Gary Scelzi is NHRA drivers' point man for safety
Somewhere between hurtling through the air and landing atop NHRA Top Fuel first-round opponent John Smith in the 2001 Brainerd eliminations and listening to the armchair experts' blather about the incident weeks afterward, Gary Scelzi made a choice.
He was going to speak up, by gosh.
He was going to speak out -- scream, if he had to -- about safety matters. He had come to grips with two truths:
1. No matter how much he loves the thrill of blasting a quarter-mile at more than 330 miles an hour, he is a human being first -- a productive individual, a husband, and a father.
2. No matter how well-acquainted racers are with the matter of danger, everyone involved with the sport has the ability and responsibility to keep working to make conditions safer.
And no one was going to accuse Gary Scelzi of not caring, not contributing what he could to make sure he and his colleagues live to race until they get sick of it.
"We don't have crash dummies [for testing]. We learn by accidents," Scelzi said back in 2000. Frank Hawley, a two-time Funny Car champion who is in his 23rd year of operating a drag-racing instructional school, will tell you the same thing. And no one wants to become the teacher when it comes to accidents with permanent consequences.
More bluntly, Scelzi said, "No one wants to go to another funeral."
They did, though, June 26. It was the memorial service for Scott Kalitta -- the rough-hewn, intense-on-the-track, but ultimately laid-back two-time Top Fuel champion who Scelzi affectionately and playfully called "Scotty Potty" in his adieu. And it was the second in 15 months and the third since June 2004 for the NHRA family to honor racers killed in action.
And that simply has to stop, Scelzi said.
"But nobody -- nobody in all the sanctioning bodies -- has done anything until there's a death. I know there's a lot of drivers who are vocal like myself in other organizations, but I seem to be the only one who bitches in the NHRA," he said.
He said NHRA seems to regard his voice as that of "some nagging wife -- I don’t think it gets heard. Then all of a sudden there's another death and now everybody wants to talk to me."
That's a role he's glad to assume, he said.