Column: Will spate of NHRA Funny Car motor explosions end at Las Vegas this weekend?

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NHRA drag racing is one of the most exciting forms of motorsports, particularly its top two classes, Top Fuel and Funny Car.

The so-called dragsters and floppers are the kings of the sport, the fastest and quickest rides on four wheels.

But something has happened in the first three races of 2018 that is both inexplicable and quite concerning.

There have been seven motor explosions in the first three national events in the Funny Car class. That’s an extraordinary number – and there are 21 more national events (including this weekend) on the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series still to come this season.

Sure, motor explosions and resulting car bodies flying high up into the air are spectacular to watch and make for great photographs and videos, but they’re also dangerous, particularly for the driver.

Legendary John Force, who is the winningest driver in the sport with 16 Funny Car championships and nearly 150 race wins, has endured three of those seven motor explosions, one in each of the first three races.

Others experiencing the same type of mishap have been Robert Hight, Force’s teammate and president of John Force Racing; Cruz Pedregon; and Don Schumacher Racing teammates Ron Capps and Matt Hagan.

Nearly three weeks have passed since the last two motor explosions during final eliminations in the Gatornationals in Gainesville, Florida.

And spectacular spectacles they were.

Hagan and Hight were squaring off against each other when, within a split second of each other as they closed in on the finish line, the motors on both their cars grenaded.

The body on Hight’s car flew roughly 50 feet straight up (Hagan’s car body also took a ride), while debris from both cars scattered and littered both sides of the drag strip, as well as the adjacent access roads for tow and emergency vehicles.

Fortunately, no one was injured: not either driver, nor anyone in the immediate area as shrapnel and fiberglass came raining down.

In fact, following each of the seven motor explosions, Force was the only driver to go to the hospital to be checked out after two of his three blowups, only to return to the track within a few hours each time.

Seven 10,000 horsepower motors, at about $50,000 per, were quickly turned into junk when each could not withstand the high pressure they were put through trying to hit or exceed 330 mph.

Add in all the wrecked bodies and other ancillary parts and pieces that were also part of the motor explosions, and we’re probably looking at about $500,000 or more in total damage for all seven explosions.

Which leads me to my point. I don’t know if I’m the only person feeling this way, but I admit I’m nervous about this weekend’s Denso Spark Plugs Four-Wide Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

For the first time ever, The Strip will host a four-wide event, just like its sister track in Charlotte, zMAX Dragway, has done each April since 2010.

Because the two-lane drag strip at The Strip is now four lanes wide, that means cars will be even closer to fans in the stands on at least one side of the track by approximately two feet, according to a track official. That may not seem like much, but it’s still notable.

What if the preponderance of motor explosions hasn’t ended? What if there are more this weekend? Even one would be one too many. And if that does happen again, will NHRA ultimately be forced to cut horsepower in Funny Car motors to slow them down and curtail the chance of even more explosions in future races?

Will fans, not to mention additional drivers in the same run, be impacted and – God forbid – hurt if another motor lets go and takes the body with it?

Or, what if we have two cars — or potentially more, given it’s a four-wide race — blow up in the same run like Hight and Hagan did at Gainesville?

All that debris has to go somewhere. Will that somewhere include the grandstands? Face it, there is no protective netting or catch fence to protect NHRA fans in the grandstands like there is at NASCAR tracks.

If a Funny Car or Top Fuel dragster goes kaboom, will fans still be comfortably far enough away not to run the risk of being struck by shrapnel or even a flying car body?

I still recall how a fan was tragically killed after being struck by a left rear tire that went into the stands after snapping off Antron Brown’s Top Fuel dragster in February 2010 at Firebird International Raceway (now known as Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park) in suburban Phoenix.

Which brings me back to this weekend’s race. To its credit, NHRA officials have given thorough examinations of all seven motors that have exploded this year.

“The NHRA Technical Department works very closely with race teams any time there is a catastrophic engine failure to determine the root cause,” NHRA Vice President of Technical Operations Glen Gray said in a statement to MotorSportsTalk. “If any of the information gathered during the investigation can help other teams, we make sure it is shared with them.”

Hopefully, the NHRA has found the cause of each motor explosion and we won’t see any more this weekend.

And, more importantly, no fans will be put in harms way and will leave the same way they came to the track: safe.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

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.”

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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 JEGS.com/Elite Performance Chevrolet Camaro and Tanner Gray is third.

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

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SUNDAY’S FIRST-ROUND PAIRINGS FOR ELIMINATIONS:

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.