Is Radial vs. The World Taking the Lead in Door-Slammer Innovation and Prolific Personalities?
The sport of drag racing has seen it all, from the wild times of the 1960s as the sport found its way in front of a national audience to today’s booming popularity across the world. In its 60-plus-year history, there have been dynamic drivers along with charismatic and flamboyant people coming and going as they pursue glory with incredible hot rods.
The latest racing class that carries on the tradition is Radial vs. The World, and its biggest audience comes from the three events hosted by Duck X Productions: Lights Out, Sweet 16, and No Mercy, all of which are eighth-mile, drag-radial races held at South Georgia Motorsports Park. HOT ROD has covered these events by showcasing the mix of personalities and rowdy race cars that make the class a sensation that is here to stay. Like the nitro-fueled Top Fuel golden era of the 1960s and the explosion of Pro Modified racing in the 1990s, Radial vs. The World is a hard-hitting category on all fronts. It also blurs the line between which genre of door-slammer reigns supreme: Radial vs. The World or Pro Modified.
One might look at some entries in Radial vs. The World (RvW) and assume the cars are just Pro Modified–spec racers wearing the class-required, DOT-legal, drag-radial tires instead of giant slicks. However, the devil is in the details, as always, and as we will demonstrate, RvW cars have much different suspension, drivetrain, and power-adders. First up is pro driver Alex Laughlin, who only recently jumped into the RvW madness with a twin-screw supercharged C6 Corvette. He gave us perspective between the inner workings of his RvW race car relative to an NHRA Pro Modified and NHRA Pro Stock car. Our second interview was with longtime grudge and radial racer Stevie “Fast” Jackson of Killin’ Time Racing, who (at press time) leads the points chase in NHRA Pro Modified with the Bahrain 1 Racing Camaro.
Pro Stock Meets Pro Street
Laughlin is most known for his exploits behind the wheel of the Havoline-sponsored NHRA Pro Stock Camaro—a category more known for its polished, professional appearance with a highly engineered race car. The Texan’s Corvette is more brute force, with its 4,000-plus-horsepower engine stuffed into a C6 model that began life as a real production car and features an Outlaw 10.5–style chassis under the mostly stock body.
The Corvette has had a distinguished career for other owners/drivers before Laughlin grabbed it. For radial racing, he enlisted noted Pro Mod driver and tuner Frankie Taylor to shoehorn the twin-screw supercharged HEMI between the framerails, powering Laughlin to 3.60s and 200-mph performances in the eighth-mile and helping him earn a $50,000 payday by winning the 2019 Lights Out 10 race in March.
The Pro Street–style Corvette might not look like it, but it regularly produces sub-1-second 60-foot times, and Laughlin is perhaps the only driver to manually shift his gearbox; that’s right, as the ridiculously powerful combination shoves him into the seat, Laughlin opts to hit the air-shift pods to change the gears in his Lenco transmission. According to the seasoned driver, it enables him to have more control over the car for situations when the tires break traction or when the traction is too good and the Corvette stands up on the bumper.
The application of power to the Mickey Thompson ET Radial Pro tires (315/60R15) is critical, so the team works with electronic tuning aids, custom torque converters, four-link suspension settings, and special front and rear shocks to achieve the mind-numbing performance, all without wheelie bars, which aren’t allowed in the class.
In addition to competing in Pro Stock and Radial vs. The World, Laughlin added a third car to his stable in 2019: an NHRA Pro Modified Camaro. Those are three completely different vehicles that look very similar to the casual observer, but in reality, the set of slamming doors is about the only thing the cars have in common. We inquired about the driving differences between each, and Laughlin was more than happy to share his experiences.
“It was pretty difficult at first to go between the different cars,” Laughlin says. Each view out of the front windshield is different, with a small cowl hood on the Pro Stocker, a big supercharger in the Corvette, and a flat hood in the Pro Modified Camaro. A pre-race routine check prepares the 30-year-old driver to get familiar with the various switches, levers, and gadgets before pulling into the burnout box.
On track, Laughlin reports each one is a completely different animal that presents its own set of challenges. In the Pro Stock car, it’s all about shifting perfectly and making small steering-wheel inputs to keep the car pointing straight. “That thing is accelerating so quickly that by the time you see the shift light at 10,200 rpm, you have a fraction of a second to get [the shift] right,” he says.
While a Pro Stock car requires being within 50 rpm of the optimum shift point, the RvW Corvette can be several hundred rpm high or low, and it won’t matter, according to Laughlin. There is so much power in a nearly flat curve that it allows him to concentrate on “driving” the car. Of all three door-slammers, the radial tires and exceptional track prep make the Corvette accelerate straight and narrow.
One of the big variables that comes into play are wheelies in the Corvette, as Laughlin has to either blip the throttle or shift early for any attempt at keeping the front-end down. “We were running 3.70s and crushing it last year; now we have to get after it much harder,” he explains. Throwing more power at the car created the wheelie problems, as the front-runners in the class have to be in the 3.60s this year.
