Muscle Mustangs & Fast FordsNews & Views
Thunder Road 07/02
What Price Glory?
What should have been one of the greatest weeks in my life turned horribly ugly a little after 1 p.m. on March 3. I was standing with Sean Hyland discussing some of the finer points of Modular engine building and the future of the powerplant. We were watching the first round of Pro 5.0 from the fence at about the 800 ft. mark of the track. It had already been a long week for me--a long couple of weeks, actually. I'd been traveling like mad, jetting from my home in New Jersey to Pasadena, Calif., in the middle of February for the SVT Focus launch program and then two weeks later I was off to Phoenix for the 2003 Cobra introduction. This was my first time behind the wheel of "The Terminator" and I had been looking forward to it for, oh, I don't know--my whole life? Add to this, the fact that we were just starting production on another 292-page magazine and it was one big Maalox moment. The next day I had to fly home to get reacquainted with my wife and children.
I know, I know. Everyone reading this who actually works for a living is ready to strangle me. Really, being a magazine editor is tougher than it looks. You wouldn't believe how fat you get eating all those rich, free meals on a press junket.
Anyway, I digress. Thanks to the dedicated gearheads at SVT, the Cobra was everything I hoped it would be and more. But the trip was great from start to finish. On our first day in town, Alan Hall of SVT was surveying the scribes: Would you prefer to go to a nice restaurant for dinner or hit the Bondurant School for a night of driving carts? SVT would order pizza to the track. Well, that was a no-brainer. To a person, we all chose carts. These bad boys have two engines, can hit about 70 mph and have only one brake (in the rear). This braking system made driving a real challenge, as you had to avoid locking it up, lest you spin out.
Not only that, but any attempt at trail braking would result in the same pirouettes. This was serious stuff. A full-face helmet and fire jacket were required. Well, the first group out there looked like a bunch of figure skaters. Everyone was spinning and laughing. By the end of the night, we all got the hang of it. My personal highlight was in ducking in under SVT Engineer honcho John Coletti in the last turn, forcing him off line. It was like real motorcar racing. I heard about that for a couple of days, let me tell you.
The only downside (except for my ever-rising cholesterol) was I had to then fly from Phoenix to Orlando for the Spring Break. Not that this was a hardship. Heck, no. I'd walk from Arizona to Florida for the Spring Break Shootout. With a stopover in Houston, I made it to Hooters at Waterford Lakes (Orlando) in time for all the MM&FF silliness. Wings, Buffalo shrimp, burnouts, beer and a designated driver. Doesn't get much better than that. And the time I got to spend with the readers was priceless, too. You guys crack me up.
Fast forward to Sunday afternoon. I was on an emotional high. Hyland and I were just blown away by a 6-second John Gullett run in his new car in the first round of Pro 5.0 eliminations. Then Steve Grebeck faced off against Bill Rimmer. They were fine when they went past us. In fact, they were about neck and neck. Then a collective gasp went up in the crowd and all hell broke loose. Grebeck had gotten loose and turned in front of Rimmer at about 200 mph. It was the worst crash I've ever witnessed and I've been attending all types of motorsports events for over 25 years.
Ernest Hemingway once wrote that bullfighting, boxing and auto racing were the only real sports. Everything else was just a game. The late Dale Earnhardt used to villify NASCAR for its use of restrictor plates. If you remember, NASCAR first started using these things because the racers were going too fast (at least in the sanctioning body's mind).
"I've heard some drivers saying, 'We're going too fast at Charlotte, we're going too fast here ... ' Get the hell home. If you're not a race car driver and not a racer, stay home. Don't grumble about going too fast. Get out of the race car if you've got feathers on your legs or butt," Earnardt was quoted as saying the June before his racing-related death.
Every driver knows the risk he is taking every time he straps himself into a race car. As a race car builder and fabricator, Grebeck knew them better than anyone. No matter how well these missiles are assembled, the human body can only take so much abuse.
After the wreck, someone (not a racer) argued a case that perhaps Pro 5.0 should run eighth-mile from here on out. I don't know. Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers survive crashes and they race at speeds over 100 mph faster than the Pro 5.0 cars. I never met a racer who said he wanted to go slower. I don't think that's the answer. I don't think the drivers would stand for it.
Pro 5.0 cars are going 30-40 mph faster now than they were just a couple of years ago. At the 1998 World Ford Challenge, Dennis Ramsey was the low qualifier with a 7.99 at 171.77. Doug Mangrum went 173.76 at the same event. Hell, that mph would get you laughed out of Street Outlaw these days. Les Baer went 181 in Pro 5.0 qualifying at Fun Ford Norwalk in 1999. Fast forward to 2001 and Grebeck is running 213.
In the last couple of years, I've seen guys trying to drive through some fairly impossible situations when common sense said to abort--not just in Pro 5.0, but in Outlaw, faster Mod Motor cars, you name it. Usually the drivers come away unscathed, but I'm starting to see a lot more wrecks than I used to in Mustang racing. This is no reflection on Steve Grebeck, but guys have to learn to push the clutch in. There isn't one driver on the Fun Ford or NMRA circuit who derives his entire income from money won from racing. I don't want to see any more death in what is essentially nothing more than a hobby.
On the flipside, more guys will die in wrecks while driving trucks for a living in the next six months than have ever perished in auto racing. No one ever suggests we ban over-the-road trucks. Not to minimize what happened to Steve Grebeck, but we're all going to die from something. We've been fairly lucky in the Mustang world. In the 13-plus years this magazine has been in existence, we've run just two racing-related obits.
Let's hope and pray we never have to run another.