Dragstrip Machining

A Different Kind of High-Speed Machining

When you’re rocketing down a dragstrip at 250 mph, it’s always nice to see where you’re going.

In a dragster, that’s no problem – the engine is behind you, and there’s nothing to block your vision except the visor you flip down just before you leave the starting line.

In a Funny Car, though, the engine’s right in your face. When the body is up and you’re strapped in, waiting for them to fire up the car and lower the body, the engine commands your attention. You can just see over the top of it . . . usually.

If it weren’t for our Haas Mini Mill, I’d still be driving blind, strapped in behind a too-tall engine, frantically looking side to side as I blast down the track, trying to keep the car halfway between the guardrail and the centreline until I cross the finish line.

I’ve only had to drive that way once, and it’s something I never want to do again. It was the first race of the 2001 season, in Orlando, Florida. Jeff McGaffic, the owner of our Firebird Alcohol Funny Car, and a full-time CNC machine shop owner, had built a brand-new engine in the off-season, one with not only new but completely different cylinder heads, a much taller manifold and a new supercharger that didn’t incorporate the injector scoop into the blower case.

With the PSI supercharger (as with all blowers, except the Whipplecharger brand, which we ran the year before), the injector is a separate component that is bolted atop the supercharger and sticks up through the hood.

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You can’t get a good feel for how all the changes are going to affect your forward vision until you’re on a completely flat surface, strapped into the car, with the body down – the kind of environment I found myself in when our all-new engine was fired up for the first run of the new season.

The first run is always a little nerve-wracking. “What am I doing trying to drive this car?” you think. “Can I really do this?” It’s like that every year (and sometimes in the middle of the year, if you’ve had a month or more off between races), but it goes away. This time, I didn’t even want to get back in the seat for the next run.

Fortunately, the Orlando race also was our first event with a Haas Mini Mill – and the place where Jeff’s plan to have the first drag racing team with its own CNC milling machine at the track began paying dividends.

We’re not the only Alcohol Funny Car team with a well-appointed transporter. Just about everyone at this level has a tractor-trailer rig – you almost have to have one to carry the car, the thousands of necessary tools, at least one spare engine, bin after bin of spare parts, and the support equipment essential to service and maintain such an operation.

Everybody has hydraulic lifts that double as jack stands, spotless stainless-steel workbenches, computers for analyzing data between runs, and stacks and stacks of spare parts. Top teams – especially Top Fuel and Funny Car teams – have drill presses and lathes. Nitro teams, like those of John Force and Don Prudhomme, even have entire rigs called “technology centres” that are separate from the rigs that haul their race cars. But they don’t have Haas Mini Mills.

Out on the road, more than 1,000 miles from his Vista Manufacturing facility in Midland, PA, just outside Pittsburgh, Jeff was able to do himself what would have cost the team who-knows-how-much money and consumed most of the little time we had between back-to-back events.

Before we left Orlando and headed north to Gainesville, FL, for a bigger race that was to begin four days later, Jeff took apart the top of the engine, carefully disassembled the intricate fuel system and removed the port nozzles from the manifold. In no time at all, he was making chips in the front of the trailer.

It doesn’t sound like much, but machining 0.220 inch off the top of the manifold and another 0.100 inch or so from the supercharger made all the difference in the world. By the time we got to Gainesville for the Gatornationals, I could actually see where I was going when I left the starting line.

That’s not the only time our Haas Mini Mill has proven invaluable. Run after run, the discs and floaters in our three-disc clutch (and that of every Alcohol Funny Car) take a pounding that no component should be expected to withstand. Sliding the clutch in the first few hundred feet of the run, as 2,800 horsepower propels our 2,250-pound car to 200 mph by half-track (the eighth-mile mark, or 220 yards from both the starting line and the finish line), and 250 mph by the end of the quarter-mile, abuses everything inside the bell housing.

When we take the discs and floaters out of the car minutes after returning to the pits from a run, they’ve turned blue from the excessive heat of metal-on-metal contact. Even half an hour after we’ve pulled the clutch apart with gloved hands and set it aside to examine later, the sweat that rolls off our foreheads jumps around like grease bubbles on a skillet, vanishing in seconds, when it hits the discs and floaters.

Every part of the clutch looks like it’s destined for the junk pile when it comes out, but these expensive pieces are not only salvageable – after a little time in our mobile machining centre, they are as good as they ever were. Making another run on the same hot clutch is guaranteeing yourself a loss in the next round; making a run later without completely resurfacing it would be just as bad.

Gary Hanshe, the team’s clutch technician, and I install a fresh clutch pack – a new set of three discs and two floaters arranged in a disc-floater-disc-floater-disc configuration – for each run. When he has time, Gary machines both sides of the floaters and discs, removing the smallest possible amount of material from each; we continue to use them until they’re down to about 0.270 inch. At that point, they really are ready for the scrap heap.

Aside from the day-to-day miracles it performs for our clutch program, having a Haas Mini Mill has given us the peace of mind that comes with knowing that, for almost any crisis that arises in the always unpredictable world of racing, we can solve the problem ourselves. In our sport alone, it has countless applications.

It is compact and rigid, and Jeff has no trouble maintaining exacting tolerances, even when we’re assigned an unlevel pit space and the machine is not perfectly level in the trailer. With just a 5,000-lb fork lift, the machine can be moved easily from the trailer to the shop. At the track, Jeff has used it to custom-machine pistons for other racers who are desperate to raise or lower the compression in just a single cylinder. He’s even used it to make the Haas key chains and other giveaways that we’ve handed out at tracks across the country, and at machine and trade shows.

Being affiliated with Haas also has opened the doors to other sponsors who back the team, including our current alliances with U.S. Tool, a leading supplier of specialised cutting tools, and WOCO, the Wallover Oil Company, which produces coolants and oils for the machining industry.

Plus, we never get tired of seeing those you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me looks on the faces of other drag racers when we tell them where all this machine work was done: right up in the front of our trailer – where they have their lounges. But, to me, the Haas Mini Mill will never be more valuable than it was that day it allowed me to see where I was going again.