David Gates was 16 when he first got behind the wheel of a drag racing car at Maryland International Raceway in Mechanicsville.
It was a souped-up dark orange Ford Mustang, sporting 850 horsepower. Gates and his father, also named David Gates, had done most of the modifications themselves at the elder Gates’ automotive repair and performance shop in Mechanicsville.
Gates accelerated down the straight stretch of track for his first pass, his father watching. It took Gates 10.32 seconds to go the one-quarter mile, his speed topping out at 134 miles per hour. He relayed his thoughts to his dad.
“I came back from that pass, I looked at my dad, I said, ‘I need to go faster.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘Aw, [expletive].’ He said, ‘This is this is either gonna get really expensive or really dangerous.’”
Gates’ next pass was faster, shaving a bit more than a tenth of a second off his time. That didn’t satisfy him. Neither did breaking past 150 mph to finish in less than 9 seconds after installing a nitrous oxide system.
“I got bit by the speed bug as a kid,” Gates said. “Ever since then I just wanted to keep going faster, and faster, and faster and faster.”
Gates, now 23, is about to step up his speed game up once again by becoming a jet car driver. He’s heading out to the Midwest soon to secure his license. Barring any hitches, next year he’ll be racing in a dragster wrapped around a repurposed military jet engine — one that, conditions permitting, can hit speeds in excess of 300 mph.
“Ate up with it”
Growing up, Gates was a “good kid,” said Dina Gates, his mother. “He pretty much stuck close to me.”
He was “sort of like an old soul,” she added. He would ride his bike to visit older neighbors to check in on them and chat them up.
“People take to David when they meet him,” she said.
Gates said his family played a big part in his interest in racing.
His father was a successful drag racer, traveling all around the country in a drag racing circuit for Ford cars for more than five years. Gates’ older sister, Nicole, was “one of the fastest women in the country,” the elder Gates said: a professional all-terrain vehicle racer with multiple championships under her belt. The younger Gates was in awe of those accomplishments.
When he was 11, Gates received a junior dragster from his parents for Christmas, a miniaturized Top Fuel car with a tiny fraction of the horsepower of those top-tier vehicles.
Gates’ mom took Gates and his new dragster to Maryland International Raceway for some test passes. There he saw Jill Canuso, who was the driver of a jet car called the Queen of Diamonds, doing passes at the same time. He seized the chance to talk to her when she was available.
“She just made such an impression on him, and, you know, really took an interest in him,” Dina Gates said. “That definitely, I think, really stuck with him.”
Around the same time, Gates’ father took him to a ride-along event at one of his Fun Ford races in Ohio. There, the pre-teen Gates was able to be side by side with his father going 130 miles per hour.
“A lot of parents are very skeptical about taking their kids over 60-70 miles an hour,” Gates said. “My dad was strapping me in a race truck and we’re blasting down the quarter-mile together.”
“He was just eaten up with it,” the elder Gates said. “Loved it.”
Asked if there is something that many drag car drivers have in common, Sarah Edwards, who drove the Queen of Diamonds II for three years and is a friend of Gates, said “it depends on who you ask.”
“If you ask the average person, they think we’re crazy, right? Because we’re basically horizontal skydivers,” she said. With jet cars, she added, “we’re strapping ourselves to these rockets, we’re flying down a quarter-mile in less than five and a half seconds at speeds of 290 plus miles an hour, you know. So, yeah, it definitely takes a certain type of person.”
But there is a lot more to the sport than donning the gear and “hitting the button to get there quick,” she said. Drag racing involves a lot of math, science and technology. With modern cars, for example, the tuning process involves hooking systems up to laptop computers to tweak numbers.
It’s essential that a drag racer is levelheaded and who appreciates the danger they’re in, Edwards said. She’s confident Gates has what it takes to succeed in a jet car; as a member of an opposing crew for several years, she saw that dedication in Gates on the racetrack.
