SOME DRIVERS WEIGH IN ON RACING NITRO CLASSES AT A QUARTER-MILE FOR SELECT NHRA EVENTS
Some of the buzz around the NHRA pits this weekend is about the sanctioning body pondering taking the nitro classes – Top Fuel and Funny Car – to quarter-mile racing at select events.
NHRA made the switch to having both Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars race to 1000-feet, instead of the traditional quarter-mile (1,320 feet) in July of 2008 at the Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway in Morrison, Colo., near Denver, and that’s where the racing distance for these two classes has remained.
The move to 1,000 feet by the NHRA came shortly after Scott Kalitta, the legendary Connie Kalitta’s son, and a two-time NHRA world champion, died on June 21, 2008, during qualifying at Englishtown, N.J.
Scott Kalitta's 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 New Jersey.
Having Top Fuel and Funny Cars go back to quarter-mile racing is something that doesn’t sit well with drivers interviewed by Competition Plus Saturday. The racers are competing at the NHRA New England Nationals this weekend in Epping, N.H.
Antron Brown, a three-time Top Fuel world champion – 2012, 2015-16 – started his Top Fuel career in 2008 and raced half that season to 1,320 feet before the switch to 1,000-foot was made. Brown drives for Don Schumacher Racing.
“I didn’t think our sport should have ever left quarter-mile, I think it should have stayed a quarter-mile and we could have just developed different things to shut the cars down,” Brown said. “Back then, we could have just raced to 1,000-foot at the tracks that were short. Now, we have changed the whole schematic of the cars in the way they run.
I honestly just don’t see how you can make it happen (race to a quarter-mile) unless you handicap or cripple the cars somehow. I mean, where we are at now is where we have to live. We’re in the middle of the road. You go to some tracks that are eighth-mile dragstrips and you have some that are a quarter-mile and the Fuel cars are stuck at 1,000-feet. The way the parts and pieces are and the way the economy goes I don’t know how you go quarter-mile racing. I also think of the safety part of it.”
Veteran Top Fuel driver/team owner Terry McMillen sees cost as huge factor in implementing racing to 1,320 feet.
“It is going to cost a lot of money to do that because combinations are going to have to be totally different, which therefore means it is going to create more expense than what the teams already have,” said McMillen, the defending champion at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis. “I think it is going to impact the smaller teams and it is certainly going to impact the big teams as well because now you’re just going to have a lot more Denver combinations, if that makes sense. It’s just going to take a lot of money and time and testing to do that (quarter-mile racing) and I think it is just going to have an adverse effect.
These cars are already running faster than what they ever ran, and they are doing that to 1000-foot, so now you must look at it and say at what point are the tires going to make it down. It has always been a concern about tires and going 330 mph consistently. What do they think is going to happen when these cars start going that extra 320 feet? I’ve taken the car to 1,100 feet and we were 340 mph. While Goodyear builds the best set of tires out there and the only set of tires, the other side of that coin is at what point do we want to keep putting people in harm's way because we are trying to run a quarter-mile when there’s just no way we should be doing that today as quick as these cars are.”
There’s the counter argument that some drivers don’t shut off until way after 1,000 feet now, so the extra 320 feet would not be as big of a deal. McMillen addressed that thought process.
“Our car has an auto set-up that if I’m late pulling the parachutes and getting off the gas it will disconnect it for me,” he said. “Typically, I don’t use that because I’m usually OK in that area, but I think there might be other teams that rely on the shut-off stuff to work, the automatic NHRA stuff. It’s just a Catch-22, but it is just going to cost us a lot more money to do it. What I’m sure is going to happen and what is going to dovetail off this is they are going to come back and say, here’s what we are going to do, we are going to minimize the blower or something to try and slow the cars down.”
McMillen said quarter-mile racing will hurt the sport more than help it at this point and time.
“It’s going to impact everybody substantially I think, and I believe at the same point and time we are ending up losing teams,” he said. “My gut-feeling is today that I’m concerned they are just trying to make it an eight-car field or something. What I’m getting at just because of the expense, you will start losing the Clay Millicans and myself and some of the other teams that are not as well-funded as they used to be. In all the efforts they are making to bring more cars in, now they are trying to turn around and run the cars off.
While we love what we do, and we are working five times harder today to make our parts last longer than ever before because there is just not enough funding to run these cars. The purses are not going up to match what we spend in a weekend. Even if you win a race, you are still $120,000 in the hole.”
