Volume X, Issue 7, Page 62

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The winds of change blow through the NHRA…again!

I just got back from the Mile-High Nationals at John Bandimere’s fantastic track. His installation of a surface-cooling device when he rebuilt that quarter-mile track turned out to be a monumental success and a system that all tracks where the NHRA holds national events between June and September should find a way to install.

If John Bandimere, who by the way was perhaps the first racer to have used one of the trailers that all the pros now use to transport their rigs, wasn’t already in drag racing’s Hall of Fame this innovation by itself would be enough to warrant his inclusion. One other thing about Bandimere: he is still an old-school track operator in the best sense of the word. He did a couple of little things that really impressed me at the event.

My friend and DRO’s senior photographer, Ron Lewis, was trying to get the usual huge load of camera gear he carries to the press room and struggling just a bit, when 70-year-old John Bandimere came up behind him, grabbed one of his camera bags and carried it for him into the tower. Later during the weekend I was sitting in the pressroom probably looking a little worse for the wear after climbing the many hills at the track and Mr. Bandimere, who doesn’t know me from Adam, walked over, looked me in the eye, shook my hand and said thanks for coming. For John Bandimere it is obvious that the racers, fans and guests come first with him. He’d make a great saloon owner if he ever got out of the drag racing biz.

I didn’t see NHRA president Tom Compton at the Mile-High Nationals and I didn’t get to interview Graham Light (and probably never will), which was one of the reasons I attended that race, but I did see that the way the NHRA runs its racing program is going through drastic changes and that the pro team owners and drivers are leading/forcing those changes.

Compton’s management team is still very much in charge but, unlike in the past where they set the agenda, it appears to me that the racers are now setting the agenda and forcing the NHRA not only to listen to them but do what they ask them to.

After Scott Kalitta’s tragic death the nitro racers went to the NHRA at Norwalk and I believe demanded and got immediate action from them. Most likely those same teams told the NHRA what they would and would not accept.  The PRO members that have been traditionally viewed as being reactive rather than pro-active and have had their voices ignored, are now being heard and their advice sought. Since Kalitta’s crash racers and race teams have been asked their opinions regarding how to make the cars and tracks safer, and in many cases their suggestions (demands) are being listened to and implemented.

The inmates aren’t quite running the asylum these days, but they sure as hell have a lot more influence on how it is being run. As Jim Oberhofer told me in the lanes on Sunday, “We’re going to make sure that Scott’s death won’t be in vain.”

Safety isn’t the only place where the racer/team owners are forcing changes. The issue of the cost of racing is now being addressed. In a story that appeared in the Sunday edition of the Denver Post, John Force was quoted as saying he had sent a memo to his teams that said, “We run for the Championship, and I’m at a point where I can’t pay my bills.”

If that doesn’t send a message that the cost or racing in the NHRA nitro classes has escalated beyond any reason, nothing will. When JFR racing has money issues, everyone does.

Faced with decreasing car counts in the nitro ranks and the rising cost of travel, the NHRA recently and very quietly announced a $1.2 million   purse increase for the pro teams. This after Tom Compton told at least one team owner and maybe others when asked about a purse increase in 2009 that it wouldn’t happen and suggested that if the teams needed more money they should get it from their sponsors.

Then NHRA spent millions of profit dollars improving infrastructure at some tracks (although the pits at Indy evidently weren’t considered in need of repair), and hiring high-powered public relations and marketing firms.

I believe team owners went to Compton and told him flatly that unless more money was forthcoming they couldn’t afford to keep racing! And suddenly the NHRA money managers found a way to share the millions in profits NHRA has had the past few years with the racers that make the show. My opinion is that he didn’t have any choice.

The next money issue will be with the sportsman racers when (or if) they find they can no longer afford to travel and race at NHRA national events.

If a majority of fans, racers, and tuners didn’t care for 1,000-foot nitro racing, they didn’t make that known at the Bandimere event. Cruz Pedregon tuner Rahn Tobler, who has won a few races in his career, told me that he liked the 1,000 foot racing for the following reasons: (1) less engine component damage. “We are only turning our engines about 7600 right now and on a really good pass about 8,000 rpm in four seconds.” (2) “We aren’t hitting the limiter now like we were in 1320 feet. Less nitro consumed. We burn about two less gallons of nitro per pass” and (3) less tire wear.

It should be noted that during the entire Denver event there wasn’t a single massive explosion or major oil-down from the nitro burner ranks. When is the last time that happened at an NHRA national event?  

The big west side grandstands were filled to or near capacity on Saturday and Sunday, and there were enough 300+ mph runs from the Top Fuel cars to satisfy the fans who stood and roared their approval when that number did come up on the boards. The general consensus among the tuners and drivers I spoke with was that fuel coupes will run over 310 and Top Fuel cars will deliver 320-mph speeds at tracks closer to sea-level!

Where were all of the traditionalist fans and racers who objected to shortening the track and slowing the cars down when Funny Cars started looking like morphed pick-up trucks or Top Gas was dropped as a class, or they got rid of flag starts and changed to electronic starting? Where were all of them when eighth- mile tracks began being built everywhere. Where do you draw the line between what is defined as progress and heresy?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the only thing that is constant in the sport of drag racing is that it changes constantly and that is one of the things that makes it so interesting and intriguing.