in the world of drag racing
The latest update as of December 7, 1998
Here's a couple of statements that may make you wonder what I've been smoking lately: "I can't afford to buy used parts, only new ones" and "You've got to spend money to save money". They both fall into the category of the old cliche: "pay me now or pay me later". But what do they mean in relation to my new dragster and by extension, anyone's race car?
I've had time lately to reflect on the process of building the new race car over the past year. When I look back to the "plan" of 12 months ago, I can see that our combination has taken a radical shift in direction and philosophy. We started with a four-year-old chassis (with only 12 runs on the front-half) and an old set of Brad Anderson billet heads. And a clean sheet of paper and a bunch of money in the bank.
First step was to update the chassis and select the drivetrain parts. The chassis selection was easy, just haul the car back to Brad Hadman's and back-halve it (the back-half at that time was 20 years old!). What about the rear-end? Our old rear was working fine, but the braced Ford housing, nodular iron center section and 33-spline axles certainly weren't going to last very long behind a "real" Top Alcohol motor. Brad suggested a "live-axle" and through his contacts we found a very low-mileage Strange "top-loader" for sale in Los Angeles at a reasonable price. Done deal. In fact the deal was transacted over the phone two hours before I left on my first trip to Australia last October.
Returning from OZ just in time for last year's Winston Finals, we drove down to Pomona, picked up the "new" rear-end and had the Trans-End experts give it a full makeover. The 3.40 gears were exchanged for 4.57's, all the seals and ring gear bolts, etc. were replaced and they even gave us lessons on how to re-and-re the live-axle. Then we picked up some billet calipers for the unit and went transmission shopping.
Of course, the selection was pretty simple, as Gary Sumek was sitting about 10 feet away and just happened to have a special sale price on New Generation Lencos. With the wallet nearly empty, but the rear and trans in place, we returned to Vancouver, stopping at Hadman's shop enroute to check on the progress of the chassis work.
That, unfortunately, wasn't going quite as smoothly, as all the changes I'd requested were causing more than a little difficulty in fitting to the half-old/half-new chassis. It seemed so simple when we first brought the car in to just tick off the options like buying a new car in a showroom. Yeah, Brad, we want the leather seats, the CD changer, dual-air, ABS . . . oops, wrong movie.
Yeah, Brad, we want the carbon nose, carbon canards, forward steering, new spindles, new rack and pinion, forward fuel tank, cables (to support the front-half of the car), re-mount the wing, etc. etc. Then, when all those goodies were in place, they found the "old" (remember 10 runs old!) body didn't fit anymore. Riiiiiinnnnggggg!!! "Uh, Bob, the body doesn't fit . . . guess we gotta make you a new one."
Bang, there's goes another chunk of the budget. Craftsmanship doesn't come cheap these days, especially when you're paying "real" (U.S.) dollars for it. Well, at least the new body will make the whole car look new now. What about the money we spent on paint and lettering on the old one, Bob?? Well, I guess it'll make a pretty fancy wall hanging at home. (Truth is, we actually managed to sell it to someone who's going to attempt mounting it on his 220-something inch wheelbase super-comp dragster . . . Good luck, Rick!)
After all the surprises stopped coming from Hadman's and we brought the new chassis home in January of this year, we now had the big decision to make. What are we going to do for a motor? We'd decided on the blower and fuel system already (PSI and Les Davenport), but were still not sure which way we wanted to go on the long-block. At this point, all that money we started the project with in October was rapidly shrinking away and the bottom line was firmly pointing in the direction of used parts.
Now this is where the story really starts. In the Northwest, several engines were available. Some in Canada, some in Washington state. All were being offered by reputable, successful racers at reasonable prices. So, we started window shopping - and as it turned out, that's what we kept seeing, "windows".
The first two short-blocks were relatively expensive and were by no means virgins. "Yeah, they've been run hard, but the windows were fixed by KB and they're good solid pieces" . . . Thanks, but no thanks. The next prospect didn't even get past the phone-call stage, when the owner admitted that the motor "needed work" and the crank was probably cracked and the heads needed rebuilding, etc. etc.
Then we turned our attention to the best stuff available on this side of the border. After many phone calls and much negotiating, we finally went out to see what we were being offered. After spending an hour or so inspecting the #1 motor (KB Stage-6 block, BAE-4 heads, MSD mags) and noticing only one (repaired) window, we were directed to the short-block on the engine stand in the corner.
The cover was lifted to reveal an old JP-1 that had obviously been run hard -- really hard! Four windows (repaired, more or less), a crank that had scratches and gouges everywhere, a set of mis-matched main caps and then the "piece de resistance" -- a .010" shim under #1 main-cap. All for the bargain price of "only" $10,000 (Canadian).
Then for the kicker -- we can only buy the #1 motor in a package deal with this short-block. Both or nothing. Suddenly, the lights went on and we said our goodbyes and retreated to North Vancouver. It didn't long for the depression to set in, that was soon replaced with the realization that "used" just wasn't the way to go. We can't afford to buy all-new stuff, but we certainly can't afford to buy any of the used stuff we've been shown. Every single part we'd seen was used to the point where its remaining life-span was questionable at best.
