Volume X, Issue 9, Page 23

NEWS & ANALYSIS

Could 1,000-foot racing be here to stay?

T he mutual decision between the nitro teams and the NHRA management to reduce the distance they race from 1320 to 1,000 feet has caused a lot of angst and angry letters to the editor from traditional fans and sportsman racers alike. But the truth is that team owners like Don Schumacher, Don Prudhomme and Connie Kalitta, and influential and respected tuners like Lee Beard, Rahn Tobler and others in the nitro ranks, have made it known that they have no problem with 1,000-foot racing.

Their reasons for embracing the decision are money and safety. Many feel that it’s safer on many NHRA national event tracks to race fuel cars to just 1,000 feet and, to a man, they have said that it is much less expensive. The major cost saving isn’t the amount of nitro they save but rather the amount of money they are saving in expensive parts. A combination of the shorter track and the new design tire from Goodyear has virtually eliminated the tire issues that have allegedly caused many, many Top Fuel and Funny Car crashes of the last 15 years.

Despite the advantages to the teams, some vocal fans and the NHRA management seemed determined to return to quarter-mile racing in 2009. Sources inside the NHRA, who asked to remain unnamed for obvious reasons, have told me that the NHRA wants to return to the quarter mile for two reasons: The legacy of the distance and the fact that the IHRA continues to put on some events on quarter-mile tracks.

To that end the NHRA has been floating the idea that they would adopt a couple of engine rule changes for next year that would allow them to return to quarter-mile racing.

I’m told that what the NHRA wants is to make rules that would keep the maximum speed in the 300-305 range for Top Fuel cars. The rules changes they have floated would be to adopt a mandatory lower compression rule (reputed to be a max of 6-1) as advocated by Dale Armstrong and a maximum blower overdrive of 40%.
 
The tuners and team owners I have spoken with about this solution are adamantly against them for many reasons. The one that I heard most frequently was that every team would have to scrap the engine and tune-ups they have now and start a very expensive and lengthy engine R&D program.
 
Regarding the compression restrictions, most of today’s tuners of fuel engines at the NHRA level use two or three different compression ratios in different cylinders as a tuning aid, as well as different thicknesses of head gaskets. A mandatory maximum compression ratio would make continuing that practice difficult but not impossible.

As for the maximum supercharger overdrive, my old friend Lance Larson told me that rule would just force everyone who wanted to be competitive to build a supercharger dyno. Because the well-funded teams that already have that piece of equipment will simply buy or make a  bunch of superchargers and then dyno test them to find the ones that deliver the most air at 40% over. He noted that the teams that have supercharger dynos now do that already but if they find a “weak”  blower they can still use it by spinning it a little faster.

One tuner told me if they lower the compression ratio, “we’ll just stuff more fuel into the combustion chamber and we’ll still have the same issues we have now.”

So, judging from the conversations I’ve had with team owners, almost to a man they are opposed to returning to 1320 feet and a new set of engine rules that force any team that wants to be competitive to spend a ton of cash to develop a new engine combination and tune-up.
 
So, where is all of this leading? On Sunday, Sept. 21, I received a call from one of my sources saying the NHRA may have given in to the wishes of the owners and for 2009 will restrict the length of the tracks for nitro cars to 1,000 feet and also are considering reducing the length of the track for all professional classes to 1,000 feet in 2010.

Nothing official has been released concerning this rumor, but the team owners I have talked to are adamant about no new engine specs and continuing to race fuel cars (at least) to 1,000 feet. And, since it was the teams themselves that demanded and got the distance shortened in the first place, they may prevail again.

The facts that Bruton Smith claimed a sold-out event at his new Charlotte track and that, despite a $60 ticket on Saturday, $66 on Sunday and $20 parking, the Texas Motorplex had a huge crowd would seem to indicate that most fans aren’t turned off by 1,000-foot racing. That will assuredly have an effect on the NHRA’s ultimate decision concerning track length. The owners, drivers and tuners have found that they can sway the NHRA if they are united.

The one sure bet is that big changes are happening in drag racing, including at the venerable NHRA.