June 15, 2016
Hello to all again.
I want to say thank you to a new sponsor, Bill Linenfelser. Bill is a long-time customer with a flair for the different when it comes to his bikes. A long-time in the parts department at area automotive dealers gives him, an encyclopedic knowledge of some pretty weird stuff. Here’s hoping the weather gods allow us a chance to show off in front of all of you this fall!
The latest trip to the track was an expedition to storied Rockingham Dragway in Rockingham NC. A logistics shuffle put us as the chauffer for the Crew Chief and Co-owner of the Top Fueler, Mike Dryden. This was the second of five races I have signed on for as a crew member, with a hope for further momentum built by our mad thrash win at Valdosta GA in April.
Like a lot of the tracks in the Piedmont area you just can’t get there from anywhere in the Midwest without a snaking, twisting route to follow. A brief side-trip to the drive belt supplier in Indianapolis was followed by another thirteen hours in the van. The trip went well, with a chance to talk to Mike about some of the systems theory concerning the fuel, ignition and clutch management areas. Time passes much more quickly with conversation.
We went through Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and finally North Carolina on the way there. I drove the last of the daylight out, and woke up when we were going through the toll stops in West Virginia. Lots of mountains and a very long tunnel got us to North Carolina. We pulled over at the first rest area in NC and were a bit concerned when the attendant professed to have not ever heard of Rockingham. I never looked for it before and was assured the GPS would get us there, so why bother? It was found, at the bottom of the state, on the South Carolina border.
I must say Northern NC is beautiful. We drove through NASCAR’s storied terrain. Richmond, and Martinsville Virginia, Charlotte, Asheville, Hickory, Raleigh, and many others I had always heard about as a kid. I have only been in this area twice. Once was a long drive in 1983 with a brand new Top Fueler to test and a rained out race at Winston-Salem, NC. The drive home took us to every dragstrip east of the Mississippi and north of Louisville looking for a track. We were denied by rain covering the entire eastern half of the country. The other time was when Sam Wills rode our Top Fueler at the race in Bristol Tennessee. Another long drive punctuated by maniac coal truck drivers on twisty two-lane (actually more like 1 ½ lane) roads.
Arriving at the track Friday morning, we proceeded to get set up for the impending work on the bike that afternoon. A few fuel system details and a warmup were the highlights of that afternoon’s work. The constant rev-up of a bike leaving the line was not to bode well for the balance of the week end.
Finishing up that evening, we proceeded into town for the proverbial crash and burn at the end of a long drive and working in the low eighties for temperature.
Saturday morning dawned bright and sunny. The previous weekend was rain all over the eastern seaboard, delaying the NHRA dragraces and NASCAR alike. No rain forecast, but temps in the 90’s both days would test us all.
The first run was tire smoke, with the starting line barely able to hold anything.
Servicing the bike showed good results with the valves staying in better adjustment. Making a few changes to the management system settings and clutch weights, we were hoping for a bit more manageability in the first 200 feet of racetrack.
The next pass gave us a good starting point with a 6.17 e.t. at 231 mph. This gave us hope for getting going a little bit sooner in the pass on the next run and the miles per hour showed the track was decent on the big end as Cory Hogan touched 240 mph on his pass.
I went to the big end to crank the motor over after the pass, but realized halfway there I didn’t bring the wrench. My extra weight in the golf car was almost our undoing as it barely made the grade coming back up the return road. No more of that.
Now the question became “How much more can we get?”. The 6.17 wouldn’t be a raceday number that would hold up.
A confab between Delvin, Mike, and Sam got to a consensus on what to try.
That afternoon Kerri cooked up a ribs and corn feed to replenish Sam and the crew, and as usual, it was magnificent. This may not be a paying gig, but this is darned close to good wages!
The final round of qualifying was in the evening, but track temperatures were still over 115 degrees, which can be treacherous, traction-wise.
