Have you ever wondered what it is like to drive a funny car?
In July 1976 Rex Greenslade, a writer for 'Motor' magazine, found out when he took a ride in Liam Churchill's Ford Capri bodied Euro Sting fuel funny car.
The full text of the article he wrote is reproduced below, the pictures are by me, Alan Currans.
Like all the best ideas it was hatched over a pint at the bar. This one, though, was not forgotten in the subsequent hangover. It was at the National Drag Racing Club's annual beanfeast where I, as a circuit racer of modest experience, was attempting to find out what drag racing was all about.
"You'll never know until you've tried it", said Lawrie Gatehouse who's probably committed more dragsters to celluloid than anyone this side of the Atlantic. "Do you reckon you could handle one?"
Over the next few days I got thinking a bit more about it. Just what was I letting myself in for?
I tried to put it into perspective. The fastest 'road car' that Motor has ever tested - a licensed Lola - did a standing quarter mile in 11.4 seconds. Shatteringly quick by normal standards, pedestrian compared to a dragster's 6 second potential. My fastest track test cars (a toss up between a Clubman Phantom and a F1 Maserati 250F) were not much quicker than the Lola either.
So, nothing I'd driven could give an inkling of what a dragster was like. The trouble was that to find out I'd have to jump in at the deep end without an instructor. Once strapped into a dragster you're on your own. It's just you versus machine.
Yet the challenge was too exciting to be ignored. I had to find out what it was like.
The person who'd bravely (foolishly?) offered his machine on Lawrie's prompting was Liam Churchill, renowned amongst drag racing fanatics for his spectacular driving and respected by fellow competitors for his engineering and designing ability. His car - Euro Sting - is a Ford Capri-based 'funny' car sponsored by Euro Exhaust Centres (the largest fitters of 'free-fit' exhausts in the country) and one of the few top dragsters totally designed and built in Britain by Liam himself.
As the fateful day approached I got to know the meaning of fear. Just one thought of the beast turned my stomach upside down and made my palms clammy. Colleagues didn't help. "You must be mad" . . . "rather you than me" . . . "what flowers would you like for the funeral?".
Such comments were meant in fun but succeeded in further tweaking an already very apprehensive Greenslade.
Then the Sports Editor (Dood to his friends) returned from the Easter Santa Pod meeting with the news that the then brand new Euro Sting had turned in a 7.1 seconds run first time out, and the opposition wasn't too pleased.
As on many Big Occasions, the day got off to a bad start. First, a trailer tyre puncture delayed departure from Liam's Barnet base: then the V6 Transit tow vehicle blew a head gasket on the Newmarket by-pass: then the dragster got a puncture too, in one of its rear liner tyres, a failure virtually without precedent. Infuriating. Surely nothing else could go wrong?
It did. We had intended taking a full set of acceleration figures: 0-60 mph, 0-100 mph and so on. With our German Peiseler fifth wheel and electronic recorder, we now have the ideal equipment for doing the impossible, as shown by our unique performance tests on a F1 Brabham and an F2 March last year. Alas, it was not to be.
Despite all the careful and intricate work by Liam and his mechanics to squeeze the necessary bits and pieces into place (as on any racing car, space in the Euro Sting is at a premium), fiendish vibrations from the hunking great V8 ruined the electronic trace.
With a 'normal' racing car we could have tried again, but with The Sting itwasn't possible. For a start, the test had to be squeezed into a day's racing at a Snetterton Superdrag meeting (my drive being scheduled as a 'demonstration run' at the end) and time was at a premium: moreover with fuel costing £45 a run, we couldn't afford failures.
Yes, £45! Nitro-methane costs nearly £9 a gallon (work out the fuel consumption for yourself), but fuel costs are only the tip of an expensive iceberg. A fresh two gallons of oil must be added every time the engine is started as it becomes too diluted by fuel (it drains out of the sump like water) to use again. The engine has to be stripped down to its last nut and bolt after every meeting: each of the rear tyres costs about £120: and if anything actually breaks, replacement costs are astronomical because the chances are it'll have to be imported from the States.
For a team paying its own way, Liam considers a budget of £30,000 to be realistic - which probably explains why there aren't more top class drag racing teams. The sport is still in its infancy here though, and it's only a matter of time before more sponsors realise that with crowds of 10,000 or more at every meeting, drag racing offers excellent promotional potential.
Liam's season will hopefully cost substantially less, for he has designed, built and will maintain the car himself.
Already Liam's turned in a time of 6.91 seconds after only three major outings. He's got the car right and his competitors know it, which must be galling to those who spend a fortune importing a US car. Such competitiveness is all the more impressive for Liam's budget doesn't yet run to the £8,000 all-alloy engine that most rivals have. Not that such a motor would necessarily give more power (that could be obtained from Liam's iron block motor simply by increasing the nitro content to, say, 90 per cent from the normal 68-70). It's reliability that you get from the alloy engine.
Like nearly all dragsters, Euro Sting is based on an immensely strong spaceframe chassis, with an impressive array of tubes almost completely encasing the rear-seated driver. The engine sits well back in the chassis and feeds upwards of 2,000 bhp to the rear axle via an ingenious 'slider' clutch.
