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High-performance SAE Members
Don Taylor, Senior Director, National Technical Operations, NHRA

Don Taylor To discuss the current high-performance trend with NHRA's Don Taylor, you'd better come prepared - with almost everything you've ever learned about anything.

Such a conversation with this SAE member may begin with powertrain and chassis functions and segue into critical observations about safety, but it won't be long until popular culture and graphic arts are co-mingled as well.

Taylor, who joined NHRA in May 2004, is Senior Director, National Technical Operations for the sanctioning body. And while that position is situated at the intersection where safety meets competition, it is also here that Taylor sees marketing, the youth culture, future racing trends and new opportunities converge.

That's understandable though, after examining Taylor's resume.

By degree, the Chicago native is one part mechanical-engineer from the University of Illinois (where he co-founded the student SAE chapter at the Chicago branch); one part MBA from the University of Michigan and one part artist from Detroit's Center for Creative Studies.

In the professional arena, he previously headed up GM's drag-racing program and NASCAR activities including powertrain, aero and chassis functions through the 1990s under the leadership of GM Racing's former Executive Director Herb Fishel. Taylor, however, began his career at Ford as a chassis engineer. From there he became a car stylist, and designed race-car bodies in this spare time. (An example? Try A.J. Foyt's Coyote). His professional odyssey also saw him try out Silicon Valley, as well as design duties for John Deere in its New York consultant's offices located at 57th Street and 7th Avenue. Taylor laughs as he recalls, "roaming the streets of Manhattan, searching out construction sites for backhoe loaders and bulldozers, for reference."

Given this pedigree, who better to interpret Taylor's take on high-performance than Taylor himself?

"I came here (to NHRA) because it is the crossroads of competition, the auto manufacturers, the aftermarket industry, sponsors, the media and racing enthusiasts. This sport, drag racing, is unique - anybody can do it. And now, with all the production performance cars available, the drag strip is the logical place to let them rip," observes Taylor of the latest iteration of the muscle-car trend. He quickly cautions, "We don't want people racing on the street; the National Hot Rod Association was founded to get kids off the street."

And, as it's been since the middle of the 20th century, the grassroots competitors still comprise "the majority of the drag racers out there," Taylor confirms, listing some of NHRA's classes of racing. (There are more than 200 classes and categories.)

"We typically have about 1,100 cars showing up at our Indianapolis Nationals event to race. The Top-Fuel, Funnies and Pro Stock are only about 125 of those entries, the rest are all sportsmen who have that old Camaro or Charger in the garage, or a more specialized drag car. That guy -- or very often it's a woman -- is able to race on the same pavement as John Force, in front of the same grandstands, and go for the win," he notes.

"Traditional 'performance' in the U.S. has been straight-line performance - drag racing. We really are in a golden era, much like the '60s in some ways," Taylor muses. "We're looking at rear-wheel drives; V-8s; the return of the Mustang; Pontiac has brought back the GTO; Dodge has revived the Charger." And today, the NHRA Powerade series is, by many measures, second only to NASCAR in popularity, Taylor adds.

Of course we're seeing the Baby Boomers reliving their youth with the new, and the old, muscle cars, concedes Taylor. "Look at all the muscle cars at the recent Barrett-Jackson auction, and the prices they fetched ... I wish I had kept my Mustang Mach I."

But here's the 21st Century twist: "Now there are a lot of guys in their teens who look at '70s muscle cars nostalgically - Chevelles, Mustangs - even though they weren't even born when these cars were made." No matter the age of the muscle-car aficionado, however, when it comes to immediate gratification, the paved quarter-mile tends to be the "vehicle" of choice for exercising those steeds.

Drag strips are often convenient to big cities. And drag racing itself is "affordable and accessible. In an era of short attention spans, (drag racing) creates instant winners. A participant can drive up with minimal preparation and see how fast his car is compared to his buddy's on the quarter-mile," Taylor says.

The environment that surrounds the drag racing event also is in-sync with the NHRA fan's experiential psychographics, Taylor explains. "If you go to a NASCAR race, you see mainly T-shirts for sale. At drag races, you see hard parts: camshafts, pistons, rear ends, big tools boxes with all sorts of special tools to drool over ... The fans in the grandstands typically have a performance car at home. They're hands-on."

