Top End Safety

by Becky White

  2014…For all the years I have been in drag racing, there have been many track operators…meaning track owners and the people who operated the tracks for them…who have reminded me of General George Custer. Just in case you don’t remember your history lessons, he was the General who would not listen to anyone because he thought he knew more than everyone else.   Because of that, he led his troops into the Battle of the Little Big Horn where every single person in his troop was killed including himself.


 Track owner/operators who refuse to listen to anyone and everyone and learn anything are signing their own death warrant…we have seen this so many times over the years, we wonder how they can be so blind as to do the very same thing other ‘out of business’ track owner/operators have done to cause their own demise.


  They think they know it all and will listen to no one, even when people try to reason with them over the issues of track safety. I was out of drag racing for ten years…what have I learned since becoming involved again last year? Things are the same. Nothing has changed. I want to explain ‘top end’ safety to track owner/operators who seem to think the only thing they have to update and take care of is the starting line and 660/1320 feet racing surface.


They think they can keep up with the times by shaving the track, widening the track, prepping the track and even re-paving the track and that is all they need to do. Of course, some do nothing! 100% of ALL fast racers will tell you, “The top end is even MORE important than the starting line AND the track surface!”


  I had not seen Pro Mod cars since 2003 until September last year. I knew they were quicker and faster but you have to see it to believe it. I have only attended two Pro Mod races since but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize something is wrong! I LOVE this job! I can STILL call nearly every racer I have ever known and get more information than most anyone else in this sport.   


My reputation precedes me by over 35 years and even though I haven’t been there very often for racers since ’03, they are still confiding in me about their concerns and issues. With Pro Mod drivers, top end safety came up more than any other problem. I went to MANY Quick 8, Quick 16, Top Sportsman and Pro Mod races over the years as Pro Mod grew…from some guy trying to go fast enough to get an extra 50 bucks for Low ET or Top Speed at their local (southeastern) eighth mile track in the ‘80s to the single, most popular group ever in the history of this sport.


  I was one of the original instigators of Pro Mod racing. These guys are flying. The fact they are running over 200 mph in 660 feet…not to mention the quarter mile…is mind boggling. I was always on the starting line and able to watch track prep and clean up as well as the race cars and drivers. As always, the concentration is from approximately 60 to 100 feet behind the Christmas tree to the top end traps.


The area beyond those traps is a no man’s land! Why aren’t track operators concentrating more on their tracks from the top end traps to the end of their pavement and even beyond? Why don’t they realize THAT part of the track is AS important, if not MORE SO, than the FIRST 660 feet? Track owner/operators must feel since the cars are ‘racing’ only on the ‘racing’ surface that is all they have to keep updated. That is NOT true!


  Just because a racer shuts his car down at 660 or 1320 feet it doesn’t mean he isn’t STILL racing! They are no longer under power, true, but they are going the fastest at top end and in the shut down area of any time they are on the track! Not only that, these modern cars are more violent on top end than at any other time as Todd Tutterow said. Yes, it takes a lot more power to power ‘up’ than it does to power ‘down’ but, in most cases, they are powering down for an even longer distance!


  These cars do NOT and CANNOT stop when they get to those top end lights! They need their shut down area to be just as smooth, just as wide and just as sticky as the racing surface they were just on. Todd also said, “It doesn’t matter HOW long the shut down area is when you are barrel rolling or flipping end over end!” Most others agree. But it does matter if you’re still on your tires. Just the fact most tracks change so drastically at the top end lights is enough to cause a crash!


Cars are at the height of their speed and a parachute or two can only do so much! The science of these cars continues to advance so much quicker than track surfaces but, of course, they always have. Why is that SO hard for some track owner/operators to understand? I will never forget, in 1989 at River Cities Raceway Park, a popular small track in Ashland, KY, Rob Vandergriff and Norm Wizner were matching racing.


  One racing gas company reps was talking to Rob telling him how much more power his gas would give Rob’s car. Rob said, “Man, you don’t understand. I don’t NEED any more power! I can’t get the power I already have to the track! If I could just get the power I have now to the pavement I could run faster anyway…even without a better fuel!”


There is the gist of this editorial. What Rob said, nearly 25 years ago, was so profound it is 100 times more true now than it was then! Chassis builders and most racers concentrate on safety and how to get more power to the pavement. Speeds and ETs have skyrocketed. Track safety, in most instances, has not! Tracks have not gotten any longer.


  Most smaller tracks have NO top end lighting…where it is needed most. If someone has a top end accident, safety crews and EMTs have to work by vehicle lights in most incidents to do what they have to do and sometimes, that may even include saving a life! Race cars don’t have lights…they NEED as much lighting in the shut down area as they do anywhere else, maybe more.


Tracks are not getting any longer and most aren’t getting any better in the shut down area either. If a track has plenty of shut down length, they don’t need sand traps and safety nets, but in most cases, shut down has not been expanded and needs those things. The reason racing had to go eighth mile in the early years was because cars got too fast for the shut down and a fifth of a mile was not short enough!!!


