Modern Advancements Keep Racing Moving Forward
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.