2017 NHRA U.S. NATIONALS - SPORTSMAN NOTEBOOK
FINAL NOTEBOOK - HART, LOMBARDO, AND HELMS EARN FIRST WINS IN INDY
The Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series was in full effect during the 63rd annual NHRA Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals. Josh Hart, John Lombardo Jr., and Kevin Helms raced to victory at Lucas Oil Raceway
Hart, Ocala Fla., and Megan Meyer, Olathe, Kan., lined up against each other in the final round of Top Alcohol Dragster. Meyer was 1-0 against Hart in prior final round appearances heading into this final round. Hart took the starting line advantage and powered his way down the track at 5.307 seconds, 274.33 mph to take the win. Meyer followed up at 5.364 seconds, 275.79 mph. This was both drivers’ first final round appearances at the U.S. Nationals.
California rivals Lombardo Jr., Brea, Calif and Doug Gordon of Paso Robles, Calif., made their final round debuts at the U.S. Nationals. Lombardo took off first, Gordon stayed with him but had mechanical issues. Lombardo was able to pull away for the Top Alcohol Funny Car national event Wally trophy, running 5.485 seconds, 269.08 mph. Gordon registered a runner up pass of 5.715 seconds, 262.64 mph.
Helms, Plant City Fla., earned his first win at Indy as he left the gate first and kept Marion Stephenson Williamsport, Ind., behind him in the Super Stock final round.
Brad Plourd, Holly Pond, Ala., cruised down the strip in his Ford Roadster for the easy win in the Comp Eliminator final round; Mike Farrell, Louisville, K.y., triggered red at the starting line.
The other drivers visiting the winner’s circle were: Larry Gilley in Stock; Ray Connolly in Super Comp; Kevin Adams in Super Gas; and David Barton in Factory Stock Showdown.
The following are Monday's final results from the 63rd annual Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis:
Top Alcohol Dragster
Josh Hart, 5.307, 274.33 def. Megan Meyer, 5.364, 275.79.
Top Alcohol Funny Car
John Lombardo Jr., Chevy Camaro, 5.485, 269.08 def. Doug Gordon, Camaro, 5.715, 262.64.
Brad Plourd, Ford T Roadster, 14.529, 93.36 def. Mike Farrell, Chevy Roadster, Foul - Red Light.
Kevin Helms, Dodge Challenger, 9.122, 137.86 def. Marion Stephenson, Chevy Cobalt, 9.737, 129.98.
Larry Gilley, Dodge Dart, 10.622, 123.07 def. Darrell Steiger, dodge Challenger, 10.619, 123.54.
Ray Connolly, Dragster, 8.931, 171.79 def. Edmond Richardson, Dragster, 8.937, 168.72.
Kevin Adams, Chevy Nova, 9.920, 154.10 def. Samantha Coughlin, Chevy Corvette, 9.920, 164.57.
Factory Stock Showdown
David Barton, Chevy Camaro, 8.181, 164.53 def. Stephen Bell, Camaro, 8.214, 165.48.
Sidnei Frigo, Chevy Corvette, 6.318, 203.68 def. Troy Coughlin, Corvette, 9.079, 122.76.
SUNDAY - TOP ALCOHOL DRAGSTER / TOP ALCOHOL FUNNY CAR NOTEBOOK
YOUNG GUN PART I - Racing has always been in the blood of Justin Ashley.
From the days watching his father, Mike Ashley, campaign a Pro Mod and Funny Car in NHRA competition, to getting his own big car credentials last fall, Ashley has seen a meteoric rise through the NHRA ranks.
In just four national events behind the wheel of Randy Meyer’s A/Fuel dragster, the EPIC Motorsports Marketing/Reality Warehouse-sponsored driver has notched two wins and a runner-up during his rookie season.
Not a bad start for the second-generation racer.
“It’s absolutely amazing. Randy Meyer does such a great job. This entire team, from top to bottom, do an awesome job putting us in a position to win every time down the track,” Ashley said. “We get a lot of support from a lot of different companies, but the bottom line is, without my father and mother, I wouldn’t be in a position to do this.”
But with each passing day, Ashley continues to step out of the shadow of his father and into a starring role in his own story.
In June, Ashley, 23, earned his Top Fuel driving credentials behind the wheel of the Matco Tools-sponsored dragster normally driven by Antron Brown.
And, in addition to his success on the track, Ashley also recently started up a successful real estate venture, further pushing him into the limelight as a true success story.
“The business side of things makes this even more fun out here,” Ashley said. “I started my own business last year and, like everything else, there are lots of ups and downs and growing pains. It is just like racing. I enjoy the business, enjoy being in real estate, but I also enjoy being out here racing. And a lot of the same lessons you learn in business apply at the track. They go hand-in-hand.”
So what’s next for the young New Yorker?
First up, trying to keep his spot atop the Top Alcohol Dragster category after qualifying No. 1 and surviving two rounds on Sunday. In one of those rounds, his opening round matchup with Jackie Fricke, Ashley faced a scare when the two drivers recorded identical 5.258 elapsed times, but Ashley advanced on a holeshot. He also recorded a win over Marty Thacker to advance to the semifinals.
Next, who knows.
“Like a lot of people out here, I have a dream of racing Top Fuel one day. For now, I need a lot more experience in these A/Fuel cars and just more laps,” Ashley said. “The plan right now is to race a few more years in A/Fuel. After that, I will take it one year at a time and see where life takes me.”
YOUNG GUN PART II - For veteran driver-turned-owner Randy Meyer, young Justin Ashley is not the only rising star on his A/Fuel race team.
