With the New Year almost upon us, it’s time to begin thinking about safety in the new season of drag racing. Along those lines, we submit here a story on that very same thing which ran in the November 2017 printed issue of Drag Racing Edge, just for something to ponder while you’re dreaming of race wins dancing in your head.

Staying Safe In The Sport
Words/Photos John DiBartolomeo

It’s always with deep regret when we hear a racer is injured in an on-track accident. Drag racing itself is an extremely safe sport. However, while accidents do happen, staying safe is everyone’s responsibility.

It was with that same deep regret we heard Virginia’s Thomas Dunford, a very experienced and successful racer, succumbed to his injuries at the Super Bowl of Drag Racing in July. As it was reported, and not knowing the exact cause, Dunford’s car ran off the end of the track, through the sand trap and catch net. Trackside observers noted that after his second-round win, the engine continued at wide open throttle without slowing down.

This small device mounted on nitro and alcohol dragsters and Funny Cars in addition to certain classes in other sanctioning bodies receives a signal from a guardwall mounted sensor to automatically shut the car off should there be catastrophic damage. Unfortunately, there is no such device used for most sportsman cars.

We hesitate tremendously to speculate as to the exact cause, and we might never know, but the fact of the engine continuing to stay at wide-open throttle after the finish line is a concern to many. It’s the exact reason behind the Electrimotion Safety Shutoff Controller used on nitro and alcohol Funny Cars and dragsters and utilized at NHRA national and Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series events in addition to other sanctioning bodies in certain classes. The system is connected to different aspects of the car, deploying the parachutes and shutting the car off should there be catastrophic damage. A device mounted in the car is triggered by a guard wall-mounted sensor roughly 400-feet after the finish line that automatically shuts the car off in addition to throwing the parachutes once it runs past that point.

Originally it was thought the system might have given a driver a false sense of security, but in all reality, the driver should have had the parachutes out and the engine shut off way before that point on the track anyway. However, while that system is mandatory on those classes of cars, there is nothing universally used on sportsman race cars such as that, which leaves a gap when there might be a problem.

MSD’s Power Grid ignition system utilizes a shutdown safety component as part of its software programming. After a user specified time, it will limit engine rpm, making a good case alone for its use.

That being said though, MSD’s Power Grid ignition system is extremely powerful in that the software can be set up to shut the engine down to a reasonable rpm after a certain period of time, making it a very good reason as to its use. Programmable through MSD’s software, you set the time period followed by the engine rpm you’d like the engine limited to. As an example, a car which runs 8.50 in the quarter-mile can be set with a time limit of nine seconds after which the engine rpm is limited to 2,000 rpm. Should something happen; throttle stuck, etc.; once the period of time after trans brake release hits nine seconds, the engine rpm is limited, both of which are numbers preset by the user. A stuck throttle can happen for a variety of reasons, which bears in mind to be sure to perform periodic maintenance on all components of your car on a regular schedule.

A little bit of a DISCLAIMER before we get any further. Let’s face it, accidents happen even to the best of racers or cars. Even by adhering to any of our suggestions here… what’s the term… s—t happens. However, by preparing yourself ahead of time, you stand the best chance of walking away; which thankfully many do,

Suited up in your car, you should be able to reach all the controls without having to look for them.

All of which maybe first brings up driver mentality. The driver should always be in control completely of his or her vehicle. Should there be a problem, the first thing to remember is to shut the car off. Maintaining a level head behind the wheel can alleviate many problems. We’ve all seen pedaling contests between two drivers, of which is quite common especially in the pro ranks. However, in most sportsman cars, should there be an instance where your car is loose or out of control, the best solution is to lift and shut off. Chances are you’re not going to win that round anyway and it’s best to drive your car away rather than load a piece of junk in your trailer.

So then first and foremost thing to keep an eye on is yourself. There have been numerous incidents where a driver’s health caused a problem while they were racing. One of the parts of the former NHRA license requirement was a doctor’s physical every two years, much the same as a private pilot. In a lot of people’s opinion, that requirement has foolishly been relaxed so that it’s only required when applying for a license to drive a car faster than 7.50 in the quarter-mile. We can name numerous drivers who when forced to take the physical found things wrong with them they hadn’t known, in some cases life-threatening problems. With the standard now placed at 7.50; which in itself in very fast – roughly over 175 mph – who is to know the physical condition of the driver in the other lane if he was only going eight-o’s at 160?

One of the easiest things to bear in mind is that when a problem arises, the on-off switch is probably the best solution.

Why the elimination of the physical? One can only imagine the answer, but if it’s a financial concern, quite possibly the majority of drivers have some sort of medical insurance which in most cases allows for free well-care check-ups, so that becomes a moot fact as to saving money.

