In 1966, 102 Top-Fuel dragsters entered the US Fuel and Gas Championships (nee “the March Meet”) at Bakersfield. Because of the energy, drama and sheer amount of nitro consumption, many motor-sports pundits and historians consider that event to be the greatest drag race ever, as Mike Sorokin and the plucky Surfers AA/Fuel Dragster upended low-qualifying local heroes Warren & Coburn.
There are so many subplots that continue to resonate from that bash: Like, after claiming the trophy, Mike Sorokin and his parachute-packin’ sweetheart Robin celebrated in a carnal sense at a local motel and by season’s end future dragster driver Adam Sorokin was born.
To add a twist of life’s cruel ironies, a year and a half after his greatest triumph, Mike was tragically killed in a grisly Top Fuel crash while Adam was still in diapers. And in a coda worthy of a Hank Williams Jr. song, last year Adam finally fulfilled a family tradition and claimed Top Fuel Eliminator at the March Meet-just like his Daddy done.
This feat was accomplished under the aegis of the Champion Speed Shop-a drag racing team that has historical hooks tethering back to the 1950s-an assembly of Northern California nitromaniacs who had assumed management and tuning of Brian Van Dyke’s Chrysler-powered fueler and hired Adam to shoe.
Which brings us to this weekend: Here we are some forty-five years after the Surfer’s triumph, and a coterie of slingshot dragsters are still burning great gobs of nitromethane at an once-abandoned Army auxiliary air-strip that is now gussied up, repaved and labeled Auto Club Famoso Raceway.
But how is this still happening? Running a Top Fuel car has always been a confounding, explosive challenge. That is what makes it so neat. But as Top Fuel currently faces the triple threat of a) a punch-drunk economy picking itself up out of the Great Recession, b) the financial hardship imposed upon teams to retrofit their race cars with pricey safety devices mandated after three fatal top-end crashes last year; and c) an identity crisis spawned by the proliferation of Nitro Funny Cars, never has running a Top Fuel car been so daunting.
With all of this in mind, on the eve of the 53rd running of the March Meet, Bang Shift endeavored to speak to Bobby “Nitro” McLennan, scion and heir of the Champion Speed Shop and defending March Meet Top Fuel winner as well as 2010 NHRA Heritage Series champion. We asked him to explain how the AA/Fuel Dragster class will fare at the March Meet and beyond.
BS: Congratulations on taking the Heritage Series Title. What is the team’s mood going into 2011?
McLennan: You win it and you don’t get an opportunity to enjoy it. Real life just gets in the way. But it was cool. But then you ask yourself: which was bigger? Winning the championship or winning the March Meet? I would have to say the March Meet. But the whole year was pretty incredible.
BS: What brought on the success?
McLennan: If our tune-up did it one race, then Adam came through on another. If those things don’t sync, you end up losing. Adam was incredible-and really the most consistent aspect of the car. But we don’t want him to know that. (laughs)
BS: What is the state of the AA/Fuel Dragster class?
McLennan: Car count was fragile coming in. The business culture still hasn’t recovered economically. There are about five or six cars that we would normally have that aren’t going to make it to the March Meet. Regardless, AA/Fuel Dragsters are a good show, and the cars are real tight (performance-wise.)
The Nitro Funny Car count peaked last season, but I am looking at this as it’s all fuel racing and we need to promote all of it.
BS: Have the Funny Car’s popularity made you re-assess what you are doing?
McLennan: In Top Fuel-as opposed to the Funny Cars, our rules say we run high-gear only. No transmission. We got the okay from NHRA to experiment with a transmission-the Funny Car rule package was put together fifteen years after we did ours. They took a number of components that we had and said, “What if we do this and what if we do that?” I don’t think their rules are perfect, but they certainly sparked a class to build forty-plus cars. (AA/Fuel Dragster team owner) Mike Fuller’s recommendation to NHRA was that with the (bigger) Hoosier tire, we try the transmission to limit the rpm and limit the load that we are putting on our engines and hopefully everything last a little bit longer.
The transmission won’t be allowed in Heritage Series races, but will in any match races. We are to get back to the NHRA with any data and if it works, it will get approved for next year.
BS: How much of a hardship were the safety updates?
