The amazing Hawaiian Punch Funny Car
Reprinted from the Dec. 13, 1991 issue of National DRAGSTER
Since this year's U.S. Nationals, inquiring drag-racing minds have wanted to know how Wes Cerny did it.
Just how did he wow a capacity crowd by providing Hawaiian Punch Dodge Funny Car driver Jim White with a 5.16 Low E.T. and speeds of 288.18 and 288.27 mph to win the Budweiser Big Bud Shootout and the U.S. Nationals titles? How did he deliver the 5.15 at 289.94 mph that helped White to win the next race in the NHRA Winston series, the Keystone Nationals? How did he make it possible for car owner Roland Leong to bask in the glory of owning the first Funny Car to exceed 290 mph when White ran 290.13 in 5.14 seconds at the next race, the Chief Nationals? How did he get Leong's Hawaiian Punch squad to close the year with the fastest Funny Car speed ever, a 291.82-mph charge, at the Winston Finals?
It was not, as some believe, accomplished in the title it takes to bolt on a set of cylinder heads or install a camshaft.
It took more than two years, and Cerny did it one race at a time, beginning with the '89 California Nationals, the first race where he looked things over. Cerny, shop foreman at Keith Black Racing Engines for several ears and friend to lifelong K-B customer Leong, had agreed to provide some tuning tips in the Hawaiian camp after the crew had suffered what White describes as "a horrible time in 1989." White continued, "We suffered all kinds of breakage that year. Even after Wes came aboard, it took a while to get things sorted out. After the California Nationals, we blew it up at the NorthStars. We qualified third at (the U.S. Nationals) that year but blew up off the' line against Chuck Etchells and slapped the wall. At the Fallnationals, we blew a blower so bad that we split the body, and at the Winston Finals, we dropped a cylinder and kicked all the rods out.
"Despite all the grief, we believed we had a strong car. It would 60-foot like there was no tomorrow; we got a .911 and .920s. But the combination was too violent. Coming out of that season, Wes felt that the car was too volatile off the line, that we needed to soften it up a little in the beginning, then pick it up in the middle and top end. After all, we probably were averaging in the mid-260s for speed back then. We charged at the start and fell over on the top end."
Given their explosive past, Cerny didn't want to shoot for the moon but instead chose to take things slowly, to make sure everything was being done correctly. Then, if everything started to come together, he'd take more aggressive steps later in 1990.
For the first eight months of 1990, the team turned in middle-of-the-pack showings. Though they ran 5.28 at the Gatornationals and their quickest time, a 5.22, at the Southern Nationals, their efforts were not going to produce a Winston Championship that year.
What happened instead was the reality of a turning point, at the '90 Heartland Nationals, when they lost in the second round after clocking a 5.25 best.
"At that point," White remarked, "we were out of the points race. We were in sixth place, about 5,000 points out of the lead. We weren't feeling sorry for ourselves because we had runner-upped at the Springnationals and Mile-High Nationals and had run some good numbers. And it was at that point that Wes felt he had learned enough in the previous 16 races to try something dramatic. He had some ideas that would step the car up, to take it to a whole new level.
"We were getting the car to E.T. pretty well. We were running 5.20s, but the speeds were average, actually below average. For example, on the 5.22 we ran only 263 mph. The car wasn't accelerating at all in the last half of the track. "A Funny Car generally will leave at four and a half to five G's for about three and a half seconds, then the G meter comes down real quick, down to even one G. When we were running 5.20s, 5.30s, we were going 230 at the eighth-mile, but at the top end we'd run only 265, maybe 270 or so, miles an hour. That's only a gain of 35 or 40 miles an hour for the last half of the track after having gone from zero to 230 in the first half.
"There's only one way to go faster. Because all the factors are static -- you can't run bigger tires, the rear-end ratio has to stay the same -- the only thing you can do is generate more rpm, to raise the driveshaft speed. That's what Wes wanted to do. He wanted the car to accelerate all the way to the end of the track."
If anyone is qualified to find a way to get those rpm it's Cerny. Before going to work for Keith Black, Cerny was the shop foreman at Engle Cams, so he was more than qualified to find a breakthrough in camshaft design, which would greatly aid his effort to build driveshaft speed.
"Wes had made key changes in three areas just before the '90 Chief Nationals: fuel delivery, clutch, and cam. Since we'd gotten the car to leave cleanly at the start, Wes was determined to make the car charge at 300 to 700 feet by implementing some of his ideas on driveshaft speed. As it turned out, the Chief Nationals left us headed in the direction we wanted to go."
White had opened his qualifying effort at the Chiefs with a 5.14, 278.89 and backed up the E.T. with a 5.17, 275.39 for a still-standing National E.T. Record.
Those speeds, the best of White's career, continued in eliminations. White ran times of 5.25, 279.93; 5.24, 278.89; and 5.20, 278.03 before a blower belt made its untimely exit and left Mike Dunn the event winner.
"In many respects, that was one of the key races in developing the power we eventually had," White observed. "Not only did the car run as we had hoped, more important, it proved that Wes' ideas were right on the money. Our program was going in the right direction."
The next big step on the path to 290-mph performance came at the '91 Gatornationals. White ripped Low E.T. of the Meet, a 5.17 at 279.93 mph, out of the box. This came after White took home his first career "Oscar" from the Arizona Nationals, where he clocked a 5.25 Low E.T. and reset the NHRA National Record for speed at 284.62 mph, the team's best speed to that time.
White recalled at the time, "There's so much to get squared away in these cars. Wes' tune-up was solid, but our clutch work wasn't what it should have been and we wound up getting beat early. That was pretty much the season. Force made it to his fourth straight final at Gainesville and took a big points lead.
