Top Sportsman & Top Dragster: Racing On Top Of The Sportsman World

If you arguably negate Top Alcohol Funny Car and Dragster as sportsman classes in the world of NHRA divisional and national event competition, Top Sportsman and Top Dragster are the two classes offering the ultimate in performance.

We sat down with some of the dedicated racers from these two categories to talk about the classes, the current state of competition and their future. They spoke of the trends moving toward higher car counts, increasing speeds, and the new ET limits.

Popularity Expands Qualified Fields

With the ever-growing numbers of drivers flocking to these categories, the NHRA’s traditional 32-car fields will be broadened for many of their events this year.

Greg Lair has an interesting take on how T/S has grown to its recent expansion, noting what he thinks is too large of a car count for the class. He’s been one of the most loyal Top Sportsman racers with NHRA since the class was added to divisional competition. When he purchased the famed “Wicked Wanda” Corvette from Blake Wiggins in 1988, he thought he would strictly be running IHRA Top Sportsman but quickly  became disenchanted by the lack of events in Texas. The North Texas Buick/GMC dealership owner has followed the NHRA version of Top Sportsman from the days it was added to Division 2 competition to today’s coast-to-coast class status.

Greg Lair is one of the longest-running Top Sportsman guys competing on the NHRA trail. His experience dates back to the historical foundation of Top Sportsman, including the creation of the class with the International Hot Rod Association back in the 1980s.

“The NHRA has expanded many events to include 48-car fields in both T/S and T/D,” Lair explains. “This will allow glorified Super Gas cars into the field. The bump is going to slow way down and cause a huge E.T. gap between the top and bottom qualifiers. Try running down an 8-second car safely and effectively with a 6.20 dial-in.”

The current NHRA rules state a minimum E.T. of 6.10 for both T/S and T/D and a maximum dial-in of 7.99 for Top Sportsman and 7.70 for Top Dragster. With expanded fields, many racers share the same concern over the wide spread in handicaps for both safety and competitiveness related to both faster and slower entries.

On the Top Dragster side, Jeff Koron also spoke about the expanded NHRA fields. “When I started competing in Top Dragster, it took a 6.90 to 7-flat to make the field,” he says. “I like to qualify at the top of the ladder. I hope 48-car fields won’t make the E.T. difference too large of a spread. We try to qualify number one in every race we enter. Both Top Dragsters I drive are capable of running 6.0’s. If I want to run a 6.10, it’s really simple to detune slightly.”

Jeff Koron is a longtime Top Dragster competitor earning multiple NHRA national event wins and an NHRA Division 5 season championship. He told us when he first started racing T/D he used to qualify in the top five with a 6.30 ET. “That has steadily stepped up over the years,” he says.

Scott Linder recollects his first exposure to a 48-car field at the 2018 Las Vegas LODRS. He’s seeing the car counts increase at each event he attends, but hopes that doesn’t continue to spread out the E.T.s.  “I would like the fields to stay tighter,” Scott continues. “There were 63 entries for the 48-car field, and it was very spread out. I am accustomed to racing cars with dial-ins all over the place with the Ozark Mountain Super Shifters. I hope T/S remains tighter racing, though — it’s what I like about it.”

Referring to Linder’s comments on his entry into the The Strip at Las Vegas Speedway Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series (LODRS) last fall, the Top Sportsman field had a spread from a 6.17 to 7.29 with over 42 mph difference at the finish line.

As a hardcore racer since the days of AHRA, Joe Meyer has interest in both classes as a long time Top Sportsman racer. He also plans to step into Top Dragster with a new car under construction. Meyer recently converted from a Powerglide to a 3-speed Turbo 400 transmission for durability.

Racers Continue To Push Minimum E.T.’s

Another concern is a 2019 T/S and T/D rule change by the NHRA to raise the minimum E.T. ceiling from a 6.00 to a 6.10 elapsed time. This creates a buffer between the increasing racer count qualifying up against the minimum qualified E.T. and the 5.99-and-faster safety breakouts related to chassis certification. This 1/10-second will hopefully prevent many racers from major rule infractions from running under their chassis certification.

With many of NHRA’s divisional races qualifying just 32 cars rather than 48, some feel the lower ceiling will cause a bottleneck at that threshold. When the car counts are lower, the formula qualifies just 24 cars in some cases giving a greater opportunity for a tight grouping at the lower end.