Sam was up and the bike smoked the tire 50 feet out. That meant our 6.17 would be our best.
(a unique Harley drag bike example)
One of the highlights was Dave Vantine’s 5.91 pass. It was a great pass, considering what the track gave them.
The other highlight came when Chris Hand ran. His is a smaller outfit out of Alabama known as the “Redneck Express”. Chris and his wife Sharon have been nitro racing since 1976 and are the greatest people you’d ever want to meet.
After the burnout, I looked around and only Dick Boxtell was standing out there to push back, so since I was just stranding around and had recovered from pushing Sam back, I trotted out to help, as these bikes weigh a thousand pounds and can be a bit of work to push back.
Rolling into the beams, the bike sounded good and he left with the header flames high. You could hear the shift into high gear and the flames dipped for an instant, but Chris stayed in it all the way to the end. He was rewarded with a 5.95 second e.t.! The starting line went wild as that was only Chris’ second five second pass, a tick slower than the 5.89 he carded a couple of years ago.
We finished up the preliminary servicing on Sam’s bike and put it in the trailer and packed up for the night.
Sunday morning dawned bright and sunny. The temperatures both days had been in the middle 90’s by noon and you really had to be careful of how you took care of yourself.
Unpacking and getting ready to run the valves and torque the head, we had to set a few of the intakes, which had tightened up, but not at the same level as Valdosta. Heck this was still the same head that we started the weekend with. As with any racing program, there were changes and improvements that affected some of the routines, and the team adjusted well.
There was still the question of power to the track to be answered and nobody seemed to have the magic numbers.
We knew the tuneup that yielded the 6.17 wouldn’t hold, so changes were made that hopefully would give us another tenth (.10 seconds) quicker e.t.
First round of eliminations began at noon and the sun was just pounding the track with temperatures in the upper 90s.
Dave Vantine had the bye run in the first round by virtue of his #1 qualifying and only seven bikes in the field (we qualified #5). His wasn’t a stellar pass and then it was our turn. The lights went down and Sam got out about 50 feet and shook the tire, then smoked it. Dammit!!
Chris Hand went up against his opponent, won, and advanced to the semi-finals. In the semi-finals Chris went up against Larry McBride. Larry’s nickname of “Spiderman” is appropriate as he was busy climbing around on their new bike all weekend. At the green they both left, but Larry went up in smoke at nearly the same spot as Sam, and off Chris went. Cory Hogan defeated Dave Vantine when Dave started to spin, and the race was over for him.
In the final it would be Chris Hand versus Cory Hogan on John Alwine’s ATF-1 bike. I will mention at this time that the motor in John and Cory’s bike is of John’s design and has been showing good power since its debut. As with any new project, teething pains are inevitable, but John and Chris Alwine have been keeping after it, and making steady progress.
On the way back to the pits, Mike Dryden looked over at Chris Hand’s pit and saw Chris’ main stalwart crewman, Dick Boxtell looking a bit strange. I trotted over and Dick was just sort of standing there with a faraway look in his eyes. I asked him how much water he had been drinking and he pointed to an empty bottle on the toolbox and that had been it. Hustling him over to the chairs by the trailer, I was able to get him drinking water. Chris, being the person he is, was ready to forgo the final rather than jeopardize Dick’s health. Well, one thing led to another and Jim Fox, Dennis Bradley and myself started the servicing of the bike. I was constantly after Dick to keep drinking water and then other liquids to work at getting him up to speed.
