BURK'S BLAST w/editor Jeff Burk

NHRA Makes Drastic Changes to Save Nitro Classes

The NHRA and its professional nitro teams had/have a big problem, both parties will admit to that. How to solve the speed issue seems out of either party’s reach. NHRA tracks are unsafe for the speeds the nitro cars are running in 2018 because in 2008 the NHRA stated that the tracks weren’t safe at the speeds (333+ mph) they were seeing then from Top Fuel and Funny Cars. At the end of the 2017 season those nitro cars on those same tracks were going faster in 1,000 feet than they were when the distance was 1320 feet. The NHRA had to take action; they really had no choice.


During the 2004 season, series rising star Darrell Russell, driving for Joe Amato, was killed when his dragster reportedly had one of the rear tires fail approaching the finish line during Top Fuel eliminations at Gateway International Raceway. In 2007 rising star Eric Medlen was killed while testing his JFR Funny Car at Gainesville when the chassis failed. Then in 2008 established star Scott Kalitta was killed in a racing incident at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park driving his nitro Funny Car.


Shortly after the tragic death of Scott Kalitta the premier nitro teams went to the NHRA and basically told them that the NHRA national event tracks were unsafe for the speeds the two nitro classes were recording at that time. (Top Fuel and Funny Car speed records were both around 333 mph in 2008.)


At that point in time the NHRA shortened the track distance to 1,000 feet as an “interim” safety measure. Unfortunately, none of the NHRA national event tracks, then or now in use, were lengthened. NHRA did, however, improve their containment procedures at the end of the tracks to handle the nitro cars.


Despite the speed/safety issue, the NHRA had Ray Alley issue a moratorium in 2008 on developing any new products that would improve performance. However, Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. developed a better tire for the Top Fuel and Funny Cars. A tire so good that almost all Funny Car teams radically reduced the height of or did away completely with the speed-killing rear spoiler. The NHRA also allowed a new and improved cylinder head, reportedly designed by AJPE, and an improved, more durable block. That action allowed tuners to make more power and the cars to deliver record speeds and ET’s at a mind-blowing rate. By the end of the 2017 season the Funny Car speed record was over 339 mph and the Top Fuel speed record was again over 336 mph.


That performance binge continued into 2018. In fact, there were more Top Fuel speed records set during the first race of the 2018 season than at any other prior NHRA event.


The tech department never was able to effectively use the mandated MSD Rev Limiter or a reduction in max nitro percentage to 90% to reduce the amount of power the tuners were making. It generally took the crew chiefs/tuners just a couple of races to adjust for those restrictions, and record ETs and speeds in the nitro classes just kept coming.


“We had been watching the speed issue since the 2017 season and knew (going into the 2018 season) we could have a problem with speeds continuing to increase and would have to address it. We even took 200 engine rpm and their ‘lay-back’ headers away from the Funny Cars,” said NHRA Vice President of Competition Glen Gray. “When the Top Fuel cars kept setting speed record after speed record at the Winternationals and continued at the Phoenix race we (the NHRA) knew we had to do something.”


So, the NHRA management team and the Profession Racers Organization got together to do something about the escalating speeds and the safety concerns the teams had. (I was told it was at the behest of Hall of Fame team owner/driver/tuner Conrad Kalitta.) My sources say it was a fairly contentious meeting with some teams adamantly opposed to any changes that would reduce performance but also equally concerned about safety issues surrounding the speeds.


In the end, the solution both parties (the NHRA and PRO) arrived at was to reduce the traction coefficient number NHRA national event tracks had been prepped to prior to this year’s Houston race. How much traction compound the NHRA Safety Safari will spray isn’t public information, but it is generally acknowledged the NHRA started at Houston with a traction compound formula of 35% alcohol to 65% traction fluid.


When asked why the tech department chose reduced track prep over any other changes to reduce speed for the nitro cars Mr. Gray explained, “It was the only option we could see that wouldn’t cost the team owners money and time by obsoleting equipment they already have.”


NHRA’s decision will have some wide-ranging effect on the sport. There is no doubt in my mind that once top speeds for nitro cars began regularly exceeding the 333-mph speeds of the 2008 season the NHRA legal department led by Linda Louie and the tech department led by Glen Gray went into full-on crisis control. I think the NHRA legal department probably had a great influence on the NHRA decision to slow down the pro nitro classes -- no matter what it takes.


The NHRA, its track owner/operators, and especially the NHRA legal department know that any incident resulting in injuries (or worse) related to a nitro car at speeds deemed by the sanctioning body 10 years ago to be too fast for the track, regardless of reasons, would be a disaster for the NHRA and its major sponsors in a lawsuit. We remember the Darrell Russell lawsuit.