His own daughter, Megan Meyer, is also making a name for herself in the Top Alcohol Dragster ranks, collecting wins and consistent finishes throughout her sophomore season and placing the youngster second in the national standings behind only Joey Severance.
A racer since she was just 10-years-old, getting her feet wet in Junior Dragster before moving to Super Comp and, eventually, a big show dragster, Meyer is right in the thick of the NHRA national championship hunt and a series contender this weekend in Indy, qualifying No. 4 and surviving two rounds of eliminations on Sunday.
So, after years of watching her father collect trophies and championships, did she ever expect to be where she is so soon?
“I did, but I didn’t,” a confident Meyers admitted. “My dad has been racing for almost 40 years. He has been in alcohol for almost 20 years. So we have lot’s of experience, lots of data, so I knew that we would take that with us when my dad stepped out of the seat and I took over.
“I have been racing for 14 years now, so I know how to race. I know what to do. So I have all the confidence in the world.”
But despite all the wins Meyers’ race team has collected, a trophy from Indy, in the family patriarch’s home state of Indiana, has eluded the crew, something Meyer hopes to eleviate this weekend.
“As a team, we have never won Indy. This is kind of our home track because my dad is originally from Indiana. So we have a lot of family here and it would be great to have them in the winner’s circle with us on Monday.”
And, more importantly, a deep run on Monday would help Meyer make up ground on national points leader Severance, who isn’t at the race this weekend.
“With Joey not being here, I want to make it to the finals and rack up as many points as I can,” Meyer said. “I want to get that championship over him.”
UPSET CITY - There were a number of upsets in round one on Sunday in the Top Alcohol Dragster category, none bigger than Fred Hanssen’s big win over Duane Shields in round one. Hanssen qualified 15th, but took down the former winner and three-time runner-up at the U.S. Nationals with a 5.375 to Shields’ 5.361. Sunday was the first time the two drivers had ever met.
John McCarthy has fielded the question so many times he stopped keeping track.
Why, would anyone in their right mind, choose a 1960 Chevrolet Kingswood Station, as a race car?
"You’re not the first person to ask who looks at a ’60 Chevy Wagon and thinks, ‘I want to race that," McCarthy responded with a laugh. "In 1978 we started racing Stock Eliminator, MJ Quinn and myself, and we really couldn’t afford a fast car. It was a way for us to be able to run NHRA Stock Eliminator. We built the car originally; it was a two barrel car, ran X Stock Automatic. But when they changed the rules to where no V8’s and W, X, Y, and Z, we put the four barrel on it and moved up to U/Stock Automatic."
In Thursday's class eliminations at the Chevrolet Performance NHRA U.S. Nationals, McCarthy managed to bite, scratch and claw his way to a runner-up in a class now held hostage by 302-powered, Mustang II race cars.
Despite the clear performance disadvantage, and the we're not fast, but we are slow image, McCarthy says the car in some aspects resembles a race car.
"The car leaves really good," McCarthy said. "If you watch it, it actually picks the front wheels up and everything. But after you shift second, it’s kind of like slow motion. When you first leave, it feels like it’s going pretty fast, but it’s a different ride. I’ve raced other things, but it’s my favorite."
And slowly but surely, the classic, rare Chevrolet has picked up a fan following amongst those attending the preliminary days of the U.S. Nationals.
"Everybody likes the underdog," McCarthy said. "And over the years, I’ve now become the underdog. Everybody loves to see me race the Factory Stock cars. I ran (Bo) Butner up here two years ago, and it was amazing. I was in high gear before he left.
"We got to the finish line; he beat me by 12 inches. When I looked at the scoreboards, and looked down, and he was turned off the end of the track already. I was just about halfway to the turn-off. At 160 miles an hour he got there pretty quick at the finish line."
And McCarthy is, well ... consistent.
ALL IN THE FAMILY - One thing you will rarely hear from a driver is a lack of enthusiasm in moving up to the big leagues.
But that is exactly the sentiment for Top Alcohol Funny Car driver Doug Gordon, who is just fine right where he is.
“I’ve thought about maybe being in a Top Fuel or Funny Car over the years, but I never really did anything like that,” Gordon said. “This is way more fun.”
“I just like the competition. I’ve run Junior Dragsters, I’ve run alcohol, I have fun in all of them because I like the competition,” Gordon said. “As long as I can compete in something and, at the end of the day, get to hang out, have a beer with our buddies, it is fun to me.
“I mean, it costs too much and takes up too much time to not have fun out here.”
So what does Gordon attribute to that extra level of fun in the alcohol ranks?
A unique and unmatched family atmosphere, something that is rare in big-time competition.
“This alcohol category is really big for that,” Gordon said. “There are a lot of family teams. I am very lucky to get to race with my mom and my dad, my wife and kids get to come most of the time. I mean, when the last thing I see before going down the track is my father, that is pretty cool.”
As for this weekend, a trip to Indianapolis means so much to Gordon, as he tries to honor the memory of a dear friend each time he comes here.
“I was with Blaine Johnson in 1991 when we came and won Indy. But I was a kid,” Gordon said. “Blaine died here in 1996 and last year, 20 years after his death, we qualified No. 1 and were going up through the rounds. I thought, ‘how cool would it be to win for Blaine.’
“We didn’t win last year, but I realized how much that would mean. I saw how big a deal Indy really was. I actually saw the people and felt the vibe. It’s a big deal being here and I would love to turn that into a win.”
And he will once again have an opportunity to win one for Blain as Gordon advanced to the semifinals with wins over Phil Burkart and Larry Dixon on Sunday. He will face Steve Gasparrelli in round three.
