Tragedy puts spotlight back on safety
KENT, Wash. -- Another death and another day when safety issues plagued an NHRA event.
Two drivers and one spectator have been killed at NHRA races this season, and it's only mid-July. Something has to change, but what can be done?
Top Alcohol Dragster driver Mark Niver was killed Sunday during the Northwest Nationals when his car buckled after slamming into the netting at the end of the runoff area.
But questions about the safety of the Pacific Raceways track started long before Niver's tragic run.
Pro Stock drivers threatened not to race over track conditions in the opening round, but they continued later in the day.
Niver's accident and the Pro Stock issues were unrelated, but it still doesn't look good for the NHRA.
The event was delayed for close to two hours after the accident. The race eventually went on.
"When we heard the news, your whole focus is just to leave," said Tim Wilkerson, who won in Funny Car for the second consecutive year at Seattle. "You're so upset. You get to the line and try to take your mind off it, but you really can't. Your heart's in your stomach and you just want to get out of town."
Veteran Cory McClenathan won in Top Fuel, defeating teammate Antron Brown in the final. But the victory wasn't the most important thing for Cory Mac.
"I raced Mark Niver 20 years ago," McClenathan said. "I know we're supposed to thank our sponsors now, but this is about family and what we do. Mark was a great guy and great machinist with a great family. My heart goes out to all of them. Sometimes we just have to remember who we are."
No victory ceremonies were held Sunday. No one felt like celebrating.
Niver's death was the second in a month at an NHRA event. Top Alcohol Funny Car driver Neal Parker, 58, was killed in Englishtown, N.J., on June 11 when his parachutes did not deploy after his run and he crashed beyond the shutdown area.
Pro Stock drivers boycotted the final round at Phoenix earlier this year, feeling the track was unsafe. The Pro Stockers completed the round one week later at Gainesville, Fla.
But tragedy happened in the Phoenix race when a female spectator was killed after a tire from Brown's car came off his dragster and bounced into the grandstand.
Racing cars is dangerous and everyone involved realizes it. It doesn't change that the NHRA has a growing perception problem about the safety of its events. Something has to change because a dark cloud is hanging over professional drag racing.
"You can't help but think that," McClenathan said. "We've had some strange things happen. It is part of racing, but this has been a tough year for everybody and we're feeling the impact of that. Sometimes we don't know God's plan, but these things have overshadowed the year."
Serious injury has become almost nonexistent in NASCAR events because of numerous advances since Dale Earnhardt's death in 2001. No driver has lost his life since that horrible day at Daytona.
But the NHRA continues to have safety-related issues far too frequently in this era of racing. Funny Car driver Scott Kalitta was killed at Englishtown in a similar accident to Parker's in 2008.
Funny Car driver Eric Medlen lost his life in a testing accident at Gainesville in 2007. And NHRA legend John Force was seriously injured in an accident at Ennis, Texas, six months later. Force recovered and is still racing at age 61.
I raced Mark Niver 20 years ago. I know we're supposed to thank our sponsors now, but this is about family and what we do. Mark was a great guy and great machinist with a great family. My heart goes out to all of them. Sometimes we just have to remember who we are.” -- Cory McClenathan
The NHRA hasn't stood still. The series took the bold step of shortening the racing distance from a quarter-mile (1,320 feet) to 1,000 feet after Kalitta's death.
Tethers were added to some cars after the incident that killed the spectator at Phoenix. But the safety-related incidents continue far too often.
Why is it happening?
Niver, 60, was a popular guy among most of the NHRA competitors, racing a bare-bones operation for over 30 years.
"Mark Niver was a friend of mine that I've known forever," said Greg Anderson, who won Sunday in Pro Stock. "When I heard, it was like, 'My God, not again.' There's been too much of that happening lately.
"Mark was a true racer, building everything himself. If you don't like a racer like that, something is wrong with you. I can't believe it happened."
Sunday's problems started early when cloudy skies put a slight mist in the air. After the first two runs in the opening Pro Stock round, the drivers said the track was too slippery at the top end.
NHRA officials checked the asphalt and said it was fine. That wasn't good enough for the drivers. The teams pushed the cars back to the pits.
"It's an absolute miracle we didn't crash a car in those first two pairs," Anderson said after the drivers walked away. "I don't want to point fingers, but it's a dangerous situation that has a simple fix."
Anderson said the fix is an adhesive spray used on the track, but not on the final 320 feet used by the Pro Stock cars.
"Keep in mind that the nitro teams run 1,000 feet," he said. "We run a quarter-mile.
"We need the glue all the way to a quarter-mile. We preach it every week, but they don't do it.
"There is a huge discrepancy between what the Pro Stock drivers need in a racing surface and what the NHRA feels we need. If we don't have the glue, we won't go out there. There's nothing else we can do. It's a standoff."
NHRA officials feel it isn't always in the best interest of safety for all the professional classes to spray the top end of the track during a round.
The Pro Stock drivers did return when the weather conditions changed to sunny skies and warmer temperatures, but this is a continuing issue that's bound to come up again.
So what can be done?
First, Pro Stock also should switch to 1,000 feet, as should Pro Stock Motorcycle, so all the pro classes race the same distance.
Second, the NHRA must look again at ways to improve the runoff areas at every facility. It's an inadequate safety solution at too many tracks.
Third, parachute deployment needs an overhaul with advanced techniques to ensure chutes open and have backup systems in case of a malfunction. If we can use chutes to stop the Space Shuttle without incident, it shouldn't be a problem in dragsters.
Something more must be done.
"We go out here to put on a good show for the fans and be as safe as possible," McClenathan said. "That should always be our goal."
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.