Earlier this year, Mopar Muscle was the first publication to give you the inside scoop on the new Hemi Pro Stock engine. With the 2000 NHRA Winston Drag Racing season underway, we had an opportunity to go behind the scenes at the NHRA Mac Tools Gatornationals to watch Darrell Alderman and Scott Geoffrion put the Nickens Brothers-owned Dodge Avengers through their paces. David and Robert Nickens are doing their work under the Mopar Performance banner, while fellow racer Larry Morgan is backed by Dodge Motorsports.
Though Alderman had already run the motor for the previous two races, he had no success cracking the tough fields. Pro Stock is considered one of the toughest classes in drag racing, and only rarely are the first and the sixteenth qualifiers separated by as much as a tenth of a second. With four of the engines now completed, this weekend's effort would also mark the debut of the engine in Geoffrion's car.
Pro Stock is a very labor-intensive environment. On Nickens' team, the major players are crew chief Mark Ingersoll, rear suspension specialist Jim Seacreast, enginemen Carl Robalais and Wayne Brown, clutch tuner Mike Gott, and welder/crewmember John Gosson.
Several factors play into what the crew chief will adjust on a Pro Stock car at any particular race. The weather and air density determine what changes need to be made to the carburetors, and carburetor jetting changes are critical. Meanwhile, the surface and preparation of the track will determine how the clutch and suspension systems are adjusted. Adjustments to the wheel bars and four-link rear are often needed; if the suspension is off in one direction or the other, the car will hit too hard on one side and dart to the right or left.
NHRA gives Pro Stock teams four attempts to qualify for the available 16 positions in the field and weather can make certain sessions more critical than others. By the time Friday's first qualifying session began, an overcast sky and lower than normal temperatures meant that the track had not become hot from the sunshine beating down on it, and the air and barometric pressures would allow the cars to run a slightly leaner fuel mixture. Since this would be the first event for Geoffrion to have the engine in his car, it was hoped that his Avenger would take the same changes that Alderman's crew had already discovered. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case.
Scott was in the 10th set of cars out, and put a respectable 6.986 on the board. Darrell was right behind him in the same left lane (considered the better of the two at Gainesville) and laid down a great 6.938, which placed a Hemi Mopar into an NHRA Pro Stock field for the first time since 1984. Once the smoke cleared from the session, Alderman was in the 11th slot. Though Geoffrion's first effort was only good enough for 24th, three more sessions remained. Nickens began making decisions regarding the cars as the computer kicked out data.
"After looking at things, we've decided to give Darrell's car a little more wheelspeed," Nickens said. "We were pretty conservative on that first run. But the clutch worked really nice and we made a carburetor adjustment to try to get the car to run the back half a little faster. We also have added a little timing to it. We're going to take a little fuel away from it, especially with the 80 percent humidity we have right now."
In Pro Stock racing, the first 60 feet are the most critical. If the suspension for the car is not perfect for the launch, the time lost here cannot be made up downtrack. With the bump spot for the field already a 6.955, it would be very hard to get into the program unless they were capable of planting the rear suspension hard without spinning or shaking-the effect that occurs when the rim/wheel moves faster than the suspension-planted tire, and that tire, responding like a rubber band, rebounds trying to catch up.
The suspension itself is almost infinitely adjustable. For instance, the front shock absorber adjusters regulate the amount of travel the nose makes. If there is not enough weight transfer to the back of the car, the tires will not plant to the track; if the front end comes up too high, time will be lost if the chassis begins to "unload," taking the pressure points off of the suspension and placing them on the unmovable chassis itself.
For the next round, both cars would be in the less-favorable right lane. In the late afternoon, Geoffrion was again the first out, but a 7.008ET did nothing to improve his position. Meanwhile, Alderman had lost a spot and was now twelveth in the program; right behind Geoffrion, he ran a 6.958ET. The only major players capable of getting in the field were those who had missed on their setups earlier in the day. One was Larry Morgan, whose Avenger was still using the wedge (although he had a Hemi on display in his pit area most of the weekend). Morgan ran a 6.934ET to put himself in the program one step ahead of Alderman.
"That run was actually comparable to or better than our first run due to the conditions," said David the following morning about Alderman's pass. "We also broke a valvespring, and that could have hurt us a little bit, but we feel like we made good choices for that run. For today, we'll dial the car back to where we had it on the first run. The sun has been beating down on the track all morning, and we don't think the car will take as much clutch down low as it did yesterday. The whole field will probably be about .02 slower as a result of the weather."
Clutch weight can be changed in two ways, through counter-weight or through the base clutch setting. For the third round, Nickens and the crew decided to take some of the weight off of the counter-weights and move that to the base setup in hopes of getting the car to leave hard without spinning.
Despite a forecast of rain for Saturday, the day dawned bright. This meant that the first session on Friday had indeed been the best of the weekend. The upside of this was that Alderman, now 13th in the program, had little chance of getting bumped out. The downside was that unless the team suddenly found something radical to change Geoffrion's car, it would be a short weekend.
At 11:45, Geoffrion came out in the right lane. However, the conditions were against him and the car clocked a 7.02 to leave his position unchanged. Alderman came up behind him and ran a 6.961, also slower than his previous two efforts. Morgan was in the better left lane and clocked the best Mopar time of the day with a 6.941, a lap that would have put him into the field had he not already been qualified. As it ended up, two more cars managed to get into the program, and Morgan and Alderman were now 14th and 15th, respectively.
In the final session, Scott made a valiant effort but got close to the centerline and finally had to lift; the resultant 7.658 meant he would have to wait until the next race for a shot at making the program. Alderman, meanwhile, ran a 6.956 (note that the car had only a .023 variance between the four laps).
