By Darr Hawthorne and Jeff Burk
Photos by Darr Hawthorne

This NHRA season has been one of extreme highs and lows. The fiftieth U.S. Nationals being the high and the death of Top Fuel driver Darrell Russell being the low.

The tragic death of Russell is apparently directly attributable to the failure of the Goodyear tires that by NHRA rules must be used both front and rear on NHRA Top Fuel and Fuel Funny Cars. The immediate result from the June accident was the implementing of a series of new rules for Top Fuel: the rear-wing angle was changed to decrease downforce; additional protection was allowed around the cockpit to protect from flying objects and the minimum weight was increased to compensate; the allowable nitro percentage was reduced to 85 from 90 percent. The changes were made to keep the Top Fuel and Funny Cars at speeds under 325 mph which, it was hoped, would end or at least mitigate the tire failure.

After talking to many crew chiefs and drivers, the only conclusion that any reasonable person can come to is that all of the rules—with the exception of the cockpit armor—are abject failures. They have accomplished almost nothing in the way of slowing the cars down or stopping tires from chunking. 

Top Fuel and Funny Cars at Indy both during the race and in testing came very close to the speeds and elapsed times they had been running prior to the rule changes.

The startling fact is that the new Goodyear tire, which was supposed to fix the tire chunking problem that lead to Darrell Russell’s death and to many high speed crashes over the past decade, is, according to crew chiefs and owners, possibly the worst tire they have had to date as far as tire failure goes. The fact is that every time a Top Fuel or Funny Car driver makes a lap at an NHRA or IHRA race the chances of a catastrophic tire failure at speeds over 300 mph is not just a remote possibility but a very real one.

To our knowledge, no one outside of the management of NHRA, Goodyear, and perhaps PRO (Professional Racers Association) have seen any detailed, official report on the sequence of events that led to Russell’s crash and subsequent death. What is public knowledge is that the crash was set in motion by a left rear slick coming apart just past the lights, which in turn damaged the rear wing strut causing failure.  For a number of seasons nitro cars have been living with the “chunking” of the Goodyear slicks on both top fuel cars and to a lesser extent in funny car.  The solution for the problem has always been to bring out a new and improved version of the slicks, but inevitably as crew chiefs mastered the new combination they were able to apply more power, more wing, more clutch and the tires came apart, again. In 2004 alone both Bruce Litton and Darrell Russell had crashes at over 300 mph caused by tire failure.

Ray Alley gets an up close view of the chunked edges of the tire at Indy.

Even after the introduction of the new Goodyear D2300 there was tire chunking on some dragsters at Denver, Sonoma, Memphis and Brainerd. At the completion of U.S. Nationals qualifying, estimates of 19 to 22 tires were chunked or damaged. This failure included not just the rear tires but also the front. 


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