Matt Hagan, who drives for DSR and who won NHRA nitro Funny Car world championships in 2011 and 2014, also knows quarter-mile racing isn’t an easy switch.
“I think it makes everything more challenging and expensive for crew chiefs to have to carry two different combinations and figure some stuff out,” Hagan said. “We’re just now getting to where we are starting to get some side-by-side racing with the way the track prep is so sometimes you just need to leave things alone and let the sport grow and evolve. It has been this way since 2008, 1000-foot racing, and everybody seems to be OK with it. It’s cool and old-school to go back to that kind of stuff (quarter-mile racing), but at the end of the day it creates more combinations and more expense and everything else for teams. They shortened these things up for speed and safety and everything else and give us more room to stop. As a driver to, you have to get a feeling of how long you should be in the pedal before lifting and things like that and it could throw timing off. It would add a lot of new variables to the program when we are just now starting to have good side-by-side racing again from them changing track prep.
It takes a lot of money to run these cars and a lot of sponsorship and it gets harder and harder every year to find more money and more sponsors. For the guys who are trying to stay alive throwing something else in the mix probably would hurt. I’m not out here to try and win races anymore, I’m trying to win championships. Nobody remembers how many races you won, they remember the championships. For us, it is about having a combination that worked through the entire year and changing some of these races to quarter-miles and going back to 1,000-feet would change your combination. Everybody will adapt and everybody will figure it out, but it is just more time and energy spent for what?”
Brown, like McMillen, believes the main obstacle to quarter-mile racing is the drastic changes that would have to be made to the Dragsters and Funny Cars.
“The funny part when you think about it right now, they're working on slowing our cars down to 1,000 feet, and unless they switched the whole dynamic of racing over again and give us one fuel pump and one mag and we race like a Nostalgia Funny Car or Dragster then you end up going 300 mph to a quarter-mile then we are no faster than an A-Fuel car now,” Brown said. “When they switched the can of worms back in 2008 that’s when they changed the whole dynamics of the sport forever.
It’s a hard deal to juggle because you have some tracks where you will go slow and can’t go fast because the way we do track prep now. It’s a lot of things you have to juggle and right now and adding that to the mix is not going to make our sport better, that’s my opinion.”
Shawn Langdon, the 2013 NHRA Top Fuel world champion, who has been driving a nitro Funny Car the last year and a half for Kalitta Motorsports, weighed in on the quarter-mile racing at select events.
“My whole era has been 1,000 foot racing, and it is a tough situation because I know drag racing was founded on quarter-mile and a lot of the fans would love to have it back, but with the changes that we’ve made to these race cars to make them safer and the changes that have been made to the 1,000-foot racing it is going to be very difficult to get these cars to go back to a quarter-mile and to keep safe speeds,” Langdon said. “I think there’s a target number that NHRA and couple of the manufacturers don’t like to see on the miles-per-hour. When they were going 330 mph back in the day to the quarter-mile they were probably going 270-so mph at eighth-mile, but now we are in excess of 290 mph at eighth-mile. We are 20 mph faster at eighth-mile than we were back when we were going 330 mph in a quarter-mile. Plus, a lot of these cars are on the rev limiters at 800 feet and now you’re adding 320 feet of being on the rev limiter. There’s not going to have to be a lot of things that get really looked at with safety. The problem is a lot of people are going to have to go out testing and there a lot of teams that are really struggling with budgets right now.
I just hope it is not a knee-jerk reaction. Obviously, we are here to give the fans what they want and a lot of them have talked about wanting the quarter-mile back, and I’m not completely opposed to it. However, it is going to be very, very difficult to go back quarter-mile racing while keeping the speeds down and keeping the safety aspect up.”
Brown offered some suggestions to improve the sport.
“I think for our sport to be better we have to keep innovating,” Brown said. “Like where we do night racing, or we shorten our shows up to two-day shows. Everybody wants entertainment and the long drawn-out weekends I think are coming to a close. I think if you sell people a weekend ticket for two days and you race at night time and you have fireworks, or you have a concert and you bring new people out who have never been to the show. It is time to do some new, different things that will bring more people out.
