David Grubnic knows how it looks. His driver, defending NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series Top Fuel champion Brittany Force, hasn’t been to a final round this season and has a win-loss record hovering around the .500 mark, but the veteran tuner isn’t sweating it. He’s confident that the best is still to come.
Grubnic told us early this year that he was developing a new tune-up that would run as quick and fast as always without being hard on parts, and that he was willing to sacrifice the first part of the season to do it. But now, 12 races into the season, he doesn’t have a whole lot to show other than four No. 1 qualifying efforts and a mind-blowing 337-mph speed at altitude in Denver.
“I know, it looks like, 'Oh, my God, they've lost their way,' but we haven't,” he insists. “When you're developing a whole new program, which we are this year, and I've said this over and over again, it's gonna take time. We're gonna have to take a couple of steps back to make three forwards. We got it into a realm where it wasn't too bad, but I could see more potential.
“The car proved its potential in Denver, and, again, we were up there testing and developing the program. Where are the limits? What can we get away with? And so, even though what we did in Denver will still parlay to sea level, it's just a numbers change. Right now, consistency is a problem for us; getting it down on the racetrack. It's an engine-related thing. So, I definitely see a bright light at the end of the tunnel.
“Obviously, the best-case scenario is we lead the points when we reset [to start the Countdown to the Championship], but if I can get to within four rounds of the lead when we reset, I think it's still a fair championship,” he added, obviously well aware of the flak some teams have taken for turning a marginal regular season into a successful championship run in the final six events.
“Whether you incorporate a reset or [you] don't, if you're within four rounds, you could certainly have won it if we didn't reset. It's when you're 400 points behind that it becomes a little bit of 'Now I'm trying to steal it'; you know what I mean? So with respect to those cars that run really good through the summer months, look for us to start putting it together, and it'll be together by the time we get to the last six.”
Grubnic admits that it’s his own methodical nature that has slowed the process, as he’s not one to take a stab at something and abandon it after one or two bad runs.
"When you're developing programs, and you're testing different setups, you can't do it in one run. With me, it takes 10 runs to prove a concept. Even if we cut that in half, that's five. And if we try six different things, there's 30 runs right there, and then you have to try them in different atmospheric conditions — high humidity, low humidity, dry air, really good air, really bad air — and all of that has to be pulled into the tune-up bucket, and then the whole thing has to be analyzed, and then it's, 'OK, here's where we need to be.' And that's what I've been doing the whole year is collecting all this to finally weed out what we don't want and what we want.
“We're committed. I know what we can achieve. You've seen those flashes of brilliance from us, and I know where the setup was to achieve those flashes of brilliance, and I know that there's room in there still. So, I'm committed, and we're going to stick with this. A lot of people in this industry will go out and try something once or twice. If it doesn't work, they don't stick with it or solve it, they just go, 'Screw it. Let's go back.' I'm definitely not. It's actually been an amazing year — to be honest with you — of learning and understanding."
The last two races on the tour have been especially frustrating as Force has smoked the tires just off the starting line in round two in both Seattle and Sonoma.
“I'm trying to come up with a correction factor for what we ran last year versus what we're developing this year, and the correction factor is off, especially at the starting line,” Grubnic admitted. “If you have too much engine, it doesn't matter what you do with the clutch. It's not going to get off the start line, and the car’s been blowing the tires off in the last two rounds at the step. I was unsure in Seattle, but Sonoma proved that point.”
The 337-mph run that the Monster Energy dragster ran in thin air at the Dodge Power Brokers NHRA Mile-High Nationals to start the Western Swing was one of those ”flashes of brilliance” that Grubnic references, in that it was seven mph faster than the old track record, leading one to wonder what that run might have been at sea level. The question in everyone’s mind was how much did the thin air and the resultant lessened drag help the speed versus what the engine lost in power.
“When we're up there, we're about 24% less aero than what we would have, depending on the temperature,” he explained. “That's not directly related to altitude. You have to look at your density altitude when it comes to aerodynamic drag, and we were at about 9,000 feet when we ran that. So, absolutely less drag up, but I didn't have sea-level power. I knew where our drag numbers were, and I thought that well 'If I get this right — and I made a significant change for that run — let's push the envelope. Let's see what we can do with this combination.' I thought 332 to 334 was definitely achievable. The 337 means I was a little bit over on my power estimation, and what I thought we would get out of the engine."
And, truth be told, if the stars had aligned on an earlier pass, the sport’s first 340-mph run could have – crazy as it sounds – been recorded at Bandimere Speedway.
“I blew the tires off it on Friday night [Q2], so that 337 should have happened Friday night. And then I could have pushed harder on Q4 when we did run it. I could have pushed it hard, really, but we weren't qualified.”
Neither the bragging-rights carrot for the first 340-mph run nor the cash to be awarded to the first team to reach 300 mph in the eighth-mile are concerns of Grubnic, who does own the fastest eighth-mile speed, 299.79, set at least year's NHRA U.S. Nationals.
“If anybody lands on that, then good luck to them all,” he said. “But honestly, that's not our objective. That's an ego run. Let me ask you this: Would you rather have the first 340 or win a championship? There's not even a discussion there. All of our focus needs to be on consistency and winning the championship.”