Apocalypse: The Chi-Town Hustler
"There's a helluva lot more to it than tippin' the can"

By: Paul Stenquist

 

Forward: Although this 1976 article is about the famed Chi-Town Hustler it is directly relevant to all fuel engines of the era. Throughout the 70's the bane of Top Fuel and Funny Car racers alike was "backsiding" pistons. This is how Farkonas and Coil approached that problem. The article also gives good insight to where the teams thought fuel racing was going in the future.


A fuel funny car: grand spectacle of all drag racing; highly complex, sometimes unpredictable acceleration machine in a plastic shell; and finally yet perhaps most importantly, the strange, screaming, 230 mph, fire-breathing, beautiful embodiment of a nation's power-lust fantasies.

Farkonas, Coil and Minick: precise, hard working, lusty, double-throwdown drag racers. After a decade that had both stunning success and depressing failure they remain obstinately different, combining a strange mixture of engineering and quarter mile moxie in the object of their constant attention and deep dedication -- the 6.18 second, 237 mph "Chi-Town Hustler".

It was a cold, January Saturday when we tracked down the Hustler trio. Our singular purpose lay in exposing their operation. Minick made a futile, last attempt to cover the evidence, but we were determined. There it was, piled in a corner, the disassembled "Chi-Town Hustler." We had them and they knew it. They were going to have to cooperate.

We asked the Chicago threesome to provide us with a condensed, technical description of a fuel funny car powerplant and a quick look at some of the special projects and pieces that the fellows have developed in their constant effort to improve their drag racing operation.

The article was to end with some kind of general statement of optimism in regard to the future of professional, fuel funny car racing. But as the hours flew by and the bench racing dragged on well into the wee hours of the morning, a certain feeling developed to the effect that everything really wasn't quite 100% and that certain steps should perhaps be taken now to insure that professional, fuel funny car racing will survive its second decade.

But that is the end of our story. The beginnings are in countless hours of listening to Austin Coil, Pat Minick and John Farkonas talk funny cars, something they enjoy almost as much as racing them. And the beginnings are in the solid decade that countless individuals have spent on the development of the fuel funny car.

Coil explains that the key to success with a fueler lies in working with the entire system. A modern funny car is not just an overpowered, sticky-tired monstrosity that goes faster every time you tip the nitro can. A funny car is actually a complex yet highly organized "system" where each and every little piece must work in precisely the right manner. Nitro-fuel powerplants were our principal topic of conversation on that cold January day, however, and it is there that we will begin.

The modern late-model aluminum fueler short block is the product of many years of eliminating weak links. The super-charged, late-model hemis of a decade ago were basically stock Chrysler short blocks with aftermarket low compression pistons. The modern funny car short block finds a steel billet aftermarket crankshaft spinning in an aftermarket aluminum block at the end of aftermarket forged aluminum rods that carry expensive aftermarket pistons. It is the piston that has most recently earned the distinction of being known as the "weak link" despite improvements in the design of forged aluminum pistons.

Piston life is undoubtedly the singularly most significant technical problem that the fuel racer faces today. Austin Coil has been known to change all of his pistons between rounds. Part of the problem in finding a "cure" lies in pinpointing the cause of the failure. Every year you can count on somebody coming up with a new theory that supposedly explains piston failures.

Most funny car piston failures involve an enlargement or opening of the top ringland. The confusion that surrounds the piston problem is a result of the fact that the ringland will not always "open" in exactly the same manner. A fueler will sometimes open the top of the ringland on the front or valve relief side of the piston. At other times a fueler will push down the ringland on the back of the piston. When this happens it looks as though the top ringland is dented or pushed out of shape. Aside from the enlarged ringland, the only visible evidence of a "backsided" piston is a slight wrinkling of the aluminum above the top ringland. Coil feels that heat and detonation are the culprits in both cases.

If it is extremes of temperature and the resulting detonation that cause piston failures, perhaps the only solution lies in a piston of some material other than aluminum.

That brings us, quite naturally, to the John Farkonas-engineered, two-piece, aluminum-skirt, titanium-crown piston. That's right, a titanium piston. Farkonas has been working on the development of a titanium funny car piston for a few years and the pistons are now available by special order although full-scale production will not begin until tests are completed. Some people believe that this piston might revolutionize fuel racing; others are skeptical. Everyone, however, agrees that $10,000 piston bills are definitely not neat.

