A Night at the Races | Hawaiian Airlines

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A Night at the Races

Fast gas and funny cars at Maui Raceway Park.

night action shot of race car driving by with a blur of blue

Corey Yamashita rolls up to the starting line at Maui Raceway Park in his wasp-like dragster. He revs the engine, and the fat back tires spin in place, sending clouds of nostril-singeing smoke into the twilight sky. Once the tires are hot and sticky enough to grab the pavement, Corey slows to an idle and waits. The starting lights flash amber, then green. The dragster leaps forward, disappearing down the track to cross the finish line at 191 miles per hour in 6.96 seconds. The announcer crows: "Corey Yamashita breaks the six-second barrier!" 

A parachute deploys from the dragster's tail, slowing it to a stop. Any driver who clocks over 150 mph here must pack a parachute. Racers who exceed 200 mph-as Corey nearly did-need two. "This track is top-notch," says Ryan Pepple, the Oahu-based announcer who regularly flies among islands to call races. "This is where people run their personal best."

Maui Raceway is the shortest official track in Hawaii, occupying the old Puunene airstrip. In the no-man's-land off of Mokulele Highway, the motorsports park has a whiff of Mad Max: Fury Road. The only indicator of its existence is a stock car hoisted midair alongside the highway with today's date and "cash only" signs duct-taped to the stand. But the view from the starting line is pure Pole Position fantasy: Puffball clouds float above a flat basin bordered by two hulking volcanoes, Haleakala to the east and Mauna Kahalawai to the west. For those who crave the thrill of pedal-to-the-metal driving, this is the place for a fix.

woman holds man's arm gazing intently in the same direction with a dark background and dark clothes

(TOP AND BOTTOM) “It’s a small community. Everybody knows each other,” says driver Corey Yamashita. “Plenty of tourists come and don’t think we race.”

group of people at night in distance standing on race track with a blinding light casting over the center


On the third Friday of each month, anywhere from 90 to 120 vehicles line up to race head-to-head down the quarter-mile straightaway. Around a thousand spectators come to watch. Tailgating is its own sport here, with miniature camps set up along the length of the track-competitors on the east side, spectators on the west. Starting at 4 p.m., a caravan of trucks arrives with beds and trailers packed full of lawn chairs, tarps, barbecues and-most critically-earplugs.

 At this isolated track, motorheads indulge in the cathartic thrill of roaring engines, squealing tires and smoky burnouts. Speed is the primary goal but style is a close second. Tonight's lineup runs the gamut from dune buggies to immaculately restored muscle cars of every vintage and color. Guava Jam 2, a Volkswagen Bug painted the exact color of the tropical fruit, pulls up beside Nite Mare, a boxy blue '79 Mustang with a shadowy horse galloping across the driver's door. The alien hovercraft parked nearby is actually a highly modified Porsche-sans roof, windshield and headlights and covered in silver paint with rainbow sparkles. Then there are the sleek dragsters: aerodynamic road rockets with bicycle-sized front tires, fat rear "slicks," or treadless tires, and cockpits so tiny drivers have to remove the steering wheel to climb in and out.

 Accommodating this diversity of vehicles is no easy task for the Valley Isle Timing Association, the host of this monthly motor pageant. Competitors fall into various National Hot Rod Association-sanctioned classes: motorcycles, sportsman (full-bodied cars), grocery getters (four-door sedans) and fast gas (vehicles that boost their fuel with nitrous oxide). Because there are so few vehicles in each class, race organizers created a bracket system that allows cars of varying weight and horsepower to compete against one another. Drivers establish their speed in a qualifying round, then race against vehicles of similar rank in elimination rounds. Most racers are here to beat their own best times-and to simply feel the rush. "There's a handful of guys who are really competitive," Ryan says. "Everyone else just comes for fun."

Corey cruises past the long row of tailgaters, food trucks and the small grandstand back to the competitors' side of the track. His 19-year-old daughter, Kayla Yamashita, helps guide him between the family's two trailers. Part of the pit crew tonight, Kayla started racing at 9 years old-alongside her dad, older sister Kylee Yamashita and grandpa Ricky Kametani. "We're adrenaline junkies," she shrugs. She wears the family's unofficial uniform: a black t-shirt with "Mountain Man Racing" emblazoned across the back. "That's my papa Ricky," she says, referring to Mountain Man. "For a few years he was the fastest man on Maui."

silhouette of three men standing by race track and outdoor cover with sunset in background.

