The first round of the 1999 Swedish Top Fuel Tour took place at The Midnight Sun Internationals at Pite Dragway, near Piteå in the north of Sweden, on 9th-11th July 1999. I was privileged to spend the weekend at the races with Top Fuel Dragster driver Peter Lantz and his crew.THURSDAY
Peter's fueller was already unloaded and set up when I arrived at the track with Crew Chief Morgan Svensson. Discernible beneath the "Sharkfin" injector and supercharger was a shiny new TFX block. Crew member Johann Gustafsson later joked that his girlfriend Linda Bodén, also on the team, was jealous of the new block because he had fallen in love with it. There was also a huge, Funny Car-style fuel tank immediately in front of the cockpit. "We're experimenting with the balance", explained Peter.
All four of the Fuellers at this race - those of Peter Lantz, Monica Öberg, Pelle Lindelöw and Kent Persson - were sporting Lantz injectors. In addition Pelle's car had clutch parts set up by Morgan Svensson. Kent's ex-Jens Nybo car was sporting a great new paintjob, black on the sides with flames along the top, and Pelle's car had been repainted into dayglo orange and silver. "If you have no sponsor then you still want to give the fans something new to look at", he said.
Pelle Lindelöw was concerned about the Top Fuel Tour being misunderstood. "We have the money to do this tour but not the FIA tour", he said. "People may think it's a protest, but it's not - it's purely a budget thing. We came very close to quitting and selling the car in December".
Monica Öberg was upbeat about the Tour. "We've got four of the foremost runners in Europe here", she said. "It's our first race of the year and we're ready". She said that Top Fuel be can very hard on the emotions: "Sometimes you're up, sometimes you're down. I hope we are up!".
Kent Persson was back in the seat of a Top Fueller after a year's break, driving the car for its new Danish and Swedish owners. "My Crew Chief has worked in both Fuel and Alcohol before", he said. "A lot of the crew worked with me in the seventies and eighties. We have lots of experience here, we can go straight from the trailer and run a full pass. It's a very good track, I think we can beat the track record".
The quality of the track was a common theme when I spoke to the racers. The ex-military runway is reputed to be one of the smoothest tracks anywhere. Peter Lantz' comments were typical: "This track has the best air in Europe, maybe even the world. Even on very hot days there is a lot of air because of the situation of the track. There are forests all around, all you have to do is take a deep breath and you can tell the air is different". Crew member Manne Mäkinen agreed. "We are close to the sea here so we are almost at sea level".
The facility itself was what I would describe as semi-permanent: the strip was marked out, but the guardrail was only on one side, made up of interlocking concrete blocks which looked removable, and it only extended to about 330 feet where the grandstand on that side ended. Other than that there was a wide expanse of grass at either side of the track, and then the famous forest. The control tower and press centre, and the grandstands, looked permanent fixtures but I was told during the course of the weekend that they would be easily removable should the Swedish Air Force need to use the airfield again in an emergency.
A welcome visitor to the track was Jens Nybo, helping out Kent Persson's crew. I told him that he was already missed by his legions of fans, and asked if he would ever return. "I miss it already, but I might be back in two or three years" he said.
Back at the holiday cottage which most of the crew were sharing, Morgan demonstrated on his laptop a complex spreadsheet which allowed him to compare settings from previous runs and try out combinations. Later, Peter joked that the spreadsheet didn't actually do anything, that they just wanted me to believe that they knew what they were doing.
I couldn't - and never really did over the whole weekend - get over the fact that it didn't get dark at night; going to bed in daylight brought back childhood memories of being sent to bed early for being naughty. It was most disconcerting waking up in the small hours, seeing daylight outside, and then realising it was only two o'clock.FRIDAY
Peter Lantz was the only driver to take advantage of a Test and Tune on Friday afternoon. He was mistakenly given a sportsman tree but recorded 6.87 at 187 kilometres per hour on a 330-foot pass. "It felt good," said Peter, "but I had problems selecting reverse after the burnout so the clutch is not quite right".
Crew Chief Morgan Svensson was satisfied with the baseline pass. "It left good, it felt nice, and it must have been difficult for Peter to get off the throttle! Everything is in one piece. We're pleased". After the engine was torn down and checked, Peter declared himself happy. "Everything looks good", he said.
In the middle of the engine teardown, everything stopped for dinner. Crew member Linda Bodén produced the first of a succession of mouthwatering dishes which were consumed with gusto by the crew and their weekend sidekick. The transition from hard work on the engine to communal dinner and then back to working on the engine was very smooth and demonstrated just how close-knit and well-rehearsed Peter and the crew had become.
