What Makes Top Fuel Racing So Special? A Look Inside the Cars

What Makes Top Fuel Racing So Special? A Look Inside the Cars

David Straughan
5 minute read

There’s no doubt about it. Top Fuel dragsters are a feat of modern engineering.

After taking off from the starting line, Top Fuel cars hit 100 miles per hour in less than a second. This makes the dragster the fastest accelerating anything on planet earth. Not just cars. It’s faster than anything else.

The engine distributes power to the wheels in just 15/100ths of a second. Literally the blink of an eye.

When they are accelerating, the drivers of Top Fuel dragsters feel G-forces that are comparable to an astronaut launching into space.

These cars are so fast, traditional braking systems do little to slow them down. After crossing the finish line, drivers hit a switch to deploy two parachutes. The wind resistance brings the car to a stop.

Top Fuel dragsters were built to do one thing: travel a short distance in a very, very short amount of time. To do that, they need to be extremely fast.

But what makes these Top Fuel dragsters so unique? Let’s take a look at what makes a Top Fuel car a Top Fuel car.

What makes Top Fuel top fuel?

The name “Top Fuel” doesn’t just sound cool, it refers to the fuel used by the dragsters. Regular old gasoline does not generate the power necessary to propel these cars as fast as they need to go.

For that, you need nitromethane.

Nitromethane is like gasoline that comes with its own oxygen. That means it burns much more easily than gasoline. This has a lot to do with its structure.

While nitromethane produces less energy by weight than gasoline, a cylinder can burn much more of it. This means more power for each stroke of the piston.

A standard gasoline engine needs nearly 15 pounds of air to burn one pound of regular gas. An engine only needs 1.7 pounds of air to burn a pound of nitromethane.That means you can push eight times as much nitromethane into a cylinder as you would be able to with gasoline.

The result, after some pretty complex mathematics, is an engine that triples its power. This is just due to the different types of fuel.

It may seem a little counterintuitive, but nitromethane actually burns a little slower than gasoline. Therefore, the engine of a Top Fuel dragster pushes burning fuel into the exhaust pipe. That’s why you’ll see flames coming out of the back of dragsters!

A seismic force

Anything that produces that much power is bound to rattle a few things around it.

However, Top Fuel dragsters take it to another level.

Fans are often given ear plugs at events and told to cover their ears by the PA announcer just before the race begins. But even with all that, fans are still in for a loud experience.

At full throttle, a Top Fuel dragster generates 150 db of noise. That’s about the same as a shotgun or jet engine. It’s loud enough to cause physical pain or immediate permanent damage.

And it’s not just the noise. These cars literally shake the ground.

At one point, the NHRA got a team of seismologists to measure the ground at the starting line. Two cars taking off from the starting line read a 2.3 on the Richter scale. That’s a small earthquake, for reference.

Don’t take our word for it

David “Grubby” Grubnic is a familiar face for anyone who follows drag racing.

Grubnic started out in the NHRA as a Top Fuel driver. In his stint behind the wheel he earned three victories, 10 number 1 qualifiers and finished fourth overall at one point.

In 2015, Grubnic switched from driver to tuner and immediately became one of the top in the sport.

Tuning for Clay Millican, Grubnic earned a third-place finish in 2018.

So it’s safe to say he knows his stuff. Here’s a wonderful introduction to everything that makes a Top Fuel car special, spoken by a man who knows as much as anyone can know about it:

As mind-boggling as everything in that video is, some of those figures are outdated. Today’s Top Fuel cars now regularly exceed 10,000 horsepower!

You have to see it for yourself

Top Fuel racing is literally the world’s fastest sport. The words and even the video on this page don’t do it justice.

While drivers like Clay Millican, Steve Torrence, and Brittany Force may be the faces we all see on TV, so much of the race happens in the garage between heats.

There is no way to really get it without seeing it for yourself.

All NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing series events are now broadcast on FS1. You can find a schedule of events here, so make sure to tune in at home to catch the action yourself!

Or even better yet, go to an event in person. You won’t believe what you’ve been missing.

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