The Future of Pro Stock PDF Print E-mail
Motorsport
Written by Colin Brassington (aka Brash)   
Wednesday, 19 August 2015 17:27

SummitProStockPits

I’ve been avoiding talking about motorsport happenings for a while, and I have my reasons for this. But there’s one thing that feel I need to cover and that is the planned changes to NHRA Pro Stock for 2016. In late July the NHRA handed a letter to all Pro Stock teams informing them of 8 changes; 3 of which were to be enforced from the Sonoma Nationals onward (so, a week from when the document was handed out), and the rest for next season. These changes were intended to “increase spectator appeal, to make the class more relevant from a technology standpoint and to enhance the overall pit experience for fans of the class.”

The first three points are simple. Reverse the car into your pit area and let the fans see the engine and the maintenance. Each car gets a label across the top of the windscreen. Crew are not to touch the car during burnouts.

Secrets rule in Pro Stock, and the practice of covering pretty much the whole car whenever it’s off the track is pretty much normal, but doesn’t compare favourably with, say, a Top Fuel team, where the cars often get stripped down to bare blocks right in front of the fans’ eyes. The windscreen banner again is easy, especially since the Camaro teams already have this. And stopping the crew from touching or holding the cars during the burnout simply brings them into line with what the rest of the world is doing and has been for a very long time.

The arguments start with the second set of changes, those effective January 1 2016. Electronic Fuel Injection and the removal of the hood scoops. A 10,500RPM rev limiter. Shorter wheelie bars. And an expanded tv coverage platform.

ProStockChanges

This is the letter handed to Pro Stock teams in July

Now I love Pro Stock. It has to be said that its one of my favourite categories in Drag Racing, but it is hard to explain why to somebody who doesn’t have a history around the sport. Like many things in motorsport, Pro Stock has evolved from something that represented the highest development of a stock product, into something so specialised that any resemblance to a stock product is merely implied.

Now before we go any further, we need to remember that this is really the first change to NHRA Pro Stock regulations since 1982. When the NHRA announced Pro Stock was going to the 500 cubic inch (8.1 Litres!) formula in October 1981, that deal replaced a complex system of weightbreaks (overall vehicle weight per engine displacement) that were not only separate for each manufacturer, but they also changed according to small and big block combinations; and there was also separate concessions for certain wheelbase cars. Not to mention there was the “factoring” of combinations; meaning that if you won on Sunday you might have to carry more weight come Monday. Race winning combinations were often rendered uncompetitive overnight with this system.

For 1982, the NHRA adopted an approach of everybody running a 500cubic inch V8, duel carbs, and a minimum weight of 2350lb (1066kg). Done.

Some say that the move to electronic fuel injection has been on the cards for a while. That may be true, especially when you consider that it became really difficult to buy a car powered by a carburetted engine much past 1993. Hell even NASCAR adopted EFI a couple of years ago! Details of the system came out a couple of days ago; spec ECU, injectors, and throttle body, but it appears everything else is open.

Many have said that the cars will lose their soul. “For me, Pro Stock is tall sheet metal intake manifolds, big carbs and big hood scoops” one commenter said. “Grump (meaning the late Ian ‘Grumpy’ Jenkins, a legend of Pro Stock’s early years and a guy who has forgotten more about making Chevy V8s go fast than most will ever learn) would be turning over in his grave” said another. I call bullshit though. The Grump and all the other legends of the class would have used EFI if they had it available in the 70s. To pick a combination I’m familiar with, the legendary combination of Reher, Morrison and Shepherd pioneered what has been the modern Pro Stock bullet. There weren’t any solid race heads or sheet metal intake manifolds, so they made them themselves to work with what they had. Would these guys have used EFI if they thought it was an advantage? Bloody oath they would have. And going to EFI isn’t even destroying the history, it is following the times and evolving the formula, just like has happened in the past. Some have said that this means it’s no longer a working man’s class, but I struggle with the logic that an engine that is worth more than an average house counts as a working man’s class anymore.

One of the reasons that one of my favourite eras in motorsport history is the late 80s is that come the 90s motorsport formulae all over the world went mad chasing performance. But nowhere is this more evident than in Pro Stock.

1984 Lee shepherd

Lee Shepherd in the legendary Reher-Morrison-Shepherd Camaro, 1984. Whit Bazemore photo, used without permission

In 1985, for example, you had fields consisting of Chevy Camaros, Ford Thunderbirds, Pontiac Firebirds, Oldsmobile Cutlasses, and (I must admit to the ignorance) some sort of Mopar that I don’t remember. With the possible exception of the Mopar, these were all carburetted V8 coupes, using steel bodies and small rear spoilers. Come 1990 the Camaros had been replaced by the Chevy Beretta (a small, 4-cylinder powered FWD coupe), the new Oldsmobile Cutlass (now a FWD luxury car on the GM W-body platform) Ford Probe (a V6 FWD coupe) and the Dodge Daytona (a 4-cylinder FWD coupe). Move on to the year 2000 and the GM racers had moved back to a Camaro or Firebird, but Ford had moved to the Escort, and the Mopar racers were playing with the Dodge Neon. And remember that by now the cars were full tube frame racers, with the body being exactly that - just the body.

