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Check the Tires

Russell's 2004 fatal crash fuels changes, but a lawsuit looms

June 27, 2005|Martin Henderson | Times Staff Writer

Top-fuel drag racer Darrell Russell died a year ago today in a crash triggered by the explosion of his left rear tire at 323 mph, an accident that reverberated through the National Hot Rod Assn., the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., and a small farm in Hockley, Texas.

Hockley is where widow Julie Russell, Darrell's childhood sweetheart, lives alone with her animals. She hasn't been able to bring herself to watch videotape of the crash, but she aches to know why it happened.

As for the NHRA and Goodyear, both have taken steps to preclude such a tragedy from happening again.

The Glendora-based NHRA immediately mandated titanium shielding at the back of the open cockpit, which is directly in front of the engine, to protect the driver's head.

It also added rules to scale back the speeds attained by 7,000-horsepower machines that routinely reach 320 mph and cover a quarter-mile in less than five seconds.

Drivers, crew chiefs and car owners say Goodyear is markedly different too, with a renewed focus on safety and an increased commitment to testing.

"They've stepped up their program to make sure people are where they need to be," said John Smith, who was among several drivers who last season felt that the company was testing during competition.

Nowhere in sports is commitment by manufacturers as important as it is in motor racing, and the top-fuel cars are the kings of speed.

"You're going 330 mph in 4.5 seconds," said Joe Amato, team owner of the car driven by Russell. "That's pushing everything on the edge."

Perhaps the most important change is that racers closed ranks, and the lines of communication have improved between them, the NHRA and Goodyear.

"If someone has a problem, we all work together to try to solve or fix it as quickly as possible," said Jim Oberhofer, general manager of a three-car team owned by Connie Kalitta. "Along with that, everyone at NHRA, Goodyear and the teams are definitely more aware, and they don't let the grass grow under their feet."

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Russell and other racers had expressed concern about the D-2096, a handmade racing slick supplied by Goodyear and mandated by the NHRA to replace models used in three previous seasons that were being phased out. The slick went into service with marginal testing; The Times could find only one instance of a top-fuel car making a complete quarter-mile pass at more than 300 mph before its competitive debut on March 21, 2004, in the third event of the season.

Teams accept a certain amount of tire degradation, particularly "chunking," in which a piece of rubber comes off the tread. But the 2096 was fraught with a different problem, "socketing," in which cords pop from the sidewall.

Goodyear updated the 2096 as the season wore on, but the socketing persisted. In the second round of eliminations at Gateway International Raceway, outside St. Louis, top-qualifier Russell had just been beaten by Scott Kalitta. As Russell's parachute was released at 323.73 mph, the left tire exploded, gobbling the rear wing assembly and bending the car in half as it twisted to a stop.

Russell, 35, died from massive trauma to the back left side of his head, probably from a wing strut, or a chunk of tire. Paint similar to that used on the tire was discovered on his caved-in helmet.

Less than two hours after Russell's crash, David Grubnic lost in the championship round and one of his tires was found in what another racer described as "ghastly" condition. The NHRA shelved the 2096 three days later and hasn't used it since.

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On Saturday, Julie Russell attended the dedication of the Darrell Russell Sportsman Grandstand at the racetrack where he died. But she still hasn't found peace.

Her attorney, John Simpson, sent a letter to Goodyear about a month ago seeking an official explanation for the accident -- and a multimillion-dollar request that would prevent further litigation. Goodyear didn't respond by the deadline, last Monday.

Graham Light, senior vice president of racing operations for the NHRA, said an outside company it hired to investigate the crash has indicated that the tire failure was "non-conclusive, and something we may never know." The NHRA has requested a written report, which is expected within 30 days.

A report lacking a reason -- or one that blames track or engine debris for the tire failure -- probably won't be good enough for Simpson, who said about 80% of team owner Amato's stock of tires had experienced damage.

"We know what caused two shuttles to crash, and those took place in space," Simpson said. "Surely the NHRA and Goodyear can determine the cause of a crash that occurs 20 yards from fans and is filmed by ESPN."

But for some, an official report won't make any difference. "Most people," Amato said, "know what happened."

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Tony Schumacher, who set a national speed record last month with a run of 336.17 mph in Columbus, Ohio, said recently, "I feel safer this year at 336 mph than I did last year at 300."

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