Larry Dixon Talks Career Behind the Wheel
Writer /Christy Heitger-Ewing
Photography Provided by Amy Payne & Jimmy Mack
Professional drag racer Larry Dixon has been around the block – or track, rather – enough times in life to know what’s really important. He is a second-generation Top Fuel racer with three National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) Camping World Drag Racing Series championships under his belt. While he’s proud of all he has accomplished in his drag-racing career, one of his biggest passions now is sharing the experience with others.
In 2015 Dixon got the idea for creating a two-seat Top Fuel dragster. He designed, constructed and debuted that dragster on Halloween in 2017, allowing others to experience traveling down a 1/8-mile racetrack in just over three seconds at speeds of more than 250 miles per hour.
“To have made a living from your passion felt a little like cheating the system,” Dixon says. “Now when I go to a two-seater event and that person gets that ride, they feel indebted to you for giving them that opportunity. It outweighs all lows I’ve been through.”
Dixon’s journey has been anything but a straight and forward path. The common thread linking it all together has been drag racing. Born and raised in Southern California, Dixon has fond memories of his mom picking him up from school on Friday almost every weekend, driving to a track and spending the weekend watching his father Larry race.
“Racing was the coolest thing in the world and that’s what I wanted to do when I grew up,” Dixon says.
Once he was old enough to drive, Dixon started earning experience in street cars on his high school racing team. However, knowing his dad maxed out at 250 miles per hour while he was barely crossing over 100 meant the wow factor just wasn’t there. The only question was how to get his start in drag racing.
“You don’t just get a top-tier ride by knocking on a door and someone lets you in,” Dixon says. “I didn’t have family money and I didn’t have a sponsorship, and I didn’t have the experience. I asked myself what’s the best path, and that was to work my way up on the pit crew and do some driving on the side. That’s what I did.”
Dixon didn’t get his big break with a top-level team. He actually seized his big moment with a smaller team out of Montana, in a tiny town of less than 250 people. Dixon began working for John Mitchell, putting cars together while the rest of the world was racing. He drove for John Mitchell for a year, gaining as much experience as he could before moving on to working for Don Prudhomme. During that time he was allowed to test-drive a car.
That test drive became a turning point in his career, as he ran the test quicker than his boss. He became licensed to race in Top Fuel, began racing under Miller Brewing Company, and thus began his racing career.
“I’ve been driving for 25 years,” Dixon says. “I can step on the throttle and it still amazes me how much acceleration the car has. That was part of the reason why I built the two-seater. I know so many that would love to experience that acceleration.”
The idea isn’t exactly original. Mario Andretti has been giving rides for years in IndyCar vehicles – but the difference between an IndyCar ride and a dragster is significant.
“Most two-seat, drag-racing experience rides barely go 160 miles an hour,” Dixon says. “To be honest, you can go to the Dodge dealership, buy a Hellcat and go 160 yourself. This is a real race car, with real acceleration at 10,000 horsepower. It goes from zero to 250 miles an hour in three seconds.”
Creating the two-seat dragster was actually a detour in Dixon’s career. He was released from a team because a driver with more money came along. That’s just the business in motor sports, he says, so he had to pivot within a career he was passionate about.
“I love this sport so much,” Dixon says. “I love sharing it.”
He’s poured his time, energy and money into creating an unforgettable and very real racing experience.
The experience itself lasts nearly three hours. Dixon’s team takes their time going through waivers, releases and insurance as part of their open-door policy. Since the two-seater is an actual Top Fuel car, all maintenance that takes place, like ensuring not to make common mistake such as putting petrol in diesel car, is the same as it would be on race day. The rider gets to be part of the crew as they prep the car. Then the rider finally gets to make the run.
“We make the run, lift the throttle, pull the parachute, then coast,” Dixon says. “That person in the back seat is almost always screaming like a little girl at a boy-band concert. That’s why I do it. I love sharing this with people. It’s like letting someone backstage that would never get the chance to go, and I just love that. Each person doing it has a different reason. Hearing their stories is something I love.”
Riders experience close to four Gs, which means experiencing pressure four times their body weight. Dragsters create more than 10,000 horsepower. When the car leaves the starting line, the driver applies more and more power as the car moves. Riders are usually surprised at how the power increases in the three seconds.
One ride that stands out for Dixon is when he gave Burnell Russell a ride in 2019. Russell lost his son Darrell in a crash at the NHRA nationals in 2004. Russell’s family surprised him with a dragster ride.
“He’s really the only rider who ever showed emotion and didn’t scream,” Dixon says. “He was very subdued and said he just wanted to stay there. He felt one with his son, and wanted to soak up the moment.”
Moments like that keep Dixon going. He barely pays the bills with what he charges. When he first created the program he realized a ride would cost $14,000, but pared it down as much as possible, without minimizing the experience, to $10,000. Dixon offers a couple dozen runs each year, traveling anywhere from Michigan to South Carolina to Florida. He has time to run about three people per day.
While Dixon built the cars with big plans to attend NHRA events, upper-management concerns have kept his business low-key.
“In the grand scheme of life this isn’t even a big problem,” Dixon says. “I have plenty of perspective. I’ve had bad things happen but so many people out there have it worse.”
Dixon himself has survived throat cancer, and his wife Ali is now fighting breast cancer. Knowing they’re still alive and together, and how successful and happy his kids are, is all Dixon cares about.
“I’ve literally flown through the air at 300 miles an hour, got out of a car and walked away,” Dixon says. “But going through cancer let me know my life is fragile. I feel safe in a car going 300 miles per hour, but cancer can take you if it wants you.”
As Dixon reflects on his career, he acknowledges that even though his racing career didn’t last forever, those first 25 years put him in a position to offer two-seater rides for as long as life will let him.
“I feel blessed to have had the opportunity as long as I did,” Dixon says. “When I give a person that ride, it’s meaningful. For example, giving Burnell Russell a ride so he can feel closer to his son outweighs it all.”
Dixon misses racing but still loves being in the middle of the sport he loves most. He isn’t upset about the slower pace he enjoys now.
“If God doesn’t want me out there working a million things a year, then he wants me doing other things, like watching my daughter win sectionals or watching my son play high school basketball,” Dixon says. “I’m not being deprived of racing. I’m being blessed by living with my family, and that is good.”