Nitrous Oxide [Pt.1]

The First Nitrous Oxide-Injected Hydroplane in the World

By Dave Neil

It was a machinist, Richard (Dick) Flynn, and Dr. Edward “Doc” Johnston, a surgeon, both from Spokane, Washington who were responsible for designing, developing, and installing the first nitrous injection boost system in a hydroplane. It was during the summer of 1957 that Dr. Johnston watched Thriftway Too run in Seattle. He went home to Spokane with a hand full of drawings he had made on graph paper detailing the shape of Thriftway Too. At about the same time Mr. Flynn, a machinist, was doing some engine work for the Thrifty Auto Special dragster. He also began to research fuel additives during the winter of 1957 by spending a couple of evenings per week for several months at the Spokane Public Library. Neither of the two men had met at this time.

Mr. Flynn began by looking up the subject of the fuel additive “Nitro” in the N volume of an Encyclopedia. He noted the references listed for nitrous oxide. With the help of a librarian, he requested numerous articles on nitrous oxide from a wide variety of publications, trade journals, magazines and texts. He came across materials that stated German scientists in the 1930’s developed the use of nitrous oxide to significantly improve the performance of their fighter planes in combat.

The key information he learned was that when nitrous oxide was injected into the intake of a German fighter plane’s engine with additional fuel, the engine would produce incredible increases horsepower nearly instantly. Their system was also used to enhance the high altitude performance of their bombers. The Germans had not developed very efficient superchargers for their aircraft engines. The system was called Gehiem–Mittel-1 (translation: secret medium-1) Mr. Flynn discussed his findings with other crew members of the dragster team for possible use. During this time in 1958 Doc Johnston was building a 7-litre hydroplane in his garage from the drawings he made of the Thriftway Too. Doc Johnston used mostly hand tools, avoiding power tools, to build his hydro because he was afraid of injuring his hands which would prevent him from being able to operate on his patients.

For Dick Flynn’s findings to be put to use, the crew of the Thrifty Special needed a test vehicle. They convinced crewmen George Warczski to allow Dick to install a bare bones nitrous system in his family auto, a ’59 Thunderbird, which had a 300-hp, 430-cubic inch engine. Mr. Flynn designed, built, and installed the nitrous boost system based on his ideas on how it might operate and on what he had read. This was all done by trial and error. The system consisted of a single six-pound blue nitrous bottle with a 600 lb. pressure regulator valve attached to the top of the tank. The bottle was located on the floor board behind the driver’s seat. He rigged a line from the regulator up to the front seat and connected it to a single ball valve so the driver could manually operate it when it was time. The regulator was set at 12-15 lbs. The outlet line from the ball valve ran simply into the side of the air cleaner housing that was mounted on top of the carburetor. Mr. Flynn also replaced the stock sized fuel jets in the carburetor on the T-Bird with oversized ones. He learned this was a must from his readings at the Spokane library. He knew he must increase the fuel to the engine when nitrous was used to obtain performance and keep the engine from self destructing. The gas allowed a controlled burn, not an explosive burn. Mr. Flynn recalls the power increase off the line was incredible. The stock T-Bird engine w/nitrous would literally spin the rear wheels. The car was 19 mph faster in the quarter mile and reduced the elapsed time by a full two seconds!

From the successful nitrous testing done with George Warczski’s T-Bird it was decided to design and install a nitrous system for the Thrifty Special with its 392 Chrysler Hemi engine. Mr. Flynn designed the system for the dragster, sketching/ brainstorming ideas, and working calculations for fuel, air flow and nitrous rate. The system consisted of two blue 6-lb nitrous bottles mounted under the cowling above the driver’s feet and behind the engine. The two bottles were again connected to a pressure regulator valve. By trial and error he determined about 12 lbs of pressure would work the best. He ran a line from the regulator directly into the inlet side of a spring loaded onoff valve next to the throttle pedal on the floor board. The valve was the type that was spring loaded in the off position. To activate the valve he fabricated a mechanical linkage connected to the foot throttle. The linkage was adjusted to activate the valve at the very bottom of the travel of the foot pedal. A flexible hose was connected to the outlet side of the valve and was run to a drilled and tapped hole in the back center of the engine block. He also tapped the other end of the hole that went through the block into the oil galley area where the lifters were located. He fabricated a steel line and connected one end to the threaded hole and then ran the other end to a fabricated block manifold. From the manifold ran eight separate steel lines to each of the eight intake ports in the heads. (all of this was within the oil valley inside the engine).

At about the same time in 1959, also in Spokane, Doc Johnston had finished building his 7-litre hydroplane and began racing it. He named it after his wife, Annie, and the Oldsmobile convertible she drove, thus the name on their boat was “Annie’s Olds.”

Some engine work and machining needed to be done on the boat and his crew chief, Corky Mathews recommended a machinist working at a nearby shop in North Division who also was involved in drag racing. His name was Richard Flynn. This is how they initially met.

About two years later in 1961, Doc Johnston decided to build an improved 7-litre cabover in his garage, again using mainly hand tools. It was about this time that Doc learned about Dick’s nitrous system he was successfully using in the Thrifty Special dragster . Doc Johnston asked Dick if such a system could be installed in his new race boat and if Dick would like to be a crewmember on the boat, which was going to be named Annie’s Dodge.

