Performance Limitations?

During the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, there was a growing concern about what the NHRA would do once Top Fuel quarter-mile speeds exceeded 300 mph.  Actually, this anticipation was a concern of the primary insurance company with whom the NHRA had dealt for many years and one engaged in underwriting other forms of motorsports as well… so the underwriters knew something about racing. And even though the Association felt that spectators couldn’t really tell the visual difference between a 290 mph pass and one at 310 mph, they were reluctant to “slow down” cars in their premier class of drag racing.  After all, these cars were in an otherwise unlimited class, so how much sense did it make to restrict their performance, at least from a marketing perspective?

There had also been some concern, both inside and outside the Association, about the existing amount of shut-down area that was available to safely stop a 300-plus mph drag car.  And while some tracks had more shut-down area than others, either or both could become problematic once speeds exceeded 300 mph, or so it was believed.  Fast-forwarding to 2008, following the tragic loss of Scott Kalitta, we all know that the NHRA limited the length of its tracks to a new “quarter-mile” of 1000 feet.  This actually addresses multiple issues.

But it was back around 1990 that the “What will the NHRA do when T/F speeds exceed 300 mph?” question had became a significant issue. So the Association was at a presumed crossroads.  As mentioned in an earlier column, I was privileged to be serving as a technical consultant to the NHRA at that time, still working with Graham Light (VP of Field Operations), so it fell his and my lot to address the problem.

Our first step was to speak with the majority of the T/F crew chiefs, just to get their take on how the cars might be slowed.  You cannot imagine the responses. Even though some believed there was no problem, the more forward-thinking ones acknowledged that there might be future issues and promised to give some thought to possible limitations.  After a brief gestation period, we made the rounds again.  It quickly became clear that the diversity among opinions (and crew chiefs) was fueled by what each person believed would best suit their existing program.

For example, without naming names, one crew chief felt that the percentage of nitromethane allowed should be reduced. By reducing the effective energy content of a lower percentage blend, he reckoned speeds could be reduced or at least controlled.  However, he quickly speculated that if this became the method for controlling speeds, racers would, sooner-rather-than-later, find other ways to go faster.  Wasn’t that the end game anyway?