Now, we have always made a conscience decision to not cover drag racing here at Race Magazine. Not because we don’t have any respect for it, nor because we don’t recognise it in some way, but because it’s so widely covered. Covered to the point that it as a sport drowns out most other forms of grass roots racing.
Having said that, I feel the need to share a story with you. It is a story of internet challenges, no money, duct tape and a general lack of any sense of self respect. I feel I should point that last part out as the base car was yet another VN commodore. Poor life choices etc.
There are some things that Australian event organisers and venue owners should take note of that the drag racing fraternity have enjoyed for many years. The main one being ease of accessibility compared with CAMS events. Generally, to run at a circuit or hillclimb at the most accessible club level, you need club membership, a racing licence, a car that will survive a CAMS scrutineer nit-pick, and either a day off work or wait for the weekend. Not so with the most accessible form of drag racing. Any given Wednesday night you can front up to Western Sydney Motorsport Park, pay your money, go through a quick safety scrutineering and then go line up for a run. At the end of each run you stop at the drive through window and get the result on a slip of paper. It is simple, easy, reasonably cheap and even the most under-funded motor sport enthusiast can have a go.
And have a go we did.
So let me start with a car forum. A few years back before I joined Race Magazine (2010), someone on performanceforums.com threw down a challenge, whereby challengers had to build a drag car that could go down the quarter mile in 13 seconds or less. No real challenge, right? The catch was it had to be done for less than $1300. So the 13’s for $1300 challenge was borne. Rules were simple. Safety gear (seats, harnesses, tyres, brakes etc) were not considered in the $1300 build budget. Money gained by selling off parts were also not in the build budget. It had to be pure effort and innovation. Oh, and while road registration wasn’t needed it had to still look like a road car. No open wheelers!
There was a lot of interest and a huge flurry of initial activity with people dusting off various Skylines, Cressidas, Commodores and Falcons for the challenge. There is a lot of entertaining vision on YouTube of the 13’s for $1300 challenge, including Scotty’s Garage who built Project bluebird, an EL Falcon and a very impressive following.
I had picked up a grotty red VN commodore as a parts car for the Bogandore club racer I was (and still am *sigh* ) building. Just a run of the mill Executive with boot rust and the standard series one 3800cc V6 and 4sp auto. My good friend and fellow crazy car project guy Martin Upenieks suggested it be used and abused for the challenge and we both set about preparing it. If it sounds like I am blaming Martin, it’s because I’m blaming Martin.
A surprise to me was the maths involved in drag racing. Other than the fact that drag racers can’t handle the metric system, it’s like cricket for motor sport. The timeslip is broken down in a number of ways. The first 60 feet, the 1/8th mile and the quarter mile, and of course the top speed. By analysing these readings you can quickly determine where power needs to be made and where traction needs to be found.
It is important to read the slip to work out what you need to do with the car to improve the times. In our case we knew we didn’t have much power and that was reflected in the deep end numbers, so we spent time working on our 60ft numbers. A ballpark figure is 1/10th in the 60 is 3/10th’s at the deep end.
This was done by not only the light weight hence less mass to move but also tyre pressures set very carefully to absorb the power off the line as much as possible, and trying to get as many revs out of the engine at the start line as we could so when the brakes are released, the engine is as close to making maximum power as possible to prevent it from bogging down under the sudden load and weight shift. Martin was actually using both the hand brake and foot brake to hold the car in place on the start line under as much throttle as possible before the green light.
A car with a lot of traction but not a lot of power can still cover the quarter mile in a decent time, but the top speed will be low. Poor traction, gearing too high, or too much turbo lag all result in a poor 60 foot time, but very high top speeds. This is something we like to call “Supra Syndrome”. Supras run a large 3.0L engine in a heavy body and most racers compensate by fitting a huge turbo. The end result is a relatively slow quarter mile time and very high top speed. Part of the appeal of big bore V8’s in drag racing is they can get the power down immediately, which gives an excellent 60 foot time and a fast quarter, but the top speed is not as high as an equivalent powered large capacity turbo car as they can be hampered by a lack of revs. If only circuit racing could be analysed off the back of a shopper-docket like drag racing can!
But I digress.
We don’t have any love for Commodores. They are as common as muck and hardly built with any kind of innovation. By the same token, they are common, a well known platform, come with a decent size engine and are not all that heavy for what they are. Not to mention not a single hint of emotion is stirred when standing in front of one with an angle grinder.
Our build brief was simple; make it as light as possible, and fit nitrous. Weight reduction is, after all, the cheapest power there is!
First thing to go was the interior. All of it. Even the dashboard went in the bin. All that was left was an old indicator as an alternator light (alternators won’t charge without one). We decided that instrumentation was way more than what we wanted to know about VN Commodore engines. In went a steering wheel I had found on council cleanup many years prior, and the race seat and harness from the circuit car.
It was also much easier to clean without any carpet in it! Non caustic oven cleaner works amazingly well on engine bays.
We left the floor tar in place as at the time the cost of dry ice had gone sky high, and neither of us had the patience or inclination to spend days with a heat gun and paint scraper. It would have been worthwhile as there can be up to 20kg of this stuff in some cars.
The front and rear bumpers have a chunk of steel behind them for crash protection. Won’t need those! The bumper skins were put back on with thread bar and nuts from the hardware store. This example came fitted with a tow bar that probably weighed as much as a ship’s anchor. That exited stage left as well.
