Volume IX, Issue 3, Page 1

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Answering some readers questions

04/03/07

The Eric Medlen tragedy has stirred the drag racing community like no other event since Blaine Johnson’s death at the U.S. Nationals. Maybe the public’s reaction after Darrell Russell’s death was just as long and loud, but somehow I don’t remember the reaction from that tragedy being what we’re experiencing now. I do know that after the death of Darrell Russell no one suggested his peer racers wave their championship points at the next event nor did we here at DRO receive anything close to the flood of letters we have and continue to receive about Eric Medlen.

Maybe it was because the NHRA took immediate action before the next race to address safety issues in Top Fuel or because Darrell Russell wasn’t part of the ultra-high profile John Force mega-team that the public outcry was more subdued, I don’t know. But whatever the reason Eric Medlen’s death has created such a firestorm of controversy and demand for action directed at the National Hot Rod Association from racers and fans that drag racing could possibly undergo the first real fundamental change in its basic form since Wally Parks and a few friends organized the NHRA over 50 years ago.

But to the point, I’ve been getting many, many letters regarding three items I wrote in my last Blast just a week ago about the situation. So I thought I’d take this opportunity to explain and try to defend my positions.

A lot of your letters to the editor have taken me to task for advocating eighth-mile racing as a partial solution for speeds approaching 200 mph and higher that have become normal in almost every class of drag racing. Many of you took me to task for saying that I find eighth-mile racing often just as entertaining as quarter-mile racing. Many of you take the position that drag racing is a quarter-mile and only a quarter-mile sport. Well, the facts indicate that simply isn’t the case.

A check of about a dozen states including Texas, California and the Carolinas using Allen Brown’s excellent National Speedway Directory, which lists all of the known tracks, had the following results: 154 eighth-mile tracks, 147 quarter-mile tracks, one tenth-mile facility, five 300-ft tracks, one 500-ft track, and two 1,000-ft tracks. 

The only conclusion you can come to from this is that drag racing is any distance racers and fans decide it to be, and quarter-mile tracks don’t define the sport any more than eighth-mile or any other distance of tracks do. The racers and fans decide. Varying lengths of tracks is what defines NASCAR and every other type of racing; why should drag racing be different.

I will say this about quarter-mile tracks versus eighth-mile tracks: the capacity crowds seen at recent NHRA events in Florida and Texas indicate that in some cases the seating might have to be somewhat restructured at a few NHRA tracks, but in reality almost no current National Event tracks have seating extending past the 1,000-ft mark.

One more thing regarding the eighth-mile versus the quarter: many of you made the point that fuel cars are already going almost 300 mph in the eighth and, frankly, I see that as part of the problem (and at least one of you agrees). It isn’t the 300-mph speed so much that stresses the tires, chassis, and engine, it’s the fact that many of the cars are traveling a full eighth mile at speeds way over 300 mph! I think that’s the problem.

More than a few of you took me to task for my “retraction” concerning Eric Medlen’s chassis. Actually what we printed was more of a “correction” of the item in my last Burk’s Blast where I said I was convinced that Eric’s frame rail had splintered.

When I wrote that I was 99 percent convinced that I was correct. I had received information passed from members of the Force camp to other teams and individuals, as well as info from sources outside of that organization that convinced me I had the right info. Additionally, I saw Murf McKinney at the IHRA race in San Antonio and was told by a race team member that Murf was there to inspect chassis built by his company and he had asked at least one team to bring their car back to his shop for “retrofitting.” I also knew that Force had all of his cars at McKinney’s for some work. I put two and two together and came up with four.

I was subsequently contacted by the Force camp and they shared with me “off the record” what they discovered upon initial examination of Eric Medlen’s chassis by experts. They did so with the proviso that I wouldn’t reveal any information they gave me other than the fact that the tire failed before the chassis. I have a 30-year relationship with many people in that organization and I’ve known Murf McKinney almost as long, so when the Force folks made the effort to give me the right info I didn’t mind setting the record straight in print. And I will respect their request that I keep all other information I was told confidential. 

At some point I believe that all of the information will be made public. Rest assured, though, that if I had even the slightest thought that a chassis failure caused the tire to fail which in turn caused the wreck, I would say so regardless of my relationship with JFR. Remember, I’m the guy that wore them out (and John specifically) for not wearing Head and Neck Restraint devices every chance I got. And for the record, no one at John Force Racing nor McKinney Race Cars threatened me or tried to coerce me with a lawsuit or in any other way.

