We were sitting on the starter’s island near the starting line watching the track prep being done by the South Georgia Motorsports crew. From left to right it is Todd Uhlman, Dale Thompson, Jay Upton, Terry Kizer, the crew chief Mike Dryden and myself. Missing is Delvin Clark and Sam himself.
The day dawned bright and brisk. After fueling up at the motel breakfast room, the trip back to the track began. Delvin and Bruno were with my wife, Patty, and myself, and we continued to get to know each other a little better. The closest analogy I can make is that of a rock and roll band on tour. In the past I have had the good fortune to work with exceptional people in the racing end of things, but the opportunity to do the Top Fuel deal is not often offered. It is the chance to be the best of the best and everyone is focused on that goal here. To maintain focus and accuracy over the three day span is a challenge. Mistakes can be dangerous. Something I realized after my stints with the funnycar and the Top Fuel dragster is the importance of conditioning to allow you to not make fatigue-based errors. I have been working with a high school friend to that end for three years or more. Steve Myrland has a group of people that get together three times a week to work on conditioning and flexibility. The sessions, known as “Morning Movement Mayhem” have measurably contributed to my well-being and the ability to perform under these and other demanding circumstances. I wanted to take a moment to thank him, along with Kelly and the others in the group. As a strength and conditioning coach with the San Diego Sharks, the White Sox and the UW, Steve’s wealth of knowledge is invaluable. As one of the oldest members on the Top Fuel crews there, it comes home in a hurry if I am not up to the task and not wanting to let them down is the big motivator. I’ll be darned if I am going to let a youngster outwork me!
With the temperature in the high 40’s, another aspect of this process rears its ugly head. The oil in the motor is a special blend that has a viscosity range of 70 wt. This oil starts that thick because at the end of a run, there is enough nitro in the oil to make it a 30 wt. As a comparison, most passenger cars are using a 5w-30 oil. This stuff is thick! We needed to thin it out to allow the motor to crank over, so out comes the crockpot and in goes the oil.
Once it is up to temperature, you pour it in just before starting, trying not to burn yourself. Using methanol for the starting of the motor is not the best idea, so gasoline is substituted to allow a faster building of heat. It really messes up the plugs and soots up everything. Retorquing the head was next.
Once the motor was warmed up, alcohol was back in the sprayer and the final check on nitro was done.
Pre-race preparations proceeded normally, and we took the bike to the staging lanes while Sam went up for the #1 qualifiers parade. You used to have to do that with the bike and the rider, but this is such a process to move these bikes, they abbreviated it.
While waiting in staging as the last bike out in the first round, I saw something fly by out of the corner of my eye. The bike in front of us had inadvertently discharged his parachute and it went sailing right by Sam’s head. Chuck Stewart disconnected the chute and the race continued. (Parachutes are recommended but not required at this time. )
First round was a bye run because there were an odd number of bikes (seven). Sam chose the left lane .
The launch was good and a 1.02 second 60 foot time came up, but unfortunately the power was too much for the chain, and just past half track it broke. The 6.23 second e.t. didn’t show the true potential of the combination.
Once we got back to the pits the damage was surveyed and repairs began. The chain coming out the back of the bike took a bite out of the deflector and marked up the magneto drive housing. Not content with damage there, the chain then continued back where it tore the bottom out of the right side “puke” tank on the wheelie bars. These tanks, one left and one right, are used to collect the crankcase oil mist and keep it from issuing forth. Well, Steve Churchman and I got to clean a quart or more of that 70 wt. I mentioned earlier off the wheelie bars and the back of the bike. After that was done, we needed to deal with the torn tank. Hoping that the tanks on the other Top Fueler we brought would simplify things, it wasn’t to be as the mounting was slightly different and one hose inlet was larger. That meant a lot more lacquer thinner, hammering, silicone sealer, rags and duct tape. Having fixed a damaged tank or two on the funnycar, this was simply going back into the mental rolodex and reviewing what worked then. While Sam and Jay Upton repaired the front sprocket area, we finished sealing up the tank and got it remounted on the bars.
