NHRA should address tire safety here, now

Professional drag racing's season unofficially starts today with more thud than thunder.

Reverberations from 7,000-horsepower engines will rattle the ground at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the year's first test session. But fewer teams will attend than have in the past.

The NHRA urged the speedway to cancel the session because of concerns over whether Goodyear racing slicks can take the beating produced by a combination of anticipated cool weather and good traction at the speedway.

Cooler air produces more power, which Goodyear tires don't seem to handle consistently.

A letter sent Jan. 7 to members of the Professional Racers Owners Organization, a quasi-union of most pro drag racing teams, states the NHRA urges teams not to participate in the three-day Nitro Blastoff Preseason Test, which runs through Sunday.

The NHRA said it would not sanction the event or send a representative or any of its Safety Safari rescue team.

That's interesting because speedway officials say the NHRA never sanctioned previous test decisions, and only once was a Safety Safari vehicle on hand -- and that was only to fill a void when NASCAR teams were testing on the big oval and the track's rescue teams were needed there.

Credit, however, goes to Graham Light, the NHRA's senior vice president of racing operations, for being proactive toward safety in his comments to PROO.

But challenging and problematic conditions are more reasons to test. Running away from a problem doesn't make it go away.

What will happen if it's unseasonably cold for the Feb. 7 to 10 NHRA opener in Pomona, Calif., or the national event the following week at Firebird International Raceway near Phoenix? Or when the series is in Las Vegas in early April?

Most teams have skipped the Blastoff opting for the following week's test near Phoenix, where it usually is warmer and many drivers say the racing surface is subpar to that in Las Vegas.

Some limit testing for financial reasons; three days of nitro racing can cost $100,000.

Only Top Fuel dragsters driven by Dave Grubnic and Larry Dixon and Funny Cars of Scott Kalitta, Gary Densham and Del Worsham had committed by midweek to be in Las Vegas this weekend.

A year ago, five Top Fuel and 11 Funny Car teams started the year here.

This year's drop isn't due to the alleged risks. It is because of issues related to safety.

The NHRA last month released a minor upgrade to Top Fuel chassis specifications and this week announced an increase by 100 pounds to Funny Cars' minimum weight.

One reason for the added weight is the mandatory use by all nitro teams of Ford-provided crash data recorders.

The changes result from Eric Medlen's deadly testing crash early last year and the near fatal one by his team owner, John Force, in September at an NHRA race near Dallas. Tire failure that led to chassis failure is believed to have caused each incident.

The biggest missing link this weekend will be Force's four-car operation, which never has missed a Las Vegas testing opportunity.

Force said he's physically ready to drive, but he doesn't have a car. His team is awaiting delivery of its newly designed frames, which include tubs to protect drivers' legs.

"I'm not worried at all about the (Las Vegas) track. I love Las Vegas," he said this week. "I just don't have my new cars ready. I'll be lucky if we make the Phoenix test."

The NHRA wanted the Blastoff scrubbed. Aborted.

It instead should have encouraged teams to be here this weekend and provide free nitromethane as an incentive; Goodyear should have provided free tires with engineers on site to evaluate them after each run.

The tire problem should be fixed in testing, not racing, and there's no better time to begin that process than today.

Jeff Wolf's motor sports column is published Friday. He can be reached at 383-0247 or jwolf@reviewjournal.com.