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The Epic Saga of the Surfers - Part Two

How Three Bucks- Down Geeks Single-Handedly put top Fuel on Its Collective Head

By Cole Coonce

This is the second of a two-part series which debunks some myths about three drag racers from Santa Monica, California, who terrorized the dragstrips in the mid-1960s: Tom Jobe, Bob Skinner, and Mike Sorokin, collectively known as The Surfers. For those just joining us, Tom Jobe is in the middle of defending the "lunacy" of The Surfers' practice of running pure nitromethane...Ed.

Their public image as beach-bumpkin oddballs who ran 100 percent nitromethane because their hydrometers were broken—an image they helped cultivate—was in reality cagey alchemy, another trump card for these wiseacre college kids, a pearl of wisdom they had gleaned from their academic endeavors.

"I was going to college—mechanical engineering—and I just set about studying nitromethane," explains Tom Jobe about what led to The Surfers' witch's brew. "I would get the head of the chemistry department or whoever and get them all involved in what we were doing—and they'd cop a plea right away and say, 'Hey, I don't know how to do anything really, I'm just a teacher'—then they'd find out what we were talking about was going to get drug out to the starting line on Saturday night...So I'd say, 'Hey, you've got to keep me straight on the theory; I want to make sure I don't start deciding that gravity pulls from the side and get screwed up out there,'" he rhapsodizes.

"So I set about studying how nitromethane worked," he continues. "The reactions, both when you burn it and when you detonate it and how they differ; what causes it to detonate versus burn; what attitudes increase or decrease the tendency to detonate. At that time, there was a lot of literature out because there had been some train car explosions and other unexplained explosions that happened with nitro, so a lot of research had been done where they dropped 55-gallon drums of the stuff from towers and shot it with 50-caliber machine guns trying to figure out how these tank cars went up in, I think, Illinois.

"That was the basis of what made our deal run good," Jobe determines, "figuring out the nitro angle of it. And then we'd figure out how many BTU's were in 60, 70, 80 percent...Also," he proffers, "I was old enough to where I had watched the transition from gasoline to alcohol at the dragstrip; when I was, say, 10 years old I watched 'em put together alcohol and gasoline—which don't mix, right?—so at the starting line one of the crew would come up and grab the frame of the dragster and start shaking it to mix the stuff up, and I'm watching this as a little kid and going, 'Man, that's stupid. If alcohol is good, why not just throw the gasoline away and go with the alcohol?'"

Remove all obstacles in the path, eh?

"When we did our deal we were going, 'Why use alcohol? That stuff doesn't make it go...It's just pollution,'" says Jobe.

Jobe's old man was a jeweler, and so his workshop became The Surfers' impromptu research and development lab. "We continued our experiments at my dad's factory in Santa Monica," he says. "He had some jeweler's lathes that we used to make all kinds of goofy nozzles. Do you remember Bernoulli's equation from science class? [Simply, the pressure in a stream of fluid is reduced as the speed of flow is increased]. That defines all the stuff you need to know to make a nozzle...Anyway, we made 'em look just like the pictures in the science book."

The "Kinetic-Molecular Theory of Gasses According to Jobe" is indeed the crucial element of The Surfers' success. Beyond that, it is also a blueprint on the mechanics of running a Top Fuel dragster—30 years later. Outrageous nitro percentages, thin nozzles subjected to ludicrous amounts of pressure, and low compression are de rigueur for a contemporary fueler. But in 1964, it was considered radical and suicidal. The Surfers debunked this as myth by using a water faucet as a flow bench. Yes, a water faucet...

"We made us a flow bench out of a water faucet that had 60 psi which, at the time, was what most fuel injectors had. Ultimately, we made a whole fuel injector, but then we found out that was stupid because then you don't get any contingency money from Hilborn or whoever. Why throw away contingency money? So we just used the Hilborn, but we made all the nozzles—we were into 200 psi fuel pressure but we never told anybody. We had little tiny nozzles, but lot's of 'em, in order to atomize the stuff. You can't burn liquid," Jobe clarifies.

"We found out that if we could up the ignition's amps, we could take fuel out of it." Why less fuel volume? "All it's doing is flattening your wallet. The more you atomize it, the less you have to put in to get the same amount of burnable, combustible stuff."

The R&D at the jewelry workshop yielded a tangible, palpable difference between Skinner and Jobe's digger and virtually every other machine at the race track: That is, the way it sounded. Tom Hunnicutt, the SoCal racer who owned The Surfers digger after they sold it, explains, "Their car sounded like no other car. You could tell when it was their car. If there were 100 Top Fuel cars and they all sounded the same, their car was completely off by itself. It was louder than anybody else's, and it had more fuel lines on it than anybody had ever seen." Hunnicutt says about their swift conquest of the fueler wars, "They were kicking ass and not breaking anything. It was the perfect team."

Skinner describes The Surfers mechanical ethos this way, "Efficiency, reliability was important to us," he says. "Occasionally we had to take the head off or something. Occasionally we would break a roller tappet; occasionally we would lose a head gasket. When we ran the 64 cars at Bakersfield we didn't have any [motor] problems."

Because The Surfers were such a well-oiled machine and because they'd reduced maintenance time to nearly zero, this created ample opportunity for these free-thinkers to, uhhh, skateboard while the rest of the fueler guys were thrashing between rounds.

By Cole Coonce
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