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Natural Selection—Manual-trans monsters still prowl the strip in NMCA’s DART NA 10.5

There’s an inherent badassery that comes with stomping a clutch pedal and banging gears down the drag strip. In NMCA DART NA 10.5 presented by Diamond Pistons competition, many drivers elect to use an automatic transmission, but a select few still prefer the old school method of a stick-shift to get the job done.

Prepping and driving a manual in any sort of racing category has its challenges, but in NMCA DART NA 10.5, there’s a lot that goes into fielding a competitive car with a clutch. For those who don’t mind a little extra effort, the rewarding thrill of having a hands-on driving experience is well worth it—especially when running 7-second quarter-mile elapsed times at speeds well over 150 miles per hour.

Having secured his fourth championship for the class during the 2020 season, Leonard Long is about as diehard as they get when it comes to manual transmissions. The owner of G-Force Racing Transmissions in Pennsylvania and creator of the popular G101-A transmission that’s widely used in NMRA G-Force Racing Transmissions Coyote Stock, Long has raced in NMCA DART NA 10.5 for as long as the category existed—and well beyond its initial inception in other manual categories. Long was also one of the original participants on the committee that developed the rules for the NMCA class, and has a good handle on what it takes to put together a competitive car.

Long prepared his ’95 Ford Mustang with a cast, 415-cube Ford engine machined by Ray Barton, topped with Ford D3 cylinder heads by Visner Engine Development, and assembled by Jay Zolko. Up until fairly recently, Long was also the only competitor in NMCA DART NA 10.5 that used a fuel-injection setup, having installed a Holley Dominator EFI system and 16 injectors instead of his previous eight.

His transmission, however, is where Long really focuses his attention.

“I’m running a true clutchless five-speed,” he shared of his G-Force GF2000 transmission that incorporates a dual-disc, 7-inch clutch. “We run a push/pull-style variable gauge shifter with no H-pattern. There’s a button on top of the shifter handle to hold the line lock for us to do the burnout, and everything is pretty much right there.”

Small-tire racing on a 10.5-inch slick is always tough, and drivers in NMCA DART NA 10.5 have to overcome the challenge of a limited contact patch with limited traction.

“It’s all about controlled slip and grip, whether it’s a tire or a clutch,” said Long, who balanced the two to take the class win at the NMCA race in Atlanta, Georgia in June of 2020.

To be competitive with a clutch in the class means being able to cut a good light, and that means adjusting the pedal. “It’s got to be sensitive, but not move too far,” clarified Long.

With approximately 1,100-horsepower on tap, it’s easy to overpower the tire in a hurry, so there’s a real balancing act of how much power to put down and when. The first-gear ratio is a critical component to doing well in that regard.

“If you have too much multiplication or gear ratio, you’ll spin the tire,” Long explained, noting that different combinations can run at different weights and that requires different first gear ratios. “It needs to be set up for the weight of the car and then to suit your clutch slippage and conditions.”

Second gear comes almost as soon as the clutch is let out for First, just a fraction of a moment after the 1.1-second 60-foot time is elapsed.

“There’s about a second between each gear change in the quarter-mile. At the eighth, we’re putting it in high gear and then it’s about 2.8 seconds out the back before getting on the brakes and clicking the motor off,” Long added.

On a high-7-second pass, there’s a lot going on inside the driver’s compartment in a relatively short amount of time and it’s a lot to manage, especially if the car gets a little out of the groove or the driver is late on the shift when they’re already turning over 10,000 rpm.

Racing at night adds further complexity to the situation, as the shift light is coming on so frequently that—even with blinders to dim it—the flashes can be incredibly distracting, especially on a poorly lit track.

Suspension is another area that’s important to properly to set up a small-tire car, and that fact holds true in NMCA DART NA 10.5 as well. Long runs Penske shocks and mimics the radial-tire setups as much as possible.

“We run wheelie bars and you want to stay off of them as much as possible because they can upset the car and leverage the grip of the rear tires,” Long explained.

