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Let's say you are about to attend your first major drag-racing meet. Welcome to a weekend of pure confusion. First, there won't be just one kind of car to watch as there would be at, say, a stock-car race or the Indy 500. There will be just about every kind of vehicle imaginable, from 1940 Fords outfitted with 1970 Cadillac engines to stock 1955 Chevys to Super Stocks to Funny Cars, which look just like stock cars but definitely are not. And then there will be the purest dragsters of them all, the Class AA fuelers, my kind of machine, which look like nothing you have ever seen before.
The language will be like nothing you have heard before, either. The cars and teams will have names like the Ram-chargers, the Freight Train and the Hawaiian. The drivers and their crews will talk of "hoops" and "hole shots" and "tripping the hammer" and "hounds." Never mind most of it, the words are substitutes for technical terms. But hound means car; "I hurt my old hound" means I blew an engine.
Once you get away from all that fancy language, the weird paint jobs and the many classes of competition, drag racing is really just a simple exercise in high school physics. You've got a known mass; that's your car, and you want to move this mass the quickest way possible from point A to point B. The two points happen to be 1,320 feet apart. This is all you really need to know about drag racing. You measure your speed, naturally, and the elapsed time, called the ET, through the quarter-mile clocks. It is a lesson in acceleration, pure and simple.
I am now 38 years old and I have spent the last 20 of those years in the sport, 14 of them as a professional. During that time I have earned a little money and won nine national titles of various sorts, including the big one three times—the National Hot Rod Association championships held every Labor Day weekend at Indianapolis. In the old days, oh, say, in the early 1950s, there were practically no rules. You just got your car, a '32 or a '40 Ford or whatever, and you went out and ran it. You didn't have to have a helmet or goggles, you didn't have to have anything. You just ran your car. It is different now, organized and safe. The sport is grown up, respected, with a terrific following. Last year 150,000 people showed up to see the eliminations at Indianapolis, and that tells it all.
About those unlimited Class AA fuelers that I drive: a pure dragster is the way to get the purest acceleration and, to me, that's what the game is all about. I build them myself. Today the record top speed is 240 miles an hour—which I hold unofficially—and my best ET is 6� seconds. To oversimplify, a dragster is powered by a reciprocating engine that feeds power to the tires through the transmission, and the whole thing is held together by the chassis—which moves in a reasonably straight line for less than seven seconds. My dragster is called either the Wynn's Jammer, named for my chief sponsor, or the Swamp Rat, named after me. First, this is what it looks like, and then I'll tell you what a kick it is to drive it.
Swamp Rat has a chassis made of tubular steel and a wheelbase of 213 inches, because a dragster's stability, to a point, is directly proportional to its length. (Have you ever seen a short, stubby rocket at Cape Kennedy?) My power plant is a 426-cu.-in. Dodge hemihead engine full of superstrong parts, with a big supercharger mounted up on top that allows me to generate around 1,600 hp. Since most of the weight is supported by the extra-wide rear tires, the front tires are extremely light and just two inches wide. The whole bundle weighs just over 1,200 pounds, which gives me a power-to-weight ratio of about 1.33 to 1. The creature burns an exotic fuel—about 85% nitromethane and 15% various coolants and lubricants—and it burns four gallons of the stuff in that quarter-mile run.
Here we go: there is about as much ritual in getting ready to run for 6� seconds as there is in outfitting an astronaut to go to the moon. 1) I get into my flameproof suit and 2) I stuff wads of cotton in my ears and 3) I pull on my flameproof face mask and then 4) the helmet and then 5) climb into the car at the last minute. You don't like to stay in the car too long because it's hot. And it is a very cramped and confining place. The cockpit has a gas pedal, a clutch pedal and a steering wheel—all normal stuff. Right foot on the gas, left foot on the clutch. There is a hand brake. There is my parachute D ring that will release a 14-foot-diameter chute in back, enough to bring the car back down to about 100 mph from top speed. There are a couple of other little touches, a fuel shutoff handle and a kill switch and a seatbelt mechanism that I can release with a sharp slap.
We're pushing out now; the staging crew has signaled us. I let the clutch out, the engine turns over, the oil pressure comes up, I turn on the fuel, the mixture comes out of the pipes, and I turn on the mag. The engine fires to life—hopefully. And we push on out. First we burn out the tires (see page 23). Then we pull up on the staging line. I get very comfortable in the car now. Kind of settle down in the seat and check all the belts, make sure everything's all nice and tight, everything's in position, and I look at the light tower. There is a vertical series of yellow lights to watch; they gradually get brighter as they go down. I give a motion for my crew to get away from the car. Sometimes their eyes are blurry and they can hardly see because of the nitro fumes. I've got my mask on which feeds me pure air, so I'm O.K.
I look over and see where my competitor is and I pull right up on the first stage, the prestage. Then I wait for him. And then we just kind of wait there a little bit. And the next thing that I do is try not to worry about whether or not I'm staging exactly with him or ahead of or behind him. I try to get my own car perfect for the light. He has a light, I have a light; if my light turns on ahead of him, so what? We're both on the clocks.
Now then. I like to exceed the strip records so that when I go away from there the fans will say, "Well, we were out at the drag center and Big Daddy broke both ends of the strip record." This sticks in their minds. In other words I've been hired to leave them breathless, right? I'm the professional, the hired killer, you know, the guy who's supposed to have done all these things. And if you come there and don't live up at least partially to your reputation, guys get to thinking, well, it's a whole bunch of phony advertising. If you're billed as Big Daddy, the National Champion, 240 miles an hour, World's Fastest Dragster, you should do something that's exceptional. And I'm going to drive that way.