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Drag Racing Story of the Day!

This Rule Would Change Everything!

It costs nothing, could be implemented nationwide in thirty
minutes, and would instantaneously turn drag racing into
the most exciting form of motorsports on the planet!

An observation by Bret Kepner

Reprinted courtesy of Inside Motorsports

Hugh Scott's unintentional wheelie could become standard fare under Bret Kepner's new rule! Photo by Mon Mussiett
Hugh Scott gets all four off the ground. Photo by Mon Mussiett

I admit I've kept it to myself for well over a decade. It initially occurred to me around 1985, when I first fell victim to the "good old days" virus, which perpetuates itself throughout drag racing in, roughly, ten-year intervals. At that point, it had become a fact that the sport was vastly different from the one in which I'd become immersed seventeen years prior before, in 1970, attending my first event. That race, the inaugural NHRA Summernationals held at York U.S. 30 Drag-o-way in central Pennsylvania, featured the last Top Fuel victory for a Ford-powered dragster, (front-engined, of course), a 214 mph world record AA/Funny Car pass, and one of the very first nine-second runs by a Pro Stock Eliminator vehicle...a class, I might add, which was less than six months old. However, before my digression becomes regression, allow me to clarify my basic drag racing philosophy.

I am not a nostalgia drag racing freak. I embrace every aspect of the sport...intentionally...as an integral part of the whole, from bracket racing to BB/Funny Cars, (back when they burned gasoline or after morphing into Pro Comp and TAFC versions), AHRA Formula Stock to Super Eliminator, (both NHRA and IHRA versions), UDRA Unlimited Pro Stock to Econo Modified, (both Super Stock magazine and IHRA versions), blown gas coupes to rocket go-karts, M/Stockers to D/Mini Experimentals, Outlaw imports to B/Fuel Coupes, Pro Gas to Pro 5.0, and jet dragsters to Junior Dragsters. In fact, I remain emotionally attached to only two drag racing classifications; my love of Super Stock/A machinery is relatively well known and my infatuation with AA/Fuel Altereds, retro or modern, is entering its thirty-second year. Although I enjoy and closely follow nostalgia racing, eventually it becomes clear that it will never quite reproduce those distant memories because it simply cannot recapture the exhilaration of watching something new.

This season, I attended my two-thousandth event. Through thirty years of drag races, I endured repeated bouts with that dreaded virus. Lately, however, I find it infecting fans of only a few seasons of the sport. Easily spotted, the carriers always display the initial symptom...boredom. Once the disease works its way to the brain, victims involuntarily spout the phrase, "I remember when...", and their fate is sealed.

In fact, the progress made by our sport, from Santa Ana to Indy 2000, has created a spectacle which, by its very nature, is anything but monotonous. Why, then, do we see apathy displayed by everyone from fifty-year veterans to local rookie sportscasters attending their first event?

In 1985, the answer became clear. A decade and a half later, it remains the only solution.

The problem can be found not in the product, but in its presentation. If you, the reader, have just winced in anticipation of marketing lecture or oildown debate, slowly release your grip on this tabloid and exhale. With this plan, drag racing would become the talk of the motorsports world overnight. Think I'm kidding?

Imagine a sport that would become the most exciting form of auto racing ever conceived. It should be easy, because drag racing once was exactly that. It must have been, because the carriers of "good old daysitis" never shut up about it. What made the sport so appealing? What ingredients lured so many for so many years?

For some, the attraction was close competition. For others, it was technical innovation. Still more enjoyed the color and diversity. For a huge percentage of lifetime fans, it took only drag racing's renowned smoke and thunder to set the hook.

Each of those aspects is readily available in 21st century drag racing. Close, colorful, smoky, diverse and innovative drag racing can be found in any association that hosts an event. With the exceptional of muffled cars, (and in some cases, regardless of), the thunder is omnipresent. I'll entertain no arguments of the 90% nitro regulations. Take your mother to a fuel race, and I'll guarantee Mom will plug her ears just prior to her lecture about your impending deafness.

So, what's missing?

Since 1985, I've shared the solution with only a handful of close friends, each of whom knows I'm deadly serious about the worldwide consequences of the enactment of the rule. Yet, only after IMS publisher Scott Sparrow heard it for the first time did I consider making public that solution. Still, it took several months before I agreed to pen this article. Aware that I would repeatedly violate my vow to never use the pronoun "I" in a story, he insisted that the IMS readership would take seriously the one rule that would transform the indifference into rapture. Eventually, I believed him.

I remembered the almost giddy look of excitement on the face of one of my best friends, the late, great chassis builder Gary Hajek, who would turn to me and speak the three words of the rule whenever he finished watching a category of drag racing which he believed fell far short of its potential entertainment value. I thought of close friend and fellow announcer Ed O'Reilly shaking his head when he first heard the rule, and, while gazing off in the distance, saying, "That really would change everything." I remembered Jeff Burk, who instantly made it his credo and vowed to start a national revolt to invoke the rule. I chuckled when I recalled chassis builder Tim McAmis' look of astonishment and his elegantly simple response of "My God!" Sparrow, who first heard the rule over the phone, replied with silence followed by an elongated "Geeeeez!" and laughter which, translated to a living language, meant, "Why hasn't about DONE anything about this?"

The missing ingredient is violence. For most who became fans of drag racing, the sheer, uncontrollable violence of the machines they witnessed seemingly being wrestled to the finish line differentiated straight-line action from any other in auto racing. It truly was an ingredient; when mixed with the aforementioned close, colorful, smoky, diverse and innovative aspects, it became an undeniable thrill. It seems, however, that "good old daysitis" is merely the lamenting of the loss of that violence. Drag racing 2000 is, quite simply, controlled mayhem. The evolution of technology has allowed the gradual dissipation of that bedlam to be perceived by both novice and hardcore fans. Most of us know better; driving a supercharged, nitro-burning Funny Car is still a job capable of being performed by few. A six-second Pro Stock effort requires precision in every millisecond of the run. Predicting the performance of a SS/BA '69 427 Camaro, and then making it run the number, is a task which still boggles the mind of even experienced fans.

