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Year After Year, Seattle Mess Remains Same


SEATTLE - "Three-peat" Funny Car winner Tim Wilkerson kept his streak alive at the August 5-7 Northwest Nationals, and so did the Pacific Raceways facility itself.

For more than a decade, National Hot Rod Association fans have learned to expect something dreadful, controversial, or just plain goofy to happen at this 14th stop on the 22-race Full Throttle Drag Racing Series schedule. And the picture-postcard setting got another blemish this year.

The left rear tire on Robert Hight's Auto Club Ford Mustang Funny Car exploded at only about 200 feet off the starting line in the second qualifying session that Friday.

And tech-savvy Funny Car racer Ron Capps sent a tweet Friday evening: "Wow..can't b good when ur tires r covered with track surface that peeled up after burnout...#only2carsmadeitunderpower."

All that -- and other complaints -- grabbed the NHRA's attention. And it rolled its Safety Safari heavy equipment into action for about six hours overnight to repair a crumbling spot just beyond the starting line and grind, scrub, and wash the track.

Said Wilkerson. "They started over, like they do every weekend when they get at these tracks -- and scraped and scrubbed and cut and banged and beat and pried and twisted -- and it was better. You have to hand it to them for putting the effort in. They did it to begin with. It just didn't adhere. The place is old, just got an old surface. It's coming up. And that's the way it is."

This year it was the Funny Car class that had serious trouble.

Last year on race day, Top Alcohol Dragster driver Mark Niver died in a top-end accident on the quarter-mile course. His close colleagues blamed a freak malfunction of the piece that attaches the parachutes to his car that causes the 'chutes to fly off his dragster. But the safety net was supposed to save him, and it didn't.

Earlier that day, the Pro Stock field rebelled and pulled out of line en masse after the first pair of racers in eliminations discovered that the NHRA crew had forgotten to spray the track with traction compound. Kurt Johnson said it was like "running on bee-bees" and added that spectators "got screwed, too. That's why you don't see very many fans out there in the seats today. It's only 60 percent out there, and that's just not right. This is a great show that we have here (with) great spectator-driver communication. It's just not fair for the fans."

Courtney Force's Top Alcohol Dragster also lost a tire at high speed that weekend. She was unhurt.

A brief look at the Seattle event's shameful list of shortcomings shows trouble to be nothing new in the past dozen years:

- 2000 - Whit Bazemore declared on ESPN on race-day morning that the facility, then known as Seattle International Raceway, was "a disgrace to the sport." The day before, the fire marshal cleared a section of strategic grandstands along the left lane, declaring them unsafe. Track workers pounded down some loose nails. to empty, declaring the bleachers unsafe.

- 2001 - NHRA President Tom Compton, believing what he heard from John Love (track spokesman at the time) and track owners Dan and Joe Fiorito, said, "The owners are 100 percent committed to maintaining and developing SIR into a state of the art, first-class facility. You can look for a lot of changes in Seattle, all positive, in the very near future." Good thing no one held his breath.

- 2002 - During Saturday qualifying, the track turned away cars because of a lack of adequate parking. Compton said he was embarrassed that some (unquestionably die-hard) fans parked along Highway 18 and walked a half-mile just to reach the front gate. NHRA Vice-President Jerry Archambeault conceded, "We should be better planners. We weren't prepared. The Northwest is starving for motorsports." They left still hungry that day.

- 2003 - Drivers from every pro class complained about the miserable racing surface, but Funny Car's Scotty Cannon shouted the loudest.

"Ain't neither one of them stellar, trust me," Cannon said of the two lanes. And that was about the most positive comment he could muster.

"It's beating our cars to death. It's so bad it broke the bolts out of the back end of the car," he said. "Ray Charles could see there's speed bumps. They ought to fix it like they've said they were going to fix it the last four or five years. All I ever hear is how many improvements we've done to Seattle. I come in here and I don't see nothin'. I'd like to have a good, sweet racetrack out there to race on.

"Usually when fuel cars drop a hole, the car starts misfiring. And they're prone and known to throw the rods out of it. Then we get fined or penalized for oiling the track down," Cannon said. "They talk about 'First is worst.' Now, hold on a minute. . . . Who was worse? Them guys for having the speed bumps for us to run over and then us dropping the hole and oiling the track down? Or just because we're dumb drag racers, we shouldn't do that? That's the question I'd like to ask.

"If I was NHRA, I couldn't even justify charging a man for oiling down the track here, unless he just left his oil pan off or something. It's stupid. Until the tracks, especially this one, get up to equal," Cannon said, "I don't think NHRA or none of the track owners should say one word to none of us about how we can make the show better . . . because the way I think the show should be made better is for our cars to go out there and run good. Give us something."

Normally optimistic Top Fuel driver David Baca said, "It's a tough facility here. It has been here a long time. Sometime older isn't better. This is one of those places. I was told a year ago [improvements were] going to happen here. Right now, I don't see any thing going on. The fans in the Seattle area are great, but to give the fans these types of facilities, or lack thereof, is not good for the long-term growth of the sport I so dearly love. Nor is the type of show we are giving the fans here."

Pro Stock's Greg Anderson said, "It has deteriorated over the years. It has holes and high spots. It's a shame. If they built a new facility here, there's no doubt this would be the most beautiful facility we go to. And you'd see some fantastic numbers. You can't fix the problem out there. All you can do is hope to God you stay somewhere near the middle of the groove and get through the goalposts without hitting something."

