Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A vulgar display of American horsepower

I recently (25-27 September 2009) attended the O'Reilly/Castrol Fall Nationals drag races at Ennis, TX with my friend, Al Moller. It had been quite some time since either of us had been to a professional-caliber drag racing event - we both came away wondering why we stayed away for so long. It was a fantastic experience, despite the heat and the burning sun we had to endure in the grandstands. We had terrific seats on the north side of the track, very close to the starting line, so we could see the launches right out of the hole. And we wandered about in the pits during breaks in the action, as well, seeing some of the racers up close and in person.

Drag racing is a truly American extreme sport. You can read about it at the National Hod Rod Association site. Its origins lie with the love affair Americans have with their cars and the natural competitive nature of Americans: who has the quickest car? Since street racing is dangerous, as well as illegal, and not recommended, the NHRA (in particular, its founder, the late Wally Parks) came up with an idea - to take the "hot rods" to a track where the racing could be done under safe conditions without danger to non-participants, to see who could cross the finish line first in a straight line race (rather than a roundy-round thing that goes on for an extended time). In a quarter mile, you could settle the issue in a few seconds, once and for all.

With time and typical American mechanical innovation and creativity, the sport evolved from heads-up, "run what ya brung" hot rods all mixed together into various classes of cars, with the ultimate classes being the top fuel dragsters and fuel "funny cars". These are the most extreme cars in motorsports, with large, purpose-built engines running on a mixture of nitromethane and methanol. Their sole purpose is to accelerate as fast as possible and in their current incarnation use 8000 horsepower engines in the lightest allowable car (there are rules that govern the details of what is a legal car to run, mostly seeking to provide some measure of safety). The engines are always on the ragged edge of blowing up under the strain.

Top fuel dragsters begin from a standing start and reach speeds approaching 300 mph in about 4 seconds flat (or less) over a distance of 1000 ft - the distance in the top fuel categories was reduced from 1320 to 1000 ft for safety purposes. When dragsters were first developed, they used engines originally built for street vehicles, but were modified by the racers in various ways to provide more horspower. The cars gradually became lighter and lighter as the technology of dragsters evolved, even as the engines increased in power - the result? More and more speed, shorter and shorter elapsed times (ETs) to get down the track. In today's world, the specially-built drag racing engines have their origins in Mopar hemispherical head designs dating from the 1950s, but the real top fuel engines today are engineered and built from the start to be racing engines. They're no longer modified regular car engines. They're a V-8 design, producing around 1000 horsepower per cylinder! For comparison purposes, the typical passenger car engine produces about 125 horsepower from 4 or 6 cylinders.

Some simple calculations show that going from 0 to 300 mph in 4 seconds represents an average acceleration over that 1000 ft distance of around 3.5 x the force of gravity (g). At the start, the cars accelerate at around 6 x g - the acceleration decreases with time down the track because of the increasing air drag on the vehicle (which goes up as vehicle's speed increases). When a top fuel dragster launches from the starting line (the "hole"), the engine is producing a deafening bellow at a sound level of about 120 decibels - enough to damage your ears. Therefore, the racers and most spectators either cover their ears or wear earplugs. But the sound isn't limited to what you can hear - the sound can be felt in your whole body as the car goes by. When it passes, you can smell the nitromethane ("nitro") fumes in the air - a sweet, acrid smell that's unmistakable for anything else. I love the smell of nitro in the morning - it smells like ... victory! (my apologies to Robert Duvall and Apocalypse Now)

This sport is as uniquely American as jazz, the blues, apple pie, chili, tobacco, potatoes, musicals, and tomatoes. It's caught on in England and Australia to some extent, but it's not popular in continental Europe or Asia, which are homes to sophisticated motorsports fans. Unlike Formula-1 or sports car racing, drag racing is brutally simple: put the most horsepower you can into the lightest possible car allowed by the rules, race it down a straight line for a quarter mile (1320 ft or about 2 city blocks) - or 1000 ft - and see who crosses the finish line first. The race is decided in a few seconds. You can see the entire race - start to finish - from your seat in the stands. And one race follows the other in rapid succession, as hundreds of hopefuls try to qualify for and survive the eliminations to win a championship in their class.

What you see on TV is but a pale imitation of the sights, sounds, and smells of the actual experience. If you ever go see a real NHRA drag race, you'll likely either love it or hate it. A friend we met for the first time at this year's races took his father to the Fall Nationals last year. His father's reaction? "It's a vulgar display of American horsepower." Al and I agreed with our new friend - yes, that's true, and the more vulgar, the better!

For myself, I think my love affair with drag racing likely is connected to my love affair with supercells and tornadoes (the most extreme storms on the planet!). The beginning of my interest in drag racing was due to my cousins in Illinois, who were older than I and into hot rodding and drag racing. Since my cousins were my role models of the time, I followed their interests and got hooked on drag racing myself. I saw my first big-time, professional drag racing event at the World Series of Drag Racing at Cordova, Illinois, sometime in the early 1960s (I think, when I was in high school). And my best friend from high school, Tom Schifler, and I became regulars at Cordova for a while - we even went to the US Nationals in Indianapolis a couple of times in the late 1960s.

My first interest began earlier though, in the late 1950s, when "Big Daddy" Don Garlits was bursting onto the drag racing scene. Don Garlits became a favorite of mine (like John Force is today). I looked forward to seeing him race and if Garlits showed up, I was really pleased. I liked the brute force of drag racing and the technical side, as well. I liked the creativity and ingenuity of the racers in all the classes, especially in the "sportsman" and "stock" classes.

I learned a lot about automotive engines without ever becoming a mechanic. My interest in the sport has suffered from other, higher priorities at times, but has never been forgotten. This year's event may get me back to attending more regularly. Al and I are already planning to be back in Ennis for next year's event! Maybe we'll see you there?