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


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.