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Has The Time Come For The NHRA To Get SAFER?

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Tuesday, July 24 2012

The walls at Bandimere Speedway took a beating over the weekend. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

Some final thoughts about a final relatively quiet weekend of racing before the fan blades become soiled by things like chases to Chases, countdowns to Countdowns and other playoff-like runs to championships:

– After watching a particularly scary crash at Bandimere Speedway over the weekend, you have to wonder if the time has come to install SAFER barriers at tracks which host NHRA events.

The crash started when Pro Stock driver Paul Pittman lost control of his car – a car he built himself. The car began swerving and narrowly missed the right-side wall with its tail. The tail then snapped around and the car did a barrel roll across the track and ended up on its wheels just before hitting the left-side concrete wall.

The car then shot across the track and slammed – sa-lammed – the right-side wall, apparently picking up speed along the way. The car’s right-hand door flew wildly open.

The car then shot across shot across the track the other way and slammed into the left-side wall. That hit, the hardest of the three, destroyed the car. It briefly burst into flames and rolled to a stop. The final hit also, finally, appear to deploy the then-useless parachute, which in a scene of tragi-comedy was seen limply dragging behind the mangled hull of the car as it rolled to a stop.

Then, with an assist from the Safety Safari, the remaining door was pried open and out popped Pittman. He was basically unharmed and ready to talk about his horror-show run – a run which was his first ever in the NHRA pro category.

It was then time to cue the “what a testament to the safety of the car and the NHRA’s safety efforts” spiel. But a nod always has to go to luck when somebody survives a wreck like that.

And luck can always use more help during racing wrecks. In this case, the installation of “soft walls” at all strips that host the NHRA would seem to be a sensible idea in the bid to give luck a boost.

True, sportswriters do not have to pay for safety upgrades, which in this case, would be extremely expensive. And, no, the NHRA is not money-saturated like NASCAR; many of the drag strip owners – like the family of John Bandimere Jr. – are not fat corporations like ISC and SMI.

But some would hope – like the family of Paul Pittman – that some kind of funding would be found. Sometimes, especially, it seems in the NHRA these days, luck stays in the pits as the cars are pushed toward the starting line.

– Fortunes have been up and down for the teams of Pro Stock powerhouse KV Racing since it began using new Camaro bodies last month.

The Camaros of Greg Anderson and Jason Line have won a fair share of rounds, and Anderson did win all of his rounds in the racing debut of his Camaro at Englishtown. But, there have also been weekends where the Summit team has not looked like the Summit team; that is, there have been weekends where Ken Black’s cars have not dominated the Pro Stock class.

Anderson, a four-time champion, has been a first-round loser twice in the new Camaro – at Bristol and Norwalk. Line was ousted in the first round at Route 66.

At Bandimere, Anderson fell in the second round and Line in the third. And, almost unthinkingly, Allen Johnson left Colorado with the points lead.

KB will pull it together and will get the Camaros to the top, but for now, its odd to see Anderson and Line looking almost mortal.

– It seems that almost every bit of good news emanating from the IZOD IndyCar Series these days comes piggy-backed with uncomfortable news.

Case in point is on-track competition this year. It’s terrific. In fact, it’s tough to remember a time when such a large percentage of teams and drivers in starting fields had the talent and equipment which was qualitative enough to contend for race victories.

In 2012, the grip of the Penske and Ganassi teams has been shaken. Andretti Autosport is fielding cars as fast or faster than those of the Big Two and one of its drivers, American Ryan Hunter-Reay, is leading the points race.

At Edmonton on Sunday, Penske’s Helio Castroneves got the victory. But right behind him –RIGHT behind him – was the Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan car of Takuma Sato. Penske’s Will Power was third and right behind him were Graham Rahal of in a Ganassi-family car and then Alex Tagliani of Bryan Herta’s Barracuda Racing team.

Then there is the accompanying annoying news. The series’ zealous quest to keep the parity on the track, and the costs down, has resulted in a penalty-o-rama. Mostly for unapproved engine changes.

Under the rules set this season, teams are not allowed to change engines before they’ve run 1,850 miles. Any changes before the mileage mark draws penalies, even if an engine fails during a test session.

Teams are also only allowed five engines per season, and every engine change after the fifth incurs a penalty.

Five drivers served 10-spot penalties before Sunday’s race, including IndyCar points leader Ryan Hunter-Reay. He won the pole, but was dropped to 11th on the starting grid for changing his engine. Scott Dixon, who began the day ranked fourth in points, was penalized for using a sixth engine.

At the road and street courses which dominate INDYCAR’s schedule, getting pushed back 10 spots is tantamount to getting the death penalty.

Apparently the folks at the top are getting the message, however. INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard told reporters in Edmonton that the engine-life rules will be re-examined in the offseason. The hope is a way to solve the problem while not pushing costs skyward, will be found.

– Here’s hoping that a competitive NASCAR team will take a chance and hire Kevin Swindell because along with Swindell, such a move cold also bring a sizable chunk of new fans to the series.

Swindell is the son a legendary sprint car driver Sammy Swindell. This past weekend, the 23-year-old progeny won the ARCA race at Chicagoland Speedway. Afterward he let it be known that, yes, the hope is to build a NACAR career.

Back in the 1990s (yep, anecdote time), sprint car superstar Steve Kinser nabbed a Cup ride when he was hired by owner Kenny Bernstein. On Mondays after The King of The Outlaws ran in Cup races, short-track guys from around the newspaper I was working at would converge at my desk to get any info they could on his run.

They were ecstatic when Kinser got the ride and bummed when he was let go after just five race. Those guys never had much good to say about NASCAR after that.

The guess here is that Swindell would also renew interest in NASCAR among what is still a huge American short-track racing population. And from the look of it, Swindell, once on board, might stay aboard for a while.

After the Chicagoland victory – in which Swindell led all 100 laps – team owner Bill Venturini said, ”The kid’s talented. There’s no doubt about it. He’s had some bad luck, even with us, and we talked about it this week in the shop. You don’t have to teach Kevin to go fast. He’s a really good shoe and he’s smart; we just had some issues in the previous races and today, he just drove his butt off. I don’t know his father (three-time World of Outlaws champion Sammy Swindell), but I know how talented his father is. He’s got the genes. The kid’s good. I hope he stays with us one more year. I’d put him in the top 15 in the country right now, of up-and-coming drivers, even the top 10.”

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Tuesday, July 24 2012
One Comment

One Comment »

  • Ed Smith says:

    The issue of SAFER barriers at NHRA tracks has been debated at least since 2007, when Ashley Force Hood went nose first into the wall. I’m happy to see the national motorsports media picking up this issue. (Thanks, Jim!).

    Many NHRA affiliated tracks are making improvements to improve the fan experience. Its time they also improve the drivers’ experience -during crashes, which will inevitabley occur – by adding SAFER barriers to drag strips.