This is basically a tribute to the crazy bastards who risked life and limb for that last bit of speed… and were willing to play with untold amounts of self-igniting, super toxic, incredibly unstable and deadly rocket fuel to get it.
Warning: It’s long, and I won’t Cliff’s Notes it.
Hydrazine was first used as a rocket fuel during WWII for the Messerschmitt ME163B. Hydrazine is also used as a low-power monopropellant for the maneuvering thrusters of spacecraft, and the space shuttle’s auxiliary power unit.
I’ve been doing some entertaining reading this morning. Mostly about the early days of drag racing… and more specifically, the use of hydrazine as a fuel additive. It all started when I came across a thread about a guy who found a 20lt drum of hyrdazine in the shop of a local drag racer who passed away.
Well that piqued my interest, so I did some more searching.
I’ll quote the stories word for word. Maybe they’ll be as entertaining to someone else as they were to me:
First an article, then some personal accounts.
The Doomsday weapon of the sixties
By Steve Reasbeck
Alton, Illinois, Sunday, April 4, 1960; on a typical spring Sunday in the Midwest – cool, crisp, and clear. The local drag strip is hosting a match race between one of the heaviest hitters of the day, Chris Karamesines Chicago based slingshot, powered by what was becoming the standard powerplant of fuel racing, the 392 Chrysler Hemi. The nickname for the hemi headed engines that were production equipment in big Chryslers was Chizlers, and the Golden Greek had named his state of the art slingshot after the engine itself.
On this particular Sunday, the Golden Greek’s Chrysler was ready to go in a manner that was a bit unprecedented. When the car was push started; many knowledgeable and seasoned watchers noted that the engine sounded a bit different – the cackle a bit louder, crisper. Don Maynard, the exceptionally sharp crew chief of the Chi-town star, appeared to have really done his homework.
The Greek left in the manner typical of dragsters of the day, the two rear tires throwing off a rooster tail plume of smoke. However, the car started to pull at mid range – hard –much harder than ever before. After a brief period of silence, the announcer read off the timers’ reading to the crowd – 8.82 @ 204.50 – a good 30 mph faster than the typical time of the day. The Greek did not back up the astounding mph that day, and did not in the immediate years afterward. However, a 199 mph clocking in Kansas a couple of weeks later indicated again that the Chizler had indeed come upon something.
What was the difference this time? Over the years, dark accusations and less than complimentary statements were made concerning the driver, the facility, and the pass itself. A hoax, it was called a PR stunt. Maybe…but, then again, maybe it was not.
The Greek had a secret that day and it was a dangerous, volatile secret. It was the same secret that would launch the USA’s Titan Rockets into space to put mankind into space orbit. The secret that the Soviet Union would use to power their ballistic missiles designed to thwart the threat of US aircraft. That secret was Hydrazine. Over the years, Hydrazine would prove to be the additive to use to put one’s name on the map, to make the “1320 news” as one of the players. It would also prove to be one of the most dangerous products that one could run, and would result in the destruction of equipment, and the injury of competitors
Hydrazine, technically named anhydrous hydrazine (N2H4) is basically designed as an oxygen-scavenging agent, and is primarily used in rocket technology. It has the aroma of ammonia, but is clear and colorless – and is extremely caustic. If absorbed through the skin, it would make one extremely ill, and in NASA environments one must use protective clothing to work with it. Its oxygen scavenging capabilities were so powerful that it was generally used at only 10cc per one gallon of nitro.
A monopropellant, (which means that it does not require an oxidizer to be a propellant) it uses a catalyst for ignition. It is typically used on spacecraft thrusters to adjust attitude and trajectory. Used also in liquid fueled rockets, often mixed with “hypergolic” fuels such as nitric acid, it requires no ignition source and combusts spontaneously. Nitromethane is also a “hypergolic” fuel, which is where its use in fuel dragsters came in.
Jim Miller, a Texas based Super Stock racer who has an extensive background with Hydrazine through both his military and NASA careers, states that it’s use in an internal combustion fuel motor is a bad combination.
“Since nitro (CH3NO2) carries oxygen with it already, and hydrazine needs that oxygen it makes for a bad combination. That would make a ready made bomb mixed in the right proportions.”
