They have their gears and their wrenches as well as their pumped-up cars, which are worth more money than most people's houses.

They have their rear-end pumpkins, ductile taper face rings, six-shooter module selectors and other simple devices no average person can easily identify.

But, in today's finals at the O'Reilly National Hot Rod Association Spring Nationals, professional drag racers are missing something even more crucial than the ever-important kind noise capacitor.

There is no defending champion to race against.

Hermiston's Mitch Myers, who has retired in part because of a disagreement with the NHRA on alcohol fuel percentage, is not defending his 2004 season title.

Not only is he not racing, he's not even paying attention.

Since his retirement after winning the 2004 Top Alcohol Dragster class - and setting a world record in the process - Myers isn't paying much attention to the sport that used to consume his entire being.

"I haven't even watched a race on TV this year," Myers said. "I don't have any desire to go to the tracks right now.

"Maybe that will change, but for right now, that's a pretty good indication it was time."

For now, the 48-year-old Myers is concentrating on the three grandsons he had never taken fishing as well as a new Harley that has only 350 miles on it.

When a guy spends 26 weeks on the road during the year, that kind of thing becomes a bit more important than arguing with the association about alcohol percentages and flying down the pavement at Mach .37.

Myers is not only embracing a slightly more domestic life, he recently realized how lucky he is to be around to enjoy it.

On April 4 in Tulsa, Okla., fellow TAD racer Michelle "Shelly" Howard's car experienced a blowover, meaning all four wheels left the ground. Her car eventually landed facing toward the starting line and the car continued to accelerate before hitting a chase vehicle at approximately 250 miles per hour.

Howard and her son, who was in the other vehicle, were killed instantly.

Investigators now believe Howard lost consciousness after the blowover and was unable to hit the engine's kill switch, cut fuel or deploy the parachutes.

Having raced countless times, that could have just as easily been Myers - and he knows it.

Myers recently marveled at how lucky he was in his racing days, having suffered only a few minor burns and a couple of other non-serious injuries.

"To come out of it unscathed and to come out of it at 48 years old, what else could you possibly ask for?" Myers asked.

Myers had actually been contemplating retirement for the last few years, and he is more than happy to go out a champion without defending his title.

He watched Jerry Rice play for the Seahawks last year, and it absolutely made him sick to see one of his all-time favorite players reduced to a bungling, stumbling joke of a receiver.

But that wasn't the major force in his decision to retire. Sure, his heart wasn't fully in it, and he knew he was on top of the world of injected nitro cars, but it was a decision by the NHRA to change the allowable alcohol percentage in his racing fuel that made the difference.

Flat out, it was costing Myers a fortune and, he felt, making a mockery of drag racing.

At the start of the 2003 season, the NHRA changed the rules in an effort to create more parity between injected nitro cars, which Myers races, and blown alcohol cars.

The NHRA required injected nitro cars to place 85 pounds of weight on their cars, which Myers said is equivalent to 1/10 of a second. With that burdensome weight requirement, Myers found a simple solution: Build a smaller engine.

He did, at a cost of $150,000, and the results spoke for themselves in 2004. He struggled during the warm-weather months - as all injected nitro cars do - before dominating once the weather was cooler and the blown alcohol cars struggled.

But after the 2004 season, the NHRA decided to change the rules, again, this time messing with the percentage of alcohol in fuel.

This winter, the NHRA announced that fuel used in cars like Myers' would have to be more than 96 percent nitro methane.

Faced with more research and the possibility of creating a new car, Myers had seen enough.

The new percentage, he said, was simply ridiculous, and he compared the rule change to benching Tom Brady because the Patriots were simply too good.

"I knew that it was just going to castrate these cars," Myers said.

Myers disdains the NHRA's attempt at parity, which he sees as impossible.

And who can blame him for not wanting to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a car that could be obsolete in a year?

Let's say you buy a truck. It has all the trimmings, an extended cab and enough horsepower to pull a dead elephant up a mountain.

Then, the very next year, the government requires all trucks to run on Old English malt liquor.

This was the situation Myers found himself in, so he called it quits.

And it's not so bad, really. While interviewing him on the phone, I heard him helping someone tackle a problem involving 2-percent milk.

It's a far cry from figuring out what type of fuel will make a car explode down a track, but for now, Myers is content.

He will not be a champion at the end of 2005, but his consolation prize is pretty sweet. He still has his life, he has a family and he has plenty of time to do whatever he wants.

I'd take that faster than you can say ductile duramoly rings.

---

Michael Brenner is a sports writer for the East Oregonian.

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