It has been far too long since our last Top 11, and when this particular topic hit us like a sledgehammer to the noggin the other day, we set to work. All of racing has evolved through the triumphs and failures of others. Some of the triumphs were a little too good, and ultimately got banned by sanctioning bodies, while others, seeming like good ideas at the time, failed and ended up on the wood pile of history. Drag racing has some interesting failures and verboten inventions, this is our list of the top 11.
11.) Banned: Pete Robinson’s Starting Line Jacks — Top Fuel racer Pete Robinson earned the nickname “Sneaky” from his competitors in the 1960s not out of spite. He earned it out of respect. Robinson was a constant innovator, trying things that had never been considered and often landed right in the grey area that lies just outside the bounds of a rule book. One of his more noted inventions was a jacking system that would raise the rear of his car off the ground on the starting line after he staged. This allowed Robinson to get the tires spinning (which he believed would act like giant flywheels) and then drop the car on the track when the light went green. He had a lot of success with this setup at match races all across the globe, but when he tried it at the US Nationals, he was told to lose them, or get the hell out. He lost them, and the jacks were dead.
10.) Failed: Short Sidewall Top Fuel Slicks — Tire shake is a real bitch for Top Fuel dragsters, Nitro Funny Cars, and nearly any other mega horsepower strip blazer. In the 1980s experimental slicks were designed with a very short sidewall mounted on a very large diameter wheel. The thought was that taking the sidewall away and stiffening the tire would reduce tire shake. It did, mainly because the cars couldn’t hook up to any track, ever. The tires didn’t shake, they just spun, and the associated car went nowhere. Amazingly though, the unobtanium tires still have a life today, mounted to the back of Billy Moffitt’s wheelstander, which is called Bottoms Up. This thing is literally the only vehicle on the planet to have these tires. They work for a wheelie machine, just not for anything else.
9.) Failed: “Shorty” Top Fuel Dragsters — Here’s another short lived experiment from the 1980s, the short wheelbase Top Fuel Dragster. Yes, John Rodeck had one in the 1970s but it only saw a handful of races but a chassis builder named Dennis Rollian (of R&B Chassis — the B stood for Buttera, as in Lil’ John) who was always interested in experimenting and probing the edges of the rules came up with his plan for a very short rear engine Top Fuel car. He built one in 1984 for a man named Dave Miller. Miller actually did OK with the car considering his budget and resources. He qualified and had come round wins, but then faded away. Gene Snow had a short car in 1987, but he ditched the project shortly after getting on track for reasons that are unclear.
8.) Banned: Dale Armstrong’s Two Speed Blower Drive – Dale Armstrong’s genius in tuning and innovating Top Fuel dragsters is not fully understood because lots of the stuff he wanted to do got banned before he got to run it in competition. In the late 1980s Armstrong developed a two speed blower drive for the supercharger on Kenny Bernstein’s car. It was tested and showed to be a great performance enhancer. Once the NHRA caught wind, they told Armstrong that it was not welcome at events. The reason most often cited is pressure form insurance companies to keep speeds down.
7.) Failed: Sidewinder Funny Cars and Top Fuel Dragsters – John Force, Don Garlits and a host of others tried. The idea makes lots of sense, but the execution proved to be impossible. By taking the engine and rotating it 90-degrees, a chassis builder could take advantage of the engine’s torque to plant the tires. Unfortunately the flaw in the plan was the power transfer from the motor to the rear end. No chain drive would have been sufficient, so the logical alternative was a box of gears. Garlits chose a company called SCS to build his and it simply couldn’t hold up to the nitro motor’s abuse.
6.) Banned: The Matty Box – Drag racing, for all of its simplicity, has spawned some of the most creative cheating techniques and equipment going. Take the “Matty Box” for example. This was an interesting device that allowed bracket racers to physically monitor their pace down the track. Using sensors placed on either the driveshaft or wheels, the box would illustrate (usually on the tach) if the driver was running ahead or behind of their dial in. The small group of racers that had them showed the uncanny ability to run right on their number, virtually on every lap. As word spread about the device and who may or may not have been running one, cries arose for their elimination. A near riot broke out at the Moroso 5-Day race when a “Matty” equipped car, operated by a veteran racer ran on the number with a zero after his competitor had broken on the starting line. Any veteran racer would have been coasting through the traps to prevent a break out, unless they knew for certain that they’d be right on the money. The IHRA’s then leader Bill Bader, banned a group of racers connected to the devices, including Pro Stock racer Dave Connolly and his father. The boxes are still for sale and who knows…may still be on some cars.