A 70’s era crew chief once told Miller that he set a record with only 2% hydrazine mixed with 90% nitro and 8% methanol.
Although relatively stable to store and transport, its reaction with other chemicals were unknown and could be extremely dangerous. A spokesman for one of the nation’s largest producers, appalled that hot rodders were messing with it in internal combustion engines, commented, “There is no way to pinpoint every phase of the reaction between hydrazine and nitromethane”, and went on to state it could easily “result in unexplainable engine explosions. You have got to remember that hydrazine can burst into flame when merely spilled on iron oxide (rusted metal)!”
Its use had been with drag racing since the early years. Not used until the use of hot fuels began early hot rodders in Southern California soon figured out that hot fuels would increase the performance of their early dragsters.
Miller added, “I would not think it would mix well with gasoline.”
Some were involved with the fledgling space program out at Edwards Air Force base, and soon they discovered that this magic elixir might indeed make their already developed out flatheads push the envelope just a bit more. Among early users were Jack Chrisman, as well as carburetor and fuel injection pioneer Holly Hedrich. What they found was that Hydrazine would push the flatties to about 380 horsepower, up about 90 from a state of the art, fully prepped nitro powered flattie. The down side, however, is that they generally only lasted for one or two nitro runs, and then became instant junk. The main webs and rods had a tendency to blow apart, taking everything else with them. As a result, its use was pretty much shelved after this sobering discovery.
The quest for speed, though, is addictive, so the success of the use of Hydrazine would prove too tempting. This would cause racers to tempt fate and use it to get those big numbers that would launch them into the record books. The Ramchargers 65 altered wheelbase Dodge cracked the eight-second barrier for the first time at Cecil County Maryland in the summer of 65, thus becoming the first stock bodied car into the eights. When driver Jim Thornton tripped the timers at 8.91, the Moon tank had been topped off with a dose of Hydrazine mixed in with the alcohol/nitro.
In 1967, Ed Schartman’s flip top Roy Steffey Enterprises Comet dominated the Indy Nationals, clocking a jaw dropping 8.28 on the FC final. Crew Chief Roy Steffey’s secret – you guessed it – Hydrazine. Along with the record setting performances, though, was continuing carnage. The Cleveland based SCS Comet was the last widely known use of hydrazine, however, and although
it was used off and on in years to come its use began to wane.
As the technology of the sport progressed, it became apparent that the engines were at the point where the good old nitromethane/methanol mix was capable of producing enough usable horsepower to make the cars run quick and fast. The technology was developing in other areas, and it was simply getting to the point where it was not a cost-effective option.
Every sport and every endeavor grows through innovation. Drag racing was and is no exception. However, one only needs to spend some time with some of the true pioneers of our sport to realize the extent of innovation attempted, and its subsequent cost in both dollars as well as physical injury. However, the use of Hydrazine propelled early racers to phenomenal performances, which resulted in big headlines throughout the racing world. Those early 200 mph times, however controversial, helped develop the quarter mile into a major motorsport, so perhaps it is just another reminder of the debt that today’s competitors owe those that came before.
PS. As you read the personal accounts, think about this. These days, this is what it takes to handle this stuff.
Operators in scape suits make adjustments to the monitoring equipment in preparation for the hydrazine fueling activities for the Herschel spacecraft.
And now for some personal accounts from guys that were there.
Hat’s off to these fucking crazy sonsofbitches.
One of my Viper brothers, the late and sorely missed, John Hogan, used to work for Chris Karamazines, the Golden Greek. This was way back in the sixties, I know if we say we remember the sixties we weren’t really there, whatever. The Greek used to try every and anything to go faster and quicker. One of the craziest things was using hydrazine as an exciter and oxigenator for Nitro. John said he used to have to keep the 8oz of hydrazine in a box full of ice, covered with a towel. The Greek would do his burn out and after he backed up John would open the fuel tank and add the stuff while they took off the throttle stop and switched the pump to the high side. As soon as the pump picked the mixed potion up the engine started heaving and barking and making a hellacious noise. Started throwing big GREEN flames in the air. Then the green light would go on and the car would launch like nothing ever seen before. The deal was that they had to run the whole tank out or it would become hypergolic and blow a crater in the track. So they idled the car back down the return road until the tank was used up. Of course NHRA got wind of this shit and banned hydrazine in competition. Those were the days. The saying went something like: “If the ground is shakin; and the flames are green, he must be using that Hydrazine.” And that’s the inspiration for my calling my chili the Hydrazine Flash!
