The sport of drag racing by nature is inherently dangerous.
Every time a driver takes the track, the end result could be a matter of life and death.
It was thought after the on-track death of Scott Kalitta, Connie’s son, and a two-time NHRA world champion on June 21, 2008, NHRA national event facilities would become safer in the run off area.
Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case.
Kalitta died when his Funny Car, traveling about 300 mph, burst into flames and crashed at the end of the track during final qualifying for the Lucas Oil SuperNationals at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, NJ.
In the last five weeks, the NHRA has been shaken to the core twice with the deaths of Neal Parker, a Top Alcohol Funny Car driver, and Mark Niver, a Top Alcohol Dragster driver.
Parker died June 11 when he crashed during qualifying at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, NJ.
Parker, 58, died when his Funny Car, at a high rate of speed, ran through a containment area with soft barriers, pea gravel and a safety net and wound up in pieces in front of a wall at the edge of the raceway property.
Niver died July 11 when his dragster crashed into the safety net at the end of the Pacific Raceways track in Kent, Wash., which buckled the chassis into the driver cockpit. Niver, a 30-year NHRA veteran, was 60.
These on-track deaths have brought in question what NHRA’s standards are for run-off areas and safety nets at their national event tracks.
“There are some areas that are (controlled by specifications), some are insurance underwriting guidelines, and some are standards we have,” Graham Light, the NHRA’s senior vice president-racing operations explained.
Light says the guard wall height at tracks is set at a minimum because it is set by the insurance underwriting companies, and has been for a number of years. The extent of how far the guard wall goes down the race track, which at national events is all way to the gravel trap on both sides is a standard set by the underwriters.
“When we get into the run off trap, to come up with a standard for everything is little bit difficult because a number of facilities have different challenges or different local regulations,” Light said. “For instance, Norwalk (Ohio) empties into a small local airport, so that land that it runs off into is controlled by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), so there are limitations of what you can do.”
According to Light, NHRA has been working with the University of Nebraska at Lincoln on the development of better emergency run off traps.
“They’ve came up with some recommendations that we have adhered to when we are at a facility that lends itself to that configuration,” Light said. “For instance, the type of material that is in the trap itself. It is three-eighths inch round washed river rock, round as possible, and it will vary somewhat from location to location based on what’s available in that market. It’s a minimum 16 inches deep. They’re all pea gravel, the track at Dallas had sand last year, and they’re changing that. Pea gravel definitely works better because the wind doesn’t blow it away and after a rain it doesn’t get hard packed.
“The (safety) nets have been a standard net for many, many years and they come from one source. It’s the same source we have got nets from since we started using nets, basically. The recommendation is that you bury the net from a foot to a foot and a half in the gravel, that way a car can’t get under it as easy. Anything is possible, obviously, but if you bury the net, the car is not going to submarine under it, typically.”
Light said 12-foot (safety) nets are used in a lot of locations, and in those nets because the posts are higher, the posts have to be protected so a car can’t get up over the guard wall and into the post.
“They’re pretty safe and sturdy posts,” Light said. “What we use there is the standard oval tracks or road course catch fences that you see around the country. That’s to deflect the car back into the gravel trap should a car get airborne and try and clear the guard wall. A number of years ago, we closed up all emergency access openings on the race track and have metal gates that are locked and closed while we’re running, but you need them (the access openings there) to get broken cars off the track at the finish line or get an emergency vehicle out.”
Light said at the trap itself, there are concrete walls that extend on both sides of the trap beyond the net.
“All tracks obviously have an opening one way or the other because there is a point where the cars have to turn off,” Light said. “On the side where the opening is they exit off the race track. The wall that is on that same side is five degrees off of the main barrier wall of the race track and reduces the possibility of impact into the end of the wall. You can’t make it fairly wide because that would increase the possible head-on impact into the wall of the sand trap and gravel trap, and that’s not desirable, obviously. Whenever we protect ends of walls for facilities where you get through the net and you absolutely have to stop the car to prevent it from going on to say a county roadway or trees or whatever may beyond the race track, we use the yellow plastic bottles that are very commonly used on highways around the country for protecting the ends of guardrails. There are instructions to how much sand we put in each one. The first one has the least amount of sand, the second row has a little more and third row has more, so it increases the resistance as the car impacts each of those rows of barrels. People have suggested using water instead of sand, but the University of Nebraska is dead against water. What happens when you impact the barrel it will break and crack open, and if water is in it you instantly lose any resistance because the water just flows all out on to the ground. If you have sand, even if the barrel cracks open, it still is offering some resistance to slow the speed of the vehicle.”
Light added the distance of the run-off is different from each national event track to the other.
“They all pretty well vary, and it’s all dictated by the length of the shutdown space you have got and the available real estate you have,” Light said. “There are some tracks, I would tell you that there is no trap at all, and Phoenix (Firebird International Raceway) is one of them. If you run off the end (there), you’re in the desert and you can go for a long ways. You’re better off not to impact anything if you can get away with it. At most race tracks we do not have that luxury. Most race tracks, there is a point where cars have to be stopped. While our racing distance is all the same, unlike NASCAR, we have a huge variation in the topography of the land down track. “We have some that go uphill, we have some that are level, some that go downhill, and what’s beyond the available real estate also varies tremendously. Each track has been analyzed in the last two years. The University of Nebraska, who by the way is the same company that has developed the SAFER walls and done a lot of work with NASCAR and Formula 1 and others, has worked with us. They’ve been to our races and I think they’ve analyzed every installation we have done. The recommendations on what should be done have varied somewhat, depending on the topography and what is beyond the end of the race track.”
According to Light, the University of Nebraska at Lincoln has been working with the NHRA on safety measures since the summer of 2008, following the death of Scott Kalitta.
“We had been working ourselves on some new configurations and they (the University of Nebraska) came highly recommended and we were obviously familiar with them because of the SAFER walls,” Light said. “We made contact with them and they came out to the U.S. Nationals that year (in 2008) and ever since then, we’ve had a close working relationship with them on every one of our facilities.”
Light went on to explain designing a perfect run-off and safety net area at NHRA tracks is not easy.
“The challenge with our sport, unlike say NASCAR, Formula 1, or IRL is that we have such a diverse group of vehicles,” Light said. “You’re trying to design something to restrain many, many different shapes of vehicles, weights of vehicles, small narrow tires, big wide tires, long skinny cars, motorcycles, it is unlike anything that NASCAR, IRL or any other sanctioning body has to deal with. That has been the challenge for the University of Nebraska to try and come up with something that works effectively for the wide gamut of vehicles we run.”
Listening to suggestions and opinions from owners, drivers and competitors is something Light welcomes.
“We’re all in the same sport, whether you be a competitor, sanctioning body or a track operator,” Light said. “The objectives of everybody are the same when you’re talking safety. We welcome anybody’s suggestions and we will listen to anybody’s input. The challenge is people’s input at times can vary so much whether it be rules on cars or it be facility design. Just like we do with our rules making process, you gather all the input and if you have to, you hire outside consultant experts to review the input and then you make the best decisions you can based on the knowledge you have.”
The sport of drag racing by nature is inherently dangerous.