May 2010 Tech Talk
Matt Cooke is the owner and operator of Hendersonville, NC based Dixie Racing Products. Dixie, originally launched by Matt’s father Tim in 1984, has been a long trusted name in the high performance industry for various products, most notably their shifters and shift solenoids.
Matt has been a sportsman racer his entire life. After starting his career in a Vega Station Wagon bracket car (which he still owns and is in the process of rebuilding), he moved into the IHRA Top Dragster ranks, where he won the 1998 IHRA World Championship and was a constant fixture in the top ten throughout the decade. More recently, Matt has moved into the NHRA ranks behind the wheel of his gorgeous Corvette Roadster. Matt and his wife Kelly can be found at NHRA, IHRA, and big dollar bracket events across the country throughout the racing season.
Just last year, Dixie Racing Products signed with Ohlins Shocks to be the company’s exclusive drag racing dealer. Ohlins, which is based in Sweden, has been a front runner in shock absorber technology within various forms of motorsports (Formula 1, Motocross, NASCAR, etc.) for years, but it was not until recently that the company designed a shock specifically for drag racing applications. Matt Cooke and Dixie Racing Products have stepped up to fill the gap between the manufacturer and the racer: to better explain the Ohlins products, offer local customer service and distribution.
Given Matt’s on-track success, industry involvement, and hands-on suspension knowledge, we figured he’d be an excellent interview for TIBR subscribers. Within the following interview we’ll try to dissect as much information from Matt as possible regarding suspension basics, Ohlins products, and sportsman racing in general.
TIBR: Matt, thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to share some knowledge with ThisIsBracketRacing.com members. We briefly outlined your past accomplishments in the preface, but for our readers who are unfamiliar with you, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your personal racing career.
Matt Cooke: I started out racing with my Dad at Sunshine Dragstrip in St. Petersburg, FL in the mid 80’s. He had a front engine dragster, and we raced all over Florida with it. When I turned 16, he bought me a 1976 Vega Wagon Kammback. I started racing with the likes of Dave Edwards, Kenny Underwood, Steve Cohen, Larry Ericksmon, Lou Desio, Tim Butler, and the Williams Brothers, to name a few. Electronics were just coming about and I was all about them. My first year I won a Super Pro race, $1,200 for a $35 entry. I beat Bill Ierna in the final…and I was hooked! It’s not hard to get hooked when I was working for $3.75/hr at Little Caesar’s. I went off to college, and only raced when I could. Dad bought a Spitzer dragster in 1991; the same car that I won the Top Dragster IHRA championship with 7 years later. I have been racing IHRA a long time and over the last few years concentrating on NHRA. The super class field interests me because it’s a real challenge to get these cars dialable and learning the finish line strategies. I was somewhat successful at local bracket races, not a huge standout by any means. I have been fortunate enough to have won a few IHRA National and Divisional events. I won a world championship and a Florida 5 day $10,000 race which was probably my most exciting win. I have had some success, but a lot more goals to check off…Starting with an NHRA win at either the National or Divisional level.
TIBR: You mentioned racing with your father, Tim, and the passion in motorsports that he instilled in you. Your father started Dixie Racing Products back in 1984, a business that you and your wife Kelly still oversee today. Give us a cliff notes version of the history of DRP.
Matt Cooke: Dixie was started out of a little cottage on Sunset Beach in Florida.. Dad was good with engineering things. I don’t care what it was he could find a way of making things happen. As far as I’m concerned he was ahead of his time.
Dixie makes pneumatic and electrical kits for all sorts of automated tasks. Shift kits for all types of shifters. Three speed shifters for reverse valve body applications. Pneumatic clutch release kits. We have sold and raced with our components for almost 3 decades. You will find more Dixie electric solenoids in the staging lanes than any other competitor. My Dad was the first to come up with a specifically designed solenoid to shift drag cars. It was not an off the shelf item in some other arena doing some other task.
TIBR: Your latest undertaking is with the folks at Ohlins shocks, as Dixie Racing Products is the exclusive Drag Racing Distributor. How on earth did you get hooked up with a company from Sweden that’s never specialized in the drag racing market?
