in the world of drag racing
The latest update as of March 1, 2000
So who is this guy and why he is trying to "destroy" Top Alcohol (Federal-Mogul) drag racing? For the roots of this story and why I consider it one of the most important issues facing supercharged alcohol racing as we enter the new millennium, let's jump into the "waaaay baaack" machine for a few minutes. Let's take a look at how this man and his father have perservered with uncompetitive combinations and a lack of funding . . . until they finally decided that "if you can't beat 'em . . . join 'em -- and then really beat up on them!"
The story starts with a little shop in San Leandro, California, S & S Automotive, nearly fifty years ago. (I told you we were going "waaaay" back with this one). Most people remember the Santos team for perservering with the smallblock Chevy forever -- but George actually started competing at Central California tracks like Kingdon and Vacaville with a Ford Flathead in his '32 roadster. When Chevrolet came out with its first smallblock engine in 1955, he immediately switched to the new-fangled overhead engine. Despite having to compete against Chrysler Hemi's (354's and 392's) in the late 50's, they more than held their own. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
The Santos family's first attempt to run with serious horsepower came in the old "Junior Fuel" class in the late 60's. Sticking with the combination when Pro Comp came into existence in 1974, they gradually gained a higher profile as the pace picked up over the latter half of that decade. Even then, the Chrysler racers kept asking them "when are you gonna get rid of that Chivvy and put some real (hemi) horsepower in that car?" The Santos answer was to stick with their plan and keep working to find what the Chevy liked.
The plan really began to come together in 1984, when Rick took over the driving chores. While not travelling nationally, they were always competitive at the West Coast NHRA races. As the 1990's began, the PSI blower finally gave them the power to run "heads up" with the Chrysler contingent. The refinement of their combination, honed to perfection after more than 30 years of effort, finally brought them their first national event victory at the 1991 NHRA Winternationals. And that's when it all started to unravel.
Lobbying efforts by the suddenly-threatened Hemi-powered racers brought on annual rules changes that the Santos team had to overcome. First it was the gradual dropping of the weight-break advantage they had enjoyed. Then the final straw came in 1996 when the minimum weight (1700 lbs.) rule was brought in. Unable to justify adding the extra weight, and not feeling that building an even larger engine was a viable project, they simply parked the "little Chevrolet that could." And it looked like the drag racing world had seen the last of the Santos family.
The retirement was very short-lived however, as within a few months, Norm Grimes and Jack O'Bannon entered the picture. They'd teamed up with a drag boat operation but had decided to go land-based and were looking to put together a Top Alcohol dragster, but needed a driver. And guess who was available? Before the 1996 season was over, Santos was back in the winners circle, taking the Winston Finals over Keith Stark.
Encouraged by their quick success, O'Bannon decided to mount a serious assault in the 1997 season, ordering a new chassis and literally truckloads of spare parts. The results just kept getting better, with Santos recording the first 5.40 elapsed time for a blown alcohol dragster, winning many races and capping the season with his first NHRA Winston World Championship, defeating the defending title holder in the final round at the final points race of the year. But how do you top that? Hang on and you'll see.
Two more world championships followed in quick succession and as we enter the 2000 season, the early results indicate that an unprecedented fourth straight championship is in the cards. They've made changes over the last four years, each time improving on an already formidable combination. Rick built their current chassis and it obviously works as well as any produced by the big-name professional builders. They've changed the engine size, gradually getting smaller and more efficient -- and at the same time trimming weight from the car.
At last report, the current size was 433 cubes, mandating a total weight of 1905 lbs., just 5 lbs. over the class minimum. NOTE: With their engine being less than 450 cubic inches, the maximum overdrive permitted (with their PSI blower) is just 104% -- instead of the 115% allowed for the larger engines. And how quick have they run this year? In testing, prior to the Winternationals, they sped to a 5.29 at Phoenix. A shot in the dark, a lucky run? Well, they haven't run any more 5.20's -- yet -- but they did string together some pretty fair laps at the national event at Phoenix's Firebird Int'l Raceway last month: six runs between 5.31 and 5.38. Speeds? Nearly 263 mph. Sounds like injected nitro numbers, don't they?
So just how have they been able to run that quick and fast -- within the rules, obviously -- while no one else with a blown alcohol car can come within a tenth of them? And do it without wasting a year's budget in one weekend? Some people might point to the current controversy over the variety of blowers available from PSI these days: the A, B, D . . . and the new/old "C" model, as a major reason for their current domination. (For more on that subject, go to the top of the page). But there's got to be more than just a blower that's creating this all-conquering juggernaut, isn't there?
Before I go any further, let me preface the following passages with this "disclaimer": I've always had the utmost respect and admiration for George and Rick Santos and their family. They are very, very nice people. They have absolute integrity and are among the hardest-working, least ego-driven people that I've ever met. A long time ago, when I was trying my best to blow up all my 392 parts at a points meet at Seattle, they even gave me -- gave me, they wouldn't take any money -- some parts so that I could make another qualifying attempt with my dragster. Ever since that day, I've thought the world of them as people.
