A snaking bolt of heat lightning screwed itself into the ground with a grudge, the flash illuminating the interior of the truck I was driving. The thunder took a minute to bounce off the far wall of the canyon and back across the moonscape right outside of Reno, Nevada. I drove on. In the distance was a shimmering horizon of gleaming glass and white rectangular boxes that seemed to hover over the dust. The chain of trailers was the only clue to the existence of Top Gun Raceway in Fallon, Nevada, and John Calvert's Stock Eliminator Cobra Jet Mustang was waiting there for me to drive it.
Up until that exact moment, I thought I had earned the creds to drive the beast in competition. Roy Hill had tried to bring me to tears in his driving school, Funny Car champion Jack Beckman had shown me how to look past the horizon on a 9-second Pro Gas blast, and even Bob Tasca III had schooled me on how to tiptoe through the 133⁄8 inches between the start beams.
I was no virgin in Calvert's car. Ultra-traction Famoso in Bakersfield had used her charms to give me a precious string of wheelstanding passes on her sacred flanks. But now in the desert waste, with the graybeard heroes of Division 7 waiting to see what I could do, I didn't feel so confident. The stress was audible.
There are more unwritten rules in Stock Eliminator than the couple of pages in the NHRA Rulebook let on, and I was about to learn them one excruciating step at a time. My mistakes were to be made in front of an unsympathetic crowd of regulars and an NHRA photographer who could smell a newbie from 1,320 feet. I had my Super Gas, Super Stock, and ET licenses, but my degrees reflected book learning and racing schools, not combat scenarios. It wouldn't be enough.
As I stood in the tech trailer, my mind began to wander. "What class are you in?" I didn't answer. "What class?" I snapped out of my reverie and stared at the tech inspector who was now in my personal space. He repeated, "You know, A, B, C, D?"
John Calvert runs the '10 Mustang and his '64 Ford Thunderbolt both in the A/SA class. The first A represents power to weight, and here's how it works: The manufacturer, in this case Ford, comes up with a factory horsepower rating for the engine and weight for the car that is agreed on by the NHRA and posted in the Official NHRA Stock Car Classification Guide. The car needs to be showroom available and have a minimum run of 500 cars or, in the case of the Cobra Jets that have no VIN, have a minimum of 50 cars for sale.
The '10 Cobra Jet came from the factory with a 3,310-pound/375hp rating, making it what is called a natural 8.82 B/SA index car. When the car is new, you can move up or down one class or stay at the natural class and run the minimum weight. Calvert chose to run the car in A/SA, or A weight class, Stock eliminator, with an automatic transmission. The factor is 8 pounds per horsepower, plus 170 pounds for the driver.
These cars are NHRA classified on a national scale by engine family. The '10 Cobra Jet was offered with one of five optional engines approved by the NHRA. Two are supercharged 5.4L V8s (the difference being the type of supercharger), and three naturally aspirated versions: a 302-based 352-inch engine, a 4.6L 3V, and a 351 Windsor-based 428. Calvert chose the 428 because he believed the weight required to run a big supercharged engine would make the combination high-maintenance.
The 428 cars were rated from the factory at 375 hp, and as they went out and raced, the NHRA noticed that the e.t.'s were much lower than this power-to-weight ratio should be and started to do what racers refer to as adding horsepower. The 428-powered A/Stock Cobra Jet horsepower factor crept from 375 hp to 416 hp, bumping the minimum weight to 3,498 pounds.
Before the race, you make the decision regarding what class you want to run. Then you can adjust the weight of the car using a maximum of 100 pounds of lead ballast that goes into a box into the trunk, or add or remove fuel. Once you are through tech, however, you are going to race the class you chose.
In addition to the national standard for power to weight, there is also a national index that is corrected for each track. For race day, the index was to be 11.44. To be competitive, I needed to run 0.900 under that number, a concept that had eluded me until race day.
The script on the hood says NOHC or No Overhead Cams. The engine for this Cobra Jet uses a
The rear wheels are 15x10 Weld AlumaStars. Ford Racing offers a Goodyear 30.0x9.0-15 Dragw
The front wheels are AlumaStar 2.0 15x3.5s with Hoosier 26.0x4.5-15 Drag Fronts. The Stran
This tidy setup is a Jones Racing Products lightweight alternator, pulleys, and a billet b
Except for a bank of switches and the shifter, the interior looks like a stock GT. A close
The log book and weather station tell you everything you need to know about the dial-in. O
When Stock was called to lanes over the loud speaker, my focus scattered like birds from a howitzer. Like a robot, I stepped into my fire suit and put on my helmet, gloves, and shoes in an order I could not remember. I proceeded to start and stall the car enough times that I eventually noticed that Calvert had stopped his own start-up ritual and was standing in front of the car with his arms crossed. I managed to make friends with the car and rolled to the end of the staging lanes, where I sat without noticing the 100-degree desert heat and attempted to clear my thoughts.
