During last weekend’s NHRA New England Nationals qualifying broadcast, NHRA on FOX analysts Brian Lohnes and Tony Pedregon alluded to the potential of Top Fuel and Funny Car returning to the 1/4-mile on a limited basis in the near future, setting off a firestorm of chatter on the worldwide web and inciting statements — many of them unfavorable — from drivers and race teams. Their comments were the first to be made publicly on the topic of 1/4-mile nitro racing by NHRA staff in more than a decade, and that the topic was brought about on an NHRA-produced program gives the rumors a degree of validity.
In the days that have followed, various sources close to the organization have confirmed that the topic is on the table at the NHRA’s Glendora, California offices. NHRA Senior Director of Public Relations and Communications Jessica Hatcher confirmed to Dragzine Wednesday that discussions on the subject have taken place, but declined further comment.
The rumor mill has to this point circulated on a move to 1/4-mile competition only at select venues with the shutdown capacity to safely halt the cars. Phoenix and Gainesville are the two longest tracks on the tour, and Virginia Motorsports Park and Houston Raceway Park are both among the longer tracks overall. Most of the venues check in with around 2,400-2,600-feet of shutdown length, with some slightly longer and others (like Pomona) shorter.
One of the major hurdles the NHRA would have to overcome is containing the speeds that the cars are now capable of attaining over the additional 320-feet. And, whether the tires could withstand such. The organization, through changes to the cars and track prep mixtures, has successfully dialed back speeds in 2019 — Mike Salinas recorded the highest speed of the season at Pomona at 334.30 and John Force did likewise in Funny Car at 333.74, both well short of Robert Hight’s all-time-fast 339.87 mph pass in the fall of 2017. Hight’s blast was faster than any speed ever recorded in the 1/4-mile, surpassing the 337.58 mph speed set by Tony Schumacher in 2005. In September 2017, Dom Lagana clocked the fastest Top Fuel run in history — 338.35 mph — in a 1/4-mile exhibition in Michigan, doing so in 4.485-seconds.
Of course, there’s also the question of cost: significant changes to the team’s programs to convert their combination between 1,000-feet and 1/4-mile could prove too much for both those of greater and lesser funding, at a time when sponsorship is increasingly hard to come by.
Ultimately, the decision may come down to the drivers and team owners, of whom the NHRA has no on-track product without. It should be noted that it was in fact the members of the Professional Racers Owners Organization (PRO), not the NHRA, that drove the decision to shorten the race distance to 1,000-feet at Denver in 2008 in the wake of the tragic death of Scott Kalitta a month earlier.
“The board members of the Professional Racers Owners Organization PRO wholeheartedly and unanimously support this decision,” said then-president Kenny Bernstein when the announcement was made on July 2, 2008. “We want to thank NHRA for listening to our input and suggestions to incorporate these changes. It is not lost on any of us that this constitutes a change in our history of running a quarter-mile, but it’s the most immediate adjustment we can make in the interest of safety which is foremost on everyone’s mind. This may be a temporary change and we recognize it is not the total answer. We will continue to work hand in hand with NHRA to evaluate other methods of making Top Fuel and Funny Car competition safer so that we might return to our quarter-mile racing standard.”
It all begs the question: 12 seasons after the controversial move to shorten the traditional race distance — a move that some still decry and said would mark the end of the NHRA — does it really matter anymore? The NHRA has, in recent years, enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, selling out numerous venues that it had never sold-out previously. Television viewership is likewise on an upward trajectory, and competition is as good as it’s been in a long time.
No longer is this an experiment nor a stopgap safety measure, but rather, it’s become the defacto standard in nitro racing and even boat racing around the globe. Top Fuel has been contested as an NHRA championship eliminator for 55 years, meaning 1,000-foot racing has now been a part of more than 20-percent of its history (nearly 25-percent for Funny Car). Despite what the detractors have been shouting from the rooftops for the last 12 years, the move has had seemingly no long-term ill-effect on the NHRA, its nitro categories, or fan appeal. Ultimately, at what cost might this experiment have on the health of fuel racing, simply to appease a small subset of fans who may or may not buy a ticket anyway?
There is certainly a time and a place for a return to 1/4-mile — namely, when and if sponsorship becomes more plentiful and the NHRA and PRO can agree on cost-cutting measures that would not harm teams in changing their combination. But today isn’t that day, no matter how much we’d all like to see the candles lit for 1,320-feet.