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NHRA determined to bolster driver safety in wake of Kalitta's death

The death of popular driver Scott Kalitta prompted the NHRA to shorten the race distance in Top Fuel and Funny Car from 1,320 feet to 1,000 feet. NHRA

KENT, Wash. -- Seven years ago, NASCAR reached a point that death became intolerable. Whatever had to be done to stop it would be done. Everyone in the sport came together for that one purpose.

Hopefully, that's where the NHRA is today. Two deaths in 15 months, and one serious injury that almost claimed the sport's biggest star, have changed the perspective of everyone who competes in professional drag racing.

It took the death of legend Dale Earnhardt for NASCAR to make dramatic safety changes. Earnhardt was the fourth NASCAR driver in a nine-month span to lose his life in a crash.

Funny Car driver Scott Kalitta didn't have Earnhardt's lofty status in racing, but like Earnhardt, his death last month has become a catalyst for change.

"This one finally has put us over the edge," said Funny Car driver Gary Scelzi, a four-time NHRA champion. "And for the first time, I honestly believe everyone is going to work as a group.

"That didn't happen in the past, and it's why things didn't get done. But it's different now. We all want to make changes. No one is bickering."

Complaints were few when the NHRA announced the most dramatic change in league history after Kalitta's death -- shortening the race distance from a quarter mile to 1,000 feet for Top Fuel and Funny Car, a 320-foot difference.

Imagine the NBA lowering the basket to 8 feet or the NFL deciding to play on a 75-yard field. That gives you some idea of what a big decision this was for the NHRA, but it was the right thing to do as an interim step to make the racing safer.

"If it changes everything and costs us winning another championship, I don't care," said Tony Schumacher, who has won the past four Top Fuel titles. "We can't keep losing drivers."

This weekend's Schuck's Auto Supply Nationals at Pacific Raceways is the second event since NHRA has gone to 1,000 feet.

The shorter distance didn't seem to change much for the event at Denver last weekend. Schumacher in Top Fuel and Tim Wilkerson in Funny Car, the drivers who have dominated their classes all season, won at Bandimere Speedway on the shorter layout.

"We've been racing to 1,000 feet for years and hanging on for the last 320," said Austin Coil, John Force's crew chief for all 14 of his Funny Car championships. "This just gives everyone more time to slow down."

If anything, the reduction from the traditional quarter-mile pass made the racing closer. Pulling away from a car on the top end of the track didn't happen much. And fewer cars were blowing up because engines' parts weren't expiring before the end of a run.

"I love drag racing,'' Schumacher said. "We all do. But we get in these cars and risk our butts for entertainment. We all have kids at home. I don't want to get in the car and know there's a one-in-30 chance I'm not coming home."

The NHRA's safety record compares favorably to other racing leagues'. In the top three pro categories (Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock), six drivers have lost their lives in NHRA accidents in the past 25 years.

NASCAR has had 13 deaths since 1983, but none since Earnhardt was killed in 2001. The SAFER Barrier, head and neck restraints, better seat construction and now the new Cup car (designed with numerous safety changes) all have contributed to safer racing.

But it took that tragic moment at the Daytona 500 when Earnhardt lost his life for the sport to take a new approach. The NHRA has reached that crossroads.

Eric Medlen's death last year in an accident at Gainesville, Fla., was the first Funny Car fatality in the NHRA in 38 years. Changes were made to the structure of the cars. But concerns grew when Force, the NHRA's most recognized and celebrated racer, was seriously injured in a crash at Ennis, Texas, last September.

Kalitta's death came after a fiery engine explosion blew the parachutes off his car, causing it to speed through the sand trap and netting at the end of the track. The car slammed into a wall and a camera tower beyond the runoff area.

The accident brought into focus the problem many NHRA facilities have with the shutdown area being too short. Some tracks don't have adequate measures to keep the cars away from hard barriers at the end of the pavement.

With that in mind, NHRA officials reduced the race distance, but it may be temporary. Shortening the race is treating the symptom.

Kenny Bernstein, a team owner and retired six-time NHRA champion, said the illness is the speed and power of the nitro-burning cars.

"We have to slow these cars down,'' Bernstein said. "And we have to reduce the bomb we're making in these engines. Until we figure all that out, racing at 1,000 feet was the right move."

The NHRA is examining five areas of concern where changes could be implemented:

• Engine failures that lead to explosions.

• Parachute-mounting techniques and materials that are more fire-resistant.

• Braking efficiency when cars lose downforce if the Funny Car body comes off the car.

• Shutdown areas at all racetracks.

• The impact of reducing speeds.

Parachute mounts must be improved to ensure the chutes don't come loose, but the key point here is to slow down the cars. Speed in excess of 330 mph, which happens now in both nitro divisions, is too fast to compete safely.

I love drag racing. We all do. But we get in these cars and risk our butts for entertainment. We all have kids at home. I don't want to get in the car and know there's a one-in-30 chance I'm not coming home.

-- Tony Schumacher

"Our safety record is phenomenal," said Graham Light, the NHRA's senior vice president of racing operations. "But one tragedy is too many. We are looking at everything to make the cars safer and the racetracks safer. But the main thing is we need to pull back on the speed of these cars."

The era of NHRA record setting for speed and elapsed time is over. Speed records have long been a thing of the past in NASCAR and IndyCar racing.

But it hasn't decreased fan interest, and it won't in the NHRA. As is often the case in racing, slower speeds mean closer competition.

Figuring out how to reduce speeds isn't easy. There are dozens of ways to do it, but finding the best solution and getting everyone to agree on it is the hard part.

The NHRA named a task force, headed by NHRA director Dan Olson, to determine what changes are needed. Coil is on the committee, as is Wilkerson and veteran Funny Car driver Jim Head.

The other members are Alan Johnson (crew chief for Schumacher), Jon Oberhofer (crew chief for Top Fuel racer Doug Kalitta, Scott's cousin and teammate) and Mark Oswald (crew chief for Funny Car driver Melanie Troxel).

These drag-racing think tanks have met before, but its members usually bickered about what to do and how to do it.

"They're going to get it done this time," Scelzi said. "Whether it's lowering compression, reducing the fuel-pump pressure, whatever.

"These crew chiefs don't want to be told what to do to slow these things down. They're going to come up with a way, tell NHRA what they want, and I think the NHRA is going to listen."

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.