Posts Tagged ‘top fuel dragsters’

VESUVIUS (Pomona, 1996)

November 3, 2008

En route to Black Rock, and with the motorized class struggle in our rear view mirrors, we continue to fight our way through the crosstown traffic on the San Bernardino Freeway, arguably the most constipated thoroughfare in Los Angeles. As we pass through East LA, traffic is really beginning to tighten up and the radio man says that just beyond Pomona the freeway was an absolute parking lot. Cuz’n Roy and I take a slight detour. We go drag racing.

Top Fuel cars are running out at the drag strip in Pomona that same day, which is pretty tough for us to blow off: aye, getting dosed by nitro-powered projectiles reaching a terminal velocity of 300 mph in 4 seconds, the ground shaking like Vesuvius, buckets of raw, liquid explosives seeding the ionosphere like the Devil’s cornfield. It sure beat sitting in traffic, watching the temperature gauge needle weld itself to the red line. Once the sun set in Pomona traffic would thin to a tolerable density and we could ball the jack into San Berdoo and Barstow and continue to retrace Breedlove’s steps at night, as least as far as Tonopah, Nevada, out by the missile silos and the proving grounds of Area 51. All things considered, an afternoon at the drag races seemed like the perfect overture for a trip to the desert…

The detour makes sense on many levels, not the least of which being that Breedlove himself had raced on this very chunk of asphalt back in early 1962, shoeing a railjob propelled by two small block Chevies with pump gas for its fuel. It was a deconstructed machine known as the Freight Train, and as part of the race team’s schtick, they often wore railroad engineer’s caps in the Winner Circle. Breedlove drove the car only for a couple of weekends as a prelude to his initial Land Speed Record attempts, and well before the choo-choo hats became part of the wardrobe…

Indeed, throughout the 60s and early 70s, Breedlove used the drag strip as a test bench for various aerodynamic theories and propulsion systems, but whenever the fastest man in the world returned to the 1/4 mile asphalt, one got the feeling he was really slumming and passing time until all systems were “go” for another crack at the Land Speed Record out on the Salt Flats.

Cuz’n Roy and I park the ‘71 Grand Prix at a taco stand that stood behind the drag strip’s timing tower, hoof it a couple of blocks into the pit entrance gate, then grab some track steaks and a couple of beers and cop a squat on some aluminum seats near the finish line. Top Fuel cars come roaring by our perch in pairs at speeds of 300 mph or so (“WHHHHAAAAAAHHHHHHUUUUUUHHHHHNNTT!”) and as often as not – due to finicky track conditions and an envelope of smog that was starving these rapacious dragsters for oxygen – blow up overamped engines and propel shrapnel into altitudes of absurd elevations (“PPPOOOFFF!”). The dragsters pound the pavement with such ferocity that car alarms are triggered in the parking lot after nearly every pass. The explosions are a great spectacle, but the car alarms bum our high.

“When does that fucking noise stop?” I blurt. “Is that constant squeaking, squealing and honking the soundtrack to our entire existence nowadays?” It is the noise of fear, dread and neurosis, and it had invaded the otherwise peaceful confines of an afternoon at the drag races. It was one thing to hear the sounds after an accident on the freeway, but quite another to have it interfere with our enjoyment of gratuitous explosions at the drag strip. I take a hit off of my paper cup and tried to block the shrill sounds from the parking lot out of my consciousness.

Another fuel dragster blazes by on fire, the crew chief having miscalculated the fuel mixture and atmospheric boost levels, the infernal roar drowning out any superfluous noise from the parking lot. As flak rains from the heavens I tell Roy I feel like Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now, dodging fragments of molten metal while trying to maintain a cogent discourse. In this instance, rather than debating Duvall’s take on whether or not the Red Chinese used surfboards in Vietnam, the conversation is about the strange turn the land speed record took once Breedlove shunned the traditional internal combustion engine used by both passenger cars and Top Fuel dragsters in favor of jet propulsion that was, in essence, liberated from the trash bins of the military industrial complex.

VERY EXPENSIVE SHIT

November 3, 2008

After the oil and broken hardware is finally mopped and broomed off the drag strip, another pair of fuel cars march down the asphalt at terminal velocity and begin shooting out pieces of burning titanium through the exhaust, a spectacle reminiscent of roman candles at a fireworks display on Independence Day. The heat generated from the explosions is quite palpable and makes one feel warm and even patriotic, in a fuzzy, non-jingoistic sense. Is this the Spirit of America? As referenced by the moniker Breedlove assigned to his speed machines that debuted on the Salt Flats in the summer of 1962? Whatever it is, it is more than apparent by the repeated extravagant and Teutonic displays of noise and fire that it is our God-given right as Americans to burn up precious metals in a public display of sensory overload and fiduciary carelessness.