5.) Failed: Turbonique Rocket Drag Axle – The short lived and colorful history of the Turbonique Rocket Drag Axle has been documented here and other places around the internet. While there were certainly incredible performances turned in by cars equipped with the crazed devices, there were also explosions, deaths, and major mishaps that befell unsuspecting users of Gene Middlebrooks’ invention. The company was actually put under by the Feds when Middlebrooks was charged with mail fruad. Mail fraud you ask? Well, customers would send a pile of money to Turbonique for a Rocket Drag Axle and in return they would get a pile of disassembled, semi-machined parts. Someone finally got mad enough to go after him, and that was the end of Turbonique.
4.) Banned: Screw Blowers in Top Fuel — The insane performances turned in by modern Top Fuel dragsters are actually hamstrung by one giant factor, the style of blower the cars are forced to run. The dragsters are limited to a Roots style blower, albeit one with twisted rotors that are more efficient than standard “straight” three lobe rotors, but still nothing in comparison to a true screw type blower. Norm Drazy and his PSI company developed a true screw blower that tested well and was ready for Top Fuel action when NHRA banned it before it ever made a lap. The mind reels at what teams could be doing with those blowers as opposed to the current crop (which are still pretty amazing).
3.) Failed: Rear Engine Funny Cars – With the advent of the rear engine Top Fuel dragster, it seemed logical that Funny Cars would follow along the same line. Horrifying fires claimed the lives of drivers and disfigured others, explosions of the lap mounted engine were a constant threat, and all the same benefits of movine the engine aft, like in the dragsters could be realized if a successful design ever came to market. Well, it never really did. Jim Dunn, in his Dunn and Reath ‘Cuda managed several match race wins and a lone NHRA National Event victory in 1972. Others tried, all the way through the 1970s with little to no success before the idea seemed to die completely. There are a couple of odd ball sportsman level cars in the country now, serving as a reminder of an idea that even the best minds in the business could never get their heads around.
2.) Failed: Fully Streamlined Top Fuel Dragsters — The idea of a fully streamlined Top Fuel car has been on the minds of racers since the 1950s. The problem is that no one has been able to build one that actually seemed to benefit from the aerodynamic add ons. Overcoming the weight penalty of the added bodywork by getting the car through the air easier is the goal, but it has yet to be realized. Of the earliest serious attempts, the cars built by Robert “Jocko” Johnson stand out the most. The body he crafted for “Jazzy” Jim Nelson helped that car run some huge numbers in the early 1960s, but shattered into pieces and history shortly after the hero runs. His later attempt at working with Don Garlits was not nearly as successful and the two men were at odds from nearly the first day of the partnership, right up until Johnson’s death, just a few years back. The 1970s saw some bizarre cars, like the wedge shaped fueler of Don Prudhomme and the awesome looking “American Way” machine, but again, the looks far outweighed the performance. It was Don Garlits again who built a hybrid machine. It followed all the right visual rules for a dragster but included fully enclosed front wheels, a canopy for the dragster and was supposed to incorporate a mono-strut rear wing, which the NHRA never approved for competition. Gary Ormsby also had an amazing streamliner at this same time, but his was far more radical looking and used carbon fiber body panels. Unfortunately, one of those panels came into contact with the magneto at a race and…KABLOOEY, lots of carbon fiber shards. The closest thing that anyone has done to advance body design in recent times was the interesting one-piece body run by Joe Amato for several races in the mid-2000s.
1.) Banned: Nitro Percentages Over 90% – The NHRA’s relationship with the most volatile racing ful on Earth has been interesting to say the least. Wally Parks banned the substance from NHRA competition from 1957 to 1963, then embraced it with open arms until the 2000 season when competitors were banned from using anything more than 90% in their Top Fuel Dragsters and Funny Cars. While the root cause for this change was never fully flushed out, Doug Herbert’s nuclear explosion on the starting line at the 1999 World Finals probably played a part. Also, the NHRA was interested in slowing the cars down down some. The slowing down thing was temporary as fuel cars were quicker and faster within two years than they were before the reduction in percentage. Those speeds were again frightening the NHRA as tires were beginning to fail on a semi-regular basis, and often would lose chunks on each run. When Darrell Russell was killed as a result of a tire failure in 2004, the NHRA reacted and reduced the fuel percentage to 85% while Goodyear rolled out a new tire that was made of a harder compound and less likely to suffer the failures of softer tires. It was announced in late 2007 that competitors would be able to run 90% again starting in 2008 and that’s where we stand today. The cars are still amazing, but they certainly do not sound the same. Nostalgia cars, with smaller blowers and smaller pumps still tip virtually the whole can and their cack is more crisp and gutteral than the big cars. We will never again see the days of 100% nitro burning Top Fuel engines. The closest you’ll get are the injected A/Fuel machines which run in the 94% range, until the NHRA reduces them again, too.