By its nature, drag racing is a blisteringly hot, smelly, oily, noisy sport. Dragsters tear their screaming engines to bits in five seconds. Drivers and mechanics scream for a few more rpm. Fans scream at the earth-shattering, soul-shaking, eardrum-bursting sound of a 1,900-pound, 4,000-hp car roaring down a 1¼-mile track.
Amid the pandemonium stands a man with blackened fingernails, slightly hunched shoulders and the wonderful ability, above all the racket, to listen. If you get to know crew chief Dale Armstrong, you'll notice that he is something of an anomaly in the drag racing world. "He hates crowds, and he hates to travel," says Susie Arnold, Armstrong's girlfriend. "He would prefer to have the race come to him." An armchair crew chief?
"If Dale isn't sleeping in the van at the starting line," says former driver Darrell Gwynn, "he's probably reading a book."
"Books?" says Arnold. "He buys one hundred dollars' worth at a time. One for the trip out, one for the race weekend, one for the trip back. He can't turn off his brain." From murder mysteries to biographies to technical-engineering manuals, the 51-year-old Armstrong gobbles up books. The man needs information.
This and his blisteringly hot, smelly, oily 37-year love affair with the internal-combustion engine have kept him firmly entrenched as the top crew chief in the business. "At the tracks," Arnold says, "people come by the garage just to watch him think."
Armstrong has a five-year contract with Kenny Bernstein's Budweiser King Racing Team, which is in contention for the National Hot Rod Association's (NHRA) Top Fuel title for the first time after winning four Funny Car titles from 1985 to 1988. He is a self-made man, a guy from the Canadian prairie, whose life, for the most part, has turned out exactly the way he wanted it to.
Like the rest of the top fuelers, Armstrong and Bernstein entered the 1992 season chasing the Holy Grail of drag racing—the 300-mph barrier. It had been either 28 or 32 years since either Don (Big Daddy) Garlits or Chris Karamesines, depending on whom you believe, broke the 200-mph mark.
To this day both Garlits and Karamesines lay claim to the feat; the dispute is over which driver first went 200 at a track that had timing equipment capable of verifying such a run. In 1975 Garlits went 250 mph. In 1989, as several drivers crept toward 300, the NHRA, worried about safety at the tracks, clamped down by issuing new rules that slowed the cars.
But late in 1991, when speeds were again approaching 300 mph, Garlits announced he would come out of his third retirement to pursue the 300 record. Don (the Snake) Prudhomme had passed the 290 barrier three times last season and figured to have the best shot this season. Joe Amato, who had won the last two Top Fuel titles, stated the obvious in January. "It would be quite a feather in my cap to be the first to go 300."
The race was on. Last winter Armstrong and his crew put together the new Budweiser chassis in the team shop in Lake Forest, Calif., south of Los Angeles. With almost every turn of a wrench, Armstrong encouraged the crew by saying, "If you're thinking of doing something or not doing something, well, do you want to go 299 or 300?"
"I sometimes wonder what kids are doing today," said Armstrong as he relaxed between races in the quiet of his Lake Forest office in July. "I sometimes look out on the street, and about the only things I see are the little love trucks with boom boxes in back. Now every once in a while you'll run across a fellow into performance...."
Armstrong was that fellow in the 1950s, when white clouds of smoke could be seen puffing out of the open doors of the little garage behind a shingled one-story house on 23rd Avenue in Calgary, Alberta. The teenage Armstrong was working furiously on his latest car.
Born in 1941 on an Alberta wheat farm, Armstrong learned to take apart his father's tractor and reassemble it when he was 10 years old, sometimes running into the house to consult a dusty old Motors manual. When he was 14 he bought his first car, a '36 Ford Coupe, for $5 and had his mother tow it home behind her car. He would sneak hot rod magazines into his notebooks at school, and he traded cars with his friends as though they were baseball cards. "Knew one kid who must have had a different car every week," Armstrong says.
The American automobile changed dramatically in 1955, the year Ford and Chevy came out with their powerful V-8 engines. The new models also had more style. They had grace. They had nice interiors. "And then," says Armstrong, "here comes Elvis on the radio. Oh, what a great time it was."
