March 2011 Tech Talk
Purchasing a Used Dragster
This topic was presented by a member via the American Race Cars “Strategy Session” Member Forum. Given the current economic climate and my own repetitive plea for everyone to race within our means, this seemed like an excellent, applicable topic for the month of March (okay, so I said I was going to have this done a month ago, but I’m a little behind.. Sorry!). We’ve had a number of great ideas for future “Tech Talk” columns from the TIBR member base and we’ve gotten commitments from some very well known and respected members of the racing industry to take part in those columns, so look for some really insightful technical stories throughout 2011.
This month we’re going to talk about purchasing a used dragster for competition in brackets and/or Super Comp (Quick Rod). We’ll touch a little bit on both solid (or slip-joint) cars, and suspended dragsters. I can’t claim to be an expert on this subject. I’ve got some insight, just from being around the sport my entire life and owning over a dozen dragsters myself, but it’s been a long time since I purchased a used dragster. As such, I’ve imparted the wisdom of a handful of individuals much more well-versed than I am to comment on the topic. Later in the column, I’ll introduce each of these individuals, as we’ve got a number of quotes and ideas from them.
The vast majority of my personal dragsters over the years have been newly fabricated chassis that were built specifically for me. My first couple of dragsters were Cameron Race Cars (no longer in business), that I actually helped fabricate (that may be a slight stretch: I swept the floors there when I was in High School and maybe a year of college). I owned a few Miller Race Cars canti-lever dragsters before making the switch to American Race Cars. The guys at American have built me four cars over the past six years. In addition to the cars I’ve owned personally, I’ve driven cars built by just about every major manufacturer at one time or another.
What I’ve always liked about buying a new car is that it’s mine: every bracket, every mount, and every detail is exactly how I wanted it. In my mind, that’s always been worth a lot (in a lot of areas, I’m a pretty picky guy). I’ve always purchased my own cars as a bare chassis and assembled them myself. I do all of the assembly, wiring, plumbing, and finish work. Do I do any better job than the chassis builders? Probably not; but everything is done the way I want it. More importantly, I know the car inside and out. So, if I do have a problem, I’ve generally got a lot better idea of how to fix it than I would if I was working on a car someone else had assembled.
With that said, in today’s market a used dragster (especially a suspended dragster) can offer a ton of value. By purchasing used, we can let the initial owner absorb the price of a new car and the immediate depreciation that inevitably comes with it (that’s the cost of being “cool” and having a flashy new car; or in my case the cost of being very particular). I’d be very cautious about purchasing a hard tail or slip-joint dragster used, as those cars have a finite lifespan. Suspended dragsters, for the most part, can offer great value because the chassis itself rarely wears out. Sure, the tubing has a lifespan, but it should be a long one: most of the components that can wear out (shocks, heim joints, etc.) are replaceable.
I’ll share a couple of my own opinions before I introduce you to our expert panel for the column. I’m going to stick to what I know, and really just share some thoughts on purchasing a suspended car. I don’t want to get into a discussion as to what method of suspension is “better.” Various chassis builders and fabricators can argue the virtues of a conventional 4-link, a swing-arm, a canti-lever setup, single shock vs. dual shock, anti-roll versus X-link, etc. I’m not an engineer, and while I’ve got opinions based on what I’ve enjoyed success with, I don’t think they’re relevant to this discussion. From a safety and stability aspect, I’m a big fan of additional structure between the bottom 4-link bars (a swing arm or an X-link). In my opinion, the use of a wishbone or lateral link is outdated: I feel as though the cars work better with more structure between those bars, simply because it reduces the amount of “roll” or flex in the chassis due to engine (or braking) torque. Plus, it’s a few less rod ends and heim joints (from wishbones or lateral links) that can break. Even so, that shouldn’t be a huge purchasing decision. You can remove the wishbone from nearly any car and replace it with an X-link (or something similar) with minimal costs and effort.