Once upon a time in the south……yea, some of us used Hydrazine….
Every now and then we would add a drop or two……kept it in a vinegar bottle in the glove compartment of our push truck…..
One of our “competitors” insisted that we give him some of our “special sauce”…we did, along with instructions……”DO NOT PUT IT ALL IN AT ONE TIME”…….he did not heed our warnings……heard this horrible sound…a certain hemi, with the front wheels sitting up on the trailer, just started up…something was definately going on there……looked over and saw him running around the car, pulling wires off, it still ran…..sounded like 10,000 rpms…..then the crank blew out on the ground……..we left.
That stuff was hell on parts, but was good for a while. I tried some in an old panhead…..big mistake.
“Wait, I’m old….I remember….I think!! If it’s burnin’ green–It’s hydrazine. One night at the “beach” I noticed a jr fueler(remember REAL jr fuel–850 lbs & the whole can) runnin’ kinda green. They came back to the pits to cool it down where the hoses and mud were. They parked it and walked away to get some hot-dogs or something. About 5 minutes later there was a loud explosion, and the cylinder heads had blown OFF the SBC and were just layin’ in the cool-down area.ANHYRDOUS ‘ZINE…exciting and unpredictable!I’m a professional….Don’t try this at home!!”
Shows what a crazy thing it really was…
I used to hang with a lot of heavy hitters from the 60’s that had top fuel dragsters. Most of them never messed with hydrazine. It was added to the tank in very small quantities right before the run. If it was allowed to remain in the tank or fuel system after the run; it began to gel and turned into a Class A explosive. If you tried to fire the car after it sat for awhile there was a possibility that the engine would explode similar to hydraulicing a motor. There was at least one pit death and some injuries that resulted from this.
Well, I have CRS real bad, but I do remember one story from Indy “68 or “69 about when nobody wanted to admit they used it.
I had reunited with Walton/Anderson for a few races and went to help. As anyone who ran the stuff knew, there was a story that anything over 5% of the stuff would turn the mix to a class A explosive within 20 minutes! Nobody knew if it was true or not, but did NOT want to find out!
I think I remember 65 T/F cars shooting for 32 spots. In the first three pair, there were oildowns, they didn’t do as good of a job as today, and were pretty quick clean ups but were almost 25 minutes behind from when the session started.
When the next pair BOTH blew up and oiled both lanes, Walton and I looked at each other and panicked ! Off came the nose, out came the tank and main line and a rush over to the grass area to dump it. While it was draining, I looked up to see about six or eight other guys also draining theirs.
Hydrazine it what the Germans powererd the Me 163 Comet with. They occasionaly blew up in flight as they flew through turbulence. Unstable shit.
These planes killed more than 50% of their pilots, they never lost one to enemy action.
A great friend of mine who passed away last year, James “Boston” Smith had some good hydrazine stories. He grew up traveling during the summers with Ezra Boggs and the Moby Dick funny car team in the 60’s and 70’s. Pretty good summer vacations for young kid. The original funny car summer.
Part of his job was pulling the drain plug on the fuel tank when the car got back to the pits when they were running a special fuel mix. Drain it into the ground and purge the system with methanol. According to his tales, every second counted. Said you could tell someone was running hydrazine when they’re car would “mysteriously” blow up in the pits after a run, or on the way back. If you knew someone was running the stuff, you took your time staging. One day he commented to me how he was another victim of hydrazine cancer. Apparently the stuff is extremely carcinogenic.
