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NHRA Notes: Safety Measures Unveiled

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, October 29 2009
Robert Hight says new safety measures will do their jobs. (File photo courtesy of the NHRA)

Robert Hight says new safety measures will do their jobs. (File photo courtesy of the NHRA)

Funny Car points-leader Robert Hight has given the new helmet removal system NHRA will implement next season The Eric Medlen Project seal of approval.

NHRA announced earlier this week a series of technical initiatives designed to improve safety and reduce unwanted downtime due to oil down leakage in 2010. Prominent among the safety changes will be introduction of a new Eject Helmet Removal  System in all four professional categories, as well as Top Alcohol Dragster and Top Alcohol Funny Car in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series.

The system uses an inflatable bladder located in the top of the helmet to make removal of the lid by safety personnel after an incident easier and safer.

“I have one and it actually doesn’t change the helmet at all,” said Hight, driver of the Auto Club Ford Mustang fielded by John Force Racing. “It’s just a little bit of plumbing and everything for it. I have one and we have tested it out. It will be in all of our stuff next year, and it’s a good deal.”

Helmet technology has been among the subjects addressed by team-owner John Force, a 14-time NHRA Funny Car champion, and his staff since the death of rising-star Eric Medlen in a crash during testing at Gainesville (Fla.) Raceway in March 2007. In association with Ford Motor Company, The Eric Medlen Project has brought drag racers, auto industry engineers and NHRA officials together to explore safety innovations in the volatile nitromethane Funny Car class.

“We machine our own helmets to form-fit each driver’s head,” said Hight, who leads JFR teammate Ashley Force Hood by 13 points after four rounds of the NHRA’s six-race Countdown to 1. “We scan them and then we go to our CNC shop back at The Eric Medlen Project in Indy. We machine all the foam that goes into the helmet to fit each individual driver.

“This new ejection deal, I know they use it in a lot of other forms of motorsports and it seems like a very good deal. That’s definitely a fragile thing to come out of an accident and have to remove the helmet. This deal here does it without any injury to the driver and we’re definitely happy that NHRA is implementing this next year.”

Another safety initiative will see all participants in Top Fuel and Funny Car required to use an Electrimotion Safety Shut-off Receiver next season.  The device, when used in conjunction with the Electrimotion Shut-off Transmitter and Electrimotion Safety Shut-off Box, automatically will shut-off fuel and ignition as well as deploy the parachutes once the driver has passed the finish line if the driver has not done so already.  The system will activate when the car passes by a wall-mounted transmitter.

Robert Hight also has tested this system, and given it a preliminary thumbs-up.

“All we wanted to do on it was check the signal and make sure it did what it was supposed to do, but we were kind of one step ahead, and have something implemented now in our cars,” Hight said. “We have a time shut-off and what that is, is basically when the throttle goes down to whatever we set the timer at, it shuts-off the ignition, shuts-off the fuel, and deploys the parachutes.

“This new system is going to be a wall-mounted transmitter, and each race car will have a receiver, and when it goes by that it will do that. It will probably be where it’s further on down the track to where on a normal run, the driver still does it all on his own, but in case the driver is unconscious it will do all that for you and slow these race cars down. It’s a credit to NHRA for implementing this for next year, and we’re excited about it because it’s definitely all what we’re about, and that’s safety.”

Team-owner John Force, however, pointed out potential pitfalls with the shut-off system.

“There’s a lot controversy with these,” Force said, “because right now our cars leave the starting line, and what a lot of drivers don’t like is that if you smoke the tires and it becomes a pedal-fest, then your parachutes come out after so many seconds.  It shuts your motor off, and it can cause you to lose the race. NHRA tried to implement that when you pass through the beams through the other side of the racetrack, that it shuts your car off automatically.

“Robert and (crew chief) Jimmy Prock have tested it and it appears to work. What Austin Coil (Force’s crew chief) worries about is that the car can shut off, but because of the heat in the motor it can re-ignite itself and there’s a problem again.”

Force added he is confident the system’s potential glitches will be ironed-out during the impending offseason. And he applauded Ford Motor Company’s ongoing initiatives in Funny Car safety.