SLOWER DOES NOT MEAN EASIER - Last season, Tripp Tatum realized a lifelong dream when he took the reigns of the Lagana brother’s Nitro Ninja Top Fuel dragster and contended for the Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future rookie award.
He qualified for his first three races, won his first round in his very first start, and made a stout field at this very race - the U.S. Nationals - one year ago.
This season, Tatum is again back in competition at the biggest drag race in the world, this time competing in the alcohol ranks in Rich McPhillips’ A/Fuel dragster.
So, after a year in the big leagues, and making a mark at Indianapolis a year ago, what is it like being back behind the wheel this weekend?
“Believe it or not, I was more nervous coming back to drive this car after a year than I would be getting in a fuel car,” Tatum admitted.
So why the race day jitters?
“It is focusing on driving that quarter-mile. As funny as that sounds, that extra 320 feet, I am not used to driving that far,” said Tatum, who first got his alcohol license back in 1989. “When you are driving a Top Fuel car, it just moves so much harder. To me, you have to have even more finesse, but at the same time you have to know how to get after it at just the right time.
“Also, because I am now used to something that is faster, when I am something going a bit slower, I am always wondering if something is wrong. Is a cylinder out? Do I have a problem? It is just different. It takes some laps to get back in the groove.
Unfortunately, Tatum’s return to Indianapolis in the alcohol ranks did not go exactly as planned, as he struggled to a No. 12 spot on the ladder and fell out in round one to Chris Demke on Sunday.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF HORSEPOWER - Drag racing is all about horsepower.
Who has the most of it, how you make it connect to the track, and can you put it all together on race day.
But for Top Alcohol Funny Car driver Steve Gasparrelli, horsepower has a whole different meaning.
That is because, in addition to his motorsports operation, Gasparrelli also owns Slugo Racing, the nom de course for the Southern California-based driver. And it’s far from just a hobby.
Earlier this year, Gasparrelli earned a runner-up finish at the NHRA event at Pacific Raceways in Seattle in his alcohol-powered Funny Car, but at the same time, on the other side of the country, Gasparrelli took the win in another way. That is because nearly 3,000 miles away, Slugo Racing’s newest horse, Estrechada, rallied three-wide down the stretch to shock a field of fillies and mares in the $200,000 to win Waya Stakes in Saratoga Springs, New York.
It was a huge weekend, for sure, but nothing compared to if Gasparrelli can stay in competition this weekend. He has already done the hard part, making the field from the eighth position, and going two rounds on Sunday. Now, if he can keep it rolling on Monday, Gasparrelli can once again claim the big prize - minus the wreath around the neck.
Gasparrelli defeated former U.S. Nationals champion Andy Bohl and No. 1 qualifier Johan Lindberg to advance to the semifinals. He will face Doug Gordon on Monday.
BAD FAST - Kirk Wolf has one bad ride.
Wolf, driving a dragster owned and tuned by Brandon Booher and the Booher family, sits behind the wheel of the fastest converter car in the world. On Sunday, Wolfe drove the machine that he took over as pilot at the end of last year to a 5.256 at 274 mph, resulting in the quickest run for Wolf and the quickest-ever run for a torque converter car.
“I’m kind of at a loss for words,” Wolf said. “We’ve been working so hard and putting so much money into it and we finally got it in the 20s, which we’ve been trying to do all year. I guess now all that is left is to try and improve to the teens.”
So what makes this combination so good?
“I come from a bracket racing history. I’ve bracket raced all of my life, since I was younger. And when I met Brandon, he told me he had a converter combination. We talked about needing more funds to making everything work, to go fast, go 20s,” Wolf said. “For him to actually let me drive the car, set the records, and get the record, is actually just awesome.”
ON THE ROAD AGAIN - Kim Parker had never been to Indianapolis.
Heck, she had never been east of Las Vegas to go racing.
But after a big win at Seattle earlier this year in her home state of Washington - her first win of any kind in drag racing - Parker got the unique opportunity from car owner Tracey Copeland to pack up and head east for the biggest drag race of the year.
“I have been as far as Vegas and that’s it,” said Parker, who is a school bus driver by trade back in her home state.” When my car owner asked if we wanted to go to Indy, how do you say no to that? You don’t.
“So my husband and I took off in the truck and the rest of the crew flew in. Then my dad will ride with my husband back in my truck because I have to go to work on Tuesday.”
While the trip didn’t result in a round win on Sunday, the experience was one she won’t soon forget, especially coming off of her shocking win.
“I am glad just to be here. Glad to make the show,” Parker said. “I don’t think, even now, it has really sunk in just yet. Yesterday, when we pulled around the corner and, with all of the people in the stands, it really hit me where we are at.
“We didn’t expect to win Seattle that fast. We knew we would do well with this car because it is a fast car. We expected good things out of it, but not that quickly.”
DIXON NO LONGER UNDEFEATED - Larry Dixon was on a fun little hot streak coming into this weekend’s U.S. Nationals, having won every race he had entered in his very first Funny Car ride. But, as these things tend to do. Dixon’s mini-streak came to an end on Sunday as Doug Gordon defeated the three-time Top Fuel champion in round two.
THE COINCIDENTAL ICON - Sometimes second-guessing can pay off.
For brothers Ben, and Dave Wenzel, they were going to buy a car with the intention of drag racing back in 1967. They were intent on getting a brand-new 375-horse, Chevelle to race in NHRA's Stock Eliminator.
Once the Wenzel's saw the Camaro z/28, a 302-inch, 290-horse, 4-speed combination, they knew this was a dog capable of hunting. Five decades later, it's still bagging ducks.
