The Zen of Drag

Here’s an interesting business objective, one that in many ways seems perversely out-of-kilter with the rest of mankind, increasingly pre-occupied with the possibility of its own, global-warming precipitated self-annihilation: Build the meanest, most single-purpose vehicle you can conceive to travel the ¼ mile from point A to point B as quickly as humanly and mechanically possible. Repeat. Indefinitely.

As business objectives go, it doesn’t appear to make much commercial sense. Firstly, it consumes money marginally less efficiently than if you make a pile of bank notes and put a match to them. It’s been said that if you want to accrue a small fortune in motor sport, start with a large one, which is particularly true in drag racing (the returns are the only thing about this sport that move slowly).

Secondly, it risks human life to achieve what, exactly? Surely, as our moment of environmental reckoning looms, we have more important things to be doing with our time and engineering creativity? Is it possible to justify drag racing – or any motor sport, for that matter – given the environmental challenges we face as a species? Well, yes, it probably is.

Arguably, humans learn most about themselves from the games they play. Businesses of all sizes, shapes and purposes look to sports for the inspiration they need to achieve their particular goals: Some prosaic, others profound (as I write, in Amsterdam airport, I’m overlooked by the image of a certain well-known golfer under contract to a consulting firm imploring me to find my inner Tiger). Play can also beget progress, especially technological progress. Many of the innovations made in the name of motor sport have real-world benefits, such as the passive safety systems developed in racing car construction and their eventual adoption in road vehicles.

Drag racing also provides a model for focus, determination and holding your nerve; exactly the same qualities business owners and managers need to succeed in their own endeavours.

On a semi-serious note, there’s another reason why as engineers and technologists we can draw inspiration from drag racing: Fire breathing, 3000hp ‘funny cars’ of the type built and developed by Haas sponsored Leanders Brothers Racing, Sweden’s 2006 FIA European champions, run on Methanol, an alcohol made from wood pulp, which is renewable and can be sourced from sustainable forests. Granted, the Leanders car is hardly fuel efficient: it typically uses 20 litres to produce a run lasting less than 6 seconds, but that does include the burnout, where the driver warms the tyres by spinning the rear wheels until they all but ignite. Methanol burns cleaner than gasoline, which at least helps offset some of the noxious gases produced by the gratuitous incineration of tyre rubber.

Methanol is a close relative of Ethanol, both of which possess octane numbers more than 30 or so points greater than regular pump gasoline. What makes Methanol the fuel of choice for the likes of the Leanders Brothers is its suitability for high-compression ratio engines, meaning it’s ideal for 10,000RPM, V8 monsters. That, and the fact that you can use water to extinguish the fire when it ignites.

But how did two brothers working alone in a draughty farm barn in north-central Sweden become 2006 FIA European champions?

“All competition vehicles are built from NHRA or FIA-approved parts,” explains Ulf Leanders, younger brother and the team’s designated driver, “so the equipment is similar. That way, well-financed individuals can’t just enter the sport and clean up by throwing money around.”

Rich newcomers quickly realize that it’s not a sport that permits overnight success. “They get bored and leave,” says Ulf. “It’s a very even playing field.”

leanders car

Velvet Slippers

Unless you’re a space shuttle pilot (or a fellow drag racer) you probably can’t imagine accelerating from 0-60mph in less than 1 second or, for that matter, 0-250mph in less than 6 seconds.

“It takes a year or two to get used to the violence of the first couple of seconds,” says Ulf. “During that time, you’re not really driving, you’re jut holding on and keeping the throttle pressed to the floor.” Which is made easier by the presence of a metal restraining stirrup over the pedal, a practical consideration, given the explosive force of a launch. ‘My foot slipped’ is not an excuse typically made by European champions.

“At the start, we’re pulling approximately 4G (4 times the force of gravity),” says Ulf.

Note: if you have an average sized brain, it would, at this point, weigh around 1600grams (60 Ounces) and, presumably, coat the back of your inner skull like wallpaper. There’s been no research into whether drag racers’ brains are bigger or smaller than average, but these kinds of forces can’t do much long term good for ones cognitive functions, which is probably why it’s non-driver Jörgen Leanders who’s responsible for all the clever engineering on the car, including the all important clutch.

