Boss thrown for loss
TODD MILLES; The News Tribune
The excitement in Walt Austin's voice quickly turned to fed-up disgust.
Austin, of Tacoma, has been one of drag racing's most innovative car builders for a half-century. His son, Pat, is a four-time National Hot Rod Association Alcohol Funny Car champion, and was voted one of the all-time 50 greatest drivers when the NHRA celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2001.
After nearly a three-year layoff from full-time racing, the Austins were due back for the 2004 season in the NHRA Alcohol Funny Car class, debuting a Ford Mustang Boss 429 Hemi engine as their power source.
When word of the Austins' new vehicle reached racing circles, the project quickly met resistance - so much, the NHRA passed a new block-specification rule that rendered the Ford engine obsolete.
Even though the rule does not go into effect until the 2005 racing season, the Austins aborted their plans to return to the sport they have so greatly benefited, both as racers and spokesmen.
"We were going to upgrade (the Boss 429) with the latest technology with state-of-the-art stuff," Walt Austin said. "Word of what we were doing got out. The NHRA wants to keep a level playing field, and they were nickel and diming us on some of the changes anyway ... but then they came out with this big deal, saying the specs have changed."
The rule specifically deals with the spacing of cylinders in the engine block. To bore a cylinder is to enlarge it to accommodate a bigger piston, which allows more fuel and air to pass through, thus creating more horsepower.
In the 429 Boss engine, the spacing between cylinder bores, from center to center, is 4.9 inches, which is what the NHRA has previously regulated as being legal. Since the Austins revealed their designs, the new dimension will be limited to 4.84 inches, starting in 2005.
The Austins said they have not received a clear explanation why the rule was passed, although many of the association's recent decisions have been to stem rising costs. Attempts to reach officials in the NHRA national technical department this week were unsuccessful.
What is clear is that two of the sport's primary aims have been affected - innovation and history.
First of all, the Ford engine has had a place in the sport for a long time.
Carroll Carter is an engine builder and Ford supplier from Manassass, Va., who has been a con******t on the Austins' project for the past year. He has been involved in the sport for 35 years, and has manufactured the Boss 429 engine and parts since 1995.
Primarily, racers in the sportsman classes such as Alcohol Funny Car or Comp Eliminator have used the 429 Boss. But so did Bob Glidden, the famed 10-time Pro Stock champion from the 1970s and 1980s whose 85 professional victories rank him No. 3 on the all-time list.
"Several (drag) racers have been racing it, off and on," Carter said of the Ford engine, which was first raced in NASCAR in the late 1960s. "In the last 1 1/2 years, people have showed (moderate) interest in it, but then Walt really got interested in it. He tested the engine on his dyno in his shop and that is how he got familiar with it. He wanted to do a new project, and got an idea to build a Ford."
Walt Austin has been experimenting with the engine for three years.
"We knew it had a lot of potential, but it had a lot of problems," Austin said. "We were going to eliminate the problems. But it wouldn't be something that would be a half-second faster than the (Funny Car) class."
The Austins had their engine block built by John Rodeck of California, a builder they've used for 15 years. They claim the cylinder spacing of the Boss 429 engine allows for a thicker sleeve to give the block more stability and protection from wear during high-speed runs.
Sure, the bigger block creates more horsepower, but Pat Austin said his car already had more horsepower than the tracks they race on will hold.
"What we did was take the combination of the 429 Boss and have made it more user-friendly," Pat Austin said. "It is a cosmetic change, really."
Early in the year, word of the Austins' project spread. The NHRA asked to review the blueprints, Walt Austin said.
In late March, several racers, including the Austins, were sent a letter by the NHRA stating that engine specifications for the Alcohol Funny Car class had been changed.
"I'm not angry at anybody," Pat Austin said. "It's their playground, and they make the rules."
The Austins are not the only ones affected by the rule change. Greg Hunter, a native of Canada who now lives in Sheridan, Wyo., was planning on racing in NHRA divisional competition full-time this year with the Boss 429 engine in the Alcohol Funny Car class.
Hunter tested his car in Las Vegas, got mixed results (6-second range on a quarter-mile track) but was pleased enough to start scheduling divisional races.
That is, until the NHRA stepped in.
"It blindsided me. I've been putting my Ford combination together for two years," Hunter said. "When I first heard it, I thought there was no way they could do that ... to completely outlaw the Ford engine."
The first weekend of April, Hunter went to the NHRA stop in Las Vegas, circulated a petition of protest among the drivers and even tried to talk to NHRA officials about the rule change.
"They haven't given me a reason whatsoever," Hunter said. "I went to one (tech official) to ask, and he turned his back on me. It was sort of like, 'Oh my God, what's going on here?'
"I even talked to Bernie Fedderly (pro driver John Force's co-crew chief with Austin Coil) just to see if somebody from Ford would help me on this. Bernie said their crew was doing the same sort of (testing), putting parts on the car that would handle the force and make them run better ... but that the NHRA stopped them as well."
Hunter, 33, went to the crew of another prominent engine builder in the sport who told the racer what the Austins were building would make everything else "obsolete" and dominate the sportsman class.
"I don't know how (the NHRA) can base their input on what somebody else is saying," Hunter said. "We have a ways to go."
The rule change has affected all parties involved. Carter said his business has declined - drivers who were going to purchase his engines and parts now don't need to, and the builder has a garage full of Ford engines.
Walt and Pat Austin still plan on racing, but not under the NHRA umbrella. Instead, they will enter some open events for match racing.
The NHRA? The motor sports association is losing one of its best drivers ever - a driver who does not expect the differences to be reconciled anytime soon.
"When you take innovation out of the sport, it is just not appealing to us," Pat Austin said.