EPPING, N.H. — The clock was ticking, and every member of Shawn Langdon’s Al-Anabi Silver Top Fuel Car team knew it because in their line of business every split-second matters.
There was barely a half-hour before Langdon’s second run Saturday at the NHRA New England Nationals, and four crew members had the engine surrounded like an operating table.
As he leaned against a counter along the outside of the trailer, Shawn Ford watched a steady stream of nitromethane flow from a waist-high barrel to a knee-high 5-gallon clear jug. He had a funnel the size of a helmet set up near the front of the car for when he’s ready to fill it with fuel. It must be filled to the same height every time.
The pistons and rods were Jordan Harry’s territory. The supercharger was Josh Adam’s baby. If he’s not hovering over the motor, he’s off to the side putting the feeler gauges in, making sure it meets the team’s requirements — they only want a gap of a couple thousandths of an inch.
Nick Peters, the assistant crew chief, was keeping a watchful eye over it all. David McCombs was by the cylinder heads cranking like a madman, making sure there was no fuel in any of the nozzles that could leak into the cylinders.
Nate Archambault had his hands buried deep in the belly of all the machinery as if he were about to pull out a new born, pulling out the bearings so he can inspect them.
The soundtrack to it all is a constant rattle and buzz of the power tools and the hiss of spray cans.
Jeff Edwards was keeping an eye on the weather and the track. He earned the nickname “Edge” for seemingly being on it. But he has reason to. Just the day before, he had told Langdon that with the surface at the New England Dragway being so fresh, the groove that Langdon would have to drive through would be small. So small that he only had 7 inches to the left or right before slipping out of it and onto the rougher part of the track, where he’d risk smoking a tire.
Meanwhile, crew chief Brian Husen power-walked out of his trailer, pulled his earplugs out of his pockets, licked them (always lick them), then stuck them in. One by one they all put on gas masks.
Finally, they start it up. This is a test start. Just a test.
“That’s just to fire it up,” Langdon said.
Those time-crunched moments are just the final stages.
“If you count, there’s 10 guys working 60 hours a week, so 600 man hours a week go into this to make eight runs,” Husen said.
Ultimately, there’s almost endless preparation, all the research, all the data-processing, all the number-crunching, is for a four-second flash over 1,000 feet of track.
“After doing it 24 times a year, plus doing it at the shop, plus doing testing, you’re able to kind of know a lot of things that are going on and just get in that mode where everything comes second nature to you,” said Langdon, the second Top Fuel qualifier.
But in a sport decided by fractions of a second too slim for the naked eye to recognize, these moments of preparation are precious.
The clock was ticking and Alan Johnson knew it as much as anyone because in his line of work every split-second matters.
As Alexis DeJoria watches her crew tune her Tequila Patron Nitro Funny Car, she is often awestruck. She draws so much attention as the thrill-seeking heiress to a billionaire, but when she thinks about the work her team puts in on a weekly basis, she can only describe it as “insane.”
“It’s a lot of work for four seconds of perfection,” DeJoria said. “Because you don’t get another try. You’ve got to do it right now. You’ve got to be perfect in every step. And these guys work so hard. They can turn the car around, completely strip the motor down and turn it around in a half-hour. We’ve done it before.”
There are no words, just a steady stream of efficiency.
“It’s the quiet before the storm,” DeJoria said. “Everybody knows their place. It’s almost like a dance that they have to do. The car comes in and they attack it, but nobody gets in each other’s way because it’s all timed perfectly. It’s amazing. They just go through the car. They triple-check everything to make sure it’s right.”
The most time a team will have to prep its car is at the start of the day. And even then it’s a matter of a couple of hours.
Between the two qualifying rounds, a team can have as much as an hour to as little as 40 minutes. In that time, they’re completely disassembling and reassembling the engine, getting it ready for another explosive run, hoping it’s recovered from the last.
“To make 8,000 horsepower, you’re burning nitromethane and you end up damaging these engines,” said Robert Hight, whose AAA Auto Club Funny Car ran at 4.088 seconds to qualify fifth for Sunday’s races.
“A crankshaft will only last 10 runs and it’s junk. It’s broken. Every single run, the thing comes apart. All eight rods and pistons get replaced. The cylinder heads get replaced or rebuilt. A new clutch. Supercharger gets rebuilt. And you have 50 minutes to do that in.
“So you’ve got an eight-man crew working on this car. Just to go back in the pits and watch them work is amazing. They’re fine-tuned mechanics. They work so well together. It’s just an awesome sight to see these guys work on these things between rounds.”
Not all teams are built the same. Langdon, DeJoria, and Hight all have heavy corporate backing, sophisticated technology, and some of the brightest minds in racing.
When Cruz Pedregon pulls his SnapOn Toyota Funny Car to the start line, he knows he’s an underdog and he thrives on it. He is his own crew chief. As of this weekend, his crew consists of seven people.
“We just hired a new person,” he said. “So we’ll have eight next week.”
For how long he never knows, because his team is constantly being poached. But with two wins this season, he still sits second in the points.
“Everybody told me a long time ago that I shouldn’t do this, that I shouldn’t be racing against the big corporate teams because I don’t have the funding,” said Pedregon, who sits in the eighth spot after running a 4.107. “I don’t have the staff, but I use that as motivation. So I try to give that to my team. If an accountant were to look at my books, he’d say, ‘What are you doing?’ ’’
He gathers data just the same, but he uses it differently, never letting the technology trump his instincts.
“This information you gather from here, it doesn’t tell you what to do, it tells you what happened,” Pedregon said. “So it still takes the human. A lot of this, we guess.
“We have a computer here and all it does is recommend things. Sometimes I override this thing. I say, ‘Hey forget that, I know what the car looks like.’ Sometimes I’m going by the seat of my pants.”
But in Langdon’s trailer, the information continued to pour in, even as the day was ending.
In a small room tucked inside Langdon’s trailer, Husen and Peters sat in front of two computers.
They looked at spreadsheets with data going back to 2009. The time slip from the run. The weather conditions. The tire size. Runs on a particular tire. Clutch settings.
“The thing about our sport is when you’re racing for 3.7 seconds,” Langdon said. “You can’t make a mistake.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.