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

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).