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Pro Mod Crew Chiefs Justin Elkes, Chris Bell and Lee White Sound Off On New NHRA Safety Rules

Since the NHRA has taken over the Pro Mod class, we have seen some sweeping changes for the upcoming 2020 race season. New engine and poweradder combos, new venues, and even reduced restriction on entry to the sanctioning body’s quickest and fastest doorslammer class represent the bulk of the wholesale offseason changes. But before Christmas, the NHRA made a significant move in the name of safety, mandating a slew of changes that teams must have in place prior to the start of the 2020 Pro Mod season in Gainesville, Florida.

The new rules include a revision to the electrical master cutoff switch (making it accessible to the driver from inside the car), new 7-point driver restraint specifications and a specific window net latching system. Open transmissions are no longer allowed inside the vehicles, a driver fresh-air system is now mandatory along with fire-retardant paint on the underside of all noses, and an air pressure shut-off switch must be added to all cars. This system prevents the car from starting unless the safety switch sees a minimum of 120 psi from the vehicle’s CO2 system. This is designed to ensure there is enough air pressure in the system to operate the fuel cutoff system and parachute air launchers in the event on an incident. While these are not the complete list of new or updated rules, this constitutes the bulk of the safety changes for the upcoming season.

With the first race only a few short months away and teams having already begun testing, the scramble to get cars updated while maintaining a diligent testing schedule is a real concern during the offseason. In the wake of these new rules, we wanted to see what the teams and crew members truly thought about the changes. We caught up with Pro Mod crew chiefs Justin Elkes, Chris Bell and Lee White to get their thoughts and concerns on these changes as we inch closer and closer to the new season.

Justin Elkes

“I’m in agreeance with it,” explains Elkes, crew chief for Steve Matusek. “From a racer, from a team management standpoint, and from a sanctioning body perspective, I think it’s a step in the right direction. There were several incidents this year that happened in Pro Mod particularly that started raising the questions like ‘what can we do to make these things safer?’ because someone’s going to get really hurt.”

It’s these conversations that ultimately lead to changes like what the NHRA recently rolled out.

“I think it’s very situational,” adds Elkes. “If nothing’s ever happened to you as a racer, it’s easy to sit back and just say, ‘that’s a dumb rule, why are we doing that?’ When you’re not under pressure or the cars not filled with smoke, you can unbuckle and buckle the window net latch perfectly fine. But under pressure, we’ve had multiple drivers voice their opinions, saying that they’ve had difficulty getting out. That’s what brought up the window net changes. There was not just one, but several drivers that had incidents and voiced their opinion that it was hard to get the window net buckle unlatched with the big SFI-20 gloves. It’s not that they couldn’t open the latch, but they said that it definitely was a slow process to get out. And in certain fire instances, it was kind of hard to find the buckle and get it undone.”

Are these rules going to have any effect of car counts in 2020? These types of rules require a significant investment from teams to properly implement the changes. The needed level of commitment could be all it takes to sideline an underfunded team, or be what prevents a team a team that was looking to make the move to NHRA Pro Mod from another sanctioning body change its plans.

Chris Bell (Sadie Glenn photo)

“I think most of [the rules] are a necessary evil,” explains Bell, crew chief for Bob Rahaim, and owner of Kinetic Engineering. “We’ve seen situations that have created the need for these rules, but I’m not so hip on NHRA dumping all of them on the teams at one time. The timeframe’s not so bad, because it’s over the winter and there’s nothing majorly invasive, but the cost is pretty prohibitive and will definitely affect new teams coming in. I have some customers that were thinking about coming to a few NHRA races and simply can’t absorb the cost of these changes. They were already going to have to do some upgrades to run NHRA.

“Right now, Bob Rahaim’s car is at McAmis’ and it’s going to be $15,700 to do the upgrades,” Bell adds. “While I was at PRI, I heard that there was a car at Bickel’s and they said it was $13,500. But a nitrous car requires more upgrades than a blower car does.”

Like Elkes, Bell sees the rule changes as a reactive move instead of a proactive move by the NHRA. It is not uncommon for sanctioning bodies to take a reactive approach to safety. That isn’t to say the new rules won’t potentially save lives, but these types of rules generally get added in the wake of an incident, or series of incidents that illustrate the need for rule changes.

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“I always say, most safety rules are written in blood,” explains Bell. “They’re reactive and only written after an incident. Let’s just take Erica’s fire at Norwalk. Out of that probably came the fresh air system, as well as the flame-retardant paint underneath the front end. The covering of the transmission came from some transmission line failures that caused the driver’s compartment to get fluid into them, which could have potentially created a fire issue.”

While it’s difficult to argue with rules intended to make the drivers safer, there are some that think these types of rules are part of the problem. Now before you grab your torches and pitchforks and march on Facebook, there is a very specific context to this argument.

