I have been interested in drag racing in various forms and evolutions since the first meeting I attended at Santa Pod on the Spring Bank Holiday weekend, titled "The Big Go", at the end of May 1974. Since that time I have attended most of the National Championship meetings under their various titles and guises at SPR and most of the International events. I am not sure when I first went to Long Marston / Avon Park / Shakespeare County Raceway, it was probable in the late '80's.
It is interesting to note that during those first years I was spectating a top-fuel dragster would have been pushed to beat either of the two Pro-Mod bikes that I now crew for.
Through the late '70's into the mid '80's I helped and crewed on a couple of cars before retiring to the spectator bank for several more years, usually in the company of Steve French. While we were up on the bank, we decided we must be able to do better than some of those on the track and eventually got a bike ourselves. It took us six years to prove we could do it better when we won all three UK Competition Bike championships in 1998 and also took the then FIM Competition Bike round in Hockenheim, finishing 4th in Europe that year. This was the name of the UEM Top Fuel class at the time.
Steve's French Injection Pro-Mod bike is currently the quickest and fastest nitrous only Kawasaki in Europe. (Tim B has a Turbo). I have been crewing for Steve most of the time he has been racing, apart from an enforced absence for the 2000 season. He got his first Competition Bike in time for Easter 1992. Shortly after we started, Chris Hall sort of took us under his wing and helped us make forward progress with our racing. In return, we would also help him out with crewing duties and for several years now we have operated as a two-bike team. Andy Muir is also a crewmember with the team and Dave Lister, among others, is a past member of the team.
Reasons for writing
At a recent meeting where neither of the team bikes was competing I was in the bike pits and noticed that two new teams were getting help and advice from a number of sources regarding riding and tuning the machinery but all the attention was directed to the rider, also in each case the owner. The crew who were also all new in both cases were not really being included. This is rather the natural way of things and not a deliberate treatment of crew. Most riders (and drivers) are well aware that without reliable crew they will probably not go very far or very well. It is very difficult (but not impossible in some cases) to start a competition bike of any class with an off-board starter single-handed while in the water box. Although Steve has, much to the amusement of others. In a new team, all members start at the bottom of the same mountain with a lot to learn on the way up.
Seasoned Pro (old git)
I felt I might be able to help these guys a little because I have about 10 seasons as crew behind me and have the questionable benefit of working with two riders whose requirements of their crew are quite different. Because of this I can see that a rider / crew relationship must be defined and developed by that team themselves. No two bikes are the same so the team need to learn their own bike. Working together, even where the team have been long term friends or are family, can be quite different to anything else you might do / have done.
Both the bikes I have worked on are Pro-Mod nitrous machines. Other forms of getting power will require different checks and setting up methods although most of the basics will remain the same.
The following notes are not a complete guide to crewing a drag bike. They are ideas, observations, suggestions and hints based on my own experiences of the last few years during which we have had a fair amount of success, some dramas and crisis, some arguments and disagreements but, above all, a lot of fun. We feel this last is very important, after all drag racing is a hobby for most of us however much it damages the wallet.
PC disclaimer: all the following is written in male gender for simplicity. I know there are female riders and crew so please don't take offence, just make your own substitutions.
Of course, most of the preparation of the bike for the race meeting will take place before it even leaves the workshop. How much of this is done single-handedly and how much as a team effort will depend on how the bike owner wants to work, who does the preparation and where, geographical location of team members in relation to each other, time commitments and many other factors. If possible, the bike should always arrive at the track requiring a minimum of preparation for scrutineering and first pass on the track. In a ideal scenario you would take it out of the van, fit the wheelie bars (if used), take it to scrutineering and, when it passes, go back to the pits, fuel it up and do an engine test.
Unfortunately, it is rarely that simple. If you know there are things to do at any stage before the first track pass I recommend writing a list. It can be a bit embarrassing, to say nothing about expense, if the engine grinds to a halt because you forgot to put oil in it! Don't mock, it has happened. Even if you have fully prepared the machine, check it again before you fire it up and again before you go to run. Having a "pre-flight" check list is not sissy as you will find out the first time it saves you money by preventing a breakage, or a possible injury because of a chassis problem.
In all cases and situations, safety must be top of the list. There is inherent danger in operating machinery capable of high performance on a dragstrip or any other environment. All team members need to be on the lookout for any potential or actual problems right up to the point that the bike launches. This will include loose bits, leaking bits, misaligned bits, damaged or broken bits. Remember, that oil drip in the pits may become a torrent on the strip and the engine is directly in front of the rear slick. This is why the start line crew will shut you down if they see anything leaking. These people are very good at spotting problems but if you see a problem, you should react to it. It is much easier to deal with irate riders and drivers who have been shut down than it is to scrape those same people off the walls.
Safety precautions must also be observed in the pits. Again, some will be common sense and some will be specified by rules and/or final instructions from the organisers (e.g. fire extinguisher regulations).
Is there enough fuel in the tank? If so turn it on and check for leaks. Always check the gearbox is in neutral, especially important if the engine is started with the rear wheel on the ground. If using stands are they secure? Starting procedures will be down to individual teams. Keep a look out for leaks from anywhere in the plumbing and engine.
A race bike is a very harsh environment for components especially electrics / electronics. These like to fail at the least opportune moments so replace any suspect parts. Ignition packs and computers are the most vulnerable. Moreover, how many runs have been lost due to faulty safety kill switches for example? Check for rubbing wires. Electrical faults are usually the most difficult to locate and repair - even if you have a resident expert like Steve on the team.
Nuts and bolts will find untold ways to come loose and fall off, pop-rivets break, Dzus fasteners come undone. Check every nut, bolt, screw and any other fastenings at regular intervals and especially after a rebuild.