"I bought it to race," Dave said. "I bought it brand new, I ordered it, raced, always been a race car."
When they bought the car on June 6, 1967, a solid plan was in place. Ben would drive, and Dave would make it go faster than the day it rolled off the showroom floor.
The arrangement suits Dave just fine.
"I try to maintain the car, and I don’t maintain as much as I did originally," Dave explained. "Originally I basically built the motors, tuned the carburetors, timing, worked on the transmission. Basic maintenance to a car every week. And now the car with the new stuff is almost maintenance free. We run week after week after week and don’t have to touch the car, although it’s not as compatible as it was originally."
The car first had a 290-horsepower rating and over the years has been upgraded to 309.
The Wenzels have learned being in the right place at the right time has its benefits.
Little did they know when they made from Saginaw, Michigan, to Indianapolis, they would become a part of drag racing history as the first-ever Camaro driver to win an NHRA national event.
Together they've seen a lot of changes to Stock Eliminator since the momentous day in Indianapolis.
"It’s just different," Ben explained. "We were running off of national records in 1967. Now you’ve got an index. Anybody can run an index. But at Indy, you’ve got to go so much under to qualify. I don’t know if it’s changed other than the rigs that people bring. You used to have a tow bar. I mean, we didn’t tow bar this car back then, I had an open trailer."
Unfortunately for the Wenzel's, even though Dave ran -0.870 under the C/Stock index during the Chevrolet Performance NHRA U.S. Nationals, he was unable to crack into the 128-car field.
For as many miles as they have raced their Camaro, and trailed the country with it from east to west, and all parts in between, it's as if they Camaro is like a brother to them.
"A mother," Ben corrected with a smile. "Yeah, you know it’s a part of me. I’ve had the thing forever, and it’s great. Everybody knows us by this car. They don’t know me by the car, they know."
Dave added following their momentous win; people knew their car better than them.
"We went to California, and people came up to us and said, of course, it won the U.S. Nationals right away in ’67, ‘We heard about this car. We didn’t know we’d ever see it."
They couldn't imagine rolling to the starting line with another car other than their first love.
"I wouldn’t want a new Camaro," Ben admitted. "This goes fast enough. It doesn't go fast enough for where we want it to go. But this car, I like the car. It’s part of me and I just like the car. I drove another guy’s car in ’81, a Super Stocker, and that was alright because we didn’t have a competitive car at that time. But some of these guys jump in your car, that guy’s car, that guy’s car, I don’t know if I’d like that or not. I mean they’re in it for the money. I’m in it because I like this car. I just like everything about it."
SATURDAY - TOP ALCOHOL DRAGSTER / TOP ALCOHOL FUNNY CAR NOTEBOOK
PERFECT - You really can’t do much better than perfection.
In two starts behind the wheel of Tony Bartone’s Top Alcohol Funny Car, Larry Dixon is undefeated. Having never competed in the class prior to this season, Dixon has taken to Funny Car like a duck takes to water - or on this case a racer takes to racing - as Dixon can now boast a better win-loss ratio than even 17-time champion Frank Manzo.
“I think I am up to seven full runs in the car now,” Dixon said with a laugh. “I don’t have a lot of experience and the way you get good at these cars is making good runs and bad runs, same as any category. Every run I get down the track - good or bad - is doubling my data. Right now we are just collecting data and hopefully we can make a bunch of full pulls this weekend.”
While Dixon does have some experience in the alcohol ranks, having driven John Mitchell’s Montana Express dragster some years ago, this is the very first time the three-time Top Fuel world champion has been behind the wheel of a Funny Car, creating a whole host of firsts for the veteran racer.
“Nothing I have done in Top Fuel for the last 25 years applies,” Dixon said. “It is everything. The driving style, the leave style, shifting - everything is entirely different. It is as different as night is to day.”
But it certainly hasn’t taken Dixon long to adjust to his new seat. In just his third time out, Dixon placed his machine fifth on the ladder with a 5.455 at 268.92 mph as he looks to keep his undefeated streak alive at the biggest race of them all.
“This is the be-all-end-all of drag racing. I just hope I have a shot at competing and trying to win,” Dixon said. “We tested here last week, giving me some seat time, testing some equipment. I’ll let you know Monday night how it all works out.”
PERSEVERANCE - When you ask Bryan Brown about his trip to Indianapolis in 2016, you will see the eyes roll into the back of his head and be met with an immediate groan.
Because one year ago, Brown had about as difficult a weekend as a driver can have.
“We blew it up five times in six runs,” Brown recalled. “We literally used every single part we had in the whole trailer and bandaged it together. It was frustrating, but you still have fun. Somehow, we still went to the semifinals, so you really can’t complain. As long as you don’t look at the bill until later, it is alright.
“We eventually found the problem and haven’t had a problem since. We did make sure that we didn’t park in the same pit space, I will tell you that.”
So with the bugs out of the system, the demons exorcised, and the car moving in the right direction, things should be pretty smooth sailing this year, right?
“On our way here this year, the transfer switch in the motorhome burned up. I had just laid down to take a nap and I started smelling electrical smoke. Thankfully, I managed to get back there before everything completely burned up,” Brown said. “We got it fixed, but it seems like it is always something. I will tell you we haven’t slept back there yet. It could be months of Febreze before we can.”
CLOSE, BUT NO CIGAR - Annie Whiteley often wonders exactly what it is going to take to win at Indy.
Last year in the final round against Jonnie Lindberg, Whiteley lit the tires just past the tree and came up short. In 2015, Whiteley again lost in the final, this time to Andy Bohl in a great drag race. And in 2013? Another runner-up finish at the U.S. Nationals, this time at the hands of Frank Manzo.
