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

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”