It's late 1987 and the bright red and white Ford Motorcraft Thunderbird of Candies & Hughes slams down the quarter-mile drag strip 10mph faster than any Funny Car had ever traveled before: 269 mph. Mark Oswald is at the controls, but all is not well. Crew chief Leonard Hughes tells body builder Harry West this won't work.
"Excuse me?" says West in contradiction. "Ten miles an hour faster than the world record and you say it won't work?"
"If Mark had run over so much as a cigarette butt, we'd be scraping him off the moon," Hughes replied..
Thus began the recent evolution of today's Funny Car body.
In one small test session before the 1988 Winternationals, West, who calls his Jacksonville, FL, "body shop" Hairy Glass, started what would grow into the major business of supplying composite Funny Car bodies to the world.
But wait. Hughes said it wouldn't work. Indeed, that slippery run by Oswald showed him and West the nose was too high. Speed yes, but handling of the new composite-fiber body at such great velocity was marginal.
Back to the drawing board for West in what would eventually open the envelope for the 300-mph Funny Car speeds we see today. West didn't point it out, but that the bearded 51-year-old made the right adjustments in lowering the nose is attested to by Oswald's later winning the l988 Big Bud Shutout at Indy at a speed of 273.97 MPH. And the handling was just fine, thank you. Oswald went on to finish second to Kenny Bernstein in the season standings.
Let's look at how West came to build that first car, the evolution from 260 mph to Al Hofmann's record holding 306.33, the aerodynamics, materials, and technical know-how acquired along the way. But first to West.
"Back in l964 I worked as a mechanic for B.V. Alvarez's limited (Ford) factory assisted NASCAR effort. Buddy Baker, Cale Yarborough, the late Tiny Lund and Larry Thomas were among those who drove the car."
West ventured into car body building because he traveled to three different commercial body shops, all of which were unable to repair the fiberglass on his private Corvette.
"The fix literally fell apart and I knew I could do it better myself. I did and found I had an instant fascination with the process," he says.
West used to drag race at now-forgotten strips around Jacksonville like Thunderbolt in Green Cove Springs and Brannen's in Middleburg. In the beginning there wasn't much call for his talents, such a paucity that he even molded and sold some fiberglass bathtubs. But gradually he earned a reputation for building body parts for competition cars.
One year at the Daytona 24 Hours West says 52 of the 70 cars entered had at least one part supplied by Hairy Glass, which he'd adopted as his business name. That was an apt description of the un-worked fiberglass with which he'd make his mark.
His knowledge of materials gradually brought West into drag racing, where he first started doing pieces for Pro Stock and sportsman cars, all the while perfecting the light weight and combination of strong fibers that would go into his Funny Car bodies.
Along the way, starting with Oswald's white-knuckled trip, he challenged and worked on down force, car noses, hoods and roofs, and the all-important deck lids, which he fashioned to withstand the ever advancing horsepower beginning in the mid-'80's. In eight short years Hairy Glass has taken over the composite drag race body biz and today Harry West makes nearly all of the Funny Car bodies used in the nitro and blown alcohol ranks.
"Through the years I spent a fortune on finding out what would work and today I can definitely tell you what won't work," West laughs to an interviewer.
Back to that day in l987. West had an early l988 model Ford Pro Stock Thunderbird sitting on the floor of his shop. He was using it to mold pieces for driver Bob Glidden.
"Glidden had no use for it. I decided to make the rest of the body, the roof and rear quarters and the door jambs and all. I could sell those to Super Gas and even Super Comp racers, but Glidden couldn't use the pieces.
"I wanted to build something out of those components. It was something I wanted to do for myself, period. But boy, did it snowball."
West says a lot of companies were going into the Super Gas body business and he decided he'd go ahead and make a mold off that Thunderbird. Especially after Hughes had entered the picture.
"Leonard came to me because he knew I had an eye for detail and workmanship. I had the Thunderbird body and would make the mold off it. I saw it as an opportunity to prove the necessity of composite panels, that they were worthwhile if needed.
"That was a good era for Funny Car racing, but at 250 mph you'd see them go down the track and their sides would be caved in almost to the roll bars. Fiberglass was no longer the answer. To make them stronger you'd have had to add metal and nobody likes that extra weight.
West did it a new way.
"I wasn't the first to come up with composites, but I'm pretty sure I was the second. I think Bernstein may have had the first composite Funny Car, put together in California, on his Buick (the radical "Batcar"). I did the Thunderbird for Leonard and shortly after I got that call from him that it wouldn't work.
