NHRA: Kalitta’s legacy can be measured by 1,000

Has it been a year already?

It seems like yesterday that we were burying Scott Kalitta, acquiescing to the reality of auto racing. It’s a sport that is never completely safe, but shouldn’t be unnecessarily fatal. As followers of the sport, we agree to invest our feelings toward heroes that may not return to the trailer after the next round of competition.

Kalitta’s was the third NHRA professional fatality in five years when a series of events conspired to steal Connie Kalitta’s son from our presence. Top-fuel driver Darrell Russell (2004) and funny car driver Eric Medlen (2007) preceded Kalitta in death, tragically.

Kalitta’s was among the horrific crashes of the ages, a flaming fireball crashing into the end of the shutdown area at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J., site of today’s United Association NHRA SuperNationals.

Doug Herbert likes to believe that “God takes over” in moments like those, grabbing the soul before any pain is felt. It’s a comforting thought, and I’m all for adopting it.

Men like Kalitta, Medlen and Russell knew the risks of racing in general and drag racing in particular. Yet they competed. They were racers.

And on this one-year anniversary weekend in which the National Hot Rod Assn., will remember Kalitta — a two-time champion who won in both top-fuel and funny car classes — maybe it’s time the NHRA also take a moment of silence to really think about what it wants to do.

It should think about 1,000 feet forever.

It’s  a nice, round number. Since Kalitta perished on June 21, 2008, races in the nitro classes have been run at 1,000 feet instead of the 1,320 that make up the traditional quarter mile. This has reduced speeds, it has been easier on equipment, and there hasn’t been a noticeable drop-off in competition.

It has taken a little getting used to the new time standards that make up a good run, but most progress takes a little getting used to. If we were ruled by tradition, top-fuel engines would still be in front of the driver and races would be in dry lake beds, right?

The NHRA has begun testing alternative engine setups, which could include a spec engine and an eventual return to quarter-mile racing at some point, according to Competition Plus. Even though an initial test seemed to present a configuration that wouldn’t approach 300 mph, the sport will not be reduced to sub-300 mph standards, according to Glenn Gray, NHRA’s vice president of technical operations.

Yet the NHRA’s response in the wake of the Kalitta tragedy may have fixed the very problem the NHRA is now trying to address. The sport has a year’s worth of data racing to 1,000 feet. Tell me you don’t buy what Lee Beard told Rob Geiger (Go2Geiger.com/GeigerCounter, May 26, 2009):

“My biggest moment in the sport was when Kenny Bernstein broke the 300-mph barrier. That is such a magical number. From that point forward we could all market ourselves as, ‘We’re the guys that go 300 mph.’ It was huge.

“Here we have this unique opportunity to do it all over again and the NHRA doesn’t see it. We need to encourage guys to get after it again by keeping track of 1,000-foot records and giving bonus points for achieving them. Breaking records is what we’ve always done out here. I mean are these 1,000-foot times not really happening?

“I was pro-quarter mile a year ago, that’s true, but after seeing the data and the statistical trends, I’ve converted. When you shut these cars off at 1,000 foot they’re down to 275 mph or so by the quarter mile. That’s just safer all the way around. There’s only so much real estate at some of these tracks.

“Plus the racing is excellent right now. In St. Louis and Bristol the Top Fuel final was a 3.85 to a 3.87. The Funny Cars were 4.12 to 4.13 in St. Louis. . . . We need that excitement and we’re getting it a lot more often with 1,000 foot racing.”

In other words, the sport has transitioned. The new milestones of the sport should be based on 1,000 feet instead of a quarter mile. Teams can still push the envelope and fans will still respond.

It’s hard to know if racing to 1,000 feet would have saved Kalitta, but it almost certainly would have saved Russell. There are 15 top-fuel and 16 funny car drivers entered in Englishtown who will pay homage to Kalitta’s memory. That’s 31 reasons to continue racing to 1,000 feet.

The last time I spoke with two-time top-fuel champion Larry Dixon about it, he called himself “old school” and wanted to return to quarter-mile racing. Fair enough. But Dixon is a racer, and sometimes sanctioning bodies have to protect racers from themselves.

NASCAR did it in the aftermath of Dale Earnhardt, and the NHRA may have already found its answer in the aftermath of Kalitta.

Tony Schumacher, John Force, Tony Pedregon, Ron Capps, Del Worsham — and everyone else who does this professionally — will strap themselves inside a rocket car and drop the hammer with the intent of reaching Point B faster than everyone else. It’s what they do.

Yet no matter how dangerous the sport, and how willing Dixon or any other number of racers are willing to test the limits of speed and power, I don’t want them to die.

I want Scott Kalitta to be the last.

There are no guarantees in life, and certainly none in racing. But a year later, racing to 1,000 feet seems to be sending the message that Scott Kalitta didn’t die in vain.

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One Response to “NHRA: Kalitta’s legacy can be measured by 1,000”

  1. Bill(kibs) Says:

    Nice little write up.

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