 Sunset silhouettes the park’s starting line team, including starter Glenn Hanzawa and track specialist Mark Caires.


Ricky exits one of the trailers looking a little like an astronaut in his fireproof racing suit and hair disheveled from his helmet. The semi-retired Kula onion farmer has been a Maui Raceway regular since 1974. "Cars were always my passion," he says, popping a mouthful of M&M's. "My community college friends, we all had hot rods." His first race car is now a cult classic: a W-31 Oldsmobile Cutlass-gold with black stripes and factory-designed for speed. "Racing can be expensive," he says. "But it's not that hard to get started if you have some mechanical skills. I started out slow, low to mid-thirteens." 

Drag races are measured in seconds. Ricky shaved his runs from thirteen seconds down to ten in his second car, a 1971 Z28 Camaro. "Then," he says, "we started getting more serious." He began modifying his vehicles' chassis and improving their traction. At his peak he invested in a super-charged car and punched up to 229 mph: six seconds flat. "That was fast," he says. 

That was sixteen years ago. By then Corey was catching up to him, and his granddaughters were almost big enough to reach the pedals of a junior dragster-a smaller, slower version of the adult race car. The Mountain Man hung up his helmet to coach the girls. When they were toddlers, he pushed them around the driveway to acclimate them to the brakes. "They caught on quick. They loved it," he says. "There were a lot of girls racing at that time. They outnumbered the boys because all the racing families had girls." 

Kylee had to talk her younger sister into competing, but once she did, they both racked up wins: first and second place, Rookie of the Year. When they progressed from the junior to adult division, they crossed out "Mountain Man" on the family logo and wrote in "Mountain Girls." "People were kind of shocked to hear that we raced," says Kayla. "Especially when we were so young. It catches people off guard." Their performance impressed their dad. "I think girls are better drivers," Corey says. "Their reaction time is better. My girls win a lot."

race track in Hawaii with a man in neon vest standing between two lanes in the center.

(TOP) A pair of motorcyclists in the Pro Bike division wait at the starting line, with Haleakala in the background. (BOTTOM) Nelson deRego (left) and Lourdes Palpallatoc watch from the bleachers. Races will continue well after dark.

two people looking in the same direction holding onto top of wired fence against a blue sky

(BELOW) Ricky “the Mountain Man” Kametani, the “fastest man on Maui,” at least according his granddaughter Kylee, who also races along with her sister Kayla. 

Man in a black shirt

After the Mountain Girls left for college, Corey encouraged Ricky to strap back into the driver's seat. The family's racing fleet currently consists of two flamboyantly painted dragsters: a red one with swirling purple-and-white flames, which Corey just returned in, and an orange-and-black striped tiger, which Ricky is driving. 

Dragsters aren't street legal, so the family transports them in two trailers. The twenty-four- and forty-foot-long mobile garages are outfitted with cabinets full of gear, tools and snacks. The setup takes tailgating to the next level. Tonight there's even a shave ice station. A family friend brought a portable machine along to serve icy, syrupy treats to sweaty competitors.

"Racing is good for me because all my family and friends come," says Corey. "Everybody enjoys it. It's our chance to get together." It's their chance to get together-or leave one another in the dust. Corey just learned that he'll race Ricky head-to-head in the next round.

Drag racing is nearly as old as the automobile. Not long after the first Fords rolled off the assembly line, thrill seekers sought to push their limits. By the 1930s, Wally Parks was converting Model T's to stripped-down, souped-up hot rods in his high school auto-shop class. Known as the grandfather of drag racing, he and his buddies timed one another zooming full throttle across Southern California's dry lake beds. In the 1940s, scores of servicemen returning home from WWII with a need for speed joined them. This growing gang of gearheads commandeered abandoned airstrips and empty highways. By the 1950s the San Fernando Valley was the scene of infamous rallies a la Grease and "Thunder Road." 

Parks wanted to legitimize his lifelong passion and in 1951 founded the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA). But safe places to race weren't always easy to find. Illegal street racing was an issue in Hawaii in 1956, when Honolulu county prosecutor George St. Sure recommended jail time for teens caught rocketing down Island roads. "For a boy to want to work a car over and learn about it is perfectly natural and healthy," St. Sure told the Honolulu Record. "Only he must learn that such a car is to be used in its proper place. That isn't public roads."

