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Lid, Can & Libel: As the March Meet Looms, Top Fuel%u2019s Bobby Nitro Clears the Pipes

Lid, Can & Libel: As the March Meet Looms, Top Fuel%u2019s Bobby Nitro Clears the Pipes

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?


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?


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)


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.


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.


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.


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

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