Fruitland Park Dragster a World Class Competitor

dragster2small’s Nostalgia Top Fuel dragster is the only 350 Chevy Small Block rail on the NHRA circuit today.

As a measure of human prowess, American-style drag racing is an evolutionary leap. Speed, strength, endurance and agility are primitive skills that power most sports today, but drag racing taxes the higher faculty expressed in Newton’s Second Law of Motion: acceleration is everything.

For Bob Bradley, a 55-year Fruitland Park electrical contractor, acceleration is a lifelong passion.

“The mechanics, the engineering, the chemistry, the design process, they still fascinate me,” Bradley said. “From the start I wanted to learn everything.”


Crew member Bill Carpenter, left and builder Bob Bradley make adjustments after the Bowling Green race.

A rare 15-minute home movie filmed around 1957 in Sanford, Maine chronicles some of the nation’s earliest drag racers: young men in chinos, plaid shirts and penny loafers, with crew-cut hair and shy smiles, the nerds of their day with wrenches and gauges instead of slide rules and pocket protectors.

Click here to view the video at

The drag strip, an airport runway, was never named. But on Saturdays and Sundays, from 1952 until about 1966, a generation of drag racing pioneers from Maine to Florida called it Camelot.

Rookie driver Don Garlits unveiled his Swamp Rat II at Sanford in 1959. Bradley got his start there in 1962, just as the cast-iron, small block V-8 Chevy motor made its appearance.

“In four or five five years the small block Chevy kind of took over the sport,” Bradley said. “It brought on a new generation of drag racing.” The motor’s enviable weight-to-power ratio multiplied when engineers began experimenting with different fuel mixes.

“I’ve raced everything from modified production to drag bikes, but the top fuel dragsters have always intrigued me,” Bradley explained.

He logged three years with the Boucher Top Fuel team, touring from Maine to Florida in National and Match races. Thirteen years ago, he bought his own car and built the motor from scratch. He started with a 350-cubic inch Chevy small block.

Today, Bradley’s dragster boasts the only Chevy small-block 350 on the Top Fuel circuit. The big Chrysler Hemis win the races today, Bradley says, but the crowds still pull for Nitrocentral’s “Mouse that Roared.”

In June, Bradley raced the NHRA National Hot Rod Reunion at Beech Bend Raceway Park in Bowling Green, Kentucky. His eight-man volunteer crew flew in from Florida, Pennsylvania and California. The grandstands were filled to capacity.

Bill Carpenter, the newest NitroCentral team member, is Bob’s next-door neighbor. He fell in with Bradley three years ago. As the team’s service technician, he gets most of the grunt work. He gets yelled at a lot.

“On race day, all eight of us work like a clock,” Carpenter said. “Everything is timed to the second. Everything is precise. They’ve all been with Bob for six or eight years, I’m the rookie.”

At 2,000 horsepower, NitroCentral’s power plant can hurl its slim, 14-foot tubular steel rail down a quarter-mile track at 220 miles per hour. The ride takes about 5 seconds.

Fueled by nitromethane, a noxious cleaning solvent manufactured in China and blended with 10 percent pure alcohol, Nitrocentral is a money burner. Bradley had to get Homeland Security clearance to handle the fuel and it costs $25 per gallon.

NitroCentral soaks up eight gallons on a single quarter-mile run.

At Bowling Green, top-ranked NHRA driver Jerry Kumre steered Bradley’s NitroCentral in three qualifying runs and three more race heats. Forty-eight gallons, $300.

After each heat, Carpenter pulls the “diaper,” a flame-retardant shield to keep oil off the track. The crew empties eight quarts of Brad Penn “Nitro” 70-weight motor oil—$5 a quart—changes the oil filter and pumps another eight quarts of preheated lubricant into the engine.

And after each race, the motor is completely rebuilt.

“It’s a brand new motor every time we run it,” Carpenter said.

Thankfully, NitroCentral’s crew members are all volunteers—aficionados like Bradley and Carpenter. Still, a major race can set the team back as much as $10,000, about equal to the headliner’s purse at many tracks.

“This is a sport for wealthy people, professionals with big brand sponsors, or poor addicts like us,” Bradley said.

It’s something of an American story, too.

“Drag racing has always been kind of democratic,” Bradley said. “All the other car events require investments that range from hundreds of thousands of dollars into the millions,” he said. “Just qualifying for NASCAR spot would cost more than my house,” he said.

But drag racing has a long and cherished history as an “off the grid” sport. The first drag strips were created by local communities to keep postwar teens “off the streets” and the back roads where accidents were all too common.

Today, it’s a sport for sophisticated mechanical engineers.

But a knowledgeable enthusiast can still build a highly competitive Top Fuels dragster in his garage, Bradley said.

He knows. He did it.








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