- 2004 - It's the year the Northwest Nationals was like the TV episode in which Geraldo Rivera opened Al Capone's vault and, after all the high drama, found nothing. Word before that event was that "final changes to the track — which involve a longer permit process for reversing the track from west to east and moving the lanes to the north of their current location, paving new pro pits and changing seating and outbuildings — will be completed by 2004." Everyone still is waiting. But don't send in Geraldo.

- 2005 - Maybe Seattle natives are used to functioning without much light. But Top Fuel drivers aren't, especially when they're running 330-plus mph, which they were on the quarter-mile at that time. A darkness debacle closed the opening day of qualifying that began with a trademark Northwest drizzle. Again, a lighting problem arose. With assurances that all drivers would get to make passes, the NHRA denied five Top Fuel racers the chance to run in the waning darkness. Five sat out an oildown, and one of them, Cory McClenathan criticized the sanctioning body for this second occurrence in three years at Seattle. He called for common sense and said the NHRA should have provided adequate lighting. "I don't care what it cost NHRA," McClenathan said. "They should have done it."

Tony Schumacher's U.S. Army Dragster broke in two just behind the driver’s compartment in Saturday afternoon qualifying. He said, "Years ago, hitting those bumps, it didn't break cars in half. Now we got all that weight sitting around the center. We've added maybe . . 30 or 50 pounds . . . inside that cockpit. It's right there where that car's trying to flex."

- 2006 - According to Competition Plus magazine, teams threatened to withdraw from the race because of a stretch of gravel road in the pro pits. NHRA and track officials brought in a paving company to lay down a stretch of asphalt. The rest of the pits remained dirt and gravel. One team sent a member to a local carpet store to get something decent to work on. Others used traditional rubber mats. One Top Fuel driver, not parked in that area, said every time he warmed up his dragster, the jackstands would dance about two inches in his unlevel pit area. Asked one crew member, "Why couldn't they have done this a month ago when it could've been done right?" Excellent question.

- 2007 - Rules, rain, and an ugly crash for Ashley Force [Hood] dominated the weekend. The NHRA dropped qualified Tim Wilkerson, Gary Densham, and Jerry Toliver from the 16-driver Funny Car grid after rain reduced qualifying to just one round Saturday. Officials invoked the so-called "Top-10 Rule," allowing unqualified Jim Head, Cruz Pedregon, and Gary Scelzi into the field. (Wilkerson, accepting the rule, just the same said he likely would have qualified higher if he had not hit a huge mogul on the track and pitched off his blower belt.)

- 2008 - Super Comp sportsman racer Steve Iverson was injured in a late Friday qualifying session, under questionable lighting, after the Fuel cars. The NHRA statement, which the sanctioning body later said was a matter of miscommunication, said he was treated and released from a hospital. The truth is he had been airlifted to Seattle's top trauma center, Harborview Medical Center, and spent nearly a month, much of it in an induced coma before continuing rehab for weeks at another facility -- while racking up about a half-million-dollar bill and fighting the NHRA and its insurance company about settlement.

En route to Harborview, Iverson suffered respiratory failure. He also survived five broken ribs, two punctures to his right lung, a bruised heart and torn tendons in the AC joint of his right shoulder. (Pro Mod driver Steve Engel died at Indianapolis a few weeks later from injuries that occurred under similar poor-track circumstances.)

- 2009 - Hoping to impress daughter Cecily with a trip to the "media center" at Pacific Raceways, top Funny Car qualifier Tony Pedregon asked reporters, "This is really the press room? This really is?" he said, glancing around the cramped mobile home that offers no view of the racetrack. "Absolutely amazing. I will say a prayer for you guys -- and myself, because I am parked in the dirt with the ants. The fans here are great fans, and they deserve better than this." He said of some of the grandstands, "I guarantee you they were here 40 years ago." All this came the day the track owners announced a "master plan" for the "world-class facility" it has promised every year.

Sunset again was an issue, as well, according to Wilkerson. As he backed up from his burnout, he told his crew via radio: "I know there's a groove out there somewhere, but I can't see anything that looks like one. It's tough in both lanes, running into the sun like that. When you go to stage the car, you have a real hard time seeing the tree. The worst part is the fact the clutch dust and all the other stuff in the air kind of glows with the sun shining through it, and you don't see many details out there. Your challenge is to get it to the other end and keep it in the middle, and that's hard enough to do on when the sun isn't even shining."

And the beat goes on . . .

Before Iverson settled his lawsuit, he said he simply wanted to speak out so other racers wouldn't have to experience what he did. "I feel the only way that we're going to get these kind of problems taken care of is for somebody to speak up," he said then.

That's the case here, as well.

Pro Stock veteran Ron Krisher voiced his displeasure with Pacific Raceways in 2010: "I ate a car here, and I don't want to eat another one. Track's horrible. It's never any good. It's not a fair racetrack for anybody to race on. We've been promised for 10 years what they were going to do to fix it. It's got too many bumps in it. I could show you the bumps last year and where they were, and guess what -- same place this year. There's no starting line. You got about 30 feet and then 30 feet of nothing. It's a mess. We've raced on messes before. But you don't race on messes and risk hurting people. It's that simple."

Bazemore said, "I don't like being the guy who points it out. I don't like being the bad guy."

Gary Scelzi, who has stepped back from competition, spoke out 11 years later, after the 2011 Northwest Nationals, saying, "I want to be positive, but there are still some things that p--- me off." He said of Seattle's racetrack, "What a beautiful place to go and have a drag race. But the problem that I see is it's the same facility it was in 1985. When I was a professional . . . a lot of promises were made to keep us quiet."

Now, however, it's time to speak up and be "the bad guy," if necessary. And it's time for Pacific Raceways to put up.

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