NITRO! Brian Lohnes Talks About Episode 5 of ‘Put Up or Shut Up’

The newest episode of “Put Up Or Shut Up” has arrived on MotorTrendOnDemand and this fifth episode pits a pair of nitro-burning nostalgia drag cars against each other: Jason Ruppert’s ’69 Camaro Funny Car and Pete Wittenberg’s slingshot-style Top Fuel dragster. Don’t know what any of that means? That’s OK, we rang up “Put Up Or Shut Up” host Brian Lohnes—who hand-picked the cars for this episode—for more on the cars, their drivers, the historical context, and maybe a sneak peek at what’s coming up on future episodes the show.

What specifically was it about this pair of nostalgia drag cars—a nitro Camaro funny car and an old slingshot Top Fuel dragster—that got you excited to pit them against each other?

The two styles of cars are different-looking, but they run pretty similar elapsed times. It’s kind of the two iconic, old-school styles of racing colliding.

Isn’t it still the case today that Top Fuel and Funny Car still run similar elapsed times?

In the modern world, Top Fuel dragsters are significantly quicker elapsed time-wise, but the Funny Cars are actually faster speed-wise. This weekend at Pomona is the last chance for a while that we’re going to have for someone to run 340 miles per hour in a Funny Car. They changed the rules for next year and the headers are going to have to be more straight-up next year, so they lose some of the thrust from the headers, which is insane. Eight hundred pounds per pipe is what the figure they get out of those things. [Editor’s Note: Open this link in a new tab and then read about modern Funny Car headers after you watch Put Up or Shut Up. It’s amazing.]

Speed-wise and e.t.-wise, especially on the nostalgia side, the Funny Car and Top Fuel are grouped pretty closely together.

This is Roadkill and maybe people aren’t super-familiar with the vocabulary here, so let’s talk some of the basics for this show. Let’s start with nitro. What are you referring to when you say “nitro?”

The basic premise of nitromethane fuel is that it has lots of oxygen in it. Unlike gasoline, the more nitro you shove into the engine, as long as you can ignite it, you’re going to make exponential amounts of horsepower. It’s basically a liquid supercharger. If you tried to run an engine on gasoline like you do on nitro, you would hydraulically lock the engine. You physically could not ignite the volume of gasoline. It would just flood and drown.

But the nitro, because it has so much oxygen in it, it makes the huge amounts of power. The scientific name is called a “straight-chain hydrocarbon,” which means it has oxygen molecules in it. When you release those oxygen molecules [by burning it], that’s where the power comes from.

Science is pretty badass like that.

Yes! Science!

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OK, next: What is a Funny Car?

A Funny Car is a tube chassis with the motor in the front. The driver sits behind the engine. Over the top of that tubular chassis goes a fiberglass body—in modern cars, it’s carbon fiber. Modern Funny Cars are kind of round, bulbous things with no real connection to any sort of real automobile.

But nostalgia Funny Cars have a very distinct appearance. Jason Rupert’s Funny Car looks like a ‘69 Camaro. It doesn’t look like a factory Camaro, but if you look at it, you go “Yes, that is a ‘69 Camaro.” The nostalgia cars keep that kind of old-school Funny Car spirit alive. You look at the car and you identify with it.

Why did they call it a Funny Car? Was that because of the strange proportions?

The name is kind of draped in a little bit of mystery of who coined it, but back in the mid-’60s, this whole started when Chrysler manufactured race cars with the axles shifted ahead in the body so they looked weird. So the term “Funny Car” was probably coined sometimes in the ‘66 to ‘67 time frame. The fiberglass flip-top bodies showed up first with Mercury and then they kind of evolved from there.

When we talk about Top Fuel, is that just to referring to nitromethane or the concentration of it?

Top Fuel Eliminator…it’s really the oldest class name in the sport. Starting in the earliest days of the sport, there was Top Eliminator, which was just the fastest cars on the property. And then you moved into Top Fuel and Top Gas. Top Fuel was the stuff that burned alcohol and nitro; Top Gas was anything that burned gasoline. Top Gas went away basically in the ‘70s and you were left with Top Fuel. The name is a consequence of the fact that nitro is involved, not necessarily the concentration but just that the cars burn nitro.

In the early days of Top Eliminator, it didn’t have to be a dragster. In fact, when it started, no one really knew what a dragster was. Dragsters kind of evolved out of this primordial ooze of all these weird-looking things. Up until 1972, the kind of car that Pete Wittenberg drives was it. That was the highest-technology, most forward-thinking way to get down the racetrack.

