Photo courtesy NHRA

Column: Winternationals latest example of why safety remains NHRA’s top priority


The season-opening Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals are always a high-profile platform for the world of drag racing.

Not only does it mark the start of yet another 24-race national event season on the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule, it’s much more basic than that.

It offers teams, tuners, drivers, crew chiefs and the sport’s officials the chance to knock off any rust that may have accumulated over the winter either on the cars themselves, or among the folks that drive and maintain vehicles – particularly the nitro-fueled Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars that routinely eclipse 320-mph at under four seconds.

Sure, it’s almost inevitable that there will be some instances where things go wrong, but this weekend’s Winternationals had a rather higher number than normal.

It started during Friday’s second round of qualifying when 16-time Funny Car champion John Force suffered a massive motor explosion that totally blew the Chevrolet Camaro body off its chassis.

Force was taken to a local hospital to be examined, but returned to the track a few hours later, cleared by attending physicians.

Force then had another motor explosion in the first round of Sunday’s final eliminations, shortly after his daughter, 2017 NHRA Top Fuel champion Brittany Force, suffered a hard hit with her dragster in the first round.

The 31-year-old third of four daughters for John Force was taken to a local hospital and admitted overnight for observation and additional tests. Other than some lung bruising, it appears she emerged relatively unscathed, ready to race again in two weeks at Phoenix.

But wait, there was a lot more over the weekend, including Doug Kalitta losing a supercharger in the first round of Sunday’s eliminations. But to his team’s credit, it was able to make repairs between rounds and Kalitta went on to earn his first career Winternationals win.

Also impacted during the three-day race weekend were three-time Top Fuel champ Antron Brown, who suffered a spectacular motor explosion himself, as well as Don Schumacher Racing teammate, Funny Car driver Ron Capps, who suffered an engine explosion and a small fire.

And yet no one suffered serious injuries.

It’s been a decade since NHRA lost a driver in national event competition. Scott Kalitta was killed in a tragic wreck in 2008 at Englishtown, New Jersey, wrapping up one of the darkest periods in NHRA history, losing three drivers in a five-year span.

There was promising up-and-coming drivers Darrell Russell in 2004, Eric Medlen in 2007 and Kalitta just over a year later.

Thankfully, the sport has not lost anyone since. But it’s not been due to happenstance or good luck.

On the contrary.

The reason we haven’t lost a driver is due to an exceptional safety initiative that has involved virtually aspect of the sport.

Making the sport leaps and bounds safer wasn’t just NHRA alone, spearheaded by vice president Graham Light or then-president Tom Compton.

It was also drivers – including leadership by luminaries such as 16-time Funny Car champion John Force, who was almost killed himself in a late 2007 wreck, as well as now-retired multi-champion Kenny Bernstein.

It was an effort that also included racetrack owners and race promoters. Not to sound smug, but let’s face it, no one wants to see any deaths at any time, particularly at their racetracks or within the overall race series.

Also playing a big part in NHRA’s safety improvements not only were car manufacturers like Chevrolet, Dodge, Ford and others, as well as safety equipment companies such as Simpson Racing.

While there were some initial disagreements on how the initiative should take shape along the way, everyone ultimately worked together for the betterment of the sport and their fellow man (and woman).

I shudder to think how many drivers might have followed Kalitta to their own graves had NHRA not become as proactive as it has become in keeping the sport as safe as possible, especially high-speed crashes that offer the greatest threat of severe injury and death.

That’s why we’ve seen countless drivers walk away from so many bad wrecks or explosions time after time. This past weekend, it was John and Brittany Force.

Last year, it was Alexis DeJoria, Courtney Force, Antron Brown and several others. They all either walked away – or at least suffered injuries that they were able to get back into a race car soon enough.

All because of the safety initiatives that have come about in the last 10 years.

There’s a bit of irony in what happened this weekend. This coming Sunday, February 18, while there will not be an NHRA national event, it will mark the 17th anniversary of perhaps the darkest day ever in all forms of motorsports.

It was on that day in 2001 that NASCAR lost one of its greatest drivers ever, Dale Earnhardt, in a last-lap crash at the season-opening Daytona 500.

