WADE: A Return To Quarter-Mile Racing

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Susan Wade

SEATTLE — It’s unclear how the subject came up — again — but in early July, drag-racing media outlets had a handful of drivers and crew chiefs discussing whether the NHRA nitro-powered classes should return to racing on a quarter-mile track.

Why?

Certainly, that’s the traditional length of a course, 1,320 feet. But immediately following Scott Kalitta’s fatal 2008 accident, competition was limited to 1,000 feet, where it remains today. But who’s to say the sanctioning body might not have instituted that seemingly radical change before now, anyway?

“Big Daddy” Don Garlits advocated for it months before Kalitta’s incident.

Still, the controversy keeps popping up. It seems the self-proclaimed “purists” (whoever they might be and however they might define themselves) either can’t let go of the sport’s new normal or honestly believe if they whine loudly enough quarter-mile racing will come back. The latest round of bench-racing discussions floated the idea of racing at a quarter-mile distance during select races on the Mello Yello Series tour.

It’s fine to label oneself as a purist. It’s America. Everyone is allowed to have and peacefully express opinions. But consider that in America, even as late as the 1950s and ’60s, we slept with the doors to our homes unlocked.

We didn’t use or even have seat belts in passenger cars. We had party lines on our telephones, which all were black, had dials with finger holes and were affixed to the walls. We didn’t have cellphones or computers. And life was much simpler.

But the world changed — in many cases for the better, in some ways not. But safety, practicality and convenience motivated new ways of living. And if drag racing is a microcosm of society, then it isn’t hard to understand why equipment and practices evolved. And these purists aren’t team owners who pay the bills.

In an environment of (justifiable) hand-wringing about the need to trim costs, the notion of teams racing on a quarter-mile drag strip, especially only at a few venues, is counterproductive.

Already the teams have to have a special combination to compete every summer in the oxygen-sucking thin air and high altitude at Colorado’s Bandimere Speedway, and they tolerate it because it’s once a year. But it’s almost criminal to ask crew chiefs to bounce back and forth from 1,000-foot tune-ups to 1,320-foot tune-ups.

Of course, it always means more money, the primary factor in the equation. The sanctioning body isn’t poised to raise purses. Sponsorship is harder to come by, so racers can’t expect an abundant increase there to offset more expenses. Top Fuel owner-driver Terry McMillen said, “Even if you win a race, you are still $120,000 in the hole.”

Such a move would jeopardize performance, not improve it. Two-time Funny Car champion Matt Hagan said his strategy no longer is to win races but to win titles, which is more of a mental and physical shift than one might think.

He told Competition Plus’ Tracy Renck, “For us, it is about having a combination that worked through the entire year. 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?”

Moreover, technology has outpaced the tracks themselves. When racers were setting elapsed-time and speed records in the quarter-mile, they weren’t posting numbers like the ones today. The track could hold them. Today, those same racing surfaces might not. The tires may not hold them either.

For veteran Funny Car racer and 2016 champion Ron Capps, stopping the car is a major concern.

“Most tracks, their shutdown areas, you can’t add on to a lot of these tracks and it’s a safety issue to get these cars stopped,” Capps explained. “It’s not a matter that we don’t want to go fast. We would love to go 345 mph, but we just have to be able to stop. It’s like sending a Space Shuttle crew up into space with no plan to get them back to Earth.”

Antron Brown, a three-time Top Fuel champion, said he thought the quarter-mile course length should have remained, with added safety features put in place. But he said he knows with the change to 1,000-foot racing, like it or not, the die is cast.

“I honestly just don’t see how you can make it happen unless you handicap or cripple the cars somehow,” Brown said. “Where we are at now is where we have to live.”

The sanctioning body privately has considered a hybrid schedule, but it isn’t likely to adopt one. Insurance, tires, cost, pragmatism and a jumble of other factors play key roles. So the subject needs to move from hot-stove banter to far back on a cold burner.