So here we are again. Another trip to Indy, another great car - Whiteley placed her machine second on the ladder with a 5.420-second pass at 274.55 mph, just behind Johan Lindberg - and all the confidence in the world. So what is it going to take to get over the hump?
“To finally win it would be pretty amazing,” Whiteley said. “We were hoping that we might have just a little better luck this year than what we had the last three years. The car is actually running really, really good right now. We just had our career best mile-per-hour. We just have to find a way to get it done.
“What is it going to take? I really don’t know. Maybe for the person in the other lane to just quit trying.”
CHAMPIONSHIP HUNT - Now is the time to strike.
As the season begins to wind down, Shawn Cowie knows that now is as good a time as any to make his move as the battle for the Top Alcohol Dragster championship continues to heat up. And this weekend, with championship leader Joey Severance not in attendance, there has never been a better time to make a move.
“Any driver that says that they don’t count points is lying,” Cowie said. “So yeah, that is in the back of my mind, but really I am out here to have fun with the guys and see what we can do. But it would definitely be pretty cool to win the championship.”
Cowie currently sits third in the national standings, trailing Severance and Megan Meyer by just a handful of points. And with Norm Grimes onboard, having joined the team late last year and having been part of championships with Rick Santos, Jim Whiteley and Severance, the excitement in Cowie’s pit is pretty high at the moment.
“It has been a great year. We have got some wins under our belt and with Norm onboard, things are going pretty well,” Cowie said. “This weekend we were off to a slow start, but we picked it up and got into the top half of the field.”
Cowie qualified seventh with a 5.229 at 273.44 mph.
So what would a win at Indy mean?
“I have been close twice now, maybe the third time's the charm,” Cowie said.
TAKE A CHANCE ON ME - Last year, Josh Hart took part in his first full season in Top Alcohol Dragster competition.
In that first year, Hart tied for second place in the region and were contenders nearly every time they unloaded the car. This year, the team has only continued to improve, having already locked up the regional championship while sitting fourth nationally.
So what has led to a combination of parts and people that have become so successful so all-of-a-sudden? They took a chance.
“I couldn’t ask for a better crew. They are a group of seasoned vets and they took a chance on me, while I took a chance on Gene Gallant who had never crew chiefed a car before,” Hart said. “Hopefully we can stay on this wave of momentum. It has been a lot of man hours, but if you put in the time, you will reap the benefits.”
Hart continued the successful season with a third-place run here at the U.S. Nationals, falling in line just behind Justin Ashley and Duane Shields with a 5.189-second pass at 274.89 mph. Hart will face Kim Parker in round one on Sunday.
THE BIG GO - They don’t call the U.S. Nationals the ‘Big Go’ for nothing.
Touted as the biggest drag race in the world, it is not just the professionals that feel that pressure when pulling into the staging lanes at Lucas Oil Raceway. The sportsman racers feel it as well.
“This is the biggest race in the whole world. It is our greatest wish to just be here racing,” said Top Alcohol Funny Car competitor Ulf Leanders.
Leanders, who calls the country of Sweden home, is here in Indianapolis this weekend with all the confidence in the world, despite recent struggles by the team.
“We’ve struggled a little bit this year. We changed the motor combination and started out really good, but have hit a bump,” Leanders said. “It is a perfectly good motor, it gives a lot of horesepower and it is so easy to work with. We ran Chicago before this and we were one of the fastest there and we are once again among the fastest here. That is what we expect and that is what we are racing toward.”
Leanders will enter eliminations from the sixth position, with a weekend-best 5.459 at 269.40 mph.
BIG ADJUSTMENTS - It is never easy jumping between categories during a race weekend.
Adjusting to the differing powers, the size, the controls of two separate machines, multiple times a day, two or three days at a time, is a challenge for any driver. But most of the time, you will see drivers jumping between machines of similar pedigree. Super Stock and Stock. Varying dragsters. Comp classes.
But Pro Stock and Top Alcohol Dragster? There aren’t many similarities there, which makes the challenge for NHRA pro Alex Laughlin all the more daunting.
“These two cars, they absolutely couldn’t be any more different,” Laughlin said. “This one (Pro Stock) you leave with your left foot, that one you leave with your right. Where my shifter is in one car is the brakes in the other. I’ve got enough laps between the two now that I can keep them separated, but it still takes some additional concentration.”
But the very first time Laughlin tried to double-up in a race weekend, it didn’t exactly go as planned.
“The first time I ever ran the dragster, once I got staged, I went to put the pedal to the floor to stall it up like you do a Pro Stock car and the car went down the track,” Laughlin said.
So are there any advantages to running two cars in a weekend?
“I think the more times that you see the tree and react in race conditions the better,” Laughlin said. “I think that part does help, but as far as everything else, the cars are so different that it doesn’t really matter.”
But there certainly wasn’t any help in running both classes this weekend, as Laughlin could only manage a 5.469 in his dragster, placing him last in the 23-car field, while in Pro Stock he did manage to qualify in the top half of the field.
FOR THE KIDS – For the third consecutive year, driver John Lombardo Jr., car owner Rick Jackson, and the entire NAPA Filters/Lucas Oil Top Alcohol Funny Car team joined forces to raise funds for Hoosier Burn Camp and the Racers for Christ Kids Program.
Through an online auction and a day at the races hosted by the team, Lombardo brings children from the Hoosier Burn Camp to the track for a fun-filled day at no expense to their families. Other drivers, such as Jack Beckman, Angelle Sampey, Cory Reed, Allen Johnson, Megan Meyer, Ashley Sanford and others join in the food by signing autographs and playing games with the kids.
