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NHRA In Mourning Again

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, July 12 2010

By John Sturbin |Senior Writer

Post-race celebrations at Pacific Raceways were muted Sunday evening following the death of popular Top Alcohol Dragster driver Mark Niver during the NHRA Northwest Nationals.

Niver, a 60-year-old resident of Phoenix, Ariz., was killed when his dragster crashed in the shutdown area during eliminations at the facility in Kent, Wash., near Seattle.

NHRA officials issued a statement saying they were investigating the accident. NHRA and Pacific Raceways officials also extended their deepest sympathies to the Niver family.

A veteran Sportsman racer, Niver was killed when an apparent malfunction of the braking parachutes sent him into the catch net at high-speed. Video on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” showed the parachutes on Niver’s car disengaging and failing to deploy as he neared the end of the racing surface. Niver managed to slow the car with its brakes, but it continued into a pliable catch-fence where the lengthy front end buckled upon impact in the sandy shutdown area.

Competition subsequently was suspended and the local sound curfew extended two hours so racing could be completed.

Niver’s fatality marked the second in the NHRA’s Sportsman ranks during a national event in the span of one month. Racer Neal Parker, 58, of Millville N.J., died on June 11, one day after sustaining injuries in an accident while qualifying his Top Alcohol Funny Car for the United Association NHRA SuperNationals at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J. 
Similarly to Niver, the NHRA said Parker “crashed at a high-rate of speed in the shutdown area.”

Cory McClenathan and Greg Anderson, two of Sunday’s three professional class winners, expressed shock and sympathy over Niver’s death during their televised award presentations.

“I know we can’t go on without mentioning Mark Niver,” said McClenathan, who won in Top Fuel. “Mark was a great competitor. He built every component in his race car. I raced against Mark 20 years ago in Alcohol Dragster.

“This (moment) has to be about him, it has to be about the family and what they’re going through right now and not about us. Because when it all comes down to it, this whole circle of people you see traveling around, these are our family. They’re the people we spend more time with than our own families at home. So, I’m blown away. You never know what to say.”

Anderson, a three-time Pro Stock world champion, was equally subdued after winning his second consecutive race.

“Even with our success, it really has not been a great day,” Anderson said.  “I didn’t even realize what had happened until about a half-hour later, and then I found out it was Mark Niver, who I have known forever. He was a great engineer and a great fabricator who did everything himself, and stayed at it until he won this event two years ago.

“I was so proud of him at the time, because I knew the struggle he had gone through doing it on his own. He’s the type of person our sport was founded upon, and his loss just left a big hole in my heart.”

Both Pacific Raceways and Old Bridge Township Raceway Park are among a handful of facilities on the 23-race Full Throttle Drag Racing Series Tour that opened in the 1960s. Pacific Raceways was opened in 1960; the track in Englishtown was opened in 1965.

Ironically, the subject of improvements at Pacific Raceways was broached during an NHRA teleconference on Wednesday. Anderson was asked about the “intermittent and methodical” improvements at the track, and if the facility ever would become a “world-class” track.

“It’s a great question,” Anderson said.  “We honestly don’t know the answer to it. I really, honestly wish they would do a few things to it. It’s got the makings to be a fantastic racetrack, fantastic facility. Maybe in a lot of ways it is. You have all those trees. You can park underneath a tree, which kind of brings back the old times, reminds you of the old days of races. It’s not a great big monster facility, nothing but an asphalt parking lot. Maybe it should stay like it is.

“It’s definitely different than mostly what we have on the circuit. Reminds you of how racing used to be in the old days. You get there first, park under a tree, get the shade.

“Maybe it’s kind of a neat deal. We should be careful for what we wish for. We always hope for better race facilities, ones that are more fan-friendly. You need modern conveniences for today’s fan.  Everybody in the world these days has a lot of things in their everyday life that spoil them. They have access to so many conveniences that when you kind of go back in time and go to a sporting event, you really don’t have any flush toilets, you have to go in an outdoor satellite, it kind of weeds out some of the not-so-tough customers out there, fans out there. You got to be careful of that.”

Also this season, a spectator at Firebird International Raceway in Chandler, Ariz., was killed in February when a tire came off Antron Brown’s Top Fuel dragster and struck a woman near the grandstands.

The sport suffered another tragedy in the pro ranks in June 2008 when Scott Kalitta, a two-time NHRA Top Fuel champion, was killed in a high-speed crash in the shutdown area at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park while driving a Funny Car. That accident prompted NHRA competition officials to break with tradition by shortening the quarter-mile distance to 1,000-feet.

NHRA has been overseeing a series of tests in the Top Fuel and Funny Car ranks designed to slow the nitromethane-powered cars in a possible bid to return to quarter-mile racing. Concepts recently tested were a 75-gallon-per-minute (gpm) fuel pump, a 413 cubic-inch engine combination and a restrictor plate located on the inlet side of the supercharger.

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, July 12 2010
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