in the world of drag racing
The latest update as of November 28, 1999
Let's see now... where did we leave off? . . . Oh yeah, it was halfway through the "American Automobile Association of Southern California Auto Club Finals" at Pomona. (At least WINSTON was a lot shorter, wasn't it?)... Arley Langlo had done his annual (or semi-annual, when they're able to round up enough used-up parts to make both Pomona races) demolition display on the starting line and I was getting ready to throw some rocks at his "act." Then, Doug Herbert "upped the ante" considerably and really threw me for a loop.
The first report of his engine explosion, courtesy of the Fast News Network, indicated numerous injuries among the spectators. 14 to be exact. Sensing a major story in the offing, I checked out NHRA's website for confirmation and further details. . . and checked . . . and checked again. Twenty-four hours later I was certain that the association was trying to bury the story and was ready to dump on them for their silence. Then they stole my thunder with a detailed story, admittedly minimizing the injuries and the ramifications of the explosion, but at least they offered some quotes from Herbert and his thoughts on why the incident occurred.
For the full story on the incident, with pictures, check out the article, Dougie the Detonator in the Press Clippings index. Following closely on the heels of Eddie Hill's back-to-back explosions at Dallas and Houston, and not that long after Gary Scelzi's demolition-athon at Topeka, these incidents, to me at least, are portents of even worse "specatculars" next season.
Tuning of nitro-burning engines seems to "de-volving" at a rapid rate these days; it's quickly reaching the point where (using up) an engine a lap is the norm, not the exception. The numerous recent failures of TFX blocks were at first attributed to design/casting/machining flaws, which has been more or less validated by the release of a new-design "forged" block from Rodeck. Have the design limits of any current cast or forged blocks been exceeded by current tune-up philosophy, or can all of the above-mentioned incidents be explained by other means?First up, Scelzi's two explosions (both split the blocks in half -- both were TFX's, by the way) were blamed on either gear drive, camshaft or lifter failure -- take your pick. With today's fuel volume on a nitro engine, a failure of any of those components will result in a massive -- and instant -- hydraulic and the resultant explosions seen at Topeka. Nothing short of a suit of armour enclosing the entire engine could have prevented the resultant destruction of the chassis in the second mishap. Secondly, Eddie Hill admitted that the blocks he wasted in Texas were both older -- but not that old -- TFX blocks. (They were TFX-96's, not '92's). The blocks were nearing the end of their useful lifespan and simply failed due to structural fatigue, according to Hill. Not too long ago, fuel racers could count on getting 50 to 100 runs from a block, but those numbers have been steadily creeping, and lately, running, downwards. I'd be afraid to ask just how many laps Eddie's blocks had made before their demise, but I'll venture to guess that it wasn't much more than the current "industry standard." Now we come to Pomona and Langlo and Herbert's spectaculars. The expected results from Langlo were due to an old, and I mean old, JP-1 block; well past its "use-by" date and its destrucrtion was almost a foregone conclusion. Herbert, on the other hand, has a serious budget and top-notch equipment. His detonation has been blamed on the (MSD) ignition control box possibly "going nuts". Fair enough, but the fact remains that 14 people were injured, thankfully none seriously, but that in itself was pure luck.
Writing this update, I'm reminded of an incident earlier this year, at Richmond's Virginia Motorsports Park, where either a headstud or pushrod "exited" Paul Romine's car and fractured the skull of a spectator. I'm not sure if a lawsuit has been filed by the injured party, but I wouldn't be surprised if one was, and would be even less surprised if it succeeds.
So what's in store for next season in the fuel racing ranks? At present, NHRA has mandated valve-cover restraints and an extra 50 lbs. minimum weight. IHRA has announced several rules changes, including the following: 2150 lbs. minimum weight (presumably to cover the extra weight of the newly mandated safety equipment); a supercharger belt guard (NHRA has required them for a year already); no more chassis-mounted ballistic restraints (diapers), like NHRA has had in effect for quite a while; valve cover restraints and no carbon fibre valve covers; "more efficient/larger" crankcase breather systems (whatever the heck that means -- really, who is going to be in a position to determine what is required?; and ballistic oil pans.
Nowhere in the IHRA announcement is the requirement for equipment meeting SFI specs mentioned, but I haven't seen the rule book yet, so am presuming that it (SFI-certified) will be required, like NHRA. So, will all these changes safeguard the drivers, officials and spectators next year? Probably not. Almost nothing is going to completely contain the explosions we're currently experiencing, and will surely continue to see next year.
In years past, a major engine explosion was often referred to as "nuclear." Now we've reached the point where the chemically-induced mechanical failures have almost literally become nuclear, in fact. The best study of the current situation that I've seen yet has come, courtesy of a GoRacing.com story by Tom McCarthy, titled Explosive Topic, Modern Fuel Motors. Check it out in the Press Clippings index. It's definitely worth the read.
I'm currently in the process of putting together a Photo Gallery of the recent Top Fuel explosions, with short stories about each incident. It should be ready to post by the end of this coming week, if all goes well (ie: I find enough time to finish it). Stay tuned for that, and for all the latest, breaking, news from the wide, wild, world of drag racing.