Commentary: Combat, Bribery, Qualifying Tricks Teach What Lessons?

Nevermind that Doug Kalitta came within three lousy points of earning his long-awaited Top Fuel championship, but in getting his 47th victory extended his dubious distinction of being still the most successful racer in any class without a title.

Forget that Robert Hight capped his dominant Funny Car season by winning his third championship and that Erica Enders joined Shirley Muldowney and Angelle Sampey as the third woman to earn a third crown.

Overshadowed was the fact that Jianna Salinas had missed the 16-bike bracket six times, sat out two races, and won only two rounds but won the event – and knocked out the top three championship contenders to do it.

Steve Torrence won his second consecutive Top Fuel championship Sunday, defeating his nearest challenger at the time, Brittany Force, in the second round. Photo courtesy NHRA/National Dragster

By far the most memorable takeaway from the NHRA Finals at California’s Auto Club Raceway at Pomona was Steve Torrence’s staggering hand-splat on Top Fuel opponent Cameron Ferré’s kisser in round one.

Right behind it on the list were Hight’s final-round mishap that sparked a heated conversation between his boss John Force and NHRA Senior Vice-President of Racing Operations Josh Peterson, Matt Smith’s bonus payout and bribery attempt in Pro Stock Motorcycle eliminations, and Greg Anderson’s successful-but-unsuccessful manipulation of the qualifying order that top-starter Jeg Coughlin referred to as “treachery” and “shenanigans.”

It was a Wild West-style free-for-all affair, some of which was just plain wrong and potentially dangerous, some of which was harmless enough, some of which bordered on the unethical, and some of which showed the NHRA has its priorities out of whack.

All of the above apply to the Torrence-Ferré incident at the top end of the track.

Photo courtesy NHRA/National Dragster

It brought up the occasional debate about whether physical assault that occurs in a sporting event is actionable, whether it is subject to legal judgment. What leaped to mind is the recent NFL fight at the close of the Cleveland Browns-Pittsburgh Steelers game. But we have seen hockey fights and baseball brawls, and NASCAR slugfests. And, of course, long before the Internet and social media, sports fans have witnessed targeted, genuine violence – à la Juan Marichal’s clubbing of Johnny Roseboro’s head with a baseball bat in 1965, Detroit Tiger Dick McAuliffe’s attack on Chicago White Sox pitcher Tommy John in 1968 that separated John’s shoulder, Kermit Washington’s nearly deadly punch that delivered massive head injuries to fellow NBA player Rudy Tomjanovich in 1977, and Oakland Raider Jack Tatum’s paralyzing hit on Darryl Stingley the next year in a meaningless preseason football game.

It’s peculiar that the NHRA showed absolutely no sense of outrage at the Torrence-Ferré encounter. Publicly, it was silent until Monday afternoon, when it issued this tepid statement: “The NHRA is disappointed in the situation that occurred between Steve Torrence and Cameron Ferre after the first round of Top Fuel competition at the Auto Club NHRA Finals. We are evaluating the matter and any potential penalties will be assessed after a thorough review.” Privately Sunday, at the racetrack, an NHRA official visited the Terry Haddock Racing pit of Ferré and, according to credible Dragzine sources, told Haddock and Ferré the sanctioning body had no plans to reprimand Torrence and that Haddock and Ferré were not to discuss the matter with media or the public. It doesn’t sound like the NHRA conducted or completed any “thorough review” before that edict.

But really? The NHRA “is disappointed” with what happened? Well, many of us “are disappointed” that we’re not skinnier, richer, better-looking, and driving a Ferrari around town. So what? But that’s the best the NHRA can do? Honestly?

A certain amount of insults and verbal rivalries spice up the sport. They show emotion, convey excitement and passion for the sport, and, frankly, are entertaining. But hitting somebody ought to be punished in some way.

As marvelous a show as Steve Torrence put on in 2018, as much as he plowed through a second straight championship season even when it didn’t look like he had all the momentum of the year before, as much as he overcame a heart attack and childhood cancer just to be healthy enough to race, as much as his straight talk is refreshing, as likeable and charming as he can be, as much as he loves the sport and works hard to excel at it, and as strong as his values are, Steve Torrence did something wrong and should be subject to some consequence.

Now, what he did was not even close to being on the level of what Marichal, McAuliffe, Washington, and Tatum did to their targets. But something as simple as deep-staging (which Ferré has the right to do, as does any other drag racer) is immaterial. Nothing justifies crossing a line into physical attack. Ferré could have suffered a serious injury. We have no indication he did, but a nose, mouth, or neck injury could have occurred.

It’s debatable what punishment fits the crime: suspension? fine? points deduction? That, too, might be moot, as the NHRA was slow to react at all, not even making a statement at the very least that it doesn’t condone physical altercations.

Cameron Ferre, racing at his home track, found himself on the receiving end of Steve Torrence’s open hand following their first round Top Fuel matchup.

Then again, maybe the NHRA does condone it. We know about several fistfights in the pits involving prominent racers. Maybe the NHRA condones a number of unprofessional behaviors. Evidently the NHRA would rather “suspend indefinitely” three-time Top Fuel champion Larry Dixon for a misunderstanding about a meaningless, expired safety sticker on a dragster on display at a trade show – not at a racetrack – than reprimand a prominent racer, a champion, for striking an opponent with his hand. Dixon is reinstated now, President Glen Cromwell acknowledged, though the organization never has announced that publicly. In 2008, it fined team owner Don Schumacher $100,000 – a record penalty – for allegedly using unapproved fuel. And, like Dixon, Schumacher didn’t hit anybody. But one racer hits another because of starting-line gamesmanship and nothing happens but a rather lame response?