One mainstay part of the licensing test in order to receive a racing license, is a cockpit orientation test, simply noted as the blindfold test. It is here where a driver was asked to envision their eyesight being blocked by any number of things, yet still were able to reach the most important parts of a race car such as the ignition switch, fuel shutoff, parachute, etc. It is certainly not a bad idea, whether or not you’re seeking an NHRA driver’s license; to sit in your car and simply close your eyes and take the test yourself. Something as minor as knowing where the engine shutoff switch and/or parachute handle is without having to look specifically for them can make a big difference some day.

Drivers of cars with a parachute should easily familiarize themselves with not only pulling the ‘chute handle but also what the car feels like when it’s in full bloom, in addition to learning how to properly pack it back up.

As we mentioned previously, we’re not alluding to a medical condition which may have affected Mr. Dunford, but rather just pointing out the importance of good health and keeping a level head.

Regardless, while drag racing might not be considered a physical activity, it does cause some stress on the body. Racepak recently came out with a heart rate sensor which can allow a racer the ability to monitor heart rate in the same fashion as they do engine rpm, driveshaft speed, etc. We’re all aware that elevating your heart rate from time to time is what exercise is all about. You can certainly accomplish this by frequent exercise but for racers nothing beats the adrenaline rush of a quick elapsed time or the fact of staging up next to the current world champion or big bucks bracket race winner.

Oftentimes your heart rate can spike at various times during the run, which in itself should not be a problem except if that spike causes a health issue. When it comes to heart rate, exercise and drag racing, it’s generally thought of to calculate your target heart rate with a formula known as the “Heart Rate Reserve.” First, determine your resting heart rate and deduct your age from a standard of 220 to determine your maximum heart rate (MHR). Next deduct your resting heart rate from the MHR and multiply that number by your training percentage; 60- to 85-percent is the usual range for people looking to increase fitness and health. Add that number to your resting heart rate and that number is generally thought to be your target heart rate. A heart rate above that target number will cause a person to have less endurance. Of course though, the key is a low resting heart rate and low blood pressure.

Keeping cool under pressure can mean a lot of things, but from CoolShirt is this vest of which cool water can be circulated to keep your core body temperature in check when it’s 95-degrees outside.

We’ve all read how important it is staying hydrated on hot days, and suiting up in a three or five-layer firesuit, buckled into a hot vehicle can take its toll. From CoolShirt Systems comes a vest which contains a series of small tubes of which are connected to a separate reserve bag and pump. Cool water is then pumped through the vest in order to keep your core body temperature in check. Used by a number of racers in a variety of series, when it’s 95-degrees and 80-percent humidity outside, the CoolShirt vest can keep you thinking clearly.

Besides a level head, there are lots of things which can happen during the course of a race. Keeping a close eye on all of your components, regularly servicing each is a good way to start. Bolts loosen up, brackets and frames crack, along with a myriad of other things which can go wrong at any time.

Bolts loosen, brackets break and frames crack; all of which makes a periodic maintenance schedule an important part of your racing program.

It’s always bothersome that when an accident occurs, we as racers very rarely ever find out the real cause. A number of years ago, Woodro Josey lost the brakes in his Stock Eliminator car and ended upside down in a swamp at the end of Gainesville Raceway. The cause was a master cylinder pushrod that had come out of the master cylinder causing a loss of brakes. A directive was then put out by the NHRA which instructed all racers to double-check their own master cylinder pushrods. Kudos to the sanctioning body for that; however, that was a rare occurrence we‘d like to see happening more often.

While as we mentioned, auto racing in general is a dangerous activity, it really is extremely safe. The amount of accidents which happen in drag racing alone pale in comparison to other “dangerous” activities. Yet when an accident does occur, it’s good to know that in most cases, the driver walks away with nary more than a scratch. Credit that to the safety equipment worn but like anything else, it all must be worn properly. It’s astonishing sometimes to see drivers not wearing the proper safety equipment and even something as minor as loose seat belts or one not mounted in the correct position; which isn’t minor after all but can cause a dramatic problem when they’re needed the most.

If there is one thing to look for when it comes to safety, it’s a peak into a mirror. Are you doing everything possible to alleviate a problem?

Years ago, the NHRA published a directive to have racers check that their master cylinder pushrod didn’t accidently fall out of the master; this after an incident involving an accident. A wise move on their part, one which we’d like to see more often.


Even the best drivers sometimes get a little lax when it comes to safety equipment. The proper use of every safety item available to you is imperative, starting with the proper mounting and use of seat belts which should be worn tight enough to almost hurt.