Our show is incredible at night time and we don’t need to just qualify at night time we need to race at night time. The newer generation if you brought them out and see what we do, they will go goo-goo and gaa gaa about it, but you have to put it to them where they are entertained, and they want to be there. I don’t know, have a Bruno Mars concert at the race track. They will come out there for Bruno Mars and they will see what we are doing, and they think I never even knew this stuff (drag racing) was like this. I’m talking out of the box, but the quarter-mile deal, that deal is done. We are already in Pandora’s box and you can’t get out of it.”
Having different types of tracks in a racing series is not uncommon. In the NASCAR Monster Energy Series for example, drivers compete on short tracks, long tracks and road courses, but Brown doesn’t see that translating to NHRA with 1,000-foot and quarter-mile racing.
“We’ve come a long way to make the sport safer and the 1,000-foot deal you get the car shut off 320 feet shorter, which is huge,” Brown said. “Some people don’t get their car shut off still to almost a quarter-mile where if they were racing the quarter-mile that’s how far they would be past the quarter-mile. That’s what made it so dangerous to race a quarter-mile because some shutdown areas are just short for the speeds that we are going. It’s a hard deal up for debate, and I know what they think is going to bring fans back to our sport, but that’s not the case at all, period.”
Langdon pointed out the plusses of racing to 1,000 feet.
“I definitely think 1,000 foot racing has brought the driver into it more because I feel like in quarter-mile racing there are so many things that could happen and there's a lot more time for things to happen. But I think as far as competitiveness goes I really feel that 1,000-foot has tightened up the fields, it has tightened up the ETs, it has brought the drivers back into the equation as far as reaction times, staging, keeping it in the groove, and so on. All the windows have shrunk up a little bit and competitive enough wise, 1000-foot racing has provided tighter competition.”
Brown did bring up the positive aspects in the sport that are happening, but he knows the sanctioning body needs to keep improving its product.
“Have we had some sold-out races? Yes, we have,” Brown said. “Have we had the highest ratings in TV coverage we have ever had? Yes, we have. Look at the facts - our sport is growing. I think we are oversaturated at times with how many races we have, and I think we need quality over quantity. If you could make every race quality that’s a different story, but you can’t. What makes it better to make it go is when you’re on the West Coast you stay on the West Coast and when you’re on the East Coast you stay on the East Coast. You don’t flip-flop back and forth. You have to make it better for teams to survive. It’s not an easy road. NHRA has their work cut out for them, but they are working diligently each and every day.”
Brown sees this point in drag racing as a time to embrace what’s happening now, not focusing on turning back the clock.
“I think we need to focus on things that will revolutionize our sport and not depend on something we did in the past that’s going to make it happen, because it is not going to make it happen,” he said. “There are some valid things I look at all the time because at the end of the day I love our sport. I’m so passionate about our sport of drag racing, even all the way down to the Junior Dragsters. I try to help them to grow our sport at the grassroots level because we have to focus there and make it better. We need to grow it together and we really need to be all in it together. We have to think of things that’s going to bring people out, have other draws that’s going to people out who have never been to our sport. Not the fans we have in sport because the fans we have in our sport, they love our sport and we have to cater to the fans.”
Another option Brown favors is bringing out a different class of cars to race against each other.
“I heard them talking about this, which I think would be a great idea and that’s to bring out a Nostalgia Funny Car class that runs the same engines that we run and they run a small blower on it and then they run like one fuel pump on the car,” Brown said. “They could race those to the quarter-mile and you’re going to have a nitro show. Then what you do is you make a feeder class that goes from that right into our class because those guys who run those cars will know how to tune them and run them and they will make new crew chiefs and team guys at a way lower cost than what we run. You will have those classes filling up because they will be cheaper to run. Or it can even be a different class where it runs a new body on it that looks like a real car front on it where you get the manufacturers involved a little bit more. I think that would awesome because then it will feed our nitro classes and grow our nitro classes.”
This week’s low car count in the nitro classes isn’t cause for alarm, according to Brown.
“Let’s be honest, we have a low car count just at this race here in Epping,” Brown said. “We had 21 cars in Chicago. We have cars out there but when you have races where you’re shooting all the way across America, across the map from the Northeast to the West Coast, teams can’t afford to that. It is a logistic nightmare. If you raced Virginia and you’re out here on the East Coast and you go race Epping all the teams would go from Virginia to Epping. We race Pomona and Vegas and it makes it harder on these teams when you have to go all the way to Gainesville (Fla.) and then you have to come all the way back and race Vegas. The low buck teams literally just stay on the West Coast and wait for us to come back to Vegas. Then you get the East Coast boys who come to Gainesville.”