WITH only two rounds remaining, the 2018 Pro Slammer title chase is shaping up as one of the closest in living memory. John Zappia and Paul Mouhayet are fighting it out, around 100 points ahead of Benny Bray and American team-mate Frankie Taylor. 100 points is not a lot, and can be easily picked up in one meeting if all your ducks line up. Mayís Nitro Thunder event in Sydney and the Brisbane Winternationals in June should both be terrific meetings, and itís not inconceivable that the title could go down to the last run of the season at Willowbank.
Team Bray has had a reasonably consistent season, keeping in mind that Frankie missed the opening round in Darwin. I think you can put our improved performance down to the fact that we are starting to catch up on the converter stuff. Frankie has been a great help with the converter, as we run a slightly different set-up to what they run in America Ė their converters give more drive.
The NHRA season has kicked off, and it was good to see Doug Kalitta take the win in Top Fuel. Doug has been racing since 1998, has finished in the Top 10 every year and been runner-up on four occasions. Hopefully he can keep it up and take his first title. Clay Millican smashed the national elapsed time records with a 3.62@322mph to top-qualify. I had to blink twice Ė a 3.62 is phenomenal. I reckon it wonít be too many meetings this season before the record is lowered into the 3.50s.
The next time you see a Top Fuel run, watch the rear tyres and see the pounding they take; youíll be amazed. At the opening meeting in Pomona, 2017 Top Fuel title-holder Brittany Force was lucky to walk away with minor injuries after crashing heavily. It appeared a rear tyre went down and her car bounced off both walls.
Today, cars are going much faster, even though they are racing over a shorter distance. Speeds have gone through the roof, and thankfully the level of protection for drivers, including neck and head restraints, automatic engine shut-off and íchute deployment, has made the sport much safer. If Brittany had that crash 20 years ago, there could have been a totally different outcome.
A lot of the credit for these safety improvements must go to Brittanyís dad John Force, after his driver Eric Medlen was killed in 2007. Force set up the Eric Medlen Foundation with the sole purpose of furthering the development of drag racing safety. Even so, when I see a driver crash, jump out of the car, wave to the crowd, then step into the spare car for the next run, Iím amazed. All I can say is they must have massively oversized underpants!
NHRA car counts are down; Top Fuel could only muster 14, and Pro Stock struggled too with 16 entries. There is a feeling that if you have seen one NHRA event then youíve seen them all. Donít get me wrong; they are a real spectacle, complete with skydivers carrying the American flag landing in front of the crowd to start race day. However, unless you are a real fan, or follow a team or racer, each meeting is pretty much the same: paired racing over a set distance and a ladder elimination format that basically hasnít changed in over 60 years. Who would have thought the crazy, unreliable nitro-burning funny cars and dragsters of the 1970 and 1980s could turn into a well-groomed competition where most runs are completed, even though the performances have gone through the roof? Itís a real credit to all involved, but maybe the fire and brimstone and unpredictability was the big attraction.
Drag racing needs to evolve and reach out to a new generation who love the sport but donít want to live in the past. I think thatís one of the reasons behind the success of Street Outlaws, Lights Out, no-prep meetings and the radial car events; they offer a fresh alternative. Frankie Taylor has been involved with the Street Outlaws events and says itís a great environment and attracts thousand upon thousands of spectators. Why is it so popular? I think itís because they offer a different form of racing. The TV show has excellent production values and is very much focussed on the characters involved.
And thatís a lesson we can learn here in Australia. We need to promote the characters in drag racing Ė something that I and a few guys have tried to do over the years. Some time ago there was a push to develop characters; Zappia was to be ĎThe Mexicaní and I would have been ĎThe Quarter-Pounderí. It was all about nailing the personalities of the drivers through the use of nicknames. The Street Outlaws guys have got it right with names like Daddy Dave, Big Chief and Murder Nova. Sure, the cars and the racing are great, but itís the interaction between the racers thatís the main attraction Ė real rivalries, passion and emotion.
However, if you look at the NHRA and the 400 Thunder series, itís only about the racing. Sure, they will do bits and pieces about the drivers, but too often itís half-hearted and seen as time-fillers between the racing. We have had rivalries with massive potential in the past, but they werenít managed by the sport to maximise this.
Finally, before this season is over we could see someone in Pro Slammer running under 5.60. Realistically, it will probably be either Moits or Zappia. The Moits team have assembled some of the best brains in the world of Doorslammer from here and America to work on their car. They have been having some issues lately, and you can bet every team out there hopes they wonít get their act together anytime soon, because when that happens, the record book will be shredded. We are still running in the 5.70s; thatís not too far off the pace. You just never know; any of the top six or seven teams may just pull a 5.59 out of the hat. Anything can happen if the conditions line up and luck is on your side.