“Especially when it comes to events with the 24-car fields, I think we will soon see even more qualifiers pushing the 6.10 ET, especially in T/D,” says Joe Meyer. “In order to qualify, at this point you have to run 6.40 to get into the Top Dragster field and 6.80’s for Top Sportsman. Who knows, it could soon just become a 6.10 Index class where the entire field is close to the limit, especially in Top Dragster.”

Matt and Zach Sackman are brothers who share their supercharged Top Dragster while also being heavily involved in the sport with professional teams. Zach is the primary driver of the family car in the NHRA Top Dragster points chase while Matt gets behind the wheel at some Professional Drag Racers Association (PDRA) races.

The Sackman brothers recently had a busy NHRA Winternationals. Zach qualified number four in T/D with a 6.161 at 226.32 mph. Matt shared his busy weekend with the family car, driving one of Randy Meyer’s A/Fuel dragsters. He is also a cylinder head crewman for Antron Brown’s Top Fuel team.

They quickly saw the trends of cars getting quicker and requiring more power to get into the fields.

“When we first bought our car from James Monroe, it was a successful 6.40 to 6.50 car,” describes Matt. “We started with a similar combination and qualified well. In NHRA Division 3, the fields got quicker at a rapid rate. We didn’t qualify for a couple of the races in late 2015, so we stepped up to a bigger blower and engine combination. We’ve been able to run the necessary 6.0s since the 2016 season.”

Brother Zach Sackman envisions the speeds and ETs to move to something similar to a high-mph Super Comp strategy. “With this change in the index, the fast cars will be lazy early on and have big top end speed to chase down their competitor,” he says. “You will see a handful of cars going 240 mph.”

When Joe Meyer began in Top Sportsman, a 672-inch powerplant could get him into the low 7s and qualified well. When we caught up with him at the St. Louis LODRS event, he qualified into the number 25 spot with a 6.983 at 196.16 mph. Meyer is another that believes that cubic inches are king as he now competes with an 818 cubic-inch combination in his S-10 truck.

Reliable Horsepower

One testament to today’s racing engine technology is the ability to make the horsepower needed to push both T/D and T/S competitors into the 6-second zone without a high maintenance program or continual breakage. Many racers tell us that their engines are performing at the 2,200 to 2,600 horsepower levels, which is astonishing since the most stringent between-round thrashing described by these racers is an occasional spark plug inspection and checking valve lash. That trend is one they all consider a benefit.

“Our engine is super easy on parts,” Matt Sackman says. “The first year we had a push rod and adjuster issue. That was easily fixed with some improved components.  Now we just pull the valve covers and check all tolerances along with changing the oil and that’s about it.”

The Sackmans explain that despite an engine combination that is light on maintenance, they do change the aluminum rods at mid-season. Their 557 cubic inch Chevy uses a 14:71 high helix supercharged combination that qualified them in the number nine position on our race day visit with a 6.161 ET at 194.60 mph.

How about the converter and transmission? The Sackmans get it serviced in the off-season, and that’s it. They made 100 to 120 runs last year and never changed the transmission or converter all year.

Linder competes with a unique combination compared to the majority of torque converter/Powerglide racers. His 2004 Grand Am utilizes a Reher-Morrison 632 cubic-inch engine that is light on maintenance, but it’s his Liberty Gears clutch-less manual transmission and Ram Clutches brand dual-disc clutch that he pays close attention to on race days.

“Last season, I was checking the transmission at every event, though I didn’t need to change a slider in it all season,” he says. “The clutch comes out between events to be carefully checked, but it isn’t going to see daylight unless I think something is hurt.”

The day we visited Greg Lair at the Gateway LODRS, he qualified number eight in the 32-car field 6.583 ET at 212.83 mph. At that event, 41 entries entered T/S and 35 for T/D in the 32-car qualified fields. Very rarely are there ever short fields at any T/S or T/D competition as more and more racers try their hand at the fast E.T. class.

Greg Lair is another clutch racer using a triple-disc clutch in front of a 5-speed Lenco transmission. He also takes the cubic-inch award between our racers interviewed with the 903 cubic inch Sonny Leonard wedge head GM-based engine in his 2015 Camaro.

“Our maintenance at a race is to zero the clutch between rounds, cool the engine with a chiller unit because of the solid block, and run the valves about every fourth pass,” Lair chuckles. “We just run this big old engine with no nitrous and a safe tune-up. I have been racing split carburetors since the 90s, so that is what I enjoy tinkering with.”

