SAFETY DANCE

Mod­ern Ad­vance­ments Keep Rac­ing Mov­ing For­ward

Drag Racer - - Contents - Text and Pho­tos by Alan Par­adise

THUS FAR, THE 2018 NHRA SEA­SON IS ON TRACK TO BE THE MOST EX­PLO­SIVE IN RE­CENT MEM­ORY. While this cre­ates ex­cit­ing im­ages, in re­al­ity, it is any­thing but. The quest for 1,000-foot per­for­mance in the elite nitro classes (Funny Car and Top Fuel) has pushed equip­ment tol­er­ances to the very brink of their lim­its.

This has played out event by event, pro­vid­ing spec­tac­u­lar dis­plays of epic fail­ures, like blower cas­ing shrap­nel rip­ping ex­te­rior pan­els into shreds, ac­com­pa­nied by blasts of flames ca­pa­ble of il­lu­mi­nat­ing even the bright­est day­light runs.

While these in­ci­dents of­fered mem­o­rable tele­vi­sion high­lights, the fire and brim­stone can be ex­tremely trau­matic for driv­ers, crews, track safety teams and race ad­min­is­tra­tors. Sure, it shows just how safe the world’s fastest sport has be­come, but it also rings the bell of the de­struc­tive po­ten­tial of play­ing chicken with 10,000 horse­power and a tank full of nitro­meth­ane.

Be­cause of a freshly de­signed safety in­no­va­tion, driv­ers, in­clud­ing Doug Kalitta and Ron Capps, were able to re­cover and con­tinue rac­ing. Kalitta even won his first Win­ter­na­tion­als Top Fuel ti­tle in the wake of the chaos. We’ve also seen John Force, An­tron Brown and Brit­tany Force come back from what could have been fa­tal sit­u­a­tions had it not been for dili­gent ef­forts to keep the sport as safe as pos­si­ble.

Speed has al­ways been the hall­mark of drag rac­ing. How­ever, Wally Parks rec­og­nized very early on that with­out safety, the en­tire sport would have come crash­ing down in a very ugly man­ner. “Drag rac­ing was al­ways miles ahead of other forms of rac­ing when it came to safety,” said leg­endary driver Tom “The Mon­goo$e” McEwen. “We kept de­vel­op­ing ways to go faster, but we’re al­ways think­ing of how to do that with­out get­ting killed in the process,” he added.

The per­cep­tion of safety is that it’s a nec­es­sary evil. “It doesn’t make the car look bet­ter or run faster. I get that. It’s not a sexy sub­ject,” re­marked Den­nis Tay­lor, owner of Tay­lor Mo­tor­sports Prod­ucts, a com­pany that has been at the fore­front of safety prod­uct de­vel­op­ment for more than 30 years. At the same time, it is wise to keep the words of Bill “Grumpy” Jenk­ins in mind, “In or­der to win, you have to fin­ish.” And with to­day’s hyper-stressed en­gines, fin­ish­ing doesn’t just mean trip­ping the lights ahead of the com­pe­ti­tion, it also means be­ing able to get to the line for the next round.

Safety is a cause-an­d­ef­fect equa­tion. As speeds in­creased, drag chutes were em­ployed. The ever-present threat of fire helped usher in space-age Nomex fire suits. When ex­haust head­ers were turned up­ward, ven­ti­lated masks were de­vel­oped. Scat­ter shields helped pro­tect driv­ers from in­juries. And when blow­ing parts and hot fluid sprayed through the oil pan risked driver safety (as well as oil downs that of­ten halted ac­tion for hours at a time) the en­gine di­a­per solved the dan­ger­ous and messy prob­lem.

Tay­lor be­gan mak­ing the oil di­a­per in the late ’70s when he was a bud­ding Orange County, Cal­i­for­nia, Funny Car driver. “At the time I had an au­to­mo­tive up­hol­stery busi­ness. I had a good run do­ing race cars, street rods, cus­tom vans and restora­tions, as well as dealer work. But as the econ­omy dried up, so did the busi­ness. That’s when fel­low racers asked me to start do­ing cus­tom­fit en­gine di­a­pers. I had the right equip­ment and ex­per­tise. As a racer, I had the prac­ti­cal ex­pe­ri­ence and first-hand knowl­edge of how the prod­uct needed to be crafted.” Tay­lor ex­plained.

It didn’t take long be­fore Tay­lor’s ap­proach to qual­ity and dura­bil­ity spread

through­out the South­ern Cal­i­for­nia drag race com­mu­nity. Soon many of the top names in the sport were us­ing Tay­lor’s de­signs, which spread the word across the coun­try. “Within a year or so the shop was hum­ming with new de­signs in trans­mis­sion blan­kets and su­per­charger re­straint belts,” he added.

Seat­belts and chutes fol­lowed. Then, when a driver re­quested he make a cus­tom­fit fire suit, it opened up an en­tirely new av­enue for Tay­lor.

