Let me get right to the point. It's time for some drastic changes in Top Fuel and Nitro Funny car racing. It always seems to take someone getting killed, usually a high profile someone, to generate the needed level of concern to bring about real change. Over in NASCAR, Dale Earnhardt had to die before that branch of motor sports wised up and changed the basic car specs. Sho nuff, they still have a lot to work on, safety wise, but they are trying.
In drag racing, Eric Medlen drew the short straw. It could have been anyone, as all current nitro drivers are subject to the same forces and face the same risks, and drive pretty much the same stuff. You can talk all you want about track length, nitro percentages, all the technical nuances the 1320 sport has to offer, but just look at any still photograph of a nitro car in the lights. The problem is right there for anyone with eyes to see. As in , "Look at that tire - it used to be round! Why is it square now?" I am no physicist. I don't even do algebra! But even I know a squared-off round object moving at 300 mph cannot be a good thing. And that's assuming it stays in one piece! This is not to take Goodyear to task in any way. I refuse to ask the impossible of them. There is no tire that could live and work well under a current spec nitro car. I think it is foolish to even try.
My impulse is to take the sport in an entirely different direction and deconstruct the current Top Fuel and Nitro Funny Car spec sheet. I started thinking this way while I was watching some reruns of past NHRA national events on ESPN Classic channel. I'm not sure of the year, but Mike Dunn was wheeling the Mopar Top Fuel car, if that helps you any. There were winning runs in the 5's at less than 300 mph in both classes, and no one was walking out in disgust.True, they hadn't experienced low 4's and 330 mph speeds, but they enjoyed the show they were presented with. And here's the point I'm laboring to make - where was the need to "progress" from there, performance wise? I don't think there was one. But the problem drag racing has always had is, how do they develop the stars of the sport? Remember the old promo jibe, "...the cars are the stars"? Maybe that wasn't a good line to use after all. The performance angle has always been an easier path to tread than to actually rely on the personalities of the racers to carry the day. Publicity wise. That reliance on big numbers on the scoreboard may prove to be the biggest stumbling block to making nitro racing safer.
I really believe the time is ripe to de-evolve top fuel dragsters and nitro funny cars. Make them run smaller blowers. Give them back a variable nitro percentage. Take away some cubic inches. Let them keep the titanium chassis parts. Take wing height, size and elements out of the top fuel package, and widen the roofs and cut back on the rear wing dimensions on the funny cars. Get rid of the heat treated nonsense in top fuel (did they talk to any metallurgists before adopting that one?). In short, do whatever it takes to lessen the load on the rear tires. And if what they try isn't enough, do more.
Will fans like nitro racing if all this happens? I don't have a clue, but they seem unhappy with drivers getting killed, and rightfully so. It helps no one to turn drag racing into a blood sport. This all reminds me of when sprint car racing at the Knoxville Iowa fairgrounds dirt track was going through its evolution from non-wing to winged status. All the old school sprint car guys said wings would kill sprint car racing dead as a hammer. It took Gary Wright literally getting beheaded in a non-wing car crash at Knoxville to finally persuade the Old Guard to see the light. All these years later, sprint car racing is still one of the most dangerous jobs on earth, but at least they tried to make it safer.
I refuse to believe the fans are that hung up on the actual numbers that come up on the score boards. I think the drag racing press is, but not the paying customers. I came to this belief by conducting an impromptu survey on my way out of Heartland Park Topeka a few years back. I chatted up fifty or so fans as they were headed out to the parking lot, asking them to recite ANY specific ET or MPH run by ANY nitro car, on that particular day. Those surveyed were overwhelmingly unable to remember what they had just witnessed. Now here's the important part of the survey. They all seemed happy as clams, having just enjoyed a day / night of watching nitro cars go down the track, or not, depending on the car.
No comments like, "... gee those cars were boring." They liked what they saw, and I firmly believe they would like what they would see if nitro racing underwent a deconstruction reconstruction process.
Could any of this actually come to pass? History says no, but that was a member of John Force Racing that paid the ultimate price. So I guess it's possible. I'd like to think so, for the sake of everyone involved in drag racing. It's a great sport, with great people up and down the ranks. Let's do something, anything before anybody else pays a price that nobody wants to pay.