Safety should be top priority

June, 23, 2008
06/23/08
11:35
PM ET

Two deaths in a 15-month period should show the NHRA that it needs to take a hard look at some of its safety issues and make major changes.

When a racer dies in a crash, the first question most people ask is this: "Was everything done that could be done to avoid the tragedy?"

In Scott Kalitta's case, the answer is no. It's clear that the speed and power these cars now have is more than many of the tracks can handle.

Kalitta's death on Saturday brought to light how some facilities that host NHRA events do not have adequate runoff areas at the end of the track. Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J., where Kalitta was killed, is one of the worst.

The small sand pit and limited netting at the end of the asphalt had no chance of stopping Kalitta's Funny Car, which was traveling in excess of 200 mph when it reached the end of the track.

The concrete barrier also curves back perpendicular to the track. At the very least, that part of the wall should have the SAFER barrier, tires or water barrels in front of it. Beyond that point are large trees and a forest.

Other tracks have similar problems at the runoff areas. It's totally unacceptable in today's era of auto racing where so many safety advancements have taken place. The runoff areas must be lengthened and the retaining barriers vastly improved.

It that isn't possible, then shortening the length of a run should be considered. Several drivers last weekend suggested the NHRA consider making a pass 1,000 feet instead of a quarter-mile at facilities where the runoff area is compromised.

Obviously, this would require separate records for those events, so this change appears doubtful.

Another area of concern is how easily these engines explode into a massive fireball. An explosion blew off the body of Kalitta's Funny Car, either knocking him unconscious or compromising his vision, which led to the massive collision beyond the runoff area.

These explosions are happening far too often. Basically, NHRA nitro engines are a small bomb of combustion. Whatever it takes to control these explosions must take priority.

Racing journalist Bill Wood, better known as "Statt Man" on the nationally syndicated SpeedFreaks radio show, did some research after Kalitta's accident and came with some surprising statistics:

• The Space Shuttle lands at a speed of 215 mph on a runway that's 2 miles in length. Yes, the Space Shuttle is a much heavier piece of machinery, but Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars often are traveling 100 mph faster on a strip of pavement more than four times shorter.

• Twelve of the 21 facilities where the NHRA competes are more than 30 years old. Many of them have undergone renovations. But most of those were creature comforts, not track improvements, aside from switching from guard rails to concrete barriers.

• Thirty years ago, the top speed in NHRA competition was 250 mph. Today it's more than 75 mph faster on tracks that haven't changed much in three decades.

Significant track changes should become mandatory or the speed of the cars must be reduced.

Terry Blount

ESPN Staff Writer

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