The quarter-mile mix is actually quite simple. Take one aftermarket Hemi block, add a variety of bulletproof hardware, such as a billet crank and heads, a huge 14-71 supercharger, twin magnetos and plugs, and the strongest fasteners known to man. Now place the engine at the front of a driveline that doesn't use a transmission and a high 3.20:1 rear-gear ratio at the end of a perfect driveshaft. Put this combo into a short-wheelbase chrome-moly chassis with the driver seat right behind that big blower. Add one custom-built carbon-fiber Team Mopar Parts Dodge R/T body to cover it, stick one Mr. Dean Skuza in the hot seat, and fill the fuel tank with the legal 90 percent nitromethane/ 10 percent methanol mixture. Result: 4.80 seconds at 300-plus mph.
For many of us with day-to-day jobs, nothing would seem more exciting than becoming a full-time race car driver. After all, it seems like a fairly easy life; travel the racing circuit, hang out with guys like John Force, sign a few autographs, and wheel the car down the quarter for a couple of miles each weekend. No problem, right? As you might imagine, there is a lot more to it than that. We hooked up with Team Skuza at the NHRA MAC Tools Gatornationals in March to get an inside glimpse of what it takes to go nitro-Funny Car racing in the year 2001.
DEAN SKUZA: The Pilot
"I saw my first Funny Cars when I was 10 or 11 years old. My dad was holding my hand when they warmed it up, and I spilled my Coke because I was reaching for my eyes and my ears. Nobody told me this was going to hurt..." stated Dean Skuza to author Cole Coonce in the Sept. '98 issue of Drag Racing Monthly.
Truth be told, Skuza is one of the few top drivers today who has actually worked his way to the top, starting with a small-block bracket car to a supercharged altered, then to a fuel Funny Car that he once referred to as "my iron mistress." Supported in part by his father, Don, Dean made his never-forgotten childhood dream to go nitro racing a reality and eventually assembled a Funny Car program on a slim budget in his parents' garage 10 years ago.
Now with a five-year sponsorship program from Mopar Performance Parts, a well-oiled crew that is capable of running with the best teams on the planet (in February, Skuza recorded the quickest e.t. in history after the 90 percent nitromethane rule was instated by NHRA), and a hunger for victory, the Brecksville, Ohio, native has the financial and personnel resources to dethrone even a John Force.
"We were very happy when the Mopar Parts deal came together," said the 35-year-old driver and team owner. "We've had a good relationship with them for several seasons, and when they found out our previous sponsor would be leaving us at the end of 2000, they stepped up to become our major sponsor. We need money to do this, and getting it from Mopar Performance Parts couldn't be a better deal for our team."
Skuza's career began when he made his first lap down a dragstrip at age 15. Once he "graduated" to blown big-blocks, he took his first championship, winning the Midwest-based Supercharged Outlaws season-long crown in a big-block-powered Fiat in 1989. After looking at what was needed to go Federal Mogul-style alcohol racing, he decided to build a nitro Funny Car, since the costs were similar until the fuel gets into the motor. That led to a part-time effort in 1992 and 1993. By 1994 he was running the entire tour. His father, Don, supported that effort out-of-pocket; Don owns Quality Synthetic Rubber, a company that supplies Detroit and others with quality OEM parts. He agreed to help Dean get started in racing as a profession, but Dean's job was obtaining sponsorship, which he quickly acquired from Mopar Performance Parts, along with such companies as Cornwell Tools and others.
In the ensuing years, Skuza has finished in the Winston Top 10 points every year but one, including a Fifth in 1999, all under the tuning guidance of Lance Larsen. A 4.997 at Dallas in 1997 gave Skuza the 12th spot in the exclusive Castrol Four-Second Club. He has won two titles in 12 final-round appearances and has the best win/loss record to Force of anybody currently in the Funny Car category.
"I don't remember being scared when I first got in the car and made a run," says Skuza. "I don't know if that was good or bad. Frankly, I was more worried about the motor and everything; since I had built this thing myself, I was more concerned about that. Once you get used to what the car is going to do, it's violent off the starting line; you're thinking more about the mechanical things, how things sound, and your reaction time. I never think about who I'm racing against; any one of these guys can get around you, and any one of them can have a problem. My focus is on getting this car to the other end of the track as quickly as I can; who I'm racing doesn't affect that."
The Mopar Parts Funny Car is a Murf McKinney-built structure that is 125 inches longs and weighs 2,350 pounds with Skuza in the hot seat. The engine is a 496-cid Keith Black block with Brad Anderson heads. A Crane cam, hard parts from Clevite, Brooks, and Venolia, and a lot of nitromethane pushed down into the bores through an SSI blower, goes into the engine. The mixture is sparked by two super-voltage MSD magnetos and comes out of the Hedman Husler Hedder exhaust system in long flames.