Pelle Lindelöw brought the crowd flocking round his pit with a warm-up on Friday evening. At the first attempt the engine fired very briefly and a huge yellow cloud and small flame shot out of the right bank of headers, causing the crowd and some of the crew to step back. On the second attempt the engine wouldn't fire, and it was hand-cranked to avoid a hydraulic detonation.
The engine fired on the third attempt, running very smoothly on methanol whilst the crew fussed around it. Then one fuel pump was switched on and the car appeared to jump up on its jacks as the nitro kicked in. The body panels shook, the engine clattered and crackled, and almost to a man the crowd retreated as the stinging fumes took effect.
One of the spectators was Monica Öberg, who had decided to sit out the Test and Tune. "We've got to make three runs tomorrow", she explained. "The lack of money is one problem. The car is ready, we are just saving it. Drag racing is idiotic if you think about it - the amount of money you spend, and the breakages!". "But you love it, don't you?" I asked. "Sometimes I don't!" she replied. Monica also seemed concerned about the future. "Look at everyone in Top Fuel", she said, "we're all quite old (her words, not mine - Tog), there are no young people coming along. What happens when we quit?".SATURDAY
Crew member Vidar Engh explained why the engine is partly stripped again after a warm-up. "I check the valves", he said, "because when the engine is warm the clearances are different. I also take the chance to re-check all the bolts; you have to check, check, and check again in a high-pressure situation".
Monica Öberg went first in the lunchtime qualifying session, after a very long wait since just after she was strapped in an errant sportsman racer paid a close visit to the timing equipment. She stayed in the car whilst the other Top Fuel drivers got out and stretched their legs. When her turn came a clean and solid 6.29/229 kmh half pass was the result, the car sounding very aggressive.
"How did it look?" Monica asked when I spoke to her after the run. I assured her that it looked great and sounded even better, and asked if the long wait bothered her. "No, it doesn't bother me", she said. "You just have to loosen your straps because pressure points build up on your shoulders and backside, but I'm not bothered by the actual wait". Of the run itself she said "I think my foot might have slipped off the throttle - the computer will confirm it".
Peter Lantz went next, pulling a huge, almost 45-degree wheelstand beyond the 330-foot marker before letting the car down as gently as you please and putting his foot back in, and still recording a 5.52/428 kmh. "I've never seen a car put down so gently", I told Peter afterwards, "I was convinced the front end was going to collapse coming down from that height". "I was on the brake and feathered the throttle", he replied, "I've often thought about what I would do if the car went up that far". Peter also had to deal with a puncture in one of the front wheels as the car went through the Top End. The crew went into action repairing the puncture and putting more weight on the front axle, in addition to the usual turn-round tasks. "The engine is OK, like new" said Peter. "We're just changing the bearings which is routine".
After Peter's run, a track official came over and spoke to the other trackside photographers, who all moved back towards the start-line. I didn't understand a word but suddenly felt very alone at my usual thirty-yard vantage point, so I went and asked one of the photographers whom I knew spoke English what the official had said. "He said we are to move back to no further than ten metres", he said, "he asked what we would do if a car landed on our heads".
Pelle Lindelöw had an eventful first qualifier. The engine was very reluctant to start, and then the reverser would not disengage after the burnout. The crew frantically rocked the car back and forth and eventually the reverser disengaged. Pelle went straight into stage, then the car rolled forward through the guard beam and Pelle hammered the throttle. No time was recorded since the car slipped forward before the Tree ran.
"The clutch was sliding too much", said Pelle. "I burnt out the clutch pack. But a lot of the readings on the computer look OK so in some ways it's working". Of his problems with the reverser he said "The engine was idling too high so I needed some help". He didn't expect to make the afternoon session, but he still had several hours before the nine o'clock evening qualifier.
Kent Persson's car went up in smoke at 60 feet. He stayed in it to about 250 feet and then gave up. Later I spoke to the car's co-owner Peter Christiansen of Denmark. "I've always been involved, but I had the opportunity to become a partner in the car this year", he said. "My partner is Swedish and he has worked with Kent in the past, so he invited Kent to drive. The car isn't up to date but it can run consistent times. It's not easy putting a new driver in the car and it can be expensive to teach them!". I asked how the team had got on trying to attract sponsorship. "Well, Sunoco Sweden buy our fuel, and Andy's Speed Shop bought us some slicks. It's difficult to get sponsorship in Denmark because the cars don't run there. I think maybe the sponsors in Sweden are fed up with all the offers they receive. We're running this year then we will see where we are - if we can get sponsors then we will carry on".
During the turn-round a small child came over and shyly asked Peter Lantz for his autograph. Peter had a long chat with the kid, then autographed his programme and gave him badges for himself and his brother. Whilst Manne Mäkinen polished the car, I joked with Peter about decorating the underside of the front wings in case he pulled any more spectacular wheelstands. "Maybe you could write Tog says Hello", said Peter, "I'll hold you up if you can't reach".