So what's the problem then, Bob? Well, I've got to step back a minute and ask this question: Is all their success and domination really a good thing for the sport in general and the class (Top Alcohol) in particular? Is there such a thing as "too much of a good thing"? In this case, IN MY OPINION, the answer is a resounding YES.
Reflecting back on what people always used to say about them: "if they had money AND a hemi, then they'd be truly dangerous" and now that particular nightmare has come all too true. They've literally got it all: The best driver, the best crew chiefs, the biggest budget and the most experience. Formidable, eh? But what affect has it had on the rest of the racers? And aren't the injected nitro guys still just a tad quicker? Let's look at the class structure first.
For the past two (or more) years there has been quite a bit of "discussion" about the structure of Federal-Mogul dragster. Mainly about whether the injected cars should continue to be in the class or what restrictions should be placed on them. At one point last year, it appeared certain that the injected option was about to be deleted from the rulebook for this season. A combination of a very effective lobbying campaign . . . and the performances of the Santos / O'Bannon car convinced NHRA to keep the injected cars for at least one more year. After all, we've got at least one blown car running just as quick as the injected cars -- so what's the problem?
The problem is that it's only ONE blown car turning those performances. Think back to last season and try to remember who else was running big numbers with a blower. Michael Gunderson? Yes, he was very competitive; even ran the first blown alky 260+ mph pass, but where is he now? In an A/Fuel dragster. He saw the light -- more likely, the numbers on the balance sheet and bowed to financial reality and joined the unblown brigade. Who else then? Bill Reichert? Yes, he was quick (when he wasn't crashing), but he's joined the "horsepower in a drum" gang this year also. So who's left to challenge Santos?
Up here in the Northwest Division, we have two very serious Top Alcohol dragsters running out of Washington State: Dale Carlson (Olympia) and Mark Hentges (Federal Way). They've both run very low 5.40's at over 260 mph. Right in the ballpark then, right? Yes and No. Yes, they can run numbers that put them close to Santos, but the costs to do that are unbelievable. Neither racer would be willing to tell me, or anyone else for that matter, just how much it costs to be even close to Rick in the performance department, but it would be absolutely shocking to anyone outside the professional ranks.
So even if they can get close to him, how is anyone going to beat Santos? More money? More brains? Better driving? All three are very difficult commodities to gain, aren't they? The short answer is: there's no way to get past Santos, short of using firearms, poison or other such overly drastic measures. Once in a while, like maybe once a decade, Rick will screw up a run, but to wait for that to happen is like waiting for hades to freeze over ... or the right numbers to come up in the lottery.
But isn't drag racing about open competition, survival of the fittest and all that jazz? Yes, most definitely. But, and this is the BOTTOM LINE: But, if you drive all your competitors out of the class and there's no one left to race against, then what have you proven? What's the point then?
The numbers on the qualifying lists don't lie. When NHRA took a serious look at the overall health of Federal-Mogul dragster and funny car last year, they noticed one very disturbing trend. While the number of licensed and running funny cars had increased in the past five years, the dragster numbers had fallen considerably. At that time they were looking at the totals in light of the perceived (?) imbalance between the injected and blown factions. And that was a valid comparison to draw. But is there another factor at work here?
Is the disparity between the top running cars, the middle of the pack and the bottom-feeders growing too great to allow the slower cars to feel that they should still be out there competing? It's sure starting to look that way. Over the two years that this website has been tracking NHRA national event results, the spread in qualifying (between #1 and #16) has grown ever greater. And the number of alternates at each event has steadily shrunk. The first two events on the calendar this year saw only 18 entries. The most recent race, the Gatornationals, saw only 17 cars. Where have all the cars gone?
Some racers have switched classes to the funny cars, some have even switched associations, going to IHRA funny cars (without screw blowers); mostly though, racers have just looked at the cost of their racing and decided it just wasn't worth it anymore. Yes, the purses have gone up, verrrry marginally, but the chance of getting past the first round have gone down, waaaay down. Unless you can field a car with the budget of a Jack O'Bannon, then it's almost hopeless.
In fact, some former Federal-Mogul racers have gone to Top Fuel, spending more money -- but not that much more -- for the chance at much higher returns. With today's cost of pro competition driving out many marginal racers in those categories too, there are opportunities available for some of these refugees, but that's another story for another day, eh?
There really isn't an answer to the question of "how do you stop Santos?" And there probably shouldn't be an answer. Let the laws of the jungle rule. Let the fittest survive. But if the only ones left standing after all the burnout smoke clears are Rick Santos and his team, then what has been achieved?
If anyone can answer that question, or make some serious suggestions about how to revive the fast-fading fortunes of Top Alcohol dragster racing, then let me know. Whether you agree with my opinions or not, let me know. No holds barred, no favours asked, no quarter given. Just let me know what you think. The nearest email button is just down below.