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MOTOR RACING

Shorter races make speed records unattainable

Marks have stood since the National Hot Rod Assn. shortened races for funny car and top-fuel dragsters in an attempt to lower the cars' top speeds and give them more room to slow down.

February 14, 2010|By Jim Peltz

On a crisp November weekend in 2006, Jack Beckman of Norco set the official speed record for an NHRA funny car dragster racing down the traditional quarter-mile track: 333.66 mph.

The mark still stands and now is among those sports records that might never be surpassed, in Beckman's case because of a major change in drag racing.

"I don't see it being broken," Beckman said Saturday between qualifying rounds ahead of Sunday's final eliminations for the Kragen O'Reilly Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, where he set the record.

That's because the National Hot Rod Assn., responding to the fatal crash of funny car driver Scott Kalitta in mid-2008, shortened races for the two fastest classes in its Full Throttle Series -- funny cars and top-fuel dragsters -- to 1,000 feet from the quarter-mile (1,320 feet).

The aim was to lower the cars' top speeds and give them more room to slow down in the "shutdown area" past the finish line if anything went wrong.

Since the change, the record speed for a 1,000-foot run is 312.13 mph, set last year by Ashley Force Hood in Commerce, Ga.

The top-fuel record for a quarter-mile was set by Tony Schumacher, 336.15 mph, in 2005. Larry Dixon holds the 1,000-foot top-fuel record, 321.58 mph, set last November in Pomona.

While the NHRA is still evaluating other ways to slow the dragsters, the 1,000-foot races remain.

And regardless of whether the sport permanently moves to 1,000-foot races or changes the cars' technology to cut speeds, Beckman figures his record will stand.

"If we ever go back to a quarter-mile, you won't be able to compare those [speeds] anyway because they'll have drastically reduced the horsepower of the cars," he said.

Shaving 15 mph from a 330-mph funny car might not sound like much, but "it's huge" when combined with the longer shutdown areas, said Beckman, 43, a former Air Force sergeant and lymphoma survivor who also teaches drag racing to aspiring drivers.

"Taking away 5%" of the cars' speed "is an enormous amount of kinetic energy" that's being reduced, he said. "It represents less energy that you need to slow down."

While some traditionalists have expressed the desire to see the quarter-mile run return to drag racing, Beckman said he can live with 1,000-foot races.

"I was against it for the first 30 minutes after I heard about it, then I thought about it," he said.

"It's made it easier [for fans] to view the entire race, the racing if anything is closer, we don't see [the cars] blowing up as much and you're still seeing 320 mph," Beckman said.

Saturday qualifying

Beckman, who drives for Don Schumacher Racing, enters the final eliminations Sunday as the seventh-fastest qualifier after Saturday's third and fourth rounds of qualifying.

Reigning champion Robert Hight remained the No. 1 funny car qualifier, followed by Del Worsham. Hight's father-in-law and team owner, 14-time champion John Force, qualified third.

In top fuel, Beckman's teammate Cory McClenathan claimed the No. 1 qualifying spot with a pass of 3.787 seconds at 320.005 mph, just nipping the 3.788-second run by Larry Dixon.

Defending pro stock champion Mike Edwards was the No. 1 qualifier in that division, followed by four-time pro stock champion Jeg Coughlin.

Final eliminations for the season-opening event start at 11 a.m. Sunday.

james.peltz@latimes.com

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