Drivers have a blast at Eagle Field drags

dwitte@losbanosenterprise.comMay 22, 2014 

— The staging lanes at Eagle Field, an old World War II-era airfield-turned drag-racing strip, turns on to the runway about 150 feet behind the starting line. But when Jeff Atamian of Fresno came to the line on Saturday, track volunteers made sure nobody made that turn until after his run.

That’s because Atamian’s dragster gets its acceleration from a Korean War-era Westinghouse J34 jet engine that tops out at 6,000 pounds of thrust and burns about 30 gallons of diesel fuel per run.

“This car was built in the mid-to-late ’70s by Romeo Palamides out of Oakland,” said crew chief Mike King of Merced. “Jeff’s had it about 17 years. You’ll spend $100,000 on one once you’re done building it. And that doesn’t include transportation – you have to get a truck and a trailer.”

The Westinghouse engine, which was used in the McDonnell F2H Banshee fighter and the North American T2J Buckeye trainer, consists of about half the car’s 2,400 pounds, and powers the vehicle to about 300 miles per hour in just a few seconds. It uses a pair of 16-foot drag parachutes taken off of a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, a 1960s fighter.

“Everyone wants to see it launch, but the real excitement is getting it stopped,” King said. “It pulls about three G’s on launch, and about negative 1.7 when you pull the chutes. It’ll usually get up to about 185 on an eighth-mile strip and 260 on a quarter mile. They clocked it at 340 at El Centro, but that’s a 7,000-foot track.”

King said the J34, which maxes out at 12,000 RPM on the turbine, is obsolete in jet-dragster circles.

“Most guys use the newer J60, which weighs about 500 pounds,” he said. “Our turning shaft alone weighs that much.”

As far as maintenance goes, which is where King comes in, there’s not a lot to be done on race day except check the air pressure and make sure the chutes are packed right.

“If we have to work on the motor, there’s nothing we can do here,” King said. “We might as well pack up and go home.”

Anyone who missed seeing Atamian run the jet-car can catch him at the Merced Fair on June 12 or the Turlock Fair on July 16, where one of the attractions is parking an old car behind it and turning the engine up to full blast.

Atamian’s few seconds on the track were a highlight, but he was far from the only vehicle to take the strip. Two days of drag racing (the Fresno Dragways Reunion on Saturday and the Dos Palos Lions Drag Race on Sunday) drew several hundred cars and drivers – a couple of them almost as loud at Atamian’s Beast.

The races featured everything from old hot-rods (known as doorslammers) to fuel-altered dedicated drag racers like Rich Guasco’s Pure Hell and Stormy Byrd’s The Revelation dragsters. Byrd and Guasco faced off on Saturday, with Guasco coming out slightly ahead.

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