Shortly after that, the “aero” wars began, with the Pro Stock Chevy Cavalier being squashed and sectioned into a low and sleek racer. Same with the Ford and the Mopar. Another few years pass and the Chevy racers had gone through the Cavalier and Cobalt (both based on small 4-cylinder FWD cars). Pontiac abandoned the Firebird to race the G6 GXP (a small 4-cylinder car that looked suspiciously like a Cobalt with different lights and bumpers). Dodge moved through the Stratus to the Avenger, both small FWD sedans. Ford persisted with the Escort until the new Mustang was released. The fifth-generation Mustang became the Pro Stock car of choice for Ford teams shortly after it’s 2005 debut, but as with other Pro Stock cars, the body was a heavily massaged low drag body more resemblant of a NASCAR than a production car. But the Mustang becoming the Ford of choice opened the door to the fifth generation Camaro of 2010 to become the Chevy of choice. Unfortunately Mopar continued with using their small sedans, replacing the Avenger with the new-for-2014 Dart instead of the Challenger, denying the hardcore fans the opportunity to return to the ‘muscle car wars’ of the 70s.

Anyway, the adoption of EFI comes with the removal of the iconic hood scoop. This is the one thing that has always marked the Pro Stock car, and it will be interesting to see how they look without them. Exactly how the cars will draw air remains to be seen, but it is presumed that either will utilise some form of cowl induction type scoop over the engine, so the look won’t be totally lost on today’s cars. Like I said, the rules posted so far are a bit vague: spec throttle body forward facing and drawing air from the grille. There’s no word on manifolds (other than the location of spec injectors) so expect some crazy stuff to be built in that regard.

Some are saying that going EFI will be the death of the class, but I disagree. So does Warren Johnson, who has won more Pro Stock races than anyone else. “I’ve been on NHRA to put fuel injection on these cars since 1989” he told enginelabs.com. And maybe if they had made it optional then, it wouldn’t be such a big thing now. And think of the follow on effects, as the EFI hardware filtered down to second and third tier Comp and Super Stock cars. The sport would look completely different now! (Maybe – remember drag racers are notoriously against anything they don’t understand, and many are totally against any form of electronic controls)

The rev limit is an interesting one as well, and this will impact some teams more than others. It’s no secret that some of the teams spin their engines up as far as 11,000rpm (if not more – some teams are reportedly shifting gears at 11,500!) so there is a perceived cost saving there with the lower rpm and it also stops the teams pushing that ceiling further. Some teams have argued that any possible cost saving will be eaten up with the changes to camshafts, timing and gear ratios; but like I said this stops them from attempting to push the ceiling further, so there’s the perception of costs being saved.

The final mechanical change is the shortening of the wheelie bars. Pro Stock teams learned years ago that if they wanted to be fast, they needed to keep the cars on the track. Energy used to pick the front wheels up is not being used to drive it forward. Pro Stock wheelie bar dimensions and adjustments is just as much a dark and secret science as everything else in the Pro Stock pits, and it’s well known that if you get the final adjustment wrong the car won’t launch cleanly. So by shortening the wheelie bars they will presumably increase the level of unpredictability in the class.

Mopar.AJ.NoScoop

Is this what Allen Johnson's Mopar Dodge Dart will look like next season? Rough photoshop done by me

Like I said, I love Pro Stock. But the thing is that I get just as much enjoyment watching the live timing as I do the live action. You watch the first pass of the session, then just look for the numbers. Because Pro Stock, more than any other class, is a class dictated by numbers. Pro Stock is one of the few classes where you could throw down a perfect reaction time and a good run, and still lose. Races are often decided by thousandths of a second, and as much as I love it, you can’t see that distance from the stands or on a tv screen.

But there is one thing that should never ever be taken away from Pro Stock. And that is the sound of the screaming naturally aspirated V8. Because you can carry on about the sound of a Ferrari or Aston Marton as much as you like, but none of them sound like a screaming Detroit V8 running at atmospheric pressure. Sure you can make more power with a turbo, a blower or nitrous. The Aston V12 and even the Audi V10 emit a fantastic screaming wail as they thunder around the circuit. But none of them have the presence of the atmo V8.

And truth be told, as long as Pro Stock stays normally aspirated, the rest almost doesn’t matter. Because it will still be primarily an engine class, and it will still sound like Pro Stock.

 

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