Nine Seconds To Glory
By Chuck Norton
Every sport thrives on the challenges presented by seemingly unattainable thresholds of performance. Some of us are old enough to recall Roger Bannister's struggle to the first four-minute mile in track and field back in 1954. Years later, the sporting world cheered the efforts of Hank Aaron as he surpassed Babe Ruth's career home run record. More recently, we watched in awe as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa stampeded across another of baseball's milestones, Most Home Runs in a Season. Drag racing has been no exception.
Over the years, milestone performance barriers have fallen regularly. Early in our sport's history, an engineering whiz predicted that no car could exceed 150 mph in a quarter-mile. The slide rule said that it was physically impossible! Do you remember the focus on the first 200-mph run in Top Fuel? Debates over "hot clocks" consumed the drag racing world for months. In the recent past we can recall the attention focused on the eight-second barrier for SS/A and SS/AA.
The challenge awaits
Which car/engine combinations can muster a 9.99 or better? Who will do it? Where will it happen? What are the optimum conditions? How important is the "luck factor?" Just about everyone familiar with the details of this particular challenge has an opinion on the answers to these questions. A substantial part of the conjecture seems to be intertwined with emotional responses stemming from life-long product identification preferences, from deep-seated regional rivalries, and from deep within the egos of individual competitors who have devoted lifetimes and fortunes to the pursuit of being in the right place with the right parts at precisely the right time. It's that close to happening and someone will gain the glory. In the following paragraphs we'll take a look at each of the identifiable factors, offering an overview of the possibilities. At the conclusion of this essay you won't be handed a sealed envelope containing the identity of the winner but you'll be a lot more attuned to what it's going to take. At that point the reader should be able to make a reasonably accurate prediction -- that is, if it is possible to separate oneself from the emotional responses.
Some qualifying statements
Any of at least 15 cars in competition today could be that one. It could be a product of any of four manufacturers. It could be at any of several likely geographic locations in the country. It could be a driver who has distinguished him or herself over a lifetime of winning races or it could be a person who has focused all energies on this particular achievement, a one trick pony. Whomever prevails, the name will be known as long as Stock Eliminator is contested.
Obviously, a part of the consideration must focus on the mechanical advantages offered by a variety of car/engine combinations. As a side issue it's important to recognize that American automobile manufacturers have produced a number of "factory race cars" that would be capable of runs in the nine-second zone in Stock Eliminator trim if they were approved for competition in Stock Eliminator by the sanctioning bodies.
Ford's Thunderbolt, the Tunnel Port Fairlane 427 and the 8V 427 Fairlane were either produced in quantities too limited to qualify for Stock Eliminator or have been have been assigned horsepower ratings that drop them below the eight pounds per advertised horsepower minimum for A/S or A/SA classification.
Likewise, victims of the same circumstances are Chrysler's Race Hemi and most of the high-compression, lightweight combinations provided to racers by Dodge and Plymouth in the early 1960s. Several Max Wedge combinations are still viable but the most potent are outside the limits of the rules.
Chevrolet has one combination that has also been declared ineligible for Stock Eliminator, the aluminum block/aluminum head ZL1 '69 Camaro.
The remaining contenders can be arbitrarily grouped into three categories. They are: 1. The "Original Factory Race Cars"; 2. The "Classic Muscle Cars"; 3. The "New Breed Muscle Cars."
Original Factory Race Cars
Ford's 1967 Fairlane, factory-rated at 410 horsepower and campaigned at a factored rating of 415 horsepower, is a strong player in both A/S and A/SA. These big Fords are prime candidates for nine-second honors. Typical of the early factory drag race cars, the Fairlane is a mid-sized vehicle with a longer wheelbase than the "ponycars" that followed. It has room for a back seat and the body configuration could conceivably have been used for a family car in its day. The race versions of the car are equipped with a scooped fiberglass hood and a trunk-mounted battery. It has substantial overhang behind the rear axle to aid weight transfer and while all Stock Eliminator cars are allowed to position an additional battery in the trunk, these vehicles were delivered with a trunk-mounted battery, thus avoiding the need to carry a battery weighing 30 to 40 pounds under the hood. The 1967 vintage Ford 427 motor is equipped with cross-bolted mains and an improved oiling system. While these small engineering points may not increase performance they definitely enhance durability.