Unless you just run into a smoking deal, I’d always recommend staying with a name brand chassis builder. I don’t want to name names because I’m sure I’ll forget one or two, but there are probably a dozen big name chassis builders in the dragster business. Which one to choose is all personal preference, but I’d avoid owning a “one-off” car, simply for resale value purposes.
My biggest concern, and this seems obvious but I’m amazed at how often it’s overlooked, is your fit and comfort within a prospective car. Cage width, cage height, and seat layout varies by manufacturer and by car. I don’t care how good the deal is: if you’re buying something to race, there is no sense in owning it if you’re not comfortable driving it.
I’d also look at the cars layout. Is the steering wheel in a comfortable spot (the distance the wheel is from your body is generally easily adjusted, but the height of the wheel is not)? Is the shifter comfortable to reach and away from your body (there’s nothing worse than your leg constantly hitting the shifter extrusion: it’s a season-long bruise)? Is the car easy to get in and out of? Easy to see out of? Can you reach the dash and perform all the necessary functions while strapped in? Again, some of these issues can be easily remedied, but some can’t.
Beyond that, I’d make judgment based upon details that are difficult to change. For example, let’s say that you love everything about a car, but you’d rather have Auto Meter gauges than the current brand. Or you’d rather have a competing delay box, or shifter. Generally speaking, these changes aren’t monumental, so they shouldn’t really affect your decision. It’s not going to take a major structural change to incorporate the items that you want.
The details that I’d look for are the options that would require a fair amount of work and/or money to change. Some that come to mind are: wing mounts, nitrous mounts, dual brakes, radiator location, and other personal preferences. Make a list of the things that you’re looking for in a car, and then really do your homework to note what it’s going to take to make the car that you’re looking at the car that you really want.
I guess the biggest question to ask yourself is this: Are you looking for a race car or are you looking for a project? If it’s the former, then I don’t think price can be your main concern: Your focus is more on having what you want (then shopping around to find it at the best price). If your focus is the latter, then price is likely to be the deciding factor; and you’ll likely sink more money into the car to make it exactly what you want.
Enough of my rambling on the subject, let’s meet our panel of experts! We’ve developed a series of questions for these four individuals to answer. Each of our guest panel is well versed in racing, fabrication, and repair.
Mark Horton: Mark is the co-owner and operator of American Race Cars. Prior to the establishment of the company in 2004, Mark raced professionally and won the 1999 IHRA Super Rod World Championship in addition to several major events in NHRA and IHRA. He still competes on a limited schedule.
J.B. Strassweg: As the co-owner/operator of DragstersForSale.Com, J.B. has had hundreds of dragsters pass through his hands over the last decade. He’s a longtime racer himself, and has built, bought, and sold dragsters professionally since 2003.
Matt Cooke: Tech Talk readers know Matt from a story we did last year regarding Ohlins Shocks. Matt is the proprietor of Dixie Racing Products, which is the exclusive drag racing distributor for Ohlins Shocks. He’s also a longtime racer himself, and a former IHRA Top Dragster World Champion. He adds his insight from an engineering perspective and gives us some keys to look for in suspension longevity.
Russ Famer: The owner of Race Tech Race Cars, Russ has fabricated hundreds of dragster chassis in addition to roadsters and door cars. Russ raced himself for years, although other interests have kept him away from the bracket wars in recent seasons.
We’d like to thank each member of our panel for taking the time to answer some questions and participate in this discussion for ThisIsBracketRacing.com.
TIBR: What should racers look for when selecting a used dragster?
J.B. Strassweg: I always try to stress to buyers the rule of threes. It’s kind of an unwritten rule that we laugh about in our shop. It’s something I think all racers can relate to; the “fish tales” that get told while bench racing. For example, if somebody tells you a set of slicks has 50 runs on them, it’s probably more like 150. You get the idea, the rule of threes states that it’s probably three times what they’re telling you. With that said, we generally don’t take that information at face value. We try to study wear components; tires, brake rotors, pads, king pin bushings in the older cars, play in the rack, play in the rear end (gear wear), and the chassis itself.
