Custom Car, November 2002

This article originally appeared in the November 2002 issue of Custom Car. It's been reformatted to suit the web site but the text and pictures are all original. Thanks to Kev Elliott (the original author), Dave Biggadyke (the current CC editor) and Andy Willsheer for allowing us to use this material.

Click to visit the CC web site.

I'd read the reports on the Nitro Olympics at Hockenheim in Germany in Custom Car, but like the majority of readers I'd never been, so when Andy Robinson offered me the chance to accompany his Pro Mod team this year I was packed and sitting in his motorhome quicker than he gets down the quarter mile.

Words and pictures by Kev E1liott

Germany's a long way from Hampshire, especially if you're driving and Hockenheim's not exactly near the border. Factor in a motorhome and trailer that maxes out at 55-60mph and it just got a whole load longer! And dear. At 8mpg with the trailer and 490 miles once over the Channel you work out the figures. And this is without the race car turning a wheel yet! It was the first time I'd seen a fuel pump click off as they turn off at 100 litres apparently! Some 20 hours, one puncture on the trailer and two gas stops after leaving home, we pulled into Hockenheim, pitted, changed the rear tyres as the old ones used at Goodwood Festival of Speed were still on the car, and took the car for its technical inspection. Once passed, we had time to relax. Mind you, having driven through the previous night, 'relax' meant hitting the sack after a beer or two!




Friday arrived and 9am found a revitalised crew hard at work on the Studebaker, Hockenheim's noise curfew between 9pm and 8am the reason for the civilised start time.

With everyone working, I decided to find out what each crew member did.

Simon 'Smithy' Smith; 'I work on the clutch mainly, but really it's a complete team effort. After a run I'll check one side of the motor and Bowser will do the other. Jerry and Luke will go round and check fluids and cover basic maintenance jobs. As for running the car, it's a complete team decision. Just because I work on the engine I wouldn't make a change without a discussion. No-one makes a decision as we all see things from a different angle, so we discuss what’s the best route to take with any particular problem.

The clutch is a centrifugal based clutch and we make base pressure changes [the pressure that's always there as you release the pedal] and centrifugal weight changes [the higher the RPM the more clamping pressure it has] We make the first run with a known pressure then add or subtract based on that run and the information it provides us with.'

Mark 'Bowser' Balzaretti; 'I'm responsible for basic engine maintenance, checking valve lash, pulling the springs, checking through to make sure there's no breakages, visually inspecting down the valley for broken lifters, then I pick up on any other jobs such as refuelling or the computer, then we'll discuss the clutch tune and then Smithy and I set the gaps on the clutch for when the nitrous activates.

Luke Robinson; 'I get all the sh*tty jobs no- one else wants to do! I do the computer, down loading all the data from the datalogger, and check the nitrous bottle pressure, as well as putting air in the tyres, changing tyres, spanner checks, and I take the prop off when needed as no-one else is slim enough to get under there!

Jerry Clayton; 'I'm the stabilising influence! Age and treachery over youth and exuberance. What do I do on the car? (Andy shouts from in the background, 'F*ck all!') I offer various overviews. I'm not team manager but I always put my two penn'orth in when required.' Jerry also drives the tow car and videos 'each run for reference, as well as being the 'Clayton' part of Poole Clayton Automotive Ltd, one of Andy's sponsors,

Before the first qualifying pass can be made there is plenty to do to the car. The oil system is primed by hand, oil pressure checked, fuel the engine, turn the pumps on to get air out of the system and make sure it's got fuel in and won't vent out the top, fire the engine, check the timing, check the ignition retards for the two nitrous stages, fire the computer, make sure all the cylinders are firing and their temperatures are reasonably even then once it's hot go back round and do the valve lash, check the clutch and finally it's ready to race!

According to Andy, ' It's still a new car and we're still learning. You have to remember it's three years since the Rover crashed and we'd only just got a handle on that car and crew procedures when it crashed. I haven't been behind the wheel in all that time either, and we're still learning how the Stude behaves.

