Late in the '81 season another driver with more business acumen than Armstrong called him in his hotel room. "I hear you're thinking of retiring," said the voice on the other end of the line. "And I need a crew chief for next year."
Armstrong had told no one he was quitting. Yet Kenny Bernstein had heard whispers about Armstrong, one of his toughest rivals. Armstrong accepted the offer knowing that Bernstein, with Budweiser's backing, could finance some ideas that had been stewing in Armstrong's mind.
Through the mid-1980s Armstrong experienced a burst of creativity. "He just kept coming up with stuff you wouldn't believe those first two or three years," says Bernstein, whose team in 1985 set a single-season record for consecutive Funny Car finals (seven) and won 38 out of 44 races. "No one could touch us."
Drag racing's big questions are these: How do you get the most power out of an engine and how do you get that power from the engine to the track? In 1984 Armstrong put a computer in the Bud funny car to monitor various parts of the engine and the drive-line function. Now he could look at a TV monitor and read a graph that showed precisely when the clutch kicked in and how the different spark plugs were performing.
That same year he installed an automatic shifter in the car to transfer the engine's power more efficiently to the track, adding another 10 mph and taking the car past 260 mph. In '86 dual fuel pumps were installed as was a lock-up clutch, which kicked in more and more power as the car moved down the track. The funny car zoomed past 270.
The ideas kept coming. While standing on his hotel balcony in Bristol, Tenn., one day in 1985, Armstrong got to thinking about how to lighten the car. At the time funny cars had 100-pound lead weights placed behind their front bumpers; the weight held the nose of the car down and kept it from doing wheelies at the start. After his balcony musings Armstrong decided to elongate the car and move the gas tank farther forward, adding weight to the nose and thus canceling the need for the lead weight. The results of all these innovations were four straight Funny Car titles for the Budweiser team, from 1985 to 1988.
The next logical step was to Top Fuel dragsters, which the team moved to in 1990. Two years later the Budweiser team was on the threshold of breaking the 300-mph barrier. The final piece of the puzzle arrived not in a part, but in a person. Wes Cerny, known in drag racing circles as "the guru of cylinder heads," had been crew chief for Jim White when White drove his funny car to speeds in excess of 290 in '91. After that season Cerny, who figured his team's sponsor was not going to renew its contract, offered his services to Bernstein.
Armstrong had the right ignition system, and Cerny had the right cylinder heads. "It was just a matter of putting together what I knew about the engine in a funny car and what Dale knew about the engine in a dragster," says Cerny.
Between races Armstrong and Cerny tinker with a dynometer—a full dragster engine that can be run independent of the chassis—that is kept in the Lake Forest shop. It is no coincidence that the shop is located near El Toro Air Force Base, because Armstrong figured that if the neighborhood could tolerate jets taking off, they could tolerate the sound of the dyno, which is roughly equivalent to having a jackhammer placed, oh, in your ear.
One day during the summer, one of the dyno's mufflers exploded during a run of the engine. "Someone down the street called 911," says Armstrong. "They said, 'I'm not going in there, there's got to be dead bodies.' " By the time the fire department arrived, Armstrong had already left the shop to go to lunch, oblivious of the commotion.