Just who would we have to kill, anyway?
orry if that headline offends anyone. No, I'm not sorry at all. Given the events of the last two years, I think the time for being nice is over. As to the headline over this column, what I means is, who has to die to make professional drag racing get serious about its myriad safety issues?
You would have thought Eric Medlen's death during testing would have been enough. Well, the cars got stiffer, stronger and more expensive. All was well, according to the "experts". Heck, with John Force leading the effort to improve the breed, it looked like a good plan. But then, John's own car essentially fell apart, at speed.
John, being the tough stubborn old SOB that he is, refused to accommodate the Grim Reaper, surviving a crash that probably should have done him in. Others have died in lesser impacts, but Force lives, much to everyone's eternal relief.
I'm being deliberately morbid here, but what would have happened if the outcome had been different? Judging from comments from within the drivers’ ranks, I doubt if it would have made any difference at all. Fresh off another fatality, virtually no one offered up as a possibility that maybe, just maybe, the nitro funny cars in particular had become too damn fast!
The discussion turned instead to track safety, specifically the shut-down areas and the many strange objects found there. The last time I was at St. Louis for an NHRA national event, Chris Karamasines made the starting field. It was a few years ago is what I'm saying. As I entered the track I noticed the camera boom, which had been mounted behind the sand trap behind some nice Armco steel strands. It didn't look like a good idea to me, but who listens to us writers anyway? My point is, these obstacles have been hiding in plain sight for quite a while now and nobody, least of all PRO, said squat.
Until the people with the most at stake - the drivers- develop some foresight, nothing much will change.
Better sand traps will be built, and they should be. Maybe someone will even design and build the perfect catch net. Doug Kerhulas would have been in favor of that. Too late for him, though. I guess that's what ticks me off the most. Virtually every safety advance comes too late to help the guy whose misfortune brings about the change. Maybe the focus that will come courtesy of the New Jersey State Police will provide the impetus for improving the safety aspects of drag racing. Too bad it might come down to more government meddling, but the sport has left itself open for just that!
The "simple" act of slowing the cars WAY down would be my suggestion as the way out of the current situation. Simplify the cars, reduce the size of the bomb, take away the immense down-force that squares up the rear tires, and I think you would solve a whole lot of problems. Tuners would hate this, parts suppliers would cry foul, and many fans would scream bloody murder - just read the letters section of DRO if you think not. All of which pretty much leaves me unmoved. I just don't think the sport can afford to go the route of drag boat racing, where for a time, fatal crashes were a frequent fact of life. Whatever it costs the various parties to slow down the sport, the cost pales in comparison to what might loom just around the corner via litigation or government mandate.
I brought up the drag boat scene not to bash them, but to praise them. For, you see, they changed their sport through innovation. The Denver Capsule I think it's called, and it certainly advanced the cause of safety within the Top Fuel Hydro ranks. Will boat racers still die? Sure they will. Will drag racers still die if rule changes slow the speeds by fifty or sixty MPH? Sad to say, yes, they will. But not as often, I would be willing to bet. And not with the certainty that the Eric Medlen and Scott Kalitta crashes seem to suggest. I wonder if Gary Scelzi still thinks funny cars are safer than top fuel dragsters? Now there's a guy who NHRA might listen to. What are the odds he will say, "... slow us down"?
Why this will not happen, well, I've got a theory or two. The hard parts guys have a legitimate beef to a point. It will cost them a bunch of money, to ditch the current inventory and start over, technology-wise. But again, what's the cost of a human life, and what will the fallout from the next fatal crash be? I'm a gambling man, but I'm reasonably sure I don't want to buck those kinds of odds.
The second theory is this. I'm not sure - no, make that I'm positively sure NHRA has no earthly idea how to promote anything but speed and ET. Without much exaggeration, pro drag racing has produced about three personalities that mainstream America is even vaguely aware of. I'm speaking of Don Prudhomme, Don Garlits and John Force. Okay, and Shirley Muldowney makes four. None of the four were, in my opinion, "made" by NHRA. They made their own way, and with their own reputations.
I truly believe NHRA is scared to death of any major change in the way the sport is conducted. I do applaud the 1,000-foot deal, as a temporary fix. It took more than most of us will ever know for NHRA to move off that customary standard, and they do deserve a lot of credit for doing so.
Why do I think NHRA is fixated on performance and not personalities? I remember reading an interview Bret Kepner did a couple of lifetimes ago, for Super Stock & Drag Illustrated. He was talking with Jim Tice, the president of the American Hot Rod Association. Among many topics discussed was how to properly promote the sport of drag racing. Tice believed in paying a select group of nitro pros a fee to appear at, and promote, his races.
As part of the discussion, Tice referenced a conversation he had with his counterpart at NHRA, Wally Parks. According to Tice, Wally felt that the cars were the stars, and could be promoted as such. Sort of like, "...Shirley Muldowney's dragster!" if you will. Tice didn't think this would work and said as much.
Regardless, I have always felt NHRA had a poor track record when it comes to promoting the people of the sport. Think Danica Patrick versus Hillary Will, or Terrell Owens versus Antron Brown. I think you'll see my point.