GUEST opinion w/ Mike Cavalieri

NHRA’s new magneto rule for Nostalgia Funny Cars needs some tweaking


Be Careful What You Wish For


By Mike Cavalieri

One of the famous Cavalieri Brothers, Mike is the crew chief and tuner on Paul Romine’s “Man O’ War” AA Funny Car. (Jeff Burk photo)Well, another March Meet is in the books, and like so many books I have...I would rather just dust them off from time to time versus revisiting them. I am in a state of confusion right now, and it all ties directly to the announced and then implemented magneto rule change for nostalgia nitro funny cars by NHRA. Before I go too far, I would like to preface this article by saying I usually enjoy writing with a lighter attitude and tend to occasionally use humor to get a point across. This time around, I am going to really have to reach to find the humor in what I am addressing.


For the 2018 NHRA Heritage Series season, the powers to be made a rule change for the Nostalgia Nitro Funny Cars. Before I tell you what they came up with as a suitable replacement for a specific component used on every funny car that competes on the Heritage tour, I want to point out an observation I made while at the March Meet: Just about every supercharged alcohol or nitro powered racecar on the property is allowed to use an MSD Pro-Mag 44 magneto. This includes but is not limited to A/Fuel Dragster, 6.0 Nitro Altered Front Engine Top Fuel Dragster, anything in the 7.0 Pro class that uses a magneto, and Nostalgia Nitro Funny Car...WAIT, I have to correct that last one, for 2018 the Heritage rules makers -- after months of successful testing and published results -- decided to use a "slightly" different magneto.


That's right, somewhere there is a small-block Chevrolet sprint car racer wondering why he cannot find an MSD Pro-Mag 12. After an entire off season of asking for viable results from test -- at least I would hope that something as significant as a magneto would be tested in a thorough and practical fashion -- all I could get was bench test results that were supposed to be comparisons to the current tried and true Mallory Super Mag units.


I am in the loop, so to speak, and as such I can ask just about anyone a question and get a reasonable answer. Not this time. The only explanation I received was that NHRA was not going to allow anything considered a "performance enhancer".


For as long as I have been racing, car owners and drivers have complained that the sanctioning body, regardless of the affiliation, should stay out of certain areas of rules making. If the Heritage rules folks were trying to avoid any performance enhancement they succeeded mightily. Here is where real world practical experience and almost 10 years of running one specific car come into play as it pertains to my OPINION about the newly accepted 12-amp electronic mag.


Back in the mid and late 1990's I was fortunate enough to get some prototype MSD magnetos to try on Allen Hartley's A/Fuel dragster. At the time they were approximately 18 amps rated, and we would run a Mallory 8-9 amp points mag and one MSD 18 amp mag on our car. We also used two different heat range spark plugs, an Autolite TF50 and an Autolite 2592, the latter being a colder retracted tip spark plug. The MSD amp fired the cold plug. Back then A/Fuel cars were so lean they would burn the tip right off with a couple of Cirello Mallory Super Mag 5's, so we decided on the different heat range plugs as a cure for dropped cylinders because of leveled spark plugs. We tested this for almost a year and worked closely with MSD and reported on all of the aspects, good and not so good. The end result was the MSD 44, and it is the industry standard to this day. As a company, we sold the MSD product line and were very good at it because we knew how it worked and what item worked with a particular application.


Fast forward to this year, and lo and behold, the word is there is a new mag in town. Now before you get excited (like I did when I heard Hostess was coming back only to find they shrunk the portion sizes to less than kid’s meal proportions) the new magneto mandated for use is actually one of the few items that we seldom, if ever sold, the Pro Mag 12. This magneto is still popular with normally aspirated small block Chevrolet sprint car use, and let's face it, there is so much similarity to the needs and demands of a 355 cubic inch normally aspirated alcohol fueled small block that anyone would right off see the 12 amp mag as a perfect component for use on a modern supercharged nitro powered hemi engine.


So here is my question: Who decided on this specific magneto and exactly how much testing and development went into this choice prior to offering them for sale for damn near the same money as a new Pro-Mag 44 and significantly more than you could ever buy a tested used setup from any one of the big show teams? Of course, I keep hearing "No Performance Enhancement" echoing in my brain, so for now I need to turn up Stevie Ray Vaughn on the stereo to get that ridiculous excuse out of my head.


