Ever wonder why Muscle Cars Run Faster Now? (compared to 30-40 years ago?)
With all the ways we can sound off these days—online forums, YouTube, social networks, and so on—opinions are flying. And with the electronic buzz buzzing along at an all-time high, there’s plenty of discussion about muscle cars and their achievements on the dragstrip. Some of it is woo-hoo celebration. Some chatter has been dubious about the very quick e.t.’s that the faster cars regularly run, primarily at the Pure Stock Drags. “They didn’t run that fast when they were new,” is how the skeptical talk often goes. “How could they run faster now?”
It’s a fair question, worth asking and answering.
Old magazine tests are considered by many to be the gold standard of muscle car performance, and those old dragstrip times are routinely beat these days. That could only mean that cars that are faster are either cheating or modified.
Well, let’s talk about that.
Here are 10 things to consider, plus a few bonus reasons, that explain why muscle cars today regularly surpass e.t.’s reported in the old magazine road tests.
1. Optimized Builds
The planning stage is where a lot of very fast cars get that way. Pure Stock Drags rules allow any combination of engine and driveline options as long as they were factory installed. Dealer-installed equipment like Z/28 headers is not allowed. But you can build the lightest car that the factory offered; say, an F-85 Olds coupe with no power options, everything delete, the lightest of everything else, like wheels with cheapie hubcaps, the lightest brakes, and so on. One racer weighed the brake drums he used and picked the lightest. Same for the battery and carpet. He found that the common 80/20 loop with the jute backing removed was actually lighter than the puke ‘n’ wipe rubber mats. Then you take that carefully assembled, best-of-everything example and add, say, an extreme axle ratio that the factory offered (but almost nobody bought), like 4.88s.
Well, you can see this car is going to be a screamer, especially if it also gets some of the steps below. Were magazine test cars outfitted like this, optimized and purpose-built for drag racing? Rarely.
Besides being ideally configured for drag racing, you can bet that if a car is really flying, the engine has been blueprinted. That means you don’t have the usual tolerances of plus-or-minus a certain amount. The best tolerance has been calculated, and it’s that way throughout the engine. An engine that has been carefully and meticulously set up will turn over much easier than one built with grab-bag tolerances built in production line volume. Main bearings are align-honed for exact straightness. Cylinders are honed with a torque plate and carefully mic’d at different levels for true roundness up and down the bore. Cams are degreed in with a wheel. There’s nothing left to chance. Extra attention is paid everywhere, and it shows in better cylinder sealing, lower friction, and greater power to the wheels.
I’ve done my share of articles over the years interviewing the fastest Olds or Mopar or Chevrolet. Regardless of marque, the very fast drivers tell very similar stories of engine machining and assembly. Factories couldn’t spend that kind of time on a single engine. Blueprinting works for transmissions and axles, too.
3. Track Prep
What happens between the staging lanes and the 60-foot beams can make a huge difference in your e.t. The Pure Stock Drags runs at the Mid-Michigan Motorplex every year. Several times during the event, they spray sticky stuff just ahead of the starting line. Were they spraying the track at test-and-tune night when the magazine testers were there in the ’60s?
The Pure Stock Drags staff has also advised against driving through any water in the burnout box. Some water will stay on the tires, and even if you do the world’s biggest burnout, you’ll be spraying water all over your wheelwells, which will drip down onto your tires, compromising your launch.
One more thing. The Pure Stock Drags always happens the second weekend after Labor Day, in September. Weather is usually very favorable, sometimes even excellent. Magazine deadlines being a cruel taskmaster, road tests (read: drag tests) have to happen all year round—then and now—even on cold nights when the track is slicker than an industrial accident at the pudding plant. Testing had to go on, whether it was sunny and warm at Lions or overcast and soggy at Englishtown.
4. High-Tech Monitoring
Digital air/fuel-ratio meters have allowed a very precise look at what’s going on inside the engine during a pass. Through a bung in the exhaust pipe, it monitors exhaust gases and knows just how well your carb is jetted at any given rpm. This is a fairly new product, but for those who want to know, it has made a big difference in finding peak tune. Needless to say, such technology didn’t exist in the sizzling ’60s.
This is a hot topic. Doubters are sure there is cheating. No question that there is among some. But the Pure Stock Drags was not created to extract sensational e.t.’s from muscle cars that otherwise couldn’t run that fast. The main goals of this event are to give stock, restored muscle cars a place of their own; have fun; improve your e.t.’s; and compile a database of information about muscle cars from 1955 through 1974.
