Forward: Although this 1976
article is about the famed Chi-Town Hustler it is directly relevant
to all fuel engines of the era. Throughout the 70's the bane
of Top Fuel and Funny Car racers alike was "backsiding"
pistons. This is how Farkonas and Coil approached that problem.
The article also gives good insight to where the teams thought
fuel racing was going in the future.
A fuel funny car: grand spectacle
of all drag racing; highly complex, sometimes unpredictable acceleration
machine in a plastic shell; and finally yet perhaps most importantly,
the strange, screaming, 230 mph, fire-breathing, beautiful embodiment
of a nation's power-lust fantasies.
Farkonas, Coil and Minick: precise,
hard working, lusty, double-throwdown drag racers. After a decade
that had both stunning success and depressing failure they remain
obstinately different, combining a strange mixture of engineering
and quarter mile moxie in the object of their constant attention
and deep dedication -- the 6.18 second, 237 mph "Chi-Town
It was a cold, January Saturday
when we tracked down the Hustler trio. Our singular purpose lay
in exposing their operation. Minick made a futile, last attempt
to cover the evidence, but we were determined. There it was,
piled in a corner, the disassembled "Chi-Town Hustler."
We had them and they knew it. They were going to have to cooperate.
We asked the Chicago threesome
to provide us with a condensed, technical description of a fuel
funny car powerplant and a quick look at some of the special
projects and pieces that the fellows have developed in their
constant effort to improve their drag racing operation.
The article was to end with some
kind of general statement of optimism in regard to the future
of professional, fuel funny car racing. But as the hours flew
by and the bench racing dragged on well into the wee hours of
the morning, a certain feeling developed to the effect that everything
really wasn't quite 100% and that certain steps should perhaps
be taken now to insure that professional, fuel funny car racing
will survive its second decade.
But that is the end of our story.
The beginnings are in countless hours of listening to Austin
Coil, Pat Minick and John Farkonas talk funny cars, something
they enjoy almost as much as racing them. And the beginnings
are in the solid decade that countless individuals have spent
on the development of the fuel funny car.
Coil explains that the key to
success with a fueler lies in working with the entire system.
A modern funny car is not just an overpowered, sticky-tired monstrosity
that goes faster every time you tip the nitro can. A funny car
is actually a complex yet highly organized "system"
where each and every little piece must work in precisely the
right manner. Nitro-fuel powerplants were our principal topic
of conversation on that cold January day, however, and it is
there that we will begin.
The modern late-model aluminum
fueler short block is the product of many years of eliminating
weak links. The super-charged, late-model hemis of a decade ago
were basically stock Chrysler short blocks with aftermarket low
compression pistons. The modern funny car short block finds a
steel billet aftermarket crankshaft spinning in an aftermarket
aluminum block at the end of aftermarket forged aluminum rods
that carry expensive aftermarket pistons. It is the piston that
has most recently earned the distinction of being known as the
"weak link" despite improvements in the design of forged
Piston life is undoubtedly the
singularly most significant technical problem that the fuel racer
faces today. Austin Coil has been known to change all of his
pistons between rounds. Part of the problem in finding a "cure"
lies in pinpointing the cause of the failure. Every year you
can count on somebody coming up with a new theory that supposedly
explains piston failures.
Most funny car piston failures
involve an enlargement or opening of the top ringland. The confusion
that surrounds the piston problem is a result of the fact that
the ringland will not always "open" in exactly the
same manner. A fueler will sometimes open the top of the ringland
on the front or valve relief side of the piston. At other times
a fueler will push down the ringland on the back of the piston.
When this happens it looks as though the top ringland is dented
or pushed out of shape. Aside from the enlarged ringland, the
only visible evidence of a "backsided" piston is a
slight wrinkling of the aluminum above the top ringland. Coil
feels that heat and detonation are the culprits in both cases.
If it is extremes of temperature
and the resulting detonation that cause piston failures, perhaps
the only solution lies in a piston of some material other than
That brings us, quite naturally,
to the John Farkonas-engineered, two-piece, aluminum-skirt, titanium-crown
piston. That's right, a titanium piston. Farkonas has been working
on the development of a titanium funny car piston for a few years
and the pistons are now available by special order although full-scale
production will not begin until tests are completed. Some people
believe that this piston might revolutionize fuel racing; others
are skeptical. Everyone, however, agrees that $10,000 piston
bills are definitely not neat.
