Pomona 2: Front engine dragsters provide history

POMONA Calif. - NHRA drag racing's past and present will collide in one spectacular weekend of speed as front engine top fuel dragsters and other special nostalgia categories will be featured in exhibition eliminators, joining modern Top Fuel ...

POMONA Calif. - NHRA drag racing's past and present will collide in one spectacular weekend of speed as front engine top fuel dragsters and other special nostalgia categories will be featured in exhibition eliminators, joining modern Top Fuel dragsters, Funny Car and Pro Stock divisions during the Pep Boys NHRA 50th Anniversary Nationals presented by American Racing Wheels, July 5-7 at legendary Pomona Raceway.

The $2 million race, the first nighttime drag race in Southern California in more than 20 years, is the 13th of 24 events in the $50 million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series. Final eliminations will be televised live by ESPN, while qualifying coverage will be televised on ESPN2.

Nostalgia top fuel dragsters feature 3,000 horsepower engines that guide classic 240-inch wheelbase slingshot chassis. The popular cars, which were prevalent in NHRA competition in the 1960s and '70s, are characterized by their mounted front-engine design and absence of any type of rear wing. Over time, Top Fuel dragsters evolved into sleek, long-wheel base machines with 6,000 horsepower rear-engines and tall rear wings used to secure maximum downforce.

While a typical quarter-mile run for a modern day Top Fuel dragster is about 4.5 seconds at more than 320 mph, their elders cover the same distance in about 5.9 seconds at nearly 250 mph.

However, Jack Harris, 58-year-old driver of the Nitro Thunder nostalgia dragster, says driving a front-engine car can be a handful. "It's more seat of the pants driving," said Harris, a Salt Lake City native that's earned the nickname 'the Sherriff' for his dominating performances in recent years. "It takes some more experience, because with that engine sitting in front of you, you need to know when to lift and when to stay in the throttle. If you don't know when to lift you could get a face full of oil."

Harris' top rival, former Top Fuel standout Rance McDaniel, from Fresno, Calif., says the machines quickly grab a driver's attention and respect.

"These cars don't always go straight," says McDaniel, Top Fuel winner of the '93 NHRA Finals and runner-up at the '94 Winternationals at Pomona. "The first lesson I learned when I switched over from the longer cars is that these require some additional driving. They move around pretty aggressively, almost similar to a Funny Car. You've got to know how to steer it and finesse the clutch to get the most out of a run."

McDaniel, who competed in NHRA Top Fuel competition for several years, his best season coming in '93 when he finished fifth in the Winston top 10 standings, has enjoyed much success driving the famous Champion Speed Shop entry owned by Bob and Jim McLennan on the GoodGuys nostalgia circuit.

"The thing about racing front-engine dragsters is that it's a little more relaxed," said McDaniel, who finished his NHRA Top Fuel career with one win in five final round appearances. "It's pretty intense on the (NHRA) circuit when you're going for that Winston championship. You don't have any friends. In this deal people actually talk to each other in the pits. We're still really serious when we're on the track, but we're not hiding any secrets from each other. It's more for the fun of it. That's what I enjoy the most."

Harris, meanwhile, is looking to add another major trophy to his mantle after recently winning the biggest events for nostalgia front-engine dragsters, the March Meet and Hot Rod Reunion, both held at Famoso Dragway in Bakersfield, Calif. His career-best elapsed time is 5.95 seconds, with a best speed of 244 mph. He hopes track conditions at Pomona will enable him to improve those marks and get a win in the process.

"We'd love to go out to Pomona and set the speed record at 250 miles per hour, run the first five-second pass in a front-engine dragster, and win this special event," said Harris, who won the GoodGuys event at Pomona in 2000. "But first we have to qualify, and that may be tough. I'll predict the bump spot will be in the 6.10-second range if the track holds up to its reputation."

McDaniel, who holds the elapsed time record for front-engine cars at 5.87 seconds, says his goal for Pomona is to do just a little better than his rival. While he admits winning the race would be awesome, he says the biggest treat for him will be to introduce this type of racing to some new fans.

"It's going to be like a turn back the clock night at a Major League Baseball game," McDaniel said. "We'll have some old fans who can relive some memories and maybe we'll even hook some fans who have never seen a front-engine dragster run. These cars really haul and make a ton of power."

Adds Harris: "It gives the fans an opportunity to see where the sport came from, the way it was in the '60s and '70s. I think we'll give 'em a good show and they'll see how competitive we are."

Other top favorites expected to attempt to qualify for the special eight-car exhibition lineup includes Howard Haight of Upland, Lee Jennings of Chino, Bob Muravez of Los Angeles, Gerry Steiner of San Jose, Force Racing aerodynamics specialist Tim Gibson and former NHRA Funny Car standout Dale Pulde.

-NHRA

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Series NHRA
Drivers Tim Gibson , Dale Pulde

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