- John Schwarb
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POMONA, Calif. -- When the 2009 NHRA season kicks off here in less than three months, 1,000-foot racing will continue in the nitromethane classes -- with the door cracked ever so slightly for a possible return to the standard quarter-mile.
This weekend's 44th Auto Club Finals will mark a dozen races contested at 1,000 feet, a safety measure instituted in July shortly after the death of Funny Car driver Scott Kalitta at Englishtown, N.J. Much of the pit area embraced the move at that time, and then breathed a sigh of relief at the NHRA's announcement Friday.
"NHRA made the right call," 14-time Funny Car champion John Force said. "The stands are still full, the racing is closer than it's ever been in Funny Car -- it's like Pro Stock. There's so many positives to stay at 1,000 feet than to go back to 1,320 [feet, the quarter-mile]."
NHRA vice president of racing operations Graham Light promised Top Fuel and Funny Car racing would not resume at the quarter-mile distance until the sanctioning body came up with a viable way to do so. But the real news Friday was that it would be trying, through engine testing on its own dime.
"While the tradition of the sport is important, safety is more important," Light said. "Our prime focus right now is to look at the power these cars are developing and look at methods that we can effectively and economically for the teams, particularly in this day and age, ratchet the power level back in the cars. If we can do that and we're comfortable with the solution, we'll consider whether or not we'll go to 1,320."
The testing, which will begin over the offseason and include some of the brightest minds in the sport such as eight-time champion Top Fuel crew chief Alan Johnson, will not focus on creating a smaller engine but rather one that restricts the amount of fuel and air intakes. Such an engine wouldn't be designed to go 330 mph but would be less prone to breakdowns and could therefore save teams money through longer lives for crankshafts, rods, pistons and cylinder heads, among other parts.
Then again, that's what the 1,000-foot races have done for teams already.
"Going back to the quarter-mile is a catastrophic decision -- I would overemphasize 'catastrophic,'" said John Medlen, crew chief for Funny Car driver Mike Neff. "Parts attrition has never been better than right now; we've had less tire failure; we've had less tire incidents and not all NHRA tracks are long enough. What earthly reason would you want to go back to 1,320 feet? Go forward. Don't go backwards. If you keep visiting that, you keep opening the door for that thought process, and there is nothing good about it.
"I wasn't originally a proponent of 1,000 foot; the first thing I thought was 'I don't know how much good that's gonna be.' But you start looking at it in depth. After we saw it, it doesn't matter who's the crew chief or who's the tuner or what the team's budget is, you will spend more money and risk more drivers' lives by running 1,320 feet than 1,000."
Medlen's son, Eric, died early in the 2007 season during a test session at Gainesville, Fla., when his John Force Racing Funny Car had a tire failure that triggered a massive vibration. His death from head injuries led to cockpit safety improvements, including larger roll cages with increased padding, and those were credited with saving his boss's life later in the year after a horrific crash at Dallas. Force's crash precipitated more safety measures, including an enclosed tub to protect drivers' arms and legs and increased thickness on chassis tubing.
Those measures didn't save Kalitta's life. In his crash, the 7,000-horsepower engine blew up just before the finish line. Spewing oil from the explosion compromised his rear brakes, and damaged parachutes did little to slow his Funny Car. The two-time Top Fuel champion was helpless as the car soared through the relatively short runoff area at Englishtown and into a concrete barrier.
In response, the NHRA examined the runoff areas at all of its tracks. Some -- like Norwalk, Ohio, and Phoenix -- have extended runoffs into farmland or empty desert that pose little threat to runaway cars. Pomona is at the other extreme: It's the shortest track on the circuit and can't be extended any further because of a road past its runoff area and a railroad behind its starting line and tower.
The NHRA owns the Auto Club Raceway, and the track hosts its season-opening and closing events, so it's not going anywhere. But in the wake of Kalitta's accident, the sanctioning body spent $300,000 on runoff-area improvements that drivers have roundly praised. Similar fixes were also made at Indianapolis, another NHRA-owned facility. And the organization stopped racing the quarter-mile.
