One of the things I've always found to be fascinating about drag racing is the mere physics of getting a car that weighs more than a ton to go from a standing start to the quarter-mile finish line in 4.5 seconds at 330 mph. If you sit and really think on that fact alone it can really boggle your mind.
I guess over my years of covering the sport, I've just come to take those numbers for granted. It's still awesome, but when you see it all the time you reach a point where it's just part of the deal.
However, during this past weekend's national event in Seattle, that giddy wonderment has returned. I was absolutely floored to watch Tony Schumacher reach 316.90 mph during a 3.8-second run to the newly-mandated 1,000-foot finish line. That's 316 mph from a standing start to a distance most of us could jog without getting winded. It's just unreal to me that smart guys like Alan Johnson have figured out how to make that happen.
I guess the shock and awe I'm feeling is an unexpected bonus of the 1,000-foot rule. The other is the lack of oildowns we've had to suffer through since the switch. There were just four in Denver, and five in Seattle (only two in eliminations). Maybe it's just a fluke, but I don't think so.
Speaking of the 1,000-foot rule, ESPN2 announcers Mike Dunn and Paul Page told viewers of Sunday's broadcast that 1,000-foot nitro racing will be in place for the rest of this season. There's been no official word from NHRA on that topic but it's probably not a bad idea, especially once the Countdown starts.
Burkart said at the time that if his career ended right then and there he'd be satisfied.
"Okay, I take it back," the popular racer told me Wednesday. "I've got the itch. What can I say? Drag racing is in my blood and I just want to race."
Burkart's inner fire was re-stoked one week ago when he drove Paul Smith's Chevy Monte Carlo Funny Car through a couple of exhibition passes during the "Night of Thrills" event at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J. Although his best quarter-mile pass was just a 5.08 at 250 mph (he shut it off at 1,000 feet), Burkart said that was enough to get the juices flowing again.
"It was so cool to drive John's car last year," he said. "I mean, it doesn't get any better than that. The best part of that whole deal, at least to me, was that John and Austin Coil, and the rest of the crew chiefs they have over there, thought enough of me to give me a call. It was the biggest honor I could ever imagine."
Being Force's fill-in driver automatically put Burkart at the top of most people's list of potential drivers, if should they ever need a driver. The problem is no one needs a driver right now, at least not one that doesn't have a big sponsor check to bring to the job.
"I think the economy has hurt everyone in this business, especially those of us in my position," said Burkart, who runs Burkart Automotive and Machine Shop in Yorkville, N.Y., when he's not racing. "It's tough right now. We see it in everything. But I'm not slowing down. I spend time every single day working on sponsorship deals and talking with various team owners. I just have to be patient and hopefully something will break."
In the meantime, Burkart is bracket racing a seven-second Top Dragster at ESTA Safety Park Drag Strip in Cicero, N.Y., to keep himself sharp.
"It keeps me humble," Burkart said. "Man, those guys that race every weekend don't mess around. It's deadly out there. I haven't won anything yet. But it's a lot of fun."
Here's hoping Burkart returns to Funny Car action soon, or for that matter, Top Fuel, as he licensed in the long skinny cars last fall also.
The following editorial was submitted by my longtime friend and colleague Phillip Gary Smith, who usually writes about ultra trail races, which take place on mountain trails and with snowshoes. He is the author of "Ultra Superior," the first book on the Superior Trail Races in Northern Minnesota.
What would Jan & Dean sing?
"Burn up that quarter mile." -- Drag City by Jan & Dean, notching number 10 on the Billboard charts in 1963
Change can be good. As difficult as it is for humans to adapt to change, we can. Particularly when it is well thought out and implemented with care, which is rare, by the way, as demonstrated by the NHRA shortening the traditional quarter-mile drag strip to 1,000 feet.
In drag racing, think back to the changes in the formative days with a flagman initiating the start, using the tip of the flag stick to point to each driver, checking if they are ready. He makes eye contact with both and then leaps into the air with flair while waving madly. The race was underway.
Without the Christmas Tree set-up instituted decades ago, the flagman position today would be the most hazardous in all of sports. A mechanical creation solved the problem; the start itself wasn’t changed.
How could it have been done differently? Well, in yacht and sailboat racing, the clock ticks down and the craft approaches the line under power and has a good start as long as they don’t pass the start line before the timer reads "0." Would that have worked in drag racing? Perhaps, but it would have been a boring approach compared to the lights used today and the excitement created -- races won or lost with reaction times, spinning tires, smoke, and hubris on steroids.
When tragedies occur in sports the sanctioning body should and does explore ways to improve the rules so the competition can be safer for all involved. No one wants to see the ugly face of death at any sporting event. Excitement, yes. Death, no. NHRA has consistently improved on safety over the years with reasoned thought and careful implementation.
