News & Analysis
Let's see some action -- and ask NHRA to help
It's only natural in the event of a catastrophic mechanical failure and a stunning drag-racing accident that people from every segment of the sport will latch onto the latest buzz-phrases and climb onto the most attractive bandwagons.
Skooter Peaco, IHRA's vice-president of racing operations, and IHRA President Aaron Polburn understand the sporadic outcries to fix something, all in the honorable name of safety. Sometimes they practice caution to protect their drivers' pocketbooks, calculating the increased costs and weighing the risk-versus-value ratio. That makes sense -- most IHRA drivers do not race for a living, do not do extensive testing, have fewer races than their NHRA counterparts, and don't lean on their cars quite as much as the POWERade Series drivers do.
However, with Dale Creasy Jr.'s serious accident, it's time for the IHRA to become a little more proactive in safety solutions. And that's not because Creasy is the reigning and two-time Nitro Funny Car series champion. It's because Dale Creasy is a human being.
It's appalling to think that neither IHRA nor NHRA launched an extensive study after Top Fuel driver Bobby Lagana's frightening July 11, 1998, accident at New York International Raceway Park in Leicester. The throttle on his dragster hung open, sending the car sailing off the end of the track after a run clocked at 233.64 mph in qualifying for the IHRA CARQUEST Empire Nationals. Doctors at a Rochester hospital tried to re-attach three of his fingers and mended his broken right ankle. He lost one finger on his right hand.
Would a stronger catch-fence -- perhaps some trampoline-like material or even, as Pro Modified pioneer Bill Kuhlmann has suggested, a water trap instead of sand trap -- have saved June 21 racing victim Scott Kalitta? Maybe not. Likely not. Melanie Troxel, who has raced in the IHRA, said of the NHRA's new 1,000-foot finish line policy, "To be honest, I don't think if you'd done the same thing in Englishtown that it would've saved Scott." While common sense says she is 100 percent right about that, an improved top-end configuration 10 years ago might have spared Lagana some of his pain.
Nothing will be fail-safe. But both sanctioning bodies could put forth more visible effort in addressing some needs and making use of not only improved technology but also of the innovative minds we have today. Drivers shouldn't be left on their own to protect themselves.
Nitro Funny Car class rookie Matt Hagan, the category's first two-time winner this year, immediately took action himself after Creasy's accident. By Monday afternoon, following his Edmonton victory, his Chevy Monte Carlo was headed straight for builder Murf McKinney's shop at Lafayette, Ind. And one of the top items on his makeover agenda was eliminating the reverser handle in favor of a push-pull cable.
"I know money's a big issue when it comes to updating and improving a car," Hagan said. "If you talk to Dale Creasy, he'll tell you it's worth it.
"We've got to come up with innovative ways to protect ourselves. I'm 25," he said, "and I plan on walking around for another 45 years or more." He has a wife, Rachel, and a year-and-a-half-old son, Colby Matthew, and he said, "I definitely want to come home to them. And I'm like Tim Wilkerson -- I'm tired of burying friends."
Laurie Cannister said although driving an Alcohol Funny Car might not produce the horsepower that the nitro cars do, it's no less scary. "It's like playing Russian roulette," she said of racing in general. "It's too bad somebody has to get hurt before we fix something."
Creasy's transmission trouble confirmed Cannister's fears.
"I'm pretty concerned. I've always been concerned about having my legs hurt. That has bothered me from Day One. We talk about trusting your equipment, but maybe you can't trust your equipment," she said. "We don’t have seven- or eight-thousand horsepower turning that stuff, but we do have the same danger. I don't think the danger of it breaking isn't there."
Just because her Alcohol Funny Car is not as powerful as the nitro-guzzling beasts of the other Funny Car class or the Top Fuel class doesn't mean a non-nitro driver should ignore the red flags.
"We're going at such speeds now that they're all dangerous," Cannister said. "We know that there are risks involved. When Eric Medlen crashed, everybody went to head pads and roll-cage enclosures. Who are we not to change our cars, too? You can't be too safe."
She and her husband already have been researching a design that will change the reverser lever in an Alcohol Funny Car. Like Hagan, she understands that families are concerned, even when, as in her husband-tuner Dale Cannister's case, they're dialed into her world.
"Dale is really concerned about me being in a car," she said. "He wants me to come back after each run."
When Eric Medlen died and when John Force crashed, Force wisely didn't wait for NHRA to do anything. He did it himself -- at great expense -- and NHRA followed. Perhaps IHRA and NHRA could join forces to be proactive. Everybody wins when everybody works together.
Not convinced? Listen to John Medlen, Eric's father and John Force Racing crew chief for Mike Neff. He said another accident "would be a catastrophe in its own right" but that "the largest catastrophe would be to not use it to better the sport and to ensure that this doesn't happen again."