“We have a car up there right now in Detroit that’s getting ready to be sent down a rail to be completely crushed, to fake impact with the dummy driver inside _ the same stuff that they do with the cars on the streets,” Force said. “Ford really needs to get that credit because we couldn’t have done it without them. It has changed the future of the technology from not just beams to shut cars off, but to so many safety things that I couldn’t get into them all.”

Round 5 of the Countdown finds Force in a personal “must-win” situation. Force is winless heading into this weekend’s ninth annual NHRA Las Vegas Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The 23rd of 24 events on the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series schedule marks the furthest Force has gone into a season without at least reaching one final round.

The last time Force failed to win a race was during the 1986 season _ a streak of 23 years. Not only that, Force is final-less for the first time since 1984. A 126-time tour winner, Force already has raced himself out of contention for a 15th career title. He presently is ninth in points and, barring a miracle, is on the way to his worst finish since the aforementioned 1984. Force hasn’t qualified No. 1 since Sept. 1, 2006. That’s a span of 72 races, the longest such streak of his pro career.

While Force has assured himself of his 25th consecutive top-10 points finish, his won-loss record currently stands at 21-22. The last time he didn’t post a winning record was 1984, when he went 5-8 in the year before he hired Austin Coil as crew chief.

Force, 60, said he is fully aware of the numbers and what they mean to himself and Coil. “Well, naturally, records, winning championships, that’s what it’s all about,” said Force, driver of the Castrol GTX High-Mileage Ford Mustang. “I sat three hours (Tuesday) morning with Austin Coil going over the game plan for this week. We do want to win, that’s why you come, without that it doesn’t matter the money you make, and there’s not a lot of money being made in this economy right now.

“If you have to have a dream, a need to win, that’s what it’s all about. We just got to stay focused and go out there and come out of the box. (Crew chief) John Medlen, who was the original braintrust with Coil and Bernie (Fedderly), has moved into our operation to try and get my race car back on track. I’m still trying to keep my winning streaks alive.  I’d like to do that. I’ve still got faith that we can turn it around.  It’s all about destiny.”

Top Fuel points-leader Tony Schumacher, of Don Schumacher Racing, carries a 47-point lead over archrival Larry Dixon of Al-Anabi Racing into Vegas this weekend. Meanwhile, both the No. 3 and No. 4 contenders have become DSR teammates to “The Sarge.”

Season-long teammate Cory McClenathan is 68 points out in third in the FRAM Tough Guard Dragster, while newly minted teammate Antron Brown is fourth, 81 points back. Brown and the Matco Tools Dragster joined the DSR lineup on Tuesday, when team-owner Don Schumacher acquired the assets of Mike Ashley Racing.

“It’s real tight,” Schumacher, the six-time and reigning Top Fuel champion, said of the points-race. “Right now, there’s absolutely no room for error. If you slip up at this point, you’re likely done. We need to be on our game from the minute we unload in Vegas.”

Schumacher’s next round-win will be the 500th of his career and make him only the eighth driver to reach that milestone. Dixon joined the club at Bristol (Tenn.) Dragway, in May. Schumacher also is hoping his personal history at The Strip again will produce positive results Sunday afternoon. Of his four career wins in Vegas, three have been scored in the fall event.

“That’s all well-and-good, but Dixon has had just as much success as I’ve had with his four wins,” said Schumacher, driver of the U.S. Army Dragster. “Again, one would expect all of the contenders to run well. We just have to be that much better.”

Pro Stock regular Kurt Johnson also is looking to avoid a winless 2009 season. Johnson, driver of the ACDelco Chevrolet Cobalt, has won at least one race for 14 consecutive seasons _ second-longest to John Force’s streak in Funny Car. With 39 career victories, Johnson is No. 1 on the dubious list of NHRA’s winningest drivers without a championship. Johnson, 46, has recorded runnerup points finishes in 1993, 2000, 2003 and 2005. He is ninth in the Countdown to 1 standings led by Mike Edwards. Johnson has a 1-4 won-loss record during the playoffs, and is just 14-21 (.400) for the season.

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, October 29 2009
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