Sizing up the (not quite) quarter-mile

Peltz is a Times staff writer.

The 320 feet at the end of drag racing’s traditional quarter-mile tracks also is at the center in the NHRA’s controversial effort to curb fatal crashes in the sport.

After accidents that killed drivers Scott Kalitta and Eric Medlen and nearly killed drag racing legend John Force, the NHRA this summer shortened races to 1,000 feet from 1,320 feet, or quarter-mile.

The move, unprecedented in the National Hot Rod Assn.'s 57-year history, applied to funny cars and top-fuel dragsters -- the fastest cars in its premier Powerade Series -- which were reaching peak speeds of 330 mph.


Races of 1,000 feet -- in which the cars are still traveling nearly a football field per second -- remain in effect as the sport ends its season today with final eliminations at the Auto Club Finals in Pomona.

The NHRA said Friday it also would retain the shorter distance at least through early 2009. In the meantime, it plans a series of tests to see if there are other ways to slow cars, such as by manipulating their engines.

But if the effort fails, there’s a strong possibility the distance would remain 1,000 feet, mainly to give drivers an extra 320 feet to slow down when problems arise.

That has divided the drag racing community and raised questions about whether the sport would have to start keeping separate sets of records for each distance. The 1,000-foot races so far haven’t been eligible for the record books.

“We owe it to the founding fathers in this sport to go back to the quarter-mile,” said funny car driver Cruz Pedregon, though he acknowledged it’s “a double-edged sword” because teams are growing accustomed to the shorter distance.

“My crew chief doesn’t want to change anything,” he said.

Fans also are split. “The hard-core fan is set with tradition and believes we should go back to 1,320 as soon as possible,” said Graham Light, head of the NHRA’s racing operations. “The casual motor sports fan, and certainly the new fan, seem very pleased with 1,000 feet.”

But Light said that “while the tradition of the sport is important, safety is more important.”

“We have to do what’s in the best interests of the sport long term, and if that means staying at 1,000 feet forever, then that’s what we would do,” Light said.

Yet he also noted that the NHRA realizes that 300 mph is a number that appeals to fans, and “when we say slowing them down, we’re not talking about them going 250 mph.”

“It’s ratcheting the power back slightly to a more manageable, hopefully less expensive, combination that runs a quarter of a mile at 300, 305 mph,” he said.

Team owner Don Schumacher said he can live with 1,000 feet. “For safety reasons that’s perfectly fine,” he said. “If they go to 1,000 feet and stay at 1,000 feet for the rest of our lives, there will just be a new set of records. I’m comfortable either way the NHRA goes.”

Saturday qualifying

Rookie Mike Neff led final funny car qualifying with a pass of 4.079 seconds and 305.49 mph. But point leader Pedregon, Tim Wilkerson, Neff’s teammate Robert Hight, and Cruz’s brother Tony Pedregon probably will decide the funny car title in today’s eliminations.

Tony Schumacher, who won his fifth consecutive top fuel title two weeks ago, led that class’ qualifying with a run of 3.827 seconds and 315.93 mph.

Jeg Coughlin Jr. clinched his second consecutive pro stock title, and fourth overall, by qualifying 13th. He needed only to reach the eliminations to win the championship.

Greg Anderson led pro stock qualifiers, and Matt Smith topped qualifying in pro stock motorcycles.



Auto Club NHRA Finals

Where: Auto Club Raceway, Pomona

When: Final eliminations, today, 11 a.m.; gates open 7:30 a.m.