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Nitromethane: Top-Fuel Drag Racing’s Soup of Choice

The idea is so simple. You pit two cars against each other over a straight, measured distance -- an eighth of a mile or a quarter mile. But that’s the last simple thing you’ll ever have to say about drag racing, a sport that has evolved into an extreme, heart-pumping exhibition of pure power and engineering genius.

We’re talking 6,000 horsepower here, making the zero to 60 jump in two-tenths of a second, busting 325 mph and ticking off that quarter mile in under 5 seconds. You don’t do that on a tank of regular from the corner gas station.

Back in the 1950s the phrase “souped up” was coined as a reference to various fuel mixes or “soups” drivers tinkered with in the almighty quest for more power and greater speed. Experiments involved volatile fuels and additives including dinitropropane, acetone, methanol, nitrobenzene, propylene oxide -- and the one that won out as the “top fuel” of choice, nitromethane.

Between 1934 and 1960, Offenhauser was the top designer of racing engines, routinely sweeping the pole positions in top races and taking the Indianapolis 500 a total of 24 times. That cherished dominance began to be eroded, however, when Rodger Ward shocked the high-powered racing world winning in, of all things, a midget car on August 10, 1950 at Gilmore Stadium. He repeated the feat the next night at the Orange Show Stadium.

The engine in Ward’s midget car was a Ford 60 “shaker” built by Vic Edelbrock. Something was up under the hood, but no one knew what exactly. The exhaust smelled like fruit and the flame burned orange instead of blue. The confusion was exactly what Edelbrock and Ward wanted. They were using a chemical they called orange peel to disguise the distinctive smell of nitromethane coming out of the engine.

One kilogram of nitromethane (often simply called nitro or fuel) needs only 1.7 kg of air to burn. The same amount of gasoline needs 14.6 kg of air. That means that the cylinder of an engine can burn roughly 8.7 times more nitromethane on a stroke, generating 2.3 times more power than gasoline.

In the late 1940s, Edelbrock, a performance parts engineer and race car driver working out of his shop in Beverly Hills, came by a gallon of the stuff. A friend passed it on to him reasoning it was just too dangerous. Edelbrock’s first experiment was with a 10 percent mixture of nitro. He almost melted down the engine, but the horsepower potential was more than obvious.

By the time his experiments were done and a working engine achieved, Edelbrock had picked up about 100 gallons of nitro. He built an engine with a colder spark plug and components that could take the nitromethane’s corrosiveness. With a 20 percent nitromethane mixture, Edelbrock picked up a 40 percent kick in horsepower. That’s what carried Ward over the finish line at Gilmore.

Edelbrock wasn’t the only racer in the period to be experimenting with nitromethane. Joaquin Arnett and Tony Capanna were fooling around with it in their hot rods as well. Edelbrock, however, is generally considered to be the man who pulled it all together and made it work.

The National Hot Rod Association, founded by Wally Parks in 1951 as a governing body for the sport, wasn’t all that sure about the innovation however. Boiling it down to the most simple language, these guys were putting rocket fuel in their engines and it just sounded a little too “hot” even for the hot rodders.

On April 1, 1957 the NHRA banned nitromethane from its sanctioned strips, starting a seven-year drought in the “official” evolution of drag racing fuel. It wasn’t until January 1962 when the Lions Drag Strip lifted the ban that things began to thaw out.

Engineers were getting increasingly savvy with their mixtures and using better aluminum engine components. The speed and power boosts were undeniable. Drag racers wanted their nitro. Finally in 1963, the NHRA lifted the ban for the Winter Nationals and dumped it all together by 1964. (Nitro is still banned on dirt tracks because of prohibitive maintenance costs.)

Today, in the fastest class of dragsters, Top Fuel, the cars run on a mixture of as much as 85 percent nitromethane usually combined with about 15 percent methanol. (It’s not as flammable as gasoline and makes a good blend in supercharged engines.)

Nitro isn’t the only fuel out there. The NHRA also has a Top Alcohol class running 100 percent methanol, a Top Gas class, and a Pro Modified class where nitrous oxide is utilized. (Engines in NASCAR competitors are burning leaded gasoline at 110-octane.) But in the world of top-performance drag racing, nitromethane is still the “soup” de jour.

Every time a Top-Fuel engine roars to life and makes the quarter mile at speeds approaching the power of a fighter jet, Vic Edelbrock’s dream is fulfilled. The NHRA was right about one thing though. Nitromethane is rocket fuel and the drag racers who use it are the fastest men on earth -- five seconds at a time.