In less than a month at the helm, new NHRA president Peter Clifford has made a number of moves to improve the sanctioning body’s footprint in the motorsports world.
He hired veteran sports journalist Terry Blount as Vice President of Communications, cut ties one year early on the NHRA’s deal with ESPN, and then signed a promising long-term deal with Fox Sports and Fox Sports 1 to televise its races beginning next season.
Thus far, almost everything Clifford has done since succeeding the retired Tom Compton has been golden, and I get the sense that there is a lot more good still to come.
That’s not a knock against Compton, whatsoever. He did his best under oftentimes challenging conditions, particularly on the TV side with frequent inconsistency and oftentimes inconvenient scheduled airing times.
And I can pretty much guarantee that the genesis of many of the recent promising changes under Clifford’s administration actually began under Compton’s watch.
This is a great time and opportunity for Clifford to take the NHRA to the next level – or at the very least, return it to some of its greatest glory days of the 1980s and 1990s.
One of the biggest challenges Clifford and the NHRA face is an increased clamor among fans and competitors to return to the former official length of 1,320 feet – a true quarter-mile, the length the sport was built upon.
To put it in other terms, going from 1,320 feet to 1,000 feet would be like the NFL reducing its 100-yard playing field by 25 yards.
Admittedly, talk of any effort to bring back 1,320 feet is a very emotional subject.
NHRA scaled back the length of racetracks to 1,000 feet (removing approximately one-fourth of what had previously been) when popular Funny Car driver Scott Kalitta was killed on June 21, 2008 in a race in Englishtown, N.J.
According to the official investigation of the tragedy, Kalitta’s death resulted from a perfect and tragic storm: his car caught fire crossing the finish line at 300 mph, the fire damaged his parachutes, the motor would not turn off and continued to rev past the finish line, he was unable to stop in the track’s short 2,300-foot run-off area, ran through a sand area that was supposed to stop runaway vehicles, vaulted a concrete wall and then smashed head-on at approximately 125 mph into a boom crane (which carried a TV cameraman who was recording passes down the dragstrip).
Kalitta was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.
Less than two weeks after Kalitta’s devastating and tragic wreck, the NHRA shortened track length for both Top Fuel and Funny Car races to 1,000 feet – a distance that remains in effect today.
Fortunately, we have not seen any deaths in the nitro ranks since Kalitta’s.
But therein lies the rub.
Fans – particularly longtime NHRA fans – have increasingly called for the 1,320-foot length to be reinstated. To many of them, anything less than 1,320 feet is not a “true” race.
NHRA, on the other hand, believes the fact that there have been no other deaths since Kalitta’s is enough evidence that the track length reduction works – and continues to work to this day.
Granted, while Kalitta’s memory and his tragic crash are emotional topics on both sides of the track-lengthening debate, there have been a number of safety enhancements implemented since his death that have significantly reduced the chance of a potential repeat tragedy.
For the most part, there are few tracks that have short runoff areas. One of the most notable is Old Bridge Township Raceway Park, where Kalitta lost his life. Due to the track dimensions and a major highway that abuts the rear portion of the track, it’s impossible to extend or reconfigure the present and long-held runoff area.
Without sounding flippant, Old Bridge’s runoff area worked well for so many years before Kalitta’s fluke and fateful wreck.
Kalitta was the third major driver that NHRA had lost in the previous four years, including promising up-and-coming Top Fuel racer Darrell Russell in 2004 and another young and promising driver, Eric Medlen, in 2007.
I admit, I’m torn on whether to go back to 1,320 feet. The last thing I want to do is compromise safety and run the risk of another Kalitta-like tragedy.
At the same time, NHRA has one of the most astute safety teams in the business when it comes to determining what is safe and what isn’t. With all the safety innovations that have occurred since Kalitta’s death, I’m cautiously optimistic that NHRA can return to 1,320-foot racing for the nitro classes.
And if there are further safety elements that must be instilled, such as limiting horsepower or speed (much like NASCAR’s restrictor plate racing at Daytona and Talladega), I’m okay with that, as well.
NHRA has long been a sanctioning body and shepherd of a sport that believes in giving fans what they want and ask for. If the fans want to see racing return to 1,320 feet, particularly if it will reinvigorate the sport and entice former fans to return to the stands and back in front of their TV sets, then NHRA needs to give those fans what they seek.
Even if it means dropping tracks from the schedule if they don’t have or can’t improve substantial runoff areas to keep everyone safe. If one or a few tracks can’t adapt, is it fair to hold other tracks that can safely offer 1,320-foot racing hostage?