There’s nothing quite like watching a Top Fuel dragster reach over 300 mph in a matter of seconds. This is the awe-inspiring intensity brought to you by the sport of NHRA drag racing. With that in mind, it’s not until a major wreck occurs that you truly realize how dangerous the sport can be. These drag racers put their lives on the line every single time they compete.
Take Scott Kalitta’s fatal crash back in 2008, for example. The horrific accident on the Old Bridge Township drag strip completely altered how the NHRA viewed driver safety. Since then, a variety of safety equipment and practices have been added to competition. Despite all the important changes that have been made to the motorsport over the years, each season is still filled with wild accidents and collisions. Here, we’ll looks at seven of the most intense crashes from the past several years.
Leah Pruett’s 2020 Crash in St. Louis
During the second round of eliminations at the 2020 Mopar Express Lane NHRA Midwest Nationals, Leah Pruett experienced the most terrifying wreck of her career. As the NHRA driver made her way down the track, her dragster’s frame bent, causing the front half of her car to completely disintegrate. She went airborne for a moments, and finally came to a stop near the left lane wall.
Amazingly, she exited the car under her own power and sustained only minor injuries that included some bruises and a sprained back. But, as she explained during an interview with NHRA National Dragster, she was prepared for the absolute worst.
I remember seeing the scoreboards, seeing the sky, and at that point thinking, ‘This is happening,’ but I immediately knew there was nothing that I could do at that point except be along for the ride, because once you see the scoreboards and clouds and the sky, it’s over. It was the quietest time because you’re no longer on earth and the engine is still running but you’re in the canopy, and then I did feel myself changing direction and I thought ‘Please don’t let this hurt’; it was a cringing moment of knowing that I was going to fall at some point.
I’m not able to recall the actual touchdown — the Lord gave me a quick moment of taking my memory of the impact away — and I can recall everything from the split second after impact and knowing that I was on the ground. I could feel both [rear] tires and that I had brakes to get that thing stopped. I remember my hands being on the steering wheel and I’m like, “What am I doing? I know there’s nothing [front wheels] up there.” And then it was just the natural reaction to get out as fast as possible. I didn’t know what the fuel situation was or if things are on fire or where Tony [Schumacher is] at. For me the ride was one; I was tall enough to ride that ride, but the ride was over.Advertisement
Antron Brown’s 2013 Crash in Pomona
Antron Brown won his first NHRA championship in 2012, but his crash during the second round of eliminations at the 2013 Pomona Winter Nationals shows that even the best racers can get into big trouble behind the wheel.
When he was halfway down the strip, Brown’s nitro car spontaneously combusted into a ball of fire. Immediately, the car flipped onto its side, crashed into a wall, skid past the finish line of the dragway, finally coming to a stop in the sand. Emergency crews were quick to jump into action and put out the flames. This is one of the many instances where NHRA safety implementations kept a bad situation from becoming much worse.
“I remember turning the fresh air on because the [nitro] fumes were getting to me,” Brown said in a later interview. “Thank God that canopy is on our car because when we hit that sand trap it really kept everything away from me, and kept the fire away from me.”
Brittany Force’s 2018 Crash in Pomona
A break in traction can be severe in drag racing, which Brittany Force found out the hard way during the Lucas Oil Winternationals in 2018.
At the start of the run, you can see the rear wheels of her hot rod break loose, kicking the car sideways. Once those drag slicks gripped up, it shoots her directly into the left lane wall, before she comes back in the right lane. Luckily, her opponent Terry Haddock was able to avoid getting wrapped up in the crash.
Force sustained a concussion and severe bruising in the wreck, and while she didn’t remember anything about the incident as it happened, she later watched video of the crashed and said that “it was much worse than I expected.” But, echoing Brown’s comments in 2013, Force was fortunate that NHRA safety standards prevented her from being in rougher shape.
“For how horrific that crash was, the fact that I came out of it just a little banged up is incredible,” Force said in a post-race interview. “That just shows the safety that we put in these cars.”
John Force’s 2018 Crash in Arizona
Drag racing is such an exhilarating sport because of the high speeds mixed with the relatively close proximity of the cars. But, as John Force’s crash during the NHRA Nationals in 2018 shows, this exciting combination can also be extremely dangerous.
Things got bad for Force when his engine exploded as he was speeding down the strip. As his parachute deployed, Force’s funny car drifted into the other lane. This caused his chute to get caught on Jonnie Lindberg’s car, pulling them both into the wall. Watching the full video, we see Lindberg exit his vehicle. Force was transported to the hospital to be checked by medical professionals, but made his way back to the track in no time.
After being released from the hospital, Force — a grizzled vet and father of NHRA stars Brittany and Courtney — said to reporters, “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.”
Larry Dixon’s 2015 Crash in Gainesville
A structural failure during the first round of qualifying at the 2015 Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals put Larry Dixon in a situation that no drag racer wants to be in.
Near the halfway point of the run, the frame of Dixon’s dragster snapped, sending him flying into the air. He slammed back down and collided with the wall. Surprisingly, his car landed back on its wheels and skidded to a halt. He was examined by medical personnel and released while at the track.
In a post-race breakdown of the wreck, Dixon compared it to a terrifying amusement park scene.
“It’s like a roller-coaster ride that flies off the track,” Dixon said. “Now what are you going to do? You just have to wait to land and hope everything does its job for you.”
While Dixon no doubt realized the severity of the crash, he also added that it was nothing compared to a wreck he went through back in 2000 at Memphis International Raceway that caused much more serious injuries. It’s yet another testament to how far the sport has come where safety is concerned.
“The last time I went through one of those, my eye literally popped out of its socket,” Dixon said. “I had a broken leg and a helicopter ride and all of that. The fact that I’m here and talking to you and have no broken bones and I still have both eyes — all the improvements in the car in the 15 years since I last did this have made a difference.”
Robert Hight’s 2018 Crash in St. Louis
Fox Sports footage shows this unreal moment at Gateway Motorsports Park in St. Louis where Robert Hight won his event but still got caught up in a terrifying explosion at the finish line. After his dragster’s engine blew up, Hight was sent hard into the guardwall, causing him to fracture his left collarbone.
“The next thing I knew the world exploded,” Hight said in a later interview. “It was the worst explosion I’ve had in my career.”
Hight was told that the broken collarbone would take two months to heal, but his indomitable will and a doctor’s second opinion allowed him to be back in action after only a couple of weeks.
J.R. Gray’s 2021 Crash in Denver
Pro Mod driver J.R. Gray had a tough break in Denver back in 2021. Originally, he was out front during his qualifying run at the Dodge//SRT Mile-High NHRA Nationals, but he was in for trouble when his dragster started to veer towards the center line. Gray tried to fight the momentum, but as soon as his rear tire touched the line, he lost traction, sending him sideways. He collided with the wall, and his pro mod car flipped onto its roof and slid for a while before coming to a stop.
Despite the severity of the wreck, Gray fortunately exited the car under his own power. His comments after the wreck, as is the case with most NHRA drivers, was the verbal equivalent of brushing yourself off and getting ready for the next race.
“I’m okay, just hurt my pride a little,” Gray said “Experience only comes in one way as a driver.”
This probably goes without saying, but NHRA drivers are the ultimate badasses.