Volume X, Issue 8, Page 94

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Peering into the future

No matter how many of you seem to abhor the thought of it, drag racing as you have known it over the last five decades is, I believe, headed for some radical changes. Some will make the sport safer, some will make the sport more entertaining, and some will just change drag racing as we have known it. So the Burkster has broke out his crystal ball and tried to look into the somewhat cloudy future.

Unfortunately I believe that lawsuits and lawyers are going to have even more effect on drag racing than they do now. Right now, today, every manufacture and sponsor that had a decal on Troy Critchley’s race car (involved in a tragic accident last year in an exhibition burnout) is getting sued. Manufacturers whose only mistake was to support racers by giving parts or money for using their product in return for their decals being placed on the car.

Look for more stringent safety issues concerning spectators. Let me tell you, the NHRA, Goodyear Tire, and others took a big financial hit when the Darrell Russell lawsuit was settled. If it weren’t for the families involved, and perhaps the grace of God, both the Scott Kalitta and Eric Medlen deaths could have resulted in massive lawsuits that might have put the drag racing we all love out of business. And trust me, virtually every drag strip and owner in the country is subject to lawsuits every year.
Based upon what team owners and crew chiefs are telling me, I believe the shorter distance is here to stay. The NHRA did not make the decision to shorten the track based on what anyone in the media has said or written. Let’s be clear here, it was the drivers, team owners, and tuners who made the decision to race on a shorter track.
A majority of the drivers, who are driving 2600-lb Top Fuel and Nitro Funny Cars to speeds over 330 and trying to get them stopped before they drive off the end of the track, said “enough” and they made the NHRA shorten the tracks. They will be the ones, not the press or the NHRA management nor the fans, who will determine what length the track will be in the future.

I think that a shorter track while ticking off some traditional fans and racers may be the salvation of a sport where the cost to race is spiraling out of control and many tracks are just too short. If statistics at the end of year prove that nitro teams have fewer blown motors, get more laps on a single set of tires (a prominent IHRA Top Fuel racer told me yesterday that at the IHRA race at Martin, MI, where they raced a quarter mile, he had to put on a new set of tires every lap because of chunking), and they use less nitro and consumable parts, I think the team owners and the insurance companies won’t allow a return to quarter-mile racing in the professional classes.

Unless there is a dramatic turn-around I think there is a possibility of eight-car Top Fuel fields, but I think the Funny Car, Pro Stock, Pro Stock Motorcycle fields will remain at 16.

At some point nitro racers will go to the NHRA and just tell them that they are no longer going to pay premium prices of up to $50 a gallon for nitro when they know it can be bought for less and, just as they did when the racers forced them to shorten the track, the NHRA will do whatever the racers force them to do about nitro.

Access by the fans to the nitro pits is going to get curtailed. The 75-minute turnaround has created an area where race teams are trying to drive through crowds at 30 mph. People are getting hurt all too frequently, resulting in expensive lawsuits. At some point the insurance companies are going to force the issue.

I can foresee the sanctioning bodies closing off the nitro pits to the fans during eliminations because of the 75-minute rule. The teams and drivers really have little time to deal with the fans. Someone gets hurt nearly every race and a lawyer is usually on the phone in 20 minutes. Besides, if you haven’t noticed, in most cases (especially at the NHRA) the casual fan has about as much of a chance of getting past the ropes as I do getting back stage at a Who concert.

I think we may see an exodus of major sponsors and teams in the pro ranks next year. Anheuser Busch is being bought out and, despite what the InBev buyers have said, there are already signs of serious budget cuts by the new owners. CSK was swallowed up by the O’Reilly chain, who aren’t known for major team sponsorships. The recession is absolutely hurting the hand tool market. If they don’t get completely out of the sport I think that at least these sponsors will scale back, which means teams will have to cut expenses.

I think that there is a good possibility that the NHRA will try to make some of their races two- or three-day events instead of three to five days to cut the cost of racing.

If you want to experience those good old days of drag racing (quarter-mile fuel racing), I believe the only place you are going to see that is at “Nostalgia” races featuring AA/FC and AA/FD classes because currently those cars’ average speed is in the 235-250 mph range and so far they race on quarter-mile tracks.

As for the lawsuits that plague the sport of drag racing and all sports for that matter, I don’t see a legal fix unless they figure out an ironclad release that racers and spectators would have to sign. A release that would hold up in court that would absolutely prevent racers who don’t want to wear helmets, firesuits, or HANS devices from suing when they do hurt themselves. Or fans that get tanked up, decide they are bullet proof and walk around the pits with headsets on. Unfortunately, I don’t think the bar associations will allow that to happen.

So, for the future, get used to more rules and regs designed to make the sport safer and less expensive. And remember that everything changes with time, and if you don’t accept that then you will be run over by change.

And one more thing: no fan or racer really cares if you quit coming to the drags. For the fans it’s more beer and a better seat, and for the racers it’s one less guy they have to beat. It’s your call.