"The nose was too tall. The apex or front end was too stand-uppish. It was creating lift instead of down force. We immediately went into the second generation car and corrected that problem."
West was happy with the major change of direction in his efforts. The composite panels for Pro Stock cars and their top speed did not warrant all that research and experience. "We felt we were making pieces for the Pro (Stock) cars that were overkill and very expensive. The record in Pro Stock was around 170 mph and composite pieces weren't absolutely necessary.
"Later, on the Ford Probe Funny Car body, we cut down on the deck lid because it increased the down force on the rear so much there was none on the front and the car was skating. I suppose back then they had only 4000 or 4500 horsepower. The coefficient of drag still matters but it was beginning to leave the picture."
In other words?
"In the old days they were trying to slip through the air and that's the major change between the beginning of my time in Funny Car (1987) and now. We no longer have to concern ourselves with making arrows when what we really need is a wagon. You've got to make the air work for you. In other words, in the early days the concern was slipping through the air, but now the concern is to aid that slippage. You're trying to catch some of that air and use it. The deck lid is the key to Funny Cars, but if you've got too much on the back, the nose will go up."
In other words, the nose must be kept down (circa 1987) right?
"Right. I've been approached twice in the last year about making these cars narrower, but I've talked to any number of engineers and they agree that to narrow the car is to take a step backwards. In other words, to go narrower across the rear wheels would be a step backwards.
"With 5000 horsepower plus, the coefficient of drag doesn't mean a thing. It's just a stumbling block. The car needs to be as wide as the rules allow and the area around the base of the roof is very important.
West says the major changes to the front of the Funny Cars have not been to the nose, but rather toward the back, in the hood area.
"We began to raise the hood up as high as possible, to get away from those wild hood scoops and stuff that Funny Cars used to have.
"The less violent that area is, the stronger we can make the body without voids and other problems. The only problem is, you can raise the hood only as high as the side door window.
"We've never entered back into that danger zone, strictly on the nose, that Oswald experienced at 269 miles an hour back in 1987."
Following modifications to the Thunderbird, the next stop on West's evolution scale was the l988 Olds Cutlass. Yes, 1988, about the same time he also began working on the Ford Probe.
"I did the Pro (Stock) car for Warren (Johnson) and the Funny Cars for Billy Meyer and Ed McCulloch." West said that fooling around with the deck lids caused the cars to get light.
"For example Bruce Larson (for whom he'd also made a car) told me he couldn't steer the thing when he went into the lights. There wasn't enough down force on the front. In reality, it's a seesaw effect. To gain on the rear you lose on the front. What's most important of all is the balance which leads to the safety factor." Thus entered the second generation Cutlass, the same basic body but with changes in that deck lid.
West said at this point he learned, once and for all, to go through NHRA channels and get approval for the car and its changes.
"I stepped on Graham Light's toes, but I didn't realize it was that important to go through channels.
"Mr. Light (now senior vice president of racing operations) was offended because nobody told him anything. But NHRA is supposed to approve and sanction any Funny Car. If you're going to run a car at their events, they're supposed to know going in.
"There's a way of going through channels, but I avoided the channels because Bruce had told me the car was dangerous and I said we ain't having that, so we immediately went and redesigned the car. It all worked out fine, but like I say, we stepped on Light's toes unknowing, and at the time I didn't realize it was so important to go through channels."
"We've had a real good relationship with NHRA over the years, largely in the awareness that I'm not too much interested in cheating. If you do something and it's outlawed, it's serious and nobody will pay for something that's no good."
West now has an investment in molds that cost nearly $45,000 (as opposed to 20-some in the early days).
"We're not selling materials here, but we're selling people. You're talking about 2000 hours. When you spend a dollar with me you're buying one of my employees' time."
From the time of the first Thunderbird and that second edition Cutlass, West turned out 1989 and '90 Ford Probe bodies (see accompanying item).
"The first Probe we did was so slippery, the coefficient of drag on that car had to be as good as anything we did. But it was so slick you couldn't catch any of the air on its deck to make it work for you.
"We turned around and when they came out with the '90 Probe we did the mold and really began playing with that deck lid."
Leonard Hughes had taken the car to the wind tunnel for work and quite by accident West dropped the deck lid down to the tops of the Ford Motor Company fenders and it worked, he says.
"We've tried to drop the lid down farther, but it won't work."
While Don Prudhomme sent his Trans Am Firebird to West, the next step in his evolution - his own carbon cycle, if you will - had to be the Dodge Daytona. It presented new and different problems for West. Did it ever.
