Safety comes first for NHRA

Safety has its price, and Funny Car teams have been paying for it this season with erratic performances and slower runs through four NHRA events.

Memories of Eric Medlen’s fatal crash a year ago, however, muffle complaining.

His father, John Medlen, and their John Force Racing team have spearheaded the sport’s safety initiative with better chassis and roll cages since Medlen died from head injuries a few days after a March 19, 2007, testing crash in Gainesville, Fla.

The greatest cost to performance has been from adding weight to cars.

The minimum Funny Car weight when racing begins today at Las Vegas Motor Speedway will be 150 pounds more than when they raced in last year’s NHRA Nationals.

Fifty of those pounds were added before the Las Vegas race a year ago to enhance protection in the cockpit, which is where Medlen sustained head injuries.

The modifications didn’t stop Medlen’s teammate and friend, Robert Hight, from winning at Las Vegas in the team’s first race back after Medlen’s death.

The effort to build a better Funny Car was taken to a higher level when team owner and 14-time champion John Force sustained major leg and hand injuries when his car broke apart during a race in late September.

A month later, he had to muster all his strength to stand with a walker near the starting line when the NHRA Powerade Drag Racing Series competed at Las Vegas.

He has endured nearly five months of rigorous physical therapy and returned to racing in February.

"I’ve won 14 championships and more than 100 races (125), but I’d rather be remembered for helping make Eric’s life count for something," Force said. "There’s lots more to do.

"Bottom line, Vince Lombardi was wrong: Winning isn’t everything. There are more important things."

Newly designed frames were built for each of Force’s four drivers, including Ashley Force and rookie Mike Neff. Every Funny Car in NHRA at least had to strengthen certain chassis sections.

NHRA raised the minimum weight another 100 pounds to a minimum of 2,555 pounds (including driver) about six weeks before this season began.

The increased weight has slowed elapsed times by about one-tenth of a second, according to Hight.

"I’ll take being one-tenth slower and being safer any day," he said.

NHRA’s decision to increase weight put teams behind in making the mandatory changes and limited their preseason testing. Hight said he has made 27 passes down the quarter-mile this year in testing and competition; he logged 21 runs in preseason testing last year.

Teams also have lost four rounds of qualifying because of rain in the first four events, each of which has been won by a different driver.

In a sport where wins can be determined by a few thousandths of a second, lost testing has prevented crew chiefs from finding the perfect engine and clutch set-ups to push the heavier cars while maintaining adequate traction.

"We’ve spun the tires in places on the track where we never have before," said veteran Tommy Johnson Jr., who is driving this year for owner Kenny Bernstein.

"We just need to make more runs — that’s all," said Hight, who won this year’s opener but failed to qualify for the last NHRA event two weeks ago near Houston.

But Hight, like the other drivers, is content to be patient.

Contact reporter Jeff Wolf at jwolf@ or 702-383-0247.


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