The first titanium piston that Farkonas built was tested by Coil in a steel-block stroker motor during 1974. Initial results were outstanding. Coil was able to "squeeze" the nozzle on the titanium-pistoned cylinder until he burned the spark plug beyond recognition. The titanium-domed piston was undamaged. ("Squeezing" the nozzle means leaning out that particular cylinder by making its port nozzle smaller.)

Farkonas, Coil and Minick were more than pleased with the piston's performance in the Hustler and John began work on a complete set of pistons. By late September the pistons were finished and Coil put together a Keith Black aluminum motor with eight titanium slugs filling the cylinders.

The debut for this motor was an important IHRA event at Bristol, Tennessee, in autumn of '74. Everyone who was there knows the rest of the story. As the screaming Hustler approached the 1000' mark, the 2000 horsepower aluminum motor exploded in a huge ball of smoke and flames leaving only its last piercing wail to reverberate between the walls of beautiful Thunder Valley.

A distraight Austin Coil returned to the pits to find that the skirt design of the titanium piston was not compatible with the cylinder movement that occurs in aluminum motors.

The piston test proved to be an expensive experiment as the Hustler's brand new $3000 aluminum block was now missing about 30% of its lifter galley. The titanium piston went back to the drawing board for a new skirt design and Coil put the "mule wagon," a 25,000 lb. transporter, in the Monfort lane and hustled back to Chicago where he and Gary Dyer would spend a good part of the winter welding the aluminum motor back together.

By summer of 1975, Farkonas had a new Titanium piston design. The fresh approach, which offered a considerable increase in skirt area over the old, worked well in the patched up aluminum motor but a new problem developed. Although lean conditions did not hurt the piston, the top ring was severely damaged.

Farkonas diagnosed the ring problem as a product of the different rate of heat dissipation in a titanium piston as compared to an aluminum piston. It was decided to increase piston ring end gap by .006". Since Coil had been running a .024" gap when he experienced the ring problems, a .030" end gap was prescribed.

The Chicago trio was, however, a little bit weary of the Hustler's guinea-pig role so they persauded their good friend Jungle Jim Liberman to try the new unit. Unfortunately, signals were crossed and J.J. ran the piston with .022" end gap and wiped out the top ring with one pass. The next test for the piston will take place at the Miami IHRA event in late February '76 when a titanium piston will ride with Frank Oglesby in his "Quarterhorse" Mustang II. In the meantime, Farkonas will be keeping his fingers crossed and working on a new compression ring design.

Fuel funny car piston problems are, of course, the symptom of some type of combustion temperature problem. The obvious cure for a combustion temperature problem in any internal combustion engine lies in changing certain tuning variables such as ignition timing, camshaft timing or mixture. Obviously if you eliminate the problem by detuning the motor to a point where it does not hurt parts, you limit its horsepower output and you lose.

One might easily believe that "backing off" is the only solution other than a new piston material. But this is not necessarily the case as many of the very quickest runs made by funny cars have been without burning pistons. This suggests that it is possible to "tune" away the piston problem. "Tuning" can be defined as arranging certain variables to arrive at a point where the car is producting its best E.T. Perhaps then, by providing additional tuning control, and in turn a capacity for a better state of tune. The obvious place to introduce more variables is in the fuel injection system.

A constant-flow fuel injector does not rely on the piston's intake stroke and the movement of gases -- as a carburetor does -- in determining how much fuel to feed a cylinder. Fuel volume, and the "fuel curve" that is described if one graphically plots fuel delivery vs. rpm, is dependent only upon the design of the mechanical pump. Changes in a fuel delivery curve can be effected only by returning fuel to the tank.

Variations can be made in fuel distribution by changing one or more of 16 fuel injector nozzles. Eight of the nozzles are located above the blower while the other eight are situated in the intake ports. It is with the injector nozzles that Austin Coil has attempted to develop additional tuning variables. He has installed an additional eight nozzles in the intake ports. These extra nozzles are controlled by a two-stage valve which opens at 80 psi fuel pressure or 6000 rpm.