"If I can maintain a part that will not jeopardize the ability of the car to go straight and handle then I'll look at the aerodynamics for you. We've learned many things: for instance, Funny Cars don't like square corners anywhere on the front end. They love'em on the back end, but not on the front. The Dodge Daytona though was square by nature, by Mopar's design," West says of the early models.
"That was the car we did for Roland (Leong). What's good for one car is good for all. You have to try and maintain flat unviolent areas on top of the car," West says, coining a work phrase. But again, one must be careful to stay within the rules and the appearance of the car while making changes.
"You look at some of these Funny Cars today and you'll see the deck lid on the back without the spill plate and stuff and maybe it's an inch tall and in others only a half inch. It's all in how tall the car was from the factory. You can't have the fenders go up and down just to make it around the windows. It'll start looking like a pretzel, or a Coke bottle is the word the engineers use."
West says he's been told every car has its own characteristics, but he contends there are so many air flows that they really don't matter that much.
"Even if it's a Volkswagen, it'll still work. It doesn't matter about the factory design if you're able to round off an A-pillar, for example." West hastens to add that the A-pillar is the windshield post, the B-pillar the door window post and the C-pillar the back glass post. That all goes into his scheme of aerodynamics.
"Aerodynamics is a simple way of saying you're going to take an object, whether it's a car, an airplane or baseball, and you're going to propel it into a pile of air in the atmosphere. You're forcing a mobile unit of some kind of moveable object through still air.
"That's why the wind tunnel is such a hard, hard place to make changes you feel will guarantee results. In the wind tunnel, you're passing air over an object that is sitting still. In reality, on the strip, you'll be passing an object through still air."
West said although they're very similar and probably scientifically identical, you never know for sure that the wind tunnel is giving you the same results you'll have at the track because of the possibility of cross-winds and other factors.
"Jim Epler was the first Funny Car to top 300 mph and that was into a 20-mph headwind. What he had was more air to use than just what he was driving through. If he was doing 300, the air he was passing through was actually doing 320 or so. That's why airplanes like to take off into the wind."
But West also uses that air to help keep the car on the ground.
"All down force is related to the square inches of surface on the deck lid, but as air passes over the roof, you get some there too. Some of that (roof) down force may be transplanted to the front end as well as the rear. That could be how we're getting such tremendous down force at 300 mph on the front end as well as the rear. I like to know that the guy who's driving one of our cars is able to steer that sweet devil at 300 mph. Take the down force off and the risk factor increases."
West points out that everyone has to lift 14 pounds per square inch every time they stand up. It's called atmosphere and it's on the
top of your head. You have to lift that 14 pounds per square inch to pass an object through it.
"Since air is like water, you can't lift all the air that goes on top of the car. It's easier to spread the air out beside the car than to lift it up against the atmosphere. That's where the spill plates come in on the rear because that's where you need the down force."
Okay, so much for the shape, factory designed or otherwise, and the aerodynamics and down force and the like. Now to materials.
How have the composite materials in Funny Car bodies evolved so that they can stand a beating of more than three hurricane-force winds all at once?
"Remember the sides wanting to cave in back in the late '80's?
"First, I don't know if I gave them permission to go 300 mph, but it has sure put loads on our bodies," West says flatly.
West says he uses four carbon fibers called graphite in each and every Funny Car body, plus two different kinds of Kevlar weaves in the same body.
"We do not use true fiberglass anywhere on the car. Carbon helps spread and hold immense suction loads on the side of the car. All of our carbon fiber is used at my decision and it must be of military standard. We added $500 more carbon from the 1994 U.S. Nationals until Thanksgiving, 1994. That's just three months.
"The last time we made such a massive change was back in 1990.
"Fiberglass used to be the only way to make Funny Car bodies and it was highly efficient at 240-250 mph. We still make fiberglass cars, but they're not for anything in excess of 260 mph, plus they're heavy, especially compared to what we've been trying to do the past several years." West says even the Kevlar is lighter than what he used back in the '80's, and a typical Funny Car body today weighs under 90 pounds.
"The Kevlar has high flexibility and we still manufacture a lot in our alcohol cars. It's not stiff enough however at 260 and above and has to be traded for carbon. Our composite front ends take four times the labor to make than the fiberglass.
"We're still proud of our fiberglass," West says. "It's just that evolution and speed have caught and passed it."
Hanging in a spot of prominence in West's office is a large plaque. It is a Car Craft All-Star Team Special Recognition Award, presented to Harry West in 1993 in recognition of his body building.
Hairy Glass, Inc. * 15444 Max Leggett Parkway * Jacksonville, Florida 32218
Voice: 904.751.3459 ** Fax: 904.757.8515 ** Email: email@example.com