‘Lava Machine’ appropriate name for Gustin’s dragster

By Jim McLaurin
Sports writer

Somehow “Lava Machine” is an altogether appropriate name.

When Roger Gustin kicks in the afterburner of Pratt & Whitney J-60 inside his jet funny car dragster and powers it down a quarter-mile dragstrip at better than 250 miles per hour, the earth-shaking fire and smoke show puts one immediately in the mind of, say, Mount. St. Helens.

For Gustin, it’s the only way to fly.

“The difference between a jet race car and any piston-driven dragster,” the 46-year-old driver said yesterday, “is the acceleration.”

And that’s what he likes.

“When you take off from the starting line in a piston-driven car, no matter whether it’s a nitromethane Top Fuel dragster or a stock Chevrolet, the car accelerates really hard, then reaches a peak and you shift gears.

“With the jet car, when you light the afterburner at the starting line, you feel four to five G’s instantly. And it never stops until you shut it off. From the eight-mile mark on, it feels like it’s going to pull your head right off your shoulders.”

Gustin, in town for a little match racing as part of the Dixie Finals show tonight at the Blaney Drag Strip, should know. He’s not the first guy to ever drive a car powered by a jet engine, but he’s not far off.

“There were some jet cars built back in the early ’60s,” he said, “but there were no rules, no safety standards. They were immediately banned by the National Hot Rod Association, and when that happened, the few that were around were forced to race on substandard tracks and things like that. Plus, there were just not many people knowledgeable enough to build a safe jet car.”

When Gustin, who had been drag racing since the ’50s, decided to make the move from Top Fuel cars to the jet set, it was an upbill battle.

“When I got into jet cars in 1972, my ultimate goal was to get the NHRA to accept these cars so we could race at their tracks. It was almost a one-man crusade. It took a lot of convincing. I actually worked on them for 17 months, convincing them that if they’d build a set of safety standards, we’d build a car that we felt would be what they expected.

“They agreed wholeheartedly that the jets would make tremendous show cars and would draw a lot of people to the racetracks, but they weren’t in a position that they wanted to take the risks. They already had the fuel dragsters and funny cars, along with all the other sportsman classes, so they felt like they didn’t really need to take a chance with their reputation with a breed of cars that had the worst safety record in the history of motorsports.”

So Gustin went out and built one with enough safety equipment aboard to satisfy anybody. “What we did was take the fuel dragster specification and build a jet-powered car 50 percent stronger than their specs. It didn’t make a superfast race car because it was so heavy, but in 1974 we got the first one approved. Back then, there were only about six in the country. Now there are 60.”

And, with improved design techniques and lighter materials, he improved on the basic concept so that what was once an exhibition show car would run comparable times to the Top Fuel piston cars.

They are still exhibition cars as far as racing for a “points championship” but now they race against each other as competitively as anybody else. And they do it safely.

“I did have a wheel snap off on one bad accident,” he said. “But that really says a lot for the NHRA and International HRA rules that we have to abide by now. The car flipped 40 feet into the air, slid upside down for about a quarter-mile on the roll cage, went off the track and into some trees.

“Ten days later I was back racing again. I hate to think what would have happened if I had done that in one of those old cars that didn’t have to go by any rules.”

Tonight Gustin is scheduled to run a trip of match races against one of his oldest friends (and one of the few women drivers in the sport), Aggi Hendriks. And, though the two are paid a only flat fee for showing up, the friendship ceases at the starting line.

“I don’t know of a race I’ve ever been to that I didn’t go to win,” Gustin said. “When it comes to running a race, whether it’s a two-car match race or one of our six or eight-car shows, the competition is just as fierce in the jets as it is anywhere. A lot of people are misled by the appearance fee’ thing. What really determines your appearance fee and how many appearances you get booked for is determined in large part by how many races you win.

“Sports is supported by spectators, and nobody’s gonna back a loser for long.”

For a guy who’s made a pretty fair living at it for 30-odd years, that’s one thing he won’t have to fret about.

September 14, 1985  Columbia Record (published as THE COLUMBIA RECORD) 
 Columbia, South Carolina
Page 16

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