In this world of 11,000 horsepower,
sub-4 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
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
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.
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,
Think "rat rod" with
Even the first commercially available
chassis came with mounts for typical albeit lightened Ford parts
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 rear ends.
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
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 to narrow?
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 dragsters.
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
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
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 up ground.
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 Shubert. 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 Shubert-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!
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, Iskendarian
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 Iskendarian 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 or Scheifer 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.
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 playing field.
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.