You may think they're crazy but Bob Norwood and Christian Rado are planning to push the limits of FWD drag racing in 2004. In a Turbo exclusive series, we go behind the scenes and follow the construction of the radical NORAD Toyota Celica from the brainstorming through to the first race. No secrets. no restrictions. just the facts.
It all started when Bob Norwood, famed supercar builder and tuner of Kenny Tran's Honda hot rod decided to try the Pro FWD Class in 2004. "I had a little success with Kenny's Honda. He was going faster than ever but I hate the restrictions that the rules dictate in the Hot Rod Class. I needed to step up to the Pro FWD Class to do the kind of things that I wanted to do. I had been looking at what the current Pro FWD cars had been doing and my evil little mind started hatching a plan." The plan was to turn the class on its head in 2004 with a car that would blow minds and set new standards of performance for Pro FWD.
Around this time, Norwood, never shy about telling anyone who wants to listen to his ideas, talked to Christian Rado, driver of the WORLD Racing Toyota Celica Pro FWD car. Rado liked what Norwood had to say and in typical Rado fashion he plunged in headfirst. "Norwood is an amazing character," Rado explains. "His ideas about building a competitive car were pretty wild, but when I thought about what he was saying it all made sense. We ended up trading ideas and finally I asked him to build me a new car for 2004."
This was the beginning of what some see as a match made in heaven. Norwood, the maverick car builder and tuner, teamed up with the hard-driving Rado. Both are known for a balls-to-the-wall style and no-compromise approach to racing and, to be honest, both are a little unconventional at the best of times...
"I had to team up with a driver who had the nuts to really attack the class," says Norwood. "Driving talent and a deep knowledge of the dynamics of front-wheel-drive racecars are very important, as well as the financial backing to develop something that is completely new. Chris Rado has all of these, and at the end of the day he is a really nice guy to work with. That's important, too."
Norwood and Rado formed a new company, NORAD, to handle the development of the car, and the project was given the green light in June of 2003.
Norwood's team had already been closely looking at the class with an eye on raising the bar. After a few brainstorming sessions with Rado and his highly experienced crew, the car began to take shape on paper.
Norwood's right-hand man and physics expert, Shawn Fischer, explained the development of the original concept: "We had a few ideas we thought were essential to get the performance where it needed to be. The tire size was key, but to make a large tire work we had to rethink the entire car. The chassis had to be designed to allow a 16-inch tire to work and in turn we had to come up with a transaxle that could handle the loads of a hard launch. There is nothing on the new design that is not completely new. The only similarities are the body and the front suspension design. As I said, the tires are the key."
Norwood had already been working on a Lenco-based transmission intended for the Hot Rod Class (rule changes for 2004 allow aftermarket transmissions) and he had the plans for a Lenco transmission that could be used in the Pro FWD Class.
Norwood is blunt about the failings of the current crop of cars and their transmission woes. They are all useless, in his opinion. "They are designed for off-road racing, not for the rigors of drag racing. They shift slowly and the shifting mechanisms are a nightmare. Watch any Pro FWD car run and you will see that it's mostly hit-or-miss. Fifty percent of the time they either break or the transmission fails to shift properly." These are harsh words, but it's all probably true.
Norwood is happy to reveal all. The engine is mounted longitudally, like a rear-wheel-drive car. This means the front of the chassis can be as narrow as possible and makes room for the big tires. Behind the engine is a five-speed Lenco with a 1:1 transfer gear to send the drive back towards the engine. A short driveshaft transfers the power into a funny-car-based rear-end assembly that is mounted on top of the transmission. From that point there are two options: either a pair of CV driveshafts to the front wheels or, as Norwood will use on this car, a solid front axle.
Norwood is happy that this setup will handle any amount of abuse without failing, saying that it just takes common sense. The Lenco is capable of handling up to 2500 hp. The rear-end assembly will handle that and more, and the axles are the same. He's trying to take transmission failure out of the equation.
The air-shifted Lenco will also make life easier for Christian Rado. Once the car is rolling Rado will push a button for each shift. Faster, smoother shifts are possible because of the internal adjustments in the clutch packs of the planetary Lenco.
Unfortunately, the Lenco will absorb a higher percentage of power in comparison to a conventional transmission, but Norwood is confident the power loss is not an issue. The four-cylinder 3RZ engine that powers Rado's current car is a great engine for a lot of reasons. It has a perfectly square design, so it can really rev. It's a large engine, at 2.7 liters, with the potential to be a 3.0-liter, and it's virtually bulletproof.
Norwood explains, "Currently, Chris' engine develops more than 950 hp at the wheels and he is really not revving it nearly as much as it could be with a few minor changes in the valvetrain. I have started a development program on the motor and I am confident that we can make at least 1,300 hp, so I don't think we will miss a few percent of drivetrain loss within the transmission."
Another key to the performance of the NORAD Toyota Celica will be weight. Norwood is fanatical about bringing the car to within a few ounces of the class rules.
Norwood's fabricator and future joint crew chief, Tony Palo, is the man responsible for shaving off every possible ounce in the quest for more performance.
Palo, former longtime crew chief for Kenny Tran, will go to any lengths to save weight. He's looking at every single aspect of the new car. If he can save a few ounces by using a thinner tube or a gun-drilled bolt, he will. If it's not a load-bearing part, it's going on a diet. If he can use titanium, Inconel, or composites, then that is the way it will be. If he can make it smaller and lighter, he will.
Every extra pound is costing time on the track, and the members of Team NORAD are not going to leave anything on the table. Their aim is to end up with a car that is below the weight limit so that they can then add the weight where they want it to fine-tune the chassis.
This single-minded sense of purpose is echoed by Keith Goslin, Rado's current crew chief and future joint crew chief of the NORAD Celica. Says Goslin, "When you are constructing a car from scratch, especially one as radical as this one, it's important to make sure that driver safety and comfort are at the top of your list of priorities. We are going to extreme lengths to make sure that this car is not only the fastest car out there, but also the safest. I have been with Chris for a long time now and I know exactly what he wants from a car. It comes down to the small stuff: seat position, angle of the pedals, location of the switches and so on. We will make the transition as smooth as possible so that Chris has a much easier learning curve when he straps into the new car. As radical as the design is, we still need to make sure that Chris feels at home from day one."
Christian Rado is eager to see the finished project. He feels it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something that will change the sport. His expectations are high, but he believes the team has got a talented group of people working to make the dream a reality. All he wants to do is strap in and haul ass, so it'll be a long wait for him until testing begins in January 2004.
We've merely skimmed the surface of the planning and construction of the NORAD Pro FWD Toyota Celica. Thanks to Bob Norwood and Christian Rado's open-door policy, over the next few months Turbo magazine will chronicle the design, construction and testing of what should be the most radical leap forward in front-wheel-drive drag racing yet.
Strap in and hold on. Working on the leading edge usually produces fireworks.