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HOW A STRANGE IN­CI­DENT BAN­ISHED NITROUS

Drag Racer - - Over Center - Al­fie Bilk

How a Strange In­ci­dent Ban­ished Nitrous

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IN 1982 A PER­FOR­MANCE SURGE WITHIN THE FUNNY CAR RANKS SEEMED TO STEM FROM THE AP­PLI­CA­TION OF NITROUS OX­IDE. DON PRUDOMME HAD PRO­PELLED HIM­SELF TO A RE­MARK­ABLE 5.63-SEC­OND QUAR­TER-MILE RUN DUR­ING QUAL­I­FY­ING FOR THAT YEAR’S INDY NATIONALS, STAR­TLING EVERY­ONE WHO HAD WIT­NESSED IT. “IT WAS ONE OF THE GREAT­EST FUNNY CAR RUNS IN DRAG RACING HIS­TORY,” WROTE “NA­TIONAL DRAG­STER” ED­I­TOR PHIL BURGESS IN 2012.

The role of nitrous ox­ide in Top Fuel and Funny Car in the early-’80s was not as you might ex­pect. At that time teams were acutely con­cerned about main­tain­ing ad­e­quate spark to the plugs when the race cars left the start­ing line, and nitrous was used as a sup­ple­ment to ease the trou­ble. “The goal was to have all eight cylin­ders op­er­at­ing at the same tem­per­a­ture to lessen the chance of a dropped cylin­der,” says long-time nitrous devo­tee Mike Ther­mos.

The term “dropped cylin­der” refers to a po­ten­tial dis­or­der that oc­curs when the strength of the spark is threat­ened when ex­ces­sive amounts of in­com­ing fuel and nitrous help at­om­ize the nitro­meth­ane. By in­tro­duc­ing bet­ter at­om­iza­tion—en­er­giz­ing

the fuel mix­ture by re­duc­ing it to finer par­ti­cles—they less­ened the risk of in­ca­pac­i­tat­ing the en­gine’s power. But the rou­tine led to a bizarre turn.

Wally Parks, founder and pres­i­dent of the NHRA, had com­plained about the event’s high rate of parts at­tri­tion. Na­tional Drag­ster had re­ported that the “Top Fuel event had been an oil-down mess,” and the im­pli­ca­tion was that ac­tion was needed to sub­due in­creas­ing power out­puts. To com­pound the per­cep­tion, Prud­homme’s record-break­ing run ap­peared to be as­sisted by nitrous ox­ide. To make things worse, his en­gine had been run­ning like a mis­sile un­til the half­way mark when pis­ton pin fail­ure in­vari­ably in­ter­vened. Rightly or wrongly, nitrous was blighted by blame.

Ac­cord­ing to top nitrous racer of the era, Billy Meyer, the NHRA polled the Funny Car teams for their po­si­tion on the use of nitrous ox­ide. Did they fa­vor it or not. Clearly, the re­sult­ing vote could have been con­tentious for nitrous adop­tion by the lead­ing con­tenders among their num­ber: Dale Arm­strong, crew chief for Kenny Bern­stein’s Top Fuel drag­ster, Austin Coil’s Chi Town Hus­tler driven by Frank Haw­ley and Dale Emery’s Blue Max. In the end, how­ever, too few of them voted for its re­ten­tion, and the sub­stance was ban­ished from the up­per ranks of NHRA com­pe­ti­tion.

With the pass­ing of time, the 1982 “Nitrous Nationals” be­came im­plau­si­bly much more con­found­ing than this be­cause Prudomme’s race car had overtly mas­quer­aded with nitrous ox­ide plumbed to its fuel delivery sys­tem, a not too con­vinc­ing sub­terfuge to de­flect at­ten­tion from its real ad­van­tage: an air­craftqual­ity vane-style fuel pump. So, Prudomme had not com­peted with nitrous ox­ide dur­ing the mo­men­tous event; in­stead, he had or­ches­trated an elab­o­rate pre­tense.

Dur­ing a hol­i­day party about 30 years later, Ther­mos was asked about the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of the so-called 1982 Nitrous Nationals. “Are you kid­ding,” said Ther­mos, “it was the best thing that could have hap­pened. There were about 27 Top Fuel run­ners and most of them wanted nitrous kits for free, and if the en­gine blew-up, we got sad­dled with the blame. If nitrous had suc­ceeded at that time in Top Fuel and Funny Car, big op­er­a­tors would have emerged, mo­nop­o­lized it, and we would have been driven out. This way we sur­vived.”