The warm-up went well, plenty of nitro fumes then Peter blipped the throttle. I and just about everyone else standing around leapt about ten feet in the air. Fuel suddenly sprayed from a line but the joint was quickly sealed.
Linda Bodén had told me on Friday night how surprised she was at the power of Peter's car when she was standing trackside taking photographs; the launch had made her jump. I offered her some advice on watching the car edge into stage through the viewfinder, so that you knew that it would be launching any second; today I had to admit to her that Monica Öberg's aggressive-sounding launch at lunchtime had made me jump a mile. Everyone found this highly amusing.
Kent Persson went first in the second qualifying session. Again the car went up in smoke, but Kent just would not get off the throttle until the blower belt broke, and he recorded a 7.65/177 kmh. "It's a problem with the clutch", said Kent. "We have no baseline as it's the first race for the new owners. We're going to make some changes and then I'm looking forward to a full pass". "You just didn't want to get off it, did you?" I asked. "Well, when the car went sideways I thought, it's only a qualifying run, take your foot off. But we have to make a good qualifying run - it's our last chance tonight" Kent replied.
I asked Kent how it felt to be back in a Top Fueller. "I love the sport, I always did", he replied. "The crew now are guys who worked for me in the seventies and eighties, we're just a bunch of old guys! We're here to have a good time, not to set any records. We're looking for 5.0s, if we run a four that will be a bonus. We've got this chassis and a spare, a spare motor, and lots of parts. It's looking good!".
Peter Lantz went next, recording 5.17/434 kmh, a very clean run but Peter wasn't happy even though it was the second quickest run of his career. "The sixty foot time was 0.88 seconds, but the car was slow in the second half and nosed over at the Top End", he said. "I'm not sure if it's the clutch or fuel". Morgan Svensson had reason for optimism. "The car ran 370 kmh at half-track, its fastest ever, and up to that point the times were quicker than the four-second run (at Hockenheim in 1997, with Kent Persson driving - Tog)".
Monica Öberg ran 5.32/445 kmh but she sat in stage staring at the green light for what seemed an eternity. "It was a terrible launch, I was not concentrating" said Monica, visibly annoyed. "It's a hot day and maybe I was dehydrated. But I'm disappointed at myself. I think the car is OK, some valves have gone but it's nothing we can't repair".
During the warm-up before the third round of qualifying, the nitro flames from Kent Persson's engine set light to a canopy overhanging the pit. The fire was quickly extinguished although the car was left covered in powder and the crew had a thrash to clean it all off the engine in time for the qualifying session.
A short shower held up the final qualifying session, which was scheduled for 9:00. Pelle Lindelöw did not show, but he had been given special dispensation to put in a run on Sunday morning.
Peter Lantz set a new track record for ET with a 5.10/435 kmh in this session. The half-track speed went up still further to 378 kmh, and the run might have been even quicker but for an evil twitch at the top end. "The second half of the track was very slippery" said Peter. "We're very pleased with this set-up", said Morgan Svensson, "when we take the engine apart after a run it's like new". "All we've had to change in over one hundred and fifty runs now are the bearings" added Peter.
Kent Persson went next with a sixty-foot squirt, recording 9.47/111 kmh, and a clean launch proving that the team were getting a handle on the clutch. But things went disastrously wrong in the return road when a brake failure led to a collision with the tow truck, wrecking the front axle of the dragster. For a while it looked as if Kent was out of competition for the weekend, but the crew went to work on building a new front end with parts loaned by Peter Lantz.
Monica Öberg wrapped up the evening qualifying session with a 6.37/231 kmh, going up in smoke at 330 feet and finally getting off it at half track.SUNDAY
Pelle Lindelöw ended up in an impossible situation over qualifying. "The clutch and reverser are OK now", he said, "the Lantz injector makes setting up very different because the idle is higher. We are ready to run right now but the schedule doesn't allow it - we would have one hour to turn round". By dint of the fact that he had staged on his Saturday attempt, Pelle was placed in the field at number four qualifier and faced Peter Lantz in round one. "That will be a challenge!" he said.
Peter Lantz' warm up on Sunday morning went well, a long run on methanol followed by a brief stint on nitro. When the engine stopped, Morgan Svensson turned to me and just said "Yep". The bottle of petrol used to prime the engine ran low, so Manne Mäkinen went to refill it. "We have to check the weather station to decide whether to put in leaded or unleaded" joked Peter.
In the first race of round one, Monica Öberg faced Kent Persson, whose crew had been up into the small hours repairing the front end. Monica blasted down the track to a 5.14/448 kmh, leaving Kent far behind as his tyres went up in smoke off the line. Kent was on and off the throttle a few times before giving up, recording 8.02/206 kmh.
