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Ojai, California

Speed Demon

In the close-knit, highly competitive clan of nitromethane-fueled speed seekers, a “rusty tin barn” In Upper Ojai is where racers in the know go to get an edge.

Publication: The Ojai Quarterly
Author: Bret Bradigan
Photos: Logan Hall
Date published: Fall, 2015

Few smells are as distinctive as nitromethane. Like a blend of brimstone and swamp gas, it lingers in the air, adding ambience, anticipation and a whiff of hellfire to racetracks.

One spring morning outside Bakersfield, the anticipation at Famosa Raceway’s “March Meet” was soaring. As the sun wheeled toward noon and shadows shortened, swelling crowds strolled through the gates. Vendors hawked barbecue chicken, grilled sausages, T-shirts, hats and memorabilia. Further on the acres of tarmac, crews made final adjustments inside the makeshift garages to the top-fuel racers and funny cars.

Despite the frantic activity, people were friendly, eager to talk about their origins and expectations — where they’d been, and where they were going. It was the sort of place where speed spoke for itself, and even hardened rivals rooted for each other. The racers, team owners, crew members and audience were all in on a central truth: The keener the competition, the bigger the thrills.

Bob Sanders, owner of Ojai-based Titan Speed Engineering, remembers clearly his first racetrack experience. At age 12, brought to a racetrack while visiting family in El Paso, “I was hooked immediately,” he said. In the heady post-World War II days, drag racing and other speed sports were taking off across the country. California was the birthplace and its center of gravity. Legends like Don “The Snake” Prudhomme ruled the racetrack roost, many, as in Prudhomme’s case, both as race and team owners.

Back in California, at the age of 15, Sanders had his first experience behind the wheel, helping move his cousin’s racecar. “It was like a stainless steel hospital bed with a V-8. When the engine started up, it felt that the fan was an inch behind my head.”

On any given raceday, there are several, sometimes dozens, of racecars using parts manufactured in his “rusty old barn” in upper Ojai.

One old-time friend, Fred Dannenfelzer, 77, drives for Bakersfield-based Tony Waters, another in a long line of legends from drag racing’s colorful past. In 2009, Dannenzfelzer, driving one of Waters’ cars engine’s, set the Bonneville record with 387 miles per hour – making him one of the fastest men in history, let alone one of the fastest septuagenarians. “Your friends make sure you get out of the starting gate,” he said about Sanders.

He was born in El Paso, Texas, to a pioneering family with a long history in Texas and Arizona. “In 1948 Dad moved to Ventura County to become the business manager for Ed Lawrence in Santa Paula. Then, in 1958, he joined the Barber family at Mission Ford,” he said. Other stops along the way included Ventura Motor Company, an early proponent of top fuel racing.

Spending his youth shadowing his father, Sanders was steeped in racetracks and the garages in which those cars were made to go fast, then to go faster. “He taught me the tools of my trade,” he said of his father. “Those were good days working there.” In fact, his father was named Ford Motor Company’s top business manager for 20 years running, occasionally sharing the title with his son.

Cousin Chuck Sanders was partners with Dick Harrell, one of the first professional drag racers in the 1960s.

With his aptitude for the sciences and engineering, Bob Sanders could have taken many career paths, from government public works like building roads and bridges, or even helping put men in space as a NASA engineer.

Running the business side of the dealership failed to rev Sanders’ motor, though. “I got tired of the pencil pushing,” he said. “So I started looking for oil field jobs, like everyone else back then. It took a long time, but I finally got hired at Dupont-Conoco (now Conoco) for $4 an hour,” he said.

He worked there from 1975 to 1993, eventually managing and maintaining the heavy machinery required to pump and store oil – with 25-foot crankshafts and enormous compressors and pumps. It wasn’t entirely different from motorsports – more a matter of sheer size than the systems themselves. The mechanical aptitude learning in the garages came in handy. “We were always working on something, trying to bring more efficiency into the system,” he said.

Sanders never got too far away from the racetracks. “Once you get a whiff of nitro, you can’t unsmell it,” he said. In 1988, he took over an order for machining 10 slider clutches. Eventually, word began to get around about this talented gear head in Ojai, and it became a successful business.

At Famosa Speedway, watching him checking in with crew chiefs, team owners and drivers, you witness an easy camaraderie and fierce competitiveness of the racetrack. You can see that Sanders is in this game for life.

It wouldn’t be a surprise that his wife, Heather, works side-by-side with him. In fact, she herself was a racecar driver. The demands of the growing business and the long travel between events, however, called for compromises. “It’s impossible to race, and run the business,” Sanders said. Back at the “rusty old barn” Heather proudly shows her racing photos. It’s clear that the husband-wife partnership is fueled the same passion for speed.