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So the front-engined dragster was “the jam” until the early ‘70s? Mid-’70s?

Yeah. Basically, it was [Don] Garlits showing up with the rear-engined car in 1971. And then by 1972, the vast majority had gone rear-engined. The switch was like a light-switch; it was very drastic and very quick.

The slingshot dragster…Mickey Thompson is credited with inventing the slingshot dragster. The term “slingshot” derives from the fact that the driver is actually sitting behind the rear axle with legs draped over. So it’s basically like a BB in a slingshot: You just haul it back and let it go. The thought process was that getting weight over the rear axle was going to help traction.

So basically, what you’re recreating on “Put Up Or Shut Up” is like 1970 or 1971?

Yeah, let’s call it ‘69 or ‘70. In reality, other than match races and one-off things, nobody raced dragsters and Funny Cars against each other. I mean, the NHRA had a class called Pro Comp through the 1970s that had alcohol cars—Funny Cars and dragsters—racing against each other. With nitro-burning stuff, we’re not inventing anything new here, but it’s not a very common thing.

In terms of the drivers, Jason Rupert is multi-generational. His dad, Frank Rupert, was a badass for many, many years in Top Fuel. He won a bunch of stuff and is a very prominent West Coast guy. Jason is a great racer; he was a successful Alcohol Funny Car racer and then he got into the nostalgia stuff. Whether you’re looking at prize money or race wins, he is the winningest nostalgia Nitro Funny Car driver at this point.

Pete Wittenberg had been a crew member of the Circuit Breaker car that he now drives for 15 years. He just started driving it this year and at the March Meet, which coming out of obscurity was a big deal. The March Meet is the largest nostalgia drag race in the world.

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Do you know Jason and Pete personally or were they people who were referred?

OK, so the funny backstory…This episode you’re going to watch, while it’s the fifth episode in sequence, it’s actually the second episode we shot during the first shoot we ever had. I called Rupert up because I knew he would show up no matter what. He’s a hardcore racer and when I was trying to figure out what to do, I was considering racing his car against a modern Alcohol Funny Car.

Through the course of time, I got to thinking, “It would be better to have a dragster over there.” I called some folks. Some were not prepared and some were prepared but couldn’t get a crew. I called Pete up and he said, “Let’s do it” and he did what it took to get there. The episode turned out neat. It’s kind of raw since it’s the first one we ever made and you get more polished as you go on, but it was a lot of fun.

What kind of e.t’s would you see, generally, out of these cars?

In terms of capability, these are both mid-5-second, 250-to-270 mph cars.

In the ‘60s, that seems insane. Was safety a concern for the show with old cars like this?

Yeah, it always is. If you’re going to shoot an episode like this, you have to be at a racetrack that’s capable of responding to the specific needs of cars like this. That’s why we were at Tucson [Dragway]. They have a full safety crew with trained people who know how to respond if something were to happen with a car like this.

If you go to a track that doesn’t have the right safety equipment and you have to call the local 911 to get someone to extract a driver, you have a big problem. With stuff like this that goes really fast, we’re very particular about where we’re going to do it.

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Do you have a data setup for this episode?

Absolutely. We have the same VBOX data that we’ve been gathering for the other shows. So you’re gonna get acceleration rates and G-force and all that kind of good stuff.

That tingles my nerd senses.

Even better, you’re gonna be excited because the next episode we’re going to shoot will be on a road course, finally. This is going to be a hardcore Pro Touring ‘66 Mustang against a Porsche 911 Turbo S at Willow Springs with Randy Pobst driving the Porsche.

Beyond that, do you have any episode tips on what’s coming up?

We’re shooting at Willow Springs the cool Pro Touring/Porsche thing. We actually have the dirt track at Paris Speedway booked, but we’re going to run cars on it that have never run on a dirt track before. We’re actually going to put [REDACTED FOR SUSPENSE] racing on a dirt oval.

Oh, that’s brilliant!

It seems like a pretty good idea, actually. And we’re going to do some more drag-strip stuff, but we really want people to understand this isn’t just a drag-racing show.

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Head over to MotorTrendOnDemand to watch Episode 5 of Put Up Or Shut Up right now. While you’re there, check out the first four episodes and then check out the off-roading AMC Hornet episode of Roadkill while you’re on the page.

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