I’m also a stickler for neat wiring. I like to be able to trace it and know what’s going on. If a car hasn’t been wired by a manufacturer or a “name” in the industry, I ding it unless it looks presentable when I see it. Obviously the newer the electronics, the better off you are as well. Dated electronics need to be checked or tested. We took a car in on trade last year that the previous owner couldn’t figure out. He just swapped it off for a new car because he “couldn’t turn a win light on with it anymore.” We raced it one weekend and figured out pretty quickly the delay box had a relay acting up. $65 in parts, labor, and freight, and five months later the car won nearly $30,000 with four different drivers in it!
Russ Farmer: I’d look at age, how clean it is, how well the car has been maintained, and if it has all the current SFI updates. Look to see if oil is leaking from around the shaft of the shock, check the wiring for neatness and see if it has been altered.
Matt Cooke: If it’s rigid, make sure it’s a slip joint car. The flexibility just allows an array of motor combinations to work better. With a true hard tail car, you can under power the chassis, which is only going to result in a lot of heartache and not very many win lights.
Mark Horton: The biggest thing in my opinion is driver comfort. I’ve always been a big guy, so I need a bigger car to be comfortable. A lot of things go into comfort and safety from a chassis builder standpoint; just in terms of dimensions and where things are mounted. I definitely wouldn’t purchase a used car without sitting in it and making sure it was something I felt like I could drive comfortably.
TIBR: Are there any warning signs from a structural standpoint that could signal a possible problem to avoid?
Russ Farmer: Check to see if the car is sagging, and for cracked or welded motor plates. Those are telltale signs of a structural problem. And obviously check for cracks on all the uprights.
Matt Cooke: Make sure the bottom frame rail is nice and straight. If you see body panels bent at the bottom, inspect closer to make sure the car is not swaybacked. That’s typically caused by improper tie down and not using wood or a bag to support the middle of the chassis. If any of that is going on, the next thing you know you’re constantly welding in uprights and you’ve got a cluster. There are plenty of used cars out there that were taken care of properly at a great price.
J.B. Strassweg: You certainly want to be aware of any cracks or additional welds to the original frame, but people outside the industry tend to get a little unsettled by a cracked or broken upright. My advice to them is that it’s just tubing and is generally repairable, and usually pretty easily. A cracked or broken upright isn’t a death sentence, and we’ve seen it from cars of virtually every manufacturer at one point or another. We have some year/manufacturer things on chassis that we’ve learned can be problems from a structural standpoint, things where my eyes tell me to look immediately. But it would take a whole article to detail and it’d be pretty dry reading really. I can preface that by saying that all of the problems we’ve seen in older cars over the years have been corrected in later designs.
TIBR: On suspended cars, would you recommend the buyer purchase or freshen the shock(s) immediately? Heim Joints? Other bolt on components?
Mark Horton: I would probably just send the shock off regardless, unless the car is only a year or two old. There may not be anything wrong, but a shock issue can drive you nuts as you try to diagnose it. Obviously if there’s any film or liquid around the base of the shock it needs to be rebuilt. On a typical 4-link application, it takes a long time to wear out heim joints. I would recommend checking them but I wouldn’t automatically assume that they need to be replaced. With the swing arm cars, the suspension should put more stress on the front heim joints; they essentially hold the weight of the car. So, on those I’d probably recommend new heim ends every few years.
J.B. Strassweg: If the car is over four years old, I think it would behoove the buyer to just plan on having the shocks dyno’d and get them checked out. Its cheap insurance, and besides the slicks and brakes, shocks are the most abused and overlooked component on the chassis. We check heim joints but I can’t tell you I’ve ever had to replace them as long as they’re a good quality heim.
Russ Farmer: If the car has a lot of runs on it, we recommend rebuild on the shocks and replacing heims. Also, check for play in the wishbone slip tube if equipped.
Matt Cooke: Regarding shocks, make sure you don’t see any oil around the shaft or main body. If so, you can almost guarantee that the gas pressure is gone and it’s low on oil. When that’s the case, they need to be either rebuilt or replaced before leaving the house.
