Editorial: Can You Differentiate Rules Disparity From Hard Work?

The vast, virtually infinite array of engines, power adders, fuels, tires, and other elements that exist in drag racing play a major part in it being such an alluring form of motorsport. If it goes, it exists. But, package any small or large sum of those elements into a single venue, and you quickly arrive in a situation of inequality.

Parity, as drag racers typically define it, has divided racers not just mechanically, but emotionally, since the earliest days of heads-up acceleration contests, as unfair advantages — both real and perceived — drive a chasm between both the racers and the rules-makers in a cat-and-mouse game that never truly achieves a perfect or sustained equilibrium. But, just as easily as legitimate unfairness can exist, so too can honest, old-fashioned hard work be masked as a written advantage … and it’s that situation, perhaps more than any other, that drives a wedge between the competitors and those who govern them.

Photo courtesy NHRA/National Dragster

The topic of parity has been on drag racing’s front-burner over the last two months, due in large part to the popularity and increased visibility of the NHRA Pro Modified eliminator, where offseason adjustments in the rulebook have, to date, created a statistical uneven playing field between its three power combinations. Supercharged racers, afforded an increase to 20 percent maximum supercharger overdrive, have run away with things in the performance realm, clocking the quickest legal elapsed time in history and banking almost half a tenth in average elapsed time over their turbocharged and nitrous oxide-assisted siblings.

…just as easily as legitimate unfairness can exist, so too can honest, old-fashioned hard work be masked as a written advantage

But, much of the commotion has been fueled by one man, tuner Frank Manzo, who spent 30 years breaking hearts behind the wheel, just as he did last month in Houston when he wrenched Mike Castellana to an all-time-quick 5.68 to reset the Pro Modified national record. Knowing that, the question to ponder then is whether Manzo has been afforded a mechanical advantage, or if he’s just that good (he’s that good). And, if he’s really that good (he is), do he and Castellana — and the rest of the supercharged contingent, for that matter — deserve to be punished for outworking the rest of the field? Or should Castellana’s runaway performance serve as the juice resulting from the squeeze, so to speak?

X275 founder and head honcho John Sears has had to mull the same decision repeatedly in the eight-year history of his radial tire eliminator, as different racers at different times have outsmarted, outworked, and in many cases, outspent their peers, in turn gaining an edge on the racetrack that instantly raises eyebrows. The Bruder Brothers, Rich and Nick, have been a focal point in the topic of equality in X275 year after year, and the class took aim at them again this spring when they unveiled a virtually untapped, electronically fuel-injected small-block supercharger combination. In just its second race, arguably well short of its refined capability, the brothers toppled the class record. No sooner than the ink hit the timeslip did their peers raise questions about the fairness of the rules package concerning their combination.

The Bruders, unlike others in X275, have freelanced their way through their time in the category, switching engine combinations and power adders on multiple occasions, and each and every time, they’ve been the class of the field. And they won’t shy away from reminding you of the fact that they’ve excelled no matter the setup, confident they’ve simply outworked everyone else.

 

And so, much in the same respect as Manzo, do they deserve to be disciplined for doing what drag racers have always done, what drag racing was founded upon— eat, sleep, and breathe their racing program until it’s better than everyone else’s?

It’s the cost of doing business in a venue with freedom of choice in engines, transmissions, and other variables, with the unpopular alternative being an entirely “spec” package.

The overlying issue in this matter, of course, is that when the offender is ruled against, so too is everyone else running their particular combination, thus knocking them down a peg in performance. Such a move forces everyone else to play from behind, rather than as equals. In short, every heads-up drag racer out there is at the mercy of their peers, potentially witnessing their program rendered uncompetitive through no fault or their own. On one hand, you could suggest said racers ought to work more and complain less, but in a cubic-dollars form of racing where not everyone can spend their way to competitiveness, that’s often easier said than done for all but the most resourceful of teams and racers.

And that is how the sport arrives at the never-ending conundrum of inequality. It’s the cost of doing business in a venue with freedom of choice in engines, transmissions, and other variables, with the unpopular alternative being an entirely “spec” package. How do you maintain fairness during the process of creating fairness, by identifying the difference between excellence and partisanism? How do you decide when one has been given an edge and when they’ve made an edge? That’s the question that, to this day, no rules committee has ever — and likely ever will — answer or act upon with complete success.

All I know is, while the differences can sometimes be identifiable from atop our soapboxes and behind our keyboards, I don’t envy for a second the role of those who have to make those kinds of decisions.

About the author

Andrew Wolf

Andrew has been involved in motorsports from a very young age. Over the years, he has photographed several major auto racing events, sports, news journalism, portraiture, and everything in between. After working with the Power Automedia staff for some time on a freelance basis, Andrew joined the team in 2010.
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