New oil-down rule a dirty trick?

November, 11, 2010

Imagine saying in Game 7 of the World Series the new rule is two strikes and you're out. Or making a change for the Super Bowl to say offensive holding is a 25-yard penalty.

Essentially, that's what the NHRA is doing to the competitors racing for a championship this weekend in the season finale at Pomona, Calif.

NHRA officials announced last week increased penalties for this event involving oil downs -- a car dropping oil on the track during a run, causing a cleanup that delays the event.

And the drivers still in the championship hunt don't like it one bit.

"They let everybody put oil on the track all year long," said Funny Car driver Matt Hagan, who leads John Force by only 37 points entering the last race. "And now for one race you're going to try to change everything.

"We're trying to win championships out here. We have to push these cars to the limits."

Push too hard and they'll have a problem if the car leaves oil on the racing surface.

Under the new rules, a team depositing oil on the track for any qualifying or elimination round will result in a loss of the elapsed time and miles per hour for that run.

In qualifying, the time will be voided for all purposes. In the eliminations on Sunday, the time will be voided for the purpose of lane choice, national records and low ET or speed.

If the violating team wins the round, it still will advance and maintain the points earned. But each infraction will carry a monetary fine. The first violation will cost $2,500 and a second violation will cost an additional $5,000.

"I hope to God you don't see a championship decided by penalties,'' said seven-time Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher, who enters the Pomona event 85 points behind Larry Dixon. "If you go out there, break a throttle cable, oil down the track and it costs you a championship; it just shouldn't be that way."

NHRA officials felt they had to take action to increase the penalties after the Las Vegas event two weeks ago had several oil downs that caused long delays, frustrating fans and competitors.

The series also must adhere to strict noise curfews in Pomona. Runs are not permitted at night.

"Championships are being decided," said NHRA vice president Graham Light. "It would be impossible to finish the event in a timely fashion if the delays due to oil were to continue at the same rate they have the last several races.

"We wanted to create a strong policy that would ensure the teams make every effort to contain oil, while not significantly impacting the outcome of the championships."

But some of the competitors feel it already has impacted the championship. Force wants to try to set a national record, which is worth 20 points and would help him catch Hagan. But it means setting the car up on the edge and increasing the risk of dropping oil on the track.

"You have to push your motor and that could mean breakage," Force said. "You could lose points."

No points penalty is involved, but that's misleading if the ET for a possible national record run is thrown out.

"That is points," Force said. "But we have a game plan and we're going to drive the race car the way we always did. I don't even want to know about the rules. If I get to thinking about that, I'll never get through this race."

But Force said he can see the NHRA's point of view on the change.

"They had to do something," he said. "I understand that."

Is this a step too far?

"All of the oil downs are not our fault," Schumacher said. "Yeah, we blow stuff up, but there are some rough tracks that lend themselves for a lot more oil downs.

"We don't have the privilege of saying, 'Hey, if the track is rough, we'd like to fine the NHRA.' ''

NHRA officials say the rule changes are for this event only. Decisions on oil downs for 2011 will come after offseason evaluations.

For now, the contenders will have to adjust on the run while battling for a championship.

"Sometimes we push these motors too far and they put oil on the track," Hagan said. "It just happens when you deal with this much horsepower."

Terry Blount

ESPN Staff Writer



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