Force: NHRA 'made the right call' by staying at 1,000 feet
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.
- "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.[+] EnlargeGary A. Vasquez/US PresswireSafety improvements following Eric Medlen's death likely saved the life of NHRA legend John Force, above, in a 2007 crash.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.[+] EnlargeCourtesy NHRAThe NHRA shortened the race distance from 1,320 feet to 1,000 feet following the death of Funny Car driver Scott Kalitta at Englishtown, N.J.
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