Volume X, Issue 10, Page 94

It’s time for 1,000-foot divisionals

The time for action is NOW, not 2009.  A thousand-foot for divisionals NOW.

“Dedicated to Safety” – That’s what the old NHRA logos had on them.  Probably to the 99th percentile, NHRA provides us with the safest racing environment possible.  I don’t want to be misconstrued as painting a picture that NHRA isn’t.  In the aftermath of Bobby Martindale’s tragic accident that was eerily similar to Scott Kalitta’s, the time to get proactive on divisional track safety is now, not 2009.

There’s a couple of common themes in both fatal accidents.  They ran off the end of the end of the track, impacting a fixed object, in the case of Martindale it was trees rather than the JLG lift.  While the Kalitta accident caught us off guard, we’re just a few months removed from the accident, and it happened again. 

Bobby Martindale’s final pass was a 7.43 at 180.94 mph.  There are quite a few cars at any given divisional, or bracket race for that matter, capable of running that kind of elapsed time, so this risk is not limited to Top Fuel, Top Alcohol or even the 200 mph+ categories.

There’s some speculation that he may have been incapacitated in some form, either from a stroke or heart attack.  While that may be true, there are plenty of instances where the chutes don’t come out and the brakes fail.  Brake/chute failure is actually more common than a heart attack.

The exact same thing happened, just a few hours prior to Martindale’s run, at the Division 4 event at Red River Raceway just outside of Shreveport, La.  Top Sportsman racer Norman Rash had a throttle hang wide open with no brakes and an unblossomed parachute.  He went through the overgrown remnants of the old sand trap into heavy brush off the end of the track.  He continued for roughly an eighth of a mile until he hit a small creek, flipped end over end, with the roll cage landing in the mud on the other side, the tail end of the car hung up in a tree.  The body of the car was nearly 100 feet from the car.  Had there been any trees or fixed objects, the outcome might have been decidedly worse.  Also, had the car landed upside down in the creek, worse yet.

We’ve got to do everything we can to keep the cars on the track.  Within that track is where everything is designed to work.  When the car leaves the designed racing surface, bad things can and will happen. 

Next weekend, the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series heads to Silver Dollar Raceway in Reynolds, Ga., and Thunder Valley Raceway Park in Noble, Okla.  Neither one of these tracks have catch nets or sand/gravel traps of any kind.  Reynolds has a huge berm at the end of the track, as does Noble.  Noble’s berm leads to active railroad tracks.  I’ve witnessed them run Top Alcohol at Noble numerous times while the train was going.

Two years ago a Super Gas racer was seriously injured at Reynolds after having a throttle hung and going up and flying off the berm.  That same year a TAFC was totally destroyed after running off the end of Noble on a mid 7-second, 180-mph run.  When the car hit the berm, it almost folded the car in half.  

So what should the NHRA and the racers do?  Do we just cross our fingers and hope that history doesn’t repeat itself, or do we take immediate proactive measures?  The racing distance was immediately reduced to 1,000 feet after Kalitta’s accident.  I think given time constraints, it’s the only thing that can be done for these two upcoming events.  The final divisional event of the year after those two events is Las Vegas, which I trust will have the new design sand trap/net system.  I think that track is well equipped to handle a runaway car. 

At these events, racing distance needs to be shortened to 1,000 feet and at the very least, single or double catch nets need to be installed.   Not just for the alcohol cars.  Top Dragster, Top Sportsman, Comp, Super Comp and Super Gas all have cars that can go over 180 mph.  It doesn’t end there.  Hell, a Stocker ran off the end of Gainesville Raceway, one of the longest in the country, when its brakes failed!

On a related note, Craig Hutchinson verbally assured me a couple of months ago that racing in the faster classes would be suspended when the train was running.

Maybe 1,000 feet is not the permanent solution, but something has to be done in the meantime until tracks can get up to spec. 

Often times, it’s easy to brush safety to the side.  To quote Yogi Berra from the popular Aflac commercials, “It’s like insurance; you don’t need it, until you need it.”  If you see a blower belt with frays, you change it.  If the crankshaft is cracked, sure you might be able to get away with making a few more runs, but the risk remains.  Those examples might result in a blown motor, a lost run.  What we’re gambling with in reference to track safety is lives.  The motto: “Dedicated to Safety” needs to sound true, immediately, not next year.

I can think of four instances of high speed run offs right off the top of my head.  Kalitta-fatality, Martindale-fatality, Rash – survived, Von Smith (Norwalk) – survived.

If nothing is done, we’re gambling over 500 participants’ lives that this won’t happen again.  Let’s honor the memory of Bobby Martindale and make the changes to not let this happen again.

Regardless of what is done, let’s all say a prayer it doesn’t happen again.  I’d love nothing more than to be dead wrong and for some to say I’m over reacting.  I also wish Bobby Martindale was still with us and I could have written this column about sportsman sponsorships as I had planned.

If I were racing one of these races with a car that I owned and drove, and they wanted me to run these races like nothing happened I’d raise as much hell as I could to get something done.  I’d then make a statement by idling down the track or shutting off early, much like several racers did in Englishtown.

To quote the late Bobby Martindale on a post from my site, InsideTopAlcohol.com, Mar. 30, 2008:

?????.nhra Wants All Of Us To Spend Money On Making Our Cars Safe,when Are They Going To Make The Tracks Safe? My 2 Cents

RIP, Bobby.  We’re all going to miss you.  Rest assured, I will not let this issue die. 

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