With a Top Fueler, there is a set routine used by each team, and they vary from bike to bike and team to team. For instance, Chris Hand’s team uses Dick to set the clutch, pack the parachute, and fuel the bike up. Those are critical tasks that are done in a certain manner. Luckily, this was chassis that Sam Wills had built in 2007, so there were similarities to his current bike that made things a little less of an adventure. I went under the bike to drop the oil, got that done, Jim Fox put the oil back in (a very important part of the deal) and I checked the undercarriage for anything out of place and that all the lines for oil and fuel were secure. After that was done, washing up allowed me to help Dick pack the chute. Often this is done by the rider (Sam in our case), but as I said, every team is different. Dick was downing water at a prodigious rate and seemed to be coming back to center. This allowed him to set the clutch in preparation for the next run. The clutch needs to be set as allowances for wear and weight adjustments are done then. On Sam’s bike, Mike Dryden does this and I have been watching, as I did it on our Top Fuelers and on the funnycar. I can say that Dick’s .040” pack clearance is different than Mike’s and different from mine. That is why it is so important to have the same person doing these “by feel” adjustments each time.
Fueling up the bike and new spark plugs were next. Even the plug wires are different from team to team. Chris uses the soft boots, while Sam uses the hard ones like the Top Fuel cars. They feel different going on and they damn well better be properly installed, because the last thing you want is one blowing off and whipping around spraying 60,000 volts all over.
Chris checked the running and made a change to the barrel valve, a rare thing these days as most of the other combinations are so powerful they don’t mess with that except to check it at the start of the weekend. We cleared it out and screwed the plugs back in it and off we went to the starting line. Just before we left I asked Chris when the last time was he went to the final with lane choice. He just looked at me and said “I don’t remember the last time we went to a final”. It was actually in 2009.
As the sun dropped lower, the tension was building and soon it was time. I got a crew shirt from Sharon and went to the starting line ready for anything and everything.
The bikes fired and Dick and Bruno (from Sam’s crew) were waiting to push back. Chris’ bike does push back a bit more easily and at a slightly more sedate pace. Maybe it’s Dick’s .040” adjustment that lets the clutch be a little looser?
They both finished their respective burnouts and then staged. Steve McBride and Chuck Stewart from Larry McBride’s crew were helping get Chris set up, but once again, only so much extra help is good, because it can upset the rider’s concentration. Steve was pointing emphatically, but to no avail. Chris lined up a minute amount pointing off to the centerline, but it was his deal and best left alone.
The lights went down and they left together. The right lane that Cory was in got him a spectacular smoke run and Chris was gone. You could see he had to roll out of it as he approached the centerline, but it was good enough.
His lane lit the “Win” light and the starting line went crazy. There were at least 40 to 50 people jumping up and down celebrating with Chris’ crew. Sharon simply raised her hands to the sky and absorbed the moment. It took at least ten minutes to clear the starting line to run the rest of the show that night and the pits were a similar madhouse, showing how much-loved the “Redneck Express” team is. To a person, every Top Fuel team member said that if they didn’t win, they wanted Chris to win, even their opponent in the final.
Having the chance to cheer for them afterwards was great and Chris, the quiet, unassuming person he was clearly enjoyed the accolades but didn’t make much noise.
Later on I had a chance tell Sharon how much I enjoyed helping and how proud I was to be a bit of a help to them. People asked me about working for Sam and then for Chris the same day, but Sam’s orders were “Whatever they need get it for them” a true show of sportsmanship from another well-respected competitor. Heck, I’d have probably gotten into trouble somewhere else if I hadn’t had something to keep me busy.
A 21 hour drive home and a chance to talk to Mike Dryden along the way about the clutch management system and changes to it we need to make for a more successful slippery-track effort. His fuel system makes as much power as anyone else, I feel, so now we need to be able to use it more productively, and the clutch is the key. This was the case thirty years ago and even more so now with the power levels attained in today’s nitro racing. Lots to learn.
Re-entering reality I am also fortunate to be able to spend Father’s day with the sources of my inspiration, my wife Patty and my daughters Samantha, Jacki, and Leigh. I wish you all similar joy and will be keeping busy getting ready for the next races and all the projects here and about.
Breaking news! The Banana is back!!!!
(tribute to Warhol, by Fred Weege) The other Banana is also back and running on all 8 cylinders!
All the best,