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Drivers Blowing Gaskets Over New Oildown Rule

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 14 2010

Tony Schumacher is among drivers who are flaming mad at the NHRA oildown policy. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series)

NHRA’s recently revised oildown policy did not factor into either Top Fuel or Funny Car qualifying for the 46th annual Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals.

But potentially championship-altering consequences remain during Sunday’s final eliminations at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif., to the chagrin of several key players.

“I don’t know how the team owners and stuff felt.  As a driver, I didn’t really like it,” said Matt Hagan, who is trying to win his first Funny Car crown at the expense of 14-time world champion John Force.  “They let everybody put oil on the track all year long and now for one race you’re going to try to change everything. We’re trying to win championships out here.”

National Hot Rod Association officials announced on Nov. 4 immediate implementation of an oildown penalty policy for Top Fuel and Funny Car for the 23rd and season-ending event of the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series.  Today’s race also is the finale of the six-event Countdown to the Championship.

Teams depositing oil on the track surface during any elimination round today will be hit with loss of the elapsed time and miles per hour for that run. The time will be voided for thepurpose of lane-choice, run sequence choice, national records and low ET/top speed. However, should the violating team win the round, it will advance in the bracket, be deemed the round-winner and maintain the points-earned.

“That’s so much stuff, I can’t even figure out what it all means,” Force said during a conference call earlier this week.

“I don’t like the lane-choice either,” said Tony Schumacher, the seven-time/reigning Top Fuel champion who trails Larry Dixon by 82 points.

In addition, each oildown will result in a monetary fine.  The first violation will be assessed $2,500; the second violation will be assessed an additional $5,000.

An oildown violation is defined as any incident requiring use of mechanical equipment to clean an oil spill. The policy encompasses the entire length of the track surface, from burnout box to where the vehicle exits the track.  As in the past, revenue collected will be used to improve cleanup time and efficiency. While the oildown policy pertains only to the final race of this season, NHRA intends to gather input from the drag racing community and develop a comprehensive plan for 2011.

Several Countdown races – most notably the penultimate event at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Oct. 31 – produced what NHRA officials termed “an unacceptable number of delays” due to oil on the racetrack. The oildowns were judged to have had a significant impact upon the quality of the show for fans.

“Given the strict curfews that must be adhered to in Pomona, and the fact that championships need to be decided, it would be impossible to finish the event in a timely fashion if the delays due to oil were to continue at the same rate they have the last several races,” said Graham Light, senior vice president, racing operations, NHRA.  “We wanted to create a strong policy that would ensure the teams make every effort to contain oil, while not significantly impacting the outcome of the championships.”

Force said he and Don Schumacher, who owns Hagan’s hot rod, were among team-owners who learned of the policy during a conference call with NHRA officials.

“I’m the kind of guy, I play whatever they give me is the same they give everybody else,” said Force, driver of the Castrol GTX High-Mileage Ford Mustang.  “But in this situation, when you have to push for the record, you have to push your motor to a point.  That could mean breakage.  You could lose points, pay fines.  A little different during qualifying than it is on race day.  They’re trying to be fair to the people in the Countdown.”

Force qualified second on the 16-car ladder and will meet Gary Densham in today’s first round. Force has a career record of 34-9 against Densham, his former John Force Racing teammate. Hagan, 27, qualified fourth and will meet Bob Tasca III out of the box.

“Like John said, we have to push these cars to the limits,” said Hagan, driver of the DieHard Dodge Charger R/T.  “I would love to set another national record.  To do three in a year would be something else.  I know (crew chief) Tommy DeLago, if conditions come into play, he’s going for it.  This guy swings for the fence all the time.

“Sometimes we push these motors too far and they do put oil on the track and everything else.  It’s just stuff that happens when you deal with this much horsepower.  Most of the time when you do put oil out, you’re probably not going to have the best run unless it’s after the finish line.  So it will be interesting to see how it plays out.  I’m sure everybody kind of feels the same way.  We’ve been battling out this way all year long.  Leave it the same, is my opinion.”