Mopar Factory Race Cars are represented by '63 and '64 versions of the 426 Max Wedge engine. Their impressive "cross ram" intake manifolds with twin Carter AFB carburetors have been tearing up drag strips for more than 30 years. Some combinations are eligible to run the ultra-rare aluminum front sheet metal as long as the low compression ratios are used. All have the trunk-mounted battery option. The higher-compression 1964 models are precluded from light body parts so that the performance gain is offset by additional front end weight. Again, like the Fairlane, rear overhang is abundant and the wheelbase is longer than the later Mopar muscle cars. During the 1960s, Chrysler engineers produced a superior suspension system for their automatic transmission race cars and most competitors have taken advantage of that early research to guarantee effective traction components for today's horsepower and tires. The Mopar stockers currently in the hunt for nine-second glory are running with automatic transmission combinations.
Chevrolet and Pontiac had officially withdrawn from the horsepower wars during the mid-'60s. Their early factory-backed racing entries, the fabled 409 Chevrolet and the 421 "Swiss cheese" Catalina, are doomed in today's competition by the very severe horsepower ratings attached to them from the outset. There are no "factory race cars" from this era on the General Motors roster.
The "Classic Muscle Cars"
By 1968-69, Ford deleted the 427 and mechanical valve lifters from its lineup and, as a result, the Mustang 428 Cobra Jet is not represented in the fastest classes, A/S and A/SA. There are some very potent 428 cubic-inch Cobra Jets winning consistently in B/S and B/SA around the country but since their 375 horsepower rating does not elevate them to the "A" classes, they cannot compete at eight pounds per horsepower. Should that situation change through the adding of horsepower, they could immediately become players in the race to nine-second ETs.
Chevrolet's most competitive entries are in the Classic Muscle Car category. Three versions of the Camaro -- the 1968 and '69 combinations with 396 cubic inches producing a factored 390 horsepower (with aluminum heads) and the 1967 combination with 396 cubic inches, 390 horsepower (with iron heads) -- can be found in A/S. Improved weight distribution realized through the lighter aluminum heads have given the 396 Chevrolet's odds a boost in the big picture of a nine-second combination. The iron block, iron head COPO 427, rated at 425 horsepower, can be found in both A/S and A/SA. The COPO 427 produces impressive horsepower figures, but it has always provided challenges in the area of traction. Past performances have established it as Chevrolet's most consistent threat at altitude tracks. The "A" bodied Chevelle Malibu, equipped with a high torque 454 cubic big block, has been a darkhorse performer in A/SA for several years. Although such cars have won A/SA class runoffs on several occasions, none have yet recorded sea-level E.T.s quick enough to be considered prime candidates for nine-second honors.
The Chrysler Corporation's production of Classic Muscle Cars reached a peak a few years later than either Ford or Chevrolet. As a result, the Barracuda and Challenger models equipped with the famed Hemi motor are the newest models represented in this category. The early 1970s Hemi-powered Barracudas and Challengers are a very real threat to break into the nines. They certainly produce the power but, again, these cars with relatively short wheelbases and a heavyweight iron powerplant is subject to inconsistency in the area of traction. Like the Mustangs, the Barracudas and Challengers equipped with the 440 cubic inch wedge motors topped by three, two-barrel Holley carburetors are extremely quick in B/S and B/SA but unless their horsepower ratings are elevated enough to move them into the eight pounds per horsepower class, they likely will not be the first nine-second stockers.
The "New Breed Muscle Cars"
The LT1 computer-controlled fuel injection and ignition timing joined with improved cylinder head design to provide a rebirth in the area of straight-line performance. The most significant result of the LT1 development was to introduce racers and builders to the advantages of programmed tuning and practically infinite control of engine functions. At the current weight breaks, the LT1 is not a threat to enter the nine-second zone.
No sooner had the LT1 issues had been addressed, than General Motors introduced the LS1 version. Initially, the LS1 350 cubic-inch, all-aluminum engine was dismissed as an engineering nightmare in Stock Eliminator but, once again, determined racers persevered. Within a year, the LS1 began appearing in Stock Eliminator cars and due, in part, to conservative horsepower ratings dominating their respective classes. Recently, refined iterations of the LS1 have begun to demonstrate their true potential. The LS1 is not likely to break the nine-second barrier while running at the current C/SA weight break of 9.5 pounds per horsepower but some recent performances at lesser weight breaks suggest that even carrying that weight, the LS1 is a true contender in the hunt for a 9.99 or better ET.
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