CONCORD, N.C. — A car body from a drag racer was thrown into the air at zMax Dragway on Saturday and landed on a walkway in front of the east grandstands. Officials said two fans were evaluated by paramedics and released. The extent of their injuries was not clear, but officials said they were not serious.
The incident happened during the final qualifying runs for the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals Robert Hight’s Ford Mustang Funny Car’s engine exploded along the quarter-mile track.
The mostly-intact body — which weighs about 250 pounds intact, according to Hight — flew more than 60 feet, over a fence where fans were watching the race, then landed on a walkway and bounced into a second fence in front of the grandstand. The car body fell back onto the walkway and the impact dented the grandstand rail.
“I saw the (car) body fly up,” said Billy Burke of Mooresville, a guest services worker at the dragway who was working in the grandstand area. “I went ‘Oh my God,’ then I ran down there to see if anybody was hurt.”
Tony Hudler of Midway near Winston-Salem, was on the walkway with his friend, Danny Ray Nicholson of Archdale. He saw the car body come flying off of Hight’s car. He was standing about six to eight feet from where it landed.
“When I looked up, I saw the (car) body flying and a bunch of little pieces, too,” said Hudler, who was attending his first drag race. “(My friend) doesn’t see what’s happening at all, so I grabbed him and pulled him with me . It was unreal.”
Dragway spokesman Johnathan Coleman said that two fans, whose names were not released, were evaluated and released at the scene by paramedics.
The NHRA’s Funny Car division is composed of custom-built dragster chassis and engine covered by a body made from either fiberglass or carbon fiber. The racer’s nitromethane-fueled engine, which pumps out approximately 10,000 horsepower, is mounted in front of the driver, and can power the car to speeds of more than 315 mph.
Hight said that the body is secured to the car by a latch on the front end and a pair of hooks at the rear, which act as a kind of hinge to allow the body to be swung upwards for driver access and to work on the engine.
“What normally keeps it down is downforce,” Hight said. “When you have an explosion, what we call the ‘tree’ - all the support stuff underneath the body - helps keep it all together. But this was such a violent explosion that it just pulled all of those places where it’s attached to the body apart. Then the body became so deformed and got so much air underneath it that it shot it off.
“I’ve never had something like that happen to me; none of us have on these John Force teams. We’re not going to ignore this at all. We’re going to look at how it came apart, we’ll study video and we’ll see if we can’t somehow improve our body mount to where it stays on the chassis. That’s the safest thing, for the driver and everybody else.”
One driver said that what happened Saturday didn’t have anything to do with the speed of the cars.
“What happened with Robert Hight has nothing to do with speed,” said driver Chad Head, the No. 1 qualifier for Sunday’s Funny Car elimination rounds. “That is a pure mechanical problem. Whether he’s running 300 mph or 320 mph, that has absolutely nothing to do with the explosion. That’s maybe an intake failure or a rocker arm failure or something on top of the motor let go and that’s what you’re going to have.”
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