News & Analysis

NHRA is slowing down the nitro cars in 2014

Nearly three years ago then crew chief Lee Beard angrily told me in the pits at the Mile High Nationals that, “if the NHRA wants to slow the nitro cars down, they need to quit doing testing and trying to come up with a new engine combination and just adjust the rev-limiter that they mandated.” He felt the testing and a possible new engine combination were just going to keep forcing the nitro teams to spend yet more money on expensive R&D and new parts. It appears that for 2014, now-NHRA tech department employee Lee Beard is going to get his wish.

The problem was that, despite constant changes the NHRA has mandated to slow the cars down such as shortening the track length for nitro cars to 1,000 feet instead of 1320 and initially reducing the maximum rpm, the racers found ways to circumvent those measures and defeat what the rev-limiter was supposed to do. Despite those changes, in 2013 Top Fuel cars were again running 328+ mph trap speeds.

At about the halfway point of last season, the NHRA tech department, under the direction of Glen Gray and with help from the rev-limiter manufacturer, MSD, instituted a testing program that included again reducing max rpm and controlling when and how much timing increase the crew chiefs could program into the ignition system.

Some crew chiefs have told me that drivers routinely keep the throttle open for a full quarter mile instead of 1,000 feet resulting in a true top speed significantly over 330 mph. But it should be noted that in 2013 only one NHRA Top Fueler went over 330 mph and that was in testing. During the 2013 season, NHRA’s Top Fuel cars attained speeds in the 327-328+ mph range and once again they were going within five mph of the speeds that NHRA said was too fast for some if not all of NHRA’s tracks when they implemented the 1,000-foot rule.

Now, for the 2014 season the NHRA has issued another max engine rpm limit for Top Fuel and Funny Car nitro engines as well as setting some parameters for limiting the “ramping” of ignition timing, a practice some crew chiefs utilized to offset the engine rpm limit.

The letter sent out to the teams (a copy of which DRO was sent) says, in part, that the max rpm for Top Fuel engines would be reduced from the 2013 limit of 7900 rpm to 7700 for the 2014 season. For the Fuel Coupes, the max rpm was reduced from 8250 to 8100. In addition to the reduced max rpm for the Funny Cars, NHRA mandated a freeze of launch plot (ramp) retard degrees after 3.25 seconds into the run to a max of 12 degrees/sec.

So, what does all of this mean for the nitro classes? First, the maximum speed of a racecar is directly tied to the engine rpm. Lowering the max rpm absolutely reduces the maximum speed a car can run, given they all have the same rear-end ratio, wheels and tires, and all of those variables are strictly controlled by the NHRA. So there is practically no chance of seeing a Top Fuel car run over 330 mph in 1,000 feet.

Second, reducing the max rpm could result in fewer engine/parts failures, but NHRA crew chiefs are notorious about finding ways to stress and break parts no matter what restrictions they are given. So this rule could possibly save the teams money but that will take at least a year to determine.

Third, with these new engine restrictions, chances are good that the qualifying ETs will get considerably closer together in a 16-car nitro field.

Fourth, more than ever the RTs of a nitro car driver will be just as important in those classes as it is now in Pro Stock. Possibly the days of winning a lot of nitro races using overwhelming performance is going to be a thing of the past.

That is sad, and the chances of fans seeing a top end speed they’ve never seen before is soon going to be a fond memory.