This is where the outlaw nature of RvW lets technology creep into the picture; Laughlin said they’ve since added a Davis Technology wheelie control module. The goal isn’t to rely on the digital aid, but to only use it when the situation becomes dire. “Obviously, you want it, but if it starts cutting cylinders or timing, that will pretty much ruin the run anyway.” The primary benefit is that the car doesn’t get torn up from slamming back down to terra firma.
Laughlin’s Pro Modified car is a 2017 Chevy Camaro that is built, tuned, and maintained by Elite Performance, the same group that runs his Pro Stock operation. Laughlin told us that it’s the hardest one to drive, saying, “The moment you leave the starting line, it feels out of control. By the time you get comfortable, it gets out of control again!” The Pro Mod features an auto-shifter, an option that Laughlin feels is required because of all the steering input needed to keep the car going straight toward the finish line.
Laughlin races on the biggest stage in drag racing, but according to a casual glance at his social-media statistics and notoriety in the pits, his exploits in the Corvette seem to garner a lion’s share of fan appeal. Despite the differences among all three cars and classes, Laughlin has shown his skills as a driver are limitless. He’s gone against the titans of each category and proved his mettle every time he slides behind the wheel.
The Same, But Different
Stevie “Fast” Jackson climbed to the upper echelon of door-slammers from the opposite direction as Laughlin. He forged a name for himself in the underground world of grudge racing at local tracks like the House of Hook, Darlington Dragway, and dozens of other local dragstrips throughout the Southeast. Jackson’s charismatic personality and fearless driving style made him a sensation in those ranks. His exploits over the last decade in the RvW class set him up for international fame and blazed a path for Jackson to go from weekend warrior to full-time professional driver/tuner in the door-slammer segment.
As Laughlin competes in RvW with a car that looks more Pro Street, Jackson sits on the other end of the spectrum with an entry that appears to be Pro Modified. Jackson compared his NHRA Pro Mod to his RvW ride by saying, “The chassis on the cars are very similar, but that is where they stop.”
“Shadow 2.0” (shown on these pages) is a Rick Jones Race Cars–built 2015 Chevy Camaro and is one of the most versatile door-slammers ever conceived. With a race shop full of parts, it can be set up to dominate in RvW with either a Roots or twin-screw combo, Outlaw Pro Mod, NHRA Pro Modified (if the need arises), and can also run in big-money, grudge-race trim.
Jackson was quite open about the mechanical differences between the two cars, and as he described it, “Anything you want to do to the NHRA car to make it faster is illegal. The radial rules are very wide open, run whatcha brung, and they allow any power-adders.”
Both cars feature Brad Anderson Enterprises billet blocks and carry the same 521ci displacement. The HEMI heads are restricted in NHRA competition, while RvW doesn’t have limits on valve sizes. The compression ratios, camshafts, and superchargers don’t crossover either. Despite the engine differences, Jackson reports the fuel systems and electronics are the same between the cars.
Jackson will choose the Roots and twin-screw supercharger combination for Shadow 2.0, depending on rules and other factors. “I start to look at the weather about a month before the race, decide between the Roots or twin-screw, and determine the number of gears in the transmission and the ratios,” Jackson says. NHRA requires a 14-71 supercharger that features no more than 16.5 percent overdrive, while there are barely any rules outside of SFI specs and basic size of the supercharger in RvW.
The latest trend with supercharged cars on the outlaw scene has been increasing the number of forward gears to keep the engine accelerating. Jackson refers back to the engine combination and potential weather conditions to determine transmission selection. A Lenco or Liberty for Shadow 2.0 can be set up with three-, four-, or five-speeds. A lock-up torque converter from Neal Chance Racing Converters is mated to either of those transmissions using a Ty-drive converter drive unit. The NHRA-legal Camaro is required to run a three-speed with a non–lock-up torque converter; Jackson utilizes a Ty-drive/Lenco and Neal Chance Racing Converter combination in that car, too.
Pro Mod cars use wheel speed and rear squat for weight transfer to accelerate off the starting line. Radial racers, however, rely on rear-suspension separation to shove the rear tires into the pavement, requiring special shocks to control those actions as the car drives off the heavily prepared (read: sticky) starting line. According to Jackson, Shadow 2.0 uses shocks and struts that feature special valving and coilover springs, the engine location varies from Pro Mod trim, the four-link is radically different, and the rear-end housings aren’t the same—to name a few critical areas that don’t match up between a Pro Modified and RvW front-runner.
“You have to be prepared for anything to happen in the radial car: smoking the tires, standing it up, and it can go up, down, left, right, and anything but straight. It pulls 4 g’s at the 60-foot mark, and with no wheelie bars to save you, it can get exciting in a hurry,” Jackson says with a smirk on his face. He says the NHRA car is easier to drive early in the run but requires finesse on the top end because of the quarter-mile distance and 250-plus-mph speeds.
With more than $200,000 up for grabs for the winners at the three Duck X Production races, the intensity and pressure is enormous when wrestling these unpredictable cars down the track. There isn’t next weekend’s event to make up points or a strict set of rules to tell a racer what they can and can’t do, adding a variable of ingenuity to go along with the cowboy-style driving skills needed in RvW. The result has been a new generation of professional drivers and weekend warriors putting their own spin on how to get from the starting line to the finish line as quickly as possible on a 12-inch-wide DOT tire while the world watches.
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