Commentary

Shortened drag strip a hot-button item among NHRA faithful

Some fans applaud it. Others despise it. Did the safety-conscious NHRA do the right thing by shortening the quarter-mile drag strip to 1,000 feet? The debate continues, writes Bill Stephens.

Updated: July 15, 2008, 3:06 PM ET
By Bill Stephens | Special to ESPN.com

There is no consensus on it. Some voices have been raised in support of it and others are shouting their disapproval of it. A small percentage has expressed no opinion, but in the overall picture, the newest face of NHRA POWERade drag racing has not gone unnoticed.

The 29th Mopar Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway outside Denver concluded Sunday afternoon, but there have been lingering reverberations throughout the sport caused by the shortened drag strip that went into effect for the first time in NHRA national event history. The 1,000-foot distance from start to finish line for Top Fuel Dragsters and Funny Cars removed 320 feet from the traditional quarter-mile track that has been the bread and butter of organized drag racing since the National Hot Rod Association was born in 1951.

The move, taken in response to Scott Kalitta's fatal, high-speed accident in the shutdown area of Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J., on June 21, was applauded by some fans as a sensible and proactive step in increasing the safety of the sport. But there have also been equally passionate dissenting reactions to the shortened track from the NHRA faithful, primarily from hard-core fans who place a tremendous amount of importance on drag racing tradition.

"I think the NHRA did the right thing," said Dave Pearson, a 31-year-old fan from Lebanon, Tenn. "Every time the NHRA makes a change, people disagree with it. We saw that when they went to 90 percent nitro, we saw that when they brought in the Countdown to the Championship, and now they're not happy with 1,000 feet.

"But the racing on Sunday was great, and it was a safe race, too. I don't think fans have much to complain about."

Another longtime NHRA fan, Mitch Altobelli from Dearborn, Mich., expressed a similar opinion, except with one reservation.

"I didn't mind seeing the fuel cars race for 1,000 feet," said the 42-year-old utility worker. "It made for more exciting starts because the drivers know with a shortened track they can't leave late.

"But I do hope it's only temporary. Drag racing has always been a quarter-mile and all those records that have been set would be meaningless if we didn't go back to 1,320 feet. I'm OK with it for now until a permanent solution is found."

On the opposite end of the argument, Stan Fleiss of Fort Wayne, Ind., who still occasionally drag races his 1965 Mustang, doesn't like the shorter course.

"I understand the NHRA had to do something quick," he said, "but why not reduce the size of the wings and decrease all that downforce on the Top Fuel cars? The Funny Cars could have some weight added to slow them down and we could still race the full quarter-mile. I just think 1,000 feet has no connection to everything that has happened in the sport for all those years."

"I don't think Wally [Parks, the NHRA's late founder] would have agreed with this move," said 48-year-old Bernie McKinnon of New Hope, Pa., who says he's been to every NHRA national event in Reading for the past 23 years. "Wally wanted the racers to be safe, but he would have gone to them and worked with them on this problem before taking such a drastic step. And what sense does it make to run 1,000 feet at tracks with long shutoff areas? I think they may have moved too quickly on this one."

It was the very concept of disagreement that fostered the creation of the NHRA back when two hot rodders went head-to-head in their homebuilt machines to determine which one was fastest. And now, 57 years later, there are still disagreements among those who passionately devote their motorsports loyalties to drag racing, and in this case, it's a disagreement that goes to the very essence of what drag racing has always been.

Two cars. On a quarter-mile.

Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN.com.

ALSO SEE