To prove how ludicrous the notion is that having the same magneto (the MSD 44) as just about everything else in sportsman and Heritage racing is because of its potential to enhance performance, keep this in mind: There are parameters that the nostalgia nitro racers are allowed as it concerns performance. For example, the blower overdrive rule is 18.9%. While there are a few folks that will run their supercharger at that speed, in the 10 years I have been tuning Paul Romine's car we have never gotten close to that number. Keep in mind, we can go that high, we have the pulleys, the belt will fit, yet there is one addition to the equation: common sense. Sure, the car might do something spectacular, but only for a very brief of time.


Then you have nitromethane percentage. There is no limit on how much percentage you can run; some run a lot and some run considerably less, but the same rule applies: If you have a combination that likes 82 to 85%, you can surely run 100% as it is the same size as 85% so it will fit just fine, but unfortunately, a drum of nitro doesn't come with a first aid kit and more specifically a large portion of burn cream.


Get the point? There are safety rules, mechanical rules, and then there are arbitrary rules that were made to fit certain criteria and yet no one knows why. To say that putting a 44-amp magneto on a car is going to reinvent the wheel in terms of performance is incorrect. What it would do is compliment the current product, that being your engine combination, and as such everything should be happier, at least happier than the engines I ruined using the Pro Mag 12. (As an aside, every one of the Top Alcohol Dragsters running 280 MPH or Top Alcohol Funny Cars running 5.30's has a Pro Mag 44, and these cars are quickly approaching the 4-second zone for a sportsman car and this is not a concern.)


No one can say we didn't give the Pro Mag 12 a fair shake. Just the opposite. When we arrived at the March Meet for the first day of testing, I thought it might not be wired correctly. Why? The car wouldn't fire, let alone start. In the effort of fair reporting, it was considerably colder in Bakersfield than normal, yet not the coldest conditions we have raced in. After dumping out the alcohol, we made a mix of 50% gas and 50% alcohol and this did allow the car to start.


For the week we spent in Bakersfield, we tested three different camshafts, so I subjected this magneto to a variety of cylinder pressures and even firing order swaps. The first camshaft made less cranking compression than our normal camshaft, so we stayed at our normal blower overdrive. We put a little less than 60 degrees timing in the magneto and 90% in the tank. My logic has always been that if it makes it through the burnout, more often than not it will make it to the other end. Burnout went well, staged the car, and proceeded to run a pathetic 6.19 almost on purpose.


Came back, checked the computer and discovered that the car dropped two cylinders very early and a third just past 3 seconds. In all the years we have run this car, it has only ever dropped a cylinder on maybe five runs over 10 years, so this was unexpected. As an added bonus, it hurt parts as well. For the next run, we went to a different camshaft and this camshaft also had what is known as a 4-7 swap, so in theory it should idle as smooth as a ‘49 Oldsmobile 303 Rocket engine...it also has the same firing order. This camshaft makes more compression than the previous camshaft, but since we were testing, we wanted to make single changes and we left everything else alone. This round it ran a 5.84 and had a very good 60-foot time, but it could be identical to the previous run as to when and where it dropped cylinders, which it dropped three cylinders again.


We made a couple more runs with this camshaft and varied the nitro percentage by almost 10% and went as low as 5% overdrive, as well as moving the timing around so that it fired into less pressure, all in an effort to create less pressure for the mag to fire into and see if the engine could, in fact, stay lit for the entire run. I didn’t expect good ET's and I wasn't disappointed; low 5.90's were the best and again it was dropped cylinders.


After testing, I rounded up enough parts to put a Mallory magneto back on the car and also ohm checked all of the plug wires. I found that there were several wires that although they were brand new at the start of this test, tested bad. Usually this comes from the magneto damaging the wires when the cylinder goes out; after all, nitromethane is an excellent grounding property. I am amazed it can ignite at all, but once you see a steady white plume of exhaust or raw fuel, there is nothing that will bring it back online, hence the spark plug wire fails from being used as a ground strap instead of a high-tension lead.


Anyway, I made the mistake of sticking with the MSD mag; this alone should show that, unlike the majority of cars that ran them one or maybe two runs in qualifying, we chose to keep it on the car and not remove it in favor of the Mallory. We went up for the first round of eliminations and the car ran poorly, a 5.81. Depending on how you look at it, we were either lucky to win the first round or unfortunate, in that we now had to replace everything between the fuel tank and the wheelie bars. That's right, while it would beat up pistons when it dropped cylinders, it gets a whole bunch more animated when the rotor under the distributor cap fails. We managed to replace the engine, supercharger, transmission and a variety of other pieces that were damaged when the supercharger exited the manifold and two connecting rods left their safe confines inside the block, and went out and ran another crappy 5.90 time and lost in Round 2. Fortunately, we didn't have to deal with any pesky performance enhancements.