It doesn’t matter how skilled the driver is, the biggest challenge is getting the power down. Since electronic launch controls are banned – another way of ensuring wealthy teams can’t just walk all over the teams with smaller budgets – it’s down to a slipper clutch – similar in concept to those used to reduce engine braking on motorcycles – to transfer power quickly and smoothly.

“A slipper clutch partially disengages to regulate the amount of engine power delivered to the wheels,” says Jörgen. “However, because the clutch uses friction to do its job, the pads are prone to serious wear, so we need to be able to quickly strip and reassemble the clutch, often between runs.”

In most racing situations, clutches are made in Aluminum to be as small and light as possible. In an F1 car, for example, they’re designed to last just long enough to get the car to the end of the race: drivers often have to nurse the clutch if the race is restarted or if the car is stationary longer than usual. Bolted steel segments help to dissipate the heat, but they flex and bend and can quickly fail. In drag racing, the clutch has to be built to transfer a huge and violent surge of power, so the aluminum is replaced with Titanium, which is tougher but heavier.

The Leanders clutch uses a floating-plate system in place of bolted segments, which improves heat dissipation and makes it easier to take apart and rebuild after a run.

leanders clutch

In the corner of the Leanders workshop, surrounded by glass fibre vehicle body parts and semi-used balloon tires, sits a brand new Haas EC400 horizontal machining center, on loan to Leanders Brothers racing as part of the sponsorship deal. Bolted to the table block is the aluminum base of a half-finished clutch.

“We mill just about everything on the clutch except the bolts and some small axels that hold the fingers and the adjusting screws,” says Jörgen. “The aluminum is Alumec,” he adds, a relatively hardwearing tool-making aluminum with good machining characteristics and low-weight.

“We also machine quite a lot of coated Titanium, as well as tool steel for the fingers. The facings and floaters are made from regular carbon steel.”

The Leanders clutch is a new project; one that the team hopes will give them the split second advantage they need to retain their title in 2008. The typically sanguine Jörgen is un-phased by the engineering challenge of designing and making parts, as well as learning to operate a CNC machine tool.

“The Haas is very easy to use,” he says. “It was making parts the day after it was installed.

“We currently only operate the Haas for around 100 hours a month, but if the regulating body in San Diego approves the clutch, we’ll be using it a lot more and maybe, ultimately, will even sell our product to other teams.”

Heavy Metal

The lights hold steady, the driver holds his breath, braces himself against the bullying crush of gravity and in a heartbeat sky and Earth are torn asunder as the taught, fragile chassis is pursued through the valley of death by a flame of blue and white. It’s all over in a matter of seconds and life on the wire stops and the waiting begins all over again.

Some businesses appear pointless to some people, but makes a great deal of sense to others – their customers, for example. At a typical drag race meet, hundreds of enthusiasts line the ¼ mile stretch of asphalt, many of whom are engineers. Not necessarily the high forehead types who work for NASA or IBM, but the gritty, often self-taught types who run machine shops doing clever things with metal and machine tools.

Besides offering ear-splitting entertainment to a minority fan base (drag race crowds bare more than a passing similarity with heavy metal music fans) what can drag racing teach businesses beyond clever engineering? In his best selling book, Mastery, author George Leonard uses Zen philosophy and another sport, in this case Aikido, to illustrate how long-term success only comes with a similarly long-term dedication to what you do. He justifiably accuses western business and industry as being guilty of short-termism, a trait he skewers as the grave and insidious enemy of lasting achievement. The only way to win in drag racing is, as defined by the very nature of the sport, to keep doing the same thing over and over again, obsessing the detail until progress comes, often one hundredth of a second at a time. Strangely, drag racing could be considered a Zen discipline, albeit a very loud one.

Obvious as it may seem, Leonard tells readers that whatever your obsession, keep doing it until you do it incredibly well and your chances of success will be greatly increased. You may only be a small, two-man drag-racing team based in the frozen north of Scandinavia, but with the right tools and long winters, anything is possible.


Story by Matt Bailey.