TIBR: What types of cars hold value?
Russ Farmer: Swing arm mono-shock cars and the longer Top Dragster cars seem to have better resale than anything else.
J.B. Strassweg: Older “anything” right now needs to be cheap and hasn’t held it’s value over time. It has, however, decreased to its lowest point in my opinion. By that I mean, it’s worth the sum of its parts and likely won’t decrease any more until it ages out due to SFI certifications, design changes, etc. Something else that tends to be an issue with the pre-2000 crowd is a narrow cage: 21” or less. I find these cars are nearly impossible to sell. Racers by and large are not decreasing in size. Slip joints will always be worth less than suspended cars, in my view. Suspended dragsters with 240” wheelbases and 24” plus cages are holding up really well in the market and I think they will for some time.
Matt Cooke: Cars that have a broader range of classes that they can compete in are a good purchase. If a buyer can pick up something that has a current 6.0 certification, nitrous bottle mounts and proper wiring to spray, and a wing it’s just got more options because it’s Top Dragster friendly. At least 240” wheelbase and a large cage are big selling points as well. My wife Kelly is tiny, but if we purchase a car to fit her we’d never be able to sell it. Instead, we got a large cage and had ISP pour the seat and install their safety equipment in the head area. Now she’s safe, and we’ve got a car that doesn’t exclude anyone when it’s time to sell.
Mark Horton: Suspended dragsters with large cages and longer wheelbases are the way to go in terms of getting your money back out of them. That’s not a recent trend that’s going to change, it’s just common sense.
TIBR: When a deal looks “too good to be true” what could the seller be trying to hide?
Mark Horton: Just be cautious. Look for mismatched parts, and a lot of cracks or welds on the frame. Usually there’s a reason it’s so cheap. But in today’s economy there are certainly deals to be had, so don’t just assume it’s a scam without doing some homework either.
Russ Farmer: Usually a deal too good to be true is just that, remember pictures don’t tell the whole story: go see the car in person before making a buying decision. There are a lot of motivated sellers out there right now.
J.B. Strassweg: When a deal is too good to be true, it generally is. Look for a wrecked car that’s been patched back together. Look for components that are advertised as being included, but aren’t. It’s pretty hard to tell, and I can’t say that I’ve ever run across it in 8 years of this, but keep an eye out for a stolen car. I frequent as many internet forums as I can just for that reason. I really think the industry is too small, and the internet is way too big for a thief to pawn off a complete car, but that’s just an opinion.
TIBR: What should wear out on a dragster (Solid or Suspended)?
Russ Farmer: On solid cars, the front half would be the part that wears the most if the car was built with enough flex to work on bad tracks. Also look for broken or cracked engine tabs and lateral tabs. In suspended cars, study the wishbones, shocks, heims, and also the front half is still very important. Even suspended cars need to have enough flex to work on marginal tracks, so that is still an area to watch for.
J.B. Strassweg: On a hardtail/slip joint look for cracks in uprights, but particularly in the SFI certification area (drivers compartment). A tight coupler also indicates a potential problem with engine alignment. That could be caused by bow or flex or a problem on the install. And just check normal, common wear items. On a suspended car, look for issues with the wishbone if equipped, anti-roll arms and bushings, heims and bolts, as well as shock mounts on the older cars.
Mark Horton: On hardtail cars I’d say to check the coupler for alignment; but years ago when we were racing solid cars I had new cars that didn’t line up right, so I guess that can be a little tricky. On the suspended cars, check the basics: shocks, heims, wishbone and/or anti-roll if it’s got it, and inspect the shock mounts as they can be a trouble spot on the older cars.
Thanks again to Russ Farmer, Matt Cooke, J.B. Strassweg, and Mark Horton for taking the time to answer our questions and share some information with the ThisIsBracketRacing.com member base. And, thank you for reading. Feel free to suggest topics for future “Tech Talk” columns on the American Race Cars “Strategy Session” message board here on ThisIsBracketRacing.com.
To learn more about our guest panel and the products that they manufacture and sell, check them out: