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Why (I think) T.Ped survived but Scott Kalitta did not... (1 Viewer)


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Sorry for this ultra-long post, but I've been working on this for a while...

I was at the finish line in Englishtown when Scott Kalitta made his last pass, and it was very clear from the moment he hit the sand trap that his was a terrible accident that was only survivable if a true miracle occurred. I've seen a good number of racing incidents in my 20 years as a fan...explosions, fires, crashes, blow-overs...but nothing remotely resembled the gut-wrenching experience of watching Kalitta run out of track so very quickly and disappear in an exploding ball of fire and dust. It's an image that is seared into my visual memory like no other. Incidentally, I did not see the actual engine explosion and body disintegration...I was in a crowd of spectators on the second floor of the finish line tower, and my view was obstructed from about the 1250 ft mark til maybe 100 ft past the finish line. I saw the car until the instant just before the explosion, then lost sight of it until it "came out of the crowd" a moment later. By that time, most spectators, awed by the explosion, were watching the Solara body parts cartwheeling in the sky (a few major sections landed, on fire, mere yards away), but I focused on the car hurtling down the track, not slowing in any obvious way. What I witnessed, but what many around me missed, was something I hope to never see again...the exact moment of a violent death.

My initial thought and prayer was that he was actually unconscious, or even dead, as he rocketed down track...how else to explain the absence of an effort to slow down? The force of the initial explosion was certainly tremendous, and the circumstances reminded me of a question I've wondered about forever: how come shrapnel from massive engine explosions and car body disintegrations don't kill drivers virtually instantly all the time? They are driving right into a shrapnel field that must be slowing down much more quickly then the car itself is. These types of accidents are certainly not rare, but I've never heard of a driver suffering laceration wounds or being knocked out by a blow to the head by flying debris. I know blankets do a lot to contain debris, but they are not perfect (see flying debris in this photo of Todd Paton's run just 30 minutes prior to Kalitta's pass: Paton blower debris ). Maybe, as a casual spectator, I'm unaware of the more gory details of the sport, but it seems to me that many drivers (fortunately) walk away from these massive explosions, usually emotionally shaken and with minor injuries, but never seriously lacerated. Maybe, just maybe, Scott Kalitta was not so fortunate.

Since the accident, there has been a tremendous focus on issues related to the length of the shutdown area and deadly obstacles at the end of it, which were, no doubt, the actual things that killed Kalitta (presuming he was still alive at that point). But I think it was really a series of other issues that were the major reason that Scott did not survive an event that so many others have AVOIDED in the past; a veritable perfect storm of problems that prevented Scott Kalitta from successfully doing the things that he needed to do to survive this crash. The ultimate reason for this fatality was his car hitting the end of the track at tremendous speed from which he could not slow...without being able to slow down, he would have very likely been killed in this accident even if the track was 600 feet longer and if there was no concrete post or boom crane to hit. The blunt force of hitting any stationary object at that kind of speed (and hitting something was inevitable) with a very heavy engine in front of you has to be a near lethal certainty, and there are very a few recent examples that I'll use to support my ideas.

First, at the Bakersfield March Meet earlier this year, John Shoemaker was killed in a tragic and very strange crash. His dragster ran a 6.111 at 249.93 (a career best) but after crossing the finish line, his chutes never deployed and the car never slowed. Nothing obvious occurred to cause this; it has been surmised that he may have had a heart attack that prevented him from doing what he need to do to stop, and he hit the end of the track at an estimated 300MPH. in this case, however, there were no major obstructions in his way other than stuff that might be at the end of any track...a dirt field, a berm along a perpendicular street, and an orchard of trees. You don't have to hit what Kalitta hit to be killed at speed, but to avoid being killed, you must be able to slow down.

Tony Pedregon has been involved in two other incidents that offer clues to support what I surmise was the real cause of Scott Kalitta's tragic death. The first and most obvious was T-Ped's tremendous engine explosion at the Winternationals in February. That event has been described by many, including Mike Dunn, as one of the most violent engine explosions in the sport's history, blowing the body to smithereens and the car completely off the ground at great speed. Of course, Pedregon survived the blast and was fortunately able to slow the car to a stop, without chutes, on a track that has a notoriously short shutdown area (surprising and increasing numbers of cars go into the sand at Pomona each year). His most serious injury was second degree burns to his right hand, and in my analysis, this injury may well be a major key to understanding the Kalitta accident. Pedregon's right hand was burned badly because his metal brake handle became so hot in the intense fire, but he needed to endure the pain of the burn to stop the car safely. If Scott Kalitta's right hand suffered severe burns, that suggests at least three important things: 1) he was conscious and desparately attempting to brake his car; 2) his efforts were not effective, and; 3) some sort of alternative emergency braking option needs to be devised for cases where the hand brake is not useable.

Kalitta's explosion was quite similar to Pedregon's, with a few critical differences. First, Pedregon's explosion occurred at about the 1000 foot mark, while Kalitta's was at the 1250+ foot mark, which gave Pedregon more remaining track on which to slow a car that was not going as fast. But more importantly, Pedregon's Impala body almost completely disintegrated in the explosion, while Kalitta's did not. In my hypothesis, this was the single most important factor in Kalitta's crash. After buckling significantly from the explosion, his Solara body broke in two distinct sections. The rear two-thirds broke up and flew off, but the front third was forced back onto the car by the extreme downforce of his 300 mph speed. in fact, because the rear part of the body was gone, there was nothing supporting the position of this front section (a full FC body is held in position at two points...the rear attachment points where the body pivots up and the front latch engaged when the body comes down). The departure of the rear of the body meant there was no structural support for what remained, and the forces pushing down pushed this front section down further than it would typically ride. It's also very important to note that Kalitta's burst panel did NOT, in fact, burst away, but remained intact on the remaining front section. I don't know if this played a major factor in events, but it's an intriguing clue to be considered. (All these observations can be confirmed by the amazing still photo sequence shot by Steve Owen, found here: Scott Kalitta pix by Steve Owen ).

The position of the front third of the Solara body is critical for another reason...if it was, like it looks to be in the final photos of the above sequence, pushed further down around the engine than it would otherwise be, the effectiveness of the fire suppression system could have been severely limited. I don't claim to understand exactly how fire bottles work, but my guess would be that they very quickly release a large volume of material in front of the engine in an effort to create an envelope of chemical extinguisher to knock down the flames, and hopefully, extinguishing them all together. If the extinguishing chemicals were blocked by the badly positioned body remnants from reaching the fire source, the fire would burn unabated and immensely complicate Kalitta's attempt to stop the car (especially if a superheated brake handle was preventing Scott from braking fully).

The second incident that Tony Pedregon experienced that offers a clue to what may have happened to Kalitta is a bit more obscure. At the 2005 U.S. Nationals, Tony had a serious starting line mishap when a crew member was trying to lift the Monte Carlo body on the car after his an aborted burnout. The throttle linkage (the configuration of which had been changed somehow before this particular run) got caught on the rising body, causing the engine to surge and the car to lurch forward where crew members stood, despite Tony's desperate effort to hold the car back with the brake. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured, and the fix was no doubt limited to Pedregon's team figuring out how to prevent their linkage getting hung up on their Monte Carlo body, but this suggests to me an issue that I doubt was ever been addressed in any broader way; i.e. the potential that the car body can hook on to the throttle linkage and force the throttle open. In the Kalitta crash, it's possible that the return of the front portion of the Solara body to the chassis of the car after being blown out of position and badly buckled may have hung up on the throttle linkage, turning the car in to an accelerating mass instead of a decelerating one. We can only hope that the Ford blue box on the car will provide data to clarify this possibility. If the throttle was forced open, neither properly deploying chutes nor a useable brake handle would have been at all effective at stopping Kalitta before hitting the sand trap.

What I've detailed above may help explain what caused Kalitta to run off the end of the track and launch into obstacles that should not have been there, but it doesn't address the some of the more general safety solutions that need to be investigated if this sport is to maintain its historic and deserved reputation for dedication to safety.

Again, I'm just a fan of the sport, with no expertise in these things, but it seems to me that stopping cars safely BEFORE they run off the track is becoming critical. All classes of vehicles (including PSM) are running off the end of racetracks with increasing regularity (just 2 days ago two Comp cars ran off on the SAME qualifying run in Norwalk), and that should be a HUGE concern to all, especially NHRA. The down time at events, the damage to vehicles, and, of course, the risk of injury or death, is just too high, and increasing....a trend line that demands absolutely more effective solutions.

