Will quarter-mile racing return?
SEATTLE -- One year at 1,000 feet. Is it here to stay?
The NHRA made the controversial decision last summer to shorten the distance of a drag race from the traditional quarter-mile (1,320 feet) to 1,000 feet.
It was the right move at the time, a responsible reaction to the tragic death in June 2008 of Funny Car driver Scott Kalitta at Englishtown, N.J. Kalitta's car ran through the shutdown area after a fiery engine explosion.
Most drag racing fans thought the move was temporary until some tracks were improved or speeds were reduced in Top Fuel and Funny Car, the two nitro-fuel classes.
But as the NHRA competitors hit the throttle this weekend in the Northwest Nationals at Pacific Raceways, the debate over race distance and engine power remains a long way from resolution.
"We have not put a timeline on it," said NHRA vice president Jerry Archambeault. "But we would have to make a decision soon to implement something by 2010."
The drivers get it. They know many fans want to see a return to quarter-mile racing, but major obstacles stand in the way.
"I'm a little torn," said Funny Car driver Ron Capps. "I love racing at a thousand feet, but the sport was built around a quarter-mile. However, there are some tracks where I never would race again at a quarter-mile."
Many traditional NHRA fans still complain that the foundation of the sport was lost when the distance was reduced.
But Capps said he feels a few tracks that play host to NHRA events are not capable of racing safely at the additional 320 feet. Some don't have enough of a shutdown area to handle the added distance and speed.
And some of the facilities can't be changed. They are land-locked or have roads that intersect the back end of the track.
"It's not just shutdown areas," Capps said. "There are other issues at some of these tracks. The surface itself is not good enough to run a quarter-mile. They just don't have the traction for it."
So Capps, and other drivers and teams, have proposed a compromise plan: a hybrid schedule in which some events are run at 1,000 feet and some at a quarter-mile.
"There's no reason why we can't do both," said Top Fuel driver Morgan Lucas. "I don't see why it needs a lot of negotiation or discussion. We even could call them long tracks and short tracks.
"But I think going 330 miles per hour again at the better tracks would be a lot of fun. The quarter-mile at most places is what we need to get back to. It's the cornerstone of what drag racing is all about."
Top Fuel racer Brandon Bernstein said he believes a hybrid plan is the answer that works for fans and drivers.
"I'm OK with that," he said. "We should go a quarter-mile at the tracks where we have tons of room. The only issue is records. But you could have two separate records."
Records are at a standstill since going to 1,000 feet. It could get confusing for fans if two sets of records were kept.
"Why not?" Capps asked. "NASCAR races at Bristol [a half-mile oval] one week and Talladega [a 2.6-mile superspeedway] the next, so why can't we do the same type of thing?" Archambeault sees merit in going to a hybrid schedule, but he said other issues must be addressed first.
"It's an interesting concept that has gained a lot of traction with racers and fans," Archambeault said. "We recently did an online poll and asked the fans. They showed overwhelming support for the hybrid idea.
"But that decision will come after we find ways to reduce the power of these engines. We have to do that first. Once the power issue is solved we will address the length of the races."
Engine changes are a battleground area between the NHRA and most of the competitors.
"I don't agree with the small motor combination," Lucas said. "It would drive the costs up for all the teams involved. And it would drive away a lot of the spot players who don't have the money to chase a championship. All motorsports are hurting right now."
Bernstein, who hopes to take over for his legendary father, Kenny Bernstein, as the team owner one day, looks at it from the owners' perspective.
"I know this motor change is the way the NHRA is thinking, but the cost would be way too much," Brandon said. "It's not the way to do it."
The NHRA continues to test motor combinations to reduce power. Even a drag-racing version of restrictor plates, which NASCAR uses at Daytona and Talladega, has been discussed.
But Archambeault wants to calm the fears of the teams about rising costs if a change is made.
"We want to make it cost-effective," Archambeault said. "That's a top priority. How do we do this with the least amount of cost to the teams? That's the question."
Competitors also fear the NHRA will implement a plan that reduces speed to a level that would alienate fans.
"Staying at 300 miles per hour is very important in our sport," Archambeault said. "So how do we reduce power, control costs and still maintain the 300 miles per hour threshold? That's what makes it such a challenge. It's not as simple as it sounds."
Capps says plenty of ideas are on the table, maybe too many ideas.
"I've been in some of these meetings," Capps said. "You ask 10 crew chiefs and they will have 10 different answers on how to slow us down. But we don't want a watered-down quarter-mile."
The NHRA has made some significant safety improvements since Kalitta's death. Catch netting has been increased and expanded at every track.
The cars now have an auto shut-off device if the engine has an explosion, immediately cutting off power and releasing the parachutes.
And racing at 1,000 feet has produced some clear positives. "The races have been a lot closer," said Ashley Force Hood, who is tied with Capps at the top of the Funny Car standings. "Most of the time you win or lose by inches now."
The races even have fewer engine explosions, which saves money for the teams on parts. That also means fewer oil downs: oil and other motor fluids on the track that must be cleaned before the next pass, delaying the action for the fans.
But for some fans, the advantages don't outweigh the disadvantages of not racing to a quarter-mile. And no one knows when or if that will happen again.
Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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