Calvert's car is about the easiest car you can drive that still wheelies out of the hole and runs in the 130s. Next to my right hand was a small switch that activated the line-lock. After I was directed into the burnout box by the track official, I pushed the brakes with a jumpy left leg, depressed the switch, and gave the throttle a quick stab to get the tires smoking. Calvert's cars don't do burnouts on the rev limiter, so it was up to me to not hang the rods out of the Cobra engine with panicky revs. I let go of the button and glided forward.
Because I had already made my first mistake by rolling to the staging lanes first, I had to follow a contraption from a street class with what looked like two different track widths, one of which was far off to the left. I thought for a moment about high school auto shop where my teacher, Mr. Renner, had described the concept of dog tracking, where from the rear, cars with frame damage looked like a running dog. Calvert later explained that following another, more experienced class racer helps you find the groove. Therefore, I had no idea where it was. My ace in the hole was the fact that I had seen the car I was driving hook at tracks where no one believed it could be done. My mechanic/crew chief was none other than John Calvert, inventor of the CalTrac bar and successful owner of Calvert Racing. I figured I could be out of the groove a bit and get away with it. Since Stock is a foot-brake class, my right foot was flooring the throttle and my left was on the brake. I left on green instead of yellow and posted a hideous 0.301 light. The car thankfully did the rest, running a 10.54 at 128 mph with striking grace and a small wheelie to qualify No. 1.
I couldn't believe it, me, No. 1 qualifier in a points race against guys with lots of money and experience. I clutched the time slip like a schoolgirl's first love letter and whooped into my helmet.
The ladder is split where the No. 1 qualifier runs the No. 11 qualifier in the first round. Once you are on top of the ladder, there is no place to go, and therefore no way to maneuver away from superior drivers. Calvert explained I would have to race a former Stock World Champion in the first round. The guys had seen me coming.
There was one qualifier left, and I was already running out of options. With a 20-car field, I could hope that another car entered the race, giving me a bye, or someone else would step up and take the top spot from me.
With an hour or so until the next round, I learned about the car. At the end of each run, all cars need to report to the scales to be weighed, and the driver is given a cup that is to be filled with fuel for testing. The CJ uses C25 racing fuel and, after the first run, weighed 3,590 pounds.
With a green light from the tech inspector, I returned to the pits to connect the battery charger, top off the fuel, and attend to the log book. Each run is carefully logged in a racing log book you can buy from Summit or Jegs. All entries are arranged in a matrix against the run number. In addition to the time of day, lane, and session, there is a detailed account of every marker on the track. If you want to look at your 60-foot and 330-foot mph and e.t., it's in the log book. But only if you put it there.
Calvert uses a handheld weather station from TAG Systems Racing Products that gives you air temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, and corrected or density altitude (DA) at the push of a button. Experienced car owners and crew chiefs will know how the weather will affect the speed of his car. To simplify the explanation: As the DA gets higher, the air gets thinner, the AF ratio gets richer, and the car slows down.
Armed with five rounds of information from two time-only passes and three qualifying passes, it was time to sweat the dial in. As a street machine guy with a few runs behind him, I looked at the log book thinking that the car and I were consistent. The fastest run was 10.45, and the slowest was 10.75, and I was thinking in the 0.10 scale when the rest of the field was playing one decimal to the right at 0.010. My sloppy shifting and sketchy lane alignment was going to catch up to me in a big way. I needed to run within 0.050 of a dial of my choosing, and I had nearly 0.30 to choose from. I estimated that Round 1 of eliminations would take place about 10 a.m. the next day, so I simply chose to dial in using the time from that run. The e.t. on the window would be 10.55 based on a 10.549. I hit the practice tree until I had a string of 0.040–0.060 reaction times and hit the sack.
