Power Like You Can't Believe
Published: November 7, 2006
by Dan Burger
Witnessing two top fuel dragsters race a quarter mile in 4.5 seconds at speeds that top 300 mph is not like anything you've probably ever done in your life. Chances are pretty good that few Four Hundred Stuff readers have ever seen anything like it, but my recommendation is that you put this on your agenda. And it's easy to find someone to cheer for because Allen Hartley, owner of ProData Computer Services, puts on a show with one of these drag racing beasts in more than a dozen cities around the country each year.
I was in the grandstands of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway the last weekend in October when the Hartley Racing Team competed wheel to wheel with the fastest dragsters in the world. That wouldn't have happened if ProData and IBM hadn't hosted a day at the races and invited nearly 100 guests, most of which had never seen a professional drag racing event. (The last time I was at the drags was 1974.) Now I'm looking forward to the next race I can attend. I won't have to wait long because the Hartley Team will be racing at Pomona (east of Los Angeles) November 10 through 12.
It was coincidental that the Las Vegas races were held the weekend before the System i Technical Conference got under way, and that was one reason there were IBM-Rochester folks and System i users from a wide geographical area on hand for the event. The Tech Conference draws about 500 participants, and with the casino and hotel businesses in Las Vegas being huge System i shops, the location and timing for this type of event was perfect. By the way, the weather was perfect, too.
This shows the dragster in the pit area being prepared for the Saturday qualifying rounds. Photograph by Dan Burger
ProData and IBM cooperated to make this an iSociety event. For those who don't know, iSociety is the new System i community that has been established to increase the interaction (networking) among users, consultants, analysts, reporters, business partners, and IBM. It includes user groups, news organizations, forums, blogs, and reaches out to college students. Hartley's dragster wears the iSociety logo on the side.
You might wonder how many people at a drag race would know or care about the System i or iSociety, but, again, you might be surprised. Shelli Peck, the marketing director for both ProData and Hartley Racing, provided a partial list of companies that are ProData customers (therefore System i customers) and sponsors of cars racing in the two professional circuits, the NHRA and IHRA.
The list includes: Werner Enterprises, Levi, Ray & Shoup, Wells' Dairy, Weld Racing Motorsports, Anheuser Busch, Miller Brewing, U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company, UPS, Mac Tools, and Toyota.
Frank Soltis, IBM chief scientist, and his sons, Brian and Michael (veteran motorsports fans); Elaine Lennox, System i vice president of marketing, and her son, Jordan; and Linda Grigoleit, program manager for the IBM Academic Initiative, were on hand to take in the action. Other guests came from the IT departments at organizations such as Station Casinos, Boyd Gaming, Countrywide Loans, Cargill, and Dick's Sporting Goods. I sat behind John Earl, CTO at PowerTech, and his wife and wife's sister. Turns out the two ladies grew up in a drag racing family and had plenty of good stories to tell.
The Hartley top fuel dragster is an awesome piece of machinery. It measure 25 feet in length, from the razor-edge spoiler that cuts the winds ahead of the bicycle-style front wheels to the parachute pack in back. In addition to keeping the front wheels on the track when the power is applied, the spoiler is a prime advertising location occupied by System i security and systems management software vendor Bytware. At the end of each "pass" down the track, a parachute is used to help slow the vehicle. Along the side of the red and black missile is the logo of another sponsor, Kronos, which develops time and attendance software for i5/OS.
The driver (I think he should be called a pilot) sits ahead of the engine, a safer location than behind the engine should anything blow up. Behind him is an 8,000 horsepower monster motor that sucks down 15 gallons of NitroMethane fuel each time it launches down the quarter mile track. The acceleration off the line catapults the machine to 100 mph in less than one second. How's that for power? The engine's roar is deafening. As a spectator, wearing ear plugs is mandatory. I would take my ear plugs out between races, while talking with other spectators, and on a couple of occasions got caught without them when I needed them the most. In case of emergency, hands over the ears work reasonably well. Believe me, it's an involuntary reflex like jumping back from intense heat.