So we sat back, thought about it and kept scanning the National Dragster classifieds and display ads in the vain hope that something we could actually buy might turn up. Within a week, a faint spark of hope arrived in the form of a "bargain" offer of a KB motor with Indy cylinder heads from a local racer. Hmmm, Tom's (crewchief) been trying to convince me to go the wedge-head route, so maybe this is a possibility. So off we go on another parts hunting trek.
Another Saturday, another race shop, another pile of well-used parts, more disappointment. As we sadly made our way to the door, I spotted a TFX-92 block sitting on a shelf. And it didn't look too used. A few quick questions gave us the info that "yeah, we only ran it a few times with the hemi heads, then put it on the shelf. No, we never hurt it." Closer inspection revealed an almost-new block with no damage whatsoever and the right deck height. Hmm, oh oh . . . water jackets. We could have a problem here. But, with the block sitting there, literally begging for a new home at a fairly reasonable price, I decided to go directly to the "horse's mouth" for an answer.
Monday morning comes and I'm on the phone to John Rodeck (TFX) for an answer. "John, can we run a water-block in Top Alcohol?" "Sure, no problem" "Can we bore it to 4.375 (our desired bore size)?" "No, that would make it pretty marginal" --Long pause while I pondered my options-- "How much would a new TFX-96 solid block cost?" "We can fix you up with a pretty good deal on one" At that point, all the searching suddenly ended. The decision was made, we're buying a new block. A brand-new piece that's never been touched by anyone but ourselves. We really can't afford to go this route, but on the other hand we just can't afford not to.
So, in the space of two months, we'd looked at every possibility for a hemi engine and even a wedge and now we were going to start with a clean sheet of paper and a BRAND SPANKIN' NEW TFX-96. Then the fun really began. What do we put on top of it? The old BAE heads, or what? Get out the calculator and start doing the math. Well, we only need rocker assemblies, valve covers and an intake manifold to complete the top-end of a hemi. Yeah, but how hard can we run those early heads without hurting them. And what about the cost of maintaining them? (Geez, Tom, why do you keep asking such tough questions ?)
More phone calls. Lots of phone calls. Lots of "running around in a circle chasing your tail". Lots of conflicting opinions. Hmm, what's a guy to do? Meanwhile, we'd ordered the blower and fuel system and burnt up most of the money remaining in the bank account. And the clock was ticking away, the season had almost started and we didn't have a motor. Arrrgggghhhh!!! Then, a miracle, or at least a "reasonable facsimile thereof". Talking to Dave Koffel ("Mr" B-1 himself) one day, he casually mentioned "Ya know, we got a couple of pairs of solid (B-1) heads gathering dust on the shelf. Somebody ordered them awhile ago and never came up with the money. I could make you a deal on them."
Believe me, you've never seen somebody run to the bank as fast as I did that day. Speeding tickets be damned, I'M ON A MISSION !! Sent the money and two weeks later the heads arrived. Well Tom, now I guess we really are commited. We're going to be running a wedge motor. "Well Bob, you've done all the research already and lots of guys who've run this combination have given you the info we need, right? right?"
"Uh Tom, maybe I didn't mention this before, but nobody has ever run this combination before" "Say whaaat???" "It's true that John Hyland ran in the 5.60's a few years ago with a wedge, but those were Indy heads, and Tom Conway ran pretty quick, but they were Indy's too. George Johnson ran 5.80's with B-1 heads at one time, but they were water-jacketed and remember how he showed us that pair that split in half?"
Now where do we go for advice and encouragement? Then, just like it was pre-ordained, the Mission Raceway points meet arrives and we make the most amazing (and encouraging) discovery since the call to Koffel. Wandering into the pits, the first Top Alcohol dragster we encounter is sitting there with B-1 heads on it. Can you believe it? And it runs HARD!
Not exactly Rick Santos or Jay Payne numbers, but 5.70's at over 240 are at least in the ballpark. Checking out the engine - VERY CLOSELY - reveals that there is still a lot more potential there if they had more money. The Pete Kaiser-driven, Al Edgecombe-owned dragster has produced those numbers with a very old Stage-3 KB block, an almost "stock" pair of B-1 heads, an older PSI blower, a very small fuel pump and a home-made intake manifold.
Gradually gaining their confidence over the weekend, we were shown all the parts they had, told about everything they were doing and even shown the computer data on the runs they made. To our untrained eyes, it appeared the only real short-coming in their combo was a serious lack of fuel volume. The exhaust temps started out high and just kept climbing until about the 1000 foot mark on each run . . . then BANG !! . . . two runs, two sets of burst panels and one blower bag.
Ouch! The potential was obviously there but without a bigger fuel pump, there was just no way they were going to make it to finish line in one piece. Impressed beyond words and encouraged beyond belief, we went home Sunday night determined to make our new combination work.