Raw nitro is a mono-propellant (oxygen is in the molecular structure) and is pumped into the motor in vast quantities, with the unburned portions still combusting as it comes through the headers. This fuel volume helps keep the motor cooler by washing down the ports and piston tops; it also creates a dangerous possibility called hydraulicing, where compression buildup from a broken rocker arm or a valvespring can cause the fuel crammed in a cylinder to explode like a huge pipe bomb. These forces are enough to break billet crankshafts, split cylinder blocks in half, and turn supercharger housings into shrapnel. NHRA rules and safety advances by the racers themselves have made this a much rarer occurrence than previously.
In his press kit, Skuza said what he loves most about racing are the hundreds of little victories he experiences by merely running a decent time. Just like a person who enjoys the process of restoring a car or custom-building a vehicle for the street, there is a lot more to nitro racing than simply the result. Getting the car down a tricky racing surface is a victory for both the driver and the crew; nobody wants to beat themselves. When you can do it as Skuza did earlier this year-the fastest time since the nitro rules changedthat run is even more special. As for winning races, Skuza is philosophical.
"We are here to win races for our sponsors and our fans and ourselves," said Skuza. "However, you don't just land in the final; each run in both qualifying and eliminations is part of the race. We want to be fast, but we want to be consistent and satisfied that we did our best. I have a great crew; all of these guys are very, very good at this. If this wasn't fun, nobody out here would work this hard, but in a lot of ways, this isnt a job; it's just what we do."
And the appeal of staying in there? "When people say I'm crazy for choosing my line of work," continued Skuza, "I tell them I'm chemically dependent; I'm dependent on nitromethane. I became hooked when I was a little boy, and it has guided me through my entire life."
LANCE LARSEN: The Scientist
Lance Larsen grew up in the Los Angeles region when it was the hot bed of drag racing. Like Skuza, he was hooked on nitro after his first race (Lions Drag Strip in Long Beach in 1965) but was old enough to begin working immediately. He became a journeyman mechanic, running with the well-remembered Coca-Cola Cavalcade of Stars in the early '70s. After a stint in business, he returned to the dragstrip in 1981 and tuned Jeb Allen's Top Fuel machine to an NHRA World title. Larsen's first encounter with Skuza occurred while Skuza was still on his learning curve; Larsen heard the engine running and offered some advice. Nobody listened, and moments later all eight rods exited the block right on the starting line. The Skuzas realized Larsen would be a real asset, a deal was struck, and now Larsen is in his seventh year with them. As crew chief, Larsen manages the team and the parts. He coordinates the help, makes the calls on the tune-up, and basically manages the day-to-day team effort. He has been around long enough to know there are few absolutes in drag racing, but knowledge and analysis go a long way when making the right decisions.
"You get yourself in trouble if you think any of this is ground in stone," said Larsen. "I don't use just the barometer or the temperature reading and things like that to make a single guess. For instance, if it is wet or humid, even if the air is below sea level, that will require a different change than racing at 2,000 feet in dry weather, even if the numbers match. You just kind of have to learn this stuff; I';ve got 35 years out here, and I have people I can talk to if I get lost. Luckily, that hasn't happened in a while."
Larsen keeps pages and pages of records (all on computer now), and he can tune the car using this data. When they could run all the nitro they wanted, the tune-up was kept within one tenth of one percent of a mapping equation the team developed and uses; it is now three tenths of one percent since the fuel percentage is no longer something that can be changed.
"This equation, which Ronnie Swearigen developed while he was on the team, uses multipliers for the atmospheric changes and multipliers for the mechanical changes," said Larsen. "I've adopted some additional things to it, but it is accurate enough now that we almost always have a baseline we can go to. After looking at the information, I then bring the mechanical side up to match what the atmosphere equation, or root number, equals. It's not difficult if you do the math, you just need to have that baseline to start with. This is an objective science, just like a satellite positioning system. If you know a base number from that, you can go back to that number and be at the exact same place you started."
Lance's years of experience has made Skuza one of the few who has not suffered through multiple fires in the last decade. Once the car is set up for the track, the chassis doesn't change, leaving it to the engine and clutch to adapt horsepower to the conditions of the moment. Of course, Funny Cars are maintenance-intensive beasts, and between rounds, the team replaces all bearings, exhaust valves, pistons, and rods, but not because the latter two wear out every pass; Larsen simply wants fresh, cool parts to make sure the torque specs are correct when the engine gets reassembled. The team has eight complete short-blocks and eight sets of heads ready to go when they arrive, plus spare parts. This prevents the crew from getting exhausted by rebuilding engines at the track all night.
"When the motor is right, it's simple to make consistent, living power; the clutch is the most critical part. Of course, this is the engine-the fuel volume, spark, those things are my deal; John Stewart handles the clutch."
