Now, as best as I understand there are no plans for any sanctioning body to release a “Steam Outlaw” class in the near or distant future, but I did recently have an interesting experience watching some of the most incredible drag race cars I have ever seen go to work on small tires while I was reading a book on the history of the steam engine. While small-tire drag racing will never have the overt impact on life that the development and implementation of the steam engine did, both the steam engine and the performance of full-bodied cars followed an interesting and well-worn developmental path. For centuries before the Industrial Revolution, it was rich guys and the supported friends of rich guys that actually had time to conceive and invent stuff.
When patent law became a “thing” and there was an understanding that people had the right to own their ideas as much as they did physical property, the world changed. It was something that changed the way empirically thinking people operated from that point in history forward in the western world. Now blacksmiths and carpenters could come up with clever ideas and apply them, perhaps with the end result being riches. More often than not it was failure and obscurity, but the home runs did come and the incremental creation of the steam engine was one of those things.
Such is the same with small-tire drag racing, and I saw some of the best in the world at the recent Outlaw Street Car Reunion. These guys are doing things that seem to bend the very laws of physics that the world functions on. The truly endearing thing is that they are doing it without the names of big companies slathered up and down the sides of their cars and (for the most part) as small business owners/operators.
When you watch a stock-bodied car leave the starting line on a tire that would fit your street car, go about a 1.10 60-foot, and then pour on the coals to make it to the eighth-mile in 3.9 seconds at more than 190 mph, it is nearly a religious experience. I know guys are going 3.70s and that what I saw was not world-record fast, but it was an incredible show and proof that innovation at the digs ain’t dead.
In order for something to advance, and this includes steam engines and drag racing cars, there needs to be an enthusiasm around the activity or the machine. There is so much buzz and hype around these cars in the current climate of the sport, one has to both revel in it and then wonder what’s next. When Mercury came out with a flip-top Funny Car in the 1960s it was the next linear step in the evolution of what would become today’s amorphous 300-mph Funny Cars. When Don Garlits finally got the steering speed right with the engine mounted in the back of his car, it was the next step in Top Fuel. The small-tire world, whether we are talking 10.5 slicks or 275/315 radials, has so many offshoots, differences, and subcultures it is really tough to see what the next big thing will be.
As always happens in drag racing and history, the best designs and technology will ultimately rise to the top. The more I read about guys like James Watt, Robert Stevenson, and others who changed the history of the world with their inventions, the more I keep relating the whole scene back to drag racing, which is as much an arms race of knowledge and the application of technology as the steam engine was.
The bottom line is whether the performance advances are coming from inside the well-lit, well-funded walls of a professional race team or the darkened garages of a homespun effort, the sport continues to advance and reinvent itself because of the environment it exists in. There are times when I think it would have been incredible to live in different historical eras to see things that changed the world in their earliest forms, then I look at the things happening today and I wouldn’t give this stuff up for the world.
About the Author: Brian Lohnes is an NHRA National Event Staff Announcer and co-owner of Bangshift.com.
Photography by Nick Licata