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Jul 27, 2004

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CHANGES, Part 2 -- TF Changes under scrutiny

By Phil R. Elliott

I 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 again.

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.

The 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 cage?

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.

The 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.

One 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.

Initially, 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. Pretty dumb.

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.

My 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 due time.

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.

But, and let me make this very clear, there was little done to provide longer and safer shutdown areas at the national event venues.

Since, 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.

I 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.

When 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.)

After 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%.

Racers 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 equation.

And, with more fuel volume, the teams also drive their superchargers faster to compensate.

In 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.

We 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.

Goodyear 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 fuelers.

Sure, it can be a lovely PR tool. But sometimes the cons have just got to get close to outweighing the pros at corporate board meetings.

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:

A 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.

And 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.

Between 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.

I’d 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.

Thanks 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 . Phil


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