The Big Bang Theory, Part 2

In Part 1 of “The Big Bang Theory,” we asked the question: What causes catastrophic nitro engine failures in drag cars? We addressed this question to a few well-known racers and tuners. In Part 2 we speak to Dave Settles.


Terry McMillen lights off his Amalie-backed dragster.

Terry McMillen lights off his Amalie-backed dragster.


Dave Settles, Hall of Fame Driver/Tuner


“Based on the three criteria, there’s some of each involved, but as the bottom line responsible person, I’ll take the credit as a tuner error.


“I’ll give a little background. It was the end of the 1987 season and I was in Waco, Texas, with Billy Meyer’s Chief Auto Parts Funny Car as crew chief. We went to Pomona for the finals and had some new clutch stuff in the car. It worked good and we won the race. What made it extra nice was Billy formally announced that week that he had purchased the IHRA organization. I’ll never forget Billy and [NHRA’s] Dallas Gardner humorously covering each other’s names on the big check in the winner’s circle.


“Winning the last race of the year definitely makes the winter much more palatable. We went through everything and massaged the car front to back; it was a very nice ride going to the Winternationals. Billy had hired Trip Shumate to drive. It presented an interesting precedent of a sanctioning body owner driving a nitro Funny Car. The great winter we had was short lived.


The classic photo of the Magic Muffler Fiat vomiting its internals

The classic photo of the Magic Muffler Fiat vomiting its internals


“We qualified good and went to first round where we ran Jim Head, who had some issues and shut off while Trip kept motoring on. A couple of holes went dead lean very early and were blowing copious amounts of death smoke out the pipes. Trip drove for Johnny Loper from Phoenix for years, who felt that drivers should rarely ever lift. Trip stayed with the run to the finish line. I was spoiled having Billy Meyer as a driver, who had the best feel for a car I’ve ever seen. The car erupted in fire and burned to the ground. This isn’t casting aspersions on Trip. He was a very aggressive driver.


“When we got down to the end, the medics had Trip laying on the ground. I thought I’d hurt him bad (or worse). I went to the hospital where they checked him for gas in his blood. He turned out OK, thankfully.


“In doing an autopsy, bits of a small O-ring were found plugging a couple of nozzles. Evidently an O-ring found its way into the tank or fuel system (probably during fueling). It was a tragic way to lose a race car, and like I said before, I’m the responsible person here. All three of your kaboom criteria are represented here, unfortunately.”



Stay tuned for next time when we talk to another tuner and examine one of the most massive explosions in drag racing history.


Text by Jeff Burk

Photos by Jere Alhadeff, Gary Nastase and Marty Reger


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