Before that first run check and set tyre pressures, front and rear, check rear wheel alignment and chain tension. Have all the nuts and bolts been tightened? Are the brakes ok? Just because it got past the scrutineers doesn't mean you don't need to check it yourselves. Were there any oil or fuel leaks, are the settings correct, have you noted the settings for your records, did you refuel, is the air system pressurised? It's a lot to remember, hence that "pre-flight" list.
Don't assume it's ok, check it.
In the collecting area always make sure you know where each other are. Some riders feel abandoned if they cannot see their crew. On the other hand wandering riders can be a nightmare to crew. I speak from experience!
Set up your routine for getting from the collecting area to the waterbox. From here on it is most important that all team members know what is expected of them. When do you turn on fuel etc and fit the body, does the engine need to be run up, who takes the bike out, who has the starter trolley, where is the lanyard, is the rider correctly suited, booted and lidded etc. Once you get a suitable routine you should try to stick with it. It saves confusion and mistakes. You will find refinements and changes are necessary from time to time, firstly as you get more familiar with the machine, then mostly when systems are added or changed on the machine and particularly as performance increases. Watch established teams if you get a chance.
Rider and crew need to be able to communicate with the minimum of oral signals when the engine is running. This is because you cannot communicate efficiently with a person wearing a crash helmet standing beside a running fuel bike while your bike is running as well and you may be wearing ear protection. The crewmember starting the bike needs to know that the rider is ready and switches are set etc. A simple nod from the rider is the most usual. Once the engine fires and the starter motor is removed, move away from the bike. If you are going forward of the machine do not turn completely away from it or walk directly in front especially once the burn out has been started, they don't always keep straight or stop exactly where you expect. It is extremely embarrassing for a rider to run over his own crew, not to mention what it may hurt.
Burnout procedure will vary from team to team. Some riders prefer to fend for themselves, others look for help from the crew. If you are going to signal the rider, first of all you should make sure he knows where you will be and can see you. Seems obvious but standing beside the bike in the waterbox means the rider has to turn his head to find you and this could also turn the handle bars. Stand out in front but to the side of the track (on the red bit is a good place at Santa Pod). I try to go to the same spot on the same side of the bike each time so Steve knows where to look for me. Keep you signals simple and clear. Wave at arm's length, don't wiggle a finger. For normal burnouts I only signal for Steve to end the burnout and come forward, I don't give him a signal to keep going because he does that until I tell him otherwise. He knows this so any other signal must mean a problem and he will shut the throttle.
Once the burnout is complete, you must make sure rider and all crewmembers know what is expected of them. If anyone is going to touch the bike make sure the rider is aware of this. Do any safety clips need to be removed? Checks before going into stage will vary from team to team. You will need to develop your individual routine and signals.
If you need to put the bike into the correct gear, check what happens when it goes in, are you both satisfied it is correct? Again, make sure the rider knows when all his crew have moved away from the bike and he can go over the blue line and into stage. Don't forget, if the crew touch the bike after it has crossed the blue line the run will not count, in competition this would mean instant elimination.
If someone is going to align the bike by picking up the wheelie bars the rider must know this is going to happen, you would not want him to drop the bike because he is taken by surprise and crushed nuts can seriously spoil his concentration. Ladies, you make your own call on this.
Once the machine has completed it's run and you are clearing the start line, look and listen out for the next pair. You don't want to be run over by one of them as you wander aimlessly away and they don't want to steer around a moving hazard.
The machine needs to be turned round efficiently between runs. Everyone needs to know what he or she has to do and what else to look out for. This is especially important if, for example, you have won a semi-final at Shakey at about 4pm on a Sunday with the 5pm curfew fast approaching. If you want to be in that final you need to get on with it and get it right.
The rulebook states that the organisers should give you 45 minutes between rounds so you will need a plan that allows everything to be done in that time. You will normally get longer but you cannot rely on this. During this time you will need to recover the bike from the far end of the shutdown area to the pits, then do all your checks and replenishments and get back to the collecting area. All this may need to be done while the engine is too hot to touch so you may need suitable gloves etc. However, remember, at Shakey they don't have the option to give you time to get ready if they are up against the curfew time.
Let them cool down
After a run most riders will be hyped up. Sitting at the top end waiting for crew to turn up and tow them back will give them a chance to calm down but this does not mean that they are always ready to swing into action when the bike gets back to the pits. At this stage the crew will normally need to be on the ball if the bike has to go out again. Get the body off, make a visual check and then do the turn round chores. Do the spark plugs need to come out (usually yes), refuel, pump up the air, recharge the nitrous (if used), check the chain tension etc? All this needs to be done regardless of anything else.
If there are any changes to be made to the settings these can be sorted out independently of the turn round and can be separated from the turn round procedures to some extent. Plug readings and feedback from the rider and observers may directly influence what has to be done to both engine tune up and chassis settings.
One person on the team should be responsible for record keeping. This is a necessary part of operating any race machine. Like many other aspects of drag racing the items recorded will vary from team to team and machine to machine. All adjustable engine settings should be recorded for every run along with carb settings and nitrous jetting (if used), ignition etc. We record chassis settings for wheelie bar height and slick pressure, clutch settings (weights, springs etc), timer details and inputs from our Schnitz box. There is a copy of the sheet we use on a separate page. If we need to record additional items then the sheet will be altered as necessary so we don't forget what we need to record. We do not have data recorders on either bike, if you have one then you will need to make sure you have a suitable computer and leads to download the information at the end of the run so you can see if this highlights anything that needs to be changed.
Most people in the pits are happy to help others. Obviously there is less enthusiasm when up to their armpits with a problem on their own machine, grunted responses to questions under these circumstances should not come as a surprise.
And don't forget - when the helmets go on we are racing to win!
Crew for French Injection and Wot No Turbo funny bikes