Drag racing events like the one in Las Vegas take place over three days, usually Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. All the cars in each category have to qualify for the top 16 positions in the finals, which are run on the final day. The cars get two qualifying runs Friday and two more on Saturday. The preparations for each run are made in the pit area, and race fans can walk through "the pits" and watch what's going on.
Not everyone gets as close as I did. (The press has its privileges, you know.) Inside the semi truck trailer that hauls the car is mini machine shop, tool emporium, and--here's the part you're going to like--data center. I found out that racing cars of this caliber depends as much on computers and data as they do wrenches and spark plugs. This is a highly scientific operation. The information that means the difference between thousandths of second on the track is laid out in front of the crew on computer screens in the pits. It's the crew's job to implement the changes that will improve performance. And then it's the driver's job to git it done.
Allen Hartley (on the left) and an unidentified crew member reviewing engine data that is monitored by an onboard computer while the car is making its qualifying runs. Photograph by Dan Burger
I think a lot of IT professionals can relate to the mixture of science, technology, engineering, and math that goes into the preparation of a top fuel dragster. If you know Allen Hartley, you can see how this challenge gets him fired up. And once you've had a look behind the scenes and you know what dictates the changes that go on under the hood, you look at racing a little differently. It's brainpower that equals horsepower, and then there's the courage it takes to go for a 300 mph 4.5 second ride.
After his four qualifying passes, the best time posted by Joe Hartley, Allen Hartley's son, was 4.633 seconds at 323.66 mph. He was eliminated from the final round of 16 by 1/1000th of a second.
Even though the car didn't qualify, crew chief and owner Allen Hartley was excited about the team's effort and the car's performance. Here's a recap of how things went. After one run at 4.633 seconds and 323.66 mph, the team was in the ninth position and feeling pretty good. "Looking at the computer," Hartley said, "I could see that we needed a little adjustment in the clutch area so with a couple of small changes we went into the night qualifying session expecting to step up."
But their lucked changed when Joe hit the throttle on the second run. One of the eight cylinders went dead and he had to abort the run. The problem was traced to the supercharger, which sort of force feeds the air and fuel mixture to the cylinders. Because they were unable to better their first run, competitors that made adjustments better their times and moved past the Harley team, dropping them to 14th.
A crew chief is nothing if not optimistic though and that was the mood the Hartley Racing Team took into Saturday's qualifying runs. "Saturday was a beautiful day, but with the sun heating up the track, we were concerned about the track being a little slippery," he said. "I made some adjustments to make sure we did not smoke the tires (not good for registering fast times), and as it turned out, I was a little too conservative and the car was too slow in the first part of the track."
Although the time was a few clicks behind their best run Friday, a 4.662 second pass at 327.82 mph was not bad. However, their position slipped four more slots to 18th. Going into the last qualifying race, Hartley's positive attitude still had plenty of fuel. The data from the onboard computer let him know a clutch adjustment was the key to making the finals. The clutch adjustments worked and the car was .02 seconds quicker in the first 60 feet of the race track. "We should have run around a 4.58 to a 4.60 and qualified," Hartley said.
Not quite. As it turned out that was an optimistic assumption based on no other problems. As insurance that the clutch would perform as expected, a new pilot bearing replaced a worn bearing. A good idea, but even new bearings can fail, and that's what happened. It caused the clutch to slip even more than on the previous run. Although it slowed the car in the middle of the track, it still turned an elapsed time of 4.659 seconds at 327.51 mph.
It looked fast and strong from where there Hartley Racing fans were sitting and cheering, but it was not enough to qualify. "We were disappointed with not qualifying," Allen said. Then he optimistically added, "but the car showed real promise and we think we will do well at the next race in Pomona, California, on November 10."
Pomona is only about a 90 minute drive for me. I'm going. Hope there's some System i fans in the grandstands.