Here’s to all those who can’t be here, a round for the house
I have a good friend “dick belfattii- The Shadow” who was one of the original “greek fleet” fuel cars in the early 60’s. he played with hydrozine in his fuel car anlong with buddies karamasinis & don maynard and later payed a heffty price for it ,burned the skin off his legs after his engine exploded at a match race in York pa. that explosion made him a team owner and he had bobby vodnick do the driving after that. see the pics of the engine after the explosion (nitro/alky/hydrozine) dick said the hydrozine was good for about 10 mph on the top end (if you got the mix right?)
I once saw a sbc top fuel motor blow the valve covers and oil pan off the still running motor while staging(back when they push started toward the starting line and crossed over). Hydrazine was the accepted reason and it was later banned. Lots of unbanned stuff is found while trying to gain “maximum competitive advantage” and later made illegal. If you have not crowded the line on the rules, you have never raced sucessfully
Hydrazine however – nasty nasty stuff.
I heard that at nationals one year everyone was running ‘zine and there was a LOT of engine explosions. And after the third one everyone was running back to the pits and dumping their tank onto the grass before the stuff got too unstable and blew up the car!
I also heard of one digger that was sitting there after they drained the tank not running, and suddenly the engine blew one of the cylinder heads and blower right off of it because of the hydrazine laced nitro left in the injector lines and cylinders from cutting the mag while it was running.
If you ever look at some of those old color night photos of the md 60’s fuelers, some of them are blasting out green flames! Thats hydrazine!
“If the ground is a-shaken, and the flames are green, they is-a runnin’ that hydrazine!”
A few more…
Just a word of advice…if you get something on your hands and can immediatly taste it in your mouth….you have just screwed up big time.
Just make sure you have a will and your family is provided for
What do you get when you mix Nitromethane and Hydrazine?
Burned pistons. Cylinder heads that clear the grandstands. Vaporized superchargers. In other words, carnage.
If you use it quick, you get gobs of power. If you let it sit more than 5 or 10 minutes, you get a class III explosive that will detonate if you sneeze to hard…
It’s really not too surprising that when you take a nitrated(oxygen bearing)fuel and mix it with an,”oxygen scavenger”(a fuel whose latent heat value rises dramatically in the presence of oxygen),you are essentially left with a very crude(and unstable)form of nitroglycerin.You get about the same result mixing potassium permanganate and red fuming nitric acid although if you pour one into the other the wrong way it explodes.Bad mojo.
Hydrazine is extremely nasty shit. It is what is used in the space shuttle’s attitude control thrusters.
It’s a mono-propellant, which to the layman means it can go boom all by itself, no second reactant needed
It’s also highly carcinogenic.
It’s clear and smells like ammonia. Don’t ask how I know.
From what i hear it killed a lot of engines at the drags too untill it was banned. Stories of engine blocks falling in half. Another story relayed to me was of maybe tom senter or one of the early flathead pioneers running a stock flatmotor on it it made amazing HP for about 30seconds
then let go
There were a couple of deaths in the pits, I heard. NHRA won’t talk about it though. Liability issues, I guess. I remember a Jr Fueler the blew the heads off in the pits at Lions.
I think they’re STILL trying to clean up some stuff like that that they spilled around here back during the space race in the early 50’s…
Not positive, but I THINK it was Sneeky Pete who found out the hard way-
that it’s so highly oxygenated that it will burn back up the fuel line like a fuse and make your Moon tank into a car bomb.
I had access to hydrazine in the 50’s when I worked at Boeing.
I can tell you, It REALLY makes a flathead go fast.
(the post-it note is from David Freiburger to Gray Baskerville). Rumored to be a hydrazine related “failure”
From an article called “Great Race: 1969 US Nationals”
During the hey-day of N2H4 fun.
Contributing to the fun of watching what were essentially full-size street car look-alikes snake down the track to low seven-second, 200-mph times was the reliability of the automatic-transmission-equipped Funny Cars. Mixed in with the Top Fuel dragsters’ great times were more destroyed engines, superchargers, and centrifugal clutches — the result of hydrazine in the nitromethane and the fatiguing heat generated by the still new centrifugal-clutch technology — than any previous NHRA national event in memory.
If you can find this issue, there’s a piece in it called “A Look at Hydrazine.”
Can you imagine if they tried printing that today?