The Disaster Nationals

In more than 35 years of being a drag racing journalist I cannot remember a worse weekend for the sport of drag racing, the NHRA and the management team at Firebird International Raceway in Chandler, AZ.

The race was plagued by bad weather for most of the weekend so attendance was down, something that the NHRA and the track can ill afford in the current economy, especially after having 16 or 17 races negatively affected by weather in 2009!

The sport suffered its first spectator fatality in my memory when a wheel and tire assembly separated from the DSR Top Fueler driven by Antron Brown. It appears, just from watching the wreck dozens of times on the tube, that the severe tire shake that Brown’s car experienced could have led to the wheel assembly coming off, but nothing official has been released regarding that issue. If any one knows what caused the failure positively they haven’t yet spoke up.  The wheel and tire careened down track and into an area at the end of the pit-side bleachers, hitting and damaging several vehicles after striking a woman and fatally injuring her.

If that tragedy weren’t enough, two Pro Stock racers and a Super Street racer had serious problems with bumps in the left lane around 600 and 800 feet (according to info furnished to a Pro Stock team by track-condition specialist Lanny Miglizzi ) that unloaded the cars when they went over them. Veteran Pro Stock drivers Gordie Rivera Jr. and Vinnie Deceglie both turned their cars over while attempting to qualify in the left lane.

Former NHRA Pro Stock World Champ Greg Anderson twice went on the ESPN broadcast of the event to criticize the track surface and the danger of driving on it for the Pro Stock drivers. He was apparently cut off during the course of his second interview because of his comments.

I’ve contacted some prominent Pro Stock team owners, builders and crew members that were at the race, and they all verify that after the first round of Pro Stock eliminations the Pro Stock drivers and owners and the NHRA agreed that the Phoenix track as it was this weekend was unsafe for Pro Stockers to race on.

The general consensus of opinion of the Pro Stock experts I talked to, including a representative from the JEGS Pro Stock team, said that the left lane had problems with the bumps in the track -- you might remember a few years back when the NHRA had problems with that same left lane and had to repair it in the middle of the national event -- and the traction in both lanes down track was practically non-existent after the first session on Friday.

One car builder that I spoke with, who asked not be identified, said that after the first qualifying session on Friday the traction on the back half of the track just got worse and worse. His opinion was that if the track had been sprayed with 100 percent VHT every day the Pro Stocks wouldn’t have had as serious handling problems as they did. But it wasn’t sprayed. 

Part of the problem is that NHRA mandates the rear wickerbill (spoiler) on NHRA Pro Stocks not be more than one inch tall, and the cars just aren’t designed to create a lot more downforce than what they make in regular race trim.

In an effort to solve the problem of not enough traction, the NHRA told the Pro Stock teams that they could add an extra one degree of angle to the wickerbill to make more downforce, but as one tuner told me, “We had already done that. The problem with the Pro Stocks is that if more downforce is developed, the tires start rubbing holes in the quarter-panels.”

One team rep told me that when NHRA realized that the Pro Stock teams were not going to race they offered all of the Pro Stock teams still in after the first round 50 Full Throttle Championship points. Later that offer was withdrawn and Graham Light decided to finish the Phoenix Pro Stock eliminations at Gainesville starting on Friday, March 12, with the semifinal pairs matched up during third round of qualifying and the final round matched up during the final round of qualifying on Saturday. The times posted during those runs will count towards qualifying for the Gatornationals event. That evidently was a popular decision.

The questions that remain include what will the NHRA do to address the concerns of its Pro Stock racers if faced with this problem at another track? Especially in light of the “palace revolt” by the Pro Stock teams at Phoenix, who by all accounts told the NHRA they wouldn’t continue racing at Phoenix after the first round because of track conditions. With many of the teams racing without actual major sponsors they are under much less pressure to “just shut-up and race” than in the past.

Another question that has to answered is how the NHRA could not have known about the problems with the track surface at Firebird International Raceway before hand? Another burning question is who is ultimately responsible for making sure racers have a safe track to race on at an NHRA national event? The track operator, the NHRA or the racers themselves? Whoever is responsible sure screwed up this time.

As for the Anton Brown tragedy, let’s be clear about one thing: track conditions probably had zero to do with this tragic accident. Every racer and tuner that I have talked said the startling line and the first 60 to 100 feet of the track offered great traction. And the right lane, which Antron Brown was in, was considered the best lane.

As far as I can find there isn’t another instance in history of professional drag racing where a wheel and tire assembly have gone into the pits causing injury or death. As far as why the wheel came off, that is being investigated but the general consensus among the racecar builders I’ve talked to is that it was a random failure and not the start of a trend.

One thing is sure: the NHRA and drag racing in general didn’t need the kind of disastrous weekend they experienced at Phoenix.