“The future is super bright for him,” Edwards said. “I told him I’m his biggest fan — well next to his mom, of course, I would never take her spot — but I can’t wait to be at a race, cheering him on.”
“I’m gonna do it.”
For the past six years, Gates has been accumulating as much drag racing experience as possible, working in his dad’s shop on weekdays and racing on the weekends. He raced the orange Mustang and, later, a car in the faster Pro Modified class — although he admits he wasn’t as successful as he wanted to be with the latter.
“It was still another notch in my belt to say that I had the experience to drive those cars,” Gates said.
Once Gates sets his mind to something, he isn’t easily discouraged. Gates’ father said that was a mentality he tried to instill in both his children. If you’re having fun, give it your all.
“I always taught my kids, if you can’t do it to the fullest and do it to the best, there’s no sense in doing it. When you quit having fun doing it, it’s time to quit doing it,” the elder Gates said. “If somebody tells you [that] you can’t do something, show them that you can.”
Don’t tell Gates he can’t do something.
The elder Gates recalled when his son decided to compete to make it on the Maryland International Raceway’s running list of the top 10 fastest street legal cars. Gates was one of the few competitors racing with a nitrous-equipped car, while most of the others had turbocharged setups — which some view as superior.
“They all teased him and told him … ‘You’ll never get to the top of this list with a nitrous car.’ And David said, ‘I’m going to go right to number one,’” the elder Gates said.
Gates won a race for the right to call out number 10, won that, and then broke into the top 10. Within three weeks, Gates was at the top of the list.
Gates said when his competitors told him he couldn’t do something, they were messing up. (He used a more colorful word.)
“I’m gonna do it,” Gates said.
The Blazing Angel
Gates’ entree into the jet car world in 2018 came from a passion other than racing: photography.
What started as his sister having him take pictures of her with a point and shoot camera — “Because she was some big movie star or whatever,” Gates said, laughing — had by then turned into a fledgling business. His photos were being featured in trade publications like Dragzine.com.
Mark Tinari, a photographer for RPM Magazine and a friend of and mentor to Gates, said he watched Gates fight for a time with some “not so perfect” camera gear while still managing to snap some impressive shots.
Tinari encouraged Gates to get some better equipment and got him involved at the magazine. Since then, almost every shoot Gates has done for the publication has landed him a photo on the cover.
“I don’t even do that,” Tinari said.
Gates met the driver of a jet dragster called the Blazing Angel at a 2018 race that pitted a jet car against a pro mod.
Gates asked the driver, Robert Albertson if he could take a photo out in front of a jet car while it was stationary and the afterburner was lit, belching fire and smoke. That picture resulted in an invitation to join Albertson’s crew. Last year, Albertson gave Gates a chance to do a pass with Blazing Angel at a racetrack in Georgia.
“It was the greatest thing ever, you know, it was everything I hoped for,” Gates said.
The “crash monkey”
As Gates prepares for his jet car license test, both of his parents acknowledge that they worry about their son. But they’re happy to see Gates live out his dream and they believe in his abilities.
“Am I scared in a way? Yes, I am. Because anything can happen. But I got faith in my son. If something happens, I know he can get his way out of it,” the elder Gates said.
“I support him a thousand percent,” said Dina Gates. “This has been his passion.”
Gates crashed the orange Mustang during a pass at a Virginia racetrack on July 9, 2019. At 300 feet, the water line came loose, slicking the ground beneath the tires. He managed to keep the car straight for a bit before it careened into a wall.
The Mustang was totaled. Gates took a hit to his shoulder and his pride. The shoulder healed in a few days.
The car’s diagnostics later showed Gates had cut off the throttle less than four-tenths of a second after the first sign something had gone wrong.
Gates said it is his job to always be prepared for any situation.
“I call it the crash monkey. That monkey is always on your back. You never know when that monkey is going to attack.”
On the way home from the crash, Gates was on his phone, looking for his next car.