Drag Racing—The State of the Art

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What is happening on the ¼ mile in California and Britain.

Drag racing never hits the headlines in Britain and even the big meetings are lucky if they get as much as a mention in the weekly sporting periodicals but, nevertheless, interest is growing all the time particularly now that Dennis Priddle and Clive Skilton are, at last starting to approach the roaring quarter-mile times being recorded on the drag strips up and down the USA. One problem is that in America the evolution continues, particularly now that the rear-engined designs are sorted out. Soon the magic 5-sec. barrier will be broken and a couple of months ago the Pay ‘n’ Pak top fuel dragster driven by Jerry Ruth scorched down the drag strip at Indianapolis to record a quickest ever E.T. (elapsed time) of 6.06 sec. It is just a figure certainly, but count six slowly and then imagine a 1,500+ b.h.p. projectile spitting flames and accelerating from rest to over 200 m.p.h. in that space of time. It is awe inspiring!

As was mentioned briefly in last month’s issue I was fortunate enough to be in California at the time of a big meeting at Irwindale Raceway, just one of many strips dotted around California, which is the home of drag racing although it is a very popular spectator sport up and down America. Rumour would have it that drag racing all started with the moonshiners honing up their vehicles in the prohibition days to make sure they weren’t apprehended by the police. It makes a good story anyway!

The sport has come a long way since then and it was the present state of the art that we wanted to investigate at Irvindale, on the occasion of their 7th Annual Grand Prix. The main programme featured 32 Top Fuellers and when they had been reduced to 16, then to eight, then to four, then to two, the winner of the final run-off would pick up $2.000 plus contingency money although the big prize is often higher. There was also a Funny Car invitation with eight of the best competitors in the country.

A quick wander into the paddock soon served to prove that the drag racing set is a very esoteric sport. They have a language of their own and one listens in to the conversations only half understanding. Almost to a man (and a woman) they are dressed in jeans and the most bizarre and colourful tee shirts one could ever see. There are multi-coloured montages denoting the great successes of their teams, other shirts list endless suppliers and proclaim allegiance to Hank the Crank, Hooker Headers and Kool-Fuel Racing Products. One catches snatches of conversation “The Ace has switched from Keith Black to Ed Pink” and one wants to be let into the club. But it is a different club from Grand Prix racing although, in many ways, the mystique and creed is just the same.

However, my impression was that the machinery comes first and those brave men who sit and exercise the ultimate perfection in clutch and throttle sychronisation, and then have their eyes pushed back into their heads with acceleration in the order of 3g, take a backseat role. Each machine has a name, often after either the car owners or constructors, or both, and it is that name that the commentator shouts as the cars line up. “We have Stammerjohn & Shoemaker and Cyr & Schofield staged” or “that was Beck, McLean, Lawrence with the bleach-out”. In the paddock the mechanics are busy round their machine, checking the clutches with dial gauges, mixing that explosive mixture of 80% nitro-methane and making sure everything is ready for “the pass”.

What does the spectator in the Grandstand see for his 5 dollars ? The best seats are obviously adjacent to the start on the pits side. At Irvindale the paddock is at the far end of the strip and the two competitors, if they are top fuel dragsters, are pushed down the pits road adjacent to the strip by a support truck just crawling with mechanics and helpers. During this process the driver will drop the clutch and bump-start the machine. With a bit of luck eight red flames will leap from the exhaust stubs and, as he blips the throttle, the hue will change dramatically as they flicker and flash particularly at night when much of drag racing is held. The noise is a deep burble which comes from somewhere down in the bowels of the Supercharged Chrysler Hemi 7-litre engine, which is in universal use although slight variations in size are tried. The beautiful smell of nitro wafts across to the spectator and the eyes water.

If it is one of the new rear engined rails then the driver sits impassively ahead of the engine wearing a standard Grand Prix driver’s full face helmet. If the dragster belongs to the older front engined school he will be perched behind all that smoking hot machinery, hardly able to see ahead of him because of the supercharger, and the flames of the exhaust. He will he wearing an open face mask with goggles and breathing equipment and looking for all the world like something out of a science fiction film. But in either case the long chassis will bend in the middle, gently springing up and down as the car, with its minimal turning circle, is manoeuvred into position.

Then comes part of the new technique of drag racing. Any readers who remember the American team when they came to Britain in 1965 may recall that part of the art was to use the spinning of the tyres as a second clutch. But now the cars rely on glueing the tyres to the track and, if too much power is applied and the wheels start to smoke and spin, then all is lost. Half the fun of drag racing these days is the procedure leading up to run and is all aimed at achieving this maximum grip. This preliminary is called the bleach burnout. The car will be lined up some way behind the starting line and a pool of household bleach (or specially developed traction compound) poured in front of each rear wheel and the car then rolled onto it. The driver then makes an ear shattering start, the bleach reacts chemically with the hot rubber produced by spinning the wheels, this makes a sticky surface to the tyres and naturally great weals of rubber are left down the track, and plumes of smoke billow out behind. Anyone walking across the start line with rubber soled shoes would find themselves riveted to the spot.

After a couple of seconds the driver shuts off and his helpers rush to push the car back to it’s starting position and accurately line it up with the starting beam. The amazing traction that can be obtained with the bleach out technique means that low axle ratios can be used to provide greater torque at the wheels but this also produces high revs at the finish line. This problem is somewhat alleviated by the tyre construction. Low pressures and flexible side walls combine to produce a huge footprint at low speeds but, as the speed builds up, centrifugal force tends to deform the tyre to such an extent that the rolling radius is increased by 3-4 inches and thus gives the car, in effect, an overdrive.

