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A GEARHEAD'S LOOK AT EXTREME R&D

Behind the Scenes with Red Line & Nitro Drag Racing

Many auto racing fans argue over which form of motorsport is most competitive or most fun to watch. No one argues over which motorsport harnesses the most power, as Top Fuel Dragsters hold that title without question. After all, the 8000 hp figures that most claims can only be figured on a calculator, since there isn't a dynamometer on the planet that could harness one of these beasts!

All of us at Red Line Oil take pride in our technical involvement with the nitro teams, knowing that our help makes it "cost effective" for these crazy racecars to operate and not explode on every other run. Looking through the staging lanes at an NHRA National Event, one comes to the conclusion that at least half of the teams are relying upon some type of Red Line product. For that, we are thrilled, but it's a ton of work to keep up with these racers, as they can break parts like no others.
 
BACK IN THE DAY
 
Our history in the blown fuel classes only goes back to 1994, when Red Line founder Tim Kerrigan began working with Funny Car journeyman Ray Higley for both sponsorship and product development. Red Line had just come off of a decade of working with the NASCAR teams, where lighter viscosities are the goal. Finding the absolute opposite in a nitro engine, we welcomed the challenge.

A Top Fuel Dragster or Funny Car uses more than 20 gallons of nitromethane in a single run - most of that fuel is burned through the engine, but some excess fuel is unburned and exits the exhaust headers to make those 7-foot-tall flames. Another portion of the nitro finds its way into the motor oil, seriously diluting its viscosity and level of protection. Conventional motor oils of the '70s, '80s, and '90s did a reasonable job considering the smaller fuel volume of the era, but as the fuel pumps and supercharger boost grew, the engine damage became unbearable. Big oil companies were still involved in the sport and gave teams more things to try, but off-the-shelf motor oils designed for road cars and their emissions requirements couldn't stand the challenge. One giant oil company suggested running their thickest product, which turned out to be a 75W140 gear oil! It didn't work, either.

After many years of racing with teams like Jim Dunn's family operation, Shirley Muldowney's then-tuner Rahn Tobler, journeyman Garry "Skippy" Kennedy, and finally through a near decade-long relationship with Kalitta Motorsports in 2000, we finally got to the point in 2005 where a Top Fuel or Funny Car team could warm up their car in the pits and make a run down the strip on the same oil. That helped the teams turn the cars around more quickly and today is one of the reasons many of these teams buy our products, run our decals, and wear our uniforms, rather than taking other products for free.
 
TODAY'S MONSTERS
 
Some see these cars and consider their giant, 500ci displacement or their Hemi combustion chambers as the key to performance. Others view the car as a big fuel pump (flowing 90 gallons-per-minute when the engine is at full song), or a big supercharger (which requires more than 1200 hp just to turn it over at full speed and 50 pounds of boost). But, the expert tuners accurately see these cars as one big clutch, a 126-pound spinning beast on the end of the crankshaft that can literally tear the main bearings out of an engine in a split second if it's out of balance. Part of the oil's challenge is to lubricate the rear main bearing and protect the crankshaft if this happens, preventing an expensive engine change since neither can be repaired in the chassis. Our oil can't prevent or withstand every mishap, but it sure does help.

Most of the Top Fuel Dragsters you see today run 4 to 4.5 gallons of motor oil per run with a traditional wet-sump system and a deep oil pan. The Nitro Funny Cars run closer to five gallons and have a dry sump oil system, though its design is far inferior to the dry sump you would see in NASCAR or NHRA Pro Stock (with a multi-stage, belt driven oil pump that offers stages for both vacuum and scavenge). A Funny Car's dry sump is like the wet sump in your car, yet the oil pan is located in front of the car next to the fuel tank.

 

This ugly looking oil is what the other oil brands look like after just a few minutes of operation in a Top Fuel Dragster or nitro Funny Car. This is caused by extreme fuel dilution and happens both with methanol (alcohol) and with nitromethane.

In both Top Fuel and Funny Car, this high oil volume is very important, as dyno testing with team owner and parts manufacturer Bill Miller of BME has proven. Miller's dyno can host a nitro engine (albeit running on less-powerful methanol) and his oil system testing produced the scary video evidence that we always expected-once the engine is at full throttle, no oil is returning to the oil pan!

The turbulence from 50 pounds of supercharger boost prevents its return, so it is very important to start the run with as much oil as possible.

This phenomenon made oil development that much more difficult, as it had to be thick enough to product the bearings under such tremendous load, yet thin enough to make its way back down the oil passages and through the oil galley vents while the car was running at idle, during the burnout, backing up, staging, etc. The oil film strength at the bearing must stellar, since there is a chance it may not get more oil to replace that film. By controlling the oil better and eliminating foam, Red Line gets to the pick up much more quickly.

An obvious question stands out: Which parts are saved by running Red Line instead of a lesser product? The biggest savings from fewer burned or scuffed pistons and the less need to swap out their removable bores, the sleeve liners.
 

Here is what a batch of Red Line looks like coming out of a Kalitta dragster. Notice a very light tint of nitro, but it still looks like oil! Which one would you want in your race car?