However, each gives the illusion of being totally under control.

Even recent fans can suffer from the virus. Just about anybody can recall moments from the past when drag racing cars were not at all under control. As recently as the early 1990s, classes of vehicles that had to be fought, rather than driven, thrilled spectators and dominated the media. In nearly every instance, those divisions gradually developed the illusion of control...and quickly lost the following they had gained.

In 1985, I was able to trace the problem to a solitary piece of equipment. Used in nearly every class of competition, it was the obstacle to the return to that violence which technology had erased. While becoming an essential component in the pursuit of control, it robbed the sport of the one image held by the mainstream, which exemplified the outrageous characteristics of what they perceived to be a drag racing car. Without that single component, drag racing could, at once, enthrall its hardcore following while electrifying a totally new audience around the world. In a flash, the sport would become the most awe-inspiring motorsport from both live-action and televised perspectives. Instantly, the sport would offer drama and conflict in every single match in nearly every single category.

Armed with that vision, I envisioned three simple words that, if applied to the sport as a regulation, would change it forever.

No wheelie bars.

Although the rule would not radically change the complexion of Top Fuel Eliminator, every other division, (with the exception of Stock Eliminator, where bars are currently not permitted), would become an instant spectacle. Without wheelie bars, it would be years before anyone gained any significant advantage. Funny Car Eliminator? You don't know the meaning of the word "extreme". Pro Stock? No human could pick a winner in any pair. Pro Modified? Bring your video camera and as many tapes as you can carry. Pro Stock Truck? Folks would drive overnight to witness two of 'em in a match race. Any motorcycle rider, from Larry McBride to David Schultz to your hometown track's 8.50 racers, would be heralded as a god.

Picture it, if you can. The real drivers would become instantly identifiable and would legitimately earn legend status. With Top Fuel providing the headlining elapsed times and speeds, every other class would offer action beyond belief. Super Stock Eliminator just might become a commodity capable of drawing crowds on its own...again. Think A/Econo Altereds are unimpressive? Not anymore. Thinking about walking away when the Super Gassers run? Think again. No time to head for the restroom...alcohol Funny Car is coming up.

I talked to two friends with whom I had shared the rule over ten years ago. Like virtually all other drivers and builders with whom I'd discussed the plausibility of the concept, neither could offer any reasons why it couldn't be imposed. Gary Hajek had often mentioned that only those who lacked the confidence to attempt it would refuse to do it. Rex Stevens, the builder/driver of the incredibly scary Speed Sport Roadster 200-mph rear-engined dragster/altered roadster, the equally wild Dawson's Demon '34 Ford AA/Fuel Altered, and numerous fuel dragsters and funny cars, felt even more strongly.

"I'd be up for it," Rex said with a grin. "It sure would even things out! If you weren't on your game, you'd never make it in that kind of racing. It would be ALL up to the driver. A lot of the cars I've driven over the years without bars were always capable of 'going over', and it takes a lot of skill to use up as little of the lane as possible. I'm not sure many guys could do that anymore. The chassis builders would eventually be responsible for making the cars work well, but it would be a fine line to walk. Heck, the door cars rely on them so heavily, it would be outrageous. Certainly, we wouldn't want to see anybody get hurt, but that would all come down to the drivers who would 'leg it' too far. But, I'd say 'Step right up'. Let's see who can do this."

Bill Kuhlmann, who has driven every configuration of ill-handling passenger car, agreed that, without wheelie bars, getting a car to the finish line would be pure work. "It's such a simple concept with such bizarre complications", Kuhlmann admitted. "Nitro Coupes would be pretty darned hard to keep down. A run would become equal parts driving and hanging on. I'd like it, but I think I would have the ability to do it. A lot of people might just say, 'No way'. They would probably be the ones who shouldn't try it, either! Eventually, people would get it figured out...for the most part, anyway. It would still change everything about the sport forever. It would turn it back into a driver's game."

If that's the case, why shouldn't it be considered? Every major class configuration in drag racing, from Top Fuel to Funny Car to Pro Stock, began its evolution with a seemingly out-of-control, wheelstanding ancestor that remains the standard of the sport's excitement. Only when those configurations were tamed did the boredom set in, driving the fans to the newest incarnation.

When Top Sportsman became the rage, it was because of its violence. The initial Pro Street/Super Street drag racing movement earned nationwide popularity because of wheelstanding launches and sideways runs which, when subdued into tranquility with wheelie bars, quickly severed the majority of its following. The Midwest-based Outlaw Super Stocks, however, intentionally retained those trademark leaps off the line and remain one of the sole booked-in versions of the class it helped create.

Why, twenty-five years after his retirement, does "Wild Willie" Borsch remain an icon of drag racing even to fans who never witnessed one of his runs? It's certainly not because of national event victories.

It is simply due to photos, film, and legends of his ability to drive a nitro-burning machine in any direction in order to get to the finish line while traveling at 200 mph... and by proving he could do it by driving with only one hand on the steering wheel. Willie was the epitome of "guts overcoming violence". He was many people's perception of true drag racing.

The WWF markets its product based on guts, violence, drama, and competition.

The NFL markets its product based on guts, violence, drama, and competition.

NASCAR markets its product based on guts, violence, drama, and competition.

No wheelie bars.

Here's our chance to outdo 'em all.

Bret Kepner

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