Lester Johnson is always one of the top qualifiers in Top Sportsman with his 1955 Chevy powered by a ProCharger-boosted Brad Anderson Hemi. He builds his own engines and claims the all-aluminum Hemi is highly dependable and pretty well constructed with off-the-shelf parts.

Though Lester Johnson competes with a Brad Anderson Hemi sporting up to 2,700-horsepower, his combination is impressively consistent as he is an NHRA Divisional champion, the 2018 Jegs Sportsman All-Star Champion, along with many other unique wins under his belt.

“Cost-wise, I have really close to or even less invested than the person next to me with a big Chevy engine,” Johnson continues. “I ran the same set of valve springs all year and the same set of lifters for three seasons. We run relatively low RPM, and it just doesn’t eat parts.”

Johnson’s most significant maintenance cost is a fresh set of aluminum rods every 35 passes. “We only turn about 8,600 RPM in the lights, so the rods are something I want to maintain rather than really needing to do,” he says.

Weighing In On Minimum Weights

Johnson is vocal about the current minimum weight rules implemented by the NHRA. The rule paragraph spells out ten different weight breaks for T/D and six for T/S depending on engine, naturally-aspirated, or power-adder options.

There are six minimum weight specs for Top Sportsman ranging from a 1,900 lb. minimum to a 2,600 lb. minimum depending on engine and power-adders. This weight spread offers concern to Lester Johnson.

“I would like to see NHRA do away with weight breaks altogether,” he says. “These are not heads-up classes, so for safety do away with it. My car weighs 2,700 pounds with me in it and not one single weight block on it. All of those weight pucks used on cars are dangerous.”

Johnson cites that as a bracket racer at heart, his car was built intentionally heavy because he wanted it to be sturdy with a long useful life.

Looking Forward

So where do these classes go from here? The consensus was reasonably unanimous: faster, tighter, and overall tougher.

It’s definitely a tough class.  Despite 6-second E.T.’s, it’s almost getting to be like Super Gas and Super Comp as far as the competition goes.” – Zach Sackman

“I’d say it’s going to be overall tighter this year in my Division 3 competition,” says Sackman. “The top 16 cars in NHRA Division 4 are going to be very bunched up. I always try to have a .030-second package. That is with a .010 to .015 reaction time and be about .01 above my dial-in. I may need to better that to stay competitive.”

Scott Linder also races with the Ozark Mountain Super Shifters where he is the 2018 series champion. He says the OMSS is his first love, but he may favor more NHRA T/S events to give himself a new challenge.

Johnson predicts that both classes will have even tighter margins of victory despite the fast speeds and E.T.’s.“A slower, more consistent car could get more win-lights a few years ago,” Johnson continues. “We figured out a couple of big issues with a new FTI Performance torque converter and Mickey Thompson Tires that totally changed our car. It’s going to be an interesting year no matter how fast you run.”

Koron agrees with some of the latest torque converter developments for these essentially high-horsepower bracket cars. He says, “both of our dragsters use ATI Performance Powerglides. We have experimented with an ATI converter, and the other with one by Hughes Performance. Each were designed specifically for our Top Dragsters, and both have improved the cars tremendously.”

Despite a fleet of race cars including Super Comp dragsters, two Top Dragsters and a Top Alcohol Funny Car, Jeff Koron is currently enjoying Top Dragster competition so much his Funny Car (background) remains dormant in the shop.

Lair chooses to compete at selected events of his liking instead of a hardcore regimen of NHRA points competition. He also thinks that could be a trend for the future. “At 68-years old, I don’t run divisional points or anything like that.” Lair is a purist for the naturally-aspirated, big cubic-inch Top Sportsman combination. With his Sonny Leonard 903 cubic-inch wedge Chevy, he proudly remembers two of his qualified positions at NHRA national events in 2018, both times in the number three slot behind two supercharged cars.

“I’m not much of a Division 4 guy. Lair continues. “Where I’m located in Amarillo (Texas), I am centrally located between many good events like Tulsa, Phoenix, St. Louis, and Denver. At this period in my life, I want to go when and where I enjoy racing most.”

The spirit of competition and innovation continues to alter every class in drag racing. As car counts continue to increase, and with the development of new mechanical combinations that tighten qualifying and eliminations, Top Sportsman and Top Dragster will have all eyes on them to see how they continue to grow as one of the ultimate sportsman classes where speed is king.

About the author

Todd Silvey

Todd has been a hardcore drag racing journalist since 1987. He is constantly on both sides of the guardwall from racing photography and editorship to drag racing cars of every shape and class.
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