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Big issues for NHRA to tackle

July 31, 2013


John Force is Ford Motor Co’s “face” of NHRA – Anne Proffit photo


There were two things that had me raving to rant after last weekend’s NHRA Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma Raceway in northern California. One of them is Ford Motor Co’s planned exodus from professional drag racing after 2014 and the other is NHRA’s knee-jerk reaction to flying Funny Car bodies.

Few motor sports are as extreme as NHRA drag racing, yet Ford Motor Co has decided to dispense with its participation in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series after the 2014 season. Were John Force Racing, Bob Tasca Racing and Tim Wilkerson Racing’s victories and championships in Ford Mustangs not enough for Ford’s head of motorsports, Jamie Allison?

Ford long ago stopped giving marketing and technical support to the most competitive category in the sport, Pro Stock where Larry Morgan drives a Ford Mustang using his own smarts and some Lucas Oil money. When he first changed over to Ford from Dodge several years ago, Morgan received technical assistance on the engine build-up from the exemplary Mose Nowland, since put out to pasture due to his advancing years.

The news came out this weekend at Sonoma, where, unfortunately, no Ford Mustang won, but legendary John Force raced to the finals against Ron Capps, coming up a wee bit short.

Ford is putting its marketing muscle behind NASCAR’s Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series, into Global RallyCross, Formula Drift and the Dakar Rally next year. It’ll phase out its NHRA participation by the end of the 2014 season. Ford has been the “official vehicle” of NHRA pro racing since 2009; it’s not known whether this part of the contract with NHRA continues – but I’d bet it won’t. Ford will continue with its Mustang Cobra Jet in Lucas Oil Sportsman Super Stock and Stock classes.

Johnny Gray at the hit in qualifying Friday night in Sonoma – Anne Proffit photo

In other news, NHRA mandated Funny Car tethers that would hold bodies in place during a mechanical explosion so that bodies won’t fly into a grandstand and injure the paying fans. This is all very well and good – provided the system is good enough to withstand the impact of 10,000-horsepower erupting in several directions.

The body tethers mandated for Bandimere and beyond may have been bench tested, but it wasn’t until the second round of eliminations at Sonoma that they were tested in practice. Johnny Gray, a four-time 2013 winner and the defending champion at this second round of the three-race Western Swing, had an engine explosion just after the 330-foot mark in a 1000-foot run. The body did not come off the car – that was the intent of the tethers – but as the tethers brought the Dodge Charger body back down, it blew the firewall up over the windshield, essentially relegating Gray unable to see outside the car he was attempting to control.

When Gray came to a stop – and could get out – he was unable to access the roof hatch (normal exit route) because “the body was too far back. Also, the body couldn’t have just been raised,” he explained. “There was too much damage and carnage. If the car had been really lit up on fire, it would have really been a bad situation.”

Johnny Gray – Anne Proffit photo

Gray was NHRA’s “60-year-old guinea pig”, as he aptly put it and, had situations been different from those he experienced, like having the whole incident occur further down the track, it might have been “a bad situation. I’m not sure I want to race in Seattle [this week] with this new invention on the car that has good capabilities of getting me hurt.”

He reiterated that sentiment as the series prepares for its third consecutive weekend of racing in the Western Swing. At Seattle, he plans to drive the Pitch Energy Dodge Charger. “Depending on what the decision is regarding the tethering system, I may have to do a little bit of soul-searching before I crawl back in the car, on whether I want to get in it or get on a plane and go home.”

NHRA has been silent about this problem all week (well, it’s only Wednesday). Gray stands fifth in the standings and less than 100 points behind Don Schumacher Racing teammate Matt Hagan, who leads. Teammate Ron Capps, the winner at Sonoma is second, Cruz Pedregon lies third and John Force holds fourth-place points but is less than a round ahead of Gray.

It will be somewhat defining to see what NHRA does about these two issues, the coming departure of Ford Motor Co from professional drag racing and the much-disdained driver safety aspect of its newly mandated Funny Car body tethers. I’d like to suggest some very careful and studied thought on both situations before any further mandates or decisions are made.

By Anne Proffit

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