At the (dry) hop ...
Ask any number of drag racing fans who attended the digs in the 1970s what they miss most, and I'd wager that half of them would say dry hops. For the uninitiated, a dry hop was like a practice launch that Funny Car drivers would make after backing up from their wet burnouts. They often did multiple dry hops, both behind the starting line and from the line.
Fans loved them because they added to the show, with two drivers and their cars snorting at one another, not unlike the age-old practice of revving your engine against another driver at a stoplight. They were a show unto themselves but ultimately went the way of the front-engine dragster, "ragged" driving gloves, open-face helmets, and breather masks and disappeared from the scene. I know that I still miss them.
This thought came to mind after stumbling across this pair of video clips on YouTube showing cool guy Don Prudhomme going through his pre-run ritual of dry hops at Orange County Int’l Raceway in the early 1980s. Both runs were similarly choreographed -- wet burnout; back up; dry hop(s) to the starting line; 60-foot launch; back up; VHT traction compound ("glue" in the parlance of the day) under the tires; quick spin/hop; another hop or two to the starting line; then the run – which led me to believe that that must have been the team's regular routine. I'm fortunate to count among my friends "the Snake's" longtime crew chief, Bob Brandt, who, just back from a vacation to Cabo San Lucas, was happy to answer my questions.
Though it's easy to believe that dry hops were done to clean the tires and put down more rubber for the real launch, that was far and away not their main role, according to Brandt. Their real role was fine-tuning the clutch after leaving the pits to suit track conditions on the wildly varying kinds of tracks on which they ran, few of which had concrete launchpads.
"We also didn’t have the luxury of computers back then; it was all in what the crew saw and seat of the pants for the driver," he said. "We were actually adjusting the clutch with dry hops by building heat to soften it. If we had it hopped up and we smoked the tires on the dry, we knew we either had to do another dry hop, leave in high gear, or have 'Snake' try to get the car off the line with his skill. I would see what the car was doing on the dry, and if it looked like it needed more, we'd back it up and do it again. If it was soft enough, we'd just pull up there.
"I'm pretty sure the guy pouring the glue in those videos is our crew guy, Bill Bevel, but back when the crew was small, I'd pour the glue. I'd tell 'Snake' to stop, then go back and put down the glue, then tell him to go, but once we got more people, I'd just stay out front and let them do it."
After the initial dry hops, the decision on whether the clutch was now set up correctly was a joint one between Prudhomme and Brandt.
"We'd been doing it together so long that we'd just use some hand signals to decide what to do next," said Brandt. "Being able to communicate with your driver like that is important; I watched some of these guys, and I'm not sure how they ever communicated with their driver. 'Snake' always told me to communicate with him as if I was driving the car, and that's how we were always in sync."
Brandt, who credited Pat Foster with being the first guy to do multiple dry hops, said that as clutches evolved, so did the starting-line procedure.
"With the advent of four-, five-, and six-disc clutches to absorb the heat, the teams today try to keep the pack and the pack temperature the same for every run so the car leaves the same, and with concrete at every track, it's a lot easier to do that than on some of the tracks we ran back then," he explained. "Today, the cars also run their packs real tight with the weight on it and hardly wear the clutch. They rely on a short gear to get the boost up to get the car going. We did just the opposite back then. We had a so-so-supercharger, but we put a lot of fuel into it, and we were able to burn it because we loaded it with a taller gear; most guys had 4.10s or 4.56s, and we had 3.90s.
"We worked with clutch arms and stuff in our car; that was our thing that helped us burn fuel," he added. "We ran more pack than everyone else so the car didn’t leave the line really hard, but when it got out there and locked up, the weight just kept multiplying because of the pack clearance. Most of the other guys would high-C the engine and start slipping the clutch and be all done. Locking it up sooner kept a load on the engine to burn the fuel with less damage."
Looking at the length of the pre-run rituals, you could imagine it would drag out qualifying sessions forever, which may have been another reason that dry hops fell out of favor; plus, as Brandt pointed out, back then, the fuel cars all ran water in the engine blocks that allowed them to run longer before overheating. Today's engines don’t have those water jackets.
Brandt also pointed out that another reason for the success of the Army cars was how well they were balanced.
"Those cars were so well-balanced — especially the Arrow – that we could tell the difference between 20 pounds front to rear, between running an aluminum center section versus nodular iron. We were then able to use a weight bar up front to place the weight where we needed it. There were a lot of things we did that no one else did, but, then again, there were a lot of things other people did that we didn't, but I guess you can’t argue with the success we had."
Still buddies ...
And, of course, I had to ask Brandt if he ever thought about coming back and tuning again.
"Oh sure, if I found someone with money to do it right," he said. "Not so much for me but for parts and pieces and testing and crew.
"But I was talking to Dale Armstrong about it last year, and he told me, 'Don’t do it. You already climbed the mountain once. What have you got to gain?' "
I'd have to agree. Brandt and Prudhomme, who finally went their separate ways in 1986 when Prudhomme sat out the season, will forever be regarded as one of the top driving/tuning tandems, winning both on the national event and the prolific match race circuit with unparalleled success in the 1970s. He has nothing left to prove. His place in our sport's history is well secure, as is my gratitude for his contributions to these columns. If you see Brandt out at Pomona, hanging around the Snake Pit display, be sure to tell him thanks for the memories, too.