A lot depends initially on how we were running at the last meeting. We know our clutch setting at the last meeting, and Luke works out from the computer where we were and then we decide where we should go from there. However, this is a brand new race track that no-one's been down before, so we have no idea! We've looked at it, it feels sticky, so we'll go with our best guess. What we need to do is get down the track, not necessarily fast - though that would be nice - to get a qualification run in so we're in the field, as there are more than 16 cars here and those from 17 down are going to be disappointed. We don't want to be in that group! After the first pass we can down load our computer and we'll know, but we'll get a number on the board first. I'll do my best and if we get tyre shake, wheel spin or whatever, whether I have to peddle it, I'll put a number on the board, as there are bound to be people with worse numbers than us.'

The way we'd pitted, our team was the nearest to the staging lanes and when the first callout for Pro Mod came over the Tannoy, we spied members of other teams watching to see when we'd leave. With the track being new no-one wanted to be first down it, and everyone wanted to see what numbers the other teams would run first, and which lane was best. The second call came and still no-one moved, and ditto for the third and final call. Finally we towed out of our pit, and immediately 'parked' out of view. Within a minute the rest of the field came by, leaving us somewhere mid pack! Fun and games!

However, it wasn't a good pass, as Andy put it,' The burnout was terrible. The surface has no rubber and it's glued right back to the burnout area so I can't get it up on the tyres to do a rolling burnout. It drags the motor straight down. I backed up again for another, which was better but still pretty bad. Then it was all a bit hurried and I didn't press the button for the computer. When I left it may have been in second gear because when the shift light came on and I squeezed second nothing happened, so I squeezed third, then I didn't wait for the light for fourth gear as it seemed a long time coming. I'm amazed we ran a twenty [7.20 seconds] at 200 miles per hour. That left lane seems better.'

So no computer trace from which to base subsequent runs, but Andy qualified fourth so obviously everyone else was having trouble with the virgin track too. With experience of the track, and a team decision that the left lane looked to be the best, when the first call came for the second session, we immediately towed down to the staging lanes to enable us to get lane choice. This had the added bonus of the other teams rushing to follow as they thought we'd gone on the final call. The second pass was much better and Andy qualified at number one with a 6.703l338kph. According to Andy, 'The second pass was perfect, I got every shift point correct. We're number one, what can I say? The clutch trace is awesome for this race track. I don't believe we could have gone any faster with what we've got here, The clutch was locked to the engine. We were spinning the tyres very slightly as the 150ft time wasn't that good, but it hooked up and ran 6.70 at 210. We're 1.2 tenths ahead of the rest of the field.'

So would they make any changes to the car? 'Very little. We're not limited with horsepower, the limitation is the track. We can't go any faster with our current information unless the track gets better, but I believe the track will get better and then naturally we'll go faster.'

But why would it get better? Because hopefully the Top Fuel cars would run, plus Top Methanol Funny Cars and the Pro Stocks. With everyone laying rubber down, it could only help the start line. Andy; 'That's our problem. We ran 1.13 60ft times on that 6.70 pass with the tyres rotating, so we weren't hooked up to the racetrack. If we can get a better hook we'll run quicker without any change in the tune of the car.


Though two qualifying rounds had been scheduled for Saturday, it was reduced to one with a provisional second in order to guarantee track time for all the FIA classes, as the Nitro Olympics was also an FIA championship round. This was tough on all the teams who had not arrived early enough on Thursday to get tech'd, and so had not been able to run on Friday. This made it 'one shot qualifying' for them, which was good for us as they'd have to get down the track plus put a number on the board to make the 16 car field without experience of track conditions.

However, Patrick Wickstrom came out for his one and only qualifying pass and ran 6.68 in the right lane to qualify at number one. We went last and chose the right lane, and ran 6.69 for number two spot, just 1/100th behind Wickstrom. Though the second qualifying session had been provisional, two oil downs in the left lane put paid to this, but our team were happy as qualifying second put us on the 'best' side of the ladder, meeting John Ellis in the first round this evening. The only down side of this pairing was that one Brit would have to go out in the first round.

As our final qualifier had been within 0.01 seconds of the previous one, the crew didn't want to change the tune too much, though the computer trace showed one cylinder slightly hotter than the rest, so one small jet change was made just to lean out that one cylinder, and a retard of half a degree was also put on that cylinder, in an attempt to get all eight cylinders the same. The clutch base pressure was also reduced by half a turn.

