By Lee Elder
You would not think they have anything in common, the drivers of 11,000 horsepower straight-lining National Hot Rod Association drag racers and those of 900-horsepower, broadsliding, dirt-throwing sprint cars and midget racers.
The only time a drag racer turns is at the end of the track, at very low speed and trailing parachutes, as they coast to the waiting arms of their crew members. Sprint car drivers steer right to turn left at great speed every few hundred feet. So, nothing in common and no relationship between the two disciplines of driving, right?
As the NHRA has changed its track preparation procedures this season in order to slow the stunning speeds of its fastest two categories, Top Fuel and Funny Car, drag race drivers have found the driving conditions very different. There is less grip available as the nitro cars thunder down the drag strip and, eventually, drivers are called upon to display the most important skill a racer can have: Car control.
With less grip on the strip, a select few drag racers who have experience with dirt track racing find they have an advantage.
“Car control is definitely what you learn driving sprint cars and midgets,” said Top Fuel pilot Doug Kalitta. “I think it’s a big help. … You need to be able to slide the car around and get comfortable with a car like a sprint car or a midget. But it’s a huge advantage when you’re trying to pedal the (Top Fuel) car. You don’t want to crash one of these things. You see some people try to pedal these things that probably shouldn’t and it gets a little scary-looking. The more car control, the more of that will definitely work to your advantage.”
Kalitta would know. He won the 1994 United States Auto Club national sprint car championship and won the national midget Rookie of the Year Award in 1991. He has 14 midget wins and seven sprint car victories in USAC competition. He has 44 Top Fuel wins and remains among the best drivers in the category today.
Kalitta could have been as good as anyone had he stayed with dirt track racing instead of moving to the straight-line sport. Southern California racing historian Mickey Dale remembers Kalitta’s USAC days.
“I remember Doug being very good on the paved tracks during the ESPN Saturday Night Thunder series during the summer of 1991 in both sprint cars and midgets,” Dale said. “He raced in November at Imperial to wind up the season and I was amazed at how quickly he adapted to the clay surface on the three-eighths of a mile track here. He finished third that night and earned the USAC Rookie of the Year honors. Three years later he won the sprint car championship with USAC. A great all-around open wheel racer.”
Kalitta is still adapting to changing conditions and has become is a great Top Fuel racer.
Speeds have always escalated in drag racing. The nitro classes are now capable of reaching speeds close to 340 mph, despite having their racing distance limited to 1,000 feet. The Pro Stock categories still race to a quarter-mile and their speeds are up, too. Pro Stock Motorcycle riders have surpassed the 200-mph barrier and the Pro Stock car speed record is now 215.55 mph. The sanctioning body, keeping safety in mind, has sought slow the cars down by providing less opportunity for traction. The idea was that teams might be less aggressive with their setups in order to get down the track without spinning the tires.
But sometimes the tires do spin and an open-wheel racer, accustomed to spinning the tires all the way around a dirt track, can cope with a slick drag racing application.
Kalitta added, “I like to consider myself one of the better guys that can get the thing hooked back up and get it going again. … You want to get a good run without having to pedal it but when it does need to be pedaled, it’s a lot of fun.”
Tanner Gray, the Pro Stock racer dubbed Teenage Tanner by public address announcer Alan Reinhart, came to drag racing with a distinct dirt racing pedigree. He still races on dirt several times a month at tracks near his home in North Carolina. For Gray, there are several advantages to having a dirt track history.
“I think it makes you more versatile,” Gray said. “I think that, on cold nights when the (drag strip) isn’t maybe as good, I think you have a better feel for what the car is doing and how to react to it. It gives you throttle control for the burnout and stuff like that.”
Veteran Funny Car driver Cruz Pedregon, a two-time flopper champion, said experience with any kind of racing can make a difference.
“Anytime the car loses traction, I think I’m able to get it to recover sooner and I think a lot of that has to do with seat time in everything I’ve driven,” Pedregon said. “I’ve driven a lot of different cars and trucks. My Dad taught me (that) you drive these cars by feel. But I don’t think it’s any more (true now) than in the past when they were prepping the track (differently). You just have to be ready for it. Some of it is a mindset. My brother Tony was good at it too and he understood the mindset it takes.”
Gray said his dirt racing gives him an advantage and would like to have the advantage extended. Don’t count him among the drivers unhappy about the change in track preparation.
“I actually like it,” said Gray. “I think they should make it a little looser than what it is. I think it will just bring more of a driving aspect to the class. The whole key to these cars is to try to make them go straight and the driver doesn’t have to do anything. To me that’s not a whole lot of fun. I think it brings a little more excitement to the class, people getting crossed up and trying to wheel the car a little bit. … If it was up to me I’d have them cut the spray even more and let the drivers kind of figure it out for themselves.”
Pedregon made an important point, that experience can help a driver develop and improve, but if they don’t have the talent to begin with then they can only go so far.
“I am a firm believer that a driver that is good at feeling any kind of car can drive anything, really,” Pedregon said. “It kind of goes back to the old saying that a driver can drive anything. … It’s just a talent. You never know who’s going to have it until you put them in that situation.”
But experience is important, too. Give a high-quality driver some extra experience and you might develop an even better driver.
Gray said the advantage of racing in two very different types of applications works in his favor as he broadslides around a dirt track, too. He gets an advantage on the dirt from his drag racing seat time. He said, “I think this (drag racing) actually might help in dirt track stuff as far as the reaction times and trying to miss wrecks and stuff. Everything happens so fast in this (Pro Stock), it kind of slows all that (dirt track) stuff down when I go back to race that.”
Pedregon won a dirt karting championship at California’s Ventura Raceway in the early days of his racing career. Ventura promoter Jim Naylor has called Pedregon, “The fastest driver who ever raced at Ventura.” Pedregon compared drag racing to the dirt track style.
“There is nothing more exhilarating than the acceleration of a nitro Funny Car,” said Pedregon. “That just tops them all. But dirt tracks, going sideways about 120 mph, feathering the throttle, is pretty cool, too.” The key, Pedregon said was, “Just developing that feel for what you’re doing and never really relaxing and never let the car drive you. You have to drive the car.”
Gray illustrated Pedregon’s point about feeling what the car wanted to do. During a qualifying pass earlier this season at Sonoma, Gray said, the car, “… kind of pulled the wheels up and went left, kind of started moving around a little bit. For me, I’m just comfortable with the way it feels when it does that, compared to some of the rest of the guys. I kind of know how far I can go before I have to lift.”
Don’t expect the NHRA to start throwing dirt on its race tracks anytime soon, but if that does happen, these guys will know what to do.