A Visit With The NHRA Safety Safari
Editor’s Note: The NHRA Safety Safari is among the hardest working safety teams in motorsports. Here’s an excerpt from Susan Wade’s feature on the Safety Safari that appeared in the October issue of SPEED SPORT Magazine.
Bob Lang, the National Hot Rod Association’s director of emergency services, pulls no punches when it comes to safety in drag racing.
“We’re not playing chess. Where people go 100 to 300 mph, sometimes parts break, conditions change, things go wrong,” he said.
Perhaps no one knows that better than Lang. As Northeast division director, he was a key investigator in Scott Kalitta’s fatal high-speed accident in 2008. From that incident came the shortened length of the race course for the nitromethane-fueled Top Fuel and Funny Car classes from the traditional quarter mile (1,320 feet) to 1,000 feet.
Immediately NHRA race tracks across the nation fortified their shut-down, or containment, areas (catch fencing and sand traps). The Electrimotion sensor that automatically shuts off the fuel system and deploys the parachutes in the event of an engine failure is another direct result.
The devastating 2007 Funny Car crashes that cost Eric Medlen his life and put his boss, John Force, in a Dallas hospital for a month with multiple fractures begat significant vehicle structure changes. As a result of those wrecks, the sport has three-rail chassis, redesigned roll cages, extensive head padding, contoured seats and “black boxes.”
But after the high-powered cars hit the track, the NHRA has had a special unit for nearly 60 years that is charged with carrying out the races efficiently and safely. It’s called the Safety Safari and its unique dual mission is to keep drivers and fans safe, while preparing the racing surface and maintaining it in as pristine a condition as possible. It has morphed into a curious mixture of construction crew, emergency-room medics, firefighters, street sweepers, school crossing guards and mother hens.
The Safety Safari’s motto is preparation and prevention, yet it is forced to react — and quickly, at that — to fluctuating car counts, rain delays, oil spills, debris and now and again a critter or two on the track.
Jeff Parker, known as “Lo Cal,” is the track-prep master and he knows his team has to be jugglers, handling the weather shifts.
“Our worst enemy is weather,” he said. “Weather predicts our sport. If it rains we don’t race. If it’s too hot and humid, the cars don’t run good. If it’s cold, they run too good.”
He said his ultimate fantasy would be to have an awning that covers the entire racing facility. Still, the Safety Safari can dry a massive drag strip in about 45 minutes to an hour, using what Parker calls the latest cost-efficient miracle tools — elbow grease and squeegees.
The Safety Safari, despite its cheerful name, doesn’t monkey around. Its operations are as orchestrated as a marching band’s routine or the Blue Angels’ flight routes.
The team members arrive early every day of every event and stay long after the crowds have gone home. Then in the lonely dark or at dawn, they roll their seven haulers out of the gates and down the highway as the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series circus heads to the next city.
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