NASCAR went on an unprecedented quest for safety itself, adding things such as HANS devices to restrain driver’s necks upon impact, black box data recorders, SAFER Barriers (so-called “soft walls”), crush panels in cars, more breakaway pieces upon impact and so much more.

And while NASCAR has had some drivers injured in wrecks since then, including recently-retired Dale Earnhardt Jr., who missed the second half of the 2016 season with a concussion, its safety record has been flawless with no deaths in major competition since the Senior Earnhardt’s passing in 2001.

NHRA followed NASCAR’s lead, and the world of American motorsports has gone on to benefit exponentially.

We should count ourselves lucky that so many years have passed in both NHRA and NASCAR without tragedies and resulting funerals thanks to state-of-the-art and on-going safety efforts.

I remember when Tom Compton told me a few years after Kalitta’s death and the NHRA’s resulting push for enhanced safety measures, that that each new improvement implemented into NHRA competition was not just a one-time innovation, but rather the next extension and improvement of an ongoing effort that will never stop and will never end.

“It’s a never-ending job,” Compton said. “We can’t rest on our laurels, we have to keep pushing for even greater safety standards and innovations every day, every week, every month and every year.

“Our goal is to never have another driver death in our sport in our lifetime.”

This weekend’s rash of incidents proves NHRA is indeed doing things right and indeed living up to that goal without exception.

NHRA shocker in Houston: John Force fails to qualify for first time since 2008, snaps 221-race streak

Photo and videos courtesy NHRA
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Sunday’s eliminations in the 31st annual NHRA SpringNationals at Royal Purple Raceway in suburban Houston  just won’t be the same without John Force.

In one of the most stunning turn of events seen in the last decade-plus in NHRA drag racing, the legendary 16-time Funny Car champion and the sport’s all-time winningest driver on Saturday failed to qualify for Sunday’s main event of the race weekend.

It marks the first time Force, who turns 69 on May 4, failed to qualify for a race since Sept. 13, 2008 in Charlotte race, snapping a string of having made the eliminations in each of the subsequent 221 races until failing to do so Saturday.

“That is hard for me,” Force said after failing to go any faster than 222.29 mph in the four qualifying rounds for the race, two on Friday and the other two on Saturday. “You earn what you get. We didn’t put it in the show. We couldn’t get to half-track.

“We have had a lot of problems all year. At least I got my final shot to get in and I didn’t make it. I will be here tomorrow rooting on Robert, Courtney and Brittany (teammates Robert Hight and daughters Courtney and Brittany Force). I’ll be signing autographs for all the fans. I am sorry to all of you fans that I didn’t make it.”

Saturday’s failure to qualify marked only the 22nd time he’s DNQ’d in his 40-year professional drag racing career. He set a drag racing record by qualifying for 395 consecutive events from 1988 until April 2007.

“I am bummed that the boss didn’t get in. That was quite a streak he had going,” Hight said of hoss and father-in-law. “There is nobody better at rallying a team and leading a comeback than John Force.

“He loves the fight and he will do whatever it takes to get his team back on top. It really isn’t something to worry about because two of our Chevys are No.1 and No. 2 right now.

“We have good combinations and we just have to duplicate one of those set ups for John’s PEAK Funny car. He’ll be back next week in Charlotte.”

As for the other classes (information courtesy NHRA Media Relations):Leah Pritchett set a new Top Fuel track record during the final qualifying session on Saturday to secure the top spot in Top Fuel heading into Sunday.Hight (Funny Car) and Greg Anderson (Pro Stock) are also No. 1 qualifiers in their respective categories at the fifth of 24 events on the 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule.

Defending event champion Pritchett raced her Mopar Dodge dragster to a pass of 3.680-seconds at 326.00 mph. This is her first No. 1 qualifier of the season and eighth of her career.

“We’ve been developing our confidence the last couple of races,” Pritchett stated. “To be able to put it on the track is phenomenal. We know we need to be exceptional because our competition is exceptional.”

Pritchett will line up against Terry Brian in round one of eliminations on Sunday. Defending world champion Brittany Force locked-in the No. 2 spot after a 3.701 at 313.80 in her Monster Energy dragster. Tony Schumacher is seeded third and will face William Litton.