Schumacher said he thoroughly agreed with Hagan, his corporate teammate at Don Schumacher Racing.

“One quick thing,” said Schumacher, driver of the U.S. Army Dragster.  “All of the oildowns are not our fault.  Yeah, we blow stuff up.  I think myself, Larry, none of the guys (in title contention) have had that many oildowns.  But there are some tracks that are going to lend themselves for a lot more oildowns that are a little rough.  I’m not saying Vegas by any means.  That shouldn’t have happened.  There are tracks where the preparation is not as good or it’s a little rougher, somewhere at 300 feet when the car starts to bounce, you hurt stuff.

“We don’t have the privilege of saying, ‘Hey, if the track is rough, we’d like to fine the NHRA.’ It’s not there.  I hope to God you don’t see a championship decided by penalties.  Simply put, if they want the money, fine, if there’s (an) oildown.  The fans don’t deserve it.  We don’t deserve it sitting in the car for that long either.  Maybe the top 10 shouldn’t get it.  I don’t know how to word it the right way. You don’t want way too much money spent, way too much energy by a lot of teams to have an oildown, bad part, bad piece, something that teams like us…we don’t oildown much.  You go out there, break a throttle cable, oildown, it costs you a championship – it just shouldn’t be that way.”

Dixon, a two-time world champion, qualified his Al-Anabi Racing Dragster No. 2 and will face Mike Strasburg in the first round. Schumacher is paired against No. 16 qualifier Dom Lagana in the opener.  Schumacher needs to win the race, set the national record and have Dixon lose first round to bag his eighth title.

Force, who watched daughter and JFR teammate Ashley Force Hood qualify No. 1, made it clear that the loss of a run is the same as loss of points.

Force and Hagan raced side-by-side in the final round of qualifying Saturday, with Force blasting down the 1,000-foot distance in 4.077-seconds to Hagan’s 4.094-second pass. That allowed Force to pick up three valuable qualifying bonus points and hold his deficit below 40 points, or two rounds of racing today.

“If you run the national record and you oil the track, that run don’t count,” said Force, 61. “That means you got no points.

“When I went to this meeting, when I sat in on it, this wasn’t an option we could debate.  I was a little upset about it myself.  I don’t like changing the game.  I understand they had five hours of oil downs (in Vegas), but there was a lot of things.  There was a bigger percentage of pros on tour oiling the track than there were the guys that were coming in from out of the country, guys that had never ran all year than them oiling the racetrack.

“But NHRA had made up their mind.  What bothered me is, they make the rules, it’s their ballpark, nothing we can do.  And I didn’t say anything in the meeting.  I shut up and went away.  Since you asked, you didn’t directly ask me, but we know we have to push these cars.  I kind of feel like the (NFL) football players now, they can’t even throw a tackle because they know if it’s at the wrong angle, they could be fined.  You know what I mean?  It’s changing the face of football as you watch it.  We don’t want to see anybody get killed in a football game.  But it is changing the way the players play.”

Force added that in fairness to NHRA, the oildowns “screwed-up” coverage of the Vegas event on ESPN.

“They had to do something, I understand that, OK?” Force said. “We all have to play by the same rules.  We’re going to have to change our approach, you know what I’m saying?  At the end of the day, I do understand they had to do something.

“I’ve seen it.  I’ve heard it commentated about.  It’s going to change the way we have to play this game.  I don’t like it.

“Just because I don’t like it don’t make it right, you know what I’m saying?  We had a game plan how we were going after Hagan.  Now we have to decide do we go with that plan or do we backpedal and hope he makes a mistake?  No, we’re going to drive the race car the way we always did. I don’t even want to know about what rules they put on the table.  If I get thinking that, I’ll never get through this race.”

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

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 14 2010
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