Dick took him up on the offer and became a crewmember. Doc and Corky selected a 426 Dodge wedge engine to power the new boat and a Hilborn fuel injection to supply the fuel.

Dick began by brainstorming a method of supplying nitrous some way through the Hilborn fuel injection system. Again there were no text books at the time to go by, he was inventing as he went. He ended up designing a nitrous boost system that could use the fuel injectors of the Hilborn system which was significantly different from the system he designed for the Thrifty Auto Special. The boat’s system consisted of single 22-lb. blue nitrous bottle instead of two 6-lb. bottles but both systems were connected to a regulator. He decided to mount the bottle and regulator behind the engine and to the right side inside a hatch in the deck with a steel bracket to the right stringer. He ran a line from the regulator up to the right side of the cockpit (the cockpit was in front of the engine) a few inches above the floor to the inlet side of a mechanical slide off/on valve.

He also selected and installed a slide handle with a marine cable attached to connect the lever on the slide valve. When the handle was pushed fully forward the nitrous and extra fuel systems were activated. A line was run from the outlet side of the slide valve to a block manifold that had eight ports on it, similar to the dragster system. But instead of running eight lines directly to the intake manifold ports as in the dragster, he ran steel lines to each of the eight fuel injectors. Mr. Flynn did some intricate machining on each of the fuel injectors. Below the throttle plate he drilled two holes opposite one another and threaded each of them. There was also a similar slide valve connected to another manifold that had eight ports on it with eight lines running to the other side of each injector; this was the added fuel system. On the outlet side of both manifolds each of the eight ports had orifices with sizes that could be interchanged. (This is how Dick made adjustments to the flow of the extra fuel and nitrous, changing the pill diameters in the orifice.) Doc Johnston would take the boat out during practice sessions in the mornings prior to racing to test different adjustments that Mr. Flynn would make to the system. It was simply trial and error. He would ask Doc what he thought and how the engine sounded. [There were no written specifications, they were, “Inventing the use nitrous oxide in power boat racing.”] All of this was done in 1961-62. Boy, did it work! When that handle was shoved forward the power came up nearly instantly. The boost system was a success and eventually the word got out that nitrous could significantly improve the performance of boat racing engines.

It was Dick Flynn that should be credited with inventing, innovating, designing, and fabricating the first successful “Nitrous Boost System”. As a crewmember he would make adjustments at each race to the system to make it as effective as possible. The boat was very competitive.

It was around 1963 that a crewmember of the new unlimited hydroplane Miss Exide learned of the use of nitrous oxide in a 7-litre hydroplane from Spokane. The crewmember, Bernie Van Cleave, drove over to Spokane from Seattle to meet and talk with Doc Johnston about his new boost system. Van Cleave had learned earlier from Mira Slovak, the former unlimited driver of Miss Wahoo about nitrous injection. Mira, the driver for the new Miss Exide (which was under construction at the time), had been a Czechoslovakian pilot who flew former German war planes during his air force training in the late 1940’s. Slovak had personal experience with a Messerschmitt 109 G with a GM-1 (Goring-Mischung-1) Nitrous Boost System during his flight training in 1947.

Crewman Van Cleave returned to Seattle and developed a different type of nitrous injection system for Miss Exide, using an electric push button on the steering wheel connected to two electric valves: one for nitrous and one for the added fuel. He also dumped the mixture directly into the throat of the Exide’s supercharger on the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine instead of through fuel injectors as Doc Johnston’s boat had. (During his evenings at home in Seattle he did calculations and developed ideas on how the system should work at the kitchen table with his small son at his side.)

The system was successfully tested the week before the Seattle race in 1964 at Coeur D’Alene, Idaho and Miss Exide became the first unlimited to successfully use nitrous.

Doc Johnston raced Annie’s Dodge I very successfully in the early 1960’s and then decided to build a third 7 litre cabover hydroplane in his garage. He named it Annie’s Dodge II which of course had another nitrous boost system in it. He sold Annie’s Dodge I to Norm Majer, who renamed it Majer’s Ford. It was raced successfully several seasons. Being a Ford dealer in Spokane, he had the engine changed to a Ford factory racing engine that came directly from the factory.

The boat was sold a second time to another Spokane surgeon and pediatrician, Dr. Thomas Glipatrick M.D. who was a friend of Doc Johnston. Doc Gilpatrick renamed it Quick Delivery. Dr. Gilpatrick had become interested in racing by helping on the construction of Annie’s Dodge I in Dr. Johnston’s garage; they even sometimes operated on patients together. Doc Gilpatrick successfully raced Quick Delivery with relief driver Larry Schultz. They used a Keith Black Chrysler engine with Dick Flynn’s nitrous system. Their engine man, Fred Rodgers, enlarged the oil passages throughout the engine to help improve lubricating. Gilpatrick made an attempt on the world kilo record on Lake Sammamish with one run at 165 mph. On the return run, he turned a 153 mph because he pulled a rod out of a piston in the last 150 yards. The following year in the spring he tried another kilo run using a Ford 428 SOHC engine and had runs of 159 mph each way.

Looking back fifty years ago it was the experience Dick Flynn gained while a crewmember on the Thrifty Auto Dragster that became invaluable when it came to developing the world’s first nitrous boost system” in a hydroplane, Annie’s Dodge I.

[Reprinted from Unlimited NewsJournal, March 2012]