Today's young fan, however, is fixated on speed, but in a slightly different way, Taylor observes:

"Today, the youth market is looking for a quick fix. They want to get it ready to roll from the factory, or get a 'bolt it on' part and run faster that night."

These easy-access gateways to speed are a big change from the last golden era, beginning with simply buying a vehicle "from the factory with a great powertrain, brakes, and suspension." Upgrades from there come in easy-to-install, custom packages. "Everybody wants to get something larger in the way of wheels and tires. You want to add power? There are the nitrous kits, turbos, superchargers...." Taylor says. "The special-equipment industry business has exploded, by serving the needs of performance and personalization."

And the MBA in Taylor believes engineers involved in high-performance should take note of all this. "The new enthusiasts want power from the factory, or a package that can be easily installed. They see the shows on TV fixing up low-cost cars, where they transform a vehicle before your eyes in 30 minutes."

Note here that Taylor's observations show no disrespect to oval track or road-racing enthusiasts, as he "grew up sketching sports cars, building Indy car models and hanging around with Can-Am and GTP teams. And I lived the 'NASCAR lifestyle' in Charlotte for 10 years." Coincidences of popular culture, however, bear the responsibility for bringing the initial high-performance harvest to the doors of drag racing.

"In the late '80s and early '90s, we thought all that kids were interested in were computers, and computer games" Taylor explains.

"We were worried that the next generations wouldn't have the same automotive passion that we had growing up. But then we saw games like Gran Turismo, and Honda Civics running around in primer, with bigger wheels, and chrome exhaust tips. And then something called Import Drag Racing with FWD cars, as incongruous as that sounded, popped up, and started growing. SEMA recognized that these new car enthusiasts wanted to do things on their own terms; these new enthusiasts wanted to beat the traditional rear-drive V8 cars with their small displacement, four-cylinder, FWD cars.

"Look at all the hot four-cylinder cars available from the factory these days," Taylor illustrates in a list beginning with "Toyotas, Mazdas, Neon SRT-4s, and Ecotec powered Saturns. NHRA created the Summit Sport Compact Racing Series to accommodate these cars.

So, this clearly isn't your father's - or the Baby Boomers' - brand of high-performance. Not with names like Subaru or Honda.

And then, of course, there's the gaggle of Hollywood racing movies that made the rounds. Boomers tend to disdain the genre, especially if they compare it to the iconic "Grand Prix," but "The Fast and The Furious," broke through to the Next Xers.

"What's amazing to me," says Taylor "is that today we see performance offerings across the whole spectrum of vehicle segments and price points. It ranges from 'tuner' versions of economy cars up to luxury cars like the Cadillac V Series."

And he goes farther up the power food chain into "two-seaters such as the Corvette and Viper. We see some of those at the drag strip too."

This momentum in the high-performance trend has even propelled it beyond those traditional automotive realms into trucks and SUVs, that together command half of the automotive market. "Come Friday night at the local drag strip, where you 'run what you brung,' you'll see a whole lot of V8 trucks." Taylor notes.

"I always hoped (high-performance) would come back. There were always enthusiasts who were looking for Detroit or other manufacturers to produce affordable high-performance vehicles, and now it has proliferated. All manufacturers seem to realize they need a performance image."

"It's good to see the SAE emphasizing the movement to performance too. Way back, starting the Student SAE chapter at Illinois was a way for us to bring in race-car builders to speak, which we did. Since then, SAE has embraced performance with the very successful, bi-annual Motorsports Engineering Conference, and more chapter programs dedicated to new production performance cars. And again this year, there's a lot dedicated to performance cars in the SAE World Congress program."

Still, Taylor can't revel in the high of the high-performance marketplace and its resurgence for long. His racing to-do list indicates he has:

  • 21 races on the 2005 NHRA tour to complete (at this writing, two were already in the books);
  • 10 Summit Sport Compact races;
  • performance and safety rules, inspection procedures, and the approval of new cars for competition to discuss with the NHRA technical department,
  • and, of course, there's always the missionary effort to spread the thrill of NHRA-style drag racing to an even wide audience.

High performance indeed.

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