Next up were Peter Lantz and Pelle Lindelöw. Pelle blipped the throttle and then left before the lights ran; Peter kept his nerve and stayed until the green, running 5.15/437 kmh. Raw fuel appeared from the headers towards the Top End. "We're still slowing down at the Top End", said Peter, "and a fuel line came loose on the run. We're getting no answers from our combination. I'm not sure about what we did with the ignition".
I asked Peter if Pelle's start-line indiscretion had affected him. "Pelle is a good guy, he doesn't play games", said Peter. "He was on a good run - but he screwed up my concentration when he left!".
When Peter's car arrived back in the pits, the team leapt into action around the engine. You would have thought they were on an NHRA ninety-minute turn-round. Everyone moved smoothly round everyone else, everyone had his job to do and did it without getting in the way of his colleagues. This was obviously a well-organised unit. Again everything stopped for lunch, another of Linda Bodén's mouth-watering meals and this time, bless her, she had made mince which tasted like my late mother had cooked it.
After lunch the crew checked the cylinder heads and noticed scarring in one chamber indicating that a valve had been loose. "We were lucky", said Peter. Not as lucky as Pelle Lindelöw, who had put on display in his pit a badly damaged piston attached to half a rod, but the damage was not enough to prevent Pelle appearing for the third and fourth place run-off.
During the turn-round I noticed that the race organisers had posted the special awards. Peter Lantz had won the prize for Most Spectacular Wheelie for his effort on Saturday. He was up against some impressive competition including a Super Comp racer who on Friday had gone to the 330-foot marker on his rear bumper before swiping the guardrail where it ended and taking a trip into the grass on the right hand side of the track. Håkan Nilsson won the Long Distance prize, his journey half the distance of mine - the difference being that he had remembered to bring a race car with him.
Pelle Lindelöw won the third and fourth place run-off with a 5.42/416 kmh, Kent Persson up in smoke again at 100 feet and recording 7.12/208 kmh.
The final was very close indeed. Peter Lantz got a very slight advantage away from the start line, and he needed every thousandth of that advantage as Monica Öberg was visibly reeling him in at the Top End. Peter just hung on for the victory as both cars stopped the clocks at 5.18 seconds, Peter at 439 kmh to Monica's 445 kmh. The margin of victory was 0.004 seconds, or about the length of the spill plate on a front spoiler.
Morgan Svensson was jubilant. "That must have been the closest ever Top Fuel race in Europe!" he said. "I only saw Monica at the finish line", added Peter.
Monica Öberg was very happy. "This was the final that was the most fun to lose!", she said. "I had a little wheelspin at two hundred metres. But I have no hard feelings, I'm not sad at all. I'll get Peter back at the next race, he can't be too sure about winning the whole tour! It's the first event of the year, the car is in one piece, we're all very pleased with the weekend. The Top Fuel Tour has proven a success".
"It's all gone right for you this weekend, hasn't it?" I asked Peter. "We haven't hurt anything on the car, and the whole team has been just excellent", he replied. "The new guy Johann is as good as any Fuel mechanic we've had in years, and you know about Linda's food! Nobody on the team made any mistakes; we don't mind mistakes as long as we learn from them, but nobody made any. The other drivers are happy, too - we have an excellent relationship with the promoter, we've worked together so that everything goes as well as possible".
"So what's next?", I asked. "We have a new MSD ignition system which will take a while to get used to", replied Peter. "The first two hundred metres of any run we make is better than our four-second run, so we just have to figure out the second half. It won't take too long to get the car ready for the next race, so I hope to have some time with my family now".
I am deeply indebted to Peter Lantz for inviting me to spend the weekend with his team, and then when I got there steadfastly refusing to allow me to open my wallet most of the time (I assure you I'll get you back for that, Peter).
To Peter's crew - Crew Chief Morgan Svensson who drove me to the track and put up with a lot of dumb questions during the weekend, Christian Merlid, Vidar Engh who let me use his mobile phone to call Eurodragster headquarters, Manne Mäkinen, Magnus Olsson, Johann Gustafsson, Linda Bodén and Arild Bergsland: thank you for making me feel so welcome over the weekend - even when all I did most of the time was sit there watching you working hard and then eat your food. I am particularly indebted to Linda for taking a long-way-from-home Englishman under her wing generally, helping out when my Swedish wasn't up to the occasion, and holding me approximately upright after the post-race banquet. And of course to Johann for not having a problem with it.
I am also particularly grateful to Hans and Carina of SHRA Luleå for arranging my Media access, talking to me in perfect English, and giving me freebies, and to everyone at SHRA and Pite Dragway for their unending help. And a big thank you to all of the drivers and crew who happily gave their time for interviews and photographs.
I'll be back...Pictures from Piteå now available on Tog's Drag Racing Page