There’s no denying the bravery of the drag racers who will be competing in this weekend’s NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol Dragway.
John Force, the biggest star in NHRA drag racing history, was in the middle of a fireball during Friday night qualifying at the Texas Fall Nationals.
His engine exploded while his Funny Car was rocketing down the track. Force was able to keep his bearings despite having flames all around him inside the car. He was able to get stopped and be attended to by emergency personnel without serious injury.
The next day, Force was back behind the wheel of his Funny Car.
J.R. Todd, the 2018 NHRA Funny Car champion, was also back in his fire-breathing, Nitro-burning monster. Todd drives for the Kalitta Motorsports team, which experienced tragedy in 2009 with the fatal crash of Scott Kalitta. Todd, who advanced to the semifinals at Dallas, said a driver must put fear in the back of his mind.
“You know the dangers of drag racing before you get in the car,” Todd said. “You have to put it in the back of your mind. If you worry about that, you’re not going to drive to your top potential.”
Alexis DeJoria has gone through her share of bad accidents with the engine exploding and knocking the body off her Funny Car in crashes at Seattle and St. Louis. She also had a fuel fire at Dallas in 2020 that burned her car to the ground.
“It’s something you think about having the motor right in front of you,” she said. “Having nitromethane in the tank is controlled chaos, a ticking time bomb waiting to go off. It’s going to happen at some point, although you hope not to that extent.
“It makes you a better driver when you experience these things. Your instincts take over. Being NHRA drivers, we probably have the quickest instincts of anybody around. You have to think quickly, thousandths of a second, especially when there’s a fire in front of you and you have do what you’ve been taught.”
Bristol has seen its share of big crashes, including the 2003 Thunder Valley Nationals when Larry Dixon’s Top Fuel dragster slammed the wall nearly at top speed and sheared into pieces. Three years later, Cory McClenathan’s rail car literally broke in half as he rocketed down the track.
The dangers aren’t limited to the Nitro classes. Cory Reed suffered a broken leg after his Pro Stock Motorcycle crashed into teammate Joey Gladstone at the NHRA Carolina Nationals in Charlotte.
Four-time world champion Matt Smith is the most recent Pro Stock Motorcycle racer. He feels in some ways the drag strip is safer than the road.
“We’re in the safest environment I feel we can race in,” Matt said. “There’s only one other person beside you. It’s not like riding on the highway where 20 cars can run over you. It was a freak accident and glad Cory’s going to be alright.
“It’s a risk we take in drag racing. We know when we go out there you might not come back if something happens. But our Pro Stock Motorcycle group is one big family and we try to make things better, to make things right. It’s tough to get back on, but that’s what we are paid to do.”
Matt’s wife, Angie Smith, has been competing on the NHRA tour since 2004. Like her husband, she knows the dangers of racing on a bike at 200 mph.
“We know the risks, but we love racing,” Angie said. “We rallied behind Joey when he was going rounds. I know it was tough on Joey to get on the bike because it was his best friend hurt. He knew that’s what Cory would want him to do. We know the risks, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.”