“How do you make the U.S. Nationals - the largest and most prestigious NHRA drag race of the year - even more special? You share it with a group of kids that have overcome challenges most of us can’t fathom,” Lombardo said. “Saturday we welcomed families from the Hoosier Burn Camp of Indiana and had an opportunity to share our passion for drag racing with them. It means a lot to us to have the opportunity to spend the day with some great families and we hope they enjoyed it.”
As for the actual competition, Lombardo is still seeking that elusive first U.S. Nationals Wally, a feat that car owner Jackson achieved in 2008 with driver Von Smith.
“It’s going to be a battle to the end,” Lombardo said. “The competition in this category is at an incredibly high level. We have a great team that embraces the opportunity to race in important situations, and they never stop looking for ways to get better.”
UPS AND DOWNS - Sometimes it is hard to pinpoint exactly why a team fluctuates from season to season, race to race.
Sometimes it is the track. Other times it is the conditions. A lot of times it is the car.
But for Mia Tedesco, a season that was filled with firsts and plenty of successes the last couple of years, has given way to a collection of ups and downs in 2017 as the team tries to find that perfect combination.
“It has been a crazy season for sure,” Tedesco said. “We have had ups and downs in both cars. We were so successful last year in the Super Gas car and this year not so much. We have found ourselves on the wrong side by a few thousandths here and there, but it is what it is. It is drag racing. It is a humbling sport.
“As for this car, we got the new chassis, so we knew coming out at the beginning of the season it was going to be a challenge and be a lot different, but we are figuring it out. We starting to make good runs, starting to learn this thing. But we are continually growing and getting better.”
In 2017, Tedesco finds herself eighth nationally in the Top Alcohol Dragster ranks in the CARS Protection Plus machine. This weekend, Tedesco placed her ride eighth on the ladder as well with a weekend-best pass of 5.255 at 272.23 mph.
“Everyone is out here doing what they have to do to get good qualifying positions and win races. Sometimes you just have to slow down at a race like this and embrace it. Realize that you are here and be thankful that you can do this,” Tedesco said. “We are on a bit of a role, we’ve won back-to-back division races, so it helps having that confidence and momentum. We are happy right now, just trying to tune it and get a little bit faster.”
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - THE WHOLE PROGRAM GETS UNDERWAY WITH ALCOHOL JOINING THE PARTY
FOLLOWING IN THE FOOTSTEPS - Ten years ago, an impressionable 12-year old Justin Ashley watched his father, then fuel Funny Car racer Mike Ashley, drive his way to a magical NHRA U.S, Nationals champion.
The magnitude of the accomplishment stuck as a lasting memory for Ashley.
Friday, during the first day of qualifying at the Chevrolet Performance NHRA Nationals, the second-generation Ashley was the quickest Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series racer on the property as he drove Randy Meyer's A/Fuel dragster to a 5.164 elapsed time at 277.83 miles per hour.
"To be able to lead both sessions, at a race this prestigious, and one that remains special in my heart is a pretty awesome experience," Ashley said. "We are just going to do what we can to maintain this pace and step up when we can."
Slipping into second was Chris Demke, while Ashley's teammate Megan Meyer was third. Dave Kovar's 5.402 anchors the 16-car field.
DANIELS REPEATS THE FEAT - James Daniels, for the second consecutive season, will leave the NHRA U.S. Nationals $15,000 richer.
Daniels, behind the wheel of the Ray Barton-themed Dodge Dart, used a .01 reaction and an 8.404 elapsed time to beat Wendell Howes, who spun the tires at the hit and coasted through the lights at 9.923 seconds.
With the win, Daniels further added to the family legacy in the event started by his father, Jim, who claimed victory in 2010.
"It's an unbelievable experience," Daniels said of winning the Mopar HEMI Challenge for the second consecutive year. "I can't describe it."
Daniels entered Friday's eliminations as the second seed and used a torrid 9.4-second pace to open with a win over a red-lighting Bucky Hess. He then eliminated Gus Mantas in the quarters, and Steve Comella in the semis.
Although Wendell Howes didn't claim the top prize at the end of the day, he was still was pleased with a runner-up finish in the premier Sportsman race for the Mopar brand.
"The event was great, I think everybody had a good time," said Howes, who hails from Rothesbay, New Brunswick. "He (Daniels) went down, I didn't. As far as the staging goes, it was just a matter of who wanted to blink first."
For his part, Howes entered eliminations at the third quickest qualifier and took out Mark Howes, Stephen Yantus and Steve Kent to reach the finals.
Along with his $15,000 payday, Daniels also received a unique trophy weighing 42.6 pounds. The top sixteen finishers in the event received a cash payout, while all competitors were provided with special decals, hats and limited-edition posters.
Gary Wolkwitz was the No. 1 qualifier but fell in the first round to No. 9 qualifier Jim Pancake.
STILL RACING ON SUNDAY, SELLING ON MONDAY - When you are born into this family, there are certain requirements. Carl Tasca knew this from the first time he climbed behind the wheel of a Ford vehicle.
Decades later, the lesson resonates through him on the quarter-mile of the Lucas Oil Raceway.
Tasca, the son of automotive icon Bob Tasca Sr., races in the modern version of "race on Sunday, sell on Monday;" the mantra made famous by his innovative auto dealership owning father.
"I’ll tell you, living with my father was basically being in Disneyland every day," Tasca said of his father who passed away in 2010. "And the fact that I’m doing this now to honor his memory on the 50th Anniversary of Cobra Jet is very, very special to me and every member of my family, and all the Tasca employees back home."