Rich Nye, also based out of Pennsylvania, and second in the class’s championship points for the season, took two wins in 2020 and certainly has his ’91 Mustang dialed in. With several NMCA DART NA 10.5 seasons under his belt and over a decade of stick-shift racing after previously being an automatic man, he also runs a G-Force GF2000 clutchless five-speed transmission with a RAM 7-inch, dual-disc clutch on his CFM Performance-carbureted 410ci engine built by Gaby Labiosa of EIC Motorsports.

For him, the first thing he focuses on is getting the disc combination that he needs set and dialing in the aggressiveness of the clutch.

“When we first went from the 8-inch to the 7-inch, we kept driving through it,” stated Nye, whose car would just rev and not go anywhere. “Leonard [Long] gave me two discs to try and now we’re running Boninfante Friction discs with the RAM clutch.”

Nye also knows the importance of a proper suspension, and he races with a four-link instead of a ladder bar like some of the others.

“A lot of the cars in the class can leave real high, but you don’t want that with a stick car—you want the car to leave low and not get up in the air and waste energy,” he said. “We run a Menscer Motorsports shocks and struts package, the best when it comes to a small tire.”

After each race, Nye pulls the transmission and clutch to clean and surface everything.

“We zero out the clutch and set it to spec with a dial indicator. After that, we set the air gap to help determine reaction time,” he added. With too large of an air gap, reaction times will suffer and slow down. With an air gap too tight, though, and the driver risks the car pulling through the beams. “It’s a lot of work, but once you get used to it, it’s really not that bad.”

Robbie Blankenship, who started racing heads-up in ’07 and has run with NMCA DART NA 10.5 since its inception as well, also knows air gap can make or break a run. The driver from Florida wields an ’04 Mustang that’s powered by a D3-headed, 400ci Ford engine built by Ben Strader at EFI University and controlled by a Holley fuel-injection system.

With two event wins in 2020, Blankenship finished fourth in championship points, despite it being his first season with a manual transmission.

“I drove automatics all the way up to this year, and now I’ve got a five-speed Liberty with a RAM 7-inch, dual-disc clutch that I got from Cale Aronson at Black Magic,” he detailed of the new-to-him setup. He’s found that the manual is a tremendous amount of work, about three-times the amount as compared to his automatic. “We pull the trans after every round and adjust the clutch, and at the end of every day we’ll grind it to true it up,” he said.

Even though he’s new to the manual gearbox world, Blankenship likes how many options he now has available for gear ratios and clutch adjustment.

“It gives you the opportunity to match your car to the track conditions or the weather—you can’t really do that with an automatic,” he outlined. “Shifting the car four times at over 10,000 rpm before the eighth mile is interesting and really fun to drive.”

Finishing sixth in points for 2020, Rocky Khoury of Harrison Township, Michigan, had class raced on and off over the years and has been with the NMCA for several seasons, but this year was his first full one in NMCA DART NA 10.5.

His ’14 Mustang holds a 496ci big-block ChevyOldsmobile engine between its frame rails, and the Liberty five-speed transmission with 9-inch AFT clutch is a bit of a departure from what other racers run.

“I didn’t have much choice on the transmission—Craig Liberty is my uncle,” laughed Khoury, who has a family history of racing.

The clutch, though, was specifically selected to fit his combination, as Khoury is the only man in the class running a stick-shift with a big-block. With the 9-inch clutch, he has a larger tuning window to help ease the difficulty of trying to get things right on such a heavy combination.

“We’re racing at 3,200 pounds while most of the other guys are around 2,600-2,700,” explained Khoury, who overcomes the challenge of having to get more weight moving on the same tire as the rest. “I’ve played with different disc materials, but a lot of my parts are actually my dad’s old Pro Stock pieces.”

Khoury’s father ran in NHRA Pro Stock until the early ‘00s, and the hand-me-downs are greatly appreciated.

“With so many parts laying around, we knew we could be competitive without having to blow a ton of money,” he shared of why he chose the big-block instead of incurring the expense of building a weight-friendly small-block out-of-pocket.

To keep everything running smoothly, Khoury spends a ton of time on engine upkeep and overall maintenance, but once he sets the initial air gap, he doesn’t touch it for at least six-to-eight passes.

“Mostly, it’s just about getting laps under our belts. We run this car about 100-150 passes per year, not always a full pass, but always working on clutch setups, gearing, rear gear, transmission ratios, and more,” he said of how much testing it takes to make a heavy car on a small contact patch as consistent as his.