The wheelie bar is a Calvert design that doesn’t unload the tire. Instead it adds pressure
The Cobra Jet uses a C4 automatic transmission in Stock or a C3 in Super Stock. The crossm
Racing is about consistent rituals. Before each run, I went through the checklist in my he
The weather station calculates density altitude based on temperature, barometer, and relat
In order to be consistent, the tire pressures need to be exactly the same on each side, on
During competition, lane choice is decided by the drivers with either a coin toss or a sim
Making Friends…or Not
Sunday arrived at 6 a.m. as I lie there on the fold-out sofa bed in the motor home staring at the ceiling. All I needed to do was cut a 0.040 light, beat my opponent across the finish line, and run on my dial in of 10.55 without breaking out. To make matters worse, the only other competitor in the A class was Calvert himself in his '64 Fairlane. If I was paired with him, it would be heads up. It seemed like there were more ways to lose than win in a race that boils down on paper to a 50/50 chance. So far, the car had done all it could to keep me safe and put in the top position. Now it was up to me.
Even though index racing requires cars to leave on a Sportsman tree and handicaps the faster car so both reach the finish line theoretically at the same time, these guys still want to have a fast car. If you line up against another car in your class, the race becomes heads-up with no breakout and no handicap. The quickest car with the best reaction time wins. This brings us back to the 0.900 under your index rule. During big national events, there is a good chance you will be on the ladder with other cars in your class. If you drive around the guy and run 1.00 under your index, you get what is called a flag. Do it again and the NHRA will review the engine family (in this case Ford 428). If the average of all the racers is 0.85 under the national index, the NHRA will add a percentage of horsepower to everyone running that engine. If you run a 1.20 under the index, there is no review. The engine family gets what is called "horsepower on Monday."
If you want to get glares from other racers with the same engine, start running an average of 0.85 under the index with lots of heads-up racing for points 1 second or more under the index. Eventually, you will move the index, and all the racers in the class will be forced to upgrade their gear to keep up. Bucks-up guys can make it hard for other racers to compete in the class in this way. And it happens. Welcome to Stock Eliminator.
Luckily, sometime during Saturday's qualifying, another car had entered the stock class, making the field 21 cars and giving me, as top qualifier, the first bye run in competition. I would receive points for staging the car, but I needed the practice of a full run. I hit the light at 0.037 and ran 10.50 at 126 mph. Things were looking up.
On the Trailer
No one had really expected me to get to Round 2 of final eliminations, but there I was. The average reaction times had dropped from 0.080–0.090s to scary 0.010–0.030s as the guys got serious. My 0.090 and 0.301 marks from Friday's time trials would be a serious problem, so I needed to repeat the 0.036–0.040 times I had practiced. Sunday is nothing like the structured time and qualifying sessions of the previous days. The rate of attrition accelerates the call for each class, making the paper copy of the schedule trivial and the clock was ticking for Round 2. In the past three hours, the temperature had crept from 89 to 99 degrees, and the DA climbed to nearly 6,900 feet. Knowing I ran a 10.508 that morning and a 10.586 at the same time yesterday, I split the difference and put the dial in at 10.55 and suited up.
The Stock Eliminator class meet and line up in the staging lanes in sort of a Walmart parking lot configuration so the cars can be paired. My competition appeared in my window to discuss lane choice. He wanted the far lane; I liked the tower lane. Since we agreed, we didn't have to use the alternative method of flipping a coin.
Strangely, the nerves had abated as I went through the starting-line ritual and lined up against my second-round opponent in an F/SA Barracuda. His dial was 11.37 against my 10.55, so I had to sit on the limiter for more than a second. It was enough to distract me, and I made the mistake of watching him leave instead of watching the light. I left late with a 0.143 against his 0.088 immediately putting me at a disadvantage at the finish line. On top of it, there was a headwind, a factor I had ignored, that slowed the car to a 10.63. The combination of the two made it impossible for me to close the gap on the Barracuda. He put me on the trailer and went on to win the Wally in Stock Eliminator that day.
Where Do I Sign Up?
If you want to have some fun in Stock Eliminator and you have a car, you need to join the NHRA and get a permanent number. If the class you want to enter has any cars in the 9s, even if it isn't yours, you will need an NHRA license for that e.t. and mph, and your car must meet the safety requirements for that class. To add classes to your license, you need to pay $20 at the tech trailer. I added a Stock number to my list of credentials. Local track rules sometimes override the official rulebook, so ask other racers about unwritten rules like last-minute dial-in changes, safety equipment, and track etiquette. And don't forget to have fun.
At this point, I had my right foot on the floor and my left foot on the brake. The brake p
Compared to the last photo, you can see that the car is loaded, but the light is still yel
This was a 0.038 light with a nice straight launch. If you can do this, shift on time, and
To slow the car down, weight is used to meet the day’s index. It’s easier and faster than
After the Round 2 loss, we noted the details in the log book and called it a day. On the f
After each run, the car is weighed by an NHRA official, and the fuel is randomly checked t