Posts Tagged ‘top fuel’

INFINITY OVER ZERO by Cole Coonce: PART TWO: PICK YOUR PART

November 3, 2008
Bob's Pawn Shop (photo by Cole Coonce)

Bob's Pawn Shop (photo by Cole Coonce)

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BAD FOR BUSINESS

November 3, 2008

”… the professional hot-rodders — such as the Petersen magazine syndicate (Hot Rod Magazine and many others) and the National Hot Rod Association — have gone to great lengths to obliterate the memory of the gamey hot-rod days, and they try to give everybody in the field transfusions of Halazone so that the public will look at hot-rodders as nice boys with short-sleeved sport shirts just back from the laundry and a chemistry set, such an interesting hobby…“ — Tom Wolfe, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, 1963.

“So tell me about this Infinity,” BZ asks again, no doubt as a ploy to distract himself from worrying about the Batmobile overheating again.

I didn’t know what to tell him or where to start, except at the beginning, which was 1962 or so. I begin a rambling monologue on how the Infinity Land Speed Record project arose out of the success of the Untouchable (a jet dragster cum high velocity daredevil act that stunned the drag strip crowd) and featured many of the same players: Glen Leasher, a Type A type driver weaned on jalopies in Wichita, Kansas; “Dago,” a welder who worked out of the Oakland Airport and whose christened name was Romeo Palamides; Harry Burgdt, the track operator at Vacaville Raceway (a podunk strip out among the pastures and stockyards northwest of Sacramento… Vacaville translates to “Cow Town”); and a young, fast, scientific type named Vic Elisher, a Hungarian kid who, when not wrenching on deconstructed jet engines, was dabbling in academia and beatnikdom at Berkeley…

The partnership thrived on appearance money accumulated with the Untouchable as it toured the race tracks of California and the Pacific Northwest. San Gabriel. Fontana Drag City. Bakersfield. Half Moon Bay. Vacaville. Fremont. Kingdon. Cotati. Medford. Portland. Puyallup, Washington.

To put the exploits of the Untouchable jet car in context, I tell BZ that this all happened in an era when the “official” movers and shakers of drag racing were trying to shed the unkempt, greasy image of drag racers as hot rod hoodlums hell-bent on chemical anarchy… If drag racing could clean up its act, its leading sanctioning body, National Hot Rod Association, could cozy up to the deep pockets of the Automotive Power Structure in Detroit, who had no use for home-built cars with aircraft engines stealing the thunder and the headlines from the accomplishments of real automobiles on the drag strip proving grounds…

It would be quid pro quo: The Big Three, General Motors, Ford and Mopar, could market, advertise and exploit its performance and accomplishments on the official proving grounds sanctioned by the NHRA… in exchange, the Detroit’s purse strings loosened and cash began to trickle its way into the NHRA’s coffers…

Jet cars were not only unsafe, they were bad for business. In 1961 they were banned by the National Hot Rod Association.

No matter. Up and down the Left Coast the yokels paid their money to see the Untouchable jet car badda-bing, badda-boom down the drag strip, reaching seemingly unfathomable speeds approaching 220 mph. In comparison, in those days the AA/Fuel Dragsters cackled mightily and would clock speeds of 190 or so, but it was like they were standing still compared to the sturm und drang of the rolling pyrotechnics display wot was the hermaphroditic jet car as it went BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! loud as the Wrath of God and then whooshed down the drag strip quicker and faster than anything else on wheels. Each pass was a supreme test of a man who dared to test fate on a 1/4 mile slab of asphalt. The paying customers ate it up like saltwater taffy.

How could they not? It was righteous entertainment. It was loud. It was dangerous. It was dirty and noisy. And it was officially verboten by the NHRA…

The strips that hosted these exhibitions — Kingdon Air & Drag Strip near Sacramento, as an example — were, often as not, rinky dink and unsafe… at Kingdon the Chrondek timing lights were portable and during the course of the speed meet had to be wheeled off the runway to accommodate the occasional aircraft seeking to land there… There weren’t any grandstands, so spectators lined the strip and eased up as close as they dared to the fire-breathing machinery, and whenever a car got loose the spectators would scatter like rabbits…

It was under conditions such as these that Palamides and cohorts made their dough. Beyond pocketing a little coin for living expenses, the money from the Untouchable was funneled into the construction of Infinity, a much more sophisticated jet car with a target speed of 500 mph, speeds sufficient to take away John Cobb’s Land Speed Record, set in 1947. Speeds twice as fast as those reached in the Untouchable

So yeah, at its most innocuous, the Untouchable and its Midwestern counterparts, Walt Arfons’ Green Monster and Art Arfons’ Cyclops, were drag strip curiosities showcasing brutal and brazen shards of fiery horsepower that melted the mental faculties of those assembled and frustrated the Powers-That-Be and their attempts to bolster drag racing’s reputation as a test bed for automotive technology as well as a marketing tool (‘Win on Sunday, Sell On Monday!’) for this year’s model…

I am trying to explain all of this to BZ, but he kept interrupting with questions about the junk yards in Arizona where Romeo Palamides and Vic Elisher got the J47s for Untouchable and Infinity

“Yeah, I’ll get to that. Really though, you gotta’ take the taxonomy of this whole Infinity quest back to Bakersfield in 1962 and the Smokers Meet. I maintain that Glen Leasher never would have died in a jet car on the Salt Flats if he hadn’t been jobbed at the final round of Top Fuel that year — after that he quit the Gotelli Speed Shop Top Fuel car and began driving the Untouchable. After that, Infinity…”

THE FUEL BAN (1959-1963)

November 3, 2008

”FBI agents descended on a Texas auto racing track last month looking for evidence that Timothy McVeigh bought a large quantity of powerful racing fuel before the Oklahoma City bombing, ABC reported Thursday night.