The recent change in response to the Kalitta tragedy, by shortening the race to 1,000 feet from a quarter-mile, a length reduction of 24 percent, seems less an improvement than a knee-jerk reaction of a stunned management in the post-Wally Parks era.
Look at NASCAR and the crash of Dale Earnhardt Sr. on the last lap of the Daytona 500 on that fateful Sunday. Many safety improvements for drivers came out of the tragedy. One can ask why the changes were not considered or implemented beforehand. In the world of investing, the eyes of hindsight are much clearer than foresight; of course learning does occurs by looking backward. So we continue to do that, as we should. Importantly, changes resulting from the Daytona tragedy were made and products invented like the HANS device and safer barriers ringing the track so crash energy can be absorbed before an unforgiving concrete barrier is met.
What NASCAR did not do, though, was shorten the Daytona race course.
You saw no new directive that said, "The new distance of the historic two-and-a-half-mile tri-oval at Dayton International Raceway is now 1.9 miles." That would be its distance if the NHRA 1,000-foot rule had been applied percentage wise to the original length. That distance, that look, is fundamental to their sport, and they understood that. NHRA on the other hand partially blamed the tragedy on the length of the drag strip and almost immediately decided to throw away the 57-year tradition of the sport and reduce the historic quarter mile lap by 320 feet to end at 1,000 feet.
So will every finish now be witnessed by Elvis since John Force saw him at 1,000 feet in a crash? Maybe the photo at the winner’s line can now come from the Presley Cam.
Pray this next scenario doesn’t happen, but what does the NHRA do if another tragedy strikes at the new 1,000 foot line? Further shorten all laps to one-eighth mile?
The International Hot Rod Association (IHRA) defines drag racing as "a straight-line acceleration contest between two vehicles over a measured distance. General standard distances accepted worldwide are quarter-mile (1,320 feet) and eighth-mile (660 feet)."
One can argue that any distance can be used for a drag race and get away with it. Street racers have done that for a long time. "Race you to the end of the block." Even the eighth-mile events -- fun to see, fun to have a night at the drags -- but isn’t there a buzz at those events as fans jawbone to one another in the stands, "You should see these cars on the full quarter-mile."
What changes could have NHRA invoked instead of the 1,000-foot rule?
Consider tracks that are currently sanctioned. Some are too old and too land-locked for modern technology. They will have to be improved, lengthened in the shutdown area or told, "We won’t be here next time." Some feel Englishtown fits this category. Maybe Pomona suffers the suffocating real estate challenge and should be moved.
"Well, we can’t even consider that!" No? Really? The sport can ruin itself if that were to be the attitude.
New tracks are coming onboard. Check out the state-of-the-art facility in Charlotte if you care to believe it. Don’t change the race course length -- improve or change the race venue.
A nitro rule was instituted a few years ago to reduce top-end speeds. The evolution of technology and the incredible talent of crew chiefs and teams in engineering creativity have overcome that restriction as it stands. So, what if nitro were reduced even more, say, to 10 percent?
"What, 10 percent? We can’t do that." Really? Well, there may be good reasons why it can’t be done, but perhaps there is a happier median below the current level.
Why are parachutes burning off cars, can’t open, and have other problems? Those questions are now being looked at but a better question is, why not earlier? Another invention worth considering is an automatic deployment of the parachute systems as soon as the race car crosses the finish, removing the driver from the requirement, allowing more concentration on stopping the momentum.
Is there yet a respectable answer to why a major piece of machinery, the camera boom on a cherry picker, was in place for a car to crash into on the race course in New Jersey? As a subscriber to the theory that if it can go wrong, it will, I would have looked at that in inspection and at least asked the question, "Can’t that be a hazardous obstacle to a racer?"
Maybe new eyes are needed from outside the sport to freshen the view of potential problems. This isn’t to suggest the current crew is not highly experienced and deeply diligent to their duties but some of my most unsophisticated clients often come up with a question from outside the proverbial box that provide new insights on ways things can be done or new considerations made.
For example, consider fencing up both sides of the drag strip, curving in at the top, keeping cars inside the race course and potentially retaining debris from broken equipment launching into the air and landing in the stands.
"Well, that has never happened." Yeah, well, it’s going to one day and with devastating consequences for the sport.
Every driver we’ve ever had the privilege to talk to is at the top of the list of the most insightful, entertaining, and motivated sports stars possible. Well, except one, but even he was pretty good because you’ve got to have someone to root against. The more you know them, the more you want them all to win. Here is an example, in the Pro Stock class, I hate races between Allen Johnson’s Mopar and Mike Edward’s Pontiac. Both men are wonderfully devout people. I admire their standards, backgrounds, and beliefs.