Within days of getting his driver's license, in 1957, Armstrong took his Ford to a drag strip laid out on an old airfield outside Calgary. It took him five runs in the car to break 60 mph. After every run he ripped something out to lighten the load. Soon the Armstrongs' little garage was packed with the discarded parts—backseat, front seat, spare tire—and Armstrong started to earn a reputation as a first-rate mechanic. The alley behind the garage began to fill with hot rods from around town. It was Canadian Graffiti 15 years before George Lucas filmed American Graffiti.
When he sent away for parts, manuals and technical guides, he noticed that the addresses were always either in Los Angeles or New York City. In February '64 Armstrong and two friends towed his '62 Chevy Impala to the Winternationals in Pomona, Calif. Back in Calgary it was so cold that cars sometimes froze to the street. But down in L.A. a guy could go racing five nights a week at such tracks as Lions, Fontana and Carlsbad.
Eleven months later Armstrong closed up his performance shop in Calgary and returned to California, driving down U.S. Highway 99, known as the grapevine, as it wound over mountains and down toward the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles. "You just start coming down into the valley and, oh, what a magnificent sight," Armstrong says. "It was just cars after cars after cars. Corvettes, Cobras, Ferraris...."
He walked into Lee White Chevrolet on the Pacific Coast Highway in Long Beach and got a job as a mechanic and began working his way up the grapevine of drag racing. By December 1966 his car, a Chevy II Nova called the Canuck, was on the cover of Hot Rod Parts Illustrated, about which the accompanying article said, "Even a diehard Chevy lover would have trouble telling just what had been the original vehicle."
Armstrong's office is testimony to his racing success in the 1970s: The shelves hold 14 trophies for national-event wins in alcohol-fueled dragsters during that decade. Back then he would drive 'em, fix 'em and drive 'em some more. But drag racing technology was becoming increasingly sophisticated, and equipment more expensive, and independent drivers, like Armstrong, had to dig a little deeper into their pockets to keep up.
By the '80s Armstrong was pushing 40. In 1981 he had two horrible accidents. One crash sent his Dodge Challenger hurtling down the track at Columbus, Ohio, on fire at 240 mph. "Yeah, that was kind of a bad one," he says. "It told me it was time to get out of driving."
Late in the '81 season another driver with more business acumen than Armstrong called him in his hotel room. "I hear you're thinking of retiring," said the voice on the other end of the line. "And I need a crew chief for next year."
Armstrong had told no one he was quitting. Yet Kenny Bernstein had heard whispers about Armstrong, one of his toughest rivals. Armstrong accepted the offer knowing that Bernstein, with Budweiser's backing, could finance some ideas that had been stewing in Armstrong's mind.
Through the mid-1980s Armstrong experienced a burst of creativity. "He just kept coming up with stuff you wouldn't believe those first two or three years," says Bernstein, whose team in 1985 set a single-season record for consecutive Funny Car finals (seven) and won 38 out of 44 races. "No one could touch us."
Drag racing's big questions are these: How do you get the most power out of an engine and how do you get that power from the engine to the track? In 1984 Armstrong put a computer in the Bud funny car to monitor various parts of the engine and the drive-line function. Now he could look at a TV monitor and read a graph that showed precisely when the clutch kicked in and how the different spark plugs were performing.
That same year he installed an automatic shifter in the car to transfer the engine's power more efficiently to the track, adding another 10 mph and taking the car past 260 mph. In '86 dual fuel pumps were installed as was a lock-up clutch, which kicked in more and more power as the car moved down the track. The funny car zoomed past 270.
The ideas kept coming. While standing on his hotel balcony in Bristol, Tenn., one day in 1985, Armstrong got to thinking about how to lighten the car. At the time funny cars had 100-pound lead weights placed behind their front bumpers; the weight held the nose of the car down and kept it from doing wheelies at the start. After his balcony musings Armstrong decided to elongate the car and move the gas tank farther forward, adding weight to the nose and thus canceling the need for the lead weight. The results of all these innovations were four straight Funny Car titles for the Budweiser team, from 1985 to 1988.
