NHRA, Firebird jeopardize drivers, fans

This reporter's toolbox is full after spending the weekend with NASCAR Nation in Fontana, Calif., and getting ready for our biggest racing week of the year.

It's time to get organized before heading to Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

But before racing begins today, I can't ignore talking about a disastrous weekend at the NHRA event near Phoenix.

■ FIREBIRD FIASCOES -- A fatality is the worst thing that can happen at a race. The only tragedy worse than the death of a racer is the death of a spectator.

Sue Zimmer, 52, of Rice Lakes, Wis., died Sunday after being hit by a rear tire and wheel that came off a Don Schumacher Racing Top Fuel dragster during the national drag racing event at Firebird International Raceway. The wheel broke free of the car, causing the dragster to crash a few hundred feet off the starting line. The tire became airborne after it appeared to hit the side of the dragster, flew into a spectator area past the left-side grandstands and slammed into Zimmer.

Someone or something caused the parts failure and her death. Our society is too litigious, but someone should pay.

The death overshadowed a major issue with the NHRA and Firebird.

Pro Stock drivers, led by Greg Anderson, refused to race after Sunday's first round of eliminations after a Pro Stocker crashed and barrel-rolled on each of the previous two days after hitting a bump and losing traction.

The NHRA suspended Pro Stock racing at Firebird until the Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., in three weeks because racers united and took a stand for safety.

A car in Super Street, the slowest class at the event, also crashed Sunday. Other cars came close.

The Top Fuel crash was apparently not related to a track problem.

But how could the NHRA or Firebird not have been aware of the bump? How can they jeopardize the safety of drivers and fans?

Blame for the Pro Stock fiasco should be shared between the NHRA and Firebird, which, according to some racers, is one of the worst venues on the NHRA Half Throttle Drag Racing circuit.

(Disclaimer: I was vice president of marketing and public relations at Firebird for seven years before being fired in 1995. I do not hold a grudge against the track or its owner, Charlie Allen. But you deserve to know my history and that it does not affect my opinion.)

■ FONTANA FOLLY -- Auto Club Speedway in Fontana had another weak turnout, but this year rotten weather was a factor. I credit speedway general manager Gillian Zucker for trying to find a niche for the track in the mega-market of Southern California, but the track will never fill its 92,000 seats for one race, let alone two. At best, 72,000 attended Sunday for the Sprint Cup race and 10,000 Saturday for the Nationwide race.

Look for track owner International Speedway Corp. to ship one of Fontana's two annual Cup races to Kansas Speedway now that gaming has been approved for a planned hotel-casino there.

■ FUN FOR FANS -- We have features planned at lvrj.com/motorsports throughout this weekend.

My new colleague, columnist Ron Kantowski, will be covering the races with me. We have a new weekly feature at lvrj.com/motorsports called "High side, low side," in which we each pick the best and worst motor sports stories from the previous weekend.

A few racers will be blogging for us, too.

And you can test your Las Vegas NASCAR knowledge online by trying a video game created by R-J graphic artist Mark Antonuccio.

Let's have a safe and dry weekend.

Jeff Wolf's motor sports column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at jwolf@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0247. Visit Wolf's motor sports blog at lvrj.com/blogs/heavypedal/ throughout the week.