Yellow, yellow, yellow, green . . . as the last amber bulb lights up on the “Christmas tree,” I step on the gas–no, wait, that was the brake. My 1999 Honda Civic, with its mangled passenger-side mirror, lurches forward as I correct my mistake. By this time my first run down the professional drag strip at the Route 66 Raceway in Joliet is more or less pointless, but I accelerate anyway, apprehensive but exhilarated as I literally put the pedal to the metal for the first time in my life.

In 17 seconds, I get up to 71 miles per hour, a speed I’ve driven many times. Reaching it in so short a time, though, on the straight, narrow confines of the quarter-mile strip, it feels much faster. Professional drivers sometimes get up over 330 in the same space–shifting five times in four seconds–but today my dusty Civic and I are welcome here, as are the minivans, pickups, and rusty beaters lined up alongside gleaming vintage muscle cars, sleek speedsters, and full-on funny cars. That’s because this hot Saturday is devoted to one of the raceway’s popular Test & Tune events, known in the vernacular as “run what ya brung.” The events draw a mix of curiosity seekers, serious racers tuning up their skills for the professional circuit, and street racers looking for a legal alternative.

In 2003, after sting operations caught young racers dragging on the southwest side, City Council passed an anti-drag racing ordinance that instituted a $500 impoundment fee and $150 towing and storage fee for violators. “After The Fast and the Furious came out there was more focus on street racing,” says Brian Regnerus, who recently left his job as Route 66’s spokesperson. “So we let people know this is a safe alternative. Our business grew a lot after that. It’s an opportunity for 16-year-old kids who just got their license or 50-, 60-year-old adults to do it in a controlled, safe environment. When new cars come out people bring them here to see if the manufacturers were telling the truth about how fast they can go. Or you can come out here with your Yugo, your tractor, or your grocery cart.”

Two cars go down the strip at a time, usually matched up randomly, and the pro timing equipment logs their performance to a billionth of a second. And though there’s nothing riding on the results, officials are happy to accommodate a friendly grudge match.

Route 66, which is adjacent to the NASCAR-ready Chicagoland Speedway at 500 Speedway Blvd. in Joliet, holds Test & Tune events almost every Tuesday evening and some Wednesdays through September 21. Regular joes simply pay $25 and pass a minimal safety inspection to take as many runs down the strip as there is time–usually three or four per person. Tickets for spectators are $15; kids under 12 get in free. Call 815-727-7223 or see for more info.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marty Perez.