by Cole Coonce

(excerpted from the collection TOP FUEL WORMHOLE)


(photo by Dave Kommel/Auto Imagery)

Despite the inevitable encroachment of Corporate America into a once idiosyncratic sport, one man still burns the torch of individualism in contemporary Top Fuel drag racing.

In the nether regions of the Pomona Fairplex (home of the NHRA World Finals), far beyond the cozy confines where the Fortune 500 park their 18-wheelers, one could find the seemingly innocuous, inconspicuous Arley Langlo, Jay Roach, and their Titan Xpress race team in their pit area. A ramshackle trailer, a 10-year old short (260-inch wheelbase) Top Fueler, an anti-matter black 1967 Dodge camper, and a race crew whose uniform consists of straw cowboy hats and stark white coffee-stained T-shirts, are the elements which define their existence, at least tangibly. Dwarfed by a phalanx of massive transporters, race teams with matching polyester uniforms, not to mention the copious off-the-shelf spare parts, all of which are de rigueur for modern day multi-million dollar operations, Langlo, Roach, and cohorts looked like they made a wrong turn on Fairplex Avenue in 1984, got lost in the Mojave Desert, mistakenly entered the vortex of the Twilight Zone, blinked, and somehow wandered back into Pomona, only to find ten years had elapsed. It was now 1994, but somehow the mayonnaise and the baloney in their Styrofoam cooler had not spoiled. In reality, no matter how anachronistic these guys were, their presence at the Winston Finals could not be ignored, nor swept under the carpet.

Sure, a lot of the hullabaloo was focused on the culmination of superstar Don “the Snake” Prudhomme’s “Final Strike” tour, Shelly Anderson’s dramatic 4.71 Low E.T., and Kenny Bernstein’s shocking 314 mph blast in his indomitable Budweiser King. I maintain that all this was anticlimactic, however, compared to the incendiary, apocalyptic exploits of the Titan Xpress bunch. Indeed, among Arley Langlo’s attempts to “qualify” into Top Fuel Eliminator at Pomona were a pair of the most curious, surreal meltdowns ever perpetrated on the ol’ 1320.

Langlo and Roach probably had no hope of “getting into the show against these store-bought dragsters,” as Arley put it, but the World Finals did provide an excuse for them to “test the new fuel pump.” (This fuel pump, like virtually every piece of kit on their dragster, is homemade by Jay Roach in his hard-to-find J&S East Valley Garage, reclusively nestled in the hills of Santa Barbara County.) At the end of the weekend, whether the new fuel pump worked satisfactorily or not seemed entirely beside the point—although a point was made by the Titan Xpress at the NHRA Finals. What that point was, however, is subject to serious interpretation…

During Top Fuel qualifying on Thursday and Saturday, Langlo demonstrated some genuine human characteristics that are conspicuously absent from modern Top Fuel racing—specifically driving skills, i.e., how the driver responds to the nuances of an unrestrained technology gone gloriously amok. Traditionally, that is the drama of Top Fuel: It is about man and machine and their relationship to each other. Unfortunately, it is an increasingly rare occurrence for us—the gearheads and the punters—to feel overwhelmed or inspired by the exploits of the driver; when Bernstein goes 314, when Shelly runs 4.71, when Don Prudhomme feebly breaks traction and spins the tires on his “final strike,” these runs were about the dynamics of technology—the drivers were merely passive. Anderson’s clutch management system had been programmed brilliantly. Prudhomme’s, on the other hand, had been set up erroneously—therefore the car overpowered the drag strip, the tires smoked ferociously but momentarily, and fluids puked out of the cylinder heads feverishly as the car shut itself off. That was it: dragster interruptus. Having been emasculated, Prudhomme limped impotently down the drag strip, naked and vulnerable. The shame of this “not with a bang but a whimper” finale, however, was the onus of Prudhomme’s crew chief, the esteemed savant Wes Cerny, not the “Snake” himself. Likewise, the bravado and chutzpah requisite of a 314 mile-per-hour salvo are the machinations of Budweiser King crew-chief Dale Armstrong, not driver Kenny Bernstein who merely stomped on the go-faster, hung on, and then dumped the laundry before he ran out of real estate. Lowly Arley Langlo, however, laid down the gauntlet; this time, just once, it’s gonna be about the driver.

On Thursday Arley fired what could only be interpreted as the first of two salvos of civil defiance. It started innocently enough with a nice smoky burnout—so far, so what. He gingerly and methodically staged the car, just another of 30 Top Fuel cars trying to qualify for Sunday’s eliminations. As soon as the light goes green and he drops the hammer, however, something goes very wrong; the car lurches spastically, the sound of the motor changes pitch in an ill glissando, and a ball of flame the size of the Manhattan Project shoots out the back of the race car, scorching a big chunk of Parker Avenue. This is all within the first 60 feet of the run.

