As I made my rounds through the professional pit area at last weekend’s AAA NHRA Midwest Nationals in St. Louis, I stopped upon the Top Fuel team of Rob Passey, whose crew, working out of a gooseneck trailer and shielding themselves from the sun under a fold-up canopy, were busy assembling their freshly-repaired engine before qualifying. Passey’s crew, likely all volunteers there purely for the love of the sport and as down-to-earth as you’d expect of any blue-collar nitro team just trying to play on the big stage, confirmed this was, in fact, their only engine, and the welded window in the block backed that statement up. After sharing that fact during our brief conversation, one of them commented, “it sure would be a lot different out here if everyone could only use one engine.”
You can imagine that such a statement, albeit far-fetched to some in the pro pit area, could actually serve as the catalyst for righting the wrongs that presently exist in big-show Top Fuel and Funny Car racing.
And, it’s really not unprecedented at all.
Next season, NASCAR Cup teams will be required to use 13 engines (engine block, crankshaft, camshaft, connecting rods and pistons) at two events each, meaning they’ll use 13 engines over the course of 26 races. They will not be allowed to change engines on any given weekend between qualifying and raceday without being relegated to a last-place start. IndyCar, likewise, allows just four of their sealed engines to be used by any full-time team per season without a penalty.
So, that drag racing teams are granted virtually unlimited use of new engines and parts between runs is now the exception to the norm. Many other elite forms of motorsports besides NASCAR and IndyCar have implemented engine rules to limit costs and increase parity, and the NHRA, whose racers likewise suffer from upside-down operating costs, could use a similar approach to “nip the issue in the bud”, if you will.
Ultimately, we all want to see nitro racing not only sustain itself, but grow. Fans also want to see more competition, and more opportunity for their favorite “underdog” teams to win on any given Sunday. A couple of decades ago, before the disparity between finances and physical and technical resources widened, part-time and underfunded teams had a legitimate shot at winning races and championships, and that, if you ask me, is how it ought to be.
Imagine if the well-funded teams were only permitted a single short block and set of cylinder heads per weekend….just like that, they’re forced to run their car more conservatively, bringing them back to the lesser-funded cars in performance. A second or third engine or component is permissible but only with a points penalty — one stiff enough that no team would blatantly choose to shorten the wick too much on their lone engine, but at the same, not so stiff as to de-incentivize them from competing the rest of the weekend should they hurt the No. 1 engine.
At the same time, the NHRA solves its runaway performance problem without actually taking away the potential for record runs. Teams can still choose to run their car hard and achieve big numbers, but they do so by taking a risk of hurting their engine and losing points. This keeps the fans — who make no mistake, like the sexy numbers — intrigued, knowing the opportunity and the potential is still there, but at the same time, the speeds are decreased on average.
Might more lower-funded teams or even those not presently competing in Top Fuel and Funny Car, who know they’d have a fighting chance on a more level playing field, jump into the fray under such an engine rule format? Personally, I think they would, and such a plan probably should have, in all reality, already been implemented. The NHRA nitro fields are still going strong at the majority of the Mello Yello Series national events, and the sky is indeed not falling, but it’s better to be proactive than not.
And I don’t know about you, but I like the idea of 25 or 30 nitro cars trying to make a 16-car field.