Commentary

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?

Updated: June 25, 2008, 3:10 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

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.

This was deeply personal for Force. He didn't do it for himself. His four-car team is a family operation. Ashley is one of the rising stars in the sport. She became the first woman in history to win a Funny Car event earlier this season.

Robert Hight, Force's son-in-law, also is one of the top competitors in the NHRA, finishing 19 points short of winning the championship last year.

At age 58, Force knows his driving days will end soon, but he wants to do everything he can to make the cars safe for the people he loves.

He has done everything he knew to do, but now another Funny Car racer has died. Where does the NHRA go from here?

Kalitta's death came on the same day that Top Fuel racer Alan Bradshaw said on national TV that he got out of his dragster and quit because he felt his team had compromised safety on recent changes made to the car.

Having two deaths in such a short period of time is extremely rare in this era of professional racing. It stands out dramatically in comparison to other racing series. NASCAR hasn't suffered a fatality since Dale Earnhardt's death in the 2001 Daytona 500, thanks to numerous safety advancements.

Kalitta's death will bring questions that have no answers. It's too early to know all the details of Kalitta's accident. The engine exploded about 1,000 feet into his run. The car didn't slow down, zooming at close to 300 mph as it went through the sand pit at the end of the track before crashing at the back of the facility.

Kalitta proved long ago he could race with the best of the best in guiding a 7,000-horsepower machine down a quarter-mile track in less than five seconds. He won Top Fuel dragster championships in 1994 and '95 before retiring after the 1999 season.

But Kalitta couldn't stay away. It was in his blood. He returned in 2003, driving for his famous father's team.

Connie Kalitta, Scott's dad, is one of the true legends of drag racing. A former driver and a longtime crew chief and team owner, he led Shirley Muldowney to her historic first Top Fuel title in 1977.

Scott Kalitta was racing for his father. Doug Kalitta, Scott's cousin, drives a Top Fuel dragster for Connie's team. Now one of the NHRA's most renowned operations must regroup and try to make sense of an unthinkable loss.

Force and his team know that feeling all too well. And the NHRA hopes to find a solution so no one has to feel that way again.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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