Here's to shorter races, longer lives

Most wouldn't want to race or watch races if drivers were immune to serious injury or dying from a crash.

Crashes at death-defying speeds are part of the lure.

If fiery explosions weren't an attraction, NHRA wouldn't be featuring Cory McClenathan's dragster-destroying crash in its TV commercials for this year's national events, including this weekend's show at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Drag racing's mantra of "And he walked away ..." was made famous by the late Steve Evans after showing hellacious wrecks in racing videos.

That rings hollow today.

Eric Medlen didn't walk away in March 2007 after a Funny Car testing crash that led to his death a few days later. Nor did Scott Kalitta, who died in a Funny Car disaster June 21 in Englishtown, N.J.

And John Force didn't walk for weeks after his horrendous crash a year ago in an NHRA race near Dallas. At least the 14-time Funny Car champion and Medlen's mentor is walking and racing today.

Force credits rollcage improvements engineered by Medlen's dad, John Medlen, after his son's death and money Force and Ford Motor Co. invested in safety research for being alive today.

By the time this NHRA Powerade Drag Racing season began, the Force team had developed a stronger and safer chassis that forced NHRA to enhance safety standards.

More safety concerns were addressed after Kalitta was killed.

It is believed the throttle on his car stuck wide open after his engine exploded at the finish line. A few seconds later his car slammed at a high speed into poles in the slow-down area that did nothing to slow his car.

NHRA shortened races to 1,000 feet for the two nitro classes. That seems to have reduced finish-line explosions and produced closer races, though NHRA will not provide statistics on those topics -- if it has them.

Changes to most shut-down runoffs as mandated by NHRA have been made.

Those giant Goodyear racing slicks seem to be more reliable, whether from improved engineering or because the shortened course has reduced top speeds from more than 330 mph in the quarter-mile era to less than 320 mph.

In July, NHRA created a new position of vice president of technical operations, and drivers in the top nitro classes formed a driver's safety committee to ensure their voices will be heard.

When the ACDelco Las Vegas NHRA Nationals begin today with professional qualifying, several safety changes will be in place that weren't when the pro tour raced here in April.

The most noticeable will be moving the finish line 320 feet closer to the starting line for Top Fuel and Funny Car competition.

But a throttle can stick at 100 feet or 1,000. So starting today, all nitro Funny Cars must be equipped with an electronic controller that senses a manifold burst panel failure -- an engine explosion -- and simultaneously activates the fuel shutoff, shuts off the ignition and deploys parachutes.

Why it isn't required on Top Fuel dragsters seems odd.

Lest we be too critical.

The push for better safety is rolling at a record pace, and it can't slow now. NHRA needs to continue with 1,000-foot races for its top two categories and extend it to all NHRA-sanctioned races and classes.

It would be sad to lose the tradition of quarter-mile drag racing. But it would be much sadder to keep putting strips of black tape on race cars to mourn the loss of a driver killed on a dragstrip.

Jeff Wolf's motor sports column is published Friday. He can be reached at 383-0247 or Visit Wolf's motor sports blog at throughout the week.