Volume IX, Issue 9, Page 15

News & Analysis

PART ONE:

NHRA and HD Partners face major problems going forward

This is the first of a three-part series dealing with the issues facing NHRA’s racers, sponsors, and the sport itself in the post-Wally Parks era. This series will deal with the issues of sponsorship, the escalating cost of racing for those in the Pro classes, and the ongoing issues of safety that will have to be addressed by HD Partners and Eddy Hartenstein.

ith the death of NHRA’s founder Wally Parks and the impending sale of the professional assets of the NHRA to HDP, the NHRA most racers and fans have come to know over the past half-century is basically history. From this point forward, more than it ever has been NHRA drag racing will be a business, a business run predominately by executives whose decisions will be heavily influenced by profit and loss but not necessarily the betterment of the sport. That is just a fact we all will have to accept, like it or not.

So, with that scenario as a guideline, let’s take a hard look at NHRA drag racing as it is today and the issues that will face its new owners, sponsors, racers and fans going forward. 

The most important issue the sport currently has to deal with is the fact that the nitro class teams in professional drag racing and the NHRA continue to face a serious on-going problem relating to tire and chassis failures and the resultant injuring or death of its premier stars. Currently the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company and NHRA are still in court proceedings with the Darrell Russell case where they are being held responsible for Russell’s death by his widow. [As this article goes to press unsubstantiated rumors have the Russell lawsuit being settled out of court. We’re still checking.] The recent spate of crashes and injuries, and the death of Eric Medlen won’t improve the way the racing public and press view the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company or the NHRA.

Take this to the bank, publicly owned HDP is going to be dedicated to NOT being sued, NOT putting the stars that make the company successful at risk, NOT having people who don’t work for HDP making major policy decisions and making damn sure that Corporate America and the HDP investors have a positive impression of drag racing. You can bet that one of the first items on HDP’s to-do list when the deal is consummated will be to resolve the perceived safety issues the sport has and do what they need to prevent any more lawsuits. For-profit, publicly traded companies hate being sued by widows or families for any reason.

Didn’t the NHRA of Wally Park’s use to have “Dedicated to Safety” as its motto? Currently the sport relies on and is a client of the SFI Foundation, whose task is to develop safety standards. But that foundation has zero authority to enforce those guidelines or even require the NHRA to follow or enforce rules they develop, according to SFI head Arnie Kuhns.

The NHRA apparently doesn’t have anyone on their staff that has the will or backing from NHRA to enforce their own rules to the letter. Several fuel racers and SFI-certified chassis builders believe that over the past two years or more cars have been using material not in the SFI spec (heat-treated 4130 tubing) and yet those cars continued to pass NHRA tech. The very public mess that NHRA is involved with concerning the chassis spec and design for Top Fuel and Funny Cars is not only a public relations nightmare but a moral issue.

 

Here is the problem. The SFI only issues guidance. The NHRA isn’t required to enforce those guidelines; that is their prerogative. However, drag racing continues to have major tire and chassis failure issues. And by the way, the man in the center of the current chassis controversy over the use of heat-treated 4130(n) tubing, Murf McKinney, heads up the five-man SFI chassis committee and allegedly has a voting block that votes with him on all issues.

Can you imagine NASCAR, an organization the NHRA seem to want to emulate every chance they have, allowing a situation to exist like this one?

John Force Racing and his marketing partners including Ford Motor Company have become the de facto chassis R&D department for the NHRA, giving the impression (true or not) that the sanctioning body itself is doing nothing to solve the issue.

I’m not saying that there aren’t people within the NHRA organization who are trying to solve the issues, but I am saying the actions they are taking and the policies they are making aren’t solving the problems. Management needs to do something else and do it publicly. The NHRA doesn’t help themselves with the press, fans, or racers by not issuing regular official statements as to what steps they (NHRA) are doing to solve these problems. (Remember the report that Graham Light promised to make public shortly after the Darrell Russell crash? We still haven’t seen that.)

Some three years after Top Fuel racer Darrell Russell was killed in an accident that was many believe was caused by a combination of tire and chassis failure, the NHRA (and the IHRA) continue to have chassis and tire failures and, instead of appointing someone inside their organizations with the authority, autonomy and expertise to make sweeping changes, management seems content to let the racers, chassis builders and the PRO organization bicker about the issues while they wait for the HDP deal to go through and their golden parachutes to blossom.

In the meantime let’s hope that we don’t lose another racer before the HDP completes the purchase and re-organizes the NHRA into a 21st Century racing business where the racers’ safety is at least as important as profits.  

When Wally Parks started the NHRA, safety was his paramount concern. He realized, as most of us do, that racers basically don’t give a damn about their own safety. He knew that the only way to protect them and the future of drag racing was to make rules to protect them, and he didn’t give them any choice in the matter.

The current management just can’t seem to bring themselves to do what Wally did – or maybe, not having a racing heritage themselves, don’t care or know enough to do so. After Darrell Russell’s death, Ray Alley did some of that. He told the fuel racers what rules they were going to adhere to, but those rules were made with the cooperation of a group of team owners with vested interests in not changing the status quo. Wally’s NHRA made rules that, as racers and hot rodders, they knew needed to be made, and either racers adhered to them or they didn’t race.

Today’s NHRA management can’t seem to grasp what NASCAR, Cart or any other successful racing organizations has. Sanctioning bodies don’t ask the racers if they can or should make a rule change, and they should don’t hire non-technical bureaucrats to make technical decisions or hire technical bureaucrats and then give them no authority.

They should hire the biggest cheater ex-racer they can find who still loves the sport, pay him a lot of money, give him dictatorial powers to oversee the rules and don’t allow let the racers, office personnel or the sales department to have a vote regarding his decisions. 

NHRA’s rules and regs are a major-league mess. Current rules have done little to this point –- other than the head and neck restraint rule which inexplicably still doesn’t require a majority of competitors to use the device -- to improve safety, and, in fact, their rules are driving the cost of racing to the point of disaster.

In the next two installments, I’ll deal with the tire issue, the skyrocketing cost of racing, and the truth about sponsorships.

And as just a teaser, the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company has been getting a bad rap from me and my peers, and I finally have obtained information proving that the 15-year-long tire issue is not Goodyear’s fault nor total responsibility. Some responsibility falls to NHRA management and the teams themselves!