By Phil R. Elliott
In this world of 7,000 horsepower, sub-4.5 second, over
330mph Top Fuel dragsters, it is sometimes hard to relate to 1960s fuel
dragster technology, or lack thereof.
But certainly, today's cookie-cutter look-alikes with
heavy corporate backing have their heritage in the literally hundreds of
machines that wailed down the asphalt and concrete strips of their era.
To stop time and describe the perfect combination in,
say, 1965, is what we'll attempt in this expose. First, we must take a
brief evolutionary ride of Top Eliminator entries.
One of the huge problems in the 50s was just what was
best to transmit power from the crankshaft to the ground. Most teams in
the early days utilized a beefed up clutch and an automotive transmission
to help get the mass underway. A very high percentage of those teams used
just second and high gears and removed the rest of the transmission
insides. Nonetheless, the trans cases and innards, designed to withstand
maybe 100hp, became the weak link when asked to back 400-500hp.
The next trick was to just leave the transmission under
the bench, run a very stiff (high static pressure) clutch and just spin
the tires. By about 1958, all the hot dogs on both coasts had made the
switch to "high gear only."
With that innovation, cars jumped from inconsistent ten
and nine-second times into the eights. And, this consistency allowed
engine builders to add more horsepower. By late 1959, all the big name
winners had superchargers and horsepower figures nearing 1,000.
With serious amounts of horsepower at hand thoughts
finally began to run toward safety. Where all of the cars to that point
were based on the bits builders had in their back yards, commercial
chassis became more common.
Case in point Don Garlits' first dragster, the one
commonly referred to now as Swamp Rat 1. It was given several lives as
drag racing progressed and was raced from about 1955 through 1961. It was
based on 1931 Chevy frame rails, of course much modified. He could have
chosen Model A rails, Shelby (seamless) steel tubing, or even WWII surplus
PBY (aircraft) struts as a base like many of his peers. Early dragsters
were built from what was available cheap. If that meant scrounging
still prevalent wrecking or war surplus yards, sobeit.
Front suspension was also what was at hand, which meant
90% of the cars had early Ford pieces a cross-leaf spring, a solid
axle and a split wishbone -- simple, basic and inexpensive. The rear
suspension was trashed when rearend "tramp" got out of control,
a great weight savings, besides.
Think "rat rod" with attitude.
Even the first commercially available chassis came with
mounts for typical albeit lightened Ford parts up front.
And the rear end?
While the Ford "banjo" style had been the
right stuff early on, with the quick-change center sections added for easy
gear selection, its "locked" qualities fell out of favor. Plus,
stock track widths were still normal. Builders remained split on narrowed
Today, one ingredient of even the lowliest of bracket
cars is a spool to lock the rear axles together to drive both rear tires
the same. On concrete starting lines and high traction surfaces, that is
appropriate. Neither of those was available in 1960.
The compromise of a stiff clutch that locked up as soon
as the driver sidestepped its pedal and tires that spun incessantly made
for some eerie rides in those days. Drivers complained that the cars were
totally unmanageable. Many of the blown fuelers were downright evil,
albeit entertaining to spectators.
The downside was that these bad handling traits led to
crashes, deaths, and NHRA's long ban on nitromethane fuel. Of course,
their ban didn't stop racers from running the major power enhancer at
non-sanctioned tracks, or those under the wing of fledgling AHRA, which
welcomed nitro with open checkbooks.
The nitro ban has been covered in-depth elsewhere, but
let me suggest that without it, match-racers like Tommy Ivo, Chris
Karamesines and Don Garlits may never have been placed in such demand. But
that is a subject that could fill a book in itself.
It was a chassis builder that forced the narrow rear
track on drag racing, probably Lefty Mudersbach. While the argument had
always been about handling a wide rear track gave more stability
the truth was that in dragracing, stability, the way it was being argued,
was found to be unnecessary.
Racers were still thinking cornering theory that if
a dragrace car got crossed up it needed the wide track to keep it from
sliding. But, since dragsters had been without rear suspension for several
years, and their engines were mounted quite low, their "roll
centers" (a term that wouldn't be created by road racers for
several years) was extremely low as well. They did not tend to tip over so
the wide rear end was unnecessary. But that was only a minor part.
When physics laws were plowed heavily into dragrace
chassis design, general practice changed forever. When seemingly archaic
principles such as levers, pendulums and centrifugal forces were studied
and tried, man's quest for acceleration became simpler.
