Injected Top Fuelers - An Idea Whose Time Has Come...Or Gone?

By Jim Luikens

Keith Stark made his highly anticipated IHRA Top Fuel debut last weekend at Virginia’s AC Delco Nationals. Other Injected Top Fuelers had attempted to qualify at the season’s first two IHRA events with no success but expectations were high for Keith since his dragster was the first one configured to take full advantage of the IHRA rules. This is the story of Injected Top Fuelers, for whom the playing field has changed significantly since they were announced last year.

Injected nitro pioneer Keith Stark is a legend in NHRA competition. At various times during his NHRA nitro career he has held the elapsed time national record at 5.75 and 5.56, held the mile-per-hour national record at 263.62 and 265.09, recorded an unheard of (for the time) 5.38 at over 270 miles-per-hour and been chosen driver of the year and mechanic of the year in different years. Obviously this is a man that knows his way around a drum of nitro.

When Keith first heard that the IHRA was going to allow injected cars to compete heads up with the supercharged cars in Top Fuel beginning in 2004 he was intrigued. Always open to new challenges and opportunities, he made plans to convert his car to IHRA specs. He expected a learning curve that would be at least as tough as when he had originally changed his Top Alcohol Dragster from a blown alcohol engine to injected nitro.

What he didn’t (and couldn’t) foresee was the tremendous increase in the competitiveness of the IHRA Top Fuel field from 2003 to 2004. As Bob Frey would say, let’s take a look at the numbers. If you compare the three 2004 IHRA races that have been completed to the first three completed 2003 IHRA races the difference is staggering. The car count has significantly increased and the bump spot has significantly decreased.

At the 2003 IHRA season-opener in San Antonio 12 cars, all blown, attempted to qualify for the eight-car field and the bump spot was 5.206 seconds. By comparison, at this year’s San Antonio season-opener 20 cars, four of which were injected, attempted to qualify and the bump spot was 5.027. Both years the bump was artificially low because some NHRA cars crossed over for that event only.

Mike Bowers, Dave Hirata, Carl Magee and Gary Cooper all debuted their injected entries at San Antonio this year. The best of the injected cars was Mike Bowers (5.425) at 16th, still well out of the field, with the other injected cars at 17th, 18th and 20th. Only Louie Allison kept the four injected cars from holding down the bottom four positions after qualifying.

At last year’s second completed event (Grand Bend) nine cars attempted to qualify. Bobby Lagana, Jr. held down the bump at 9.282 seconds. By comparison at this year’s second completed event (Rockingham) 19 Top Fuelers showed, three of which were injected. Bobby Lagana, Jr. was again on the bump, this year with a booming 4.875 time, which was a vast improvement over his 9.282 from last year. The first three non-qualifiers also had four second time slips in their possession at the end of qualifying.

Bob Leverich joined Gary Cooper and Mike Bowers in attempting to make the Rockingham field. Gary Cooper was the now the best of the injected cars at 5.679 in 15th place and the three injected cars again anchored the qualifying sheet, holding down three of the bottom five slots. Dave Hirata and Carl Magee were missing in action, Hirata reportedly already having given up on attempting to qualify at any more IHRA events.

Moving on to last year’s third completed race, Richmond, eight cars attempted to qualify for the eight-car field with Danny Dunn holding down the bubble at 9.579 seconds. By comparison 16 cars attempted to qualify for this year’s Richmond race, only one of which was injected. Grant Flowers was the final qualifier this year at 4.968 seconds and, like the previous event this year, the first three non-qualifiers were all in the fours as well.

Keith Stark, the NHRA ex-patriot, was a new arrival and the lone injected car to attempt to make the show. After recording a 5.70 second opening run in Friday’s only qualifying session Keith improved to a 5.31 during the daytime session on Saturday and he hoped to improve again during Saturday’s Night of Fire final qualifying session. Unfortunately tire shake forced him to abort that run during what was the best qualifying session of the weekend for most competitors. None of the other five injected cars that had participated in this year’s prior two events chose to make the trip to Richmond.

Keith feels that a high 4.90-second run at nearly 300 miles-per-hour will be possible when he gets his combination fully sorted out. He would like to be the first to break the four-second barrier in an unblown car. Looking a little further down the road he feels that a 300 mile-per-hour run will eventually be obtainable and he would like to earn that distinction as well.

A larger challenge for him, as well as the other unblown competitors, is how to deal with how much the IHRA Top Fuel fields have changed since the rules for the injected cars were announced last year. Summarizing and comparing the raw numbers from above reveals some startling changes from year to year.

Last year after the first three completed races the average bump time was 8.02 seconds and the average car count was 9.66 cars per event. Fast-forward to this year and the average bump over the same period is now 4.956 seconds and the average car count is 18.33 cars. In other words a more than three second reduction in bump time and a near doubling of the car count has entirely changed the feasibility of competing with an injected car.

While it is easy for nearly anyone to envision qualifying for an 8.02 second field, a 4.956 bogey is an entirely different matter and probably not possible under the current rules according to Keith. The injected cars were a good idea under last year’s scenario but that scenario has changed. Keith feels that the IHRA needs to move quickly to keep the injected cars feasible.

The only solution he sees is adding nitrous oxide to the injected cars to bring them in line with the current reality. Without some relief he sees no future in attempting to qualify for any more races when the bump is already beyond what his car will be capable of when he reaches 100% of its performance potential under the current rules package. All of the other drivers must have similar feelings as evidenced by the no shows at Richmond.

For their part the IHRA tech officials have indicated a willingness to review the situation after the Milan event next month according to Keith. Even a favorable ruling at that time would effectively scuttle the rest of this year for other potential injected competitors who have put their projects on hold until they see how the situation unfolds. It would be too late then to order the special parts needed and still receive them before the season ended.

Congratulations to the IHRA for the performance increases from their Top Fuel field this year. And double congratulations to them for coming up with the idea of including Injected Top Fuelers in their program at all. However, without some prompt relief that reflects the current competitive environment Injected Top Fuelers will just be an idea that came and went too fast.