in the world of drag racing
The latest update as of March 20, 2000
And then there were three: 3 national events out of 23 on this season's NHRA schedule. Three races into the new millennium and three races with the new and improved (?) fuel racing rules. So where do we stand now? Well, to be frank, the new rules have been pretty much a non-event, at least to this point.
The main focus of discussion has been the effect on television coverage of the events, but with live broadcasts of this year's races being a non-factor, that really isn't the issue. The biggest benefactors of the newly sped-up and significantly less "oily" racing have been the spectators at the track. Each of the events run so far this year has finished ahead of schedule, in daylight, and has not taxed everyone's patience and attention span as in the past.
Imagine starting a race at 11:00 am and finishing in less than six hours. Yes, compared to an Indy Car or Formula One or even NASCAR event, that's still a long day, but the downtime (due to oil-downs) has been minimal and the fans are getting their money's worth with close side-by-side racing more often and less dead time with sweep trucks and jet dryers providing the "action."
The changes to the rules: 75-minutes between rounds; better diapers and valve cover restraints; and the most contentious of all: 90% nitro maximum, have had the desired effect. Less visible breakage, closer competition, less downtime and a faster program. The NHRA has already done some fine-tuning of these changes by allowing the teams to use nitro from any supplier (instead of their short-lived and legally challenged mandate to buy 90% pre-mixed fuel from one supplier) as long as it didn't register more than 90% in the hydrometer after a run.
They've also added Ray Alley to their staff, with him taking up the newly-created position of "Director of Top Fuel and Funny Car Racing." He's already promised further changes to the rules, to be tested extensively before introduction, and consultation with the racers before implementing them. Possible changes could include compression limits, supercharger design and overdrive restrictions and other measures designed to ensure less debris and oil getting on the track. Another area that I'm sure he's looking at closely is the size of fuel pumps currently in use.
Barely a year ago, a 65-gallon per minute pump was considered large; but with the 90% rule in place, the racers instantly figured out that less percentage could be replaced with more volume, giving them the same amount of nitro in the cylinders on each cycle. So now we've got 80-gallon pumps . . . or larger? and any minute now I expect to hear about somebody testing a 100-gallon pump. What's the limit? Answer: until NHRA steps in with another rule change, there are NO limits!
Remember the Dale Armstrong supercharger overdrive unit? (Banned before they even got a chance to test it); How about Billy Meyer's three magneto set-up? (does anyone even remember that deal?); Then go way back and look at Prudhomme's nitrous oxide line directly into the fuel pump (run at Indy in 1982 and set low ET of the world, but had one bad side affect: it used up -- and I mean USED UP -- an engine a lap; even his budget couldn't handle that). All of these innovations were tried because the rulebook didn't specifically prohibit it.
We could list several more examples of "forward thinking" too: Garlits bringing in the offset front wheels (I think it took his competition nearly six months to figure that one out); gear ratios so low (numerically) that almost went off the scale, before NHRA brought in the 3.20 rule; wings and more wings, until NHRA slapped a 1500 sq. in. maximum for all wings aft of the front axle. And just like a Bill Doner radio ad, "I could go on and on . . ." But you get the picture, right? Unless you put some limits on the racers, there are NO limits to what they will try. Did someone mention Hydrazine? No . . . okay, must have just been my imagination . . .
Want to hear something almost as wild? "Word has it" (oh isn't that taking the easy way out?) that NHRA is seriously looking at the PSI blower with a view to allowing it to be used on fuel engines. No kidding. Now before you start running for the bomb shelters, read on. The PSI has proven itself to be a very engine-friendly unit, taking (far) less horsepower to drive than a conventional (Rootes) blower; introducing much less heat in the fuel-air charge and, best of all, being almost maintenance-free. Lap after lap with consistent boost makes a tune-up much easier to maintain too. Obviously they wouldn't be running with anywhere near the overdrive used on an alcohol engine, but this could be another parts and money saver for the fuel racers. Remember: you heard it here first.
So what actually happened at the MAC Tools Gatornationals over the weekend? The three biggest stories, in my mind, were the following:1. PSI "C" blowers banned with one day's notice
2. Where are all the dragsters hiding?
3. Canada's Todd Paton makes a BIG debut in NitroFish FC
So let's start with the last story first, eh? Todd Paton -- Canada's newest national hero. The Paton family, from Paris, Ontario, have been around alcohol funny car racing more quite a while. Father Barry, a former airline pilot, started the team back in the 1980's and raced with increasing success for eight years. When he retired from driving, in 1991, and turned the wheel over to son Todd, the team started its gradual climb to their current position.
Combining mechanical, driving and marketing ability, they switched from NHRA to IHRA for several years and won two "World" Championships with that sanctioning body. Todd's first national event victory was at the IHRA Summer Nationals in 1992 and over the next four years he achieved six more wins on the IHRA national event circuit. In the process, he won their World Championship in 1993 and 1995. Pleased, but feeling there were bigger mountains to climb, they made the plunge into regular NHRA national event competition in 1996 and have never looked back.
