Drag Racing Online: The Magazine

Volume VIII, Issue 3, Page


Nitro cars: new rules make them safer though still fast, dangerous, and expensive

By Jeff Burk

After Darrell Russell’s fatal crash two years ago at St. Louis many in the media, including the editorial staff at DRO, clamored for the NHRA and Ray Alley, Director of Top Fuel and Funny Car Racing, to take actions that would make Top Fuel and Funny Cars safer and we advocated using whatever means were required. Since then Alley and his technical department have been diligent and successful in making the cars much safer for the drivers, but they haven’t been as successful in their stated goals of restricting performance, expensive technology advances, costs of operation, and oil-downs.

Alley and the NHRA have to be applauded for the safety rules they have put into effect since Russell’s death. All of the safety improvements -- added armor attached to the roll cage, new specs for the chassis tubing, added bars, driver “capsules” and, perhaps most importantly, the long overdue mandating of wheelie bars for both Top Fuel and Funny Cars -- have absolutely made these cars much safer for the driver in the case of a crash, wing/tire failure or an engine explosion. For that the sport owes Ray Alley and the NHRA a large debt. Yet, strangely and inexplicably, neither the NHRA nor the IHRA has yet made some form of a head and neck restraint device mandatory for all drivers.

While the safety changes are obviously working, the efforts of Alley and his staff to stop the spiraling and very expensive technological race, to slow nitro cars with electronic engine controls and to cut back on the number of engine explosions simply hasn’t worked as well as they would have hoped. A quick look at the best performances for nitro-burning Top Fuel and Funny Car show that Top Fuel cars have dropped a little, but not significantly.

The quickest ET ever for a Top Fuel car is a 4.42 recorded over two years ago by Doug Kalitta and the record speed is a 337-plus which Tony Schumacher ran late in 2005 with a rev-limiter installed. Right after those numbers were recorded, the NHRA lowered the RPM level where the rev-limiter was activated and speeds dropped immediately to the 330-mph region. This year Top Fuel cars including record holder Tony Schumacher have already run a 4.45 ET and speeds just over 330 mph. 

In the Funny Car class John Force and Whit Bazemore hold the all-time best speeds at 333-plus, and just a month ago Force ran the quickest ET ever for Funny Cars with a 4.664 clocking at the NHRA Phoenix event. Funny Cars are still recording speeds over 330 mph. The numbers indicate that the NHRA-mandated rev-limiter program really hasn’t had a significant effect on the performance of either the Funny Car or Top Fuel divisions. And engine explosions and oil-downs are still happening.

The rev-limiter designed by MSD was also supposed to control speeds as well as mitigate the “tire chunking” problems that has been an issue for years. It has been partially successful doing both. For this season Goodyear tire and rubber engineers have developed a new tire with four inches less surface area. Unfortunately, many teams are still having tire wear issues.

At the season’s first two races, teams had the option of competing with the new 2420 or last season’s 1430 tire. After Phoenix only the 2420 tire is allowed, forcing many teams on budgets to abandon the tires they had and to buy a new inventory for the Gainesville race. If the reason for implementing all of the rule changes was to significantly slow down the cars and thereby make them safer for the tracks they have to run, then you would have to say that effort has failed.

According to crew chiefs I have spoken with -- most of whom asked not to be identified because they feared reprisals from the NHRA -- what the rev-limiter has done in many cases is to make racing much, much more expensive. The main reason given for the increased cost is engine damage caused when a nitro engine hits the limiter and two or more cylinders lose fire. According to some crew chiefs, when the engines drop cylinders but the driver is forced to keep the throttle wide open, components such as the crankshaft, rods, pistons, etc. need replacing afterwards.

It should be noted that not every tuner has the problems. Don Prudhomme’s tuner, Mike Green, told me “my engine doesn’t damage itself when it hits the limiter, but I’ve talked to (other tuners) who say they have a lot of engine damage resulting from 'hitting' the limiter."

One Top Fuel team reportedly gets just one pass on a set of rods if the engine hits the rev-limiter and, unfortunately, if a fuel car is on any kind of good pass they generally hit the limiter at around 1,000 feet down the track. I’ve even heard of Top Fuelers' rear wings suffering major damage when the rev-limiter kicks in on a pass.

The problem extends beyond the damage to the engine. Driver Ron Capps told me that when he loses a couple of cylinders on either side of the engine down track, the car darts all over the track and he is very uncomfortable.

“When it hits the limiter and drops cylinders the car noses over and starts moving around," Capps explained. "In the past (before limiters) I would have thought the engine had blown up and lifted; now I just have to keep my foot in the throttle and hope. I don’t want to let my teammates down and not qualify well, so I drive it, but I don’t mind telling you it is pretty hairy.”

Many tuners and engine builders I talked to about how the NHRA could really solve their perceived problems of too much performance and oil-downs offer the same solution. Leave the rev-limiters in place but mandate a maximum overdrive for superchargers -- 30 percent is the number most mentioned -- which they all say would dramatically decrease engine explosions and horsepower. As one engine builder/tuner said, “Pulleys cost about $150 a piece.”

Former Prudhomme tuner Dick LaHaie had this to say about the rev-limiter issue: “People have complained ever since they implemented it, what was that a year ago? The crew chiefs are always going to bitch, but if someone within the organization would take a hard stand and say, 'OK guys, this is it, we're not changing it again,' and the crew chiefs will fix the problem. They will figure out how to run the thing and not tear their stuff up and go on down the road.

"It's easy for someone to point their finger at one thing and say hey, that's not good and it's causing this," LaHaie continued. "There are a lot of cars that go up there and go down the race track and don't blow up. If that's the case, don't you think that the guys that are blowing their stuff up ought to stand back and look at what they're doing or they need to talk to the guys that aren't blowing their stuff up and try to figure out what's going wrong? Crew chiefs get paid a lot of money to do their job. This is just another portion of their job that they need to do and quit whining about it.”

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Top Fuel and Funny Cars remain dangerous cars to drive. Any car that goes over 300 mph, whether it is 301 or 330, is dangerous to drive. As long as these cars are allowed to burn more than 10 percent nitromethane (rocket fuel) there are going to be engine failures. Unless Top Fuel and Funny Car teams are forced to race with “crate motors” then the crew chiefs are going to circumvent rules and push the engines to the limit and beyond.

Ray Alley and the NHRA, along with the MSD engineers and technicians, and I think the folks at Goodyear, have done all they can to make the rev-limiter program a success. The changes Goodyear has made by making the tires narrower may in the long run be the most effective speed and expense controller. History has proven that a combination of narrower and harder tires, not traction control devices, absolutely delivers slower speeds and ET’s.

The downside to all of these rule changes is that they have done nothing to really slow the cars down, decrease the expense of running a fuel car or make the “budget” teams more competitive -- if indeed that was a goal. Slowing down the nitro cars, stopping engine explosions, and keeping the cost under control may only be accomplished by taking the superchargers off the engines, banning nitro or mandating frontal lobotomies for the crew chiefs. None of which seem to be a viable option.