Drag racing is the pure pursuit of speed, but what if speeds get out of hand? Last month Tony Schumacher became the first driver to hit 330 mph on a quarter-mile National Hot Rod Association drag strip. That's a jump of 100 mph from the top speed of 1967. Today's nitromethane-fueled dragsters are the fastest in racing—so fast that overtaxed engines often disintegrate; leaving the NHRA's Safety Safari to vacuum up burned pistons and melted magnetos.
"We're right on the edge of our limitations," says Dale Armstrong, crew chief for top-fueler Larry Dixon. "How far are we going to go—340, 350, 360? Do we have to kill somebody to open people's eyes?" Armstrong wants to curb speed with NASCAR-style restrictor plates, but that's heresy to fans who like their action earth-shaking. Crowds at the Gainesville (Fla.) Raceway last Saturday nearly outroared the cars as Dixon and 15 other drivers qualified for the final day of the NHRA's Gator-nationals with speeds topping 320 mph, making Saturday the quickest day in top-fuel history. While no top drag racer has died in a crash since Blaine Johnson in 1996, NHRA president Dallas Gardner concedes that dragster technology is "pushing the envelope" of speed and safety. "We won't sacrifice safety," says Gardner, noting that the latest tires are considered safe at 350 mph and that tracks have raised and lengthened guardrails to protect drivers and fans.
"The cars' construction is good," says Armstrong, whose man Dixon was a semifinalist behind Sunday's winner Mike Dunn, "but you still sit in a little cage of tubing." He thinks his crowd-pleasing sport, in which fans mingle freely with drivers in the pits, could please crowds with a little less speed. "The motors would live longer, and you'd have better side-by-side racing," says Armstrong. "The fans didn't quit going to Daytona when NASCAR put restrictors on, did they?"
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