Reduce the wing & tire, or lose those blowers

Continued restrictions on wings, tires and fuel could leave us with something like the Shoehorn that brave Warren Welsh of Reno, Nev., campaigned 40 years ago. One of the first successful back-motored diggers, the gas-burning Butler & Welsh car clocked 8.50s at nearly 180. (Photo courtesy of Warren Welsh collection)

It’s a credit to the relative safety of this sport that the fatal crash of a dragster driver comes as such a shock, anymore. This was not always the case The Grim Reaper was a regular visitor to the pages of Drag News in the Fifties and Sixties. Causes ranged from exploding clutches and transmissions to failing parachutes and roll bars to fires and, yes, the occasional tire failure. When spectators become fatalities, as in the infamous Richard Petty and Huston Platt and Clayton Harris cases, we held our collective breath, fearing for the sport’s survival. We don’t want to go back there.

A simple glance around the grandstands at any national event reveals that you and I are outnumbered, anymore, by the “casual fan” or “TV fan.” These are the guys and gals wearing polo shirts and pressed pants, instead of racing T-shirts and 501 Levis. These are the folks I heard erupt into cheers, even during qualifying, anytime two fuel cars went down the track side by side at Sonoma last month—regardless of whether the scoreboard showed mid-Fours or Five-ohs. How do you think folks like these are gonna react when (not IF, but when) some 2000-pound missile slices through the seats at, say, 350 mph? In those few seconds, professional drag racing will cease to exist.

Forty or 50 years ago, race-track tragedies were typically accepted with an attitude of, “Well, that’s racin’.” Not even the 11 spectator fatalities at Yellow River Drag Strip in 1969 could slow the exploding popularity of Funny Cars. Those days are so long gone that DRO readers under 40 should be forgiven for failing to recognize that there once was drag racing without lawyers, or agents, or major sponsors.

Nobody ever accused yours truly of being the sharpest tool in the shed, but whenever I watch a Top Fuel car’s chassis winding up and its giant wing bending, in super-slow-mo, I mentally cross my fingers that none of that skinny chromemoly tubing will fail. What other form of race car is known to suddenly break apart at speed and shoot for the sky, without contact?

Sure, I’ve looked forward to The Next Big Number ever since the seven-second “barrier” was being threatened, but this is not about what turns me on; it’s about the survival of something I’ve loved for a very long time. So, okay, let’s slow ‘em down, by a bunch. Anyone can see that the current restrictions aren’t working. Forget about Band-Aid fixes like nitro reductions, which only give the megabuck teams another R&D advantage—and make their motors sound like weak “girlie men.” Having bounced back and forth between national events and nostalgia races for the last quarter-century, I’m here to swear on a stack of old Drag Racers’ Bibles that a Donovan 417 “on the can” both sounds and smells sweeter than these 85-percenters with two-to-three times the horsepower. So does a modern A/Fuel Dragster, for that matter. Let’s stop restricting the liquid dynamite, before the fuel cars sound just like alcohol cars.

The most-discussed solutions involve the same two factors that every other major racing series ultimately addresses when seeking to reduce cost and/or enhance safety: aerodynamics and traction. To apply either formula to a modern Top Fuel car effectively, NHRA and IHRA would be looking at the smaller, single-element wings and shorter, narrower tires of the mid-Seventies. Sure, a 300-inch car would look silly with such a small wing and tires. Moreover, modern motor and clutch technology applied to such a combination would quickly result in four-second times at nearly 300 mph, I predict.

There is another way to slow the speeds down substantially, without sacrificing either the cackle or the look: Lose the supercharger! Indeed, such a combination already exists: Simply remove the restrictions that keep today’s A/Fuelers from running away from their blown-alcohol brethren, and whaddaya know? We’ve got a ready-made class of slower nitro cars, sans superchargers. At the same time, let’s remove the huffers from the Fuel Coupes, too. Visibly, most fans won’t be able to tell the difference in either class, so concealed are today’s blowers beneath bags and bodywork. They’ll still see flames at night. They’d still be watching 300-inch wheelbases, big tires and tall wings go down the track. They’ll still get four-second runs at or near 300 mph. Plus, these injected motors “on the can” would cackle better than today’s 85-percenters (and much better than future 80-, or 70-, or 50-percent-nitro combinations). Why not announce it right now, effective with the 2005 Winternationals?

Beyond obvious side effects such as reduced breakage and downtime and cost, think of all the fuel dragsters that would suddenly show up for qualifying! The lost excitement of “bumping into the show” would return as current A/Fuel racers battled the suddenly-blowerless Top Fuel teams. Instead of weak fields separated by half a second or more between the pole and the bubble, Top Fuel would be “injected” with all the qualifying drama and close racing of Pro Stock. New heroes would emerge. (Let’s hear it for Keith Stark and Dale Armstrong!)

Now that I’ve committed myself to the uncomfortable position of slowing down the cars, let’s move on to speeding up the show. To move forward in this area, I’ll be suggesting that we take a page out of drag racing’s past, in next month’s column.

Previous Stories
Now and Then with Dave Wallace — 8/9/04 (new!)
Other things to do in Indianapolis

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