For them perhaps this new rule could be instituted: If they’re close at the finish, it’s a tie. On to the next lap.
But wait, that’s not drag racing. The thrill of the race is the undeniable fact that if you win a contest, you go forward, otherwise you load the transporter and you’re outta there. The sport doesn’t care about anything else. It is special in that regard.
We like race records, and have witnessed many of the major steps the pro classes have made. We enjoy the big speeds and noise and fumes nitro puts out. First and foremost, though, we like drag racing and can get every bit as much thrill out of alcohol racing as nitro. But give us back our quarter mile.
Who is the big winner in the 1,000 foot fix? The kid brother sanctioning body, the IHRA, and their current crop of quarter-mile races interspersed with the eighth-mile tracks. In investing terms, I would go long with the IHRA and short the NHRA.
So the answer is fix speeds, fix safety, but don’t ruin the traditional quarter mile. Otherwise you’ll be hearing a new version of Jan & Dean’s famous song on the radio: "Burn up that 19/100ths mile."
Gosh, I take a few days of vacation and the whole drag racing world changes on me.
You know, after sitting on an airplane for a long time and contemplating the 1,000-foot thing I've reached one obvious conclusion -- its still drag racing. If our sport is safer now than it was before, even by a small margin, than I'm completely behind the change.
I'm a traditionalist by nature and although it's going to take some getting used to, the laws of physics demand this move be made. I wholeheartedly applaud Tom Compton and NHRA's Board of Directors for having the guts to do this because it had to be done.
Please, don't stop here. Keep investigating every possible safety measure we can make to keep our guys and girls alive. They'll still be going plenty fast at 1,000 feet and as my great friend Darrell Russell used to say, "Bad things can happen at 300 mph."
To me, drag racing is a pretty simple deal. You line up two cars and race to the finish line. Whether it's a city block like in American Graffiti (not recommended), or a quarter-mile, or now 1,000 feet, there's still gonna be a winner and a loser. You still have to out-perform the other driver to win. The tuners still have to figure out how to get that land rocket up and moving. It's still 8,000 horsepower. It's still nitro. Nothing has changed in most regards.
For all we know, this might be better. Maybe oildowns from engine explosions will be cut in half. Maybe we won't see as many crazy Funny Car detonations where the body shreds into a fiery inferno. Maybe we'll just see a bunch of good old-fashioned drag races.
Like it or not, it appears this is the way we're going to race for awhile so let's try to embrace the change in the name of driver safety and just enjoy a unique time in drag racing history.
It's really cool that Bruton Smith is building a four-lane drag strip in Charlotte, but don't get too excited about the possibilities just yet. As it stands right now, the inaugural Carolina NHRA Nationals will be run on just two lanes, no matter what happens on the active side of the racetrack. The decision already has been made by NHRA officials and conveyed to race organizers at SMI.
It's odd to me that NHRA president Tom Compton has preached the need to speed up Sunday's action to provide a better product for television viewers but he's not allowing this new track to be utilized to its fullest capacity this time through. You gotta start somewhere and why not begin the process as soon as possible, which would be Sept. 11-14 at zMax Dragway.
There will be some kinks to work out for sure. Qualifying will be easy enough, unless it's shortened for some reason. Four lanes, four sessions, even I can figure out how to make that schedule.
The issues will arise Sunday if there is one lane that's obviously better than the other three. For instance, let's say a crew chief has his car set to go down Lane 2 but a massive oildown happens right in front of his car. Suddenly, he has to figure how to get down Lane 3 or 4 with very little prep time.
It's just something they're going to have to get used to as the sport marches forward. Tuners with lane choice will need to be ready to go down two lanes, one on each side. Those without lane choice need to prep for the two lesser lanes. That's just the way it's going to be.
The upside is the action will continue almost non-stop for the fans -- can I get an AMEN! -- even while the other lane is being cleaned up. That part will be awesome.
Let's step it up, NHRA, and start this learning process now. We all promise to be patient.
Let's start with something that has to be obvious to anyone that attended the Englishtown race or saw Scott Kalitta's accident on ESPN2 -- that was horrifying. I pray to God Scott was knocked out when the engine exploded near the finish line. The other option is too gut-wrenching to even contemplate.
Something went wrong, big time. By Funny Car standards, Scott's engine explosion wasn't too far out of the ordinary. We've witnessed scores of those over the years. What was surreal was the way the car just carried on down the track at such a high rate of speed, eating up an already short shutdown area in no time at all.
And let's be perfectly clear here -- Old Bridge Township Raceway Park is short. A lot of the older tracks are these days. To a person, all of my media colleagues are shocked at how quickly Scott's car ran out of space.