Matt Cooke: It was just a timing deal…As are a lot of things in life. Kelly and I own a storage facility in Hendersonville, NC and I was in the office that day. A man came in to pay and I was making small talk with him. I asked him his name to look up the amount due.
He said “Joey Petree.”
I replied, “Not the Petree that announces the roundy round stuff on Saturdays?”
He laughed and said “Ya, that’s my dad.”
Small world! I knew Andy Petree lived in Hendersonville, so I thought he might be a relative. I asked what he did for a living. He said he built dampners for Ohlins. I asked what a dampner is and who is Ohlins?
He replied, “Only the best shock on the market!”
Well it wasn’t long after that and I went to Bristol’s National event and my car was launching to the right a small amount. I kept looking under it trying to see something obvious. I changed the preload and it band aided the problem. I got down to 6 cars and lost in a close race to Matt Little. I drove the car in the shop and didn’t race for 4 more weeks. I went into the shop one day and saw a small amount of fluid on the floor and it ended up being a leaky shock. I decided to call Joey at Ohlins, and that was the beginning of the DRP/Ohlins relationship.
TIBR: Now, any drag racing orders for Ohlins Shocks and related equipment come to you at Dixie Racing Products, correct? Do you handle the customer service (rebuilds, repairs, trouble-shooting) end as well?
Matt Cooke: Yes. You can also purchase from our Divisional Reps at most NHRA Lucas Oil Divisional events or from Jegs. Dixie can handle all built-to-service needs: Stroke changes, valving changes, end eye lengths changed, dyno testing, anything to do with servicing the Ohlins brand.
TIBR: Due to your involvement with Ohlins, we can assume you’ve spent a lot of time analyzing data, studying combinations, and getting your hands dirty underneath sportsman racing machines. Our reader base is very diverse: we’ve got members with everything from 13.00 Footbrake cars with leaf springs and slapper bars to 4.40 4-link dragsters. What, in your experience, is the most common misconception by sportsman racers in terms of suspension and set up?
Matt Cooke: The most common misconception, in my opinion, would have to be that shocks are not a major key in the consistency of a drag car, which couldn’t be further from the truth. For years we have all paid attention to carburetors, torque converters, and other numerous key components on our cars. Those components are all crucial, as we know. But racers tend to overlook the shock absorber itself. Now is the time to start paying attention to shocks. Obviously I’m biased, but back-to-back testing has shown that with Ohlins, not only do you get a superior product with proven consistency, Ohlins shocks will far outlast the competition.
TIBR: The issue of tires; the number of runs we can put on tires and the proper pressure, is one of constant debate among sportsman racers. How big of a variable are the tires themselves in the grand scheme of a proper suspension tune-up.
Matt Cooke: Proper tire size and pressure are very important to the consistency of a drag car. Without the proper tire setup (pressure, size, compound, and sidewall stiffness), the suspension cannot do its job and the power can’t be put to the ground. With that said, I feel like racers are always quick to blame the tires whenever they have an issue. They’ll order a new set of slicks, or even switch brands, and they’ll convince themselves that they’ve fixed the problem. In reality, usually that’s just a bandaide. When all the suspension components are working properly, and they’ve been fine tuned to a specific combination, tires aren’t usually so much of a variable.
TIBR: With the advent of data recorders and advancements in technology, drag racers have come a long way in recent years in terms of actually putting scientific evidence into the development of new parts and pieces; rather than the seat of the pants method by which all racers used to do things. Tell us a little bit about the technology that goes into the design process at Ohlins.
Matt Cooke: From the in-house shaker rig and on-track testing, to real world racing situations, Ohlins engineers have put thousands of man hours into the development of these shocks. These are the same shocks that world champions from every aspect of motorsports have been using to achieve their goals since 1978. All Ohlins shocks are engineered with a separating piston design, not with a condom bag full of nitrogen. The revolutionary twin tube design of the TTX36 eliminates cavitation and reduces rod pressure. The TTX36 also utilizes external valve design which gives it a perfect pressure balance through the entire stroke. For more specifics regarding each model visit www.dixieracingproducts.com.
TIBR: The first pair of Ohlins shocks you bolted on a car was probably as much of a learning experience for you as it was the company. What can you tell us about what you’ve learned since that time? Has your testing and R&D been instrumental in the development of Ohlins line of drag racing shocks and related equipment?
