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Taking Them to Task

By Susan Wade

The National Hot Rod Association came to Seattle's picture-postcard Pacific Raceways for the 17th time July 23-25, but it was the first time in recent memory that the racing was just as pretty as the setting. Despite what looked like an overwhelming set of challenges, Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers gave the Northwest's motorsports-starved fans terrific side-by-side racing. Eric Medlen even set the Funny Car track speed record at 318.62 mph.

They had begun to master the new mandates. They had to deal with a five-percent reduction in the amount of nitromethane allowed in their fuel, a new tire compound and air-pressure gauging, traction concerns with a freshly repaved surface, unseasonably hot temperatures that hiked the track thermometer to as high as 136 degrees during qualifying, and wildly fluctuating weather during eliminations. They also were getting used to the new roll-cage shields NHRA had mandated just before the previous week's Denver event.

"By Sunday in Seattle, we were picking up the pace," Funny Car driver Gary Scelzi said.

But who is controlling the pace? And how likely is it to change in the coming weeks, months and seasons? What, if anything, will change in the wake of popular Top Fuel driver Darrell Russell's fatal crash June 27 at St. Louis?

Don Taylor, NHRA's newly named senior director of national technical operations and former General Motors engineer, has compiled a safety committee/task force. Also helping administer it are Graham Light, senior vice president and chairman of the NHRA Competition Committee, and Ray Alley, director of Top Fuel and Funny Car Racing.

Committee member Don Schumacher, whose six-vehicle operation fields a team in each of the four pro classes, called the group "kind of a mixture of different levels of well-funded teams (and) independent teams."

Austin Coil, senior crew chief at John Force Racing, confirmed he, too, is among those enlisted to carry out the mission "to evaluate and recommend short-term and long-term performance parameters."

Taylor repeatedly declined to name the members of the committee and would not describe either the process by which members were chosen or the structure of the body whose formation was announced July 9. Both Taylor and Schumacher used the words "fluid" and "liquid" to describe the group's composition at this point. Jerry Archambeault, vice president of public relations and communications, said, "We're still very much in the preliminary stages. We want to have a good cross-section of the racing universe." Neither, however, would say whether the committee would include Goodyear representatives, engineers outside the drag racing industry or others not directly associated with NHRA.

However, from various sources, DRO has obtained the names of at least some of the team owners and crew chiefs believed to be participating: Kenny Bernstein, Jerry Gwynn, Alan Johnson, Connie Kalitta, Dick LaHaie, Bill Miller, Jim Oberhofer, Don Prudhomme, Tim Richards, Tim Wilkerson, and Chuck Worsham. Wilkerson is the only current driver reportedly involved.

(Tom West photo)

The group gathered for the first time in mid-July in Denver. According to Schumacher, "At this point, we're looking at things related to performance, safety and side-by-side racing to improve the show for the fans. . . . That's about all we've discussed. There was conversation about all different kinds of things, but there are no decisions on anything as of yet.

"This was the first meeting, the first get-together," he said, "and it'll be a period of time before there's any direction really decided."

Scelzi, a vocal safety advocate who survived at least three spectacular crashes during his equally spectacular Top Fuel career, said that's what has him concerned. He said the absence of a Rudy Guiliani-like presence for the drag-racing community in the hours and days following Russell's death -- the lack of a calm but reassuring decision-maker -- doesn't bother him.

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