“It’s amazing the stress these Top Fuel guys are subjecting these aluminum engines to,” I say to Roy, damning the dangling modifier, “… the same engines that Chrysler built for their street machines back in ‘63 or ‘64.”

Another Top Fuel car goes by on fire, burning off its parachutes.

“Too bad they melt after four or five seconds of use,” Roy laughs.

“We live in a time and place of entropy, where you can blow very expensive shit up and laugh about it – as long as you keep it between the guardrails…”

THE OTHER X-1

November 3, 2008

July 23, 1966, Union Grove, Wisconsin. On this day, an afternoon as hot and as sticky as taffy, the Space Age comes to the local drag strip in the guise of a revolutionary new dragster concept. After three years of testing and two years of construction, the X-1 rocket car, built under the aegis of the Reaction Dynamics Corporation (basically a three-way partnership between a couple of shade tree propulsion experts as well as an expert fabricator and welder, all working out of a garage in Milwaukee), finally makes it maiden voyage down the pavement…

The X-1’s rocket engine has no moving parts and burns 9.5 gallons of hydrogen peroxide. By design, it shoooshes down the 1/4 mile pavement like a shot, and runs out of fuel 1000 feet into the run. Even after coasting for the length of a football field before entering the timing lights, the X-1 is still the quickest and fastest machine on a drag strip, effortlessly eclipsing the speeds and elapsed times of the state of the art nitro-burning dragsters that roar through the speed traps in full song, week after week across America.

Reaction Dynamics’ goal is to design a supersonic vehicle with a target speed of 1000 mph. The first step is to use the drag strip as a means to shake down their ideas.

The throughline for this project goes back to Germany in the 20s. As a pup, Richard A. Keller (“Dick”) saw a photograph of Fritz von Opel’s rocket car, the black brautwurst-shaped roadster that exploded and killed Max Valier. Dick was smitten with the stark white lettering on the car, which spelled out “RAK,” short for “raketen” (Kraut fur “rocket”). It was an eponymous coincidence as RAK was young Keller’s initials also. Of such coinky-dinks, does the trajectory of history twist… Likewise, at a drag strip, the fortuitous meeting of Keller and Ray Dausman with Top Gas dragster racer Pete Farnsworth also tweaks the course of history.

August, 1967, U.S. 30 Drag Strip in Crown Point, Illinois. Chuck Suba, an All-American boy with a healthy sense of curiosity and a clean cut appearance not unlike that of Eisenhower’s favorite son, has been hired to pilot the X-1 rocket car.

This day is a day of destiny.

A gurgling sound bubbles out of the rocket’s decomposition chambers, like Frankenstein on day old pizza. DRAG RACING Magazine reports that Suba “holds the steering yoke vertically, 90 degrees off axis, and aims the front of the car between his third and fourth knuckle, like a sight on a revolver.

“The rocket engine’s exhaust is 4 times the speed of sound… a noise like an afterburner kicks in and suddenly he is off, riding on the head of a bullet.” The X-1 zips to a 5.41 second elapsed time – the quickest ever on a 1/4 mile drag strip. By a bunch.

Documentation of the X-1, and its follow-up, the Blue Flame (both being preeminent rocket cars in the history of maximum velocity) is rather sparse, as is accurate information about Reaction Dynamics, the small business that operated and designed these machines. I know they were based out of Milwaukee, but that is about all I know. So I fly out to Wisconsin on a whim. Once there, I cold call Reaction Dynamics co-founder Pete Farnsworth and arrange to meet him and his wife Leah for Chinese food.

It is thirty years after the Blue Flame set the Land Speed Record. Its driver, Gary Gabelich, might call this meeting of conversation and won ton ala Wisconsin “blenderized karma.” As the Farnsworths and I sit down in a restaurant whose decor can only be described as “cavalier and relaxed rusticana,” I take notice of Pete’s prosaic build and underspoken demeanor. There is absolutely nothing about this guy that says “I-was-part-of-the-intellect-behind-what-once-was-the-quickest-car-on-the-planet-and-I-still- have-a-rocket-dragster-in-my-barn-as-some-weird-totem-and-memento-to-the-days-when-I-set- the-world-on-fire.” Nothing. His accomplishments are absolutely hyper-intense, but the guy is more laid back than a back lot security guard. His wife Leah is small in stature, but there is nothing diminutive about her worldview and opinion. Both strike me as no nonsense. During the course of dinner I begin to understand something that I never knew: that holding the Land Speed Record could be as sweet and sour as any Chinese pork.

Between forkfuls as brackish as Bonneville, I masticate and ask Pete about his transition from Top Gas dragsters to the rockets:

But how did you go from reciprocating engine drag racing into the more, you know, thrust driven stuff?

PETE FARNSWORTH: It was a matter of necessity, really. I was working full time and racing full time and it just became a twenty four hour a day thing to try to maintain a fuel dragster and work 8 or 9 hour a day too, so I was looking for a way to build an exhibition car of some sort.

Um hmm, what, what year was this?

PETE: Probably about ‘63, ‘64, when the jet cars were just starting to tour the circuit. As I have mentioned, we know (amputee jet car driver) Doug Rose quite well and he was running for Walt Arfons at the time and broke away from Walt and started his own car, the Green Mamba (jet dragster) and uh, we figured “these guys have cars that will run all day long, they don’t have to do a massive amount of maintenance on them.” I thought the next step up from a jet car would be a rocket car – and I started looking around at propulsion systems that were available in the early 60s and there basically wasn’t any.

I was out at Oswego Dragway with a gas dragster and an acquaintance from out past in Chicago – we both grew up in Evanston (just north of Chicago) and Chuck Suba had run a shop there, building race cars and doing specialized tune ups and things like that, and he had one of his customers that, uh, I was an acquaintance with – his name was Dick Keller and um, Dick was out there and happened by our pit and recognized me, and we got to talking. He asked me what we were doing and I said, “You know, running a gas dragster now, but trying to put together a rocket car for exhibition.” He said, “Well, that’s funny, cause a friend of mine, Ray Dausman, and I had just finished building a twenty five pound thrust rocket engine.”

Um hmm.

LEAH: And they were both going to go to Chicago where, um…

PETE: … the Illinois Institute of Technology and uh, Dick worked part time as a research assistant into gas technology, which was the research arm of the American Gas Association. So that was our first tie-in with the gas association was the fact that Dick knew people in the industry.

So that connection was made even before you guys ran the X-1?

PETE: Yeah, he was working there at the time when we got together. We started out as DFK Enterprises, for Dausman, Farnsworth and Keller and um, I believe that was 1965. We formed that and this was after a discussion meeting about whether the 25 lb. thrust motor they had built was scalable for something usable for drag racing – and all indications it was so, I decided from what I had heard from all this that this was the way to go because it was throttle-able, it was a reasonably safe fuel to handle and uh, hydrogen peroxide didn’t have any possibilities of explosion, (it is) reusable safe to handle as long as you didn’t pour it into a pile of rags or something and it wasn’t going to spontaneously ignite…

Um hmm.

PETE: We were having truckers trying to drop off great big drums of nitromethane while – you were thinking about your kids taking a nap – that was what they did one day when I was at work and they came with a 55 gallon drum of 98 percent nitro next to benzol straight from California. The guy didn’t have a loading shoot, so we decided we were going to take the back off a semi trailer…

LEAH: Well, it was labeled as cleaning fluid…

PETE: Um hmm, “cleaning solvent.”

LEAH: Cleaning solvent, you know, “no problem, it’s just a solvent.”

PETE: Well, my wife panicked, went down to one of my garages and grabbed a bunch of old tires and they rolled in down and dropped it off onto the old tires. If it had gone off it would have leveled the neighborhood –

LEAH: See that’s why I’m so gray.
(laughter)

PETE: She’d had to cover for me a lot.

Was the design goal ultimately to go to Bonneville and take the LSR?

PETE: No no….

Exhibition money?

LEAH: Um hmm.

(discussion turns to Pete Farnsworth and Chuck Suba towing the X-1 to California in an effort to get the car approved by the National Hot Rod Association for exhibition runs at their tracks.)

PETE: My idea to start with was just to build and exhibition car and Dick and Ray had ideas of going to Bonneville for the Land Speed Record. They started to use it as a stepping stone and I wasn’t involved with the land speed record at all. At that time I had interest in it, but I was following it since I was a kid. You can’t help it if you’re in Hot Rodding to not read about Bonneville, but I had never been there.

HOT ROD did a nice article on it and then we went over to NHRA (in California) and uh, we had contacted them before that we were coming out, (because) we couldn’t even get anyone to come out into the parking lot and look at the car… Finally, I think it was Bernie Partridge came there and he took one look at it and he said, “No.” I explained the car to him, Chuck and I did, and he said well, “We’ll let you know.” So we went back in and in a while they came back out again, you know, didn’t invite us in at all.

(laughter)

PETE: In a while they came back out again and said, no we can’t do this – and explained that they were supported by the automotive industry and that the automotive industry would not want this sort of competition at the track, and from that standpoint I could see it, so they basically said, “No, we’re not going to let you run.”

And one thing was that they said that the car was so fast that it would have too much kinetic energy if it got into the crowd. Well the top fuelers were much heavier and they were going proportionally pretty fast, they had more kinetic energy than we did, but they flat refused to consider it.

LEAH: That was a real heavy disappointment to send the car all the way out there and…

Sure, and you had to know in hindsight that they had their mind made up even before they saw it… then again, you guys were so far ahead of the curve that, whether it was collusion with the automotive industry or not they just couldn’t deal with it.

PETE: I think they saw that after we ran the car and we were the first to go below 6 seconds – we clocked a 5.90 in Oklahoma City and, uh, Labor Day weekend of 1968 – that was the last time the car ran and we went 6.03 and 5.90. Nobody ever recognized it except the Guinness Book of Records, which did recognize it and so we were in there as world 1/4 mile elapsed time record holders. We were two miles an hour short of what Art Arfons did with his J79 Green Monster Car. He had gone 267 mph and we went 265 but we weren’t even running all the way through to 1/4 mile with it (because of) the fuel tank’s capacity. We never had enough fuel to go all the way through and considering we were coasting going through the trap and we were running 265. We probably figured the terminal speed was probably 280, 285 something like that when we shut off and coasted. But uh, that was basically the end of the X-1, we ran it down at the meet at Oklahoma City. We had already started on our promotion with the Gas Industry people and they were there observing what we were doing the day we set the world record (for the drag strip).

Within a month we had signed a letter of intent with them to build the Blue Flame.

DRAG STRIP RIOT (1962)

November 3, 2008

This is the moment that Leasher has been waiting for. Gotelli and Leasher enter the car in the Smokers Meet, as the klieg lights circle among the grapevines and the corn fields, heralding a showdown between the titans of outlaw drag racing.

Never before have so many Top Fuel dragsters congregated at one chunk of asphalt. It is an orgy of beer cans and nitromethane of Bacchanalian proportions. It is pure decadence manifested in the guise of the raw pursuit of horsepower.

Word of this gathering has spread to all corners of the US of A and this clarion call is magnetic enough to lure spectators and participants from across the continent. As competition progressed through the weekend, a pile of empty bent, crumpled beer cans begin aggregating into impromptu pyramids between two 1/4 mile lengths of chain link fence that has been used to separate the bikers and the bleacher bums from the competitors. It is an utterly ineffectual safety barricade.

The Smokers Meet is utter chaos as dragster guys prepare their mounts. This contest of speed and debauchery has spontaneously morphed into the most prestigious gathering of outlaw men and machinery in the United States. The 2000 horsepower, blown-on-nitro railjobs’ fuel consumption is matched only by the thirst of the menacing mass of humanity who have gathered to get liquored and dosed by the burning nitromethane used to propel these cars to ungodly speeds.

By Sunday, the last day of competition, the show could only be described as a bad scene — a hot rod rumble, a drag strip riot of Kern County bikers and rough trade, as well as motorcycle clubs from ‘Frisco to ‘Berdoo (the Hell’s Angels, Gallopin’ Gooses, Heshians, Satan’s Slaves, the Pissed Off Bastards of Bloomington and others). The mob’s collective rapacious thirst for suds is only half the story. If you wanted to urinate, you had to kick your way through the empties and the other biker-types and nitromaniacs to find a porta-potty that wasn’t thoroughly thrashed. There is a fight that starts at 11 in the morning and doesn’t reach a decision until 3 that afternoon.

And there you have it, a three day festival of speed lubricated by nitromethane and 80 weight motor oil as well as a couple of tanker’s worth of Budweiser, Miller, Schlitz, Brew 102, various malt liquors, all of which were coursing through the veins of tattooed leather boys who were in the mood for speed and whose only possible surrogate for that sensation was raw violence…

And as the sun began to set on Sunday evening, the elimination ladder for the fuel dragsters wound down to a showdown between the last two contestants, the Gotelli Speed Shop entry out of South City, San Francisco and the notorious Fuller-Zueschel-Prudhomme machine from Los Angeles.

Finally, as the sun went down Sunday night there were two Top Fuel gladiators remaining in competition. It was decided by the Smokers that during this final round of eliminations that no false starts would be tolerated. Indeed, this would be grounds for immediate disqualification. The mood was foul and the tension was as thick as motor oil.

Both drivers jump the start. Only Leasher is disqualified.

That summer Don “the Snake” Prudhomme would be touring the country and taking on all comers as the driver who won Top Fuel at the March Meet. Glen Leasher would be dead.