CHANGES, Part 2 -- TF Changes under scrutiny
By Phil R. Elliott
[This is a reprint of a July 27, 2004 draglist.com article by Phil. Considering the state of things it might make for some dialogue.]
spoke about television in Part 1 and I have a couple more questions.
Since when did poker and pool become sports? It seems both fill
airwaves now instead of smoke-filled bars.
As I’m sure so many
of you have, I have been shaken by Darrell Russell’s death and would
like to speak to the possible fixes so this doesn’t have to happen
First though, I’d like to remind everyone that death is
no respecter of where we are in our lives. Death cares not if the
person is evil and in the gutter, or how successful, loving and kind.
It comes along at what we deem as inopportune times. But, we rarely if
ever have much to say about it.
Since so much testimonial has
already been done I won’t add much to the epitaph of Darrell Russell
other than to say the few minutes I actually spent in his presence, he
seemed to be one of the most genuine human beings I’ve ever been
around. All he ever had to say was good/nice.
Instead, I’d like
to speak about some mechanical common sense items so overlooked by
rules makers. I am upset mostly due to the fact that NHRA has watched
serious accidents for a number of years and have chosen not to pursue
cures. There have been blowovers, tire explosions and serious looking
accidents that for the most part have been used in televised self
promotion. Besides Jimmy Nix and Blaine Johnson (I'm not forgetting
John Smith's major injuries), the drivers involved have walked away.
Dragracing has indeed been very lucky.
I scoff at a slightly
different rollbar padding and now some sort of aluminum or titanium
band-aids attached to the cage. I scoff at a slight nitro percentage
decrease. These steps are way too small in my humble opinion.
Let’s look at some TF history.
cars are basically the same structures conjured by Al Swindahl
following Jerry Ruth getting knocked out on an Indy qualifier in 1979.
Tire shake caused Jerry’s head to hit the rollcage, a common occurrence
with the much tighter rollbars in those days. Similar injuries led to
at least one driver’s death. Jerry suggested to Al that he never
suffered such head knocks in his FC, so why not build a larger dragster
The design for the new car was nothing but a set of
parameters and coincidences, most set by Ruth. First, the car had to
fit in his garage, so the wheelbase was set at 255 inches. Second, Ruth
insisted on a magnesium Dana 60 rear-end, the latest thing, slighter
larger/stronger and a few pounds lighter than a Ford. Third, since Ruth
ran both FC and TF, he wanted to make sure his starter was compatible
with both – the distance between that bigger rollcage and the engine
had to fit his straight-drive starters. It was exactly that simple.
new car came out and thundered. All those compromises made for kind of
a big, boxy, square, even ugly racecar, in comparison to the svelte,
needle-nosed dragsters we were so used to. But, the balance was nearly
perfect. AND, it was an immediate discovery that this 1500-pounder
actually took less power to run the same elapsed times as anything out
there. And pretty soon, virtually everyone at the top of the heap had
to have one.
Al Swindahl’s right arm at the time was Brad Hadman
and one of those many new customers that discovered Tacoma, Washington
was Joe Amato.
Over 25-years and hundreds of chassis making
thousands of runs, there is still a major similarity in that first “new
style” chassis and the very latest that roll out of Hadman’s or Murf
McKinney’s shops. I swear that if you did overlays, many of the
necessary tubes would match perfectly.
Another of Swindahl’s
main customers was Jerry Verheul, known best for his crewchief duties
on the series of Pacemaker/Bubble-Up machines driven by Gordie Bonin.
Jerry was a simple man that had a very good time just living. He was a
deep thinker always trying to figure out a better way of doing things
on the very limited budgets he was stuck in.
I must stop here to
say that I am extremely happy to have counted both Al and Jerry among
my friends. I spent many hours with both and they shared with me a
wealth of information that I was able to pass on to readers over the
years. Both died too young, both from the ravages of cancer. Both were
highly respected and remembered for their many contributions to racing.
Both have since been inducted into various dragrace Hall’s of Fame.
of those contributions left behind by Verheul was to his (and my) first
love, Unlimited Hydroplanes -- a driver safety capsule. He was so tired
of seeing his friends die that he stood up and did something.
they laughed when he suggested roll-over-structures and enclosed
cockpits in a race group that refused seatbelts. The “boat guys” as
we’ve called them for decades, always felt that getting tossed out was
the better option than getting trapped in an upside-down floater.