A half-dozen racetracks popped up around the Islands, mostly on old military runways. Only three remain: in Hilo on Hawaii Island, Kekaha on Kauai and Puunene on Maui. Maui's dragstrip is one of the five oldest in the country, in use since the early '50s. In 1963 Maui racers made it official and launched the Valley Isle Timing Association, a nonprofit devoted to promoting safe motorsports. In days past, shipping cars was less expensive and drag racers traveled among islands. Nowadays racers from O'ahu store their vehicles on Maui and fly over to compete. It's a small but lively community.

"When the Fast and Furious craze was going, we had well over three hundred members," says association president Kaleo Freitas. "Participation is wide-every age group, male and female," adds the group's treasurer, Mark Caires. He serves as the race starter-when he isn't behind the wheel of his '63 Corvette. "That's a nice thing about motorsports: As long as you can drive a car, you can race. You don't have to be big and strong. It's all about skills. It's not who spends the most money, either. We've got people who drive their everyday work car and they're super competitive." 

two race cars racing on a dusty road with a plume of smoke
Dueling Novas: Cam Ichiki’s Chevy Nova (at right) lines up against Christian Motonaga’s in the Pro Sportsman division.

Drag racing's transformation from renegade rallies to family-friendly sport hasn't impacted its cool quotient. Sarah Dildine watches spectators ogle her husband's snazzy '34 Ford Coupe. "It's his first love," she says, "but I hold the pink slip." The firecracker-red hot rod is a throwback to the bootleggers of old, with an exposed big-block Chevy engine and old-timey hand-painted advertisements. "It's fun," Rich Dildine confesses with a big grin. "It's like a time capsule."

Rich developed a drag-racing addiction as a teen-a fact he failed to disclose to Sarah on their first date. "He didn't tell me when I met him that his idea of a family weekend was to roll up and act as a pit crew," she says, feigning annoyance. "We've been coming since I was pregnant with Ryker. Now she's twelve and she loves it. We've got pictures of her as a baby climbing up the fence to get in wearing headphones." Ryker nods. She knows her mom is proud of her mechanical skills. She might be the only Iao Intermediate student who knows how to swap street tires for slicks and can identify a Mopar eight and three-quarter-that's the prized rear axle her dad added to the Coupe. "Every detail matters," says Rich. "So much goes into racing. Then you go out and lose by three thousandths of a second!"

As the last bit of daylight disappears, pit crews tweak and tighten; temperature and humidity affect engine performance. The cars will go faster at night. "Tune-ups aren't done with wrenches anymore. It's all high-tech," says Freitas. "Drivers get computerized data on their whole run and can make adjustments." Corey gives his dragster more horsepower by adding nitrous oxide to the gas. "But the more you push it," he says, "the closer you get to the edge."

silhouette of man with headphones and a microphone attachment in red shirt against a sunset background

(TOP) Valley Isle Timing Association president Kaleo Freitas. (BOTTOM) VITA vice president and stager Ray Orikasa.

man in bright neon yellow shirt with headphones and a microphone attachment next to a pole

(BELOW) The night’s first-place winner in the Pro Sportsman category, Petro Palad, with his spoils.


closeup of man in blue sporty shirt holding shiny trophy in arms.

He and Ricky take their places at the starting line in their twin dragsters. Ricky's tiger is a fraction of a second slower, so he takes off first. Both drivers accelerate with such velocity their front tires lift off the ground. They shoot like comets down the track. Just before the finish line, Corey passes Ricky, clocking 6.97 seconds. The crowd hoots and hollers out their names as they wheel back to their trailers. 

Kayla is on the phone with her sister, who can't believe that Dad beat Papa. But Corey's luck runs out in his next match. He loses to Wild Ride, a blue-and-silver Chevy Vega driven by Scott Hirata. By the final round, most of the pit crews have packed up and gone home. The winners head to the observation tower to collect their small cash prizes and trophies. Kyle Shimizu from Oahu holds up his second-place sportsman trophy for a photo. "I had a lot of fun," he grins. "I'll be back next month." 

Kayla helps her dad carefully stuff his parachute back into its case. "Taking off at the starting line feels like the initial drop on a roller coaster," she says. "Your whole body-everything tingles." Corey thinks for a minute. "It's almost like controlling something out of control," he says. "As soon as you get maa [accustomed] to it-you don't think, you just do." Papa Ricky, who's been at it for fifty years, adds his two cents. "It's just the power. Once you feel the power, it's hard to describe."

Story By Shannon Wianecki

Photos By Vincent Bercasio

V26 №4 June - July 2023