Changes regarded as step in right direction

Originally Published: July 16, 2004
By Bill Stephens | ESPN

As rain washed out the first day of qualifying for the 25th Mopar Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway in Morrison, Colo., on Friday, the topic of conversation being exchanged by the majority of the professional nitro teams filling time in the pits was what effect the new rules recently enacted by the NHRA would have over the second half of the NHRA POWERade season.

A new Goodyear slick for both Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars with a new minimum air pressure mandate, a newly required cockpit shield for the dragsters, and the upcoming 85 percent maximum mixture of nitromethane beginning in Seattle next week have all been placed into the rule book as a result of Darrell Russell's fatal accident two weeks ago in St. Louis.

Gary Scelzi, the Funny Car winner in St. Louis and good friend of Russell, felt the new rules were a step in the right direction but he'd like to see more done to improve Funny Car construction parameters. "I'd like to see more done to protect the driver in the event of debris being thrown into the cockpit. Ron Capps' accident last year in which the supercharger rotors were blown right toward him was an example of what I mean.

"I switched from Top Fuel dragsters to Funny Cars because I wasn't comfortable in the seat of a dragster anymore. After what happened to Darrell in St. Louis, I'm even more convinced now that I made the right call."

Lee Beard, the tuner for Scelzi's teammate at Schumacher Racing, Whit Bazemore, felt that there shouldn't be a tendency to overreact after an accident such as Russell's.

"Darrell was killed by a freak situation. Something got into the cockpit and struck him. But rather than find ways to slow the cars down, we should be concentrating on bringing the cars up to better safety standards for protecting the driver. This sport has always been about going quicker and faster. We should now further increase our efforts to become safer."

Del Worsham, who like Scelzi has raced in both Top Fuel and Funny Car, likes the new tire rule and thinks performance won't suffer dramatically -- at least not after a few races.

"I think the new D2300 tire is a good thing. First, it's based on the D1430 tire we ran a couple of years ago and that tire has a great safety record, plus we have lots of race data on what it does.

"And when we went from almost 100 percent nitro to 90 percent in 2000, it wasn't long before we were going quicker than we did on the higher percentages. When we switch to 85 percent, the engines may actually like it better because there won't be as much energy abusing the internal parts. I think we're going in the right direction."

Twelve-time Funny Car champion John Force was also quick to say that the new rules will have little noticeable effect on elapsed times and speeds, but may take away some of the consistency that the current combinations have produced.

"We haven't been down the racetrack with this new tire yet and that always means you don't know for sure what the car will do. But this sport is about entertainment and watching drivers getting hurt or killed isn't entertainment to drag racing fans, so if these new rules give us closer racing and safer cars, the fans will have a better show to enjoy. Nothing will ever be 100 percent safe and when you're out there racing at over 300 miles-per-hour, you're never going to eliminate the danger. But at least the NHRA is taking some steps to prevent what we saw in St. Louis and you have to give them credit for that."

Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN and ESPN.com.

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