It’s Just a Matter of Course for Hagan’s HEMI® Engine.
Getting Back on Track
Rebuilding an engine is a difficult task. It’s made infinitely more challenging if you happen to serve as a crew member on Matt Hagan’s Mopar® Express Lane Dodge Charger R/T NHRA Funny Car.
After virtually each and every run, the Mopar HEMI® engine that powers Hagan’s racecar undergoes a complete overhaul. His Don Schumacher Racing crew breaks down and then builds
up the motor under a pressure-cooker deadline often as tight as 50 minutes before it’s time to head back to the starting line.
Even more, every wrench-turn, measurement or reading is the difference between victory and defeat.
And you thought your job was stressful.
For Hagan’s team, work begins the moment his lap ends. The Mopar Express Lane Dodge crew speeds into action, some rushing back to the pits, some piling into the tow vehicle to grab Hagan’s racecar and haul it back for service.
Once the car arrives in the pits, it’s time for what’s nicknamed the “thrash.” It looks more like a feeding frenzy than an engine rebuild, but the thrash is just that, a group of mechanics dismantling an engine with ratchets and wrenches. A symphony of constant movement — arms, legs and bodies in motion.
“By the time we get back to the trailer, we’re only at 65 to 70 minutes of actual time in the pits,” says Dickie Venables, the championship-winning crew chief who tunes Hagan’s Dodge Charger. “When the car comes back, the body comes off first, the supercharger comes off, the cylinder heads, the oil pan, all the pistons come out, the entire clutch, including the reverser and drive line, the clutch assembly.”
With the engine stripped, the manic mass of energy subsides. A bit. Each crew member works on their designated engine section. “We’ve got a clutch man, cylinder head guy, someone in charge of the supercharger, the engine,” explains Venables.
The process can be broken into four steps: teardown, inspection, build-up and warm-up. Teardown is easiest: “It comes apart quicker,” says Venables. Most challenging is the engine inspection, which can take 8 to 10 minutes, with another 15 minutes needed to bolt the engine back together.
“We evaluate the engine and make sure the main bearings are okay,” Venables says. “The engine gets serviced. It gets a fresh piston rack, and we rotate the cylinder heads with a pair that has been serviced.”
Venable leaves most work to the crew, focusing on the big picture. “I’m pretty much in the trailer reviewing data graphs,” says Venables. “Mike (Knudsen, assistant crew chief) collects the car data and enters it in the computer, and we both start looking at it. Mike will give the clutch guy direction on changes we’re going to make, because it’s easier to do when the clutch is on the bench.
“I read the spark plugs and measure the rod bearings — those two things, along with looking at the data, are a big part of the tune-up. We have to set the head gaskets, as different thicknesses change the compression. We have weather stations on the Web that we look at, and a program we use to plug all the data in and figure out the correct compression, boost and other settings.”
Once direction has been given on the engine re-assembly, Venables and Knudsen discuss the upcoming run.
“Mike and I talk about what the race track will be,” says Venables. “Will it be better or worse, do we want to go faster, do we need to slow it down? Despite all the preparation, changes are still made in the staging lanes. We might change ignition timing, clutch weight, or how hard or soft the clutch comes in.”
With the engine inspected and rebuilt, it’s time for the warm-up. Hagan takes the driver’s seat and runs through the warm-up sequence as his crew twists, tweaks and tightens engine components.
“The warm-up is mainly to check for leaks,” explains Venables. “Matt will check his reverse gear, make sure he has brakes, check the clutch pedal, make sure everything is right in his area. We’re setting the idle speed, checking the ignition timing, checking spark plugs, making sure everything is back together right.”
The Dodge Charger R/T body is placed on the chassis, and then pushed out of the pits and to the staging lanes for the next run.
The crew experiences less stress during qualifying, with more time between runs and only one “thrash” per day. Sunday elimination rounds feature compressed turnaround time from the pits to the starting line and the added pressure of “win or go home.”
But the ultimate reward is sweet — a visit to the winner’s circle at an NHRA event. And despite the stress and pressure, Venables and his team do not miss deadlines — ever.
“It’s pretty amazing when the adrenaline’s flowing,” remarks Venables. “Knock on wood, I’ve never missed a call for any run. You just dig down and find a way.”