1971-1979

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By the end of the '60s, horsepower gains had once again passed tire and clutch technology. The traction advantage gained years earlier, by locating the driver behind the rear tires (in the traditional "slingshot" layout) was no longer enough to assure adequate bite. In addition, trap speeds over 220 mph were the order of the day. As a result of growth at high speed, the fuelers were finding their rear tires attached to the track by only the narrowest of "footprints" - a situation that forebode certain disaster.

Their gracefully pointed frames, suspensions, and exposed steering components distorted grotesquely at speed. Something needed to be done that would enhance starting line traction and improve stability and control. In addition, the newfound horsepower - and its resulting stress on engine and driveline components was taking a heavy toll on driver well being.

Sitting just three feet behind a motor that's producing a dozen times its original horsepower had never been particularly safe. But as the engine wizards continued to wring more and more power from the ancient hemis, goggle-coating "oil baths" were becoming so common that many drivers began taping rags to the back of their driving gloves in hopes of being somewhat prepared for the inevitable. Engine and supercharger failures became increasingly violent, and the word "explosion" was becoming an all-too-familiar adjective when describing engine breakage.

Perhaps the worst of the dangers (at least in frequency of occurrence), was engine fire. Scores of '60s slingshot drivers experienced painful and sometimes disfiguring burns to their hands and faces (and indeed, some even lost their lives) when fuel - or a mixture of fuel and oil - ignited and blew back on them. Yet, even in light of those events - and with all its obvious faults - in 1969 the venerable slingshot was still firmly implanted as king of the dragsters.

There were a number of attempts to develop a viable rear-engine design, but despite a few moderate successes, something "big" was needed to force an across-the-board move away from the slingshots, and sure enough, the driver who had earned that very nickname - was soon to deliver.

On March 8, 1970 dragster legend Don Garlits experienced a horrific transmission explosion on the starting line at Lions drag strip. This time, fire was not the main problem. His car's slingshot configuration had dictated that his legs and feet straddle the two-speed transmission. When it blew apart, with all the force of a military land mine, shrapnel tore off the front half of his right foot.

While still in his hospital bed, Garlits swore to himself that he was through with slingshot dragsters, and began to formulate a design that would, once and for all, put the fuel motor - and all of it's terrible potential - behind him.

After taking time to evaluate the weaknesses of past rear-engine cars, Garlits and Connie Swingle put their fertile minds to work. While stories vary as to just who was responsible for the final breakthrough, the gist of it was to substantially slow the steering ratio. This "trick" helped negate the driver's tendency to over-respond when correcting for rear-end movement (either real or imagined - without the entire car in front for visual reference, some drivers found the forward cockpit location disorienting).

With a few test runs under his belt, Big Daddy headed West. After a successful tune-up session at Lions, Garlits pulled into the pits at the 1971 NHRA Winternationals towing a small, sleek car that was deceptively simple - almost underwhelming in appearance - except for the fact that its motor was placed between the driver and the rear wheels.

Once on the tarmac though, the little car quickly got everyone's attention!

During the meet, Garlits marched unmercifully through the top fuel field, enjoying a wide performance margin - and all the while, making it look as easy and casual as taking the family out for a Sunday afternoon cruise. The die had been cast. The performance potential of the rear engine layout had been painfully driven home to the sport's premiere drivers, builders, and sponsors. And now that the handling issue had obviously been sorted out, there would be no turning back. Immediately following that race, the checkbooks came out, and there was a rush to the chassis shops.

Virtually every top chassis builder was faced with an overwhelming demand to produce a rear-engine design of his own. There were some unique variants, to be sure, but for the most part chassis lengths remained about the same and the initial batch of "modern-day" rear-engine cars retained the traditional look - almost as though sections of the chassis had simply been re-arranged.

In hardly any time at all, rear-mounted wings appeared and and took a permanent place above the rear tires. As further experimentation caused the rear-engine/rear wing concept to become ever more effective, the cars began to grow in size and length, evolving into the graceless behemoths we see in top fuel today.

The slingshots are forever gone from the big league top fuel wars, but their spirit - and many of the drivers who loved them - lived on during a period of transition throughout the early to late '70s. These are the cars featured on the following pages.

Forward by Stan Weber

 

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On March 8, 1970, on a late afternoon in Long Beach, California, the face of drag racing changed forever. It was the AHRA Grand American - their first big race of the year. The stands of Lions Drag Strip were still full of the 25,000+ fans who'd stayed into to see the Top Fuel final between "Big Daddy" Don Garlits and the infamous Richard Tharp in the Creitz & Donovan fueler. After their burnouts both cars staged without any games. Starter, Larry Sutton flipped the switch and in an instant Tharp red lighted and Garlits headed into history.

 

 

 

 

Keeping in mind that the 2-speed transmissions were in their infancy, Garlits was running a newly design, overdriven Stoffel's Engineering 2-speed transmission. When he hit the throttle it was like a bomb went off. The 2-speed literally blew up and the results were immediate and devastating. The car was cut in half, severing Garlits' right foot at the arch in the process. Pieces went everywhere (see clutch disc spinning across the track above) including the stands. There were a couple of serious injuries in the pis side stands. I was standing right behind the car and believe me, it was something I'll never forget. While recuperating, Don made up his mind to design a front driver car that would be competitive in the early 1971, and history will bear out that he did.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This section of WDIFL is dedicate to the latter day pioneers who, like those before them, took an idea and tried to build the better mouse trap. The early REDs (rear engine dragsters) were shaky at best. In parallel to the quantum leaps top fuel took in 1962 and 1963, so was the evolution of the front driver cars in 1971-1973. In the beginning we basically took the entire combination out of our rear driver cars (FEDs) and plugged them into a new chassis. Some barbarians actually cut up their FEDs and converted them to REDs. None of those were successful.

We soon found out that the same things that worked in the front engine cars would not work with the rear engine cars. As we learned the unique characteristics of the new design (ie steering ratio changes and rear end changes) the cars got more stable and easier to drive. We also had to go through some very painful lessons that this breed of dragster brought with them a new set of safety issues. Kenny Logan and Bob Edwards both paid dearly to show that the single and double element Armaco guardrails so common then were too high from the track to the bottom rail. Herm Petersen is a painful reminder that we needed better firesuits, not lighter ones. Marvin Schwartz gave his all to illustrate that more stringent chassis specs were called for.

Nonetheless, even with these exceptions, the fatality rate dropped drastically in the dragster ranks and Garlits' dream of a safer car was realized. However, for many of us these new cars were at first a challenge and then a bore. Speaking for myself, they were not nearly as much fun to drive as the front engine cars. Even when we started going much quicker and much faster, they were for the most part - boring. I suspect that the high 3 second, 323 mph stab-n-steer TF cars of today would be an E ticket, the 6 and high 5 second cars of the 70s were pretty mundane. But I guarantee that's not the perspective you'll get from someone who never drove a FED!

'Nuff babble. There will be plenty of history and commentary on the photo pages to fill the gaps here. Enjoy this new section and watch it grow. Since I have very little in the way of RED photos, these new pages will not be released as frequently as the FED section. I'll put pages up when I get enough shots to fill them. DE

If your have photos of your RED or other cars that ran between 1971 and 1979 and would like to see them on these pages... let me know! E-mail me at: RED Photos

 

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