Hight’s final qualifying pass of 3.894 at 317.27 in his Auto Club of Southern California Chevrolet Camaro took him to the top of the Funny Car category. This is his first No. 1 qualifier of the season, second at Houston and 58th of his career.

“This is going to be a new ball game tomorrow,” Hight said. “With fresh asphalt and the sun being out; these cars are going to spin. It’s definitely going to be fun. Two of our Chevy’s are one and two (in Funny Car) which shows we have good combinations.”

Hight will face-off against Todd Simpson Sunday morning in the first round. Teammate Courtney Force sits in the No. 2 position with a pass of 3.911 at 295.14 in her Advance Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro and two-time world champion Matt Hagan rounds out the top three.

Anderson, four-time Pro Stock world champion, remained atop the field Saturday with his pass of 6.492 at 213.00 in his Summit Racing Equipment Chevrolet Camaro from the first qualifying session on Friday. He notched his third consecutive No. 1 qualifier of the season and is seeking his first victory of the year.

“I haven’t had great Sunday’s yet,” Anderson stated. “I know I’m going to break through one of these days though. The weather is going to be great again tomorrow. I feel good about it, I’m excited and so far it’s just been a great weekend.”

Anderson will race Steve Graham in the first round of eliminations. Jeg Coughlin Jr. qualified in the No. 2 position with a pass of 6.504 at 212.36 in his Performance Chevrolet Camaro and Tanner Gray is third.

Eliminations at the NHRA SpringNationals begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday at Royal Purple Raceway.


TOP FUEL: 1. Leah Pritchett, 3.680 seconds, 326.00 mph vs. 16. Terry Brian, 4.275, 284.62; 2. Brittany Force, 3.701, 320.20 vs. 15. Terry Haddock, 4.081, 287.17; 3. Tony Schumacher, 3.703, 322.73 vs. 14. Bill Litton, 3.927, 306.60; 4. Billy Torrence, 3.737, 317.87 vs. 13. Kebin Kinsley, 3.819, 313.51; 5. Antron Brown, 3.740, 324.98 vs. 12. Terry McMillen, 3.783, 314.31; 6. Clay Millican, 3.746, 315.78 vs. 11. Mike Salinas, 3.766, 313.73; 7. Doug Kalitta, 3.748, 320.05 vs. 10. Richie Crampton, 3.766, 316.23; 8. Scott Palmer, 3.754, 318.17 vs. 9. Steve Torrence, 3.759, 313.88. Did Not Qualify: 17. Terry Totten, 4.636, 216.34.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.894, 317.27 vs. 16. Todd Simpson, Dodge Charger, 4.318, 288.33; 2. Courtney Force, Camaro, 3.911, 313.58 vs. 15. Jeff Diehl, Toyota Camry, 4.151, 283.49; 3. Matt Hagan, Charger, 3.913, 311.85 vs. 14. Ron Capps, Charger, 4.077, 305.77; 4. Jack Beckman, Charger, 3.918, 317.42 vs. 13. Richard Townsend, Camry, 4.026, 308.99; 5. Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 3.918, 301.94 vs. 12. Del Worsham, Camry, 4.017, 307.51; 6. Tim Wilkerson, Ford Mustang, 3.925, 311.41 vs. 11. Shawn Langdon, Camry, 3.994, 311.34; 7. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.926, 313.00 vs. 10. J.R. Todd, Camry, 3.989, 313.37; 8. Jonnie Lindberg, Camry, 3.927, 316.52 vs. 9. Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 3.938, 314.09. Did Not Qualify: 17. Jim Campbell, 4.341, 273.05; 18. John Force, 4.625, 222.29.

PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson, Chevy Camaro, 6.492, 213.00 vs. 16. Steve Graham, Camaro, 6.775, 205.60; 2. Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.504, 212.36 vs. 15. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, 6.621, 208.65; 3. Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.507, 211.99 vs. 14. John Gaydosh Jr, Chevrolet Camaro, 6.592, 210.93; 4. Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.513, 212.29 vs. 13. Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.548, 210.67; 5. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.518, 211.99 vs. 12. Rodger Brogdon, Camaro, 6.545, 210.50; 6. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.525, 212.79 vs. 11. Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.532, 212.73; 7. Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.527, 212.29 vs. 10. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.532, 211.79; 8. Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.528, 211.93 vs. 9. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.530, 211.33.