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.
John Force may be 69 years old, but Sunday he proved he is still a major force to reckon with in NHRA Funny Car competition.
The winningest driver in NHRA history, the 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion won his 149th national event Sunday, capturing the Dodge NHRA Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway in Morrison, Colorado (suburban Denver).
Force (4.075 seconds at 315.42 mph) defeated 2016 Funny Car champ Ron Capps (4.067 seconds at 308.71 mph) in the final round to earn his first win in over a year.
Force has now won at least one race in each of the last 31 seasons and qualifies for the upcoming six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.
“The fire is back in me, I’m fighting,” Force said. “I got tired of hearing me snivel to myself. My wife doesn’t even want to talk to me. … I don’t know why I won this race but I have a lot more fight in my belly.”
Admittedly, before Sunday, he has struggled for much of the last year since his last win.
“I found myself with all the crashes and everything that happened probably at the lowest point in my career,” Force said. “It has been worse than when I crashed in 2007 (in the worst wreck of his career).
“I have been fighting to get back. I never let on to anyone but it showed that I just looked like a mess. I am fighting to get back. I had four crashes (this season) and after my last one I had John Bandimere (owner of Bandimere Speedway) call me and say, ‘We have to talk.’ I said ‘I know you love God and I know where you want to go.’ He told me to listen to him and he set me straight.
“I didn’t know if I would ever get back in position to win a race. Bandimere told me I could and I won’t stand here and preach the Gospel but he said when I get to Denver I will be fixed. He didn’t say I was going to win but that I would be fixed. He told me to go out there and show me who John Force is.”
It was Force’s eighth win (and first there since 2016) and 13th final round appearance at Denver in his career, making him the winningest Funny Car driver ever at Bandimere Speedway.
Force defeated daughter and No. 1 qualifier Courtney Force in the semifinals to set up the deciding run vs. Capps. Prior to defeating Courtney, Force beat Matt Hagan and Cruz Pedregon in the first two rounds of eliminations earlier in the day.
“I had to beat a lot of great racers today, Hagan, Cruz, Capps, I love them all,” Force said.
Here are more tidbits about Force’s day, which leaves him one win away from 150 career wins:
Force now has 1,303 round wins in his career. He has beaten 137 different drivers en route to that mark.
376 of those round wins came against 15 world champions including two-time champ Matt Hagan, against whom he improved his record to 21-17 with today’s first round victory.
Force claimed 152 round wins at the expense of the Pedregon brothers: Cruz, Tony and Frank.
He has beaten fathers and sons (Jim and Mike Dunn, Paul and Mike Smith, Tim and Dan Wilkerson) and brothers (Cruz, Tony and Frank Pedregon along with Ron and Jon Capps)
He has beaten Cruz Pedregon 70 times, more often than any other driver
He earned 21 round wins against daughters Ashley Force Hood and Courtney Force and 22 against Robert Hight, his protégé and the father of granddaughter Autumn Hight.
He has won rounds on 27 different tracks in 18 states and Canada
He has won 128 rounds in three different events at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, the most at any single track
He has won 76 rounds in the Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd, the most in any single event
Other winners in the first of the NHRA’s annual three-race “Western Swing” (Denver; Sonoma, California; and Seattle) included Leah Pritchett in Top Fuel, Greg Anderson won his first race of the season in Pro Stock and Hector Arana Jr. earned his first Pro Stock Motorcycle win since 2015.
The race was the 14th of the 24-race NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule.
In Top Fuel, Pritchett (3.831 seconds at 316.45 mph) earned her second win of 2018 and seventh of her career. She was No. 1 qualifier for the event (also for the second race in a row and 10th No. 1 of her career) and defeated Doug Kalitta (3.852 seconds at 319.82 mph) for the win.
Prior to facing Kalitta, Pritchett defeated Terry Totten, Scott Palmer and Clay Millican in the first three rounds.
“Our crew has really impressed, attitude of gratitude, as high as the altitude here,” Pritchett said. “They chipped away at it and didn’t let themselves get down earlier this year when we were in a slump and they didn’t let me get myself down in a slump either. I always have my confidence in them and they have their confidence in me and this weekend we pulled it all together.”
In Pro Stock, Anderson earned his first win of the season, his third at Bandimere and 91st triumph of his career.
Anderson (6.943 seconds at 196.53 mph) defeated Summit Racing Equipment teammate Jason Line (6.947 seconds at 196.19 mph). Also, the victory put Anderson back atop the Pro Stock points standings.
