The asphalt at Medford's Champion Raceway vibrates as a raucous parade of race cars rumble by on their way to the staging lanes.
Powerful engines throb as they roll through the temporary village created by gargantuan trailers decorated with racing logos and decals. The air is heavily scented with high-octane fuel and burning rubber.
Oblivious to the cacophony surrounding them, Khanh Huhtala and husband Brandon hover around their race car like surgeons in the operating room. The dance of preparation is well choreographed, each having performed this ritual hundreds of times over the past 15-plus years.
Since the early years with their first '68 Camaro to this year's stunning Jerry Bickel 2010 Pontiac GXP, there could be no more capable and dedicated crew than this petite, 103-pound wife. Khanh and Brandon Huhtala have worked as a team while building their life, raising their family and making a name for themselves in the world of drag-racing.
"We started running the local brackets out at SIR (Seattle International Raceway) at events like Super Chevy and Good Guys around 1990. We were racing the Camaro with the big block 396," says Khanh Huhtala.
"In 1991, he started racing in the street brackets. He didn't really need my help with things until we got the Nova in 1992, and we started running the NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) divisional circuit. We ran that car for about five years until we came across the opportunity to buy the Cutlass."
From the outside, steering a high-powered race car down the track toward the finish line looks pretty straightforward. You wait for the light, punch the throttle and whoever crosses the finish line first wins, right? Not exactly.
The intricacies of brackets, indexes and complex racing strategies are far more complicated than most casual fans can comprehend. And keeping a high-strung, temperamental vehicle in top form requires near superhuman patience and know-how.
Tension arcs between the couple as each one performs the critical steps necessary for peak performance. Wordlessly, they each complete the tasks that can mean the difference between life and death at speeds above 180 miles per hour. Years of practice have forged a bond: He trusts that she knows her job as his crew; she trusts that he will come back from the finish line in one piece.
But in this dangerous sport, there are no guarantees. Twice, Huhtala has had to watch in horror as her husband lost control of his speeding machine and crashed into the barriers lining the track. The first time was in July 2000.
"We were running the Cutlass in a class called Top Comp at Bremerton Raceway. He was mid-track, probably pushing 160 (mph)," she recalls.
"We think there was some debris on the track, and it launched him into the other guy's lane. The other guy drove over our car, and during the impact, gas leaked from a fuel line and the whole front end caught on fire.
"The door was torn off, and Brandon got second- and third-degree burns on his face. It was just awful. His recovery was amazing though — no skin grafts, no scars. He was so lucky."
Then in July 2010, a spectacular crash that was viewed thousands of times on YouTube occurred in Sonoma, Calif. A split second after the joy of a winning run, the Cutlass went airborne and cartwheeled across the track. Brandon Huhtala walked away unscathed.
Most women would have thrown in the crew towel and said enough was enough. But Khanh Huhtala refuses to red-light her husband's dream.
The loudspeaker barks as the Competition Eliminator class is called to the staging lanes. Clouds of acrid smoke billow from the burnout box at Medford's Champion Raceway as Brandon Huhtala prepares his sleek red rocket — and his psyche — for the split-second departure when the green light shines.
Through the haze, a delicate woman emerges, a look of intense concentration transforming her features. Into her headset, she mouths words of calming encouragement to her husband of nearly 20 years.
"Baby, you can do this."