Track preparation at NHRA national events for their nitro teams was so extreme that at its peak the NHRA did their maximum track prep for the nitro cars and then re-prepped the track with less traction for all the rest of the competitors. According to my sources, the NHRA in the past has spent north of $20,000 per race on track prep. The out-of-control traction programs the NHRA and its track operators/owner followed, in my opinion, only benefited the NHRA nitro mega teams that had the tuners, funding, parts inventory, and crew members required to take advantage of max traction. A look at which drivers and team owners have won the most NHRA nitro titles in the last 20 years bears out that observation.


The results since this year’s traction action leaves no doubt that the NHRA and nitro teams made one of their best decisions in modern drag racing history. For as long as I have been involved in NHRA drag racing the management has spent untold amounts of time, money and manpower all in an effort the give their racers a “level playing field”. Since the NHRA quit prepping their tracks just for the nitro Funny Cars and Top Fuel cars prior to the Houston race, all indications are that for the first time in 30 years NHRA nitro teams are racing in a level playing field.


Now, single-car nitro teams in either class, who in the past were seen by most as “field fillers” and destined to be first-round losers, thanks to the traction action by the NHRA can be legitimate contenders to win and compete on par with the multi-car teams.


For the last 25-30 years Corporate America has known that to get the best value for their sponsorship of NHRA teams they needed to be on race-winning or championship-winning teams. So, for the most part corporate sponsors looked to be part of a Don Schumacher, John Force or Connie Kalitta team. Those teams won a vast majority of NHRA’s national event races and world championships and got the lion’s share of all TV coverage!


As a driver on single-car, moderately funded Top Fuel team it took Clay Millican 19 years to get his first NHRA victory. This year after the NHRA decision to reduce traction, Millican, still driving for owner Doug Stringer with Parts Plus and Great Clips as sponsors, has just won his second straight NHRA event. Two-time NHRA Funny Car National Champion Cruz Pedregon, with long-time sponsor Snap-on, has won his first race in three years! Blake Alexander, sponsored by Pronto Auto Service Centers, has been to a final round and a semifinal. All these teams have gotten a lot of TV time for those sponsors.


Consistency was more important than performance in their achievements. These teams won with a budget. The smaller teams hire crew chiefs and drivers that are expected to qualify and win if possible but not blow up everything in the trailer while doing so. It seems to be a philosophy long abandoned by many of the sport’s highly paid contemporary tuners and drivers, whose philosophy seems to be “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”

The most vocal opposition to the reduced traction edict by the NHRA has come from the increasingly few hard-core fans and a few professional drivers and tuners who feel that the reduced traction prep has led to a poor show for the fans as a result of too many aborted runs and a slight reduction of performance by nitro funny cars. Interestingly, the rule changes have not hurt the Top Fuelers who, despite the changes, are still on average going faster in 2018 than they did last year.


As for the fans being put off by poor racing resulting from too many fires and aborted runs, that is simply an assumption that has been proven wrong many times. Since the start of the 2018 season at Pomona the nitro classes have had more aborted runs, exploding engines and crashes than most experts can ever remember, yet the NHRA sold out Gainesville one day and at the next race at Las Vegas they announced two sold-out days. If speed was so important to NHRA's fan base why did they quit rewarding teams for setting speed records?


One other fact is worth noting regarding spectators and viewers versus big speeds and close racing being a spectator concern. Since 2016 through this year as Top Fuel and Funny Car speeds started climbing from the 333-mph range to almost 340-mph, the TV ratings (we have the official stats) haven’t risen at all and, unfortunately, in several cases dropped dramatically.


No matter how you look at it, you cannot argue against the fact that by agreeing to reduce track prep the NHRA and its major team owners have changed the future of Top Fuel and Funny Car racing and perhaps saved it from going extinct. The cost of owning and racing a competitive Top Fuel or Funny Car will be more affordable if for no other reason than team owners won't have to have multiple teams and warehouses full of parts to field a possible NHRA championship-winning team. Team owners will no longer have to spend stupid money on research and development trying to find more horsepower because the tracks just won’t take any more power. The NHRA won't have to devote so much money and manpower trying to control the teams. No matter how you figure it, all nitro teams except for the ones whose drivers and especially tuners can’t or won't adjust to less traction will benefit financially.


The mega-team owners along with the current NHRA management get kudos for going along with the changes. The owners went along with the NHRA decision knowing that it would probably cost them victories and at the same time help their opponents. I believe they realized the cost of nitro racing was continuing to escalate at a rate even Don Schumacher, John Force, or Conrad Kalitta could not continue to absorb and was escalating to the point that no sane businessman or sponsor was going to accept.


I honestly believe that John Force, Don Schumacher and Connie Kalitta approved the NHRA's action because they love nitro racing and wanted to insure its future for another generation.

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