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Explosive American Top Fuel Tradition

Nitromethane Powers the Past into the Future

Explosive American Top Fuel Tradition

There is no more uniquely American form of motorsport than Top Fuel drag racing. Top because of quickest elapsed time and fastest speed in the quarter mile. Fuel because of nitromethane - an organic liquid monopropellant that packs its own oxygen for combustion. Postwar street, lakes and circle track racers experimenting with nitromethane in flathead Ford V8-powered hot rods and racers gave rise to the Sixties front-engined slingshot that evolved into a rear-engined configuration and put explosive mayhem behind the driver. Nitro-burning front-engine fuelers are still run today by an intrepid group of drag racers who drive tradition into the future five seconds and 260 miles per hour at a time.





The front-engine AA/Fuel slingshots campaigned by the All-American Fuel Dragster Association in the NHRA vintage drag racing ranks carry a direct connection to the origins of American Top Fuel. Drivers Mendy Fry in her High-Speed Motorsports dragster and Adam Sorokin in his Champion Speed Shop canopy special are not only picking up where front-engine Top Fuel drag racing left off in the late '60s but continuing a family tradition of drag racing involvement. These next generation drivers push their Top Fuel dragsters through the entire 1320 foot quarter mile with a full load of nitromethane exploding from the headers.


While the Auto Union Grand Prix racers and German land speed cars burned up a brew of nitromethane, methanol and/or nitrobenzene in the tank before and after the war it was American Top Fuel racers that stepped up the mix to 100% nitromethane and even experimented with hydrazine - another and far more dangerously unstable monopropellant banned because it could and did unleash its explosive power before the dragster made it up to the starting line. The other component of the nitromethane mix consists of less reactive alcohol-based methanol used to adjust nitro percentage. Contemporary rear-engine Top Fuel dragsters are restricted 90% nitromethane and 1000 feet of dragstrip.



Fifties experimentation reached an explosive peak in the Sixties as the slingshot dragster formula evolved and moved to its spot at the top of the nitromethane-fueled quarter mile drag racing chain. Today's front-engine Top Fuel dragster are spiritual descendants of peak-Sixties slingshots. The long and flexible chassis houses a blown V8 purpose-built to channel thousands of nitro-induced horsepower to the rear wheels. Like a projectile in a slingshot, the driver sits behind the engine and rear differential, legs and arms straddling the axle to controls. Exhaust headers not only thrust nitro thunder into the sky but generate downforce that keep the dragster planted on the track under power. Dual parachutes help drivers decelerate from 250+ MPH top speeds. 


The Sixties front-engined Top Fuel dragster timeline was altered after a clutch explosion in 1970 severed Big Daddy Don Garlits' dragster and part of his foot in half on the hit. Recovering at the hospital Garlits devised a formula that became the contemporary Top Fuel dragster with the the engine and the barely contained explosive horsepower behind the driver. The Garlits clutch incident was hardly isolated. Adam Sorokin's father Mike Sorokin of Surfer's racing fame was killed in 1967 by a clutch explosion while driving a Top Fuel dragster. The front-engine dragster held on for a time but the rear-engine configuration dominated the Top Fuel ranks as the Seventies pressed on and the slingshot gave way to the ultimately faster rear-engine design.



The vintage drag racing scene ramped up in the Eighties with an eye on a nostalgic return of front-engine Top Fuel dragsters and nitro-fueled racing that didn't require corporate resources or a small army to go Top Fuel drag racing. What began as an effort to roll some historical race cars out of retirement gathered speed and saw the creation of new front-engine Top Fuel dragsters built to modern safety specifications yet no less dangerous or powerful. The movement to pick up where things left off in the late '60s has evolved in the 25 years since the first NHRA Hot Rod Reunion in 1995 in Bakersfield, California and today's front-engine Top Fuel dragsters are an evolution of the Sixties slingshot formula.


Rules mandate an American engine no larger than 470 cubic inches in displacement with a single fuel pump and maximum 6-71 GMC roots type supercharger. No electronics, traction control, pneumatics, or any other driver assist devices are allowed - throttle control must be manually operated by the driver's foot. The sintered iron multi-plate clutch is the transmission. A two-speed planetary transmission is allowed but only with a points-type magneto ignition. Tires are limited to either M&H or Hoosiers in approved sizes and specs. Modern safety specifications go far to protect the driver but there the inherent danger of running 12 gallons of explosive monopropellant through a front-mounted V8 is omnipresent.



Nitromethane not only contains the power to propel a dragster from a standing start to hundreds of miles per hour in mere seconds but also carries an ability to cast its acrid and hypnotic spell into the souls of racers and fans alike. Unreal velocity and downright supernatural levels of supercharged V8 thunder are unmatched in motorsport and the last front-engine battle from the NHRA Holley Hot Rod Reunion in Bowling Green, Kentucky proved that Top Fuel heritage was most definitely in the house but make no mistake. This is not the usual gentleman's agreement-style vintage racing. Any camaraderie in the pits gives way to no-holds barred Top Fuel drag racing on the starting line.


The round one eliminations battle between 2016 event winner Adam Sorokin in the small block Chevrolet-powered Champion Speed Shop canopy special and the hemi-powered entry of 2016 NHRA Heritage Series Top Fuel Champion Tony Bartone was case in point. Sorokin got the hole shot and had the edge on Bartone until the horrors of nitro took out the supercharger with Sorokin hurtling flame on through the lights. Bartone won the round with a 5.71-second ET at 256 MPH over Sorokin's 5.73-second ET at 246 MPH with just two hundredths of a second margin of victory. That, as they say, was some drag race!



Consider the big block Chevrolet-powered Great Expectations III slingshot driven by Tyler Hilton who worked with his event honoree family through the night to get the dragster back to the starting line on Saturday after the rear end housing came apart at full throttle during Friday qualifying. Hilton went out in round one eliminations against Jim Young and his hemi-powered entry but proved that the big block Chevrolet packs potential. The original and restored Great Expectations front-engined slingshot once driven by Tyler's Dad Bobby Hilton and built by Grandparents Jim and Allison Lee ceremoniously burned up nitromethane to conclude the event in the celebration of Top Fuel drag racing history known as the Cacklefest.


In the end veteran drag racer Jim Murphy took the National Hot Rod Reunion win in the Roland Leong-tuned WW2 Top Fuel dragster with a 5.71 ET at 257 MPH over runner up Jim Young who battled tire shake to post a 5.92 ET at 253 MPH but held onto his event low ET and top speed set during qualifying. Front-engine Top Fuel drag racing continues with one generation to the next burning up the good stuff through the full quarter mile. Next stop in the five race NHRA Hot Rod Heritage Series Top Fuel points runup is at the Pepsi Nightfire Nationals at Firebird Raceway in Boise, Idaho. The series wraps up in October with the 26th Annual California Hot Rod Reunion at Famoso Raceway in Bakersfield, California.



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