This is a hybrid combination of triple plate racing clutch, coil spring coverplate and special centrifugal assisters: it is specifically designed to slip at the start and eliminate wheelspin - 'smokey' runs are slow runs.
Also included 'twixt engine and axle are a two speed transmission (with a closeratio epicyclic gear train so that gear changing can be effected without lifting the throttle or dipping the clutch), and a reverse unit. Everything - engines, transmission, front and rear axles - is rigidly fixed direct to the chassis. For 'suspension' the car relies upon its enormous, spongey rear tyres which are inflated to a mere 5 psi or so. For safety, there's a separate inner tyre and tube at about 30 psi. To give straight-line stability, the front wheels run at an incredible 17 degrees of castor which explains the crazy attitudes they adopt on lock: reversing, unless you proceed very gently, can be tricky.
Nothing sounds quite like one of these monsters when it's fired up. Cosworth or Ferrari F1 engines sound shrill, buzzy by comparison. Big American V8's tweaked to Gp 2 tune have a flat, lazy note. Yet even at tickover (and they do tickover despite those phenomenal power outputs) dragster engines give an unnerving impression of enormous primeval power. The exhaust bangs and crashes, not crackles, and even from 20 yards your ears begin to hurt. When the throttle is blipped the car shudders and shakes like an enormous jelly: the exhausted gases crash out like a dozen simultaneous thunderclaps: even in the grandstand you can feel the ground tremble and your brain vibrate.
Then there's the smell. Burnt nitro gives off a highly distinctive pungent, tingling odour that makes your eyes smart. Cordite gives off a similar smell but doesn't irritate your eyes like nitro. Certainly it's a smell you'll never forget. As an uninvolved onlooker, such a spectacle is impressive enough. When you're a novice driver it's fearful.
Next comes motor sport's ultimate scene-setting flourish. The burn-out. Edging the dragster's rear wheels on to water thrown down by an aide (no-one uses traction compound any more because of its deleterious effect on the track), the driver pops the clutch and gives the machine its full head for the first time. Added to the predictable result of a shattering increase in noise, and copious clouds of acrid tyre smoke is the bizarre sight of the dragster rising a foot at the rear as the wildly spinning rear tyres grow in diameter.
In fact, the burn-out is much more than a simple coup de theatre. It not only prepares the tyres by heating them for the proper run, but also lays down strips of hot, tacky rubber for extra grip.
If all goes well, the car (or cars if it's a twosome race) then gets the greenlight and streaks off with another crash of painful sound, but oh, oh so quickly. Within seconds out comes the braking parachute and the run's finished.
If all goes well that is. Drag racing has a good safety record but in the top line nitro-burning monsters fire is an ever-present hazard. Shortly before my run was due Roland Pratt's engine blew in the most spectacular way I've ever seen. With a wumph that could be heard from the other end of the strip, the back of his car disappeared in a ball of yellow flame. Thankfully, like most dragster blazes, it was a 'flash' fire that quickly subsided enough for the on-board extinguishers to cope with. Even so, this incident didn't do much to calm my wife, who was looking ever more doubtful about the whole thing. My own feelings were indescribable.
I turned to Liam for consolation. "How do I do this burn-out thing?"
On went two complete sets of fireproof undies (vest, long johns, socks); a pair of driving shoes plus aluminised knee-length over-boots; enormous aluminised gauntlets; a face mask with breathing filters and an open-face helmet (racing-style full-facers won't fit over the mask). I felt like a cross between Michelin's M. Bibendum and something from Doctor Who.
As the meeting proper had finished half an hour before, I was hoping that everyone had gone home. No such luck.
Step into the footwell, squeeze around the wheel - ouch, the rollcage is a bit low! Nice, upright driving position, feel the clutch and throttle, check the other controls. Crutch straps on, lap belts on, tighten the shoulders will you, Geoff? Can't breathe, calm yourself, calm yourself . . . oh God, how did I ever get into this?
In retrospect, the experience was, above all else, confusing. My mind - conscious and sub-conscious - refused to equate the incredible initial acceleration with anything other than an enormous accident, hence the involuntary lifting off. It was like the sensation you get when your feet suddenly slip from underneath you on a patch of ice - but 10 times as strong.
From then on it felt as if the immense power was faced with minimal resistance, that the car would go on accelerating indefinitely, that it was running away. A disquieting sensation. I had to back off a couple more times to reassure myself that I, and not the machine, was still in charge.
Though I'd intended to shut down before the end of the strip (apparently I did so about 300 yards out), I thought at the time that I'd made a hash of it. But no, my time of 8.62s and a terminal speed of 162 mph exceeded my wildest expectations. It also visibly pleased the drag fraternity.
My very relieved wife had the last word. "Let's get one thing clear. You can do any form of circuit racing you like, but don't drive one of those monsters again."
If the chance came up again, I wonder if I might be able to persuade her . . .
This article was first published in 'Motor' magazine datedweek ending 31 July 1976 and is the copyright of IPC Business Press Ltd.
Since first re-publishing this article Rex Greenslade, the author, has been in touch with me.
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