But Jerry pursued his ideas and eventually a couple
teams listened. Budweiser was an early convert, with FC-style roll bars
and a canopy straight off an F-16. Others still were non-believers –
“Why rollbars on water?” they giggled. But water turns to concrete at
far less than the 200mph these boats traveled, and soon, the capsule
was a proven commodity. Within three years, they were mandatory not
only for Unlimiteds but for the top dragboat classes as well.
friend Jerry Verheul helped save many lives. He and Al Swindahl
discussed a similar driver capsule for Top Fuel about 1984. I feel it
is due time for Top Fuel to get such a capsule/egg. Actually way beyond
But back to history.
There was a time in the
80s when NHRA and its insurance providers gravely discussed shortening
the race distance to 1,000 feet. The nitro cars were running speeds of
around 260mph at the time and safety issues were weighing heavily.
Serious amounts of negative forced a compromise. Most felt 1320 feet
was a sacred number (including me) and NHRA changed the way speeds were
clocked. Instead of a 132-foot speed trap, half before and half after
the finish line, they shortened the trap to just the 66-feet before the
final stripe. It made for fewer of those banzai “out the backdoor” runs
some drivers loved, and pacified some of the concerns.
let me make this very clear, there was little done to provide longer
and safer shutdown areas at the national event venues.
there have been nets and sandtraps installed at some of the shorter
strips, and concrete guardwalls replaced Armco. Though NHRA plans for
would be tracks call for a bare minimum of 4,000 feet of pavement (from
starting line to the end of the pavement), that number was arbitrarily
placed back in 1964. I grew up at Pacific Raceways that has more than a
mile of asphalt AND the shut-off area runs uphill, both above spec and
quite helpful when drivers get in trouble.
And that is the whole
point. When all goes well, even short tracks are adequate. But when all
hell breaks loose, as it is want to do in nitromethane racing, drivers
deserve all the help they can get.
Seemingly, NHRA has forgotten
this very important point and has allowed length variances on tracks
they own (such as Pomona and Columbus). They also promote the repaving
of the racing surfaces of their national event tracks and allow
shutdown areas to remain rough and filled with cracks and divots. It
seems to be forgotten that it is harder to stop one of those hurtling
beasts from 330mph than it is to get them there.
And that gets
me to my real point. I feel it is way beyond time to slow these suckers
down. I was there when high seven-second, 190mph fuelers were more than
enough. Unfortunately, we watched drivers die then too. Jack Hart said
it best when he suggested that the NHRA rulebook was “…written in the
blood of our friends.” But that was a long time ago and NHRA has
allowed the current crop to go way further than necessity.
mentioned the old days there to remind everyone that dragracing goes
beyond a mechanized sport. It is first and foremost a show, one of fire
and thunder and performance. And, lest we forget, more important than
points and championships, “the show” is everything. Without it, there
wouldn’t be spectator interest, sponsor support, and a growing
television audience. My longtime belief is that this show would not be
lessened if the performance numbers came back to reality. Other than
the scoreboard numbers, and hype over the public address system, I’m
not sure why we need mid 4s and 330mph!
Back to history.
NHRA saw the 300mph barrier blasted, they enforced a 3.20 gear rule to
slow things down. (Racers were using 2.9s and 2.7s at the time.)
a huge number of engine blow-ups and oildowns, racers countered by
changing internal components, tune-ups and clutch settings to allow for
much higher RPMs. The gear ratio change added a staggering cost to the
nitro racers. Now they are over 330mph with those 3.20 gearsets.
When NHRA saw a few too many major blow-ups, and a few spectators were hurt, they chopped nitro percentage down to 90%.
countered by increasing fuel volume. Here’s the deal. If the need is
for X-amount of nitromethane-energy, and you cannot increase the
percentage to get it, all you’ve got to do is shove more through the
engine. It’s really quite simple for fluid dynamacists and chemists
that have become fairly prevalent in dragracing to figure out the
And, with more fuel volume, the teams also drive their superchargers faster to compensate.
reality, dropping the nitro percentage has made the problem worse.
Higher volume means more hydrauliced engines, and a higher degree of
difficulty to ignite the liquid. And, nobody has slowed down.
