Improved safety measures failed to save Funny Car driver Scott Kalitta
First Eric Medlen. Now Scott Kalitta. After two Funny Car fatalities in 15 months -- and after numerous upgrades to improve driver safety -- where does the NHRA go from here?
Scott Kalitta didn't have to drag race a Funny Car. His life was good without it. The family air transport business was thriving. But Kalitta wanted back in the car. He missed it, he needed it, he loved it.That passion brought him back to NHRA drag racing after a three-year retirement. On Saturday, it cost him his life.Kalitta, 46, was killed in a fiery accident during qualifying at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J. With the help of John Force Racing, which worked tirelessly to improve safety over the past year, everyone involved in the NHRA had hoped these tragic moments were behind them.But Kalitta's death will bring further scrutiny to safety issues in the NHRA, with many people wondering why two fatalities have occurred in the past two seasons.Kalitta is the second Funny Car driver to lose his life in a crash in only 15 months. Eric Medlen died on March 23, 2007, from injuries he suffered in a testing session accident in Gainesville, Fla., four days earlier.NHRA legend John Force, a 14-time Funny Car champion and the owner of the team Medlen drove for, also suffered serious leg and arm injuries on a crash during the NHRA event at the Texas Motorplex in Ennis last September.Force was devastated by Medlen's death, a man he called "the son he never had." Force has four daughters, including Funny Car driver Ashley Force. He held his team out of the Houston event after Medlen's death and dedicated himself to revolutionizing safety in the sport.Force didn't want to talk about Kalitta's death on Saturday. Other than Kalitta's family, this has to be harder on Force than anyone in the sport. Force and his team have dedicated themselves over the past year to improving the safety of Funny Cars, working in conjunction with the NHRA to make significant changes to the structure of the cars. Among the improvements:• A larger roll cage to keep the driver's head from bouncing off the tubing in an accident.
• Increased padding around the roll cage for more protection for the driver.Even with these advancements, Force suffered the worst injury of his career five months later in a collision with Kenny Bernstein's car. Force's legs were shattered, and he had multiple ankle fractures, deep knee lacerations and ligament damage, a broken wrist and mangled fingers.Force didn't race the rest of the season but continued to make safety improvements to the cars:• An enclosed tub for the drivers to protect their legs and arms in a crash.
• Additional support bars to strengthen a "weakness" found on the steering support.
• Increased thickness on chassis tubing from 1 3/8 inches to 1½ inches.
• A third rail on the side of the cars for added protection on the upper part of the driver's body. This added weight to the car, so the NHRA mandated a 100-pound weight increase for 2008.
• A blue box data recorder to study the G-forces of an impact in an accident.