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Near disaster at zMax Dragway should prompt NHRA safety changes

- sfowler@charlotteobserver.com
Sunday, Apr. 21, 2013

There was almost a disaster at a drag race at zMax Dragway Saturday when an explosion caused the car body of a Ford Mustang Funny Car to be thrown over a safety fence where dozens of fans stood, yet hurt no one seriously. But the near-miss will and should speed up changes in the sport, according to one of its most legendary figures.

Don Schumacher, a 2013 inductee into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and perhaps the sport’s most well-known owner, said Sunday in an interview that he expected some changes within his own fleet of Funny Cars and likely throughout the National Hot Rod Association within the next 30 days.

Schumacher said that car bodies simply must stay latched onto their vehicles from now on because they are so unpredictable once they get airborne. Additional burst panels, latches, tethers or parachute-type devices that deploy if the body does come off the car are all possibilities, Schumacher said.

“That was very unusual,” Schumacher said of Saturday’s incident, which involved the car body of driver Robert Hight flying more than 60 feet through the air and over a fence. “But you’re dealing with something that’s not any different from throwing a paper airplane. It gets into the air and you don’t know if that paper airplane is going straight, right, left, up or down.”

The difference is that this “paper airplane” weighed around 100 pounds and veered toward the East grandstand and a slew of surprised fans. While it hit no one directly and caused no major injuries, it provided startling photos and shudders from others in the sport who knew that things could have turned out differently.

“There’s nothing on the planet with wheels on it that’s more volatile than these things,” said Bob Tasca, a Funny Car driver who was not involved in Saturday’s incident. “That’s for sure. We’re going 320 mph at close to 10,000 horsepower. Fortunately no one got hurt. It could have been a lot worse than it was, but we got lucky.”

Matt Hagan ultimately won the NHRA Funny Car division Sunday. Said Hagan afterward of Saturday’s incident: “I’ve had a couple of explosions like that.” He said the car body disintegrated, however, instead of flying into the stands.

As for explosions in general, Hagan said it was part of the appeal of motorsports in general. Said Hagan: “That’s what the fans come to see.… They come to Charlotte to see the NASCAR boys wreck. As bad as it is to say, that’s just part of it.”

For the 20,000 or so fans who showed up on a sunny, windy Sunday for the final day of the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals, some shrugged their shoulders at Saturday’s events.

There were hundreds of places Brian Stacey of Watertown, N.Y., could have stood to watch Sunday’s races, but he chose near the finish line in almost the exact spot the car body had landed 24 hours before.

“If I had been standing here Saturday,” said Stacey, who had watched on Saturday from the opposite grandstand with his buddies, “I would have grabbed a piece of the car and brought it home if I could have. Hey, it can be dangerous standing on a street corner – you could get hit by a bus. Basically if it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go.”

Stacey, 50, and three friends drove 14 hours from Watertown to the Charlotte area and stayed Thursday through Sunday, camping near the Concord track. He has been a fan of the sport for 25 years, attended numerous races and pronounced zMax Dragway the best he has seen. The spot Stacey and his friends chose to stand and watch Sunday was so close to the action that any conversation had to be conducted between heats, when the roar of the engines wasn’t so ear-splitting.

“I like the speed, the cars, the scenery – I like it all,” Stacey said.

While all sports like to claim a connection with their fans, the link between drag racers and their supporters seems uncommonly close.

“Our fans have access to the locker room, so to speak, which doesn’t happen in any other sport,” said Graham Light, the senior vice president for NHRA’s racing operations.

That’s why the NHRA held the “track walk” Sunday morning for fans. It was a guided tour of the quarter-mile drag strip, led by some of the racers who would drive 300 mph on it later the same day.

The track walk is standard at every NHRA event. So is the fact that every ticket also serves as a “pit pass” – entitling fans to walk around at their leisure and mingle with the pros in the drivers’ pits as the dragsters are prepared. Fans also are routinely invited into the winners circle after the race.

“In almost any sport, the closer you get, the more exciting it is,” Light said.

They certainly get close in this one. Drag-racing fans lined the quarter-mile track on both sides to see four-wide racing all afternoon Sunday. While you needed earplugs even on the top rows, the fans weren’t as close as drag-racing aficionados used to be able to get.

“I think if we let them in with no fences,” Tasca, the driver, said, “they’d be standing right at the wall. I know back in the 1960s there are pictures of the crowds literally on the starting line. Some people were touching the cars as they left.”

As with all motorsports, there are inherent risks in drag racing. The sport begun in the early 1950s in part to bring drag racing into more controlled environments and off city streets. The words “dedicated to safety” appeared on one of the first NHRA logos.

But even as safety has improved, there have been occasional fatalities. In 2010, a female fan in Arizona was killed when she was hit by a tire that flew off the Top Fuel Dragster of Antron Brown.

No one apparently keeps official statistics on how many car bodies have flown off Funny Cars, but it is far from unheard of. Schumacher said it has now happened twice in four NHRA events this season. Tasca said it happens “a couple of times a year.”

On the independent website dragracingonline.com, writer Jeff Burk wondered several days before the incident in Concord: “Does an NHRA Nitro Funny Car body or parts thereof that have been blown 500 feet in the air due to an engine failure have to land in spectator seating before the NHRA Tech department starts working to keep Funny Car bodies from flying hundreds of feet into the air?”

Light said Funny Car bodies get into the air “on occasion” but that the car bodies almost always comes down on the track. In his 29 years in drag racing, Light said, he had “never seen” a car body “veer to the right” like the one did Saturday.

Why did it happen?

“I don’t think anybody knows the answer to that question,” Light said.

Schumacher, whose drivers won both the Funny Car and Top Fuel divisions Sunday, said changes are necessary as safety evolves in the NHRA.

“It’s a very brutal, fast, exciting sport,” the owner said. “It’s very extreme. Things will happen. But there’s no reason we can’t figure out a way to contain things inside those cars and keep that from happening again. We have to look at ways to keep our fans in a safer environment.”

Scott Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler

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