you negotiate a spot you think is fair, you still might get whupped. Because you might underestimate your opponent’s car. While some of these cars, like John Gotti, look pretty sweet, most of them look like they were bought off Craigslist.

What’s under the hood is a closely guarded secret. In fact, some people call this “NT” racing, for “no time,” because they make the track turn off the timers so nobody can see how fast the cars are going. That’s all just part of the hustle in grudge.

“Horsepower costs money,” says Mike, a grudge racer from Palm Beach, Florida. “These guys might have some ugly cars, but [there] might be $200,000 invested in the car. You know what I mean?”

Marcus Birt agrees.

“Right, it’s all a game. It’s who’s got the best hustle. You see some cars beat up, dents in the side of them. That car looks like it’s worth 10 grand, [but] the motor’s worth 60. But a lot of them don’t pop their hoods. I don’t really care who sees mine because everybody knows what I do. I do this all the time. So you can’t hide it for so long.”

The place was crawling with hustlers. I’m not exactly a stranger to the scene, to that vibe, but at No Guts No Glory, it was kind of a new feeling. Like I could barely get out of there without people wanting to try and take me for every dollar I had. Forget about betting on races—if you show up there with a pocketful of money, if you’re looking to gamble? It’s going to find you.

Host: David Hill
Producers: Bobby Wagner, Mike Wargon, Vikram Patel
Sound Design: Bobby Wagner
Mixing and Mastering: Scott Somerville
Theme song: Isaac Lee