Tasca, of Creston, RI., drove his 2016 Mustang to ninth on the qualifying grid for the Factory Stock Showdown field with an 8.253, 164.25.
"There is no question that it worked back in the 60’s and 70’s, but I didn’t know it was going to keep going for these many years," Tasca said. "But I guess when you do something that’s really good, it lasts."
Make no mistake, Tasca was surrounded by enough talented drag racers who taught many valuable lessons he still retains today.
"I grew up around the best drag racers in the world," Tasca said emphatically. "Billy Lawton, who was better than Billy with a stick shift in the 60’s? Billy taught me how to shift. Of course, now I’m driving an automatic, everybody teases me for that, but this class is automatic. But I don’t do it professionally, I just do it just for fun and just to keep the name going on Cobra Jet.
"And the great thing about this car is it was made by The Ford Motor Company. This was not home made in some race shop. I bought this from The Ford Motor Company, and it’s special. He built one heck of a race car, let me tell ya."
In an era when some parents might have discouraged their children from the dangers of drag racing, Tasca said Bob was all for his second oldest of three sons running up and down the strip.
"He loved drag racing, he loved The Ford Motor Company," Tasca explained. "My father was known for loving his family, his friends, and The Ford Motor Company. That’s how he lived his life."
And to see his name in high regard touches Tasca.
"It means everything," Tasca said. "My father was a great guy; my mother’s a great lady, she’s still alive. We’re just one tight knit family. We live together, we work together, and it just means the world to me. And I get just a tremendous thrill out of competing with this car. And I love the stories about my dad. It’s amazing how much one man accomplished in one lifetime."
NO TIME LIKE THE LAST SESSION - Comp veteran Frank Aragona, of Freehold, NJ., stepped up in the final session to take the No. 1 spot in Comp Eliminator as he ran a 7.305 elapsed time, -0.775 under the E/Dragster Automatic index. Finishing in second was the K/Altered Automatic '32 Bantam of Clint Neff with Greg Kamplain's B/Econo Dragster in third.
STILL THE ONE - Ernie Neal remained atop the Super Stock field with a 9.482, -1.568 effort.
SUPER PERFORMERS - In the indexed-bracket divisions, William Riddle (8.905) and Scott Udenberg (9.900) head into Saturday's eliminations as the top seed in their respective categories.
REUNION OF SORTS - Travis Gusso returned to Competition Eliminator racing this weekend in Indy, a year shy following a two-car accident with Ray Skillman. Skillman lost control of his E/Altered Automatic Mustang and crashed.
Skillman's Mustang ran a 7.732 only to make a hard move to the left, impacted the wall and rolled while airborne. The car landed on the tires with a stuck throttle and eventually came to a stop.
Gusso, in an evasive maneuver, drove into the sand when his parachute failed to deploy.
Gusso and Skillman lined up together in Comp Eliminator qualifying. This time with no problems.
THURSDAY NOTEBOOK - STOCK TAKES CENTER STAGE AT THE BIG GO
MADE IN THE U/SA - The combination might not be the fastest, but it sure butchered the index in second day Stock qualifying. U/Stock Automatic represented three of the top five position, and leapfrogging to the top was B.J. Graham, who drove her '76 Mustang II to a -1.675 hit against the 14.85 index with a 13.175 elapsed time. Falling into second was the nearly identical U/SA combination Mustang II of Gary Summers, who was -1.604 under.
Wednesday's provisional No. 1, Bill Dyer, broke up the U/Stock Automatic lovefest, with his FS/K 2010 Mustang.
THURSDAY'S CLASS WINNERS - Thursday is the qualifying day normally reserved for class eliminations. These are this year's winners.
A/S Caleb McFarland
B/S Joseph Martens
C/S Ken Vaughn
D/S Kyle Kohr
E/S Tom Gillam
F/S Bill Sempsrott
G/S John Hladky
I/S Shane Smith
K/S Tommy Turner
W/S Ellis Buth
AA/SA Mark Madison
A/SA Steve Wann
B/SA J. Allen Sherman
C/SA Jason Line
D/SA Andrew Hill
E/SA Darrell Steiger
F/SA Chuck Beach
G/SA Mitch Kight
H/SA Rod Butcher
I/SA Katie Sepanek
J/SA Jim Marshall
K/SA Jim Hale
M/SA Marcus Widuch
N/SA Steve Sullivan
O/SA Paul Wong
P/SA Marty Buth
U/SA B.J. Graham
V/SA Warren Birkett
EF/S Steve Polhill
FS/B Brett Candies
FS/C Jim Boburka
FS/D Victor Cagnazzi
FS/E Jeff Taylor
FS/G Luke Ubelhor
FS/H Ricky Pennington
FS/K Bill Dyer
FS/F Daren Poole-Adams
UP FOR THE CHALLENGE? - Gary Wolkwitz retained his top spot through the final qualifying session for the Mopar HEMI Shootout scheduled for Friday. He ran an 8.443, -0.857 under the SS/AH index.
The much-anticipated event pits Super Stock Automatic HEMI (SS/AH) drivers competing in 1968 Dodge Darts and Plymouth Barracudas head to head for a $15,000 top prize and a unique trophy. The vehicles are the original Mopar package cars and served as the precursor to today's Mopar Dodge Challenger Drag Pak.
Wolkwitz is no stranger to very quick times, as he is also the current SS/AH national record holder. However, he said he has struggled to find power recently, making the No. 1 effort a pleasant surprise. Last year's HEMI Challenge winner, Jimmy Daniels, qualified second in his '68 Dart with an 8.501-second elapsed time on the famed quarter mile just outside Indianapolis.