Meanwhile, the chain had been retrieved and returned and after counting the number of links to be certain the chain was all there, we discovered a failure in the side plate area of the master link. Previous issues with the clip coming off had led to a small hole being drilled in the side plate to accommodate safety wire, which I suspect led to its failure. Like on the 5.88 pass, all the teeth were sheared off the sprocket as well. A new chain and sprocket were installed and off we went. A one tooth difference in the rear sprocket tooth number was a question to be answered in the next round.
The motor leak-down was acceptable, so again, the usual between rounds maintenance was begun. Servicing the bike showed good leak-down, so a routine round of attention to the bike ensued.
Round 2 eliminations pitted us against Don Johnson’s Top Fuel Harley. By virtue of the quicker e.t. in the first round we were able to select the preferred left lane. In this round, we overpowered the track and smoked the tire almost immediately. Looking over in the other lane, the parachute came out early on the Harley, so Sam got back after it and outran our opponent.
After this round, the motor leak-down was acceptable, but when the valve clearances were checked, the problematic intake valves on #1 and #4 cylinders had tightened up. They appeared to be stretching and loosing the proper clearance needed. If an intake valve tightens too much or hangs open, the fire in the combustion chamber will find its way into the intake manifold and then the supercharger, making for a rather spectacular explosion. We were able to re-shim #4 and the shim for #1 had to be ground on the bench grinder in the trailer. Not very precise, but adequate and gives one an idea of the outer limits of that type of procedure. We didn’t get what we would have wanted in a perfect world, but it was adequate.
After conferring with Steve McBride, the builder of the clutch Sam uses, a decision was made to leave the 3 extra grams on the primary clutch levers. We knew Dave Vantine, who had run in the 5.80’s three times on the same week end in the summer, was going to need everything Mike Dryden and Sam could put on the track. Steve felt the track would hold it, so the little bitty washers were added.
The final warmup sounded normal, so off to the starting line we went.
For the final elimination round, the sun was going down quickly and concerns arose as to the track surface yielding a similar result to Friday’s tire-smoking qualifier, but you run what you brung here and it was either win it or wear it.
After the burnouts, both bikes staged and when the green light lit, off they went. Sam got a very short distance and up in smoke he went. I saw a .990 come up on the scoreboard in the other lane, indicating Dave Vantine was on a very good run. The 5.77 that came up on the board at the end proved it. It was a stellar lap for the team and congratulations go out to them all!
Heading back to the pits, we reviewed the data and started the loading up for the trip home. This is often the hard part of the week end, but with the 5.88 (1.00 second 60 ft. time) and the 1.02 before the chain broke in the bank, next season looks very promising.
Earlier in the afternoon after the repairs from the chain were done I was asked by Mike Dryden if I would be available to do this for the five race series in 2016. My jaw dropped and I immediately said yes, pending approval of my co-pilot, Patty and not a conflict with Bonneville. Sam said the same thing and it is a huge honor to be asked and not chased off.
As the evening wound down and the trailer was loaded, the Ducati pattern motor was put up in the loft to have a cylinder head restraint device done by Bob Stroud of Stroud Safety. Sam has a very good working relationship with him and we need a restraint to run in the sanctioned events with the nitro Ducatis, both blown and unblown.
Returning home was another 17 hour drive, but was considerably shorter with the buzz from the week end’s results. Getting to know the crew, having the opportunity to work with a top-flight group and learn a lot gives one a lot to think about. I did get approval from the powers that be with the added comment “you’d be a damned fool not to do it”. So I will take it at that.
While it isn’t Bonneville, it is still the racing that is near and dear to me, and I hope this is interesting to all of you.
We will be doing some more seminars this winter and next spring and the twin-engined nitro-burning Triumph is making progress, along with the Outlaw Suzuki Pro Street platform. The supercharged Ducati is waiting in the wings and both it and the Triumph are scheduled to make passes at this race next November. There are small developments to be incorporated into the Bonneville nitro program and fine tuning different aspects of all of the different efforts.
Well, if I don’t get a chance to see everyone, all best to you and yours for the holidays!