We went down at the back of the queue to allow more rubber onto the track. We'd hoped the track would continue to improve during the day, as yesterday, but it didn't. As we'd run the better number we got lane choice, picking the right lane as we knew traction was very poor in the left after the oil downs. This was a wise choice as not one Pro Mod car won in the left lane and the T/M cars before us had had trouble too. After us Top Fuel came round and Barry Sheavills also smoked the tyres in the left, Andy Carter winning. Event promoter Rico Anthes was the only one to lose in the right lane! Our 6.718 saw the Stude through to the second round on Sunday.

Back in the pits the plugs were pulled, the diaper from under the motor was removed and cleaned, the starter motor was changed as it had been playing up throughout the event, and one cylinder was compression checked. This evening four opposing Pro Mod teams came over to see the Stude, the 'bracket car' as they called it, which Andy was pleased about as it's nice to have the opposition checking you out.


Again this morning the crew were going about their jobs, so I asked Bowser what was required; 'Re-fit the diaper as it was cleaned out last night, put the tray back on, plug in the oil heater to warm the oil, Simon's setting up the clutch to compensate for the wheel spin. We fitted a new starter last night so we need to fire the motor, warm it up, check the valve lash, pump one cylinder [compression test] to see if there's any damage on it as it was a little low last night. Get the nitrous bottle up to temperature and that's about it.'

Speaking with Andy it seemed there may be a problem; 'I thought we had a problem. When the car came back last night from it's run, when Smithy was pulling plugs and checking the general condition of the engine, everything was fine. Then we did a compression check and it was down a little on one cylinder.'

Sometimes it's not unusual as they move around a little bit. Then they put a little bit of oil in it to get some oil round the rings, and with that happening we got a puff of smoke on fire-up but there was some residue oil on the plug. Then we go into paranoia mode, as it's race day, and convince ourselves we have a major problem with oil getting up into the cylinder. With oil contamination in the cylinder on a nitrous engine it just detonates, and you'll melt the piston and the bore and everything, so we have to be careful to avoid that. We may still have a problem, but when you analyse the data, it came back from its last run dry, so I think it's okay, just a little bit down [on compression] What we're going to do is make no changes and run the car. If I'm wrong then I apologise! But if everything's okay we'll check it again, do another leak down and see where it is, but what we will do before the Finals at Santa Pod is re-ring it, because it's done about 25 passes and the rings are getting tired. The trouble is we use a 41 thou tool steel ring for the top ring and they don't last that long.

The second round paired Andy with Swede, Roger Johansson's, late model Mustang. Again we had lane choice and opted for the right, running a 6.64 at 347kph which equates to 215.9mph! This gave Andy low ET and top speed in Pro Mod, both of which weren't bettered throughout the meeting. Andy was amazed as he'd expected to come here and get his arse kicked, not qualify at number two and run top speed and low ET of the meet! This meeting is more important to some of the Nordic racers as it's part of their championship, and Andy expected to be fourth or fifth qualifier so number one was great but two was better as it put him on a better side of the ladder. It worked out better for him especially as he hadn't got the power some of the other cars had got, and the track was acting as an equaliser.

Jerry video'd the pass and a puff of smoke almost at the eighth mile marker turned out to be when the front wheel landed! That's fast, and very fast for this track,' said Andy. Obviously the decision to run the car unchanged was the correct one.

By now the Studebaker was in the semi final. The right lane was again chosen, Andy and Lars Olsson in a '68 Mustang left and it was such a close race neither driver knew who'd won until their tow vehicles arrived in the shutdown area. Andy had lost by just over 300ths of a second! 'I've seen closer but that was close.' Olsson ran 6.69 and Andy 6.73, the ET down as the tyres had spun slightly on the launch, meaning the 60ft time was down and it was never recovered. This was put down to lack of traction and the track again, but that's racing! It was a shame to get so far when no-one had expected to, run low ET and top speed in the class, then go out in the semis. But as Andy said once back in the pits, 'We've learned a lot and we've had fun.'

But it doesn't make a good ending to my article does it! Still, the semi-final position meant Andy was entitled to some prize money, which went some way towards offsetting his fuel costs! I'll tell you what though, that drive home to England is a long one when you didn't win! •

Andy's thanks go to sponsors Norfolk Line, Poole Clayton Automotive Ltd, Super Alloys, Air Sea Logistics, Brown and Miller Racing Solutions and Serck Services Motorsport.

Date  01-Jan-2009

Pictures by

Kev Elliott & Andy Willsheer

Words by Kev Elliott