Many of the drag-racing pioneers, like Dannenfelzer, show no signs of slowing down. In fact, they are going faster — Don “Big Daddy” Garlits set the speed record last year for electric vehicles of 184 miles per hour at age 82.

The Sanders moved to their upper Ojai property in 1976. The setup – hidden down an oak-lined drive, surrounded on all sides by the spectacular oak woodlands, nestled beneath the protective majesty of the Topa Topa Bluffs, “brought us here,” he said. “We raced out of here a lot back then.”

The barn is full of high-tech gear – where he and his crew of four people design parts on their computer screens with CAD-CAM (computer aided design and manufacturing), then basically “print” the parts on their drill presses with tungsten-carbide bits. “It takes lot of code,” he said. “There’s 1,200 lines of code for just the first bite of metal.” The parts are tested, retested, and then tested again.

Titan grew out of the needs of the business “through our constant involvement … that can only be developed through years of experience working side-by-side with racers,” he said. In a world where shaving off a few ounces, or adding a greater tolerance for heat, can make the difference between glory and defeat, reputation is everything. The parts are machined to within a 10th of a 1,000th-of-an-inch, and would please the sternest aerospace engineer.

The delivery trucks bring “blanks” of stainless steel and aluminum. The trucks take away finished, carefully custom designed parts to as far away as Australia and Japan, where American-style drag racing has devoted fans and its own culture.

Sanders specializes in oil pumps, clutches, rocker arms, and other high-performance parts. He says, “the designs are all our own.” The business is often done on the racetrack – where Bob and Heather move through the trailer camps and garages, catching up with old friends, making new ones, and always keeping an eye out for their parts – he’ll grab a wrench to help replace an oil pump, or just make sure the race crews know he’s nearby. He stands, quite literally, behind the parts.

Through this informal information exchange a lot of business is done and races are won.

It’s not unusual to see an engine on a hoist, being assembled and installed with new or repaired parts, just minutes before it’s scheduled to race. The crews move with confidence and competence.

Top fuel cars follow a basic layout — many using Chrysler 426 Hemi “elephant engines.” All the parts, however, are built by specialists like Bob Sanders’ Titan Speed. Measuring the actual performance of these engines is not easy, because, if you run them at full power for the required 10 seconds for a proper measurement, they are likely to explode. Best estimates are between 8,500 and 10,000 horsepower. That’s roughly equal to the most powerful turbo-prop airplanes, and twice the horsepower of a diesel locomotive engine. By comparison, a Porsche 911 Turbo S comes off the factory floor with about 560 horsepower.

As noon nears at Famosa Raceway’s March Meet, the crowds swell upwards of 10,000 people. The roar of the engines brings everyone into a shared state of alert excitement. The racetracks are only 1,320 feet – a quarter-mile. These cars are capable of going from 0 to 100 miles per hour in less than one second. The drivers are subjected to up to a g-force of 5 – beyond the acceleration rate of the fastest roller coasters.

Ear plugs are highly recommended; the noise level of a top-fuel dragster hitting its stride ranges up to 150 decibels — by comparison the sound of a jet engine taking off is about 120 decibels, a gunshot or firecracker about 140 decibels.

While the races themselves are short affairs — the cars can exceed 250 miles per hour by the time they reach the finish line — the preparations are themselves intricate and artful.

The two drivers perform “burnouts,” spinning their tires to get them warmed up, and to leave behind a layer of fresh rubber, which gives the racers better traction. It also whets the crowd’s appetite for speed. As the lights advance down the post from red to yellow to green, the tension is visceral. As one person said, “They’re about to light a 1,000 foot fuse.”

That Saturday in March was a good day for Titan Speed, especially in the Funny Car category. Mendy Fry, one of the world’s fastest women and a fan favorite, racing Smokey’s Darkside, a 1978 Dodge Challenger, took a first. As did Rick Rogers, racing the Fighting Irish, with a time of 5.70 in the quarter mile.

“That’s so cool that they won those races with the clutch and oil system built up in the hills above this little place called Ojai,” said Sanders

Facts and Numbers at a Glance (speeds represented in MPH)
Land Speed World Record: 739.6 MPH
Top Fuel World Record: 336.15 MPH
Dollars per gallon for nitromethane fuel: $30
Highest Average Freeway Speed (I-15 in Utah and Nevada): 76.7 MPH

Estimated number of drivers on the National
Hot Rod Association Roster in 2014: 40,000

Gs pulled when a Top Fuel car opens the throttle: 5

Sanders uses several different types of technology, like the Mori Seiki computer numeric control milling machine (top left),
to machine various parts including GM oil pump housings made from 7052-T7 aircraft-grade aluminum (top right). The parts
are then shipped out to race teams all across the country like team Urban Legend pictured at Famoso Raceway (bottom).