The standard exhaust is quite weighty so it went in the bin and some 2in galvinised down pipe from the hardware store was a much lighter replacement (it got trimmed for ground clearance after the photo was taken). A hot dog was installed to keep some noise down. Not only did that not work, it sounded awful. Eventually we gave up on the downpipe exhaust and left it to exit under the car.
The insides of the doors, boot and bonnet were gutted with an angle grinder, though we left the driver’s door alone for some resemblance of safety. All in all over 100kg was stripped from the car.
Martin sourced a stall converter from the internet, and I dug out a single fogger nitrous kit I had bought about a year prior for no reason other than I’d never seen one before. It was very basic consisting of the fogger, the fuel and nitrous hoses, two solenoids and the bottle fitting.
With so much weight removed, the car sat ridiculously high. Again the angle grinder came out to remedy the situation.
On hard launches the car transfers weight to the rear and, unlike a circuit car, the weight rising again as acceleration smooths out makes it very hard to maintain traction. A home remedy is to take two gas shock absorbers, cut the mounts off, and reweld them back onto the opposite ends. The shock absorber is then refitted upside down. This allows the car to squat down easily, and resists the tendency to suddenly rise back up. It sounds stupid, but in this application it worked a treat.
I found a Nissan Pintara R31 diff and removed the 4.11:1 crownwheel and pinion set, replacing the 3.08 gears that came stock in the VN Borg Warner diff, along with a cheap internet mini spool. One problem I ran into was the 4.11 gears use small right hand threaded 5/16 UNF bolts whereas the VN onwards use the VL turbo style left hand threaded 3/8 UNF bolts. I had a local machine shop cut me some tube to use as dowel sleeves around the bolts. Not the best solution and I don’t recommend it. If I was to do it again I’d buy a full spool as they come pre drilled for both bolt sizes.
Some drag radials and front runners were borrowed and we ran the car at WSID managing a high 14 second pass normally aspirated and 13.51 second pass at a stupidly low 160kph (100mph) on nitrous. Mission Accomplished!
Martin stated “it should also be noted that on the first run I held the car bouncing off the rev limiter for the last 320 feet of the track. Because I’m a real racer I’d rather blow up a motor than ever lift my foot at the track”.
However, we were far from satisfied. There was a LOT more we could get out of the car, and as we were up to only about $850 in our budget we decided to push the envelope some more.
It became immediately obvious that there were three key areas we had to improve before the next try:
- Fix the shift as it was utterly hopeless and wouldn’t select 4th under full throttle, which it desperately needed due to the low gears,
- Fix the rear end as traction was a problem, and
- Give it more nitrous.
I sourced a corvette piston assembly for the gearbox and installed it, and we adjusted the rear springs. The nitrous jets were drilled out with a great deal of accuracy – okay, that’s a lie. We arbitrarily selected a drill bit that seemed about right and went with it.
There was no cheap and simple way of getting 4th to engage at full throttle, so the next best thing was more revs. Sam Varcoe kindly flash tuned an ECU from a later Commodore (VS) which used a programmable EEPROM as opposed to the antiquated VN version of the Delco ECU. This gave us another 500 rpm to play with, bringing the rev limiter to a dizzying 6,000rpm.
The next trip out we managed a low 14 naturally aspirated, and had been lining up against a green MX5 which would stroll past the VN down the track each time. Once Martin took the reins and flicked the nitrous on, I can imagine the guy in the MX5 was quite shocked!
Martin managed to belt down the quarter in 12.4 seconds! Again, at a ridiculously low top speed (102mph – drag racers don’t understand metric). We called it “Reverse Supra Syndrome”.
It was then my turn, and on the warm up burnout there was a cough and then a loud bang. Smoke started to fill the cabin. I quickly lined up before the marshall spotted it. I wanted a run dammit and nothing was going to stop me.
We were the happiest people to have ever pushed a broken car onto a trailer.
Once home, the heads were pulled and the damage was obvious.
A burnt piston. But why? We noticed the fogger jet I had installed in the intake elbow had twisted around. The fuel and nitrous pooled inside the elbow and the engine took a big gutful when I opened it up for the burnout. We had been running the nitrous during the burnout in the absence of any kind of purging system, and it came back to bite us.
A new motor was sourced for beer money and we went back out again.
This time, belting out a 12.36 pass at 108mph!
We were very pleased indeed! The comment from the fraternity was the first pass on our new nitrous jets would be epic, and the second pass would need a broom. It was prophetic as again the fogger twisted in the intake and burnt another piston. Clearly that thin strip of duct tape needed a second cable tie.
There, I fixed it.
By now, we had come to the conclusion that we had achieved what we had set out to do, and were well and truly fed up with VN engines. We had won the 13’s for $1300 challenge by a massive margin! Others went much, much faster but blew their budgets in a big way. We achieved it well under budget.
What we learned from this project:
- Club and grass roots motor sport event organisers can learn a thing or two about event accessibility from drag racing,
- If you can’t gain the power, then shed the weight,
- maths can be fun, and
- we beat Scotty’s Garage!
Should we do a repeat car? Should we cover the occasional budget / grass roots drag build? Should we never speak of it again?
Would this kind of budget challenge work on a circuit or hillclimb format?
Let us know on our facebook page!