Monday, June 23, 2008

The Ugly Side of Racing

Auto racing, as with many sports, can be a beautiful thing when played to perfection. Watching 20 Formula One cars take a standing start, or 33 Indy Cars accelerating out of turn 4 at Indianapolis, or a single rally car jumping a dirt hill on a narrow forest road, or 43 NASCAR stock cars going as one mass through the turns at Talladega, or watching a team celebrate at Le Mans after a grueling 24 hours of competition can elicit an emotional response that few other things can. However, as with all sports, racing can become ugly. In fact, when auto racing goes wrong, the consequences tend to be far more dire than for any other sport.

Saturday afternoon, we were once again reminded how dangerous the sport can be. NHRA Funny Car driver Scott Kalitta, 26-year veteran of NHRA competition, met his end at the wheel of his machine. As with many of the folks who plant themselves in the tight cockpits of NHRA drag racers, Kalitta went out the way he would have probably preferred: 300 miles per hour in a ball of flame. Many of these NHRA stars are tough competitors and proud human beings, and if they have to go early, they'd rather do it on the job.

Unfortunately, that does not take the sting away for the fans, the fellow crews and drivers, or the driver's family. That sting, after the initial shock of the accident abates, will eventually turn into a discussion on how to fix the problem and learn from the death of a driver.

So, how do we fix the problem? Well, for those of you who are not familiar with Old Bridge Township Raceway, it is in a highly developed part of New Jersey. Englishtown is not far off the New Jersey Turnpike, relatively close to Newark and New York City. Because of this, there is really no opportunity for the track owners to expand the sand trap at the end of the drag strip to better stop a wayward automobile. Unfortunately, this problem exists with many drag racing facilities and the only feasible option may be to simply close facilities like the Englishtown track -- a move that would not thrill traditional fans of the sport.

The other option is to try and slow the cars down, which is also a difficult problem to try and figure out. The only auto racing genre that has successfully capped the speeds of the cars at a reasonable level is IndyCar racing, and that is because they only have one engine supplier and one chassis supplier. Drag racing is all about who can build the better engine and which driver can apply every bit of power in that engine. Typical funny car speeds at the quarter mile exceed 310 mph, and any time the NHRA tries to lower speeds, the engineers find another way to get their speed up.

There is an option C, but it will make observers on the outside question the logic of the sport: do nothing. Many of the hardcore fans and a lot of the drivers accept that death is a possibility in a sport like this and the only reason they still participate is because they've accepted that fact. The lure of the sport for the regular fans is the speed of the cars through the quarter mile. Trying to close tracks or change the cars may help the sport in the end, but the NHRA could alienate its base.

The worst part of the whole thing is that, even if they solve the problem that took Scott Kalitta's life, there is always another problem that hasn't been thought of that might pop up to take someone else. It's all a part of the sport that can be so beautiful, but finds a way to be ugly at the worst possible time.

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