“We have had a heck of a battle this year, we have had great running cars but we have made mistakes on Sunday and haven’t been able to close the deal,” Anderson said. “The class is so tough right now, it is so hard to win. The bottom line is we haven’t put forth our best effort on Sunday, we haven’t lost giving it our best shot and today we did.”
Anderson defeated Joey Grose, Vincent Nobile, and Jeg Coughlin Jr. to advance to the finals showdown with Line.
In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Arana Jr. earned his first win since St. Louis in 2015 and his 12th career NHRA triumph.
In his first final round of the season, Arana (7.170 seconds at 185.89 mph), who earlier this year became the first rider to crack the 200 mph barrier, won easily when 2016 PSM champ Jerry Savoie fouled at the starting line.
“We have had a fast bike all the time, just been working on consistency and then when the bike was good I was making little errors,” Arana Jr. said. “Dedication, hard work, and practicing to bring it all together. Finally got over some hurdles over here and now we should be back on track.”
The Western Swing continues July 27-29 with the Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma Raceway.
FINAL FINISHING ORDER:
TOP FUEL: 1. Leah Pritchett; 2. Doug Kalitta; 3. Clay Millican; 4. Blake Alexander; 5. Scott Palmer; 6. Steve Torrence; 7. Jim Maroney; 8. Richie Crampton; 9. Tony Schumacher; 10. Antron Brown; 11. Greg Carrillo; 12. Terry Totten; 13. Bill Litton; 14. Brittany Force; 15. Mike Salinas; 16. Terry McMillen.
FUNNY CAR: 1. John Force; 2. Ron Capps; 3. Robert Hight; 4. Courtney Force; 5. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 6. Cruz Pedregon; 7. Tim Wilkerson; 8. Jack Beckman; 9. J.R. Todd; 10. Jonnie Lindberg; 11. Matt Hagan; 12. Jeff Diehl; 13. Terry Haddock; 14. Bob Tasca III; 15. Shawn Langdon; 16. Todd Simpson.
PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson; 2. Jason Line; 3. Chris McGaha; 4. Jeg Coughlin; 5. Deric Kramer; 6. Vincent Nobile; 7. Alex Laughlin; 8. Tanner Gray; 9. Bo Butner; 10. Drew Skillman; 11. Matt Hartford; 12. Fernando Cuadra; 13. Erica Enders; 14. Alan Prusiensky; 15. Joey Grose; 16. Will Hatcher.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Hector Arana Jr.; 2. Jerry Savoie; 3. Andrew Hines; 4. Karen Stoffer; 5. Scotty Pollacheck; 6. LE Tonglet; 7. Steve Johnson; 8. Matt Smith; 9. Hector Arana; 10. Angie Smith; 11. Jim Underdahl; 12. Angelle Sampey; 13. Ryan Oehler; 14. Joey Gladstone; 15. Cory Reed; 16. Eddie Krawiec.
TOP FUEL: 1. Steve Torrence, 1,132; 2. Clay Millican, 959; 3. Leah Pritchett, 949; 4. Tony Schumacher, 930; 5. Doug Kalitta, 893; 6. Antron Brown, 750; 7. Terry McMillen, 696; 8. Brittany Force, 658; 9. Richie Crampton, 576; 10. Scott Palmer, 544.
FUNNY CAR: 1. Courtney Force, 1,156; 2. Matt Hagan, 946; 3. Ron Capps, 930; 4. Robert Hight, 911; 5. Jack Beckman, 906; 6. J.R. Todd, 832; 7. Tommy Johnson Jr., 746; 8. John Force, 735; 9. Shawn Langdon, 647; 10. Bob Tasca III, 596.
PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson, 1,044; 2. Tanner Gray, 976; 3. Erica Enders, 969; 4. Vincent Nobile, 947; 5. Chris McGaha, 875; 6. Drew Skillman, 842; 7. Jeg Coughlin, 838; 8. Bo Butner, 782; 9. Jason Line, 778; 10. Deric Kramer, 725.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Andrew Hines, 591; 2. Eddie Krawiec, 564; 3. Hector Arana Jr, 501; 4. LE Tonglet, 493; 5. Jerry Savoie, 481; 6. Scotty Pollacheck, 417; 7. Matt Smith, 411; 8. Angie Smith, 304; 9. (tie) Hector Arana, 289; Angelle Sampey, 289.