The top 16 finishers in the Mopar HEMI Challenge each receive a cash payout, with all competitors receiving hats, decals and special limited-edition posters. The event has become one of the most anticipated programs for Sportsman racers each year.
Elimination rounds get underway at 10:30 a.m. on Friday morning, with the final round scheduled to take place between the first Funny Car and Top Fuel qualifying sessions later in the evening.
WEDNESDAY NOTEBOOK -
NEAL IS THE REAL DEAL - Veteran Super Stock racer Ernie Neal, of Columbus, Ind., was the class of Super Stock division with his GT/N Cavalier, running -1.505 under the 11.05 index. He edged out Larry Zavala, who ran a 9.705, -1.295 with his SS/JA 1989 Camaro.
On the other end of the spectrum, Sean Dornan sits on the bubble with his SS/BA Belvedere with a -.469, 9.431.
The top 14 qualifiers in Super Stock were all one-second under the index.
DYER MAKER - Bill Dyer's Factory Stock/K Mustang went to the top of Stock in Q-1 with a 10.312 elapsed time, -1.588 under the 11.90 index. Usual top qualifier Gary Summers' and his index-bashing U/Stock Automatic was second quickest with a 13.269, -1.581 under the index.
Pro Stock ace Drew Skillman sits on the bubble with an 8.882, -.818 under the Factory Stock/A index.
A whopping 44 Stock qualifiers all went one second under their respective indexes.
BARTON PACES FACTORY STOCK - David Barton jumped out early in Factory Stock Showdown qualifying, as he pushed his COPO Camaro to an 8.158 elapsed time at 164.91 miles per hour.
DARTING TO THE TOP - In Mopar Hemi Challenge competition, Gary Wolkwitz was quickest with an 8.443 elapsed time at 156.75 miles per hour.
Qualifying resumes on Thursday morning at 8 AM, with Stock class eliminations scheduled for later in the day.
PRITCHETT PULL DOUBLE DUTY - Leah Pritchett was busy on Wednesday, and for a change had little to do with her Papa John's Pizza sponsored dragster. She's also entered into the Factory Stock Showdown behind the wheel of a Mopar Dodge Challenger Drag Pak.
"I think I'm starting to get a feel for this car," Pritchett said. "It certainly isn't as fast as a Top Fuel dragster, but it's a very different car to drive. It does big wheelstands, and with a small (nine-inch wide) tire, you have to be very careful in the way you drive it.
"I have a very limited number of passes with this car. We’ve been all over the place trying to find our baseline. And even coming here to U.S. Nationals, we’ve got new a new motor, we got new shocks, so we’re still testing so to speak."
Pritchett was seventh quickest with an 8.304 elapsed time at 162.82 miles per hour.
"The biggest challenge about driving this car is trying not to fall in love with it," Pritchett said. "I’m in love with the class; I’m in love with this car, I’m in love with it. I haven’t even been able to compete in it yet."
Pritchett has learned how to compartmentalize the difference between 1,000 and 10,000 horsepower drag race vehicles.
"Things are slowed down for me I would say compared to a Top Fuel Dragster, so I feel like I’m able to process exactly what’s happening from how the launch is at," Pritchett explained. "Being able to feel in a car that I’ve really never been able, never really drove and give data back to my guys at Mopar, and for it to be spot on, and then I get to learn more about what I felt it’s super cool. It’s awesome."
Getting to race in the Lucas Oil Racing Series today has enabled Pritchett to experience a part of the sport she missed as an up and coming driver.
"I went from Jr. Dragster to Nostalgia Eliminator 1, which is a 7.60 index," Pritchett said. "So I had trans-brake. And then we went 7.0 Pro racing, swapping out Funny Car bodies on that."
And, no disrespect to her fueler, this Challenger is a special kind of car.
"This thing is a race car," Pritchett said. "It’s a cool feeling. You can’t even really put them in the same universe from Top Fuel to what we’re doing over here. But the coolness factor and the drivability factor. I mean, it’s still competition, and it’s still hitting a light, and it’s still banging gears, and it’s still tuning it when you get back. That’s what drag racing is."
BO KNOWS SPORTSMAN RACING - With windows lowered and radio blaring, James E. “Bo” Butner III inched the ’72 Chevrolet Nova into position for his maiden bracket race at Ohio Valley Dragway.
More than two decades later, Butner still chuckles at the memory.
“I had no clue what I was doing, obviously,” he said. “It was the first time I had gone to the track. I didn’t even know how to do a burnout. I lucked out and won the race.”
Butner, CEO of the automobile dealership started by his late father in 1955 on the Lewis and Clark Parkway in the southern Indiana town of Clarksville, hasn’t lifted his foot off the accelerator since that humid summer evening at the dragstrip near Louisville, Kentucky.
“Growing up, I was around cars all the time but never around any kind of racing,” said Butner, 43, a resident of Floyds Knobs, Indiana. “I was interested in street racing, which is why I bought from a local guy the Chevy Nova that I knew as being a really bad street car. I took that car, played around with it a little while and took it over to Ohio Valley one night.
“I took the bait; I guess you just get hooked. Then you put a roll cage in the car and buy a better transmission, and then it never ends. It makes you work really hard to be able to afford it.”
While working full time at the dealership, he blazed a trail through National Hot Rod Association Sportsman racing, earning the 2006 Lucas Oil Comp world championship and four division three titles along the way, and eventually decided to up the ante in 2015 in Pro Stock competition.
Butner is running his former Cobra Jet Mustang now owned by Gary Emmons, who is stuck in houston, Tex., following the effects of Hurricane Harvey.