News & Analysis

332 MPH = Money + New Cylinder Heads

The stellar record-setting 1,000-foot track speeds delivered at the Charlotte Four-Wide Nationals by the Don Schumacher Racing’s Top Fuelers (332+) and the John Force Funny Cars (320+) got me a phone call from a nitro crew chief asking me if I knew about the expensive new “big valve” cylinder heads he credited with helping those teams to deliver those record speeds. He told me that expensive R&D in the NHRA nitro classes -- despite what we have been told -- is still an important and expensive part of nitro racing, as is the money required for other teams to keep up with the innovators in those classes.

Like Monty Python's old Spanish Inquisition skit, no one expected Top Fuel cars at zMax Dragway to go 332+ mph or that Funny Cars would achieve 320+ speeds. (Spencer Massey’s 332+ is almost four mph faster than the old record) At this point Top Fuel and Funny Cars are now running speeds close to those that motivated the NHRA management to shorten the quarter-mile racetrack to 1,000 feet and redesign the sand traps to make the sport safer.

So the question and the issue is, how the hell did nitro cars, under a supposed performance moratorium, start going so fast in just a thousand feet?

Didn’t former NHRA nitro czar Ray Alley declare a moratorium on horsepower technology for nitro engines after the death of Darrell Russell? And just to make sure the speeds didn’t climb, he had the MSD company design and build a rev-limiter and he forced all nitro cars to have them.

I was also under the impression that it was the intent of Dan Olson, who followed Alley in that job, to do the same. Didn’t he spend the last couple of years and probably $100,000 or more of NHRA’s money doing R&D to develop a Nitro  engine/drivetrain combination that would slow the speeds and ETs and be less expensive? 

Wasn’t NHRA’s policy going to be that all engine and drivetrain parts development would be approved only if the new parts would be available to all racers to prevent expensive proprietary speed parts and to maintain the “level playing field”? 

It is now obvious that with NHRA’s tacit approval, advanced technology, proprietary components, and the expense that comes with all that is again the norm in NHRA nitro drag racing.

My immediate reaction to Monday’s call was that perhaps this was just some of the normal bitching that occurs when some guys go faster than others. So I started making some calls to sources with pro teams, manufacturers, and the NHRA to either verify or debunk the claim. Imagine my surprise when I found out that it was true.

NHRA VP of Technical Operations Glen Gray confirmed to me that there were a couple of nitro teams that had submitted designs to manufacture their own cylinder heads with larger valves, and the NHRA tech department approved the design! Mr. Gray told me that Ray Alley’s original rules restricting improved cylinder head design specified that any new head would have to retain the valve angle then used. Alley believed that rule would prevent any larger valves being put in any newly design head.

It took the nitro engineers at DSR and JFR a while, but they found a way to use bigger valves without changing the approved valve angle. 

Didn’t anyone at the NHRA tech department think that bigger valves in the heads could easily mean an increase in horsepower? Especially if the design included a new head with larger intake and exhaust runners that take advantage of the larger valves? The more air that moves through the engine, the more horsepower is delivered. 

The biggest concerns of the crew chiefs I talked to were, one, the cost of buying new heads and, two, remaining competitive without new cylinder heads.

In order to keep up with the teams with the new heads, the rest of the teams would have to store or sell all of their current inventory of cylinder heads and replace them with new heads similar to the ones the Don Schumacher and John Force teams reportedly have.