Volume IX, Issue 5, Page 1

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Safety and entertainment should trump tradition in today’s NHRA

6/5/2007

"It is a lot about entertainment out here ….” -- John Force

At the recently completed NHRA race at Topeka John Force Racing driver Robert Hight had a tremendous explosion and fire in his fuel Funny Car during a second round win. As is the usual practice in the NHRA these days, Hight’s JFR crew immediately went to work repairing a car that had essentially burned to the ground. In the 75 minutes allotted they were able to virtually rebuild the car with fresh parts, but the rules forced them to retain the original chassis. The team repaired the car to the point that they could roll the car to the line and start the motor. Driver Robert Hight was scheduled to race Jim Head but didn’t, reportedly at the insistence of John Medlen. The team opted to start and stage the car but did not make a burnout or a launch with it. They didn’t race again reportedly due to Medlen and crew chief Jimmy Prock’s concern that the frame may have been tweaked either by the engine explosion or the impact from hitting both guard walls hard and the car might not have been safe to race.

Hight’s crew chief Prock and car owner John Force both questioned the reasoning behind the NHRA rule that would not allow them to run the ready spare, an identical Mustang the Hight team had in their transporter.

“We are not sending a driver down the racetrack in a car we know is not right,” Force said. “We think that they (NHRA) ought to address this situation. What upset Jimmy Prock so much is we had a brand new car sitting complete in our trailer.”

The question is, why not allow teams to completely rebuild their cars using or replacing any and all parts they have available including a chassis? What is the reasoning that allows them to change or replace every component of a car except the chassis? That rule might be understandable if every chassis was significantly different, but there are specs for the chassis and they are basically the same.

The NHRA more and more emphasizes that in today’s NHRA drag racing entertainment is as important, if not more so, than the actual racing itself. Under the reasoning that they need to make the racing more entertaining and safe over the past few years the NHRA rules makers have limited engine RPM, mandated a spec engine, spec tires, tire pressure, nitro percentage, gear ratio, and even the chassis. As a matter of fact, other than the body “style” and make, all Funny Cars are basically clones of each other.

The rule about not being able to replace the chassis on race day was in all probability originally put in place in drag racing because that’s a rule that has long been on the books in major league oval track and road racing where they have purpose-built cars for every track and condition. Drag racing rules makers wanted to prevent well financed teams from getting an advantage, but in today’s NHRA the chassis is probably the least expensive part of a fuel car and perhaps the most critical where safety is a concern. The rule doesn’t seem to make sense especially if you don’t allow a completely new car.

How many times have we seen teams make hurried chassis repairs in the past? I’ve personally witnessed teams stick-weld broken chassis, put a frame between a couple of barrels and “straighten” them, and all manner of jack leg repairs to make the next round.

It’s my opinion that it is time for the NHRA to make a rule that allows every part of a car to be replaced regardless. I’m not in favor of allowing them to just roll a complete new car out of the transporter if they damage the car they are racing, but I can’t think of any reason not to allow a team to assemble a complete new car, if they can within the 75 minutes they have between rounds on race day. I want to see racing not singles on race day.

Let’s face it, the current state of fuel racing has almost no connection with the fuel racing or racers from those halcyon days of the Sixties and Seventies. There aren’t any more low-budget, competitive teams stuffing a piece of cardboard in a hole in a block and continuing to race. There isn’t a single NHRA touring team that doesn’t have enough spares in the transporter to build a car. “Budget” racers in the NHRA basically don’t exist any more. Today’s fuel cars are still going nearly 340 mph in the speed traps. We just don’t need to send these cars down a track unless they are as safe as they can be.

As a motorsport where entertainment of the fan has trumped innovation and performance, NHRA drag racing doesn’t need to see singles in the late rounds.

Now I’m not saying I like the idea of doing away with the traditional “race the same car all day” ethic. As a purist I wish we could go back to the days of unrestricted nitro percentage, engine size, speeds, tires, or weight, but that time has passed and ain’t coming back. Given today’s technological advances, if you take the limits off, the cars become even more dangerous than they are now.

In today’s nitro racing where crews have just 75 minutes or often less to get a car ready to race between rounds, the proficiency of the crews has become just as important if not more important than the driver and tuner. The thrash in the fuel pits between rounds is perhaps the most dynamic and dramatic thing the sport has left to offer the hardcore, knowledgeable fan. 

So, if you accept that today’s nitro racing has become as much about entertainment as competition (which seems to be the case), and safety rightfully is of paramount concern, then I say let teams do whatever repairs they need to between rounds including replacing the chassis if they can and want to. If doing so would ensure that we never again have to watch someone single into the finals I’m for it. I don’t think very many fans will know or care that the chassis on Robert Hight’s or anyone else’s car isn’t the same one the teams began the race with from the stands and you can bet those all-important TV viewers won’t know the difference.

If allowing teams to replace a chassis makes for better, safer, more entertaining racing then I say let ‘em do it. Or really take NHRA drag racing to the NASCAR level and do what Don Garlits suggested years ago and only allow one engine and one car on race day. That seems to work fine for NASCAR. 


jeffburk@dragracingonline.com

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