The death of Scott Kalitta has shaken up the NHRA and sent the organization, its owners and drivers back to the drawing board on safety issues.
Kalitta was killed in a fiery crash June 21 in Englishtown, N.J. After his Funny Car exploded, it was enveloped in flames, continued at highspeed through the sand pit at the end of the quarter-mile track and slammed into a retaining barrier. The drag parachutes deployed but did not open.
Graham Light, senior vice president of racing operations for the NHRA, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Thursday that a task force is being put together to study all aspects of safety and competition.
"For some time, we've been looking at the speeds and performance of these cars and one initiative we have to is to develop a task force of reputable crew chiefs, headed by Dan Olson, who works for us on the technical Top Fuel-Funny Car side. [We're] looking at ratcheting the performance back a notch.
"The goal is to bring speeds back slightly and also, at the same time, hopefully reduce some parts carnage, which translates into an economic impact to the teams."
Light said Kalitta's death moved the task force initiative to top priority.
On Wednesday, the NHRA announced what it called an interim step, reducing the length of Top Fuel and Funny Car races from a quarter-mile to 1,000 feet. The 320-foot reduction will start next week in the Mopar Mile High Nationals in Colorado. The Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle classes will continue to run a quarter-mile.
With Funny Cars and Top Fuel dragsters producing about 7,000 horsepower, engines coming apart in a fireball are not a new phenomenon. But, with speeds increasing every year, everyone involved in the sport is looking for ways to keep a crash like Kalitta's from recurring.
The move to shorten the races has gotten approval from team owners and drivers.
"This is not an absolute save-the-world thing, but it is the right thing and it is the best thing we can do instantly, immediately, to give us some relief and to help the situation," longtime NHRA star Kenny Bernstein told The AP.
Bernstein, a former champion in both Funny Car and Top Fuel, whose team now fields cars for several drivers including his son, Brandon, added, "And we know we're going to continue on within NHRA and our race teams and our people to look at every avenue to make these cars safer -- slowing them down, making them not as explosive, whatever it takes to get back to the quarter-mile racing for next season."
Bernstein said shortening the races by such a small amount might not seem to be a very big step, but it will allow some racetracks to make the sand pits intended to slow the cars down bigger. The other part of the move is it will allow drivers to get out of the throttle a little sooner.
"The sooner a driver can get off the throttle, the safer he is," Bernstein said. "If you can get off sooner and still accomplish what we're trying to do for the fans, which is give them a show -- and it will, because we'll still go 300 miles an hour at 1,000 foot -- that's just a little safety measure that helps all of us at this stage."
Del Worsham, a veteran Funny Car driver, echoed Bernstein.
"I definitely believe it's the right thing to do right now," he told The AP. "It hurts to even think about not racing a quarter-mile, but in light of everything that took place, the Scott Kalitta thing and the short tracks that are coming up, I can't think of any way to do something at this point other than to shorten the track."
This is the first time the NHRA will conduct racing at any distance other than a quarter-mile at a national event, since the first one was held in 1955 in Great Bend, Kan.
Will shortening the races spoil the show?
"I think the fans aren't even going to notice, if you want to know the truth," Worsham said. "We run 4.7 seconds, 4.8 seconds. Now we're going to run 4.1 seconds. It's the very end of the run. It's past the grandstands. The action's going to be the smell, the smoke, ground's going to be shaking when they come by 'em. They're still going to be going 300 miles an hour. I don't think anybody's even going to notice, other than the times are going to be a little different."
Light said the NHRA has already been in contact with other racing organizations, including Formula One, the FIA, NASCAR and the IRL, as well as the University of Nebraska, which developed the SAFER Barriers used to absorb energy in crashes on oval tracks, to discuss possible new safety measures on the cars and at the tracks.
"We're just really reaching out to all areas to find out what is better, what's out there, what's available," he said. "We want to know what will work for our sport. And some things may not. What's designed for a NASCAR stock car going 180 miles an hour in circles may not necessarily apply to a lighter-bodied car going in a straight line. But there's things that we can learn and things that we can adapt."
Light said the sanctioning body intends to scrutinize every aspect of Kalitta's crash, including what caused the explosion and how could it have been prevented, why the parachutes deployed but didn't blossom and why his brakes were ineffective in slowing or stopping the car.
"Beyond the technical things, we're looking at the facilities, shutdown areas, restraint devices, sand pits, all of those things," Light explained. "It won't happen overnight, but we will come up with safer race cars and safer racetracks."