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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 overdrive 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 pit 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
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.
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!
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