The idea of a tailhook solution is not new (I've seen it derided here recently), but I think it has merit. NHRA has mandated the same concrete walls at all national event tracks and they run all the way down to the last turnoff. What if, well past the finish line, but well before the sand (say, starting 500 ft before the sand), they make a series of narrow cuts (maybe no more than 1" wide) thru the retaining walls and across the track to accommodate a series of tailhook cables that can be activated (basically pulled taut just above surface level) by the safety crew at the top end responding to an out-of-control car. A braking pulley system for the cables could be placed on the outside of the walls, and the whole cable and pulley assembly can be made "removable and portable", so that it can be taken from event to event, making the operation and maintenance of such a critical safety equipment the responsibility of the best in the business - the Safety Safari. Additionally, the cost for privately owned tracks would be minimal and the system, once designed, could be installed with great speed and ease at virtually any track. This would also make such a system affordable for each of the seven regional divisions' races, allowing for similar safeguards at divisional event tracks that may have even shorter shutdown areas than the national event facilities.

Before anyone leaps at the chance to criticism this, I'll tell you that I went to Englishtown last week with a friend who'd never been to a drag race before. He happens to be a Navy fighter pilot who lands on carriers, so I posed my idea to him, and here's his response:

I've been thinking about this a bit myself. Many parallels to carrier aviation. The tail hook idea seems reasonable to me. Many airfields use arresting gear, and I think its portable too (there's also a barricade approach, but I think it would be tough to use on the dragsters due to their shape). A carrier jet tail hook probably weighs around 100 lbs. I have a "hook point" from an F-14 in my closet, which I can show you some time, that weighs around 15 lbs. The hook point is the "disposable" part that actually slams into the carrier deck during landing. Carrier jets have a "snubber pressure" which forces the tail hook down so that it doesn't bounce off the carrier deck and miss the arresting cables. Anyhow, a dragster would probably just need a strong spring to keep it down on the ground since it's not descending at 700 feet per minute onto a steel deck. Also, since kinetic energy is KE = 1/2 * mass * velocity^2 a dragster (2500 lbs at 200 MPH) has about one eleventh the kinetic energy of a carrier jet (50000 lbs at 150 MPH) when it hits the arresting gear. This would make for a much lighter, and more feasible, dragster tail hook assembly. It'd also make the arresting gear assembly on either side of the raceway more portable and easy to use. It really doesn't seem that hard to imagine some combination of dead-man switch (no pun intended here) and / or raisable cables to help these guys out. I was pretty surprised to see how little is done to protect the drivers at high speed if they hit an obstacle. There is no personal restraint system that'll ever protect a person hitting a cement wall / tree at high speeds. In cases like Scott's you really need to slow the vehicle down gradually. Seventy feet of loose sand before a CEMENT WALL seems laughably tragic.

This solution would also speak to one of the most adamant demands of the many racers who've expressed great consternation with NHRA over the Kalitta accident...specifically, the lack of standard practices on the multitude of tracks run on during the course of the season. A system such as this could be operated almost identically from event to event, regardless of the length of the shutdown area, so that drivers would have the faith, expectation, and confidence that if an emergency situation arose, the safety system would respond in a predictable and anticipated manner and they (the drivers) would act accordingly (i.e. if "hooked", know to steer to center of track...an "early warning system" of some sort could alert the opposing driver to avoid the unfolding situation in front of him). As drivers have already mentioned regarding ever increasing speeds on tracks that were built before those speeds were imaginable, the spectre of not knowing what obstacles might kill them if should they hit the sand and beyond (or even knowing them but not having the ability avoid them), will force them to choose to roll their cars on purpose, creating a far more dangerous situation for many more people (both other drivers and safety and media personnel).

Anyway, that's all I have to say for now, and again, sorry for the extreme length, but it was the only way I could clarify my thoughts on all this...


Nitro Member
Sorry for this ultra-long post, but I've been working on this for a while...

In the Kalitta crash, it's possible that the return of the front portion of the Solara body to the chassis of the car after being blown out of position and badly buckled may have hung up on the throttle linkage, turning the car in to an accelerating mass instead of a decelerating one.

I think you put a lot of thought into this post, and have made some very good points, however there is only one point I have a question about.... if the engine explosion was that bad.... do you think even if the body DID force the throttle wide open, was there any motor left to keep running and accelerating the car, I would think after the initial engine explosion the throttle position was a moot point as most likely the engine was in a thousand parts by then ... just my thoughts...