This does not give Coil any control over the fuel delivery curve as he is not returning fuel, but it does give him the ability to change the distribution at low rpm without changing it up high. This is accomplished by changing the relative size of the low pressure and high pressure nozzles.

While fuel injector distribution is controlled by changing nozzles, changes in the fuel delivery curve can be effected only by returning fuel to the tank. Until just a few years ago, control over the fuel delivery curve in supercharged fuelers was usually exercised only to the extent of changing the pill in the injector hat and changing the barrel valve setting.

The "pill" is, of course, an orifice that is placed in a return line to control the amount of pressurized fuel that enters that line. The "barrel valve" returns enough fuel to permit the engine to idle when the throttle plates are closed. Essentially then, very little was done to modify the fuel delivery vs. rpm curve in the 5000 to 8000 rpm range where the motor was doing its work.

In recent years, a second return line has been added to most funny car fuel injectors. This return line is equipped with a poppet valve in addition to an orifice. The poppet valve delays returning fuel behind the orifice until a predetermined psi figure is reached. (Fuel pressure increases as rpm increases). This leans the motor at high rpm. This valve is called a high-speed lean-out valve. In an attempt to extend this idea, some cars now use two or three high-speed valves.

Coil, in an effort to provide more control over the fuel delivery curve (and subsequently combustion temperature), has developed a different kind of high-speed lean-out valve that offers variable control over the amount of fuel bypassed by means of a metering device.

The first prototype of this valve has not yet been completed, but when it is, it will be tested on F,C + M's own flow bench. Every winter Coil runs a bunch of fuel systems on the bench, which can actually duplicate a race car environment even to the extent of pressurizing an intake manifold. It is through extensive research like this that fuel racers will eventually solve the special problems of tuning with nitormethane fuel.

As with any race engine, the tuning of a fuel motor is what separates the men from the boys. Short block construction demands precision sizing, but given certain dimensions and the right pieces, the assembly of the short block becomes merely an exercise in craftsmanship and precision.

Tuning is much more complicated because there are so many variables involved. In fact, tuning problems with a fuel motor are actually infinite because, in addition to the variables we have already discussed, there is a hidden or unknown factor involved.

Nitromethane is the unknown factor. Alcohol, gasoline and most other fuels that one might choose to burn in an internal combustion engine are "paraffin" fuels. This means that their molecules are composed of hydrogen and carbon atoms in various patterns.

Nitromethane, on the other hand, is a nitroparrafin. Nitroparaffins burn much faster than other paraffins because one hydrogen atom is replaced by a nitric group, NO2, which carries two oxygen atoms. It is obvious, then, that raising the percentage of nitromethane in a nitromethane/alcohol fuel mixture will provide more oxygen for combustion and allow a greater amount of fuel to be burned.

The problem in working with nitromethane is that no one (at least no one we know) understands exactly how nitromethane behaves in the combustion chamber as temperature and pressure change. Does the NO2 group liberate oxygen at an inconstant rate? If so, exactly how is this process affected by changes in combustion temperature and pressure?

Now change the speed at which you spin the supercharger by going to a gear belt pulley with more teeth. You'll be changing the effective cylinder pressure. Add to this the inherent problems of a constant flow fuel injector that we have already discussed. Change the barometric pressure, air temperature and humidity as you travel from race track to race track and you have yourself a real bag of snakes.

The fuel racers who perform consistently well at national events get there early and sometimes go though many parts "dialing in" their cars to a particular day and track.

Fuel racing is a difficult, demanding and expensive proposition, and only a true professional can make it with a travelin' funny car show on a year-by-year basis.

And that is exactly as it should be. In the hands of a professional mechanic and a professional driver, a well-designed fuel funny car can be completely safe and at all times under control. Even the sometimes unavoidable motor explosions can be controlled in a car equipped with safety systems that actually function and are of a design that will work when an emergency occurs.

Unfortunately, not all fuel funny cars that currently carry a SEMA sticker are of a safe, proper design. Similarly, someone who just happens to have the cash and the inclination is not necessarily capable of properly preparing, maintaining and tuning a fuel funny car. There are some funny car drivers who have an NHRA driver's license in their back pocket but have never completed any portion of the driving test prescribed by NHRA.