How does this reference the change from wide rear tracks
If one pictures a long lever and how it helps pick up a
heavy load or pry a nail out of a board, the understanding begins. When
one thinks about how raising or lowering the pendulum weight on a
grandfather clock to change its speed and hence its ability to keep proper
time, another bulb goes on. To tie a rock on a string and swing it around
in wider and wider circles and feel its "pull" lends more to the
simple principles that almost overnight led to straighter runs by
When a racecar accelerates, its rear tires go over many
different surfaces, with varying adhesion qualities. When one tire slips
and loses this "traction" the opposite tire suddenly has more
traction and pushes the car toward the spinning tire. The further apart
the two tires, the more extreme the pushing action. This action appears in
the form of wiggles fishtailing and the driver has to correct for
every movement. The narrower the rear track, the less the pushing action.
Then there is the centrifugal force of the two spinning
wheels/tires, literally a pair of gyroscopes that further lend themselves
to getting the car to go straight ahead.
Whether it was a deep-thinking innovator or a bucks-down
racer that couldn't afford the en vogue Halibrand pieces, somebody tried
a normal car rearend with its stock, passenger car ratio, probably in the
neighborhood of 3.23-1. It was also unlocked, with an open rear end an
operational differential. By narrowing and uncoupling the spinning rear
tires, a dragster in 1962 had a far greater chance of reaching the end of
its journey in say 1,350 foot instead of the 1,500 foot sashaying trips
they'd been on before. And, without hitting things.
By changing individual components, dragster design had
evolved into a pretty standardized shape and recipe.
There was still a little conversation regarding
wheelbase. Theory had once been that the optimum number was equal to the
circumference of the rear tires one revolution equals the proper
wheelbase. That is the real reason short cars prevailed for so long. But,
as soon as reality surpassed bunk, and a few 130-inch cars began to show
their mettle, the Flat Earth Society was left in tire smoke.
Evolvement from backyard projects with stock
transmissions, wide locked rear axles to professionally built beauties
with swoopy bodies, higher horsepower, polished mag wheels on narrowed
open rearends spanned less than a decade.
And before getting into THE recipe for 90% of the
winning AA/FDs in the mid-60s, it must be stated that several combinations
were still reasonably competitive.
The small block Chevrolet, either in normally aspirated
with 100% nitromethane or blown on about 25% nitro, were still considered
a reasonable alternative. To win, the "little" (a misnomer since
they often sported more cid than their competitors) Chevys had to be kept
extremely light. Their winning came often on holeshots or because the
power drunk Chryslers spun their rear tires to extremes. Chevys spun their
tires at the start, but within a few hundred feet, that smoke dried up and
a good driver could hold on to the finish line before the Chryslers made
Of these, certainly Marsh-Steffey were the stoutest of
the unblown group, a 389 or 402 cubic inch Enderle-injected small block in
a very light Logghe Bros. chassis. The minuscule car was dubbed
"Giant Killer" by the racing press and lived up to the moniker.
Warren-Coburn-Miller had one of the best blown Chevys,
another was Chet Herbert's, driven by Zane Schubert. Both were terrors
in their day, the former was even called the "Ridge Route
Terrors." W-C-M had the ability to tow south from Bakersfield over
the famed Grapevine (called "ridge route" by locals) and
basically potshot SoCal meets, winning at will. The Herbert-Herbert duo
was the first Chevy in the 7s and over 200mph, and won its share.
There were very few of the then brand new big block
Chevys in AA/FD, but there were still a handful of competitors with
Oldsmobile, Pontiac and others.
By and large, the blown fuel powerplant of choice was
the Chrysler "Hemi," named for its hemispherical combustion
chambers. It was new to the world in 1951 in smaller dimensions which some
teams favored, but the 1955-57 354 and the 57-58 392 were the true
nitromethane suckers. By 1965, the aftermarket had stepped up with
everything necessary to make one wail. But in comparison to a TF engine in
2002, a AA/FD engine in 1965 was still downright docile.
A building block might be from a passenger car, a
Chrysler New Yorker for example, a 3-ton Dodge truck, an industrial power
unit, or even a boat. Many stuck with stock bore and stroke, or a .030
bore to clean things up for 398ci. A few chose to run an "arm,"
up to about 1/2" extra stroke on the crankshaft, but most used the
Chrysler shaft, simply hard chromed and balanced. Amazingly, all those
thousands of runs by hundreds of nitro-guzzling dragsters were done with
stock blocks and cranks!