Another reader wrote accusing me of showing the original Eric Medlen chassis pictures and writing an item about the chassis failure for the shock value. He was absolutely right. Damn right, I wanted to shock them and everybody else. The old adage, “Out of sight, out of mind” comes into play here. It’s easier to ignore a problem if there is nothing to remind people what happened.

It took Darrell Russell’s death before the NHRA finally (finally!) took drastic measures to make Top Fuel cars safer! Despite the fact that the sport had already had many crashes related to tire and chassis failures and racers Wayne Bailey, Blaine Johnson and Jimmy Nix all died in crashes before Darrell, it took more than two years for NHRA to decide a HANS device was a good idea. The sanctioning body didn’t want the liability! They finally gave in to change only after serious pressure on them was generated by the press, the manufacturers and the public.

If I could have given the sanctioning body decision makers an electro-shock treatment in order to convince them to issue specs that made the Hans device mandatory and cars and tracks safer I would have. I use the facts as I see them to shock manufacturers, tech departments, the SFI car owners and drivers into doing what common sense dictates and I offer no apology for doing so. 

Then there were those of you who wrote to say how safe drag racing really is and how speed and danger are just part of the game and we just have to live with it. Well, in my opinion the sport is too dangerous compared to any other motorsport. Great Top Fuel racers such as Eddie Hill, Don Prudhomme, Don Garlits, Jack Ostrander, Doug Foxworth, Gary Scelzi, Bruce Litton, Cory McClenathan, Doug Herbert, Tony Schumacher, Shirley Muldowney, Larry Dixon, Gene Snow, Darrell Russell, Blaine Johnson, Darrell Gwynn, and Jimmy Nix all had serious accidents in Top Fuel cars in recent years. Some racers have had serious career-threatening injuries and four of them have died.

In nitro and alky funny cars we’ve also had very serious crashes: Whit Bazemore, Jack Wyatt, John Force, and Del Worsham, just to name a few. And let’s not forget about the alcohol funny car and dragster racers, folks. Shelly Howard died, and Marshall Topping and Gene Snow had serious accidents in A Fuel Dragster. Funny car racer Billy Williams is still in a coma, Danny Townsend likely won’t ever drive again, and Bunny Burkett was very nearly killed -- and believe me there are many more names on that list.

No folks, this sport doesn’t have all that great of a safety record and it’s just by the grace of God that more drivers, racers and fans haven’t died. The smartest and brightest this sport has needs to take a real serious, independent look at driver, car and track safety and quit deciding if those that compete can afford safety measures. That argument just doesn’t hold water when you walk down any row in the fuel pits and see how many spare complete cars, engines and other equipment are stacked up like cordwood on raceday. And don’t even get me started on amount of money professional racers are spending on hospitality. Comparatively speaking whatever it takes to improve safety is a bargain. 

Then there are those of you who write and say I’m just an old geezer trying to neuter the sport of drag racing by slowing it down or making the track shorter. Are you just there like NASCAR fans who some say attend the races just on the chance they’ll see the “big one” crash at Daytona or Charlotte or Talladega? Many of you say that 330-mph speeds are what make the sport of drag racing popular. I say if they turn the scoreboards off most of you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a 290-mph pass and 330-mph pass.

Many of your letters suggest the drag racing is inherently dangerous and that the speeds and danger are what make the sport entertaining so let them go as fast as they want. So let me see if I understand your point of view. Drag racing’s appeal is that it is fast and dangerous and a certain amount of deaths are acceptable.

The press doesn’t even talk about the number of sportsman drivers maimed and killed each year. They evidently don’t rate the same attention with the press or fans that the pros do. So, I say to you that, yes, the 300-mph pass is part of the attraction of the sport, but not necessarily a 330-mph pass. Drag racing is a sport that began as a contest to determine who had the quickest and fastest hot rod, and it was always supposed to be about racing safely. I don’t think Wally Parks envisioned drag racing as a bastardized version of a Joie Chitwood thrill show.

Personally, I’m not willing to see one more of my friends or a person I know die in a racecar for anyone’s “entertainment,” knowing that some simple, inexpensive measures were not taken because of indecision or the objection of one or more well-funded or influential team owner. Maybe 30 years of competing in and covering the sport of drag racing is too long. Maybe I just don’t get it anymore. But keep those letters coming, because I want to know what you think about it. We still have a lot more letters on this subject and we’ll post them later this week.  


jeffburk@dragracingonline.com