While the big teams still have a fresh rack of pistons waiting for an engine rebuild in the next round, even those with solid budgets like Kalitta are getting more runs per piston than they did before switching to Red Line. For a low-buck team like Terry Haddock's or the Chrisman gang, the savings in pistons means the difference between sleeping in the truck every night or "enjoying" a hotel room on the road! Pushrod, rod bearings, main bearings, roller tips on lifters and rockers, all receive longer service life.

The biggest savings comes from avoiding that catastrophic explosion. We don't kid ourselves into thinking there won't be failures and a resulting fireball, but the teams know that the following scenario is undeniable. NHRA fans can quickly spot a "dropped cylinder," where the engine's load becomes unbalanced due to spinning tires, a miscalculation of fuel requirement, or a soft clutch setup that fails to load the engine properly (nitro requires significant cylinder pressure to fire). This dropped cylinder means the other 7 cylinders are working overtime to keep up, leading to a burned or scuffed piston. A burned piston can lead to a "pushed" head gasket, extreme heat can torch away the copper head gasket and cause huge damage to both the cylinder head and the block (this means more than $5000 is repair and freight). The burned piston can also lead to a misfire, as flame gets past an open intake valve, and KABOOM?a minimum of $20,000 in damage. Teams calculate a few of these mishaps, but investing in oil usually takes at least $100,000 per year out of your budget.

For the teams who would be or have been caught running Red Line, they order our Assembly Lube, as it provides dramatically more protection on start-up, lasts at least through the burnout and often past the launch, contains no etching solid materials like other products, and completely emulsifies in motor oil to avoid contamination.
 
WHY SO THICK?
 

This is what happens to nitro engines that don't run Red Line! Actually, it can happen to any engine in Top Fuel, but the chances are far better when you burn a piston due to lack of film strength and kick the rods out of the block.

If your road car runs on a 30WT motor oil, why does a Top Fuel car need to run on a 70WT motor oil? The answer is two-fold. If that heavy, spinning clutch runs out of balance and tries to wipe out the rear main bearing, you'll want a thick oil to try to save the planet from the giant meteor that is a broken crankshaft. The clearance is typically .005-inch at the bearing, but it becomes double the clearance as the oblong forces are trying to rip the main cap from the block.

Here's the worst part: The fuel is being pumped into the engine at more than 650 psi when the engine is revved up at "the hit" (from an idle of 2400 rpm to just over 8000 rpm in the first 20 feet downtrack), and it's being distributed through the supercharger, intake ports, and directly above the intake valve.

This mechanical fuel injection system is less than efficient - remember that it's not timed with electric, pulsing fuel injectors, so the fuel is gushing all the time. Nitro gets past the piston rings and through the valve guides to the point of total pollution, turning other oils into milky, thin, uh, stuff.

 
Red Line developed a formula in 2003 that keeps the oil looking and acting like the motor oil. Watch a team drain another brand of oil from a Top Fuel car the next time you're watching an NHRA race on TV or in person; it's yellow, brown, and well, ugly in ways we can't describe. There's a reason they call that safety bag around the oil pan a "diaper."

So, the reason that teams use 70WT Racing Oil is a combination of film strength and fuel dilution. We forgot one part: temperature. What you know as SAE viscosity, like a 5W30 or a 20W50, is based on the engine's typical operating temperature of 212f. So a 5W30 is a 30WT at 212 and a 70WT is such at 212f, what if the engine never got that hot, only 160f.

That means this "straight weight" oil pumps extremely thick when it is cold, thins to about a 90WT when it's hot, and dilutes down to about a 30WT when soaked with fuel-this viscosity is what your typical road car engine needs for its bearings!

Other Red Line products run by both sponsored and customer teams include: Heavy Shockproof gear oil in their 12-inch Chrisman or Strange Eng. spool-type differentials (this 90W gets the teams a bit more MPH and 80 runs per ring-and-pinion set rather than 25 runs with other's 75W140 or 250W), Lightweight Shockproof gear oil in the supercharger gear cases (rather than the Two-Stroke oils used in the past with to avoid detonation if the seal would leak).

Other products include LikeWater suspension fluid in the clutch and fuel system controllers (rather than a water-soluble fluid which wasn't very consistent in changing ambient conditions), Assembly Lube (on practically everything in the engine) and CV-2 grease (in the front wheel bearings.
 
FINAL THOUGHTS
 
Your car has more in common with NHRA's top teams than you might think. Just like your performance engine needs extra antiwear chemicals like zinc and phosphorus, or friction modifiers and ester basestocks, the teams you see on TV run with products from Red Line that use the very same ingredients. They simply need these ingredients in very different percentage levels and by the 55-gallon drum!

Even if you are into different motoring interests and think that drag racing just isn't your "thing," we encourage you to visit an NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series event and see all of this mechincal activity in person. Television doesn't do it justice. The teams will answer your questions, confirm much of what we have written about here, and you will certainly look at these amazing engineers and mechanics in a different light. These folks have the most powerful cars in the world, but they don't act like it.