The year in review

Three deaths that have and will change all… and hurray for Alan Johnson

In the annals of pro drag racing (i.e. nitro car racing) the 2008 season may go down as one of the three most important years ever, lowlighted and highlighted by three deaths: the death of Scott Kalitta, quarter-mile racing for nitro cars and the impending death of the U.S. auto industry. The only two years as profound were 1951 when NHRA was formed and 1975 when R.J. Reynolds Tobacco signed to back the entire NHRA annual racing schedule. Who woulda thought this as we hopped into January 1, 2008, pants at our ankles?

For me, the whole 365 were a head rattling experience what with my eight or nine months at the Impact Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center, and my first and last rave party at an abandoned building near Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. This year affected me personally as much as it did the sport.

As most know, former two-time NHRA Top Fuel champ Kalitta was killed in a violent Funny Car explosion and crash this past July at Raceway Park in Englishtown, New Jersey. In brief, Kalitta, who stopped the speed clocks at 303 mph, had trouble with the parachute and this led to him slamming into the top end guard rail that separates the Raceway Park shut-off area from Pension Road, a public street.

For a number of years, the shorter national tracks had been a concern with NHRA as the 330-mph speeds of the nitro folks seemed to be outgrowing the older courses. When Kalitta died, NHRA, to their credit acted like racers instead of accountants, and slit the quarter-mile’s throat for the hot cars. At the next event, the Mile-High Nationals, the distance for Top Fuel and Funny Car was 1,000 feet. How long had they been running the quarter for anything remotely considered a hot car? Since 1950, would be my guess.

From what I can see, only one thing of any import has affected me by this move. It renders all those quarter-mile nitro statistics that I had memorized and used to tell my side of drag racing history null and void. For a long time, 40 or 50 years, low e.t. and top speed at a quarter-mile event were damn near as important as who won Top Eliminator, Top Fuel or Funny Car. In recent years, what with the governors on the fuel cars, those stats began to lose their clout and this July they were tucked away in an old jewelry box and stuffed up your attic. Low e.t. and top speed at a 1,000 feet? For we veteranos of the quarter, B/FD…  and I don’t mean B/Fuel Dragster.

And now there’s this matter with the Mecca of the Auto Industry, Detroit, Michigan. It’s quite easy to say, “Hey, they helped us, drag racing, in the 1960s and with something they called the NHRA Manufacturers Cup in latter years, but what have they done lately? Nuthin.’ F*ck ‘em.”

When I started going to the drag races, it was mid-1963 and the “factories” had their hands into the sport and they did make some positive contributions, although not as huge as some would have you believe.  They definitely hypo-ed interest in high performance Stocks and applied some of the grease to get interest in Funny Car rolling. In the early days of Funny Car, the maxim of “race on Sunday, sell on Monday” was a definite reality and when the injector stacks started popping through the hoods of altered wheel-based “funny cars” a couple years later “Joe Six-Pack” started popping up at local dealerships inquiring into the availability of a high performance stockers.  That was a very short period of time, half a decade at best, that this activity went on. The 1967 marked the final season (I might be a year off or two here) that the factories did their various dealership tour with high performance clinics featuring drivers like Ronnie Sox and Dick Landy. But after that, nothing of any real importance, in my opinion.