Now the two machines are ready for the vital runs, the drivers blipping their throttles to make sure the 1,500 b.h.p. is ready to answer to the call. The cars are lined up in front of the timing gear and then the Christmas Tree starting lights flash through their sequence and onto green. With a shattering roar that sends everyone clamping their hands over their ears the two dragsters disappear down the strip. About 50% of the time both dragsters actually make it to the end of the run and “pop” their parachutes. However, they are temperamental beasts and often the runs are abortive for a number of reasons. The start may have been jumped or the driver may have made a mess of it, giving it either not enough or too much power. Sometimes the strip deteriorates during a meeting, particularly after an engine has blown up and dumped its oil, and this can make everything difficult for the driver. But often as not the fault is with the machinery for the engines regularly fail, sometimes just burning a piston, other times exploding into pieces. The clutches give up, as do other parts of the transmission. At Irvindale one dragster was half way down the strip when there was a great shower of sparks and a catherine wheel like a red hot object flew into the air. The commentator, who had no doubt seen it all before, coolly announced “We have a clutch in the left hand lane”!

The Top Fuel dragsters and the Funny Cars tie for the affection of the crowd. The Funny Cars are slightly slower but more spectacular, if that is possible. Basically they are top fuel dragsters in most respects but the chassis are shorter and covered by thin glass-fibre replica bodies of American saloons. This gives plenty of space for the most fantastic paint jobs imaginable, in fact the decorating of these cars in California is a cottage industry all on its own. When the Funny Cars do their burn-outs the smoke collects in the body and then billows out behind. The amazing thing is that the Funny Cars are less than half a second slower than the Top Fuellers.

The rest of the programme at a big meeting can be made up with various other categories like Pro Stock, which caters for highly tuned saloons, which have to retain the original steel body shell but little else, the humorous competition altereds which tend to have started life as Model T Fords, and then there are countless categories for much more standard equipment, which take part in the Bracket Racing whereby they estimate the time they will take for the quarter-mile and then have to equal it. I personally found all the Bracket Racing rather boring and couldn’t wait for the next round of the Top Fuel and Funny Cars. The trouble is that once these cars have made their pass, they need to cool down and receive a good deal of attention before they can run again. Thus the Bracket Racing fills the time in between.

The big revolution from front to rear engined Top Fuel cars started only two years ago following an unsuccessful attempt about ten years back by Tony Nancy. He found that the car was completely unstable and lethal so the idea was dropped. But once someone got the calculaiions right it all fell into place for, obviously, the rear engined dragster is very much safer for the driver and vision is much better. The revolution is not yet complete and at Irvindale there were some very competitive front engined cars, and one made it through until the last four. But it was noticeable that there were several brand new rear engined rails and the front engined devices are obviously on their way out. The next move will surely be towards totally enclosed and aerodynamic dragsters and at Irvindale there was a very impressive device in which the driver was actually in an enclosed cockpit.

As was mentioned earlier, the American dragsters are approaching the 5-sec. barrier. There is Ruth’s recent 6.06 sec. run while, on the West Coast, a young 19-year-old newcomer by the name of Randy Allison has been down to 6.13 sec. and has been doing a great deal of the winning lately. At the Irvindale meeting, however, he ran into trouble and on the day another youngster from Honolulu by the name of Phil Soares won the Top Fuel category after the opposition blew up half-way down the strip in the final run-off. Earlier on in the eliminators Soares had made a pass at 6.21 sec., crossing the finishing line at around 230 m.p.h. One has just got to be impressed by that. But the highlight of the evening was the very last run, the Funny Car final. There was Ed “The Ace” McCulloch in his Revolution Kits sponsored car and Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen who is sponsored by the rival Hot Wheels firm. When the green light came on the pair went down the strip side by side all the way to the end of the quarter mile and the naked eye just couldn’t detect who had won. But the electric eye gave the verdict to “the Ace” with a 6.69 sec. and a terminal velocity of 210.76 m.p.h. It was one of the most exciting things I have ever witnessed in motoring sport.

The British Scene

In comparison, of course, the British drag racing scene is very small indeed but is growing all the time and recent advertising on Radio Luxembourg has boosted attendances at the only permanent drag strip which is at Podington in Northants. In the best American tradition this strip is actually called Santa Pod. There are a couple of meetings each year at other temporary strips like Blackbushe aerodrome.

There are only four or five Top Fuel dragsters operating in Britain at the moment and the fastest two are undoubtedly Dennis Priddle, who has a front engined rail sponsored by John Woolfe Racing, and Clive Skilton who has the Team Castrol backed rear-engined device. The competition between this pair has had much to do with the rising speeds which are now almost comparable with America. Priddle is now down to 6.6 sec. while Skilton’s best is 6.8 sec. to date and he is still sorting out the car. Meanwhile Alan Herridge, with his rail called Firefly, is starting to give the pair something to think about having recently fitted a new engine. Others are on the way and next season could see as many as eight Top Fuellers. The only Funny Car in Britain unfortunately had a huge accident on its debut run and was badly damaged but it is being repaired. Obviously in Britain there is a problem with parts, particularly for the Chrysler Hemi engines, but there are plenty of other dragsters with engines ranging from Mini Cooper to Jaguar and some put up very respectable times indeed.

For information on British meetings why not contact the National Drag Racing Club at 239 Windsor Road, Hillingdon, Middlesex, or the British Drag Racing & Hot Rod Association at 55 West End Court, West End Lane, Stoke Pages, Bucks., who organise the Santa Pod meetings. The last meeting of the year took place about three weeks ago but next season should be bigger and better. It might not be quite like California but it is certainly going in the right direction. — A. R. M.