"As for our team, we sort of got a trade. We may have seriously hurt our chances for the Winston title, but we ran into Leonard Hughes there, who turned us on to the last remaining big piece to the puzzle.
"Leonard has known Wes for a long time, and he told him that if we had his cylinder-head setup, we'd really run on the other end. Leonard always has had big mile-an-hour cars. The Candies & Hughes Funny Cars always flew on the big end; he loves the speed. Leonard had given advice to Joe Pisano and Glenn Mikres, and it was with his heads that they ran 286 mph at Houston this year. He said that his heads should blend perfectly with what Wes was doing with the cam, clutch, and fuel system.
"Wes and Leonard decided to try out the system. In April, we ordered the parts we needed and Leonard had them built to our specifications. Because this was all one-of-a-kind stuff, the parts weren't ready until late May and we didn't actually put them on the car until the Springnationais in June."
The plan of attack at the Springnationals was simple: Qualify early and once solidly in the show, put on the new parts and let 'er rip. White qualified No. 1 with the "stock" equipment at 5.25, then the team strapped on the test parts for Saturday. The first -- and only -- run was grim. White shut the car off at 300 feet after the engine torched a combustion chamber and burned all 16 plugs.
The Hawaiian Punch crew left the stock combination on the car for the rest of the Springnationals and all of Le Grandnational before trying the new parts again at the Summernationals.
"We burned up the pieces again," said White. "We got into the show, put on the parts, and by half-track we had scorched them. We were pretty perplexed, but Wes kept a cool head. He took the parts off, analyzed the computer data, and made changes based on the information we had.
"It's true that in our testing and building of this combination we were responsible for a lot of improvement. The large volume of fuel we were trying to run put a lot of stress and strain on different parts of the engine, and we'd end up later going to a manufacturer and telling him what kind of design would help our cause.
"For example, when we lifted the heads on one run, Wes told the manufacturer that it would be harder to lift the heads if we had 9/16-inch head studs, and that's what we got. We got crankshaft companies to add stronger material to their cranks, we got improvements in camshafts, better rollers, rocker-arm exhaust adjusters, pushrods, and fuel pumps. A lot of new equipment lay in the wake of our efforts to get those big numbers down."
The team again torched the heads at the California Nationals, but each time Cerny learned more about what it took to get the car to accelerate through the quarter-mile.
White recalled, "Wes said after (the Cal Nats) that he needed to make one more change to the camshaft, then we might get in our first respectable pass, probably in Seattle."
White and the Hawaiian Punch Dodge shot down the pine-tree-surrounded Seattle quarter-mile in heat approaching 90 degrees to an outstanding 5.22 at just 264.31 mph during Northwest Nationals Funny Car qualifying. Again, the new heads got torched, but this time the faces in the Hawaiian Punch camp weren't as long.
"That was our best run," said White, "and Wes was really pumped. He felt that in two weeks, maybe in time for the NorthStar Nationals, we'd be able to make the pass we felt the car was capable of. In those two weeks, Wes studied the data and conferred with Leonard and (Budweiser King crew chief) Dale Armstrong. It's probably not too well known among the fans, but Dale was the guy who came up with the ignition parts in our combination.
"We got the equipment back in time for the NorthStars, but because we lost a day to rain, we decided to hit it again at the U.S. Nationals. It was at this point that Wes felt confident enough to really go to war. In the week or two before Indy, he decided to duplicate the parts, which meant more cams, cylinder heads, and fuel pumps, and different pump gears and nozzles, whatever it took."
The plan was the same: Qualify well, then go for it.
"We ran 5.27 to qualify No. 1 with our regular stuff," White recalled, "then we took the old equipment off and put on our magic parts in its place."
We all know what happened at that point. Despite the typically warm and muggy climes surrounding Indianapolis Raceway Park, White ripped the shot heard 'round the racing world, a 5.26 at 288.18 mph late Saturday morning.
"Our emotions soared, came crashing down, and went right back up after that run," White said. "I knew that the car was hitting it hard. I didn't know it was going 288 mph, but I could feel the thing charge hard all the way down the track. After we got it stopped, the crew was going nuts; it was a real feeling of accomplishment.
"No sooner had we tucked away that time slip when NHRA tech officials ruled that our spoiler was too long. I'd be lying if I said we weren't grumbling after that, but it was then that Wes laid it all out. He told everyone to cool it, that (the judgement) didn't matter, that we've got it now. When we saw Wes' confidence, we all relaxed."
So that's how they did it.
The 288.18 was the talk of the pits: The clocks must have screwed up; probably got nitrous in it; they're cheating; let's see 'em do it again, and the truest reflection of the mood, let's hope that they can't do it again.
Unfortunately for the competition, they could do it again, and again. White ran 287.71 mph in the first round of the Budweiser Big Bud Shootout, then won the eliminator two heats later with an incredible 288.27-mph blast.
To the disappointment of many fans, the Hawaiian Punch Dodge Daytona will not be back. Cerny will advise Armstrong on Kenny Bernstein's Bud King Top Fueler, and the plans of Roland Leong and Jim White are unsettled.
Whatever they decide to do, this trio and Hughes and Armstrong can take pride in their accomplishments.
After all, the 286.62-mph speed that Scott Kalitta turned in at the '88 Chief Nationals was the best Funny Car speed in history before White went on his bender, but its been virtually forgotten. The Hawaiian Punch Daytona ran better than that 11 times in the last four races of 1991 and was the only car to run in the elapsed times in the teens all year.
In all likelihood, the 1991 edition of the Leong-owned, Cerny-tuned, White-driven Hawaiian Punch Dodge Daytona will rate as one of the class' greatest performers.