Lee White is the crew chief for Marc Caruso, who experienced a brake and parachute failure at the Bristol race. As a result of the failure, Caruso entered the sand trap at an incredibly high rate of speed. The car went through the first safety net and was contained by the second net. While Caruso avoided major injuries in the incident, it is easy to see how a driver could be seriously injured or killed in a similar incident.

“I honestly think some of [the rules] are over the top,” explains White. “I’m concerned that some of the rules are going to cause more issues than not having them. For instance, they have all these switches that can cut the car on and cut the car off. This new air pressure switch, it’s not a bad idea. I understand exactly why they did it because we had a bad experience also.”

Lee White (Tara Bowker photo)

“But when these switches that control ignition on the car shut on and off, they can cause major engine trouble, especially on a nitrous car,” White continues. “You got a cylinder full of explosive stuff, and it’s under compression. When the ignition shuts off and turns back on, it backfires like an old Chevrolet truck. So, then you’ve knocked the manifold off the car or knocked the rods out of it, and then you got an oiled-down racetrack or a car on fire. So to me, you got to be careful because you’re just going to cause more issues.”

Many of the rules currently in place, along with rules that were recently added, automate certain systems for the drivers. These include ignition cutoffs, parachute deployment and fuel cutoffs in the event of engine failures, or driving too far past the finish line under power. But according to White, drivers taking a more hands-on approach to driving will alleviate many of the situations these systems were created to combat.

“You know, we had a discussion about this stuff with our team and driver after the crash at Bristol,” White explains. “Honestly, I think the NHRA needed to make the driver more hands-on. We had the whole ‘chute/brake failure, and I feel like if you didn’t have the parachutes on a button and the driver was more hands on, some of these issues that you have would go away.”

Putting the driver back in control of more systems in the car may or may not be the answer. On one side, the drivers would be more ready when things go wrong, but now you have a situation where drivers are forced to remove a hand from the steering wheel at extremely high rates of speed.

“You have to remember that at some point a driver has to make a decision,” White says. “What’s responsible and what’s not is on the driver. You should be able to take one hand off the steering wheel to pull a parachute lever and shut the car off. If you can’t have one hand free while driving a race car on the racetrack, you don’t need to be driving. I tune the cars and we control every aspect of the run, to the point that we can pull the chutes [automatically] when we want them to come out. We can have all this stuff happen on its own and all the drivers got to do is sit there and hold a steering wheel. I feel like so much is out of the driver’s hands, and that’s the reason why we have some of these accidents. A driver is so dependent upon all of these electronics to make the car do all this stuff like it needs to. When everything works correctly, life is fantastic. But when something goes wrong, all hell breaks loose.”

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Have we reached a point where drivers are so reliant on the systems and controls built into the car that when something bad does happen, they’re not ready for it, or worse, not able to make corrections or take the needed course of action to save the car?

“The parachute launchers are on an air-activated cylinder that NHRA activates after the car reaches a certain point past the finish line, or they’re on a button on the steering wheel,” White says. “Your actions during a run become routine and you never think about taking your hands off the wheel. In the process, you lose placement of where things are in the car. If the [parachute button] doesn’t work, many times, drivers won’t reach up to pull the parachute handle because they’re focused on their routine.”

“If you do a little bit of math, the cars travel on top end at around 400 feet per second,” White continues. “The racetrack is 1,320 feet long. If a driver drives one second past the finish line, he’s already killed 400 feet of shutdown area. He then shuts the car off, puts it in neutral, and at that point realizes that he doesn’t have any parachute. Now he’s 800 or 1,000 feet down the shutdown area. Well, he never thinks to reach up and grab the parachute handle because it isn’t part of the routine. He never reaches for it, and probably doesn’t know where it’s really at because he hasn’t focused on finding the lever in an emergency.”

Marc Caruso (Tara Bowker photo)

“A driver should be able to close his eyes and put his hands on everything in that car without ever even thinking about it,” White believes. “I really think we’ve got everything so babied up for anybody to drive that I think that’s a lot of the accidents that are happening. I’m all for improved safety and taking care of my driver. Anybody I worked with is usually a really, really good friend. I don’t want anything bad to happen to them. But on the other side of that, you have to trust that they’re looking out for themselves as much as you are them.”

While White’s opinion may not be the point of view of the NHRA or other Pro Mod drivers and crew members, it is certainly an interesting perspective. As cars in the Pro Mod class get quicker and faster, are more regulated and automated systems the answer to keeping the drivers as safe as possible? Or should drivers be forced to take a more hands-on approach instead of just guiding the car down the track? Either way, we can see arguments for and against either scenario.

Give us your opinion on Facebook and let us know what your thoughts are on the rules and how Pro Mod will be affected by these rules as the 2020 season gets closer.

This story was originally published on January 7, 2020. Drag Illustrated

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