One area, the bottom end, was beefed up by many
builders. Some chose to mill the tops (bottoms) of the main bearing caps
flat and add a simple steel strap across the two bolts or studs. Others
ran a partial or full "girdle" which bolted to the pan rails and
right across the milled caps to add rigidity to the bottom of the block
and more fully support the crank. It of course took a specially notched
pan to clear the girdle.
Though there were still a few holdouts with boxed stock
rods, most chose stock length aluminum replacements from M/T, Howard, and
Delta. Pistons were mostly sourced from M/T or Forgedtrue, machined for
very low compression. Numbers of .200, .250 or even .350 inch down the
hole were prevalent, meaning that the flat tops of the pistons were about
a quarter of an inch down the bores, measured from the cylinder head deck.
Estimates of compression ratios were in the 5.5 or 6.0-to-1 range.
Cylinder heads were surprisingly stock, with minor
porting similar to port matching common to performance street practice
today and slight polishing of the bowls under the valves. Valves were
either stock or increased to 2-1/8 inch in both intake and exhaust holes,
and a few builders switched to stainless steel for longevity. Rocker arms
were mainly stock though some chose to polish and lighten them.
One of the major differences that kept cars apart was in
camshaft choice. Some of the main manufacturers really honed their craft
on 60s fuelers, a foundation that keeps most of them going to this day.
Engle, Crower, Iskenderian and Herbert were the leaders, and there was
still a major rift between whether a roller tappet was necessary. The
Crower 100, the Engle 440, and the Herbert 70 were powerful
"sticks" during the era, as were the Iskenderian 505 and 550.
All were similar specs Isky actually named their camshafts for the
actual lift measurement. Most were in the neighborhood of Crane's
RamSonic Nitro Fueler Roller grind that measured .560 lift and 290 degrees
Sitting above the cylinder heads was usually a Cragar or
M/T manifold and a clearanced 6-71 supercharger, driven by either Cragar
or Delta components. The Rootes-type blowers were called GMC or Jimmy
because that's the type bus engine they were bolted to stock.
Overdrive was usually somewhere between 17 and 30 percent.
With few exceptions, nitro was fed into the blowers by
Enderle or Hilborn injectors, either upright styles or early versions of
"bug catcher" designs. During 1964, a few Enderle proponents
were still using the famed "barn door" named for the huge
rectangular butterflies in a square box affair. But by 1965, the bug
catcher types had nearly taken over. And, as that first sentence implies,
few had caught on to port nozzles, even the true "hitters."
Another place where cars differed was inside the
(usually) Donovan Engineering bellhousing. Clutches came from Hayes,
Scheifer or Crower and were all about the same an aluminum flywheel
with a sprayed-on friction "insert," an aluminum, Long-style,
high-static pressure plate (1,800-3,000 pounds), and two sintered iron
discs sandwiching a floater plate. Adjustments were nearly nil, though
pressure could be changed with heavier/lighter "release"
springs, adding or subtracting springs or with shims under the springs.
The adjuster "cups" above the springs and adding or subtracting
counterweight to the release levers was still a couple years away.
Though there were many claims to the magic number, 1963
had seen the true breakthrough of 200mph, and throughout 64 it was the
number necessary for a team to be considered credible. A car that actually
ran "over 200mph, anywhere, everytime
" could grab top dollar
on the matchrace tour. And folk like Karamesines, Garlits and Ivo not only
did it everywhere but won both booked and open races to boot. They were in
huge demand by fans and promoters.
Furthermore, all three were willing to share their
secrets as they traveled. It was not uncommon to see these gentlemen
helping their peers but actually climb into opponents' vehicles in
attempt at advising them properly. As hard as it is to believe today, Don
Garlits totally dismantled his self-built 200mph dragster for Hot Rod
magazine and shared every component, measurement and clearance. If you ran
a AA/FD in 1964 and didn't set yours up like his, lack of performance
was your fault.
Soon competition among the many AA/FD teams was tighter
and even more thrilling. Throughout the country, hundreds of quality cars
competed weekly for $1000 prizes on dozens of tracks. It was a time just
preceding the funny car, when Top Fuel was the undisputed king, when a
couple like-minded friends could pool their normal salaries and field a
competitive fueler. When a pickup truck, a small toolbox, an open trailer
and the will to do it were the only necessary ingredients. It was a much
easier era when Snakes, Swamp Rats and Surfers started from a level
A lot of money then seemingly only bought shinier pieces
and a newer tow car.
Just about the only thing that can be compared from 1965
to present is that, then as now, everyone has the same basic parts to the
puzzle. It's just that some folk have the ability to put the puzzle
together better than others.
Reprinted by permission, weddiditforlove.com.
Click to see the story with photos.
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