Having previously run in the Ozark Mountain Super Shifter series where long burnouts, loud engines, and high-rpm wheel-stands were the norm, Craig Hejda was fully versed in the art of mastering the manual transmission before he started with NMCA DART NA 10.5 in 2018. He runs a ’72 Maverick with a 412ci small-block Ford engine that’s been done by Uratchko Racing and a Book Racing Dominator-style single carburetor.

Hejda also relies on a Liberty Equalizer five-speed, vertical-gate, clutchless transmission and RAM billet 8-inch, dual-disc clutch to get the job done.

“This engine can handle a 7-inch clutch, but Pat Norcia at RAM said ‘let’s use the 8-inch’ since this is more power than I’ve ever had and it’s easier to find a tuning window,” shared Hejda, whose current combination puts out over 1,000 horsepower and his next engine—already in the works—will add 200 more on top of that.

Having raced with a manual for over two decades, the man from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, certainly has a different take on the work required to run one as compared to newcomers like Blankenship.

“For me, it’s easy because it’s routine, but my hands are always in the bellhousing making adjustments,” he noted of how he’s always chasing ways to improve his time slips. “You’re always checking the air gap for sure, and making sure when you mat it on the starting line it doesn’t push through the beams.”

Occasionally, Hejda may pull the transmission out to put some new discs in, but he tries not to do that during a race weekend unless he’s had a bad run or notices the car is going through the clutch too much. Otherwise, it’s simply about changing base pressures and counterweights, and making sure his Maverick is set up to be able to be serviced quickly and easily.

One of the biggest changes he’s had to account for in NMCA DART NA 10.5 isn’t the stick, but rather the change from running a big tire with the Ozark series to the small tire in NMCA.

“With the big tire, you have a huge amount of traction and capability, more than you need so you can get away with throwing a lot of clutch at it and not having to abort a run from smoking the tires,” said Hejda, who uses his Racepak data acquisition system to review each run and see where the tires spun on a gear change, or how much elapsed time he’s losing during gear changes. “With the 10.5 tires, you have to get your balance right to find that traction again and it’s tough with a stick car. Trying to control wheel speed without lifting the wheels on a gear change with all this power is tricky, too.”

Chad Neuenschwander agrees, and also relies on data to help keep his ’88 Mustang heading in the right direction. With his home in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Neuenschwander has been racing with the NMCA DART NA 10.5 group since 2013 and knows the importance of letting the data guide his adjustments to the clutch, the car, the gearing, and the suspension.

“Between rounds, we check everything and adjust. It never stops. Everyone says it’s a lot of work, but it’s just a normal routine for me,” said Neuenschwander, who gets inside his clutch to adjust the base and counterweights after practically every round. “In Indy this year, I had my transmission in and out of the car four times in three days. I can get it done in about 30 minutes now.”

His G-Force GF2000 clutchless five-speed and Ram dual-disc combination are relatively new to him, though, as is his Edelbrock SC1-headed 415ci small-block Ford engine built by Kuntz & Co. With the engine having been installed just in time for the Indy race, the final of the 2020 season, Neuenschwander is still working toward figuring out what will keep it all happy and plans to get everything sorted over the off-season so he can be ready in 2021.

“When everything’s going good, to let go of the clutch and shift gears and hit your shift points… it’s the best thing ever,” he happily recalled of the overall experience and visceral feeling of grabbing gears. “I drove a brand-new Mustang GT this year, an automatic, and it just wasn’t the same. I wish there was more stick-shift racing out there other than the NMCA.”

According to the experts, the biggest difference between a stick and an automatic really just comes down to reaction time, as it’s easier to be consistent when leaving on the transbrake button as it is to manipulating the clutch pedal. Leaving some reaction time on the table isn’t such a big deal in qualifying, but it has the potential to make or break a win when it comes down to eliminations.

For the racers who are up to the challenge and don’t mind the added pressure to get it right time and time again, the manual has many advantages in its tuning window and ability to adjust for conditions. A little extra work behind the scenes can go a long way out on the track, and the manual men of NMCA’s DART NA 10.5 category have certainly shown the stick shift can truly shine.

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