SONOMA, Calif. (July 28, 2013) – As the defending event champion, Johnny Gray and the Pitch Energy team had high expectations entering the 2013 NHRA Sonoma Nationals, and with a category best four titles in four final rounds so far this year, the group was confident they would put on a great show for the fans at the racetrack located in California's Napa Valley.
Indeed, the Pitch Energy Dodge was commanding attention, just not the kind the tight-knit crew was looking for. During qualifying, the team battled a gremlin – suspected to be in the ignition system – and were unable to secure a spot in the field until the last session. With the ship righted, Gray blasted into the No. 12 spot with a 4.112 at 306.46 mph in his final shot.
On raceday, Gray proved to have recovered from any issues when in the first round when he clicked off a stout 4.057 at 315.42 mph that was the second quickest of all the Funny Cars in the opening act and held as third quickest through all of the eliminations rounds.
Gray was fired up and quite prepared to illuminate another win light in the second round. He left the starting line ahead of opponent John Force but soon got into trouble. Right around the 330-foot marker, Gray's Pitch Energy Dodge rattled the tires and he pedaled through the tire smoke, but the engine was resistant. The blower exploded and the body of the bright orange Funny Car split in half but stayed tied to the chassis with the new tethering system mandated by the sanctioning body in Denver last week. Gray's vision was obscured by a repositioned piece of his Funny Car and the Pitch Energy Dodge rubbed against the guard wall before he was able to bring it to a stop. The driver emerged from the car apparently uninjured and of his own accord.
"I don't even know what the lights were, what the numbers were down low or anything, but it felt like we left on time, felt like the car was making a nice run, then all of a sudden it just took the tires off," said Gray. "When it took the tires off, the motor turned loose. Something happened in the motor and it blew the blower up. [There is a] new tether system that NHRA mandated and we put on the cars, I told them I didn't want to be the 60-year-old guinea pig, but I guess I was.
"The body did not come off the car. It blew the body up and the tethers yanked the body right back down. But the problem is, it blew the fire-wall up over the windshield. The body didn't come back down square on the go round. We had a nice gap in there, so we had fire coming in under the body and the fire wall was up over the windshield on the car so I couldn't see where I was going. Something hit my right arm pretty hard. I finally got stuff out of the way enough to get to the brake handle and start getting the car shut down, but I had no idea where I was going. It finally eased over and tagged the wall on the right side. I tried to just pull it off the wall a little bit and get it to come to a stop. NHRA arrived on the scene, and luckily the fire was pretty much out. They cut the tethers and started trying to get stuff off the car.
"The problem I have with what happened is that it held the body on the car but it scooted the body back so it was real hard to get out the roof hatch because the body was too far back. Also, the body couldn't have just been raised; there was too much damage and carnage. So with everything that took place, if the car had been really lit up on fire, it would have really been a bad situation.
"We're in negotiations with NHRA right now. Frankly, I do not want to run the tethers until we get some more stuff figured out. We'll see what happens. As I told them, I'm 60 years old, I'm not sure I want to race in Seattle [next week] with this new invention on the car that has good capabilities of getting me hurt. Had this taken place at 1,000-feet instead of [near the 330-foot marker], I'd have been in the sand trap and this wouldn't have been a good deal.
"I don't know how much the other drivers will voice their opinion to the media or to NHRA, but they all voiced their opinion to me. They're all scared to death, and they don't want [the tethers] on their cars. They're not happy about NHRA just saying well we've got to protect the spectators. My question is, okay we've got to protect the spectators, but does that mean the drivers are dispensable? I know I'm 60 and can be replaced, but I'm not in a hurry. And I guess I'm kind of like Forrest Gump, that's all I have to say about that."