  You forget…in the ‘60s, they weren’t running nearly as fast as our cars today…on these same tracks! This is also the reason Pro Stock cars were taken out of championship points competition in the early ‘80s. Yet, these ultra fast racers today are expected to race on tracks their counterparts would not…and thought they could not…race on 40 years ago!


The reason? They didn’t feel safe! Cars need assistance to stop just like they need assistance to start…ie: water box, burnout area. They just need a lot more of it. A car is 100% more erratic and more violent on top end because they’re at the fastest they will ever be on any part of the track! How many accidents do you ever hear of on the racing side of 660 feet? I don’t have any figures on that but almost ALL accidents happen on or near top end.


  What are some of the causes? First and most important…besides the fact shut down areas seldom get any upgrades, is the fact bracket racers race on these surfaces on a weekly basis. The problem? What do many bracket racers do when they go through the lights? The first thing is slam on their brakes.


What happens when hundreds of cars slam on their brakes on hot asphalt near the same spot? A dip eventually occurs. Check out the top end at your local track and look closely…many look like those proverbial old ‘washboard’ dirt roads on which many of us grew up learning to drive! Not only that, after a track has been paved and the pavement stops at the finish line, there is already a dip caused by the pavement ending abruptly!


  Even though the paver smoothes and tapers it down, it is STILL a dip. Another problem is most tracks were not ‘stabilized’ when they were built so when there is a lot of rain, water gets under the asphalt or concrete. When it has nowhere else to go, it pushes up through that surface. In the winter, the water freezes and pushes the ground and the pavement up.


When the ground warms up, it settles back down but the cracks never go away. Every time the ground rises and settles, it settles differently due to the changes in temperatures from day to day. The old pavement becomes more and more cracked and porous allowing water to settle down in those cracks. The water gets pulled back up by force…making it as slick as an oiled baby’s behind!


  But how many top ends ever get sprayed with VHT? I have never seen a top end get sprayed, have you? VHT is not only an adhesive used for traction, did you know it is also a concrete and asphalt sealer? Even though it not a stopgap answer for an unstabilized track, it is better than nothing! Can you imagine hitting a slick surface at 200 mph? You can if you’re a Pro Mod driver! That is the first experience ALL drivers have when he or she goes through those top end lights!


They can’t even utilize their own braking system, it is too dangerous…just using the brakes can cause an accident….sometimes deadly, as we all know. I am not down on all track operators. Many have, over the years, done all they possibly could to make their tracks and even their top ends safe; others…just what they thought they HAD to do (which, in many cases is nothing). Many have made leaps and bounds trying to keep their tracks in good condition to be able to handle the power in these cars.


  They have concreted their starting lines; most tracks where the quicker cars run have been paved and re-paved. But most have only been paved to the 660 or 1320 foot mark…the point where the cars are going the fastest they ever go! After that, these drivers find themselves in ‘never never land.’ They run nearly 200 mph on a nice smooth, groomed surface into infinity.


 How many of you remember Bristol Dragway in the old days? It got so bad when IHRA would have their Saturday night national event show, once cars got to about 1,000 feet, they were all over the track and many accidents occurred! Funny car and top fuel drivers threatened to stay away unless something was done about it.


  It was as simple as the fact there was natural water coming out of the mountain under the track…the heat of the sun and speed of the cars pulled the water back up through the track. It was dangerous! They had to go under the track and put in a drain to take that water away from the track.


Even after Jeff Byrd became the manager there and remodeled the track, that had to be done again! Atlanta Dragway was the same way. When Gary Brown bought it and spent millions remodeling the entire facility, there were still top end wrecks because of water under the track. He had to go back under it and drain it, too.


  I will never forget at a IHRA national event at Alabama Int’l Dragway one time, the Pro Stockers looked like ‘Seadoos’ going down the track there was so much water flying up behind them! I don’t know if anything was ever done to fix that track. Many (most) tracks have not been repaired. When a Pro Mod driver hits that rough, unsealed, damp, possibly slick asphalt, they can literally skate around as if they had hit a patch of black ice!


Do you have any idea WHY racing insurance is as expensive as it is? If you can’t answer that by now, go back and read this again, only let it soak in next time. A word to racers…something you can do to help yourselves be safer on the tracks you race on…when you go to a track you’ve never run on before…go down to the top end and check it out. Even if you have to make a ‘time trial’ in your personal truck or car, even a golf cart or ATV…just drive all the way down that track!


  They are busting their butts going quicker and faster and having cars which not only look like show cars, they become missiles on the track. For THEIR sake, what kind of mind cannot comprehend the dangers these racers are putting their lives in for your track and your fans? I know small track operators are having a rough time now…even some national event tracks are as well because of this economy.


 However, there are NO reasons to short change racers and even fans when it comes to safety, not to mention short changing yourself. Let us not make drag racing a sport where spectators pay to come see the wrecks! We have never had that reputation, let us not sink to those lows now. Thanks to: Warren and Arlene Johnson, Todd Tutterow, Charles Carpenter and Marshall Oldham for their help with this very important issue.


I am now, I always have been, I will always be drag racing’s number 1 fan!