That said, some allowances have to be made for wear over the years. Almost everything’s been bored by now, and lots of guys use aftermarket mufflers or electronic points triggers or low-restriction air filters, all of which are allowed at the Pure Stock Drags. This is just a recognition of reality, not a wink-wink to hot rodding.
Part of the agreement in participating in the Pure Stock Drags is that any car can be taken to deep tech at any time. If it doesn’t meet the rules, it can’t run. You’d be surprised how word gets back to race organizers about who’s fudging. Cheaters may get away with it briefly, but they don’t last long.
Plus, many, if not most, of the very fast cars have been through Certified Stock, a voluntary partial teardown and comprehensive inspection, often at their own request. The legit fast guys are eager to prove it.
6. More Practice
Standard practice for magazine road testers back then was the same as it is now. They would get a test car for a week, then turn it back in. How many runs did that allow? If the track was having a slow night, testers might get 10 or 12. Or three or four.
New cars show up at the Pure Stock Drags every year, but the vast majority are returning regulars. They race a lot at the Pure Stock Drags and elsewhere. They have hundreds of runs under their belt and know that car and its idiosyncrasies.
A few years ago Bob Karakashian generously allowed me to make a pass in his renowned ’70 Hemi ‘Cuda, which I think was running low 12s at the time. I was remarkably slow—a second-and-a-half or so off his pace, as I recall. Practice, which I had none of in a Hemi ‘Cuda, makes a big difference.
Remember your first kiss? I’ll bet you got better at it the more you did it, right? OK then.
7. Cam Design
Here’s an area where there’s been meaningful improvement that could be considered not stock. Even if lift, duration, and lobe centers are the same as original spec, ramp profiles have improved, which does bump output. Making the ramp a bit more aggressive and getting the valve off its seat quicker gets air flowing into the cylinder sooner. It still tests within factory parameters for vacuum at idle. But most cams these days, even if the specs match the vintage specs, are subtly but genuinely better, even if they don’t have the rowdy lope.
Most cams these days, even if the specs match vintage specs, are subtly but genuinely better
8. Exhaust Improvements
There is probably more allowance for newer design here than any other system on the car. X-pipes are allowed if you want to run one. So are aftermarket mufflers, but you can’t go crazy.
From the rulebook: “Pipes must be routed as they were originally for the year, make, model, and engine combination. Mufflers must be stock looking in design, that is, oval in shape. No glasspacks or straight pipes allowed unless installed as original equipment. Maximum muffler inlet and outlet size is 2.5 inches.”
But however fancy you want to get with the rest of the system, you still have to run stock, unmodified, cast iron exhaust manifolds. This hurts some cars more than others because up front, nearest the exhaust valve, is where exhaust temperature and pressure are at their highest. You’re stuck with whatever exhaust manifolds the factory gave you.
9. 60-Foot Science
We’re not sure what the all-time record low 60-foot time is, but a few highly skilled drivers are consistently in the 1.9s, and a few have recorded 1.8-second 60-footers, even piloting four-speeds. In 2013, the highly talented Ed Keim came out of the hole in his ’69 L88 Corvette, a Turbo 400 car with 4.56 gears, and recorded 1.7s, twice, the lowest being a superhuman 1.73. Try that on street tires sometime.
I have. And I was consistently a 2.2- or 2.3-second driver, as were most of the other editors I worked with. That puts me five- to six-tenths slower than his pace before the 1-2 shift. And I was an experienced road tester.
Some drivers are just better than others. The top drivers at the Pure Stock Drags are superb and could certainly earn a living on the NHRA circuit. They study the all-important launch. They shoot and analyze video. They work it. If one magazine reported a 13.80 and another ran 14.70 with the same car, could both be right, or was one cheating? Absolutely they could both be right, and credit should go to them for reporting the truth, even if it makes them look slower. For my money, Car Lifewas the most reliable for reporting honest e.t.’s. Even if some of the old tests reported slightly quicker times than they actually ran, we’re outrunning even those times today.
Well, some of us are. Of the 140-ish cars at the 2013 Pure Stock Drags, more than half were 13- and 14-second cars. So the talk of widespread cheating just ain’t so. The fast guys are fast because they build fast, practice fast, and keep improving. They’re tops at their craft. Anybody can scratch at a guitar. Not everybody can play “Eruption.”
Here’s another thing that’s getting more common these days that just wasn’t done back then. There’s nothing like actually firing up the engine and dialing in the tune on a dyno to precisely measure if changes are helping or not. You check timing. You check advance, and jetting. You experiment and learn. It costs more, but you know when you drop the engine into your car that it’s tuned sharp as a tack.