It’s a late-August Sunday in 1988 and I am staging up my Outlaw Pro Stocker for the final at the World Series of Drag Racing at Cordova, IL. I am driving my legendary ’79 Mercury Zephyr (Zeke) powered by the NOS assisted 1,600 hp “Monolith,” a 672-inch Kaase Boss Hemi Ford engine.
I need to win this final to cap the UDRA (United Drag Racer Assoc.) season national championship. The problem is, I have two badly burnt pistons. And I am facing a healthy Gary Duckworth in his lethal Mountain Motor Camaro. And he also needs this win to capture the UDRA championship.
Using my “nitrous demon tweak,” I adjusted for the semis to ensure lane choice. I won the semis handedly and even set a record, but as I crossed the stripe I smelled that sickening smell of burnt aluminum and oil advertising burnt pistons that all nitrous racers hate. That poignant smell stays with you for days.
As luck would have it, burning the pistons so late in the run meant that not much smoke was evident to those watching. No one realized the “Monolith” was hurt. The announcer kept carrying on about me setting a record and going into the finals against a worthy Duckworth, and both of our chances of winning the championship.
When my crew arrived to tow me back I advised them of our problem. I stressed not to reveal any sign that we had one. We would bluff our way to the final. We towed back waving to the cheering crowd as they stomped their feet and yelled with syncopated rhythm, Ani-Mal! Ani-Mal!
Lucky for us, the jet cars and wheel standers were staged to perform. The only people in the pit area would be the UDRA finalists attending to their business.
My damaged piston fears were realized after pulling the spark plugs. One and seven had tips burnt off. Leak down and cranking compression was down 90% on those two holes.
Back in ’88 we were still using moly rings. The problem with moly and nitrous was the coating on the top ring would chip and flake after a few runs. Another problem was the fly cuts on the Ford Boss Hemis left little material between the end of the angled cut and the top ring groove.
Too hot of a charge and the ring groove would create a “smile” widening the groove several thousands for about an inch in length, allowing the nitrous charged flame to get under the ring, breaking it into small pieces. It melted that area of the piston on the top edge and down the side, creating havoc with the cylinder walls, depositing melted aluminum and bits of hard broken ring material generously around the combustion chamber and between seats and valves. Even on some innocent cylinders.
Back then, when melting a tip off a spark plug with a nitrous assisted Ford Boss Hemi you could bet a piston on that cylinder was severely damaged. Ni chrome Hellfire rings were still in the distance. But when they did arrive, a lot of piston failures were reduced.
Using Hellfire rings, if the tune up was too frisky and a plug was nipped, the ring would stay intact. There may be a slight smile or pinched ring, but you could retune that cylinder’s NOS Fogger nozzle or use a colder plug and still make respectable power.
This time, though, we had severe damage. Even if I had a spare engine with me, there was no time for that or to replace the pistons. We had to band-aid what we had to make the final. We had dealt with this situation before. We prepped the car as normal, except I put blank jets in the fogger nozzles of the hurt pistons. That is the big advantage of a NOS fogger over plates and spray bars; the ability to isolate and customize each cylinder’s nitrous tune-up.
We tie wrapped shop towels around the breathers and stuffed them at the ends of the tunnel ram to absorb the expected oil blow by. I set the retard back two more degrees and raised my starting line chip rev control up 500 rpm.
I would be way down on power with only 6 good cylinders. But I had lane choice. I would take the right lane. Duckworth didn’t know we were hurt. My only hope was Gary would adjust more clutch pressure in his car trying to beat me and perhaps shake the tires enough and not recover to come back at me. The left lane that weekend had been a frequent tire shaker. There was also a chance he would foul or break. I had to go for it. This run could be a huge turning point for me.
We got lucky with extra pit time as the wheel stander’s sparks from their titanium wheelie cleats had caught the dry grass along the track on fire.
The fire out and the exhibition show finally over, the crowd headed back to the pits.