McLennan: I think that the top one was the carbon fiber brakes. If you didn’t have them, they ranged from a $4500 to a $7500 item. We have two cars that won’t make it to the March Meet because they had an older-style rear end, so it wasn’t just adding rotors and calipers, it was a whole new rear-end housing-so that wasn’t good. On the other side, I can tell you that every single team out there, if they had a spare part, everybody stood together and tried to make it work for that team.
Five cars put the brakes on, that didn’t have them, which was a big ordeal. Then there was the burst panel shut-down, which got added so if the burst panel goes, it pulls the parachutes and shuts the fuel off. Next year the radio-frequency device will get added, so that the car automatically shuts off at a certain point on the track. NHRA is doing this in stages.
There has been a lot of chatter out there: Should the Heritage cars have to do it? With the tire shake that occurs-I know what Adam is going through. I think that the rule is a good one. But it is another rule. We have the technology to do it. If it saves one life, it’s worth it.
BS: Oildowns have been problematic. Has this been addressed at all? Is the proposal to punish those who oil the track relevant to the Heritage Series?
McLennan: I think it will not go into effect until after the March Meet. NHRA left it up to track operators to enforce it. There were enough gray areas, as they didn’t want to associate fines with any of it. The idea is that if the safety trucks had to roll, it was like crossing the centerline, a DNQ.
But what if both cars oil the track? Who is going to win the round? There is more refining that has to be done before we get to that point. On the other side, we put together videos of all the qualifying runs of both the top-fuel cars and the funny cars. It was pretty eye-opening-this is where the transmission idea came up. Contrary to what people think, on maybe one or two passes, the rods came out or penetrated the blocks. The oil-containment bucket kept it in the car. What we are finding is that we are burning pistons. I’d say 70 percent of the dragsters are burning pistons. The oil is coming through the headers more than it is the bottom end.
We’ve had a number of conversations with (Famoso track operator) Blake Bowser and we asked, “Well, where does it come from?” And he says, “Well, Bobby it’s depends on which way the wind is blowing.” It’s up in the air and when it hit the ground, it’s like a bad paint job. It blisters all over the place. We are getting that information out there. When you pressurize the pan, it’s got to go some place. You know you’re making a pass, the driver doesn’t get oil, you’re at the other end, the car isn’t oiled in and they’re cleaning the track.
You don’t have the immediate knowledge of “Hey! You oiled the track.” We got Henry Walther on board (with the All American Fuel Dragster Inc.) and he is going to be our go-to guy and inform the teams of what’s what. You have a lot of teams who say, “I didn’t oil the track once this year.” Well… somebody did. It wasn’t until this year that anyone understood what was going on. We are making a conscious effort to put on a great show.
BS: To that end-the show- word is that you are running another entry besides the Chrysler driven by Adam. You are now a two-car team. It could be argued that the Champion Speed Shop is helping to ensure there is a 16-car show at the March Meet by adding another car.
McLennan: Yes, we are running a Chrysler and Chevy (driven by Larry Gotelli, grandson of “Terrible Ted” Gotelli, who was the former partner of Champion founder Jim McLennan.) You don’t get any benefits of a two-car team with these different elements. I went to Larry Gotelli and said that we are not in the position to fund two cars. But he had a deal go away and this is what we came up.You know, between the two families, we’ve both opened our own speed shops in South City. Who thought Jim McLennan’s son would be hiring Ted Gotelli’s grandson?
BS: Are graves rolling in South City or what?
McLennan: We are at the shop putting two cars together, giving each other shit.
The entire class seems to be pulling together.
McLennan: One of my shortcomings is communication. All-American Fuel Dragsters Inc. just had one of the best meetings we’ve ever had as far as the direction we are going in. First there was a flare-up over the rules, but that’s always the flashpoint because that’s where the passion is. When it comes down the racing and the desire to help-every team would help another one in a nanosecond. Even so, the cars that can’t make it this year, we understand it. But this is the March Meet. This is our Indy. There has just been a million-dollar investment in making Famoso a full-concrete track and the Bowsers did that for us-did it for the fuel guys. There is a lot of support there. So we’re here to give it back.
(Cole Coonce is the author of Top Fuel Wormhole)