NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

Obsolete skills, part 2: Off the track

Pit-area prowess that's no longer needed
03 Mar 2008
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

Those now-growing-rusty skills weren't just things used on the track, but in the pits and other places, too. Adjusting clutches, mounting tires, restripping blowers, and more are all topics of changing conventions, as were the accommodations to perform the duties.

Former Top Fuel champ Rob Bruins recalls that the tough job of setting and adjusting the clutch in the nitro cars through the bellhousing inspection hole left very limited maneuvering room.

"Adjusting a clutch through an inspection hole was always a tedious job," he wrote. "Of course, nowadays the clutch and can come off every pass, but in the past, the can didn't come off the entire weekend. As a result, to compensate for wear, the finger angles were adjusted, the spring pressure was adjusted, and the amount of weight on the individual arms was adjusted. And on the [Crower]glides, we adjusted the pack clearances and finger weights, all through those inspection covers.

"Another of those tasks no longer performed is mounting the tires with the safety inner liners," he added. "Back when there were only a handful of national events a year, most guys had to mount their own tires between major races, and working with those tire irons was just part of the trade."

Back in the pits, without computers, it was up to the drivers to share with the crew chiefs what happened on a run, though some were ill-equipped, notes Bruins, which made talented and sensitive drivers a hot commodity.

"With the advent of computer data devices, driver feedback is virtually a thing of the past," he notes. "The drivers that were the most in tune with what was going on during a run were invaluable to the successful operation. Even the ones who didn't actually work on the cars needed to relay to the tuner what was going on for them to have any chance to ever win anything. When I drove for Gaines Markley we didn't trust air-powered devices of any kind on the race car, so all shifting, lean-out devices, etc. were manually operated."

Scott Hall, son of former national-record-holding Alcohol Dragster racer Dale Hall, had a list, too:

  • Running your clutch all weekend and adjusting the base pressure to compensate for the wear in the clutch. Guys used to "check" how much they wore out and didn't adjust the "stand height"
  • Restripping a blower at the track. Thanks to the screw blower and "extra blowers," you don't see this at the track anymore
  • Working on your cars in the staging lanes at Indy. No trailers, generators, computers, awnings. Just sitting in the staging lanes!
  • Making a jet change. Today, you need a notebook and timer control and who knows what else. Back then, you looked at your AIR DENSITY GAUGE and made a JET CHANGE

    Jim King of Lodi, Ohio, remembers when the stars used to come once a year to Dragway 42. "There weren't many places for the teams to stay in the area of Dragway 42, so most stayed at the Holiday Inn near Medina, Ohio, about 20 miles or so from the track. I can remember Mickey Thompson's crew doing a complete engine teardown/rebuild on their Funny Car right in the motel parking lot under some portable lights. The one thing that really seared this into my memory was the fact that they were hand-honing the cylinders."

    Longtime racing fan Cliff Morgan of Phoenix remembers teams using a piece of wood shaped to fit the clutch pedal that was inserted in the cockpit to hold the clutch pedal down for the tow back to the pits and teams capping their headers with beer cans to keep rocks out during the tow.

    "Maintenance on the cars consisted of changing the oil and running the valves," he remembers. "I go to the drags now and see how high-tech everything is; lotsa crewmen, matting on the ground so you don't get your uniform dirty, etc., etc., etc. Sometimes I look at old photos and realize just how much everything has changed over the years."

    Jim Skelly, who worked for years in the NHRA Tech Department, had a pretty good list, too, of stuff rapidly being phased out.

    Using a beam scale at the drags: "Anyone who’s been to Famoso in Bakersfield or Moroso Motorsports Park knows that beam scales still work. You just have to know how to develop a system. When weighing 128 Stockers, you can’t wait for the beam to 'center' each time. So most guys develop a system of backing into the weight from the light side, or vice versa. Tap, tap, tap on the sliding weight onto the beam just moves from the stop, and call that your weight. As long as the same guy stays on the scale all weekend, you’re okay. But if he leaves and doesn’t tell the next guy his system … look out! Since they are still in use, I guess it’s not totally obsolete yet, but getting close."

    Checking cam duration using a piece of masking tape, a ruler, a calculator, and a pen: "Honestly, I forget all the steps, but that’s how we would check cam duration without bolting a degree wheel onto the balancer. Besides, how could you read the degree wheel with the front of the car in the way? You’d wrap the tape around the balancer, mark TDC, then mark intake opens, intake closes, exhaust opens, exhaust closes, remove the tape, lay it on the table, and start calculating. Greg Xakellis and Marty Barrett came up with it I believe."

    Setting “spots” in the tower at a drag race: "There was a time when a handicapped start involved more than entering the dials in a computer. You had to calculate the difference in the two dial-ins, then enter the amount of handicap into the system using dials or thumbwheels, and flip a switch to the right or left to indicate which lane would 'sit,' and then hit Enter. So there you would sit in the tower, tablet of paper, a handful of pencils, binoculars, and a pocket calculator. (Before pocket calculators, I guess they used a regular desk-sized calculator!) Just like today, you’d work one or two pairs ahead, writing down the dials under 'right' and 'left,' calculate the difference, and write it down with an R or an L so you’d know which lane would sit. In the mid-'80s, our local track got a new system that would calculate the handicap simply by entering the dial-ins. But it was still using thumbwheels!"