I advised my crew again to act as if all was well. We all put on a good act at my trailer as I signed autographs and held court with the fans and media.
It was time. My crew towed me to staging. When the staging lane wrangler motioned for us to pull out, I did not try to fire. As planned, my crew pushed me out and into the water box. Duckworth fired and drove in. Knowing how bad I would smoke signaling severe damage. I did not fire my car until the water box official signaled us to burnout. With a slight groan the Monolith fired.
Line locked in the water, I started my burn out quickly so the tire smoke would camouflage the oil smoke. Normally I would start my burnout in third and then shift to fourth. But down on power I started in second-then shifted my Lenco to third – then to fourth. Zeke miraculously went up on the tires as should be. I let go of the line lock with the throttle down and let Zeke eat. I cut my burnout short – only 200 feet. I hated to cheat the fans out of an AJ trademark long burnout, but I had no choice.
I noticed Duckworth also did a conservative burnout. Indicating he must have put more counter weight pressure in the clutch and did not want to get it too hot.
As Al Schmitt, my crew chief backed me up, the tire, burnt piston and oil smoke inside my car was killing me. My eyes were watering and I could hardly see or breathe.
As Duck and I were pulling in to light the first bulb, the starter suddenly signals us to shut off. Was my smoking exhaust the reason? But he shut us both off. The still smoldering grass had caught fire again. What bought us time earlier now was a negative. Would the oil-plug-soaked Monolith restart?
By now everyone realized from the earlier excessive smoke, that my engine was impaired. I’m sure if Duckworth had increased the clutch pressure he now regretted it. But there was nothing he could do. He could burn me down while staging. But that was not Gary’s style.
The grass fire was out. The starter signaled Duck and I to fire. Duckworth’s car went varoom! Mine went grunt! Grunt! Grunt! Then miraculously the still game 672-inch Monolith fired. Smoking profusely.
Fearing the starter would shut me down, I quickly pulled up, set the line lock and bumped in, lighting both the prestage and stage bulbs at once. Duckworth followed suit almost simultaneously (Thank You Gary). The pro start yellows flashed – I cut a great light and was out a car length on him. I pulled second – Zeke veered right from the oily residue my headers were spewing. I corrected and Zeke amazingly set back straight in the groove. Then as I pulled the Lenco’s third gear lever, I saw Gary’s yellow Camaro in my side window starting to pass my crippled ride.
Suddenly Gary’s Camaro disappeared. A miracle! Gary had shook his tires hard and had to abort. Shifting to fourth gear, not knowing at the time how severe Gary’s problem was, I stayed on wood to ensure my lead in case he recovered and tried to catch me. He did not. The slipping, sliding and smoking last eighth-mile of my ride seemed forever. I must have looked like a crop duster.
There was so much burnt piston and oil smoke inside I could not breathe or see a thing. When I blindly judged I was across the stripe, I pulled the chute and clicked off the power. Still at about 180 mph, I took off my seat harness and put my door net down. Not able to see the turn off lane I kept Zeke straight ahead.
As I slowed, still slightly rolling, I opened the door and climbed out gasping for air like a drowning man. The safety people came to the scene to attend to me. When I recovered some, I looked: Zeke had stopped only a few feet from the sand trap.
My crew came with a truck full of wild cheering crew. We towed back waving to the frantic crowd, who again were stomping and chanting for me. The PA was blaring my victory. Zeke and I were an oily mess. My throat was so sore I could hardly speak.
It took a week to recover from that putrid smell of burnt aluminum and oil. But we had done it. I had bluffed my way to win the event and the 1988 UDRA championship. All Duckworth had to say was, “I will never play poker with you.”
I called it “Educated Luck!” Lots and lots of luck!
Jim “Animal” Feurer is the owner of Animal Racing Engines in Lacon, IL. Stay tuned for more Fast Lane articles from Jim in the coming months.