News and Analysis

Fines are fine, but do they fix the problem?

NHRA announced that John Force Racing has been fined $10,000 for making an unapproved modification to a part previously approved by the NHRA Technical Department. The modification was detected by NHRA Technical Department officials on all four of John Force Racing’s Funny Cars prior to the Ford NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals.

In addition, Al-Anabi Racing has been fined $5,000 and the Bob Tasca Team $2500for making an unapproved modification to a part previously approved by the NHRA Technical Department. The modification also was found at the Bristol race.

About three weeks ago, DRO published a News and Analysis concerning the fact that there were nitro teams who had developed proprietary heads that had been approved by the NHRA tech department. The problem wasn’t so much the heads themselves and the advantage they gave to the teams that used them, but rather that there was supposed to be a moratorium on improved and expensive new parts for nitro cars unless they were approved and available to all competitors.

That isn’t the case today, as most of the top nitro teams are making more than a few of their own proprietary engine and chassis components. So it would appear that, despite the efforts by some, innovation and the development of exotic and expensive speed parts for nitro cars isn’t discouraged. Recent history would seem to indicate that there is no restriction on developing and building expensive new parts; the only problem is getting NHRA’s approval. Which brings us to the current issue of teams modifying previously approved parts without an approval by the NHRA tech department.

That situation came to light last week with the news that three of the top nitro teams were fined for modifying previously approved parts. Fines of $2,500 per car were levied by the NHRA against the Alan Johnson Top Fuel team, and the Funny Car teams of Force Racing and Tasca. Evidently there are teams watching what the mega-teams are doing and reporting what they see to the often-overworked and understaffed NHRA tech department. Or at least it appears that way.

So NHRA fines these mega teams a relatively paltry $2,500 for using illegal parts. Illegal parts that possibly helped the Force teams win multiple times early in the 2012 season. A $2,500 fine doesn’t seem fair when you consider Don Schumacher’s teams were accused of using non-approved nitro and Mr. Schumacher’s fine was a hefty $100,000! Not much parity there.

As I understand it (based on conversations with sources in a position to know), the Force team modified components in the fuel injection system. According to my sources, they modified a part previously approved by the NHRA committee without letting the NHRA tech department know about the modification.

Here is where the water gets kinda dark and murky. Supposedly the Force team thought the part was NHRA approved. They built it and had it on all of their cars beginning at the 2012 Winternationals. Then, at Bristol, the NHRA tech guys informed them the part wasn’t approved.

To further complicate the picture, after the modified parts on the Force, Tasca, and Johnson cars had been examined, the official NHRA line is now that the changes the teams made didn’t significantly alter the performance of the part, and that those modified parts now will be approved for use on the cars and teams that got fined.

At the same race the Force team was informed they would be fined for illegal parts, the Al-Anabi sponsored Alan Johnson team was also slapped with a $5,000 fine and, again, it was for unapproved modification to an existing part. The NHRA isn’t saying what that part was and the PR guys at Al-Anabi don’t answer questions from DRO, so we’ll all have to just guess what the infraction was for. One thing is obvious: whatever part was modified didn’t do the Alan Johnson team any noticeable good. On the other hand, there is no doubt the Force teams absolutely dominated the first five or six NHRA national events in Funny Car.

There are several questions extant:

1. If, indeed, all of Force’s team cars had the illegal part on them since the Winternationals, how the hell wasn’t that detected before the Bristol race?

2. If that part gave the Force team a performance advantage that helped them win all but one race going into Bristol, why was the fine a measly $10,000? No one seriously thinks a $2,500 per car fine will hurt those teams, do they? I’d bet that any nitro or Pro Stock team in the pits would gladly pay a $2,500 fine after they won a National event using a “non-approved” part that no other team had access to. 

3. When the tech department teched alky racers earlier this year, they confiscated the “illegal” parts, never returned them, and fined the race team. Does that standard apply to the Pro teams also?

Recent money-saving measures have seen the NHRA cutting back the rank and file staffing of the tech department and, in my opinion, the result is an overworked and understaffed group of dedicated employees. Today’s professional nitro and Pro Stock teams often partner with university engineering departments or Detroit engineers to develop new and better cars and parts. It’s going to take some serious manpower and hours for NHRA to oversee and control those kinds of programs. 

I think that the NHRA should take the some $25,000 in fines they’ve collected from the racers for illegal parts (that we know of) and use that money to bring in more hands-on tech guys for selected events. Isn’t a serious and competent tech department one of the cornerstones that the NHRA was built on? A fully staffed, well-paid tech department is a must for any legitimate sanctioning body, especially when so much is at stake for the teams and sponsors.