Nitro Member
I think you put a lot of thought into this post, and have made some very good points, however there is only one point I have a question about.... if the engine explosion was that bad.... do you think even if the body DID force the throttle wide open, was there any motor left to keep running and accelerating the car, I would think after the initial engine explosion the throttle position was a moot point as most likely the engine was in a thousand parts by then ... just my thoughts...

I was at 1000' the car kaboomed at about 1100'

Never after that was it under power in any way.

Reports were that Scott was awake and attempting to stop.

I do not know if this is true, by Alan believes this to be so, he was closer to many resources than I, and resolutely believes this to be fact.

I do not agree with him on all his observations all the time (who agrees with everyone:rolleyes:) but what he posts carries a lot of weight with me, and I have no reason to doubt.

I believe he was killed by a woefully inadequate shutdown area and many objects that no sane individual would place at the end.

I said it is a lot less words, but that is what I experienced.



Nitro Member
Very interesting observations. Since Darrel Russell I have been amazed at the lack of attention to driver encapsulation (beyond the shielding).

A tub-style 'survival capsule' is not fool proof but has allowed open wheel racers to survive several horrendous accidents over the past twenty years. That it has not been applied to TF and FC strikes me as bizarre.

NHRA would do well to talk to IRL which has been using 'black boxes' for years to gather high speed crash data.

Edited: Just heard (or comprehended) during today's braodcast NHRA is talking to Delphi, which manages the IRL 'black box' system.

It is good to hear they are talking to the FIA about gravel traps and catch barriers.

At least TF and FC each have a form of auto-deployment for the chutes. I can't believe there is still no such system for PS after Koretsky/Allen.

A tail hook system may have possibilities. Some of the work to apply it to cars may already be done, if I recall correctly Mickey Thompson was looking at something like that to allow for indoor shot track drag races before he was murdered.

Something we do have to come to grips with is that in motor sports, people are going to die sometimes. It's actually the nature of any complicated system that if the frequency of incidents are reduced, when they do occur they tend to be more severe.

I am not arguing that no efforts to improve safety be made. That would be insane.

But with all due respect to Scott and everyone lost before him, we have to accept the fact that sometimes horrible things are going to happen.
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Nitro Member
A tail hook system may have possibilities. Some of the work to apply it to cars may already be done, if I recall correctly Mickey Thompson was looking at something like that to allow for indoor shot track drag races before he was murdered.

Mickey did indeed try hook/catchline arrangement for his indoor "Thunder" sand drags. There were several problems with them at that time but nothing that couldn't be solved. I'm just not sure that a tailhook is the answer.


Nitro Member
Brakes are no good when the tires are on fire and melting.. chute needed to work..


Nitro Member
Some fires are so intense that it makes the brake fluid boil and ineffective...kind of like water in your master cylinder.
Bob of Gilbys crew stated the pics he saw show Scott tugging on the handle.
Blunt force trauma IMO....


Nitro Member
...or the lines are compromised, or the master cylinder might have been damaged.


Nitro Member
Like everyone else, I have been thinking about this incident since it happened, and have read and learned a lot about what happened. I have a few thoughts that may or may not be possible, but how about an emergency brake system similar to what is on a travel trailer or race car trailers electric brakes. The cable to activate it could be attached to the burst panel like Worsham has done for his chutes. I know it probably wouldn't completely stop the car, but it would have to help scrub off some speed. The other thing I was thinking of would be a system to disengage the clutch to keep the motor from turning the wheels. Don't know if this would work or help any, but was just trying to think of how to isolate the motor from the drive wheels, and then attempt to apply some form of additional braking to the car. I'm sure some of you guys can tell me if this would or wouldn't work and why, just trying to learn and help some.


Nitro Member
I don't know for a fact if Scott was conscious after the explosion or not. Yet I would assume with his vast experience driving race cars...after the explosion he would have realized his chutes and brakes have failed and would have ran the car into one of the side rails or 'zig-zagged' back and forth to scrub off vehicle speed. Again just an assumption, if he was conscious I can't even try to imagine what was going through his mind. Its easy to sit back and make assumptions I know, but I would think his experience would have resulted in the car slowing down one way or another before the traps if he was conscious. He was a great driver and person.

We don't know if the hydraulic brake system was compromised either.


Nitro Member
Neither do I.
In a way, I was hoping he wasn't.
But Reinhart said he was and was driving to the last.
Someone said there are pics of Scott pulling on the brake handle.

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