Sunday, June 22, 2008

Getting back in the car while in the grasp of sorrow

Scott Kalitta was not one of the people who made a living in drag racing that I've crossed paths with in my limited crossings into that world.

I will be spending more time with the National Hot Rod Association stars later this year as the opening of the new dragstrip at Lowe's Motor Speedway approaches. But some guys I've already met, like Gary Scelzi, spoke eloquently about Kalitta on the coverage I saw Saturday afternoon after the crash that took Kalitta's life.

Scelzi told a story about getting stuck in the Charlotte airport with his son and with Kalitta, spending several hours killing time by swapping stories and generally having a great time.

So I won't try to act like I can understand the depth of the sorrow that Kalitta's fellow NHRA competitors felt as they came back Sunday to race at Englishtown. I will, however, express my empathy for how tough that must have been.

Kalitta's wreck was horrifying - anybody who has seen the video knows that. If there's anything to be learned about what happened to cause the incident or to improve the runoff areas at drag racing's major league tracks, those steps need to be taken.

In May, John Force visited the site where the new dragstrip is being built at Lowe's Motor Speedway. During a lull in that appearance, I got the chance to talk to Force about safety in his sport in light of the crash that took his young driver, Eric Medlen, last year.

From that conversation, I know Force is serious about making drag racing as safe as it can be, and I sense that everyone else in that sport shares those feelings.

I suppose there are some people who wonder how a driver can see a wreck like Kalitta's and then get back in a car that goes well over 300 mph the very next day. But anybody who asks that question probably wonders why anyone would drive a nitro-powered dragster to start with.

The drivers went back to work Sunday in part to honor their fallen brother and in part to assauge their own grief. By going back to work and doing what they do, they bring a little normalcy back to their lives right after having that normalcy shattered by Kalitta's death.


Anonymous said...

Nice post, David.
Somebody help me. In the video it appears that there's a solid wall at the end of the runoff area. Is that possible? Did nobody expect anything to ever go wrong with a chute, for example? It looks like Kalitta might have survived the fire. But not the wall.

Anonymous said...

80% of the tracks that the NHRA runs at are too short. The fuel cars today are running well over 300 mph, on tracks that were built for 200 mph passes at best. Evidence of that is when a pro-stock gets in trouble and uses every bit of the sand trap, and the net barricade to stop. Obviously a 300 mph + vehicle is going to just eliminate all of it.
Englishtown is a pretty reasonable lengthed track, it all reverts back to the speed that has evolved in the modern era.
Problem is there is no overnight fix.
It just seems like NHRA doesn't have an agressive safety program like NASCAR. It takes teams that suffer a tradegy ie: John Force Racing to implement their own safety ideas. Also understanding the money isnt the same as NASCAR either, but your only talking about a 1/4 mile track as well, with less events during the year.
God speed Scott.

Anonymous said...

Like the guy on TV said: Let's just hope the explosion knocked him out. Think of peering through the flames and seeing the wall coming at you at, what- 150mph at that point?...................

Anonymous said...

Pete, I agree that the NHRA program isn't as aggresive as NASCARS. But while NASCAR is certainly to be complimented for what they've accomplished in this area over the last few years, it also took the deaths of 4 drivers over a two year period to kick start those advances in track and car safety. And had not the sports biggest hero been the last of those 4 drivers who were killed, I don't know if we'd have seen the implementation of softer walls; mandatory head and neck restraints; or the development of the COT.

For once I'd like to see a sanctioning body actually be aggresive in developing safety improvements before enough blood is spilled to force them to develop them as a reaction to the carnage. It'd sure be a pleasant change.

Anonymous said...

Cut the race tos 1000 feet rather than 1320. Most of the engine damage is in the last 300 feet. Most of the craziness with the car is in the last 300 feet. 300 MPH or 330... Who is going to know the difference and it gives 300 feet more in case something happens that you need to adjust for.

Kalitta hit the post that holds the net that is suppose to stop his car if his chute doesn't open.

Anonymous said...

Scott didn't drive a funny car to "make a living."
His dad was super rich, he could have remained retired.
Scott also owned a marina in Florida.

Scott drove fuel cars because he chose to drive fuel cars.

You lazy writers who just make shit up to fill space are ignorant of the true facts.

Anonymous said...

Being a NASCAR fan, I must say that you drag racers better be careful what you wish for...

Nascar's COT is safer by any measure, but the trade-off is the racing. By making it harder to drive, they've slowed it down and made it safe, but they can't pass each other because of it.

What kind of drag race would it be if the cars were identical?! You could just put up the hole shots and save the fuel. But it would be safer.

Anonymous said...

Jim - "And had not the sports biggest hero been the last of those 4 drivers who were killed, I don't know if we'd have seen the implementation of softer walls;"

A slight correction, the SAFER Barrier was was developed by engineers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln starting in 1998 and long before the NASCAR deaths.

But you're correct you "don't know if we'd have seen the implementation" of them and is pure guess work on your part.

Anonymous said...

Almost 4 years to the day ( June 27, 2004 ) Darrell Russell was running at St Louis and was racing Scott..Darrell lost his life and if you were to look at the tape today,,there is someone running to check on Darrell.. Scott jumped from his dragster and ran back to help...and now 4 years later..Scott crashes...two great drivers who cared for people..

Anonymous said...

David, short and sweet and well written. When I heard Paul Page's words after the first round of qualifying on ESPN2, I knew it wasn't good. I just needed confirmation.

Being an NHRA fan that goes to the Gatornationals each year, I know what Gainesville Raceway has done once Top Fuel hit the 300 mph mile stone.

Just like NASCAR needs to provide Safer-Barriers on every single wall that is part of the track, NHRA needs to re-configure the run-off so cars that are out of control at 300+ can deal with an incident like Scott's.

My neighbor, who runs "run what you brung" at local drag strips suggested reversing the track.

Not a bad idea, considering that most drag strips have plenty of parking BEHIND the current starting line.

Why not put the staging lanes where the current - or should I write ex-current wall - at Englishtown used to be? Have the finish line where the the Christmas tree is now, which should allow for much more room for Top Fuel to shut down, or avoid the fate of Scott Kalitta.

As always David (except when you discuss road courses), well done. Catcha on TMD in the a.m. Shirley

Anonymous said...

"Have the finish line where the the Christmas tree is now,"

Are you on, like, freakin' drugs or something?

Anonymous said...

I'm not even going to try and comment on a sport that I know almost nothing about. But there are certain generalities in all phases of motorsports.

The most important is that all sanctioning bodies are looking at ways of making their sport safer. Oft times, they can't do that until there is a full investigation after a death behind the wheel. Mike Fields touches on that in his blog at What he said seems to make a lot of sense.

Anonymous said...

Always found it odd that thousands of people die on the roads everyday, yet even more thousands drive to their funerals without the slightest fear of driving?

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