The first titanium piston that
Farkonas built was tested by Coil in a steel-block stroker motor
during 1974. Initial results were outstanding. Coil was able
to "squeeze" the nozzle on the titanium-pistoned cylinder
until he burned the spark plug beyond recognition. The titanium-domed
piston was undamaged. ("Squeezing" the nozzle means
leaning out that particular cylinder by making its port nozzle
Farkonas, Coil and Minick were
more than pleased with the piston's performance in the Hustler
and John began work on a complete set of pistons. By late September
the pistons were finished and Coil put together a Keith Black
aluminum motor with eight titanium slugs filling the cylinders.
The debut for this motor was
an important IHRA event at Bristol, Tennessee, in autumn of '74.
Everyone who was there knows the rest of the story. As the screaming
Hustler approached the 1000' mark, the 2000 horsepower aluminum
motor exploded in a huge ball of smoke and flames leaving only
its last piercing wail to reverberate between the walls of beautiful
A distraight Austin Coil returned
to the pits to find that the skirt design of the titanium piston
was not compatible with the cylinder movement that occurs in
The piston test proved to be
an expensive experiment as the Hustler's brand new $3000 aluminum
block was now missing about 30% of its lifter galley. The titanium
piston went back to the drawing board for a new skirt design
and Coil put the "mule wagon," a 25,000 lb. transporter,
in the Monfort lane and hustled back to Chicago where he and
Gary Dyer would spend a good part of the winter welding the aluminum
motor back together.
By summer of 1975, Farkonas had
a new Titanium piston design. The fresh approach, which offered
a considerable increase in skirt area over the old, worked well
in the patched up aluminum motor but a new problem developed.
Although lean conditions did not hurt the piston, the top ring
was severely damaged.
Farkonas diagnosed the ring problem
as a product of the different rate of heat dissipation in a titanium
piston as compared to an aluminum piston. It was decided to increase
piston ring end gap by .006". Since Coil had been running
a .024" gap when he experienced the ring problems, a .030"
end gap was prescribed.
The Chicago trio was, however,
a little bit weary of the Hustler's guinea-pig role so they persauded
their good friend Jungle Jim Liberman to try the new unit. Unfortunately,
signals were crossed and J.J. ran the piston with .022"
end gap and wiped out the top ring with one pass. The next test
for the piston will take place at the Miami IHRA event in late
February '76 when a titanium piston will ride with Frank Oglesby
in his "Quarterhorse" Mustang II. In the meantime,
Farkonas will be keeping his fingers crossed and working on a
new compression ring design.
Fuel funny car piston problems
are, of course, the symptom of some type of combustion temperature
problem. The obvious cure for a combustion temperature problem
in any internal combustion engine lies in changing certain tuning
variables such as ignition timing, camshaft timing or mixture.
Obviously if you eliminate the problem by detuning the motor
to a point where it does not hurt parts, you limit its horsepower
output and you lose.
One might easily believe that
"backing off" is the only solution other than a new
piston material. But this is not necessarily the case as many
of the very quickest runs made by funny cars have been without
burning pistons. This suggests that it is possible to "tune"
away the piston problem. "Tuning" can be defined as
arranging certain variables to arrive at a point where the car
is producting its best E.T. Perhaps then, by providing additional
tuning control, and in turn a capacity for a better state of
tune. The obvious place to introduce more variables is in the
fuel injection system.
A constant-flow fuel injector
does not rely on the piston's intake stroke and the movement
of gases -- as a carburetor does -- in determining how much fuel
to feed a cylinder. Fuel volume, and the "fuel curve"
that is described if one graphically plots fuel delivery vs.
rpm, is dependent only upon the design of the mechanical pump.
Changes in a fuel delivery curve can be effected only by returning
fuel to the tank.
Variations can be made in fuel
distribution by changing one or more of 16 fuel injector nozzles.
Eight of the nozzles are located above the blower while the other
eight are situated in the intake ports. It is with the injector
nozzles that Austin Coil has attempted to develop additional
tuning variables. He has installed an additional eight nozzles
in the intake ports. These extra nozzles are controlled by a
two-stage valve which opens at 80 psi fuel pressure or 6000 rpm.
