Last month, I shared some opinions on the “Perfect Weapon” for 1/8th mile bracket racing, and promised that I’d follow it with similar thoughts as they apply to the NHRA Lucas Oil Series classes. In retrospect, that may have been a bit ambitious. Though I’ve dipped my toe in the waters of every sportsman class with the exception of Comp and Top Sportsman, any insight I have on the ultimate tool for competition in the fast brackets and/or class racing categories is more speculation than anything. As a result, I’m going to limit this discussion to the categories that are more in my wheelhouse: the .90 classes. More specifically, Super Comp and Super Gas.
Much like last month, I’ll assume that competitive advantage is the end that we’re seeking, and that the means of getting there (specifically, financial investment and viability) are secondary.
Let’s start with the Super Comp category. If you read last month’s contribution, my thoughts mirror those that I shared regarding the ultimate dragster for bracket competition, for many of the same reasons. In short, from a purely competitive standpoint, faster is better. And I’d argue that speed is even more of an advantage in Super Comp than it is in a bracket race? Why? Isn’t the point of an 8.90 fixed index to level the playing field, whether the entry is capable of running 6.50 or 8.80? Sure… In theory.
In practice, most drivers will agree that they’re more comfortable and consequently better, at least to some degree, judging the finish line as the faster car. That’s a benefit in any category, but it gets magnified in “Super” class competition due to the nature of national event (and to some extent divisional) competition. It’s quarter mile, runs are spread out over the course of the day/event, and it’s not uncommon to make back-to-back runs hours apart, with a significant change in conditions. Lump all of that together, and it becomes difficult to dial these machines with tremendous precision (it’s easier to go dead-on 4.50 in an 1/8th mile bracket race forty minutes after our last run than it is to go dead-on 8.90 twelve hours after our last run). Long story short, it’s not uncommon to stage up in a .90 category without total confidence that we’re running exactly .90 (or whatever E.T. target a particular driver pinpoints). As a result, finish line execution is a bigger determining factor of driver success in the .90 classes. That being the case, we’d want to give ourselves every advantage we can at that end of the track.
Perhaps more importantly, the inverse is also true. If we (and most drivers) are more comfortable giving chase, then it stands to reason that most drivers are also less comfortable, and less effective at the finish line, when getting chased. So by having the faster car, we not only improve our own comfort and confidence, but also typically diminish that of the driver in the other lane, at least fractionally. In practice, I actually find this to be the case more often in practice than in theory. Super class racers in general get really hung up on speed. In many cases, even a slight discrepancy in MPH can create a real mental challenge for the driver of the slower car. While I’d argue that this disadvantage is often more perceived than real, it doesn’t really matter. If your opponent believes they’re at a significant disadvantage, guess what? They are.
That’s a long route to backing up the statement that having the faster car is at least a slight advantage in terms of finish line execution. That’s good news for the driver of the faster car. Even better news? The driver of the faster car shouldn’t have to rely on that advantage exclusively, because the faster car should also dial at least slightly better for all the reasons I detailed last month: higher powered engines are more efficient, and efficiency = consistency.
Given the similarity of Super Comp and Super Gas, one would assume that the same principles I just outlined in 8.90 apply directly to 9.90, and vice-versa. While that’s true in a broad sense, I actually believe there is some notable nuance to the Super Gas category that makes my own opinion of the “perfect weapon” a little bit different.
Unlike Super Comp, where the vast majority of the field is essentially painting on the same canvas (a rear-engine dragster), Super Gas features significantly greater disparity in competition vehicles. With all due respect, it’s hard to mess up a dragster! Meanwhile, there are Super Gas entries – competitive Super Gas entries at that – that are not going to be as competitive with huge horsepower engine combinations. So the advantages to “big speed” are limited to equipment.
With a high-end, purpose built Super Gas car, like an ex-Pro Stock machine, or a professionally-built topless Corvette/Camaro/etc., the general rules that I outlined for Super Comp apply. These cars handle the power well (believe it or not my Moser Engineering Corvette actually works better the more power I put to it), the faster engine combinations are typically more efficient/consistent, and most drivers would agree that it’s advantageous to be the chaser.
The Super Gas field, however, is not exclusively comprised of 170+ mph roadsters and ex-Pro Stock cars. Slower, more budget friendly entries have always been competitive, and I’d argue are more competitive now than in recent history for the simple fact that NHRA gave us back the .03 LED compensation that had previously been in place at the national event level. This made reaction times .03 quicker across the board. So where three years ago the underpowered cars would often struggle to have .00 reaction times with no time in the delay box, today just about every car in the category is capable of red-lighting.
The fact that a back-halved, 140 mph Super Gas car can be extremely competitive makes them relatively popular. I share this not to diminish the value of a purpose-built Super Gas machine. The title of this column is, after all, “The Perfection Weapon.” I do believe that a chassis built to handle more power is better. My point, rather, is that the competitiveness of these slower cars expands (pretty dramatically) the diversity of MPH in the Super Gas category. Whereas is Super Comp, the vast majority of the field is clumped tightly between 170 and 185 mph, with a handful of machines clocking in closer to 190; the average Super Gas race sees a broader spectrum of competitive speeds (ranging from around 130 mph all the way up to nearly 180).
When paired with that 135 mph opponent, it’s harder for the driver of a faster car to accurately drive the finish line (this is true for the driver of the slower car as well: a greater speed discrepancy makes the finish line difficult regardless). Given the tight grouping of typical MPH in Super Comp, there’s really no argument against going as fast as possible in terms of driving the finish line: even at 190 mph, we’re talking about a fairly manageable 20 mph advantage against the slower portion of the field (and often, less discrepancy than that). In competitive terms, it’s hard to go “too fast” in Super Comp. But in Super Gas, when paired with the 140 mph opponent, I’d much rather be rolling up on that opponent at 160 MPH than 175. Simply put, I think that in the 9.90 category, it’s possible to go “too” fast and nullify some of the advantages of speed that I detailed earlier.
I still think having a purpose-built race car is an advantage. I still think being on the faster side of the field and chasing more often than not is an advantage. But rather than having the fastest car in Super Gas, I’d err toward an entry that’s in maybe the top 20 percentile in terms of speed. Modern day, we’re talking about something in the 165-170 mph range. In that instance we still take advantage of the majority of benefits of a higher powered combination, and we’re still chasing 80%+ of the competition. And when we’re not the faster car, it’s manageable: we’re never giving up more than 10-15 mph at the finish line.
That’s my opinion, for what it’s worth: the faster the better in Super Comp, and the same idea reigned in slightly for Super Gas. Since my last column went to print, Stephen “Champ” McCrory blew my “perfect weapon” out of the water, claiming the $500,000 payday at the Great American $500k in the slowest car in the field (a Firebird dialed 7.36). So I assume given the arguments above, I’ve all but guaranteed immediate success for Chris Garretson (8.90 @ 115 mph), Tim Nicholson (9.90 @ 95 mph), and Steve Williams (9.90 @ 180 mph)! As I wrote to open last month: While we can theorize all we want, the “perfect weapon” is ultimately what we make it!