”Employees of VP Racing Fuels told the FBI that a man resembling McVeigh in 1994 paid $2,700 cash in Texas for nitromethane, ABC said.

”The chemical is an accelerant the government now believes may have been used to detonate the bomb that killed 168 people.“ — AP WIRE REPORT, 1996.

Even before jet-powered dragsters entered the mix, some independent track operators and the NHRA made no secret of their feelings about drag strip speeds getting out of control. The AA/Fuelers were unsafe.

The offender? The volatile fuel they burned: Nitromethane. Generically known as “Fuel.” Pop. Cackle. Liquid Horsepower. Joy Juice. The Yellow Stuff. The Sweet and Sour Sauce. CH3NO2. As acrid as it is punishing, when it reaches its flash point nitromethane is an angry serpent of a hydrocarbon and its practitioners are snake handlers who have taken it on faith that they won’t get bit — but they often are. Nitromethane is a monopropellant, which is a fancy way of saying that it carries its own oxygen, and therefore once it is lit or merely compressed it is as volatile as a downed high tension line dancing to and fro across the highway.

Ironically, unless under pressure, nitro is surprisingly docile as far as exotic fuels go, capable of taking out unsuspecting railroad boxcars only if under extreme duress. Mishaps off of the drag strip are rare, even when one factors in an incident of domestic terrorism a few years ago. But because of its instability (and the questionable stability of some of its handlers), nitro has developed quite an epic history and mythology, beginning with Italian rocket scientists and their experiments with it as early as 1929, followed by Russian rocket design teams testing a combination of kerosene and a nitromethane derivative a year later.

I tell BZ about the bizarre exploits of Jack Parsons, and how he would invoke pagan spirits before a rocket launch in the once-deserted, arid hills of Pasadena in what is now the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. As early as 1937 Parsons already had listed tetranitromethane as a possible rocket propellant and by 1945 the company he helped charter, Aerojet, was seriously considering nitromethane as a fuel source for their rocket engines, but demurred in deference to hydrogen peroxide.

Beyond issues of safety, it could be argued that this kind of chemical warfare in an internal combustion was a little outside of the image the NHRA wanted to present to its corporate suitors… Violent explosions, speeds that scared the insurers. Nitromethane was banned.

So at NHRA meets dragsters burned gasoline instead of the devil’s hydrocarbon. Was this a red herring? Was this an excuse to cozy up to Sunoco as the official supplier of gasoline for the dragsters?

Not unlike the jet cars later, after their banishment from the NHRA the Top Fuel dragsters flourished at “outlaw” and unsanctioned tracks, where they proved to be wildly popular, case in point being the Smokers Meet, which began in 1959 and was the most popular event of them all…

The Fuel Ban. In fact, amidst cries and caterwauling of “collusion,” independent trade papers sided with the outlaws and mocked the drag strip establishment as “Druids.”

The Fuel Ban was an exercise in futility and beyond: Not unlike the theorem that states in order to make a bigger bang out of a firecracker all one has to do is wrap it tighter, the prohibition of exotic fuel in drag racing created an entire new scene that thrived and flourished on the contraband fuel. And it boomed loudest and burned brightest just north of Bakersfield…

If guns are outlawed only outlaws will own guns could be paraphrased as if nitromethane is banned, only the banned will race with nitromethane… and they did… just another manifestation of the “outlaw” culture insinuating itself into Eisenhower America and its forgotten nooks and crannies… while the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club took over podunk California farm towns like a Mongol horde; similarly, under the sanction of the Smokers Car Club, the renegade fueler guys gravitated to an abandoned surplus airstrip north of Bakersfield, known as Famoso. Nitro drag racers came there from all four points of the Continental US. The “Smokers Meets” were so wildly successful that the money was loaded in 55 gallon drums and the ticket booths ran out of tickets and began exchanging toilet paper for admission…

The vox populi had spoken with wallets. They wanted their nitro. (By 1964 NHRA reversed its position on the Fuel Ban.)

THE GOAT

November 3, 2008

The Goat ran a Top Fuel car for the a couple of decades, with a tune-up as hot and volatile as a poached egg on the highway. The Gotelli Speed Shop machine, eponymous tagged for Gotelli’s popular high performance emporium in the South City section of San Francisco, was powered by an engine out of a ‘58 Chrysler New Yorker.

The Goat felt that a pushrod actuated, piston-driven mill like the Chrysler (with hemispherical-shaped combustion chambers) was the only prudent way to make horsepower while burning nitro, which was a delicate operation.

Gotelli was among the baddest tomatoes when it came to extricating copious amounts of power out of a Chrysler engine burning nitromethane as a fuel.

The partnership was perfect symmetry. Gotelli had an ax to grind (the San Francisco drag racers felt they were given the bum’s rush by the Los Angeles-based “Petersen magazine syndicate”) and Leasher was his blade.

INFINITY OVER ZERO by Cole Coonce, PART THREE: PUSHING THE ENVELOPE

November 2, 2008

PART THREE: PUSHING THE ENVELOPE

Pick Your Part

Pick Your Part