So you like horsepower, eh boy? How does 6,000 sound? The rumbling stumbling roar of a full race V-8 shooting flames out if its exhaust stacks. So you like acceleration? Zero to sixty in two tenths of a second good enough for you? The earth does move when a Top Fuel Dragster wakes up.
Fuelies have been around for a long time. Back in the 1950's drag racers used old PBY drop tanks and carbureted Oldsmobile engines to try and dominate drag racing. Nine seconds in the quarter was really something back then, today there are street cars doing that. People were learning. Tires were skinny and grooved when somebody discovered that you could use nitromethane as a fuel to go faster.
They old idiom, 'souped up' comes from those days when you dumped something, a 'soup' in the fuel mix for a bit more speed. Nitromethane was the ultimate soup. It isn't really a fuel, it's an explosive. It has a low stoichiometric number so you can cram a lot of it, and oxygen into a cylinder. When it explodes, it goes hard. If it puddles, sort of become jello like, it becomes dangerous. Nitromethane has been known to blow off cylinder heads held down by sixteen hardened steel 3/8" bolts send them airborne. Nitromethane is the juice.
The NHRA quickly discovered that the dudes with nitro were in a different class. You could tell who they were too. Nitro gives off a characteristic acid smell when it's burned. No secrecy in drag racing. So the NHRA created a new category for them. Gassers like Otis Smith went to top gas, or AAGas as it was known. Top Fuel became the king of the hill in drag racing. As it is today.
A dragster is a unique thing. Back in the day the sharp West coast boys used those drop tanks and dropped in a motor. They were cheap after World War II, and surplus drop tanks were seen as the aerodynamic ultimate. On the salt, they set a lot of land speed records. Then a guy from Florida went west by the name of Don Garlits. You may have heard of him. They call him 'Big Daddy' and he's the greatest drag racer of all time. The Smithsonian displays one of his cars. Garlits' car looked crude and strange to the west coast boys. It was long, old Buick frame rails he'd torched out, for lightness and lengthened. Instead of hiding his Chrysler Hemi inside the body work he hung it out in the wind. Bicycle tires up front for steering. And his driving position was weird too, with has bottom sitting out behind the rear wheels. They thought it was funny. Until he smoked them.
Garlits had created the first major innovation of dragster design, the slingshot. The first key was its length. The stretched wheelbase made the car easier to handle at speed by making problems apparent to the driver much earlier. It also shifted the weight back toward the rear wheels, which improved traction for a quicker start. Traction is probably the biggest problems in drag racing, and we'll hear more about that later. But for now understand that in the early days racers used old truck tires, or bald tires. People thought the fastest way down the strip was to spin them just a little the whole way. Old time dragsters left a huge rooster tail of blue smoke trailing behind them, sort of like the smoke you seen drawn in a Roach t-shirt. I remember, because I first went to the track at age three, with my brother still a baby. I was three, but I couldn't forget the sound and the smoke of burnt rubber peeling off those tires.
Slingshots were rather odd birds, useful only for drag racing. The general idea was a tube frame coming to a V at the front wheels with a wheelbase longer than 200 inches (five meter]) being the norm. The tubes would slowly widen and at the very back would be the driver"s cockpit with a hoop of bars over his head to protect him in the event of a rollover. The driver sat behind the rear wheels with his knees slung over the differential, usually a modified heavy duty automotive or truck design. The spider gears were welded to lock it. The clutch or transmission-- if any-- would be located between the driver's feet and ahead of him would be the motor, almost always some version of either the 392 or 426 Hemi.
But the slingshot layout had some real disadvantages. Top fuel engines produce a LOT of power. By 1970 a stock block 426 hemi with nitromethane for fuel, a GMC 6-71 supercharger and other mods was producing almost 3,000 horsepower. The price for that was that top fuel engines were bombs, run on the ragged edge of what the structure would take. Two minutes running time is a typical life span. The crankshaft is replaced after eight runs, a life expectancy of two miles. Today a top fuel engine is torn down completely after every run and from the damage observed the fuel mixture is adjusted. If nothing is really damaged, they put in more nitro.
That much power makes things blow up. Superchargers can become grenades, complete with shrapnel. Pistons launch. Connecting rods snap like twigs. In fact, "grenading" is slang for exploding a motor. Today the supercharger, clutch and transmission are all wrapped in kevlar. But that much power-- and torque --- is tough on everything. Clutches, transmissions and differentials can all go bye-bye in an eyeblink. And slingshot design has the driver sitting on top of the rear end. With his favorite parts practically up against the housing!
The first big warning came in 1969 at the Nationals during a race between the great Don Prudhomme and Jim Nicoll. Nicoll had been fast all year but dogged with bad luck. This time his clutch let loose just before the finish line. The clutch disc spun out and literally cut the car in half. The front end with engine snaked in front of Prudhomme's car. The rear end with Nicoll in it bounced and rolled over the finish line. Nicoll was unhurt and when he crawled from the wreckage, ecstatic because he believed he'd finally won. Which he had not, losing by 2 thousandths of a second.
The big blow came at a race next winter, and again it was Garlits. At the time a two speed lenco transmission was the thing. Garlits' tranny exploded just past the starting line. Shrapnel cut Garlits' car in half and amputated half of his left foot. There is a famous picture of the accident, with the drivers compartment folded up over the engine, flames shooting out of where Garlits' feet had to be.
Garlits went back to the drawing board and created the first practical mid-engined dragster. There had been others, dogged with traction problems. Garlits made his work. He won, and soon everybody copied it. Garlits' basic pattern had once again set the standard for all top fuel dragster's that followed.
Today's dragster is much like Garlits pioneering mid-engine machine. The front end of a dragster resembles a horizontal pyramid with a wheelbase of around 300 inches (7.5 meters). The pyramid extends back to the driver's compartment, with the same hoop around the head that was found in the old slingshots. Behind it a set of tubes that hold the engine. The motor is probably a Donovan, or some other purpose built motor that draws its lineage directly from the Chrysler Hemis of yore. In fact, the motors are really the same engines, slightly refined, strengthened and made out of lighter, more exotic materials. They displace around 500 cubic inches (eight liters) and produce around 6,000 horsepower. Each cylinder can produces more power than a Winston Cup stock car. A wing stands tall over the rear wheels to put downforce on the slicks. A parachute or three is required to stop the car from 320 MPH. The supercharger, clutch and transmission are all wrapped in protective kevlar blankets.
The tires are different too. Purpose built racing slicks first appeared in the sixties. Today's tires can almost triple in diameter under acceleration, and do lift the rear end of the car. Rubber isn't rubber any more either, rather a synthetic glop. But they do grip.
Of course, no tire can handle 6,000 horsepower. Today's black arts are in the clutches, and clutch settings. The idea is to have the clutch slip in a controlled way so that full power is only available during the last 100 meters of the race. Otherwise the dragster would go no where, and simply melt down its tires. Clutch settings make crew chiefs almost, or perhaps more important, than drivers.
What's a top fuel dragster like? Fast! Blink and you'll miss the race. Top times are zero to 320 MPH in four point five seconds. An F-18 Hornet running full afterburner off a catapult is about that fast. That's it. Not even a Saturn V takes off like that. The engines idle like cluster bombs. And when that hemi opens up you will hear a sound that even Godzilla might fear. They are the most purely visceral machines ever created in a sport of thrills. There are more extreme than anything you have ever experienced.
Top Fuel Dragsters are crude exercises in excess. Long may they live.