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TheyUsedDarkForces - 2017-10-19

So, along with "Funny Car Summer" this is probably the most well-known movie to come out about the golden age of nitro Funny Car drag racing. IIRC, they made this as kind of a follow-up to Tom Wolfe's collection of car-related essays "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby" which was also a pretty influential on the public at large. So, while this isn't a great documentary on it's own, it functions as a pretty fantastic time capsule.

There's a good cast of characters, many of whom got their own documentaries and/or semi-fictionalized accounts of their lives from Hollywood: Shirley Muldowney ("Wheels of Fire"), Tom McEwen and Don Prudhomme (most recently "Snake and Mongoose"), Jungle Jim & Jungle Pam (responsible for bringing a lot of the showmanship), Ed "The Ace" McCulloch (won a ton of races in Nitro Funny and Top Fuel), Instant Ivo (B actor and racer), Ed Pink (responsible for a ton of the engine R&D that made this stuff possible, particularly SOHC Ford engines)...

Anyways, aside from featuring all those people, what really makes "American Nitro" (and "Funny Car Summer") great is all the awesome footage that manages to capture a lot of the things that make this era so alluring to people who are into this. It basically comes down to the inherent violence of the primitive technology they used, the recklessness required to run it, and the convival atmosphere the events had. It was also right on the edge of huge corporate involvement (they mention Hot Wheels and Revell around 17:00), which would inevitably make the cars faster, at the cost of some of the heart and free-wheeling, good-time nature of the thing. We make these kinds of horsepower figures on high-test gasoline now.

I love racing and race cars, so I easily become transfixed by this stuff, but I understand how someone could find the whole thing boring. Some people just don't like cool shit, and there's no helping them, but for other people, here are some time stamps:

2:40 - Jon Lombardo's death wobble in the left lane, probably saved by deploying the 'chutes. Can also see the cool suits they had to wear, gas masks are for the nitromethane fumes, which are corrosive to your lungs and everything else

5:35 - rail dragster getting all four wheels off the ground at the end of the track. The parachutes would often lift the entire car up into the air, still happens every so often, even though the aero on the cars nowadays is much better.

6:25 - Half track burnout by a sweet Nova. The stance was a big part of the allure, since it made the cars look so cartoony and exaggerated. Partly what attracted kids, and therefore, the aforementioned Revell and Hot Wheels.

7:49 - Dual-engined dragster doing a fire burnout. You don't get to see stuff like this anymore since it just isn't necessary to try to make two engines work together like that. A single engine makes more power than they can use 90% of the time and we... uh... don't NEED to do flaming burnouts anymore because tire technology is so good. Not that I'm trying to dissuade anyone

10:15 and 12:00 - Touches on another reason people remember this era fondly. It was the last time a regular person, or small team of people, could build a car and be even half-way competitive with the bigger teams. The gap between the bottom and the top, funding wise, was much smaller than it is now. By 1979, the "little guy" didn't have much of a chance--not like the 1950's and 60's--but it was still a possibility.

30:13 - Montage of 70's ladies at the track. Marry me, young Jungle Pam (http://tinyurl.com/y7s835yr).

36:00 - Explanation of the "fire problem". This was a big reason for moving the engine to the back in the rail cars, since when the engine let go, it covered the driver with burning oil. Also, weight distribution/transfer. You can see a few FEDs in this movie, along with some rear. Funny cars were a little less dangerous because they had a firewall between the engine and the driver. Tons of crazy accident footage.

Sorry, I don't have time to go through the whole movie. I don't buy into the myth of the "bygone era that was better than what we have now" as a cultural concept, in general, but for racing it seemed to be true.

Thanks Rangoon!

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