The field of gassers, vintage Funny Cars, and front-engine Top Fuel dragsters competing in the National Hot Rod Association’s Hot Rod Heritage Racing Series is as close as you can get to going back to the early 1970s to see some of the legends of drag racing compete on the quarter mile.
I discovered this last weekend at the 2019 Good Vibrations Motorsports March Meet at the historic Auto Club Raceway in Famoso, California. It marked the start of the Hot Rod Heritage Racing Series season and the 60th anniversary of the March Meet.
The cars looked the part, especially the front-engine dragsters, although some of the Funny Cars wear aerodynamic bodies that look more like a modern Pro Mod. It’s a hint that these recent builds that are an homage to the past are a lot more modern they seem.
Just how much do these cars have in common with their nitro-burning forebears? Not much, says Adam Sorokin, who drives the Champion Speed Shop nostalgia Top Fuel dragster and won this year’s March Meet. “Basically what they have in common is the size of the tire and the engine location,” he told me.
Well, that and the fact the modern cars, like the old ones, offer nothing in the way of driver aids. “The tire is the limiter because you have no clutch management, no ignition management, and no fuel management, nothing,” Sorokin says. “What you leave with is what you’ve got.”
Granted, teams collect a whole lot more data than they did in the past, but they use it only to tune the engine and dial in the setup before a run. Once the driver is strapped in and lined up, everything they do to stage the car and run the race remains much that same as when guys like Don Garlits and Art Chrisman raced at the first March Meet all those years ago.
That said, a closer look at the cars reveals more than a few advancements in technology.
Back in the 1960s and early ‘70s, first-gen Hemi V-8s and 426 Hemis coexisted. These days, most teams run 426-based engined. Sorokin’s crew is a bit different in that it uses a 377 cubic-inch spread-port Chevy-small-block. It features evenly spaced intake and exhaust ports that make it look more like a late-model LS or LT with canted valves.
This mighty mouse burns 10 gallons of nitromethane per run, revs to 11,000 rpm, and makes somewhere around 3,500 horsepower. The rules require that cars weigh at least 4.6 pounds per cubic inch of displacement, so the Champion Speed Shop dragster is lighter than its competition. That allows Sorokin to leave the line hard, while the more powerful big-block-engined cars must go easier on their tires at launch and charge harder at the end to close the gap.
In the late ‘60s, a mid-six-second pass would be enough to take the win at any Top Fuel event. During a qualifying run last weekend, Sorokin ran a 6.04 E.T. while passing the lights with the ‘chutes deployed and two rods poking out of the block. Winning these days typically requires a run in the mid fives. Sorokin’s best E.T. in the years he’s campaigned the Champion Speed Shop car is 5.63 and his best trap speed is 248 mph.
More Reliable Equipment
While ‘60s racers often relied on factory engine castings, modern teams like Champion Speed Shop uses billet aluminum blocks and heads. The 6-71 supercharger cramming air and nitromethane into the cylinders offers less than half the displacement of those atop the 500 cubic-inch hemi V8s used by other modern Top Fuel dragsters, yet it’s far more efficient that it would have been in the ‘60s, flowing more air at lower temperatures. The 44-amp magneto that fires off the nitromethane and air mixture more reliably than the less powerful mags used 50 years ago.
These advancements allow modern engines to run at higher cylinder pressures and generate more than twice the horsepower of the original March Meet racers. The improved parts help reliability, but teams ask even more from the cars, making for exciting racing. Sorokin enjoys having to really work to get the car down the track. “The allure of these is that you’re running them on the ragged edge,” he says.
Sorokin’s qualifying run ended with a hiccup that took out two rods and caused a backfire that blew the burst panel at the front of the supercharger. That panel acts like a fuse, relieving pressure so the supercharger doesn’t blow off the top of the engine. Drag racers have long relied upon them, but technology introduced in 2008 shuts the car down when things go bad. A circuit on the burst panel controls a Leahy device that uses compressed air to deploy the parachutes, cut the fuel, and kill the ignition when the panel blows.
Advancements in passive safety measures also make today’s cars far safer. Titanium bellhousings keep things contained if a clutch blows up. Stronger steel tubing and more stringent chassis certification protect drivers. The Champion Speed Shop dragster uses a cockpit canopy to protect Sorokin from the oil and debris thrown by the engine in front of him. A small bottle of compressed air provides clean air to breathe.
These updated cars offer all of the thrills of their vintage counterparts, for both spectators and drivers, and you can get even closer to the action in the pits than you can at your typical Top Fuel race. Competition is friendly, but nobody is pulling any punches once the staging bulbs light. It’s everything that Don Prudhomme and Roland Leong loved about racing there in the ‘60s, which is probably why they still can’t seem to stay away from March Meet. If you’d like to catch Sorokin and the rest of his Nostalgia Top Fuel competition, there are nine more races left in the season. Events reach as far east as Bowling Green, Kentucky, and as far north as Spokane, Washington.