Some people (namely, crew chiefs) love it and some (purists and many fans) hate it, but 1,000ft drag racing in the NHRA's pro nitro classes is probably here to stay.
The second half of the 2008 NHRA season, which began two races after former Top Fuel champ Scott Kalitta died in a Funny Car crash off the end of the Englishtown, N.J., track, was contested on 1,000ft courses – not the quarter-mile that had been the standard since drag racing was born right after World War II.
Most Funny Car and Top Fuel drivers don't want a return to it. “I sure as hell don't want to go back to the quarter-mile,” says Funny Car superstar John Force. “Why would I? For one thing, it's cheaper to race 1,000ft. You just don't tear up as much stuff. Number two, a lot of the tracks can't handle quarter-mile racing anymore – the shutdown area isn't long enough. And number three, what about the insurance? We lost [team driver] Eric Medlen in 2007, and then I nearly got killed at Dallas later that year. I told all my sponsors, ‘Don't worry, it's safe now – we're only racing to 1,000ft.' Now I'm supposed to tell them we're back on a quarter-mile?”
Perennial Funny Car contender Ron Capps (BELOW) is fine with either distance. “With the speeds we're going, racing to 1,000ft is probably the best thing we can do – for now,” he says. “But I'm not 100 percent sold on either one. I could still have my mind changed. I understand the reality of the situation. If we keep the cars the way they are right now and run to 1,320ft [a quarter-mile], we couldn't race at Pomona anymore. Pomona's hallowed ground. Not racing there is unthinkable. One thing I don't want to see is NHRA taking power away from us, watering the whole thing down so that we're running only 285 or 290mph. To me, it's like Del Worsham always says: These cars are more fun to drive when they're just a little bit scary, and with the power we make right now, under these rules, it's still a little scary.”
The NHRA, understandably concerned that lopping off the last one-fourth of the track could turn away fans, has yet to rule out a possible return to quarter-mile competition.
“In economic times like these, is it really best to go back?” asks NHRA Vice President and Director of Racing Operations Graham Light. “If we slow the cars down, it's not just a matter of forcing teams to go out and buy a bunch of new parts. There's going to be a learning curve for everybody, even the best-funded teams, and that's going to be expensive. We can't afford to lose the lesser-financed teams; that's not in anyone's best interest. Whatever we do, we need to be comfortable with it, and safety remains our number one priority, always.”
The NHRA has looked at the problem of slowing down the cars without making teams completely reconfigure their setups from numerous angles: with a restrictor plate, which was tested on Antron Brown's Top Fuel dragster; a shorter-stroke engine [413cu.in.], which was tested on Tim Wilkerson's and Robert Hight's Funny Cars; and with a smaller fuel pump, which was tested on Force's Funny Car.
“We have records for everything that was done on every single run, and we can share any of that documentation,” Light says. “There's no timeframe for changing anything. When you get right down to it, it doesn't matter what I personally want to do – what matters is what fans and sponsors want. But we have no intention of changing anything for 2011.”
That's just fine with Top Fuel driver Brandon Bernstein. “I love 1,000-foot racing,” he says. “A lot of tracks are too short for us to think about going more than 1,000ft. It's just too dangerous. For sure, the racing has been closer since we went to 1,000ft. It's not my decision, obviously – that's up to NHRA – but to me, the reason we lost the people we lost is because of the length of the racetrack.”
Not everybody feels that way, though. “I'd go back to a quarter-mile right now,” Brown says. “But if we do it, I don't want NHRA to slow the cars down. Leave them just like they are. I ran 331mph on one of the shortest tracks there is [Englishtown], my parachutes didn't come out, and I got the car stopped, no problem.”
“I'd like to go back to 1,320ft, but only if we took the proper steps to slow the cars down,” says Funny Car driver Cruz Pedregon, a 19-year nitro racing veteran. “The engines have to be restricted somehow.”
Larry Dixon, who has dominated Top Fuel competition all season, concurs.
“I'd rather run 1,320ft – in a perfect world,” he says. “But it's not a perfect world. I'm old-school. My dad and all my heroes always raced on a quarter-mile, and that's what I've done for most of my career, but at some tracks, it's just not safe to run a full quarter-mile anymore.”
Crew chiefs definitely don't want to go back. “Of course they don't,” says Mike Dunn, ESPN's drag racing analyst and a 22-time winner as a Top Fuel and Funny Car driver. “They've been racing 1,000ft for more than two years now, and they don't want to learn everything all over again. Formula 1 and NASCAR don't change their tracks, do they? They change the cars. So should we. To me, eighth-mile and 1,000ft runs are for testing. Racing means a quarter-mile. But it's not about what I think – it's about what the fans think.”
“NHRA thinks the fans want quarter-mile racing,” says Brian Corradi, Brown's crew chief. “Maybe they do. But I'm fine with things the way they are. Not all tracks can handle it.”
“I definitely don't want to go back to a quarter-mile,” says Dickie Venables, crew chief for Funny Car driver Del Worsham. “I don't think any crew chiefs do. It's about safety, about human lives. Every time I've ever walked away from a car on the starting line and sent a driver on his way, I thought the same thing: There's a person in there.”
John Force Racing's Austin Coil, who has won more NHRA championships (16) and has been tuning fuel cars longer than anybody out there, adds: “Racing 1,000ft is better for safety, better for parts attrition, better for everything. Slowing the cars down so they can race for 1,320ft on the tracks we have right now is ridiculous. Any time you restrict something, it doesn't save parts; it hurts parts, because everybody's pushing everything to get back to where we were. And that extra 320ft that drivers have for slowing down when we race to 1,000ft makes a big difference, believe me. How many funerals do you want to go to?”
Second-year Top Fuel driver Shawn Langdon sees it differently. “I've never driven a Top Fuel car on the quarter-mile, but, to me, that's what drag racing's all about: a quarter-mile,” he says. “Those wrecks were a worst-case scenario; they probably wouldn't happen again. I think that with all the technology we've come up with in this sport, there must be a better solution than cutting 320ft off the end of the track. That was the easy way out. The racing is tighter to 1,000ft, I know, but I'd love to run that last 320ft. Thousand-foot racing's not fair to the fans. I mean, what's next? Eighth-mile?”
…the tracks hadn't changed?
Nitro cars get quicker and faster every year, obviously, but just how much faster down the quarter-mile would they have gotten in the two years since NHRA cut the distance to 1,000ft? It depends on whom you ask.
Some drivers think the cars would be much faster than they used to be; others feel that the rev-limiters mandated by NHRA to slow the cars when they still traveled a full quarter-mile would have kept the speeds in check.
“We'd be going 340mph by now,” says Top Fuel star Larry Dixon. “Look how fast we are to 1,000ft.”
Brandon Bernstein agrees. “The fastest cars would be getting toward 340 – maybe even 345 –I guarantee you,” he says.
Dixon, Bernstein and other championship contenders regularly eclipse 320mph in 1,000-foot racing, and Top Fuel racer Tony Schumacher's been within 0.02mph of 325. The quarter-mile record, established by Schumacher five years ago, is 337.58.
Two-time Funny Car champion Cruz Pedregon thinks that Funny Car speeds would be improved but that e.t.s, for the most part, would not. “The cars are heavier now with all the safety stuff that's been added,” he says. “I think we'd be running about what we were before – high 4.60sec – because it's so hard to get all that extra weight moving, but speeds would be getting to 340.” (The record is 334mph.)
Robert Hight, the quickest Funny Car driver to both 1,000ft (4.005sec) and the quarter-mile (4.636sec), probably said it best: “We've all learned how to make more power over the past two years. It's scary to think how fast the cars would be by now.”