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

Photo courtesy NHRA

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.

2023 SuperMotocross Power Rankings after Houston: Eli Tomac retakes 450 lead, Hunter Lawrence tops 250s


After his Anaheim 2 crash, Eli Tomac was surprised he was not injured, but despite getting knocked down momentarily, he picked himself up, rode to last week’s win and reascended to the top of the SuperMotocross Power Rankings after Houston. This is the third time in three weeks Tomac has topped the rankings.

SuperMotocross Power Rankings Houston
Jason Anderson has back-to-back podiums to his credit and sits second in the Power Rankings. – Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

Last week, Tomac finished second in his heat before winning the Main – and that translated to near-perfect points in the Power Rankings, which award 100 for a win in the feature and 90 for a heat victory. Tomac’s average was marred by the Houston accident when he finished 13th in that heat before settling just outside the top five in overall standings. Racing is about bouncing back and last year’s Supercross and Motocross champion Tomac did just that as he chases a third consecutive title.

Jason Anderson earned his second consecutive podium finish with a third at Houston. He momentarily rolled past Aaron Plessinger into second during a restart following an accident involving Dylan Ferrandis and held that position for four trips around the track until he was tracked down by Chase Sexton. Afterward Anderson faded and finished 12 seconds off the pace, but along with a heat win, he easily leapfrogged Ken Roczen and Cooper Webb, who struggled in the fourth race of the season.

MORE: Eli Tomac rebounds from Anaheim 2 crash with Houston win

Webb held his position by passing Roczen in NBC’s SuperMotocross Power Rankings after Houston. Webb has been solid in 2023 with a worst moto result of seventh in the first Triple Crown race at Anaheim 2, but in order to be considered a solid challenger to Tomac he needs to win either a heat or main this week in Tampa.

Roczen was involved in the incident that sidelined Ferrandis in Houston. Racing for eighth at the time, his bike may have sustained some damage when Ferrandis landed on his back tire, but he was not overly impressive in his heat either with a fifth-place finish. That was enough to drop him three positions in the standings, but he still has Tomac in sight.

After his disappointing heat in San Diego when he crashed and sustained enough damage to place him last, Sexton has roared back. He won the overall in Anaheim 2’s Triple Crown format and narrowed the points’ gap slightly on Tomac. Last week he yarded the field in his heat race and won by a wide margin. A modest start in the Main kept him from getting to Tomac’s back wheel early in the Houston round, and he lost a little ground in the championship.

450 Rankings

Rider Power
1 Eli Tomac
[3 Main; 3 Heats Wins]
85.20 2 1
2 Jason Anderson
[2 Heat Wins]
82.60 4 2
3 Cooper Webb 82.10 3 0
4 Ken Roczen 81.70 1 -3
5 Chase Sexton
[1 Main; 3 Heat Wins]
80.70 6 1
6 Dylan Ferrandis 71.60 5 -1
7 Aaron Plessinger 71.30 8 1
8 Justin Barcia 70.10 7 -1
9 Justin Cooper 68.00 NA
10 Adam Cianciarulo 67.40 9 -1
11 Joey Savatgy 61.20 10 -1
12 Marvin Musquin 61.00 10 -2
13 Malcolm Stewart
[1 Heat Win]
58.75 11 -2
14 Christian Craig 57.20 13 -1
15 Colt Nichols 56.50 14 -1
16 Dean Wilson 49.30 15 -1
17 Justin Hill 39.67 18 1
18 Shane McElrath 36.33 22 4
19 Brandon Scharer 34.00 21 2
20 Logan Karnow 33.33 19 -1

Supercross 450 Points

The 250 East division debuted in Houston and with only one race – and therefore no chance yet to stumble – three of their riders jumped to the top of the chart.

Hunter Lawrence had a perfect week with wins in both his main and heat. It wasn’t without drama, however, as he was forced to jump wide early in the feature to avoid contact with Tom Vialle, who was making his Supercross debut. Without a former 250 champion in the field, it is guaranteed someone new will grace the top of the box at Salt Lake City after the season-ender and it looks like it’s going to be Lawrence’s to lose.

SuperMotocross Power Rankings Houston
Jordon Smith’s last podium before Houston came four years ago in Detroit. – Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

It was more than four years ago that Jordon Smith scored his last Supercross podium in Detroit. Despite finishing second that afternoon, he was battling a wrist injury that eventually sidelined him. More injuries have followed, but Smith was a favorite to win the title in 2019 and he’s shown how well he can ride when he’s healthy.

Debuting third in the Houston SuperMotocross Power Rankings, Max Anstie moved from the 450 class last year to 250s in 2023 and the change has gone better than he anticipated. Finishing second in both his heat and main, Anstie was edged by Smith because he finished second behind that rider in their heat. That is Anstie’s first top-10 since finishing sixth at Southwick, Massachusetts last year on his 450. In that race, he scored fifth-place results in both motos.

Supercross 250 Points

Haiden Deegan proved the hype surrounding his graduation into the 250 class was well deserved and he landed fourth in his division and fifth overall in the SuperMotocross Power Rankings. In his first professional Supercross race, he finished fourth in his heat. In a field with twice the talent, he finished fourth again in the main. At Houston, he balanced aggression with patience. Now that he has a taste of that success, everyone will be watching him closely at Tampa to see if he can continue tiptoeing on the line.

Michael Mosiman, Jeremy Martin, and Vialle are tied for fifth in the 250 East division and seventh overall.

Vialle is the most notable of these three because he challenged for a podium position during the Main before making a mistake and falling in a turn. Significantly, this was not only his 250 debut, but his first time in Supercross. As with Deegan, he has generated a lot of attention for the coming weeks.

250 Rankings

Rider Power
1 Hunter Lawrence – E
[1 Main; 1 Heat Win]
95.00 NA
2 Jordon Smith – E
[1 Heat Win]
90.50 NA
2 Max Anstie – E 90.50 NA
4 Jett Lawrence – W
[2 Main; 2 Heat Wins]
89.13 1 -3
5 Haiden Deegan – E 81.50 NA
6 Cameron McAdoo – W
[1 Heat Win]
77.63 2 -4
7 Mitchell Oldenburg – W 77.00 3 -4
7 Michael Mosiman – E 77.00 NA
7 Jeremy Martin – E 77.00 NA
7 Tom Vialle – E 77.00 NA
11 Stilez Robertson – W
[1 Heat Win]
76.75 4 -7
12 Chance Hymas – E 74.50 -12
13 Levi Kitchen – W
[1 Main Win]
73.75 5 -8
14 RJ Hampshire – W
[3 Heat Wins]
70.00 6 -8
15 Max Vohland – W 69.29 7 -8
16 Cullin Park – E 66.00 NA
17 Chris Blose – E 65.50 NA
18 Derek Kelley – W 63.75 8 -10
19 Enzo Lopes – W 63.25 9 -10
20 Pierce Brown – W 61.29 10 -10

* The NBC Power Rankings assign 100 points to a Main event winner and 90 points for each Heat and Triple Crown win, (Triple Crown wins are included with heat wins below the rider’s name). The points decrement by a percentage equal to the number of riders in the field until the last place rider in each event receives five points. The Power Ranking is the average of these percentage points over the past 45 days.

POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 3 AT ANAHEIM 2: Consistency makes Ken Roczen king
POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 2 AT SAN DIEGO: Roczen moves up, Chase Sexton falls
POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 1 AT ANAHEIM 1: Eli Tomac, Jett Lawrence gain an early advantage