It’s dumbfounding that Sunday, NHRA executive Peterson was quick to confront Hight following his long, smoky, fan-pleasing, final-round burnout that ended up kicking the rods out of the engine that left Hight no choice but to abandon his car mid-track and give Jack Beckman a solo pass to win the race. Peterson questioned Hight’s reason for exiting the disabled car, even before Hight knew what caused his car simply to quit running. But the competition boss didn’t intervene in the Torrence-Ferré scrap.

The NHRA is revenue-driven. Maybe it figured if it can’t get the racers to stop fighting, people are going to keep buying tickets. And maybe it figured Torrence would be mad enough about a punishment and his family would sell its two dragsters and go home to Kilgore, Texas, and not return. And they need the car counts elevated.

Greg Anderson successfully positioned himself 15th in the Pro Stock qualifying order, intentionally creating a date with points leader Erica Enders in the opening stanza. His hopes of assisting teammate Jason Line in winning the championship were dashed by a matter of inches.

A certain amount of insults and verbal rivalries spice up the sport. They show emotion, convey excitement and passion for the sport, and, frankly, are entertaining. But hitting somebody ought to be punished in some way. And after that, everybody ought to be quiet about it and talk about something else. And Steve Torrence should be able to get on with his career after paying the fine or serving the “sentence” or whatever the penalty happens to involve.

If people don’t want to cheer for him anymore, they don’t have to. This is America. This is drag racing. It isn’t the Fellowship of Christian Athletes – besides, Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.

NHRA bans aren’t always terribly effective, anyway. Decades ago, Connie Kalitta was “banned for life” from NHRA activities. But here he is, a key player in the sport today and has been for years. Funny Car racer Bob Gilbertson got the same lifetime ban for a non-racing pit incident, but the NHRA overruled its decision. Same for Pro Stock’s Jerry Eckman. All those reinstatements, by the way, were positive moves.

Reigning Pro Stock Motorcycle champion Matt Smith put a $1,000 bounty on points leader Andrew Hines. Jianna Salinas, in shocking fashion, collected the money in round one, but turned down additional money when the two met in the semifinals. Photo courtesy NHRA/National Dragster

The NHRA truly should be self-aware enough to protect its brand. It should have denounced physical violence/physical contact if for no other reason than to protect itself and its message – and to protect itself in case of legal action. It constantly talks about safety. Is that just for the cars or for the drivers, too? Ferré probably didn’t feel his safety was valued. Had he gotten a chance to swing at Torrence – which he might not have intended to do – Torrence would have the same argument about his safety.

And the NHRA should be capable of denouncing actions detrimental to the sport without destroying the individual in question.

Torrence contends he was provoked. Maybe he was – we don’t know because Torrence won’t reveal what Ferré said and Ferré is under a gag order. McAuliffe and Marichal thought they had been provoked, too. But that never justifies crossing a line and harming someone physically.

Before that run, he said, ‘You know what you need to do to get five grand?’ And in my head, I was thinking, ‘Well, is $5,000 really beating you? And at the end of the day it’s not. I’d do anything for that run. And I made it happen. – Jianna Salinas

Steve Torrence would do well to control his emotions – like probably 90-percent of the people reading and publishing this remark. No one is perfect, and that’s not being an apologist for Torrence. It’s reality. Funny Car racer John Hale said in a social-media post that “most are way overthinking this” situation, and he’s probably right.

So enough about that. Maybe it’s time to cock an eyebrow at Greg Anderson’s plan to manipulate the qualifying order to be in position to defeat Erica Enders in the first round. Nice try. It didn’t work. She beat him. But the amazing part of it is that Anderson took a risk and he pulled it off and started 15th. He could have played that game and wound up 16th or been bumped altogether if somebody else ran quicker. After all, anchor Joey Grose’s qualifying time was only three-thousandths of a second slower than Anderson’s. Ultimately, the four-time champ’s gamble didn’t pay off.

Pro Stock Motorcycle race winner Jianna Salinas took a gamble – and won. She received a $1,000 “bonus” from outgoing class champion Matt Smith for defeating leader Andrew Hines in the first round. But she gained more by not accepting the second part of Smith’s offer. He had said she’d get a grand if she could eliminate Hines and another $5,000 if he went on to win the race and, consequently, a repeat title.

Jianna Salinas, in one of the most unlikely upsets in recent memory, defeated all three championship challengers to earn her first carer Pro Stock Motorcycle victory.

Salinas and Smith wound up facing each other in the semifinal. She said, “Before that run, he said, ‘You know what you need to do to get five grand?’ And in my head, I was thinking, ‘Well, is $5,000 really beating you? And at the end of the day it’s not. I’d do anything for that run. And I made it happen.” She beat Smith, then won as Jerry Savoie’s bike broke in the other lane to receive a payout bigger than Smith’s enticement.

But it all raises the question about whether offering bribes is permissible – like deep-staging or sandbagging to set up race-day pairings. After all, ultimate champion Hines said he isn’t opposed to putting a bounty on Smith’s head someday maybe.

So no matter what, it was a crazy weekend in the Finals. It was like watching the season finale of a favorite TV show and at the end trying to figure out how the cliffhanger will play out when it’s time to tune in again.

About the author

Susan Wade

Celebrating her 45th year in sports journalism, Susan Wade has emerged as one of the leading drag-racing writers with 20 seasons at the racetrack. She was the first non-NASCAR recipient of the prestigious Russ Catlin Award and has covered the sport for the Chicago Tribune, Newark Star-Ledger, St. Petersburg Times, and Seattle Times. Growing up in Indianapolis, motorsports is part of her DNA. She contributes to Power Automedia as a freelancer writer.
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