A few years ago, Tay­lor was faced with a po­ten­tially life-chang­ing de­ci­sion, re­lo­ca­tion. “The Cal­i­for­nia busi­ness cli­mate had be­come so re­stric­tive. As a Cal­i­for­nia guy, it was sad to watch. But, it was time to ei­ther move on or drown in a sea of reg­u­la­tions and tax­a­tion. Ore­gon seemed like a vi­able choice, and there is ac­tu­ally an op­er­at­ing drag strip just up the road in Wood­burn.” Tay­lor said.

Within a few min­utes in­side Tay­lor Mo­tor­sports Prod­ucts’ man­u­fac­tur­ing fa­cil­ity in Al­bany, Ore­gon, it was ob­vi­ous that the com­pany’s goal was qual­ity over quan­tity.

It’s a mod­est op­er­a­tion with a hand­ful of crafts­men that build each com­po­nent with a fo­cus on a spe­cific pur­pose: to make drag rac­ing a safer en­deavor. Ev­ery mea­sure­ment, cut, stitch and fin­ish is de­signed to po­ten­tially save the lives of driv­ers and spec­ta­tors, as well as min­i­mize dam­age to the ve­hi­cle and rac­ing fa­cil­ity should a cat­a­strophic fail­ure oc­cur.

At the time we vis­ited, Den­nis and his son Jeremy were in the throes of fin­ish­ing a new su­per­charger re­straint for Kalitta Mo­tor­sports’ Funny Cars. The new de­sign en­com­passed a greater mea­sure of pro­tec­tion for the driver and sur­round­ing com­po­nents.

At a quiet end of the shop is an area specif­i­cally for fire suits. Tay­lor per­son­ally crafts each suit him­self to the ex­act spec­i­fi­ca­tions needed to max­i­mize driver com­fort and pro­tec­tion. Each is made to ex­ceed SFI Cer­ti­fi­ca­tion for the clas­si­fi­ca­tion the driver is run­ning. This in­cludes one­and two-piece suits, shoes and boots.

Risk is part of the sport. We all know this each time we strap into our car or take our seat in the grand­stands. It’s part of what makes drag rac­ing ap­peal­ing. An om­nipresent ef­fort to do what crit­ics say shouldn’t be done: con­sis­tently striv­ing to push the en­ve­lope of speed. It’s a quest to squeeze one more ounce of horse­power from each cu­bic inch of dis­place­ment.

On Dec. 10, 1950, when Richard Gil­bert* was killed as his car flipped over at the Santa Ana Speed Tri­als, the re­al­i­ties of our sport hit home. Speed must be tem­pered with safety. Ev­ery in­no­va­tion to make cars quicker must be bal­anced with meth­ods to pre­vent us from be­ing our own worst en­emy. On this jour­ney go com­pa­nies like Tay­lor Mo­tor­sports Prod­ucts. It’s not glam­orous, but it is vi­tal, not only for drag rac­ing, but for the sur­vival of all forms of rac­ing.

Speed must be tem­pered with safety. Ev­ery in­no­va­tion to make cars quicker must be bal­anced with meth­ods to pre­vent us from be­ing our own worst en­emy.

*Richard Gil­bert is be­lieved to be the first driver killed dur­ing a sanc­tioned drag rac­ing event.

The cus­tom-made bal­lis­tic su­per­charger blan­ket is fit­ted in place. Mea­sure­ments are checked and rechecked to de­ter­mine if any al­ter­ations are nec­es­sary.

Prior to the start of the 2018 sea­son, Kalitta Mo­tor­sports asked Tay­lor to de­velop the next gen­er­a­tion of su­per­charger re­straints. The de­signs were al­ready in progress, al­though Tay­lor en­gi­neered spe­cific al­ter­ations to match Kalitta’s equip­ment. Here Tay­lor test-fits the re­straint belts to the up­per mount­ing plate of Kalitta’s su­per­charger.

One of the most sig­nif­i­cant safety prod­ucts to emerge dur­ing the past 30 years is the en­gine di­a­per. It has greatly re­duced the ef­fects of oil downs, much to the de­light of fans and track own­ers alike.

In this ap­pli­ca­tion, the six su­per­charger-to-head straps were aug­mented with new rear-mounted straps. New mount­ing plates were re­quired. Here the tem­plates are be­ing worked to se­cure the spe­cial straps.

As shown, the over­stitch pat­tern on each belt max­i­mizes strength and longevity. Should a su­per­charger grenade at full chat, ev­ery el­e­ment of the re­straint sys­tem must be ready to han­dle the war that di­rectly fol­lows.

Tay­lor hand­crafts fire suits that ex­ceed the needs for any form of mo­tor­sports. His NHRA fol­low­ing reads like a who’s who of the sport, in­clud­ing Top Fuel driver Ash­ley San­ford.

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