Arley feels the car nose over; he should shut ‘er off, right? He should abort the run—something is amiss—cut his losses, see ‘ya tomorrow, Mr. Amato. But au contraire and let the pyrotechnics begin. Arley kept the throttle nailed, even though the head gaskets hydraulicked as soon as he swapped pedals, allowing the billowing fuel and oil to feed an inferno that ballooned into a 30-foot mushroom cloud by half-track. Langlo stubbornly refused to void the run (even though he later acknowledged “it was a little on the rich side”), and he stopped the timers at 5.65 seconds—not bad for an experiment gone horribly awry—but the hijinks continue because this massive fireball burned off his parachutes. The ticket-holders are shaking their heads in disbelief, trying to come to terms with what they are witnessing, but ol’ Arley methodically rides the hand brake, milking what is left out of the hydraulic brake fluid that has not been boiled to molasses by the inferno—he does not disengage the clutch lest the car pick up more velocity, preferring instead to let the torque of the motor slow the car down. The car decelerates under power, and Langlo swerves to avoid the catch net while wrestling the slightly yo-yoing fueler onto the border of the Fairplex parking lot. O-kay…

Come Friday the fuel pump is still “too rich.” No boom-boom this time, and the car leaves hard, but Mr. Langlo shuts it off at half-track as it starts dropping cylinders, the hyperactive fuel pump frothing so voluminously that the spark plugs are being extinguished from the torrent of nitromethane. The next session ditto. There is one qualifying session left, and Jay and his acolytes are thrashing maniacally to rebuild the motor that has been stripped to the cylinder heads. Meanwhile, a bemused Langlo drawls, “We’re progressively leanin’ it out.”

So it is last call for Top Fuel qualifying, newly crowned NHRA champion Scott Kalitta is clinging to the bubble with an eleventh hour go of 4.88 and who is strapped into the last dragster rolling into the staging lanes? None other than the Ayatollah of the Automotive Apocalypse hisself, Arley Langlo, replete with a new eleventh hour “leaner” tune-up. He and his accompanying East Valley Garage Hezbollah are faced with the daunting challenge of trying to compete with the Uber-fuelers on their terms, not only bumping the NHRA champion out of The Show, but also sorting out this damn fuel pump. The quickest the Titan Xpress has run was a 5.28 at Palmdale; a potential 4.87 that would bum Kalitta’s trip seemed highly unlikely, but who knows?

As soon as the tree flashed green, everyone in Pomona knew. An epiphany crystallized in the collective craniums of everyone assembled: bleacher bums, track officials, National Dragster paparazzi, the racers themselves (especially Scott Kalitta), and even the hot dog vendors—this was not about “qualifying.” Once again, instantaneously, in a virtual doppelganger of Thursday’s horrific absolute-zero flameout, Langlo kicked out the head gaskets as soon as he stomped on the throttle, creating another comet of fire that mushroomed exponentially as he rocketed down the quarter-mile. Amidst the terrified and confused looks of the spectators, Langlo once again ignored anything as banal as logic and refused to shut off this missile of the millennium, once more burning off his ‘chutes and boiling his brake fluid into an ineffectual muck.

No, this was not about “getting into The Show.” This was about the nobility of experimentation, freedom of expression, and the recapturing of the spirit of Zen anarchy vis-à-vis the manifestation of the Chaos Theory—which is what I thought Top Fuel is all about. It was a paean to all resourceful Americans everywhere who, if they can not afford a “store bought” fuel pump, will build it themselves, thus enabling the Titan Xpresses of this world to exist on their own terms, not Kenny Bernstein’s. For these are the true beacons of “Go! Fever” in this wonderful sport, not some Stepford yuppie automaton for whom “driving ability” is a euphemism for how well they can splutter “I’d like to thank all my sponsors: Joy Jelly, Scientology, and the Trilateral Commission blah, blah, blah…” on TV—hey man, we see these names painted on the side of your car, we’ll give all these people our money if you just shut up, okay?

Drag racing could stand to benefit from an influx of experimental, outside weirdos like Messrs. Langlo, Roach, and friends. And that was no mere oil fire, my friends. Arley Langlo was carrying the torch of freedom for all of us. Someday soon the drag strips will be ours again…

(Originally published in Super Stock & Drag Illustrated)


  1. ………well…..this IS the article which made me realize I was no longer following this sport…in a post-corporatist vacuum.

    The sport will come home to roost…and that time’s gonna go by, anyway….

  2. Jay & Arley are about the nicest Guys ya could ever meet. Yes, they do there own thing, on their own nickle and have been – like Forever!!

    My hats off to them for constantly thinking outside the envelope and NEVER kissing anybody’s ass, Corporate or Organization……..

  3. jay and arley are the unrecognized heroes of the racing community. this article truly sums up their gumption in taking on the “store-bought” young bucks that run the nhra.
    thank you, mr. coonce for writing an article that dares to defy the current state of corporate authority, and supports the little guys.

  4. Trying to locate a t-shirt sold at The March Meet a number of years ago, it’s has crossed checkered flags on the front stating Griffin Studios and on the back it has a picture of a nostalgic front end dragster from the slicks back [showing the driver].
    Attempting to get a LARGE for a friend in England.
    Not sure how to attach picture…
    Thanks for your time,
    Mick Coyne
    Walnut Creek, Ca


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