"We're going to stay with the engine tune-up we ran today," said Nickens of their plans for Sunday. "What we will do is set the car up like it was for the last session and look at the track in the morning to see if we need to make any additional adjustments. I think the car is real consistent; a .93 or .94 will let us win rounds."
By this time, based on the ETs, the two qualified Mopars had a very solid handle on what would go down the racetrack. It would be primarily up to Alderman to get the win, as he was paired against Jeg Couglin, Jr., whose 6.870 in Friday's first session had landed him in the No. 2 slot. Morgan would tag-team with Alderman against Jeg's brother, Troy, who was third with a 6.882.
First up was Morgan. Couglin got a jump at the green (.461 reaction time to Morgan's .490), and that margin was too much for the red Avenger to make up. Morgan's best-of-the-weekend 6.933 was not enough to hold off Couglin's 6.944; the Olds took the stripe by .018 seconds-only five feet.
Meanwhile, Alderman did his burnout and got ready to stage. The driver's game on the starting line is very psychological, doing anything to take your opponent's mind off of focusing on the flash of yellow-to-green on the tree. Sometimes, this is moving in quickly and lighting both the pre-stage and stage bulbs on the tree, causing the other driver to hurry. Sometimes, it's waiting a few critical moments once that other driver has done this before going into the stage beams yourself. Often, the effort is accompanied by roaring blips of the throttle. Alderman let the Jeg's machine go in and then waited a second or two before rolling in himself. The tree came on, went green, and the Mopar Performance Avenger had indeed gotten a leap off the line, recording a .461 to .476 advantage. However, Couglin's engine made up that difference and then some, crossing the stripe with a 6.881.
Though that would end the weekend, Nickens was happy about the way things had gone. "Given the fact that we were in the worse of the two lanes for that round and how we struggled at the first two races, we have to be happy with how the weekend went. Let's face it, we lost to a quicker car here, and both of the drivers in that race did a great job. Now, it's up to us back at the engine shop to find the horsepower to get our car into that top half of the field."
Regarding the drivers, Nickens, a multi-time national event winner himself, sees them as a vital part of success in his effort.
"When Scott and Darrell go up to the starting line, they are the best at what they do. They're both proven winners, so if we do our job back here in the pits, I have complete confidence in them once they go up to the starting line."
"Moreover, they are both able to tell us what they felt in the car after the run. That's very valuable to us, and they are both knowledgeable enough about the cars that they can tell us what the car did, and the computer will confirm it. In fact, sometimes you have to make decisions based on the driver's feel more than the computer reading; that's what makes them so important to our program."
"The Hemi has a lot of potential. At Pomona, it didn't run really good, then at Phoenix, we moved up 8 or 10 spots and now, here at Gainesville, we're in the program. It shows the hard work is paying off, and as we improve on what we have, we have a real good chance of going to the top half of the field. I'm real happy with the way things are developing. It's just the process of finding out what it wants and working from there."
A Day At The Races
Before our former Art Director, Scott Stratton, made the jump from Mopar Muscle to AD of Stock Car Racing magazine, one of his last official assignments for us was a story on what it's like to be a member of a Pro Stock team during an event.
Scott, an avid drag racing fan, has been going to the races with his father since he was a kid, but he's always gone as a spectator, never a competitor. This would be his first time in the pits with tools in his hand and a car to work on.
He was made an honorary crew member on Darrell Alderman's team for the weekend. Was he the missing ingredient needed for the Dodge Boys to make the show?
Every year when I go to the races, I always go through the pits. But this was the first year I was ever able to go in the pits and talk and work with a crew, so it was exciting!
Everybody was very friendly, especially Jim Seacrest and David Nickens. I think the rest of the guys were probably just putting up with me. They weren't unfriendly, they just really had a lot on their mind, especially with the new engine program.
I had really envisioned my "role" being something like when the car came back, I'd help them take the hood and doors off, stuff like that. Then when they were ready to go I'd help roll the car out. I really didn't expect to be doing grunt work like dropping the driveshaft and crawling under the car, but I ended up doing that and more.
I think all of the stuff they had me doing they knew was foolproof. They wouldn't have had me do something if there was a possibility of me screwing it up.
They let me drop the driveshaft out of the car, but I wasn't too intimidated about pulling it, because I was confident in the guy who was showing me how to do it. And I knew that if he was letting me do it, then it was pretty much idiot-proof. The other stuff, like packing the parachute, was fun. I was real surprised they had me do that.
I'm sure that as the spectators watched, they figured out pretty quickly that I didn't really belong there. The rest of the team is used to working with an audience, and they didn't seem to notice them. I didn't feel too pressured, but it was strange working outside under the microscope of on-lookers.
One thing that surprised me was the lack of engine work and maintenance required, as compared to a Top Fuel or Funny Car team. They worked on the clutch between every round, but other than that, they only pulled the valve covers and checked the valve train. They did have to replace one spring and some push rods, but that's all I saw. I thought there would be more wear and that they would have to do more with the engine between rounds for as much power as they make.
Another surprise was that absolutely everything is computerized. They have a readout after every run on dozens of different characteristics on the car, and they use that information to make changes to the car.
I think it was really great of them to allow me to do this at this time-it's an historic moment for Mopar with the new Pro Stock Hemi, and for them to give me this chance, now, was really great. Even though it wasn't a trip to Victory Lane, it's the first time a Hemi has been run, and qualified, in a long time. I'm thankful to David Nickens and the rest of the Nickens Brothers team members for giving me the opportunity to be a part of that.
The broken valve spring currently resides on Scott's desk. It's not for sale.