JOHN STEWART: The Sorcerer
Like Skuza, John Stewart is a member of an elite club; at 18, he drove his family's Top Fuel car into the Cragar 5-Second Club for dragsters; and like Larsen, he had his own business for a while, but returned to the track and helped Shirley Muldowney win her unprecedented third World Championship in 1983. Today, Stewart is considered one of the best clutch tuners in the business, and Larsen is the first to admit that Stewart's job is the toughest.
"What he does really is a black science," says Larsen. "I can go through my notes, do the math, and be confident that I can make exactly what I need in terms of horsepower. John keeps records as well, but he has to know what every part of the track is like and how much power he can let the engine apply to the back tires without smoking them. It's not so much a guess as it is the knowledge of the racing surface itself, understanding how the tires will work on it, and adapting the clutch to make them work."
When talking to Stewart, who is pretty laid back, one gets the impression he indeed has to "read the signs" to figure out just what is going to happen inside with that fat clutch can behind the Hemi.
"The first variable is the track itself; how much rubber is down on it, how does it look," says Stewart. "You can see it with your eyes, feel it with your hand, and feel how much grease is coming out of the track from the heat; I hate the grease. If the track is hot, you will not be able to use as much clutch; if it is cool, you can put more horsepower to the rear tires."
The clutch is the bag of tricks on a fuel car. It is a stack of five discs with steel "floaters" in between each one, mounted to a hub with several tall stud "towers" around the parameter. The idea is to allow the clutch to absorb some of the power so that the car does not overpower the starting line and smoke the tires, then set the clutch to lock up as the car progresses down track. Between each pass, those smoldering discs need to be serviced, and the clutch man will install new floaters, three new discs, two older discs, and resurface the rest of the unit as the engine crew does its job.
Once Stewart decides what the track will take, two variables are set. One is the amount of weight added or subtracted to the primary "fingers" which are six little arms that apply pressure to the clutch at the initial launch. This is calculated via per-finger gram weight measured by half-nuts; to take three grams off (which is the weight of one half-nut) means that you will remove a total of 18 grams from the clutch. A fair total average would be approximately 90 grams total, or 15 grams per arm, with half-nuts added or removed, based on conditions.
Meanwhile, a group of pneumatic timers that will be activated by a micro-switch under the accelerator are set as well. These timers are attached to the clutch housing via pressure-fed air lines, allowing the throw-out bearing to transfer more and more horsepower to the output shaft and rear wheels by closing an air gap between the clutch discs. Secondary fingers handle this using the applied air pressure. In the case where a track is really hot or slippery, the clutch may be slipping to some extent during the entire run.
This technology has allowed drag racers to go from 0 to 320 mph through the rear tires in a quarter-mile; without the clutch slippage, the car would instantly spin the tires right off of the starting line. As the car progresses down the racetrack, more power is applied to the rear wheels via downforce and speed. John uses a metering block with a group of five air jets (like Holley carb jets), one for each line, that controls the amount of pressure that will go to the clutch during the run, while the timers are set so that they are actuated in microsecond increments. So as the car leaves the line, timer 1 will come in at .62 seconds, timer 2 at 1.48, timer 3 at 2.12, and so on, until the car is applying all 5,000-plus horsepower to the racing surface. Tire heat and growth is also critical to making this happen.
The team will normally attempt to go out on their first run with less clutch than they might need, in hopes of establishing a solid baseline. Since this lap is normally during the heat of the day, that first lap will give them a potential setup for the better, cooler evening air. Stewart said he doesn't make serious adjustments in the staging lanes unless the weather changes considerably; both he and Larsen both agree it is easily possible to "out think" yourself in one of these things.
THE TEAM: The Heroes
Nothing is simple about fuel racing, and Stewart and Larsen spend so much time analyzing data, they really can't be hands-on mechanically, even if they want to. So, a group of guys spin the wrenches between rounds, making sure the car is ready to go for the next run. While Dean is busy talking with the fans and sponsors or playing with his son Don II, Lance and John are in the truck determining air/fuel ratios and clutch settings, and patriarch Don is mixing fuel and performing other tasks while seven guys are thrashing on the equipment.
THE FUEL FRONTIER
Racing nitro isnt for everyone. If you want to stay at home most of the time and avoid crowds and hot, dirty work, or avoid the agony of working all weekend to see your efforts go up in a instant puff of smoke (or worse, a ball of fire), you're probably not fuel-racing material. On the other hand, as Skuza said, nitro is like a chemical addiction: the smell of it burning, the cackling sound of the horsepower with its licks of flame, and the incredible speed and danger of explosion. Many former racers admit that they never go back to the track once they quit. The fact that every machine on nitro at major meets derives its heritage from Mopar engineering makes it all the sweeter for Chrysler fans.
"NHRA Winston Drag Racing is the only form of motorsports that is completely 'maxed out'," said Skuza in conclusion. "We're not worried about conserving tires or anything for that matter. We take the most modern technology and apply it to go as quick and as fast as we can...whatever it takes at any cost. Is that American or what?"