Hunting downforce to down John Force

SEATTLE (July 26) -- The list of people gunning for eight-time Funny Car champion John Force has added an improbable crusader -- Top Fuel driver Tim Gibson. But unlike the rest of Force's Funny Car foes who try to beat the sport's best driver with...

SEATTLE (July 26) -- The list of people gunning for eight-time Funny Car champion John Force has added an improbable crusader -- Top Fuel driver Tim Gibson. But unlike the rest of Force's Funny Car foes who try to beat the sport's best driver with horsepower alone, Gibson is using his Aeronautical Engineering degree from UCLA to catch the champion with technology.

"Last year Ford and Roush found a way to tweak the body of a Mustang in such a way that they created a bunch of downforce," Gibson said. "It allows them to run their engine and clutch much harder while staying hooked up to the track. It's given them at least a tenth of a second advantage over the rest of the field. In drag racing, a tenth of a second is huge.

"Of course, they have made big strides with their engine program. But without the aerodynamic information they gained during all those hours at the Lockheed wind tunnel, the extra horsepower they've created would only help them smoke the tires quicker. To a large degree, horsepower and aerodynamics must go hand-in-hand in order to work."

Gibson, who once headed the UCLA chapter of the prestigious American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, has been hired by team owner Joe Gibbs to make his Interstate Batteries Pontiac Firebird Funny Car as competitive as Force's two Mustangs. Team Force, which includes the Mustang of Tony Pedregon, has dominated the Funny Car class in 1999, winning 10 of 12 national events as well as the Inaugural Winston Showdown, which pitted Funny Cars against Top Fuel Dragsters for the first time ever in competition.

"The shape of the Pontiac Firebird is a great starting point from which we can catch Force," Gibson said. "The basic body design simply has more potential as a Funny Car then the Mustang does, aeronautically speaking. What we've been doing is constructing experimental add-on parts that we place on the body and then test in the General Motors wind tunnel in Michigan.

"The main thing we're searching for is maximum rear wheel downforce so that (Team Gibbs crew chief) Wes Cerny can get the power from his motors onto the track at all points on the strip. At the same time we have to keep enough front wheel downforce to steer the car. We're also trying to increase the lift-to-drag ratio. It's a very delicate and complex balancing act.

"Team Force has already logged so many hours in the wind tunnel that the rest of the Funny Car field is struggling just to stay within range of them. The Gibbs Pontiac, right now, is the best of the rest. But if we keep gaining ground on Force at the rate we're currently at, there is a realistic chance we could catch him at some point in the 2000 season."

Ironically, at the same time that Gibson is chasing Team Force, he's also helping them run faster. Gibson drives the Bill Miller Engineering Top Fuel Dragster on a limited schedule to test new parts, and together with Miller, the two men provide many nitromethane-burning fuel teams with superchargers, fuel injectors, intake scoops and other aerodynamic accessories.

In fact, Team Force switched to a Gibson-Miller supercharger set-up at the NHRA's last stop in Denver and Pedregon won the race after beating his boss in the semifinals.

"It's rewarding for us when our equipment works well, regardless of which customer it is," said Gibson. "Both Team Force cars use Bill Miller rods and pistons. Pedregon won the Funny Car title in Denver with a Gibson-Miller supercharger Bill and I developed and (Joe) Amato won the Top Fuel portion of the event with one of our rear wing end-plate kits on his dragster. It was a great weekend for us. It's surprising how good it feels when your clients win.

"At the same time, going after Force with Gibbs' car is another big test for me. I'm working hard to make this car aerodynamically better than Force's machine. I believe the proper aerodynamic set-up combined with Cerny's tuning can produce the consistency we need to catch John."

From Thursday through Sunday, Gibson will temporarily put all of his other endeavors on the back-burner while he slips behind the wheel of the Bill Miller Engineering Top Fuel Dragster to compete in the 12th Annual Prolong Super Lubricants Nationals at Seattle International Raceway. "At some point, all the information we're gaining with everyone else will help make this BME car a front-runner also," Gibson said. "Then we'll find out how good it feels to win first hand. That's what we're all after, isn't it?"

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Series NHRA
Drivers Tony Pedregon , John Force