The next logical step was to Top Fuel dragsters, which the team moved to in 1990. Two years later the Budweiser team was on the threshold of breaking the 300-mph barrier. The final piece of the puzzle arrived not in a part, but in a person. Wes Cerny, known in drag racing circles as "the guru of cylinder heads," had been crew chief for Jim White when White drove his funny car to speeds in excess of 290 in '91. After that season Cerny, who figured his team's sponsor was not going to renew its contract, offered his services to Bernstein.
Armstrong had the right ignition system, and Cerny had the right cylinder heads. "It was just a matter of putting together what I knew about the engine in a funny car and what Dale knew about the engine in a dragster," says Cerny.
Between races Armstrong and Cerny tinker with a dynometer—a full dragster engine that can be run independent of the chassis—that is kept in the Lake Forest shop. It is no coincidence that the shop is located near El Toro Air Force Base, because Armstrong figured that if the neighborhood could tolerate jets taking off, they could tolerate the sound of the dyno, which is roughly equivalent to having a jackhammer placed, oh, in your ear.
One day during the summer, one of the dyno's mufflers exploded during a run of the engine. "Someone down the street called 911," says Armstrong. "They said, 'I'm not going in there, there's got to be dead bodies.' " By the time the fire department arrived, Armstrong had already left the shop to go to lunch, oblivious of the commotion.
That sums up Armstrong perfectly. Always avoiding commotion. He would be happy sitting at home eating tomato sandwiches and watching hockey on the tube or, as he once did, 19 straight hours of The Honeymooners.
On Saturday mornings, to get away from work, Armstrong will sometimes go for a drive on the curvy Ortega Highway over the Santa Ana Mountains down to a building in which he works on restoring his 20 vintage cars. There, one day in July, Armstrong tells the history of each car to a visitor, explaining how one might be the first to have had an original 409 engine in it or how another, now in perfect running condition, was found rusting away in a shed after being unattended to for 20 years.
In a sense he's Indiana Jones, and each of the cars is a treasure, his way of tracking time, history and, of course, performance. "He'll probably be fiddling with those cars when he's 80 years old," says Arnold.
March 20, Gainesville, Fla., 4:42 p.m. At 68°, it was the kind of day that the Budweiser Top Fuel car would perform at its best. Bernstein sat in the cockpit at the starting line, waiting to make a qualifying run. In line behind him were the rest of the Top Fuelers.
The staging lights called the Christmas tree blinked on. Bernstein stomped on the throttle and let out the clutch. The car in the next lane spun and smoked its tires, sending a cloud of white smoke over the starting line. Bernstein's car disappeared into the smoke.
In the first 1.5 seconds, Bernstein traveled 100 feet and the car was doing 100 mph. After 2.8 seconds they were going 200 mph. At 3.3 seconds 250 mph, almost 20 mph quicker than this year's top qualifying time at the Indianapolis 500. And at 4.7 seconds the car entered the 66-foot speed zone before the finish line, the engine turning at 7,800 rpm and....
"I turned around to go back to the van, and suddenly this roar went through the place," says Armstrong. "I remember thinking to myself, Nah, it couldn't have been a 300. I was scared to turn around."
As the smoke cleared, Armstrong could see the scoreboard: It read 301.7 MPH. "What made it such a thing to me was something I had talked about with a lot of the guys and other competitors," he says. "And that was the day when a three, not a two, comes up as the first digit. Because we've raced for 30 years, and it has never been more than 200 and something."
A few moments later the Budweiser team joined Bernstein and the car as they were towed back to the starting line in front of the stands. "All the Top Fuelers were just standing there," says Armstrong. "Don Prudhomme and Joe Amato and Don Garlits, and you could just see the forced grins, although they were giving us the thumbs-up. I thought, This is how I would have felt standing there and watching one of those guys do it. Boy, would I have been disappointed, because there is only one first time; it can never be done again."
"It's probably the last barrier drag racing will see," says Bernstein.
The man made the machine and the machine made the man. Twice more this season, once at the Summernationals in Englishtown, N.J., and then at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, when the conditions were wrong and neither man nor machine had any business going 300 mph, Bernstein and Armstrong lined their car up and did it again.
When not perusing a book, Armstrong is likely to be preparing for blast-off.
Could this have been the sport's final barrier?
Thanks to Armstrong's technological wizardry, Bernstein has long been the driver to beat.
PETER READ MILLER
Armstrong still has a passion for the cars of his hot-rodding youth.