I've had a number of great opportunities in my racing career to compete in different types of motor racing. And it's been a dream come true to race with some of the guys I race against on short-track ovals, in the dirt, and at other venues. But, any time I'm asked about whether I would ever make a switch in careers, I'm quick to shake my head no. I have told people time and time again, especially racecar drivers, there's nothing on this planet that compares to driving an 8000 horsepower fuel Funny Car.
The cool part is getting a lot of questions from the other drivers about what it's like to drive a Funny Car. What surprises me is that some fans think all we do is step on the throttle and then hang on. And, while that's true in a lot of cases, these 300-plus-mph cars are extremely unpredictable when you step on the throttle. From idle to full throttle you're only talking about an inch and a half of travel with your right foot.
What most people understand is that the reaction time at the Christmas Tree is very important in drag racing. But that's only a part of it. And as the years go by, reaction times become a little bit less important, because there is so much horsepower with these cars you're basically being catapulted down the track and the car wants to take off. While the wheelie bars help keep the car somewhat planted to the surface, keeping it from doing a back flip, it's hard to keep it in the center of the groove in the track where the rubber is.
A lot of times you'll have a newcomer who is maybe standing behind the car during a run say after he/she watches the race, "Wow, that looked like it was a straight run." Well, it may have looked straight from the outside, but inside the car you're sawing away at that wheel and steering the car left and right constantly all the way down the track just to keep the thing going straight.
You're strapped into the car as tight as possible and you have an 8000-horsepower engine literally a couple of feet in front you. There is so much noise and so much vibration that, even though we do this all the time and do it for a living, it's still frightening at times to know how much power we are controlling that is sitting right in front of us.
On top of that, you add the fact that you're going from zero to 100 mph in less than one second from a standing stop. You throw all these things into the mix and you get that incredible out-of-this-world rush of being catapulted down the racetrack in four seconds at over 300 mph.
You're being shot down the track with a force of over 6 gs, and, if that's not enough thrill for you, then throw in a new experience when the engine loses a cylinder (there are eight) on one side. Just image that one cylinder produces as much power as one NASCAR Sprint Cup engine, about 800 horsepower. When that cylinder is dropped on one side, there is so much downforce lost that the car will move easily one full width of a car to the left or the right, while you're pinned back in the seat at over 6 gs. And that's when I believe the good drivers are separated by the "just OK" drivers.
One of the common questions I am asked is what makes a good Funny Car driver. I think anybody can step on the throttle and, if they're brave enough, hang on. But, when something goes wrong, say, on race day, and you have a problem and you have to figure out a way to get to the finish line -- whether the car is smoking the tires or a cylinder has been dropped -- the good driver is the one who can feel that and know when to get off the throttle and when to get back on it.
You have only a split second to decide whether to get back on, but if the car is not straight when you get back on it, you're in big trouble. Not only are you in big trouble, you could definitely hurt the person in the lane next to you if you're not pointed in the right direction. These Funny Cars are so unpredictable with their short wheelbase and the stiff chassis that you start to learn how to feel the car with your butt.
I have learned a lot from driving racecars that make turns and slide in the dirt that I can actually transfer that knowledge to when the Funny Car gets sideways and I have to figure out how to get it down the track.
You won't be surprised to know that a driver's vision during a run is very much affected by all the power. There's always a constant vibration on the run on top of the outrageous thunder of the engine and the smell of the nitromethane. For the first probably 300 feet (of a 1000-foot race track this season, as opposed to the regulation 1320 feet or quarter-mile), the vibration that you feel in the grandstands or at the starting line as a spectator is what we feel in the car tenfold. And it's very hard to see for the first 200 or 300 feet. And then at that point, while the clutch starts to lock up and the run gets smoother and smoother, you're also going faster and faster.
After you step on the throttle you don't know how long it's going to rattle It's kind of like having your head in a paint shaker at times where you're trying to get your vision straight but your head is being shaken around.
The funny thing is that a lot of times after a run I come back to the NAPA Auto Parts trailer and talk to my crew chief Ed "Ace" McCulloch and it might take me seven or eight minutes to tell him what happened during that four-second run. Everything is crammed into your brain in such a short time during those runs, on top of the adrenaline level you're experiencing, that it's a lot of like a computer being uploaded and downloaded.
When you get back from a run your brain starts to unload all this data and you start to remember things that happened. That's when I think a good driver can tell a crew chief all the important details he thinks the crew chief should know. Even though there is onboard data for the crew chief to look at following the pass (no data acquisition is allowed to be viewed during a run), it doesn't hurt for him to listen to the driver, especially a crew chief like mine, who was one of the greatest drivers that has ever been strapped into a drag racing car. He knows what it feels like in the cockpit, so he understands what I'm telling him.
When you look at all forms of motor racing, you'll see that the successful drivers have all had great crew chiefs behind them.
Stay tuned for Part 2!Ron