This does not give Coil any control
over the fuel delivery curve as he is not returning fuel, but
it does give him the ability to change the distribution at low
rpm without changing it up high. This is accomplished by changing
the relative size of the low pressure and high pressure nozzles.
While fuel injector distribution
is controlled by changing nozzles, changes in the fuel delivery
curve can be effected only by returning fuel to the tank. Until
just a few years ago, control over the fuel delivery curve in
supercharged fuelers was usually exercised only to the extent
of changing the pill in the injector hat and changing the barrel
The "pill" is, of course,
an orifice that is placed in a return line to control the amount
of pressurized fuel that enters that line. The "barrel valve"
returns enough fuel to permit the engine to idle when the throttle
plates are closed. Essentially then, very little was done to
modify the fuel delivery vs. rpm curve in the 5000 to 8000 rpm
range where the motor was doing its work.
In recent years, a second return
line has been added to most funny car fuel injectors. This return
line is equipped with a poppet valve in addition to an orifice.
The poppet valve delays returning fuel behind the orifice until
a predetermined psi figure is reached. (Fuel pressure increases
as rpm increases). This leans the motor at high rpm. This valve
is called a high-speed lean-out valve. In an attempt to extend
this idea, some cars now use two or three high-speed valves.
Coil, in an effort to provide
more control over the fuel delivery curve (and subsequently combustion
temperature), has developed a different kind of high-speed lean-out
valve that offers variable control over the amount of fuel bypassed
by means of a metering device.
The first prototype of this valve
has not yet been completed, but when it is, it will be tested
on F,C + M's own flow bench. Every winter Coil runs a bunch of
fuel systems on the bench, which can actually duplicate a race
car environment even to the extent of pressurizing an intake
manifold. It is through extensive research like this that fuel
racers will eventually solve the special problems of tuning with
As with any race engine, the
tuning of a fuel motor is what separates the men from the boys.
Short block construction demands precision sizing, but given
certain dimensions and the right pieces, the assembly of the
short block becomes merely an exercise in craftsmanship and precision.
Tuning is much more complicated
because there are so many variables involved. In fact, tuning
problems with a fuel motor are actually infinite because, in
addition to the variables we have already discussed, there is
a hidden or unknown factor involved.
Nitromethane is the unknown factor.
Alcohol, gasoline and most other fuels that one might choose
to burn in an internal combustion engine are "paraffin"
fuels. This means that their molecules are composed of hydrogen
and carbon atoms in various patterns.
Nitromethane, on the other hand,
is a nitroparrafin. Nitroparaffins burn much faster than other
paraffins because one hydrogen atom is replaced by a nitric group,
NO2, which carries two oxygen atoms. It is obvious, then, that
raising the percentage of nitromethane in a nitromethane/alcohol
fuel mixture will provide more oxygen for combustion and allow
a greater amount of fuel to be burned.
The problem in working with nitromethane
is that no one (at least no one we know) understands exactly
how nitromethane behaves in the combustion chamber as temperature
and pressure change. Does the NO2 group liberate oxygen at an
inconstant rate? If so, exactly how is this process affected
by changes in combustion temperature and pressure?
Now change the speed at which
you spin the supercharger by going to a gear belt pulley with
more teeth. You'll be changing the effective cylinder pressure.
Add to this the inherent problems of a constant flow fuel injector
that we have already discussed. Change the barometric pressure,
air temperature and humidity as you travel from race track to
race track and you have yourself a real bag of snakes.
The fuel racers who perform consistently
well at national events get there early and sometimes go though
many parts "dialing in" their cars to a particular
day and track.
Fuel racing is a difficult, demanding
and expensive proposition, and only a true professional can make
it with a travelin' funny car show on a year-by-year basis.
And that is exactly as it should
be. In the hands of a professional mechanic and a professional
driver, a well-designed fuel funny car can be completely safe
and at all times under control. Even the sometimes unavoidable
motor explosions can be controlled in a car equipped with safety
systems that actually function and are of a design that will
work when an emergency occurs.
Unfortunately, not all fuel funny
cars that currently carry a SEMA sticker are of a safe, proper
design. Similarly, someone who just happens to have the cash
and the inclination is not necessarily capable of properly preparing,
maintaining and tuning a fuel funny car. There are some funny
car drivers who have an NHRA driver's license in their back pocket
but have never completed any portion of the driving test prescribed
It is this serious lack of control
that clouds the future of professional fuel funny car racing.
