What will 2011 bring?

Unfortunately I do not have a crystal ball nor can I read the future.  If I could, I’d be on a beach sipping those umbrella drinks after hitting the lottery. I do have some questions though as the 2011 racing season is about to get underway.

The top question, as it has been now for five years, can anyone dethrone Jimmie Johnson as the Nascar Sprint Cup Champion? The answer of course is yes they can but the second question is WILL they!

Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle would have to be my top four choices to have the best chance to do what seems impossible anymore. There are several others that could also come through.

Next, will the changes at Hendrick payoff in Dale Earnhardt, Jr. finally being competitive every week and break his two plus year victory drought? Don’t have a clue.

Over in IndyCar, will someone other than Penske and Ganassi battle for the series title?  The other teams are improving but have yet to prove they are in the league of the Big Two.

Speaking of Ganassi, does he dominate the Grand-Am Rolex Series Daytona Prototype class again? Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas were almost untouchable in 2010 and testing at Daytona for the Rolex 24 is showing they are just as strong right now.

Over in ALMS, I’m just having trouble keeping track of all the classes. Will it be Patron Highcroft for a third straight year taking the LMP crown?

The NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series had two great stories in 2010.  60 plus year old John Force coming from behind to claim his 15th Funny Car title and rookie L.E. Tonglet going from almost done for the season to taking the Pro Bike title. 

NHRA also had three tragic stories with the death of a fan and two drivers.

I have no clue who is going to claim the title in any of the 4 pro divisions but hopefully all four will be as competitive as Funny Car has been.

I am looking forward to kicking off the season taking in all the action at Daytona from the Rolex 24 through the Daytona 500 as I’m privileged to be part of the PA crew there.

Let’s just all hope that each and every racing series that we enjoy keeps us on the edge of our seats until the final checkered flag falls.

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Crisis time for the NHRA

Mark Niver For the second time in a month, a NHRA Top Alcohol Dragster racer has lost his life in an accident.  Sunday at the NHRA Northwest Nationals at Pacific Raceways outside Seattle, 60 year-old Mark Niver from Phoenix suffered fatal injuries when after deploying his parachute to slow his car it detached from the machine slamming him into netting at the end of the track and folding the car.

 

neal Parker Last month at Englishtown, NJ, Neal Parker, 58, of Millville, New Jersey was killed when his car failed to slow after a 250 mile run and crashed into barriers at the end of the track. His parachutes never opened.

Top Fuel Champion Scott Kalitta was also killed at the Englishtown, NJ track in 2008 when his car suffered catastrophic mechanical failure.

In February of this year, a female fan was killed at the NHRA Arizona Nationals at Firebird International Raceway from a tire that came off Top Fuel Dragster Antron Brown’s machine.

Add in 14-time NHRA Champion John Force’s accident at Texas in 2007 that could have claimed his life and the testing accident in March of that same year in Gainesville that did claim the life of John Force Racing driver Eric Medlen and NHRA has a glaring problem which is safety.

Let me state before going any further, racing will never be 100 percent safe. It is an impossibility.  However, one must pursue every option that is available to make the sport as safe as humanly possible!

John Force has made safety almost his religion since the loss of Eric Medlen and his own accident.  Part of that passion is that his daughters Ashley, Brittany and Courtney race as does his son-in-law Robert Hight.

Ford Racing has jumped onboard with the use of their “Blue Box” on all Nitro Top Fuel Dragsters and Funny Cars in NHRA. These data centers collect valuable information in any accident that can help engineers find what went wrong and help them toward a solution to the problem.

NHRA shortened runs in the Nitro division to 1000 feet.  A good move that now must be implemented also in all classes of NHRA competition.

NHRA needs to bring all parties that participate in NHRA, owners, drivers, crew chiefs, technical people, and anyone that has a stake in finding solutions to the table. 

I’d put together a blue ribbon panel of industry experts.  I use the word “industry” to also cover those not involved in NHRA drag racing.  I want the foremost experts in racing wherever they are found.

NHRA must look at the facilities they race at and have a standard that does not waiver from facility to facility. Why aren’t their safer barriers on the track walls? Why aren’t fences in front of spectators higher? Why aren’t there crushable barriers at the end of the runs?

There are a lot of questions that must be asked and NHRA needs to be open and honest when asking them, even if the answers may not be to their liking.

NHRA has a responsibility it can not avoid.  The organization must be forthcoming and transparent as it moves itself into the forefront of racing safety not only in drag racing but in the world. Let’s all hope they become obsessed with safety so we can all smile at the end of a race weekend instead of shedding tears.

Fan friendly? Nascar could learn from NHRA!

SREMP_Crowd_01 This past Friday I spent the day at the NHRA Summit Racing Equipment Nationals at nearby Norwalk, Ohio. To be honest, and as hard as this is to believe by many that know me and my involvement in motorsports, it was my very first time to be at a NHRA event! How that happened I have no clue since I did once live and work in Indianapolis where the U.S. Nationals are held every year.

Conversely, I’ve been to many Nascar races at such places as Daytona, Indianapolis, Michigan, Phoenix and Talladega.

One touts itself as “fan friendly.” (Nascar) The other (NHRA) doesn’t pound its chest and says “Look at me!  I’m fan friendly!” It’s Nascar that can learn from NHRA what fan friendly really means.

“Nitro Alley” is where all the teams set up shop around their haulers.  No special credential is needed to enter.  Let me say that again, NO SPECIAL CREDENTIAL IS NEEDED TO ENTER. You purchase a ticket and you have up close and personal access to all the competitors.

I spent most of the day with the John Force Racing team as I also in fair full disclosure, do freelance work for Ford Racing.

P6250010 I saw the 14-time NHRA Champion time after time go to the ropes and sign autographs and take pictures with fans whenever he could. He’d even stop sometimes while on his famous scooter and sign and autograph or two on his way to watch daughters Brittany and Courtney compete in the Top Alcohol Fuel dragster class.

P6250033 Defending NHRA Funny Car Champion Robert Hight obviously learned from his boss and father-in-law John Force. Hight also hit the ropes time and time again signing autographs and posing for pictures.

These two weren’t the exception.  I walked up and down Nitro Alley and everywhere I went I saw fans talking to crew members along with the drivers.  Autographs were abundant and if cameras still used film, Kodak would have made a fortune.

Nascar limits access to both the garage area (their Nitro Alley) and pit road.  You can BUY passes to both.  Your ticket only gets you a seat, not access.

I’ve also watched Nascar fans line the fence near the garage area hoping to get the autograph of their favorite driver only to see that driver give as wide a berth as possible to those fans when walking by.

I realize that Nascar is a much bigger series than NHRA but fans are fans everywhere.  They have an emotional link to their favorite drivers.

How many of those fans that were at Norwalk and got an autograph or a picture with their favorite driver went back home and told family and friends about the experience they had? How many also told those same people that they need to go to a NHRA event? How many of those people will heed that advice?

While I see more and more seats empty at Nascar races, NHRA is packed with fans. Maybe it’s time for Nascar to stop thinking how to squeeze another buck out of the race fans and reconnect on a grassroots level to the people that really make the sport possible.

It’s time for Nascar to just not talk the talk but walk the walk when it comes to being “fan friendly.” Hats off to NHRA for doing both.

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