It is this serious lack of control that clouds the future of professional fuel funny car racing. Nitromethane fuel is not the problem that will put the fuel funny out of business. A lack of any effective regulation of professional fuel racing IS the problem.

It would be easy to try to blame the disorganized state of pro fuel racing on NHRA, but it would also be completely unfair. Pro fuel funny car racing grew from the theatrics-oriented funny cars of the mid-60's, quite apart from the NHRA racing of that period. Many, perhaps the majority of fuel funny car races are held at other than NHRA facilities.

Larry Carrier's IHRA has been deeply involved in pro funny car racing since the beginning of that organization and has provided comparatively substantial cash guarantees for pro racers who run their shows. Many smaller organizations and independent dragstrip owners collectively spend millions of dollars every year in order to bring their customers fuel funny car shows.

The problem in effecting any worthwhile change in the pro ranks lies in getting these people to work together. Thus far, their "track record" rates them a big goose egg.

And that is truly unfortunate for if some effort is not made to prevent a wealthy, misinformed, would-be drag racer from hopping straight out of daddy's Oldsmobile and into a 230 mph funny car without first having to demonstrate competency in a car other than one drag racing has labeled "pro", and without the mechanical assistance of someone who at least has some conception of the problems involved, there will come a day when one of these cars will get loose in the stands somewhere and hurt a whole bunch of innocent people.

If drag racing can organize some means of regulating fuel racing, there are many plans that can be implemented to effect change. The licensing of supercharged, fuel race car mechanics might be a good place to start. This is not the first time that this has ever been suggested. However, the proposal is usually written off as impractical and perhaps impossible. The licensing of mechanics would not be impossible though, it would actually be only slightly difficult.

The licensing of mechanics will be futile, however, if not carried out in a more responsible manner than the licensing of funny car drivers. NHRA requires that the driver's test is witnessed by three licensed funny car drivers. When licenses were first issued, veteran drivers were summarily issued licenses as their contemporaries, who had legitimately witnessed them perform what the test requires on previous occasions, signed as their witnesses. It then, unfortunately, became standard procedure for new drivers to choose their own witnesses. This has been abused to the point where many licenses were issued that perhaps never should have been issued.

The third major step that must be taken if funny car racing is to continue as the professional spectator-oriented sport that it has become, is stricter supervision of funny car chassis builders. The awarding of a SEMA sticker does not necessarily mean that a chassis builder is a funny car expert.

Some of the cars currently in competition are not really very adequate. Fire extinguisher systems are a good example. Since most funny car fire extinguishers are mounted in front of the motor, a chassis builder is free to design any kind of fire bottle discharge linkage he prefers. Most linkages are never tested to determine if they actually will discharge a full fire bottle because full bottles are so expensive. Furthermore, some basic chassis designs available today are not even properly put together.

A funny car chassis is a completely rigid structure that should maintain rigidity and uniformity under the heavy load imposed upon it by the incredible torque that a fueler produces. A properly constructed funny car follows certain indisputable principles of engineering design that dictate exactly how a box must be braced to remain rigid and exactly how these braces should be welded in place. There are plenty of funny cars that are built in complete ignorance of even basic engineering principles and subsequently become ill-handling, twisting, turning messes on the race track.

Strict, on the spot, informed supervision of funny car chassis builders is needed.

Are these disquieting and somewhat controversial ideas that grew from an all-night bench racing session in the Farkonas, Coil and Minick garage merely the meanderings of discontented racers? I don't think so. Although the writer assumes full responsibility for the actual outlining of these proposals, they are the product of a number of years of listening to the problems of the pro racers.

It is essential that someone attempt to organize pro drag racing. Many pro racers depend completely upon drag racing. Drag racing is the only future they've got. Why should we just hope that the kind of calamitous accident that could completely destroy our young sport will never happen? It is in the best interest of everyone involved with the sport to insist that "organizational progress" keep pace with technical progress.

Save the travelin' fuel funny car show. Push for professionalism.


From Super Stock & Drag Illustrated page 48-52 - April, 1976
© Lopez Publications Inc. 1976

 

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