Nitromethane fuel is not the problem that will put the fuel funny
out of business. A lack of any effective regulation of professional
fuel racing IS the problem.
It would be easy to try to blame
the disorganized state of pro fuel racing on NHRA, but it would
also be completely unfair. Pro fuel funny car racing grew from
the theatrics-oriented funny cars of the mid-60's, quite apart
from the NHRA racing of that period. Many, perhaps the majority
of fuel funny car races are held at other than NHRA facilities.
Larry Carrier's IHRA has been
deeply involved in pro funny car racing since the beginning of
that organization and has provided comparatively substantial
cash guarantees for pro racers who run their shows. Many smaller
organizations and independent dragstrip owners collectively spend
millions of dollars every year in order to bring their customers
fuel funny car shows.
The problem in effecting any
worthwhile change in the pro ranks lies in getting these people
to work together. Thus far, their "track record" rates
them a big goose egg.
And that is truly unfortunate
for if some effort is not made to prevent a wealthy, misinformed,
would-be drag racer from hopping straight out of daddy's Oldsmobile
and into a 230 mph funny car without first having to demonstrate
competency in a car other than one drag racing has labeled "pro",
and without the mechanical assistance of someone who at least
has some conception of the problems involved, there will come
a day when one of these cars will get loose in the stands somewhere
and hurt a whole bunch of innocent people.
If drag racing can organize some
means of regulating fuel racing, there are many plans that can
be implemented to effect change. The licensing of supercharged,
fuel race car mechanics might be a good place to start. This
is not the first time that this has ever been suggested. However,
the proposal is usually written off as impractical and perhaps
impossible. The licensing of mechanics would not be impossible
though, it would actually be only slightly difficult.
The licensing of mechanics will
be futile, however, if not carried out in a more responsible
manner than the licensing of funny car drivers. NHRA requires
that the driver's test is witnessed by three licensed funny car
drivers. When licenses were first issued, veteran drivers were
summarily issued licenses as their contemporaries, who had legitimately
witnessed them perform what the test requires on previous occasions,
signed as their witnesses. It then, unfortunately, became standard
procedure for new drivers to choose their own witnesses. This
has been abused to the point where many licenses were issued
that perhaps never should have been issued.
The third major step that must
be taken if funny car racing is to continue as the professional
spectator-oriented sport that it has become, is stricter supervision
of funny car chassis builders. The awarding of a SEMA sticker
does not necessarily mean that a chassis builder is a funny car
Some of the cars currently in
competition are not really very adequate. Fire extinguisher systems
are a good example. Since most funny car fire extinguishers are
mounted in front of the motor, a chassis builder is free to design
any kind of fire bottle discharge linkage he prefers. Most linkages
are never tested to determine if they actually will discharge
a full fire bottle because full bottles are so expensive. Furthermore,
some basic chassis designs available today are not even properly
A funny car chassis is a completely
rigid structure that should maintain rigidity and uniformity
under the heavy load imposed upon it by the incredible torque
that a fueler produces. A properly constructed funny car follows
certain indisputable principles of engineering design that dictate
exactly how a box must be braced to remain rigid and exactly
how these braces should be welded in place. There are plenty
of funny cars that are built in complete ignorance of even basic
engineering principles and subsequently become ill-handling,
twisting, turning messes on the race track.
Strict, on the spot, informed
supervision of funny car chassis builders is needed.
Are these disquieting and somewhat
controversial ideas that grew from an all-night bench racing
session in the Farkonas, Coil and Minick garage merely the meanderings
of discontented racers? I don't think so. Although the writer
assumes full responsibility for the actual outlining of these
proposals, they are the product of a number of years of listening
to the problems of the pro racers.
It is essential that someone
attempt to organize pro drag racing. Many pro racers depend completely
upon drag racing. Drag racing is the only future they've got.
Why should we just hope that the kind of calamitous accident
that could completely destroy our young sport will never happen?
It is in the best interest of everyone involved with the sport
to insist that "organizational progress" keep pace
with technical progress.
Save the travelin' fuel funny
car show. Push for professionalism.
From Super Stock & Drag Illustrated page 48-52 - April, 1976
© Lopez Publications Inc. 1976