Now it's mid-May, all the money has run out and we've still got nearly $25,000 (at least) worth of parts left to buy. And with the Canadian dollar dropping faster than a rock down a mine-shaft, the costs kept going up on an almost daily basis. Time to get serious and sell off everything we don't need for the new deal. As the summer wore on, we actually managed to sell all our old parts and that helped somewhat but it was obvious that we were going to miss the entire season. The delays and frustrations mounted, with the blower eventually arriving -- seven months after ordering it; the crankshaft only taking six months and the oil pump still in "back-order limbo" even as Christmas approaches.
But now we're finally down to the "nickel" and "dime" ($500 and $1000) items and we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. (Yeah, I know, it's probably a train coming ...) Of course we missed the entire 1998 season and now the car won't ever get a chance to run at our local track, unless you consider the new location for the car, Willowbank Raceway in Australia as being our "home" track.
However, we finally ended up with something that we can be really proud of. A brand-new car with all brand-new parts and a combination that nobody else is running. It cost nearly TWICE as much as originally budgeted and led to more sleepless nights than you can imagine, but the end result will prove that it's all been worth it. Like the scoreboard at the top of the page says, only 117 days until we leave for OZ. Then the real work will begin.
It's one thing to put a car together, but another deal entirely to make it actually run and run properly. We're under no illusions that our first time out will be "smooth as silk" and the car will run in the 5's on the first lap. It just doesn't happen that way. Not for Santos or Payne or Austin and especially not for Wilson. And without all the expert help and knowledge given us by Les Davenport, Norm Drazy, Brad Hadman, Jason Howell and Ken Lowe, we wouldn't have a chance to make the car run well anytime in the near future. Even with all that expert help, it's still going to be a struggle to see the potential of the car achieved quickly.
Getting back (finally) to the opening statement about "not being able to afford to buy used parts", we certainly have a lot more confidence in our all-new equipment. And we plan on keeping it new and "shiny". We've laid out a rigorous maintenance schedule that is maybe a notch below that of the top runners, but it's the only way we can see us being able to continue doing this.
Running stuff until it breaks is NOT the way to go. It just costs more in the long run. Thinking that those 20-run rods will be good for a "few more laps" is just asking for trouble. BIG, expensive trouble. Trying to get a hundred runs out of the crank is again an invitation to disaster. And on and on it goes. Remember that "pay me now or pay me later" line? Well, we're planning on spending lots now, so that we don't have to spend even more later.
Since we don't (currently) have a spare engine, or even a spare block or spare crank, we just can't afford to hurt those pieces. So, the rods are going in the "bin" after 15 runs, the crank after maybe 50 runs, even the block when it hits the century mark. Then at least when we turn around and try to sell them to the next guy in the queue, we won't have to say "the windows were done right" or "the crank's only got a few cracks" or have to lie about how many laps the rods have done. The parts won't be "good enough" for us, but will certainly be several notches above most of the stuff floating around on the used parts market. Now do the opening lines of this update make a little more sense? Can you see the "method" in our "madness"?
Stay tuned for the next installment of "As The Crank Turns" for more news on our attempt to "rotate the earth" next year with the BADDEST B-1 ever. We're just starting to put the short-block together, the heads are almost finished being ported and the only engine parts left to buy are gaskets, head studs and nuts and bearings. It's getting closer all the time!
Before we close for the day, some great news arrived from Australia on the weekend. My good friend and advisor in Brisbane, Ken Lowe became a father on Friday. First time too and as he says "All I have to do is figure out what to do". Major congratulations to Ken and Tracey Lowe on the birth of Adam Kenneth Lowe. (Ken's first choice for the baby's name - "Curly" Larry Lowe - was vetoed by Tracey). Ken reports that "A new drag racer has been born. It may take a few months before I can teach him to TIG though!" Best wishes to everyone in the Lowe family today and Ken, you can come up and visit us (for a respite) anytime you want. Good luck!
For even more details about what Ken's been up to lately, especially with his Drag Racing School go to the Ken Lowe Race Cars page. Plus, if you haven't seen or heard the news yet about the proposed new dragstrip for Sydney, Australia, go to the Western Sydney Motorplex website and read the amazing story of how a Top Fuel racer and a drag racing magazine publisher have put together a serious proposal to construct a new dragstrip in Sydney. In this case, "necessity is truly the mother of invention."
Finally, a very big thank you to everyone who has visited the NORTHERN THUNDER website this year. The responses have been truly overwhelming, and since the visitor counters were installed at the beginning of October, the numbers have been simply amazing. I really had no idea that so many people were paying any attention to this website. To see what I'm talking about, take a look at the Hit Parade page of visitor statistics.
To see a total of 4755 visitors for the month of November alone, is really mind-boggling to me. Thanks again to everyone for all your support and watch for more improvements and upgrades as time goes on. Like I said in yesterday's "flame job" on bad websites, if you're not moving ahead, you're just going backwards. Don't forget, dragsters don't have rear-view mirrors and neither does this website.
As always, stay tuned to this website for all the latest drag racing news, view, opinions and information.