Since then, they've taken 11 FMDRS events and four NHRA national events and placed fifth in the final points standings in 1999. That season also saw their best-ever performances, with a 5.72 ET at 253 mph topping the list. Not content to rest on their laurels, the team started on the road to their final goal, that of racing a nitro funny car, late in 1999. Todd completed his license passes at the ill-fated AutoFest 2000 in Palm Beach, Florida over the New Year's weekend and then took over the driver's seat in the Nitro Fish car, with a debut planned for the Gatornationals.
Without the major funding and experience required to compete with the "big boys" Todd, father Barry and brother Tony arrived in Gainesville early in the week, filled with nervous excitement and some degree of trepidation. They'd faced serious pressure in their careers before, winning the US Nationals and the Winston Finals, but this was to be unlike anything they'd ever experienced before. A big crowd, major media attention, and much tougher competition than they'd ever faced. So we didn't really expect very much from them, did we?
Friday, March 17, 2:00 pm: The first qualifying session for
Fuel Funny Car is set to begin and guess who's at the head of the staging
lanes? Yes, it's the Canadian boy, Todd Paton. (NHRA requires all newly licensed
and irregular competitors to run before the "hitters" in qualifying). The Nitro
Fish starts, burnouts, backs up and pulls into the staging beams. The moment
of truth had arrived . . . and passed even quicker. 4.916 seconds later,
Todd crossed the finish line in his first national event pass. The scoreboards
lit up with the ET and then came the speed: 315.42 mph.
To say his debut was successful has got to be the understatement (so far) of the millennium. One can only imagine the pandemonium that must occurred on the starting line for the Paton crew and the celebration on the return road and in the pits afterwards must have been truly memorable. "Who is this guy?" was quickly replaced with "Paton, yeah, he's the low qualifier" for a few minutes anyway. He was later bumped down several notches on the list (ending up seventh) by some guys named Force and Capps and Toliver.
Okay, he laid down quite a number, but could he back it up? The balance of Friday was spent by the team servicing the car and letting their achievement sink in. Saturday would be another test and would they be ready? The answer came up on the scoreboards the next afternoon with a resounding: 4.946 - 310.98. Aw man, what a weak dog. Slowed waaaay down, eh? No, these guys have got to be for real. Their final qualifier saw the world nearly leave its axis as they shook and smoked very hard. Oh well, two out of three isn't bad, in fact, it's great. Now on to Sunday and yet another big test: eliminations.
First round Sunday: matched against veteran Tim Wilkerson, Todd kept the ball rolling with a resounding 4.914 - 312.50 against Wilkerson's struggling 8.09. Great start: a new career best ET and his first round win in the pro category. Next up: near-rookie Kenny Sayers and Paton has lane choice. The result: An even easier win with another stout number. 4.922 at 309.56 versus Sayers' instant smoke show. The semi-finals will be a serious test, though. He's matched against the red-hot Jerry Toliver and the WWF guy has lane choice.
Rolling into the lanes for the third round, Todd must have been wondering whether lightning could strike twice for him. He'd won the Gatornationals in 1999, in his Top Alcohol Funny Car; could he do it again with nitro in the tank? The race started well, with Paton leaving on Toliver, but at the 150-foot mark, Cinderella's slipper started smoking and the fairytale ending was cut short. Todd sadly shut off to a 9.34, as Toliver streaked into the final round with a 4.91 and lane choice over eventual runner-up Ron Capps.
Still, can anybody remember a national event pro debut for a Canadian racer with more impact than this one? Since the 1972 US Nationals, that is. For the history buffs, that's the event where Gary Beck (Edmonton) and Gordie Bonin (Calgary) both burst onto the major-league drag racing scene, with Beck taking the event title over Jerry Ruth in a classic final round staging duel and Bonin finishing runner-up to Ed "The Ace" McCulloch in a truly surprising display. Paton's heroics at Gainesville this past weekend don't quite equal those long-ago performances, but it certainly paves the way to instant respect with his new competition and augers very well for the future of this team.
A quick check of their website shows that they still plan to run their Top Alcohol funny car this season, with their next appearance scheduled for this coming weekend at the Division Four points meet in Memphis. When the next appearance for Todd in the Nitro Fish will be, is still not known.
UPDATE: It appears that the Paton family alcohol car is parked and that they've turned their full attention to the Nitro Fish Funny Car. No word yet on when their next appearance will be, but it will probably be at Richmond's Virginia Nationals at the end of April, or the Southern Nationals at Memphis in early May. Stay tuned for his next appearance, when, as Todd says: "This big fish is going to eat a lot this season!"
That's all the stories from Gainesville that we've got time to write tonight, so come back tomorrow (Friday, March 31st) for the next installment, when we'll look at the shocking news concerning the PSI blowers, the lack of dragsters (Top Fuel and Alcohol) and the "almost" weekend of Washington State's Mark Hentges.