Friday, July 11, 2008
In wake of death, NHRA goes to shorter track
MORRISON, Colo. -- John Force was searching for a sign telling him he'd reached the finish line at 1,000 feet.
The Funny Car driver is so accustomed to running a quarter-mile that he's not used to throwing out the parachutes and slamming on the brakes some 320 feet early.
Still, Force fully supports the National Hot Rod Association's decision to trim the track.
In the wake of Scott Kalitta's recent death in a racing accident, the NHRA took an interim step, reducing the length of Top Fuel and Funny Car races to 1,000 feet. The change kicked in Friday night at the Mopar Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway.
"We've got to stop the bleeding," Force said. "I don't want to see no more of this. Something had to be done. I've become a big fan of NHRA over this -- for making a decision that quick. They made a decision and didn't play around with all that stuff we do politically."
It's the first time the NHRA has conducted racing at any distance other than a quarter-mile at a national event since the first one was held in 1955.
NHRA national event announcer Bob Frey thought the switch to the 1,000-foot track went well -- except for a couple of oil downs on the strip, briefly pausing the action.
"Certainly different," said Frey, who's been calling quarter-mile races since 1966. "I thought it was cool."
Cory McClenathan had the fastest time in Top Fuel after two qualifying rounds Friday night, and Tony Pedregon turned in the best run in Funny Car.
Pro Stock driver Allen Johnson and Steve Johnson in Pro Stock Motorcycle head their classes. Both of those events continue to be run at a quarter-mile.
Before the competition, Pedregon drove near the track on a scooter to try to get a feel for the new distance. He said he's still getting used to the timing.
"We've conditioned ourselves for years and years and years to be full throttle for an x-amount of time, to listen to the car rev up," Pedregon said. "We have to adjust to that. I'm still not comfortable doing it. It's going to take me more runs."
The shorter track simply added another variable the drivers and their crew have to navigate at tricky Bandimere Speedway.
They're also handcuffed by the higher altitude, which affects the amount of horsepower the engines can make. It's a weekend-long excursion to find an ideal tuneup for atmospheric conditions the crews don't encounter anywhere else on the tour.
The track also built a one-of-a-kind underground cooling system at the starting line. There are two 12,000-gallon tanks pumping water underneath the surface through one-inch tubing, cooling the temperature of the track between 15-to-25 degrees. The temperature reading Friday before Funny Car qualifying was 101 degrees at the launch pad and 120 farther down the track.
"What that will do is give the cars more power off the starting line," said John Bandimere III, the general manager of the track. "It will translate into faster times."
So will an all-concrete track the speedway finished installing in April. It's as sticky at the start as near the quarter-mile finish.
"Pull your shoe right off," Bandimere said with a grin.
That's why Bandimere was a little disappointed with the NHRA's decision to reduce the track to 1,000 feet. Bandimere Speedway had taken all the necessary measures to ensure a pristine quarter-mile surface to try to break track records.
"But that's not our decision to make," Bandimere said. "We just wanted that racing surface to be as safe and consistent and accurate as possible. If we're racing each other, you want to lose because you lost, not because the race track had a problem."
The death of Kalitta shook up the NHRA and caused the organization, its owners and drivers to contemplate possible new safety measures on the cars and at the tracks.
Kalitta died June 21 in Englishtown, N.J., after his Funny Car burst into flames and continued at a high rate of speed through the sand pit at the end of the quarter-mile track, slamming into a retaining barrier.
Force doesn't want to see anything close to that happen again. That's why he's pleased with the decision to shorten the track until a better solution is figured out.
"We've reached a point where we've outgrown a lot of them (race tracks)," said Force, who was second after two rounds of qualifying. "I think it's a good decision for now."
But not all drivers are pleased with the change.
"I'll be honest, I am a quarter-mile racer and drag racing is a quarter-mile," Top Fuel driver Rod Fuller said. "I can't wait to get back to it."
The reduction of the track puts more of an emphasis on reaction times -- or so Top Fuel driver Doug Herbert is hoping. He flies off the starting line faster than any driver in the class.
"With a quick reaction time, the other car is chasing you down for the whole length of the track," said Herbert, currently in seventh position. "So, this is probably an advantage to me. All these other guys are going to have to start eating their Wheaties to get off the starting line a little quicker."