SPEED Quotes: NHRA champ Gary Scelzi Four-time NHRA World champion Gary Scelzi joined Dave Despain on Wind Tunnel with Dave Despain on SPEED Sunday to discuss NHRA’s response and investigation into the death of driver Scott Kalitta. Following are excerpts from the interview.
Dave Despain: It’s a tough subject. NHRA says 1,000-foot races are an interim change … is 1,000 feet the right move in your opinion?
Gary Scelzi: Absolutely without question. I must say, I am not one of NHRA’s boys, obviously, but I have to commend them for what they’re doing. It’s a quick, not a fix, but it was something they could do that wouldn’t cost them a lot of money, not cost the race track owners a lot of money, helping us by giving us another 320 feet. And we’re going to one of the shortest race tracks on the tour in Bandimere, which is a great facility, but we need to come up with something and we need to come up with something quick. I commend them for doing it.
DD: How much does 320 feet matter at 300 miles per hour?
GS: You know the old saying ‘an inch is as good as a mile.’ At Pomona Winter Nationals two years ago, when we won in the semi-finals, I had a chute failure. One panel blew out and took the other chute and wrapped it up and I slid up into the sand trap. I didn’t hit it really hard and we were fortunate enough to come back and win the race. But if I’d had another 50 feet, I’d been able to stop the car. (Del) Worsham’s crash probably wouldn’t have been as bad, either. Tony Bartone in Denver last year … Jerry Toliver in Denver last year had chute failures and had problems getting the chutes up late. Went in the sand trap down there. Three-hundred twenty feet is a lot as a driver. That 320 can be the difference between a lot of car damage to no car damage.
Caller question: Do you think the 1,000 feet change will be permanent?
GS: I don’t know. I think right now, and I spoke to Tom Compton (NHRA president) today, I know no one wants 1000 feet to be permanent. But we’re all behind NHRA for doing it right now. We’re going to do a lot of things that haven’t been done in the past. We’re going to have engineers involved, we’re talking about tire barriers – going back the old fashioned way instead of sand traps and nets. We all want to go a quarter-mile but we want to do it safely. I know that’s the plan. We all want to go back to quarter-mile but for the rest of the year, it’s going to be 1,000 feet. I don’t think the fans will notice the difference – maybe a little on the scoreboard. But as long as it’s good side-by-side racing, I think that’s what we’re all there for.
DD (from email question): With the finish line moved back 320 feet, this brings the disaster zone that much closer to the top-end grandstands. What are your thoughts? He (emailer) worries about fan safety.
GS: It could blow up anywhere on the race track. I’ve blown up 100 feet off the start line and I’ve blown up on the finish line. Anytime you go where you’re running race cars or motor sports, there is a certain amount of danger to the spectator, the driver and anyone else involved. Most of the damage in a Top Fuel engine is done from the 1,000-foot mark on. I think you’re kind of picking at crumbs right now saying things like that. I don’t believe it. I spoke to Jim Head earlier today and Jim seems to think the 1,000 foot thing will save him $150,000 a year on engine damage and things like that. Most of the damage is done from the 1,000 foot to the finish line when you’re really straining on it. A lot of people say crew chiefs will run the engine harder and make the fuse shorter to the 1,000 foot, but the car is still pulling hard at 1,000 foot, which they didn’t normally do at the end of the 1,320 feet. I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of changes to the tune-up but I could be wrong because I’m not a tuner. My opinion is you’re going to see a lot better racing and everyone is getting on the same page. Unfortunately, it’s just taken these accidents that have happened the past couple of years to really get everybody to pay attention and work together.
DD: If you can’t lengthen it, are there other things you can do in the shut-off area to protect drivers?
GS: I spoke to Jim Head because that’s his business. He does government runways and knows all about those kinds of things. I’m not an expert, don’t claim to be, don’t have any idea, but I know the cost of some of those things will be astronomical. So, I don’t know if some of those things can be done. I’ve heard people talking about switches like the Monster Trucks have that can turn the engines off and do different things. With the nitro engines, when you load those cylinders full of nitro at 90-gallon-a-minute fuel pumps on these things at wide-open throttle and you have a malfunction and turn that switch off and turn it back on, you only think you’ve seen an explosion – it will be huge. There are certain things we can do. We can try to make this tire barrier thing work. We all want to go back to quarter-mile. We want to move the scoreboards back maybe to a distance farther away, light poles, things like that, so if we do get in trouble, we don’t hit a permanent object. All these things are being worked on and I have been assured by NHRA they are on it and I believe them with all my heart. One of my good friends with NHRA said, ‘some people don’t think we have a heart, too, and we’re not close to you guys.’ When we lose someone, they (NHRA) feel it, too, and they have children at home and they all know we’re involved. It’s not like they’re a bunch of cold-hearted sanctioning body people. They do care. I really believe, after speaking to Compton and these people, that we’re going to be okay. But the racers have to give in, too. We all have to get on the bandwagon. It’s almost like the Republicans and the Democrats – we all say we want the same thing but we can’t get there. So, I will be pretty vocal, as you know I can be. It’s the old Robin Miller in me to help this thing along and get something done.
DD: You raise an interesting point. How effective, in your opinion, is that cooperation between the sanctioning body and the driver organization? Is that working?
GS: I’ll probably get in trouble for saying this but I’m not a big fan of PRO because it doesn’t seem like they want to unite. We fight too much amongst ourselves and we’re not looking at the common goal. NHRA has their problems with us, too. It really for the first time seems like they’re going to work together. This 1,000 foot thing is big and NHRA is taking a lot of heat on it and the drag racers are taking a lot of heat on it. Trust me, the fans who pay these bills, it’s going to be the same racing. You’ve got to get through it with us. If you don’t like Gary Scelzi, come by and root for someone else but come to the drag races because it’s still the best sport where you can come get an autograph. I don’t want to sound like a salesman but it is a great sport and I believe it. Sometimes my emotions take over and I cannot think clearly and I try not to do that right now because the bottom line is we want to get something accomplished. Nobody is holding a gun to my head to drive that race car. I do it because I love it and I like the people out there and I’m going to continue to do that.”