The mostly intact car body of a National Hot Rod Association drag racer sailed over a fence where fans stood watching Saturday and landed on a walkway in front of the east grandstands at zMax Dragway.
Officials said two fans were evaluated by paramedics at the scene and released. The extent of their injuries was not clear, but officials said they were minor.
The incident happened during the final qualifying runs for the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals when Robert Hight’s Ford Mustang Funny Car’s engine exploded along the quarter-mile track.
“I’ve never been through something like that. That’s as big of an explosion as I’ve ever had,” said Hight, who drives for 15-time Funny Car champion John Force’s team.
Never miss a local story.
The car body shell flew more than 60 feet, over a fence where fans were standing, 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.”
“I’ve been working here now for five years, and I’ve never seen something like that happen. I’ve worked the NASCAR races and seen things like that happen, but not here. That was scary.”
An NHRA Funny Car loosely resembles a production-based automobile. A Funny Car is composed of a custom-built dragster chassis and engine covered by a body made from either fiberglass or carbon fiber, which is lighter than cars of NASCAR. Officials estimate the body weighs about 100 pounds.
Fans estimated the car body went more then 75 feet high in the air Saturday.
Jerry Archambeault, NHRA vice-president of communications, said the incident will be reviewed.
“If you saw how high that (car) body went, it would be difficult to have any kind of catch fence that could have prevented it,” Archambeault said.
He said he had never seen an incident like the one Saturday. Typically if the body of the car lifts, he said, it rises vertically and falls back down on the dragway.
“We’ll do an investigation and see what we can do,” he said, declining to talk about possible changes or measures, if any, the NHRA might take as a result of the incident.
Spectator Donald Boulton said the part was lightweight enough that people had enough time to get out of the way. “It popped like a cork out of the bottle and floated down,” he said.
Christian Byrd, zMax general manager, said that fans want to be close to the action.
“Right afterward, fans were begging me, no, no, please don’t make us move back,” said Byrd. “Drag racing is such a powerful, visceral experience. Being as close as possible is part of it.
“So we want to give the fans what they want, of course staying within the parameters of the NHRA and insurance. We are more than compliant.”
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 Jonathan Coleman said the two fans, whose names were not released, were evaluated and released at the scene by paramedics.
Drag racers can reach speeds of more than 315 mph. But that was not the issue Saturday, said a driver.
“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.”
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.”
The Concord track’s four-wide design essentially is set up with two parallel two-lane strips. The two outside lanes are contained by 4-foot high concrete walls that gradually rise to 5 feet high toward the end of the track. Another wall separates the two inside lanes, helping form the two-lane strips.
At the Concord strip, a distance of 60 feet separates the outside walls from the grandstands at the start line, increasing to more than 120 feet at the finish line. There are no catch fences between the track and the grandstands.
Hundreds of fans can line up as many as five deep behind a 5-foot high chain-link fence in front of the grandstand.
Evon Thompson, of Williamsburg, Va., attended with her children and grandchildren.
“It was kind of scary when it was happening, but a lot of relief when it was over,” she said.
Thompson said her family has been going to races all her life, and despite the incident, she’s never worried about dangers.
Thompson said she hopes people will still be allowed to stand at the fence.
This is not the first time the NHRA has had problems with equipment leaving the track. In 2010, a fan in Chandler, Ariz., was killed when she was hit by a tire that flew off the Top Fuel Dragster of Antron Brown. A wheel stud that bent and broke in Brown’s car -- allowing the tire to fly off – was taken out of circulation in the Top Fuel and Funny Car divisions.
NASCAR had an issue with equipment flying into the stands this year when a wreck injured more than two dozen race fans at Daytona. The violent, 12-car accident on the last lap of the Nationwide Series race at Daytona International Speedway in February tore a hole in the safety fence and sent debris – including a wheel – careening into the front-stretch grandstand.