Volume III, Issue 3, Page 21

A Do-Nothing Box That Did Something

About fifteen years ago, T/F drag cars parted the curtain on 300 miles per hour. While it was a frontier not to be unexpected from a virtually “unlimited” class of race car, the accomplishment brought with it a feverish concern on the part of insurance underwriters.  After all, they reckoned, aircraft take-off speeds are somewhat less than this rate of travel, so what could be expected of an otherwise land-based vehicle hurtling down a track at three bucks and change? 

Eventually, the insurance suits approached the NHRA with a question that went something like, “How do you plan to slow these cars down?”  It was a time during which I’d already been asked to provide some outsider’s opinions about certain technical issues in the Association’s Pro Class ranks, so this new issue simply came along as part of the package.  And, aside from the NHRA’s successful attempt to later provide an alternative insurance program, the fact of the matter was they believed a study was necessary.

Step one was to canvass leading T/F and T/FC crew chiefs and drivers to gather some consistency in their thoughts. About the best description I can put on the table describing this effort ends with “…like herding cats.”  The number and variety of “solutions” that came back from these learned folk was in direct comparison to the number of requests made for input. Taken individually, there were some pretty good ideas advanced: Reduced cylinder displacement, smaller blowers, final drive gear limitations, reduced blower speed, etc., etc. Yes, some were more cost-effective than others.

Finally, someone made the decision to convene a select number and a cross-section of these crew chiefs and drivers to see if they could reach a consensus. Now you need to conjure some mental images of such a meeting.  In one room, with food, you have the likes of Austin Coil, Dale Armstrong, Dick LaHaie, Tim Richards, Lee Beard, Ed McCulloch and others that numbered about fifteen. There was also an equal number of differing opinions about the best approach to limiting T/F and T/FC speeds. 

It was an incredible experience, just having that much synergy in the same room at the same time. Unfortunately, no recorders (or members of the press) were allowed, for obvious reasons.  But in retrospect, it would have formed the basis for a pretty good book.  In the end, several events occurred, some of them during that meeting and a few afterward. In no particular order, here’s a couple that were effective. 

According to T/F engine failure records (notably from Armstrong), a high percentage of damage was occurring between the finish line and last set of mph clocks. That was also a segment in the trap where the highest speeds were being recorded…speed levels of the type concerning insurance underwriters. So the first order of business was to lop off the back half of the speed trap. Accordingly, terminal speeds were reduced. Other steps were taken, including a moderate drop in and a cap on final drive gear ratios.  Even knowing that it would only be a matter of time until crew chiefs would begin exploiting other means to increase mid-track and, thus, top speed levels.

And in this regard, there were two schools of thought. One of them held that from a spectator’s standpoint, how could you distinguish the difference between 300 and 315 mph?  Drivers were already saying even they often had difficulty seeing the finish-line, at either of these speeds.  The other argument focused on the “marketing” component.  After all, in what was billed as an “unlimited” class of racing, how could rules be implemented to slow down an unlimited car?  But despite all the academics, limitations were put in place and later followed by the current ban on nitro percentage.

In the midst of all this was the Association’s ongoing concern about hidden electronic devices and the benefits they provided.  Historically, the ability to police such devices was the core concern, although Lee Beard once told me, “I don’t care if the NHRA won’t let us include electronic controls in our clutch actuation schemes, I’ll do the same thing with hydraulics.”

So in an effort to find ways enabling the identification and control of hidden electronic devices, the NHRA tech department built a device of their own. Electronics buffs would have known it as a “relaxation oscillator” consisting of multiple, small neon light bulbs mounted on a hand-held device that included a telescoping antenna. This Star Wars prop box also contained its own power supply and gave the clear appearance of a cloak-and-dagger instrument capable to seeing into the bowels of a race car and detecting electronically-based or triggering equipment that circumvented existing NHRA rules. 
All it required was a stroll through the staging or return road inspection lanes while pointing the little “detector” toward and around a given car, its little lights actively and randomly blinking. Comments and obvious concerns it evoked ran the gamut, not excluding requests to have the box’s guts physically exposed.  In fact, some of the responses probably don’t belong in print.

Was the little “do-nothing” box effective? By all accounts, it was. If nothing more, it provided NHRA tech staff with a form of counter-measure to those advancing the time-honored effort to gain a racer’s advantage, in the ongoing game of “racer and tech inspector” that is fundamental to racing.  And the last time I asked, Graham Light told me the now-dormant box rests on a special shelf in his present office…still doing nothing, in contrast to its appearance.

I know, because I built the little contraption.. 


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