Matt Cooke: Right out of the box the Ohlins shocks made my car the most consistent it had ever been. We first did a number of 60’ runs with the leaky brand and my car went from being .006, .010,and sometimes even .015 off, to varying .002 in 5 runs, with only the shocks being changed. We worked on valving for 100’s of laps to get racers more in the box for pro-tree racing. Also, other racers such as, Luke Bogacki and Jason Lynch have been instrumental in the development of the Ohlins drag racing line. Overall, the consistency is what makes the Ohlins stand out from the competition.
TIBR: Let’s take the average Saturday night warrior bracket car. Let’s say a door car, with a ladder bar setup, or even a faster car with a four link… What’s more critical to the cars overall consistency: the suspension setup or the shock design and/or setting? What’s more sensitive to adjustment?
Matt Cooke: Regardless of the application, even with the perfect suspension setup, a racers car can and will not be as consistent without the right shock design. The shock design is key. The quality of materials, low tolerances in manufacturing, and the valve design are what sets Ohlins apart from other shock manufacturers. While suspension setup is also very important to a drag cars consistency, without a superior shock, the car will not be as consistent.
TIBR: How about a high powered 4-link dragster?
Matt Cooke: On a higher horsepower 4-link dragster, of course the setup will be different than that of a slower door car. While the overall shock design will stay the same, the much lighter dragster with higher motion ratios will require a completely different valving built into the shock.
TIBR: It appears the Ohlins is in the middle to upper end of the pricing scale in comparison to other manufacturers in the drag racing market. Most of us realize that in the long run, we get what we pay for. Why should we spend our money with Ohlins?
Matt Cooke: Absolutely, the shock is what controls the chassis and no other shock company puts as much time and R&D work into their shocks. The difference you feel and experience from the Ohlins shock in no accident. These are top shelf shocks!
TIBR: Some of this terminology may go way over the head of the average racer, but what makes the Ohlins shock so much more dependable and consistent than the average lower price drag racing shock? Why are they so durable?
Matt Cooke: The dependability and consistency goes back to the high standards that Öhlins shocks are built by. Öhlins only uses the highest quality materials and their parts are made with the lowest of tolerances and are carefully engineered. It is this level of consistency in manufacturing that carries over to consistency on the track. So far, all the guys using the Öhlins on their drag cars have experienced extremely consistent 60 foot times. It’s like you just set the shocks and then forget about them. You can start focusing on other aspects of the car. This Is Bracket Racing’s own Luke Bogacki can attest to that.
As for the durability, the quality of the materials has a lot to do with that, but it is also due to the Öhlins oil that is used in these shocks. It is engineered to not break down as fast as some other shock oils. This is also why it is a great idea to have your shocks rebuilt every year. This keeps the oil fresh and in turn keeps the o-rings from wearing out.
TIBR: We know that Luke Bogacki has been running Ohlins Shocks and springs on each of his American Dragsters for nearly a year now, and he’s experienced great success. He’s said that the Ohlins setup is “Night and Day” from any other shock he’d run in the past, going on to say that he “Never realized I could have so much more freedom in suspension tuning from the shock itself.” Can a shock really make a noticeable difference in the cars feel and consistency?
Matt Cooke: Short Answer: Yes. It’s hard to sell someone on that until they make the switch. Obviously Luke is successful and well respected. He knows his stuff. When we first came out with the dragster shock, I contacted Luke to see if he’d be willing to try it. In his first call to me after he’d done some testing, he said I couldn’t have it back & asked where to send the check. He’s since installed Ohlins shocks on a number of his cars.
TIBR: Aside from Luke, give us some other recognizable names who have switched to Ohlins and what they’ve thought about the shocks.
Matt Cooke: We’ve got a number of shocks out in competition right now. Some of our notable customers include Jason Lynch, Brian Folk, Mike Desio, Donnie Urban, Chuck Westcott, Tommy DiPascal, and John Glenn.
TIBR: Matt, thank you again for your time and candidness. For any of our readers who may have specific questions about their personal set ups, or want more information about Ohlins Shocks, what’s their best way to contact you directly?