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DI OPINION: Times are Tough in the PDRA

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Times are tough in the PDRA these days. And I don’t mean politically or financially; I mean elapsed times, out on the track, where it really matters.

On September 10th, 2010, past Pro Extreme World Champion Frankie “Mad Man” Taylor dipped into the 3.50s for the first time ever by a doorslammer driver when he covered the eighth mile at North Carolina’s Rockingham Dragway in 3.596 seconds. At the most recent PDRA race this August in Memphis, led by Terry Leggett’s 3.546, the top seven Pro Extreme qualifiers all ran in the .50s. The Mad Man’s five-year-old blast would’ve had him eighth.

That same 2010 weekend at Rockingham, Shannon Jenkins set a new mark for the Pro Nitrous crowd with a 3.813-seconds blast. At Memphis this year, the number-one slot went to Tommy Franklin with a 3.753, again leading a field with the top seven starters all running 3.70s, and coincidentally where Jenkins’ old record also would’ve placed him eighth.

The current PDRA Pro Extreme record is 3.514 seconds set last April by reigning class champion Bubba Stanton at Rockingham, though Taylor actually became the first to the 3.40s at the same event with a 3.485-seconds qualifying pass that he was unable to back up within the required one percent to make it an official record. Likewise, the current 3.703 Pro Nitrous record set by Travis Harvey this May at St. Louis—where the top 10 qualifiers all ran in the .70s—was eclipsed by Pat Stoken who became the first to break into the 3.60s with a 3.694 in qualifying the next month at Martin, Michigan.

Not once this year after seven of 10 scheduled events were in the books did the PDRA not see at least the top few qualifiers run 3.50s in Pro Extreme and only in a couple of races (and only due to traction woes), did the final-round winners miss the mark, too. The same goes for 3.70s in the Pro Nitrous ranks; if you can’t run them you’re not going to qualify up top—and you’re not very likely to win either.

It’s much the same story in Pro Boost and Pro Extreme Motorcycle, where Anthony Disomma’s 3.792 from the 2015 season opener at Dallas set the ET standard for the cars, while Eric McKinney’s 3.998 from the same race holds the PDRA two-wheeler record. Even Top Sportsman and Top Dragster, a pair of bracket racing sportsman classes, feature ungodly fast fields at most PDRA events, with the door car record belonging to Buddy Perkinson after he went 3.905 to qualify number one this year at Memphis, and the long car record going to Phil Esz with a 3.696 pass in Michigan this June.

Seriously, the PDRA puts on a whale of a show. Anticipation builds alongside escalating ETs and speeds as the quickest and fastest eighth-mile race cars in the world take to the track three times each Friday on race weekends, with that third and final run of the day usually determining the number-one starters. Yes, there’s a fourth opportunity to make amends and get in the show on Saturday before eliminations begin, but the big qualifying runs are typically over on Friday night. Still, that Q4 pass on Saturday is important to the frontrunners, too, as they prepare to lay down the .50s and .70s, often at well over 200 miles per hour in their quests for that all-important W at the end of the day.

Which is quite incredible when you really think about it. Accelerating from a standstill to 220 mph in a tick past three-and-a-half seconds over a course of just 660 feet—a little longer than two football fields—never ceases to impress me. And all done in a suspended chassis with the driver sitting in the standard (for this continent at least) left-hand position. I can’t even imagine what the ride is like.

But what does this all mean, other than the PDRA obviously is getting quicker and faster? Well, maybe nothing, maybe just that technology marches on and it’s all just natural progression. But it also hearkens back to the old saying, “Speed costs money; how fast do you wanna’ go?”

So far, it hasn’t really hurt car counts, with Pro Extreme and Pro Nitrous consistently attracting fields of about 18 to 24 entries apiece. Pro Boost does even better at many races, bolstered as it is by several NHRA Pro Mod regulars whose cars fit the format and can use the PDRA events as race-ready test sessions, if nothing else.

The Pro Extreme Motorcycle class, however, has become a shell of its former self, largely due to quicker times and faster speeds set by the top riders, most specifically McKinney and teammate/tuner Ashley Owens. Where once 24 to 30 entries wouldn’t have been unusual and less than 20 unlikely, the bikers now struggle—often fail—to fill even an eight-bike field. McKinney himself recognizes his team’s role in scaring off much of the competition, but quite rightfully refuses to apologize for working hard and committing the resources to whatever gains they’ve made.

I mention this only as a harbinger of what may come to the PDRA’s other classes. One only has to look toward the NHRA and its pro classes for proof of what happens when it costs so much to go so fast. These days the NHRA pro qualifying sheets typically feature only one or two entries beyond each 16-car qualified field—if that many—and a quick perusal of those lists usually identifies with a certain level of confidence those who probably won’t be needing a hotel room for Saturday night. It’s at the point where a very slim number of individuals are able—or perhaps more significantly, willing—to spend the time, money and effort it takes to compete at that level.

So is it time to start reining in PDRA performance in order to control costs? I don’t think so, not yet at least. That’s a slippery slope that rarely, if ever plays out the way intended. But I do believe it is time to start thinking about what could happen if some competitors—some very quick, fast and professional competitors—begin to lose hope in competing against the Jason Scruggs, Tommy Franklins, Frankie Taylors and Pat Stokens of the PDRA world. It’s important for everyone to at least have hope.

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