In 2007, ESPN’s Terry Blount re­minded us that A.J. Foyt and Dar­rell Wal­trip used nitrous ox­ide to boost horse­power in qual­i­fy­ing for the 1976 Day­tona 500. If Foyt’s man­ner was not al­ways re­mark­able for its tact, his mis­deeds were in­ge­nious. On an Indy car, his con­ceal­ment of nitrous had been bril­liantly con­ceived. The

re­port re­vealed that nitrous had been sprayed through a tiny ori­fice in a pop rivet into the spin­ning turbo, lo­cated im­me­di­ately be­hind the driver. The harm­less-look­ing rivet acted as a noz­zle that was lo­cated in the cross-tube of the roll bar, the struc­tural mem­ber that served to se­cure the seat belt top mount­ings.

In fact, on a later oc­ca­sion the chief ste­ward at Indy called Ther­mos’ shop and in­quired of Racing Prod­uct Man­ager Wady Ha­mam if there was a de­vice avail­able that could de­tect nitrous in the ex­haust pipe. Two weeks later they called again say­ing, “Tell your boys we’re go­ing to be check­ing the ex­hausts for nitrous residue, and if we de­tect any, they’ll be dis­qual­i­fied.”

Nat­u­rally, Ther­mos and his staff felt grat­i­fied. They had come to be re­garded as the de­fin­i­tive author­ity, the court of last ap­peal on all things nitrous. “But we had no knowl­edge of any of it, in­clud­ing how to read the pipe residue,” Ther­mos re­vealed. Still,

Mike saw a mar­ket­ing op­por­tu­nity and told them he would fly to Indy. He would in­spect all of the race cars, he would iden­tify any that were us­ing nitrous il­le­gally, and he would do it on his own dime if they would fur­nish cre­den­tials.

Ther­mos, a cheer­ful, easy-go­ing man with an ad­mirable sense of hu­mor, be­gan his ca­reer in nitrous when he formed his com­pany in 1978. Based in the Los Angeles area, his love for racing was acute, par­tic­u­larly for the Top Fuel and Funny Car drag racing classes, but par­tic­i­pa­tion at those lev­els was be­yond his fi­nan­cial grasp. On the other hand, pro­mot­ing his com­pany by in­tro­duc­ing nitrous ox­ide to the racing com­mu­nity of­fered brighter prospects.

Fol­low­ing the NHRA’s de­ci­sion to ban­ish nitrous from its top-tier ranks in the early ’80s, Ther­mos strayed over to the IHRA en­camp­ment, which set in mo­tion the ad­vent of the fab­u­lous Pro Mod class. Greater op­por­tu­ni­ties yet were re­al­ized when he ex­plored the po­ten­tial of the street mar­ket.

Af­ter 38 years, racing con­tin­ues to broaden his mind as he em­bod­ies the young man’s ea­ger­ness for learn­ing. On the other hand, Ther­mos and his team can re­flect on the ef­fects of their en­er­gies. They’ve watched their prod­ucts win races and break records, and they’ve jus­ti­fi­ably shared in the ac­co­lades. Slowly, they built the con­cept, es­tab­lished the name, cul­ti­vated a dom­i­nant pres­ence in the mar­ket­place and had a great time do­ing it.

/ The stormy mar­riage be­tween nitrous and nitro reached the boil­ing point at Indy 1982.

Photo by Whit Bazemore

/ Sneaky Snake pulled a nitrous mis­di­rec­tion play at the event. Was he us­ing or not? Photo cour­tesy Na­tional Hot Rod As­so­ci­a­tion

/ Mike Ther­mos: en­tre­pre­neur­ial spirit and ti­tan of nitrous ox­ide devel­op­ment. Photo cour­tesy of Mike Ther­mos

Photo by Whit Bazemore

/ RIGHT. Dale Arm­strong dab­bled with nitrous, not as a power-ad­der, but as a tool to pre­vent dropped cylin­ders. Photo by Gary Nas­tase

/ In the T/F camp, Marc Danekas (with Lucille Lee driv­ing) saw nitrous as the pos­si­ble magic elixir for in­creased power. Photo by Steve Reyes

/ ABOVE. Dale Emery (stand­ing by car) was al­ways ready to push the en­ve­lope of nitro per­for­mance for the Blue Max and ac­tively ex­per­i­mented with nitrous.

/ Billy Meyer was one of the most out­spo­ken ad­vo­cates for the use of nitrous ox­ide. Photo by Bob McClurg

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