Yet the move from that distance still has its detractors, from hard-core fans to a vocal minority of drivers.
"For me, the 1,000-foot [distance] had a place for a quick fix, but I do not think it's anything we need to consider going forward," said Cruz Pedregon, the 1992 Funny Car champion and points leader going into Sunday's finale. "I'm thinking of the fans. We've conditioned the fans to understand and relate to our elapsed time numbers. That engages the fan and the fan becomes aware of what exactly we're doing and the difference between racetracks and what temperatures mean. We've inundated them lately with numbers -- the dragsters are running 3-something [elapsed times] -- how does that integrate? To me, we're asking the fans to be as excited and interested, all for those reasons I think that we should go back to the quarter-mile.
"I think our car became unsafe not because of racetrack length, but because the sanctioning body has allowed too many modifications. The horsepower of these engines has reached an all-time level that probably had exceeded the need for this six, seven years ago. When we started having tire issues, that was the first sign of trouble. Since then, we've lost some drivers. One is too many, and we've lost several, and these have all related to the speeds of the cars."
Advocates of the shorter distance share the latter point, and some raise their voices when asked about going back to the quarter-mile.
"I'm vehement about short racetracks with end conditions that will kill you. You have to shorten the course, and they did. I understand there's some talk about going back to 1,320, and that will send me home," said longtime nitro driver Jim Head, part of an NHRA safety task force created after Kalitta's accident.
"A couple drivers are a little goofy and say the wrong thing. I also understand that there's an extremely vocal, small, small minority of fans that say it's got to be a quarter-mile. The first thing I tell these people is, 'I didn't see you at Scotty's funeral.' We've got some track operators that are vehemently against 1,000 foot; I tell them the same thing. What do you say to a guy that comes in and says, 'If you don't run a quarter mile I'm not coming to the racetrack'? 'See ya. Bye.'"
Head and others are quick to point out that in the nitro classes, 1,000 feet had really been the de facto distance for a few years, well before it became official for the past 12 races this season
"As a driver, all you're doing that last 320 feet is going like this," said Funny Car driver Ron Capps, closing his eyes and white-knuckle clenching an imaginary steering wheel. "You get on the rev limiter, you're just holding on."
Capps was the beneficiary two weeks ago at Las Vegas of a new safety invention, an Electrimotion safety shutoff controller that automatically shut the fuel off and deployed parachutes when the car's supercharger exploded.
When asked what the worst-case scenario could have been had such a mechanism not been in his car -- in which he said he suffered a brief concussion with the explosion -- Capps quickly replied, "Scott Kalitta."
It's these sorts of innovations, combined with a less powerful engine, that give NHRA reason to believe it can someday return to the quarter-mile.
"We recognize we've got to have 300 mph race cars -- there's a magic-number thing about 300 mph," Light said. "Do we need 330? Do we need 340? I don't think so, and the racers don't think so. As long as we have 300 and 4-second elapsed times, we have that excitement and the thrill. When we say slow them down, we're not talking 250 mph. It's ratcheting the power back slightly to a more manageable, hopefully less expensive combination that runs a quarter-mile about 300, 305 mph."
The sanctioning body doesn't have that engine yet. It may not for a year, or two years or longer. But if it does, and then tries to return to the racing seen just five months ago, the NHRA could end up with far more opposition than it has now from those who want to return to the quarter-mile.
"Our heritage is not enough," Force said. "In the long run you might go back, but I'm telling you, I've sat with Connie Kalitta when he cried, and you're going to tell that man that if his son had another 320 feet he might have survived?
"If they go back and something happens, they've got a big problem."
John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
News that nitro racing in the NHRA will stay at the shortened 1,000-foot distance -- at least for the time being -- brought a collective sigh of relief from the pit area at Auto Club Raceway, writes John Schwarb.