So, what's the moral of this story? I am certain that as a nitro funny car, we have the best pieces and crew you could want, and as such we gave this magneto what I consider a very thorough testing. IT DOES NOT WORK. Now I know there are a few guys that can make them work, very few, but I would be misleading the readers if I didn't mention that one or two of the cars in attendance managed to run a sub-5.70 pass with the System 1 12-LT. Not sure what to attribute it to, especially since there is such a diversity with nitro cars as it pertains to compression ratios, blower overdrive, engine size and nitro percentage. What we run is basically a 413-inch version of a big show engine and is a common combination. All of the heavy hitters that took off the MSD magneto ran between 6-hundredths and a full tenth quicker and none of them went back to the MSD unit.


What I am asking for is a specific reasoning behind this magneto, and some solid proof that it was tested well enough to be pushed into service as it was. I know Paul Romine spent almost $30,000 testing/racing at the March Meet, and while I tend to interpret a rule as something that is beneficial to the racers and a means of creating a level playing field, this product did neither. I have been selling nitro parts for over 25 years, and I can honestly report that I would never knowingly sell someone a part for the sole purpose of making money, no matter how much or how little it would be.


I did get to spend a considerable amount of time with Bob Wyman while at the track, and I was able to compare runs, conditions, just about anything to show how we operate our combination. I am in the position where I could show him runs with a Mallory magneto, a Pro Mag 44 and a variety of fuel pump combinations and, more importantly, a wide range of density altitude scenarios and water grain levels from almost nil to 140 -- all things that affect how a nitro engine fires in the cylinder. He is a great guy and very easy to talk to, and he had mentioned in passing that maybe there was going to be some way to upgrade this unit to 16 amps. The one and only selling point that this magneto could offer as an improvement over the Mallory mag was that the timing didn't retard as the RPM increased due in large part to the points "bouncing" at high RPM. According to the Racepak timing indicator, that wasn't true either, but Bob was meeting the folks at MSD after the March Meet to fix this issue. They said it was an anomaly and the timing really didn't retard 5-7 degrees as it shows on the screen.


As I said in the opening of this article, all of this is my opinion, and my opinion is that the rules committee should revisit this magneto issue. The change should be made to allow the MSD Pro Mag 44, and at the very least the only company that was selling the 12-amp magneto should voluntarily offer to take the 12-amp magneto back as a trade in on a new 44-amp unit. I know that if I had sold a specific part that I not only made a legal part, but specifically branded it to my company, and it failed to perform at even a reasonable level, I would be on the hook for the sales.


I should also point out that I am not the advocate for making or changing rules, I tend to just live by them, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the folks that made these rules do not own or operate a racecar and as such have much less skin in the game so to speak versus the racers that get to spend tens of thousands of dollars playing by the rules when the rules fail. It is expensive enough to run a racecar, regardless of the class, and the fields are getting shorter all the time. I think just once it would be nice to provide rules that have been tested and shown to help for the sake of the car owners and teams and not just for some monetary consideration.


In closing, I can honestly say we will not be running the System 1 12-LT magneto again. This magneto is the modern-day equivalent of the Chevrolet Vega...the idea was so hyped that the Vega was the Car of The Year, sold hundreds of thousands of vehicles, and in very short order damn near bankrupted GM when they found that a variety of untried or under-tested components could not stand up to the task.


I spent a good part of the off season going back and forth with Paul about this magneto deal because he was getting information supplied to him by the vendor from the perspective of a potential customer, meaning that the selling points were very few and what most Mallory owners wanted to hear. I personally do not have any issues with the Mallory magneto, they are what they are: 50-year-old technology with improvements to make them competitive in modern times. If you keep everything in perspective, they will perform better than the 12-amp unit in real racing applications. If you bench test them head to head, a lot like the Cacklefest, the 12-amp unit wins that one if all you want to see is certain numbers that do not replicate in real time. But there are fewer and fewer venues to race a nostalgia nitro funny car other than match racing, and without a decent alternative to a points magneto it appears that is all we can do this year. It just seems like for the sake of simplicity, uniform enforcement of rules and the potential to help lower the cost of operation and aid in preventing oil downs, the 44-amp mag makes way too much sense. Then again, I do have some skin in the game, but I don't make the rules. Hopefully, clearer heads will prevail and I predict that the only performance enhancement will be closer racing and more of it.  


official DRO sponsors

 © 1999-2018 - Drag Racing Online and Racing Net Source LLC - 607 Seib Drive, O'Fallon, MO 63366 Phone: 636.272.6301 - Privacy Policy

fficial ponsors