Sanction high-ups will suggest there have been less oildowns so the percentage decrease has worked. Insert another scoff here.
don’t see conflagrations as much now because of mandatory diapers as
well as very expensive non-mandatory additions such as billet blocks
and titanium oilpans. For those that don’t keep up, I’ll say that
again. Fuel teams currently use very expensive, CNC-machined billet
aluminum blocks that are far stronger than the previous cast aluminum
versions. These will actually contain a broken connecting rod. And, in
similar fashion to the clutch cans, the oil pans are now fabricated
from titanium to withstand explosions.
But the carnage inside
those barriers is immense after every single run. There is no such
thing as “clean and dry” anymore. The percentage decrease definitely
increased costs to the nitro racers.
So now lets talk about tires and wings.
loses a tremendous amount of money building tires for professional
dragracing. The research and development costs must be staggering. And,
unlike the radial carcasses they produce for NASCAR and major road
racing series that have some resemblance to tires they sell for street
use, Goodyear probably learns very little from those drive tires on
Sure, it can be a lovely PR tool. But sometimes the
cons have just got to get close to outweighing the pros at corporate
And a Top Fuel dragster rear wing produces
reportedly 8,000 to 10,000 pounds of downforce at 300mph. I hope you
agree that producing an object that will stay together at
(approximately) 2,800rpm -- a rotating mass literally trying to tear
itself apart by centrifugal force -- while maintaining grotesque
amounts of adhesion, and be forced into the ground by the weight of
three Cadillac sedans is worthy of high praise. Thank you Goodyear.
I cannot imagine that we so often take those rear tires for granted.
Consider all of the equipment bolted to a current TF chassis:
fuel system only decipherable with a Rosetta stone that includes a pump
capable of draining an average-size swimming pool in three hours
(18,000 gallons ÷ 100gpm).
A 14-71 supercharger that is so touchy it needs a specialist to re-strip it every run.
A $6,000 dollar carbon fiber injector “hat” that is totally destroyed if the engine so much as sneezes.
Two 44-amp magnetos, enough power to weld thick steel plate.
A 12-inch ring gear rearend.
A six-disc clutch with enough management to control all the railroad switching yards in Chicago.
A data recorder with more info-gleaning ability than NASA’s Shuttle.
The current components have been allowed to get completely out of hand in comparison to what is needed.
though the current cars are covered in expensive magnesium and
titanium, they have gained over 600 pounds since Jerry Ruth rolled his
Cessna-silver dragster across the scales in 1980. Jerry had a fairly
standard 484ci KB with an 8-71, a less than 20gpm pump and a 3-amp
magneto to run 5.60s at 250mph and win lots of races.
There is a
movement afoot to assemble a forum to bring reality back to nitro
racing. I’m not sure a discussion group will work very well for
something this important to the future of dragracing. What is needed is
that committee full of crewchiefs, deep thinkers and manufacturers
reps, headed by somebody NHRA will listen to (Maybe Dale Armstrong),
backed up by all the members of PRO. After thorough albeit rapid
investigation, that leader should then walk in and nail a proper
combination that will back these things down to some more livable point
to the office doors (or foreheads) of Graham Light and Ray Alley.
Do I have suggestions?
Of course, I thought you’d never ask.
the time the 90% rule went into effect and now, pump volume moved from
60gpm to 95gm. There is the place I’d start. I would limit fuel volume
to 50 gallons per minute.
Then, I would wrap the entire
combination around that pump limitation. I am limited here because I am
not privy to exact numbers of combinations.
Without the fuel
volume, there would not be the need for all that firepower. Cut the
cars back to a single magneto, maybe 12 amps.
The 14-71 blower would stay but I’d limit overdrive – maybe a 30% rule would fit.
stick with the current 3.2 gear. Everyone has gone to the 12-inch
rearend that costs around $20,000 per, and they already have at least
two. It wouldn’t make sense to force a rule change here even though the
big rearend takes a lot of horsepower to run.
Let’s whack the rear wing area by 25% and enforce a predetermined angle of attack. This would cut downforce considerably.
And let’s begin developing a driver safety capsule that will be fireproof and break away in the event of catastrophe. Now.
for checking out the PhilZone portion of Draglist.com. If you have
accolades, complaints, comments, questions, or if you want to share a
story, please feel free to post it on the PhilZone Message Board.