A NITRO HABIT

by Paul Harvey

by Paul Harvey
A NITRO HABIT
C.P. COMPANY DESIGNER AND PETROL-HEAD PAUL HARVEY DESCRIBES HIS ADDICTION, AND ANNUAL PILGRIMMAGE, TO THE FIA EUROPEAN DRAG RACING FINALS AT THE SANTA POD RACEWAY IN ENGLAND.
Once a year as summer fades and the evenings have that first chill of winter but the sun still shines - hopefully - I get my annual fix. The earlier meeting is too confused, new things are being tried, new setups tested and the track is not yet cured of its winter weathering. The clashes throughout the season in Scandinavia and Germany build to the final event but the summer heat evaporates too quickly that evocative cloud and the engines can’t breathe properly, they need cooler, denser, oxygen. And the European Finals in September at the Santa Pod Raceway in England supply this air. And something I need. There is something about the mix of the absolute, no compromise, I’ll-get-there-as-fast-as-possible attitude of drag racing, and the pure power smell of nitro methane and scorched rubber hanging in the clean English September air that I find intoxicating. I’ll explain: I have always, always loved cars and bikes and anything to do with them but for me drag racing is the most visceral of all motor sports. It makes your stomach churn, deafens your ears and shakes every sense you posses. It is at the same time immensely satisfying and incredibly frustrating, totally crude yet extremely refined. It is about taming a bomb. And the elapsed times, speeds and statistics only emphasize this idea. A Top Fuel monster churns out between 7 and 8000 brake horsepower - a Formula1 car has around 700 - and they race two together, side by side. That is in excess of 15000 brake horsepower being laid on the ground. You can quite literally feel the track shake and the shock wave hits as if someone had just thrown the dining table at you. Road cars - Ferrari’s, Porsches etc. - start to get interesting when they do 0-100 in 4.5 seconds or less. These guys get to 100 kph in 0.6 seconds and in 4.5 seconds have already finished their run in excess of 500 kph. Zero to five hundred plus in 4.5 seconds. In that time they have drunk 45 litres of fuel, That’s 10 litres a second. Think about it. The G forces at launch are around 6G (7G is considered the limit before blackout), and another 6G when the parachutes are pulled at the end of the run. And that is when all goes well. The incredible thing is - we are talking tenths or hundredths of a second - that you somehow know immediately amongst this total sensory mayhem that it was a perfect run. The shocking bellow of the engine remains constant, the frame tightens and bends just the right amount and the front wheels barely graze the track. The primeval smoking blazing roaring steel and carbon fibre man-made meteor just disappears, leaving behind an emptiness that has the perfume of pure fucking power… Or not. Drag racing can be one of the biggest buzzes you will ever get from motor sport, or a total anti-climax, frustrating to the extreme. These brutal machines of hell are also the motor sports world’s most temperamental prima donnas. They can just cease into silence on the line, a dud, a thousand pound bomb without a fuse. Or the start marshall simply shuts them down: the tiniest drip of fuel or water on the track is behind his decision. And these ladies will never, ever perform in the rain or on even a slightly damp stage. The tiniest trace of moisture, be it mist, two drops of rain or liquid lost by a previous performer, leads to endless time lost as the entire track is dried, a spectacle in itself, through the use of a jet engine mounted on a truck: the biggest, hottest, hairdryer ever seen. Single drops of oil are removed with the handkerchiefs that every crew member carries. Drag racing is a potent mix of brutality and refinement, a no compromise search for absolute total power and a manic world of minutely modifying settings as the track improves, the air becomes colder and the gigantic tyres diminish in circumference every run. This is elimination racing right on the wild edge. As the day moves on, every race car leaves its own share of tyre on the track making it stickier and quicker but then a solitary cloud covering the sun can cancel that advantage as the track temperature drops abruptly. The early evening air is cooler, denser and holds more of that vital oxygen, giving more energy to these terrible motors, but at the same time the track is cooling, becoming more slippery. More power, less grip. A lethal combination. And the smaller tyres are lowering the gearing, meaning more torque but less control. You must balance all these factors, or you’re out. Or worse, because the monstrous power train directly behind you, tuned to within a millimetre of its very existence, can bite. Can bite very hard indeed. Too much power too soon and the front lifts, the frame warps and you are clawing all over the guy in the next lane at 100 kph. Get the tyres too hot and they literally stick to the track, shaking the car and you so badly your vision is reduced to black and white. And once you’ve pressed go don’t change your mind, and then press it again. The sheer mass of fuel reaching the cylinders cannot be stopped immediately and all that extra nitro methane is just waiting for another spark… September is now just a few months away. [Artwork by Diego Soprana]