The track was built in 1965. As far as I can tell by looking through the archives, racecars were topping out at 230 mph back then. They're going 100 mph faster now. Something needs to be done.
Thankfully, situations like the one that killed Scott are rare, but that shouldn't stop NHRA from making some big changes. I'm not an engineer but wouldn't another 200 feet of sand/gravel have helped? That should be installed immediately, at every track, no exceptions. Why was there a Jersey wall concrete barrier set up behind the catch-net? I can't imagine in any circumstances where that would help. How about a SAFER barrier, or four-foot thick foam blocks, or even stacks of old tires? Anything would disperse energy better than a concrete wall. Who came up with that idea? In the words of Donald Trump -- You're Fired!
I love the camera shot but let's get rid of that crane hanging over the top end forever. It's not worth someone's life.
I talked in confidence to several people that were down there when the accident happened, including a few police officers that were part of the attempted rescue effort. They were shocked and visably shaken by the devastation, and these are guys that see terrible accidents every day. I'm glad the State of New Jersey is involved in the accident investigation because I believe they'll be more forthright with the media than the NHRA usually is in these situations.
With less engine strain we'll have better side-by-side racing, fewer oildowns, and less danger for the drivers. Yes, it's a dangerous sport and we will likely have more fatalities in the future, but three stars extinguished in less than four years time is too much for my liking.
I was glad to see several drivers speak out in the media about the length of the track and the fact something needs to be done to make the sport safer. Of course, we heard this before when Darrell Russell and Eric Medlen died and although some positive steps have been made, particularly within the John Force Racing camp, we still lost Scott. Stay the course this time, guys, and hold strong in your convictions.
As for Scott himself, well, I have to tell the truth, I was very intimidated by him the first few years I was covering the sport. I interviewed him when necessary but otherwise cut him a wide berth. He just looked like he'd rather kick my ass than talk to me. In reality, Scott was a really cool guy that just flat-out loved to drag race. He wasn't in it for anything but the thrill of competition. He was a bad-ass on the track, not in person, and I wrote at last year's Indy race that pound-for-pound, I thought he was the coolest cat out there. I still believe that today.
Whenever I was at the top end after Scott lost a round, he'd look at me and say, 'Geiger, where's my beer?' I'd just shrug and he'd always say, 'What good are you then?' Then he'd scowl for a second before winking and giving me a wry smile. That's how I will always remember the man. I hope everyone else comes to remember him as the guy that gave his life to make drag racing a lot safer than it is right now.
I ran into Jimmy Walsh in the staging lanes and he seemed relieved to be free of the responsibility of tuning a high-dollar nitro racecar, at least for now. Walsh parted with Kenny Bernstein Racing and the Monster Energy Drink Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car team early in the week and turned over the crew chief duties to his longtime wingman Danny DeGennaro.
"I feel good," he said. "I took the wife and kids to the shore and just did nothing for a few days. I need to de-stress and that was a good start. I live close to this track so it was easy to come over and see what was up and I'm going to Norwalk because I promised my son a day at Cedar Point (amusement park) but I'm not really looking for a job just yet. I think I want to take a little time away and make sure the next position I take is one I want."
One thing Walsh made pretty clear is that he's favoring a return to Top Fuel rather than staying in Funny Car. Either way, he'll certainly get snapped up by someone very soon.
What do you do on an off-weekend if you're the crew chief of the reigning NHRA Funny Car champion? You go to a race, of course.
Dickie Venables made the trip over to Bowling Green, Ky., for the NHRA Hot Rod Heritage Racing Series' National Hot Rod Reunion VI to spend some time with his father and his racing partner Steve Stephens. The senior Venables and Stephens had their beautifully restored Stephens & Venables rail out for the Cackle Fest and young Dickie was able to snap these photos.
"I had a great time," Dickie said. "No stress; I was just a full-blown spectator! It was real good to see my dad enjoy the car he had back in the day."
The parting of ways between Top Fuel driver Alan Bradshaw and Tuttle Motorsports got physical before it was over, with Shortall (really big person) and Bradshaw (rather small person) scuffling in the team transporter after Round 1 at the Chicago race. The dispute was over some words the two exchanged at the starting line prior to the run after Bradshaw was strapped in the racecar.
Bradshaw and Shortall were at odds over the padding and shielding in the cockpit of the car. Bradshaw favored a full titanium shield that extended to the front of the roll cage as well as thicker ISP pads that go on either side of the driver's head. The total weight of the items is seven and a half pounds, which Shortall thought was excessive so he removed the extra shielding and replaced the pads with the smaller and lighter Butler pads. The car was still legal according to NHRA safety rules.