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The Hill Files

Pete Robinson: Top Fuel's Master Innovator

By Jim Hill, 09/05/01

Pete Robinson's first "Tinker Toy" was full of innovation. It was a Woody Gilmore car (Race Car Engineering) that replaced Pete's earlier Dragmaster "Dart" style chassis, which replaced Pete's original Dragmaster car in which he won the 1961 NHRA Nationals. If my memory is correct (?), this was the car on which Pete was forced, by tech officials, to install a drag chute because it obviously was capable of exceeding the NHRA imposed "150 mph mark" that separated cars from either requiring or not requiring a chute. Pete felt that a race car, even a dragster, ought to be able to stop reasonably with braking, and didn't consider a chute as a means of "saving" an out-of-control run. He was by nature a cautious person who felt the right foot should be a racer's greatest safety asset. His solution to the rule was to have a mini-chute made that fit the letter if not the "spirit" of the rules. It was, by description, about as big as a large western bandana! 

Pete ran an ultra-light Ford Fairlane motor. This was a stroked 289 Ford small-block (!!!) over bored and with an "arm" to bring displacement to 352 cubic inches. Always the weight-conscious one, Pete found that he could build a Ford motor and save enough weight over the small-block Chevy to give him an advantage. He paid considerable attention to grinding and relieving ANY metal he felt was unnecessary to strength, both with internal engine components as well as externals. It could accurately be said that Pete was "fanatically obsessed" about weight saving, even to the point that before a run he would remove all his clothing (he said he did wear boxer shorts 'cause they were thinner and lighter than jockeys!) and don only his rules-required fire suit! 

He ran the little Ford on gas (AA/GD) and on light percentages of nitro as an AA/FD.

From the start, Pete struggled with oiling system problems with the little Ford motors. The Ford, of course, was a purely passenger car based design and was never engineered to handle the kind of power output (supercharged, on gas or nitro/alcohol) that Pete's modifications produced. The result was a serious "appetite" for main and rod bearings, this problem being severely accelerated when Pete ran on fuel. (Hardly a big surprise!) 

He finally solved those problems by enlarging the entire oiling system, rerouting more oil to the mains and rods, and building his own large-volume, high-pressure oil pump.

Ironically, when Pete went to the new SOHC 427 Ford "Cammer" he ran into more oil system problems, as did all the Ford Cammer racers who ran blown motors. (The injected nitro motors seemed to survive with only moderate maintenance) This caused considerable grief (Kalitta destroyed "truck loads" of SOHC 427's in the early days of running the Fords!), and Pete spent a considerable amount of time "bottom-end diving" to replace mains and rods that were "one-pass wonders."

The final cure for all those woes was the adaptation of the basic oiling system developed (also by much blood, sweat and burned bearings!) by Chrysler for the then-new 426 "Late Model" hemi motors. Ford guys also found their parts problems eased because they went to Chrysler style/size bearings and the Chrysler oiling systems.

Pete felt that the OHC design was better suited to nitro racing than the Chrysler hemi design, and he stuck with it even after Ford drastically reduced/eliminated funding for racing. (The shift was to reducing emissions, ala the infamous "Muskie Bill," and improving safety, followed shortly by the first "Gas Crisis" of 1973-74 that produced the equally infamous Ford Pinto) Of course, Pete's stubborn determination to show the rest of the drag racing world that the Cammer was a "Better Idea" (Ford's ad slogan in the '60s) for Top Fuel ended with his fatal crash at the 1971 NHRA Winternationals. One can only speculate as to how successful his career might have been had he survived and continued to pursue his innovative dreams.

Jim Hill

JHill@cranecams.com

 

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