The Neutering of Nitro Drivers

When I was growing up my dad was a jet fighter pilot in the Air Force and a member of the Air Force demonstration team, the Skyblazers, the precursors of the current Thunderbirds team. In the 1950s, Pop introduced me to the world of fighter pilots and auto racing. I got to talk to fighter pilots like Col. Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier, Scott Crossfield, who flew the X-15, and Homer Charlton, the leader of the Thunderbirds.

At the time I didn’t realize how lucky I was to have met those men. Later, when my dad left the service, he introduced me to drag racing and I got to meet guys like Jack Moss, Kelly Chadwick, and, later in my life, A.J. Foyt and John Force. 

My dad instilled in me that what made the guys he introduced me to worthy of being heroes wasn’t that they flew and drove fast and dangerous machines, but that they were better than almost anyone else at dealing with the inevitable problems that came with driving extremely fast and dangerous machines. The great pilots, astronauts, and race drivers are prepared for any emergency and they take a lot of pride in being able to deal quickly and decisively with an emergency.

Which brings me to the reason for this blast. I have always thought that drivers of nitro cars need the same skill sets as test pilots and astronauts. That is, being ready to cope and excel when driving a race car burning rocket fuel and accelerating to more than 300 mph in less than four seconds. But I’m not sure that is the case any longer.

In the past decade, nitro cars have become increasingly more automated. The tuner these days has complete control of the engine and clutch. The driver doesn’t shift the trans or use a clutch pedal to slip the clutch. If the track is slick and the tires slip too much, now there is an automatic rev-limiter to keep from over-revving the engine. If there is an engine explosion or fire, there is a device to automatically discharge the fire bottles, deploy the chutes, and turn off the ignition and fuel.

It appears from where I’m at that the driver is being relegated to passenger status with his or her main job being to stage the car and leave on time. The way I see it, all of these new devices were mandated, not so much to save the driver, but to save the NHRA from potential huge judgments against them resulting from another catastrophic crash.

Almost anyone can get a license to drive an NHRA Top Fuel or Funny Car. Basically a driver can get a license to drive a 300+ mph race car with no experience other than a few half and full passes in a testing environment. Conceivably, an aspiring driver could go from driving nothing faster than a Volkswagen bus to a Top Fuel car at an NHRA national event in a couple of days. And there is no rule in place (as far as I know) to revoke or suspend a driver’s license for any reason other than drug abuse. There is no peer review of drivers to determine if they are competent enough to drive beside another 300-mph race car or know what to do in the case of an emergency.

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