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I was one of the first to call for a shorter track for the NHRA professional classes and I am an advocate of slowing down the nitro cars. My reasoning for both opinions hasn’t changed.
When I made these suggestion I believed -- and still do -- that a majority of the NHRA tracks are simply too short for Top Fuel or Funny Cars to get stopped easily and safely if the driver is in any sort of trouble. The definition of trouble would be multiple failures such as a hung throttle and no chutes, or a bad fire and no brakes, or some other combination of problems that would occur at speeds above, say, 250 mph.
With the recent deaths of sportsman racers Neal Parker and Mark Niver, many of the people that were dead set against shortening the track for Top Fuel and Funny Car are suddenly writing letters and flooding the boards demanding that the NHRA shorten the distance and insinuating that the supposed “short” tracks were responsible for those two veteran drivers’ deaths.
At the risk of being accused of being a hypocrite, my opinion is that neither of the two recent deaths can be tied to the length of the race tracks.
Here is my reasoning to support my opinion regarding this. First, let’s look at what we know about both deaths. In both instances the drivers drove straight as an arrow into the shutoff area and the restraining fence. I’ve watched both crashes over and over and in both cases it appears that neither driver was driving an out of control race car.
You could see that Mark Nivers was on the brakes and driving his car. It looked to me like he was making minor steering corrections up to the point his dragster entered the sand trap. In the case of Neal Parker it didn’t appear he was having any trouble driving the car.
I didn’t personally know Nivers but I have watched him make a lot of passes and he was in my opinion a very competent driver. On the other hand I did know Neal Parker and watched him man-handle his blown altereds on many a pass. I believe that if he was in control of his alky Funny Car he would have probably spun that car out or driven it into the wall before he would have driven it into the sand at over 200 mph.
So, it is my opinion, based on 40 years of participation in and observation of drag racing, that the track distance had little to do with these two drivers’ deaths.
Immediately after Parker’s death I called my old friend and driver Whit Bazemore to talk about the tracks. I called him for his opinion for several reasons. He has been on fire at speed in nitro cars on more than one occasion. He also has had chute failure on a 325-mph pass, so I asked him if he thought the tracks were unsafe. His answer surprised me somewhat. He said that he didn’t think the tracks were unsafe and that included racing nitro cars on the quarter mile.
He related to me several instances where he had to stop his Funny Car and Top Fueler after a full pass and no chutes. He stressed that he felt with properly installed carbon fiber brakes -- especially on a Nitro Funny Car -- he could stop safely on any of the NHRA tracks. He is not the only NHRA driver/tuner/team owner that feels that way.
So here we are at another crossroads. Should all NHRA drag racing be on 1,000-foot or shorter tracks? Most of the nitro racers and crew chiefs I’ve talked to do not want to return to a quarter-mile track, both for safety and financial reasons. I don’t think most sportsman racers necessarily want to either.
I think the problem that needs to be addressed is not track length but better cars and better sand traps and catch fences. One thing the clip of the Niver crash proved beyond a shadow of a doubt is that the car’s wheels didn’t sink into the sand. So we need a better trap and a “softer” catch fence.
On the subject of the cars, I checked and carbon fiber brakes aren’t mandatory for alky Funny Cars or dragsters. That rule has to change immediately. Carbon fiber brakes should be mandatory. I would even say that carbon fiber brakes ought to be mandatory for Pro Stock and Pro Mod.
The NHRA also needs to determine why the chutes are being pulled off of these cars, as was the case with both Mark Niver and Alexis DeJoria, and fix that problem.
I still believe that a shorter track for the nitro cars is absolutely necessary as well as some solution that will keep the cars under 325 mph. But I don’t believe a shorter track will make Pro Stock, Pro Mod and the alcohol classes any safer.As I have said before, it isn’t the speed that kills the driver, it's the sudden stop.