By its nature, drag racing is a blisteringly hot, smelly, oily, noisy sport. Dragsters tear their screaming engines to bits in five seconds. Drivers and mechanics scream for a few more rpm. Fans scream at the earth-shattering, soul-shaking, eardrum-bursting sound of a 1,900-pound, 4,000-hp car roaring down a 1¼-mile track.
Amid the pandemonium stands a man with blackened fingernails, slightly hunched shoulders and the wonderful ability, above all the racket, to listen. If you get to know crew chief Dale Armstrong, you'll notice that he is something of an anomaly in the drag racing world. "He hates crowds, and he hates to travel," says Susie Arnold, Armstrong's girlfriend. "He would prefer to have the race come to him." An armchair crew chief?
"If Dale isn't sleeping in the van at the starting line," says former driver Darrell Gwynn, "he's probably reading a book."
"Books?" says Arnold. "He buys one hundred dollars' worth at a time. One for the trip out, one for the race weekend, one for the trip back. He can't turn off his brain." From murder mysteries to biographies to technical-engineering manuals, the 51-year-old Armstrong gobbles up books. The man needs information.
This and his blisteringly hot, smelly, oily 37-year love affair with the internal-combustion engine have kept him firmly entrenched as the top crew chief in the business. "At the tracks," Arnold says, "people come by the garage just to watch him think."
Armstrong has a five-year contract with Kenny Bernstein's Budweiser King Racing Team, which is in contention for the National Hot Rod Association's (NHRA) Top Fuel title for the first time after winning four Funny Car titles from 1985 to 1988. He is a self-made man, a guy from the Canadian prairie, whose life, for the most part, has turned out exactly the way he wanted it to.
Like the rest of the top fuelers, Armstrong and Bernstein entered the 1992 season chasing the Holy Grail of drag racing—the 300-mph barrier. It had been either 28 or 32 years since either Don (Big Daddy) Garlits or Chris Karamesines, depending on whom you believe, broke the 200-mph mark.
To this day both Garlits and Karamesines lay claim to the feat; the dispute is over which driver first went 200 at a track that had timing equipment capable of verifying such a run. In 1975 Garlits went 250 mph. In 1989, as several drivers crept toward 300, the NHRA, worried about safety at the tracks, clamped down by issuing new rules that slowed the cars.
But late in 1991, when speeds were again approaching 300 mph, Garlits announced he would come out of his third retirement to pursue the 300 record. Don (the Snake) Prudhomme had passed the 290 barrier three times last season and figured to have the best shot this season. Joe Amato, who had won the last two Top Fuel titles, stated the obvious in January. "It would be quite a feather in my cap to be the first to go 300."
The race was on. Last winter Armstrong and his crew put together the new Budweiser chassis in the team shop in Lake Forest, Calif., south of Los Angeles. With almost every turn of a wrench, Armstrong encouraged the crew by saying, "If you're thinking of doing something or not doing something, well, do you want to go 299 or 300?"