LIGHTS OUT 9 - EVENT NOTEBOOK
ELIMINATIONS NOTEBOOK - WILD WEEKEND WRAPS UP WITH EPIC FINAL ROUND
In the end, Radials vs. the World (RvW) fans got what they wanted Feb. 15-18, at promoter Donald "Duck" Long's Lights Out 9: a final-round showdown between two of the most popular and polarizing stars in the sport. The stakes were high, too, with $50,000 in cash (plus a sizable but undisclosed side bet between the two finalists) going to the winner of the annual drag radial extravaganza at South Georgia Motorsports Park (SGMP).
After three qualifying sessions and five rounds of RvW eliminations spread out over the event's four days, it all came down to number-two qualifier and local favorite "Stevie Fast" Jackson of Evans, GA, going up against Keith Haney, the colorful, outspoken car dealer from Broken Arrow, OK. Jackson also called the tune-up on "The Shadow," his blown-Hemi-powered 2015 Camaro, while Haney relied on crew chiefs Brandon Switzer and Brandon Pesz to tweak "Enigma," his nitrous-assisted 2016 Camaro.
Despite running an identical 3.787 elapsed time to teammate and polesitter Jeff Sitton in qualifying, Jackson was bumped down to second based on going less than one mile an hour slower over what turned out to be a tricky SGMP eighth mile. Haney, meanwhile, held the top spot after the opening round of qualifying on Thursday night, but his 3.858 eventually fell down to eighth. Daniel Pharris, Jamie Hancock and Canadian Paolo Giust rounded out the top five, while Lyle Barnett anchored the 32-car RvW field after a record 59 entries made qualifying attempts. However, Matt Bell was added as first alternate as a replacement for 10th-place starter Taylor Lastor, who fortunately was uninjured in a qualifying accident with his 2017 Camaro on Friday night.
Once eliminations began, Jackson marched through Barnett, Enzo Pecchini, Ryan Martin and Tim Slavens, going quicker and faster each round on his way to the final. His Killin' Time Racing teammate also crashed in round one of eliminations, though, losing control in the shutdown area shortly after beating Bell to the stripe. Sitton also was fortunate to escape uninjured after sideswiping the left guardwall, but crew chief Jeff Pierce deemed suspension damage to the supercharged 2017 Camaro meant their weekend was over.
Haney, meanwhile, rode out a huge wheelstand in the opening round of racing to beat Jeff Shawver, then dispatched Paul Major, Kenjo Kelley, and Giust with a holeshot and career-best ET on radials (3.798) in a very close semi final while also improving his time and speed with each passing round.
"You're going to see a great final," Haney promised. "Stevie's fast, but it's cooling down and there's moisture in the air, which is good for us, so that means these guys (Switzer and Pesz) are going over the numbers and they'll be turning it up. We won't be leaving anything on the table and if I can do my job as a driver again I think we'll be in great shape."
Jackson, meanwhile, conceded atmospheric conditions were improving for Haney's nitrous combination, but insisted he still had some untapped horsepower to unleash, too.
"He better be ready because 'The Shadow' is about to fall over Keith Haney Racing," Jackson said as he tapped new tune-up coordinates into a laptop computer. "Everyone better hold on, because this one's about to go down!"
With lane choice for the final going to the quicker elapsed time from the semis, Jackson chose the right side, not at all unexpectedly putting Haney in the left lane for the first time in eliminations. Both cars performed lengthy burnouts amidst a sizable starting-line crowd, then backed into place, where Haney purged his nitrous system while Jackson repeatedly rapped the throttle on his supercharged Hemi.
There was no starting-line gamesmanship once the cars edged toward the beams. Jackson went in first for both pre-staging and staging, with Haney following each movement within a second or two. Then the tree was activated and Jackson left with a .027 reaction time, his second-best light throughout eliminations (he had a .023 in the semis), while Haney posted .081 off the start, by far his worst after going .017 in the semis.
Regardless, though both cars ran nearly identical speeds the gap grew even larger 660 feet later, as Jackson crossed the SGMP finish line in 3.742 seconds at 199.67 mph compared to 3.770 at 199.52 for Haney, adding up to a sizable .082 margin of victory.
"A wise man once told me, once you get your foot on their throat don't let 'em up until you're sure they're dead and that's exactly what we did here today," Jackson declared in victory lane. "We should've won this race last time but we had some parts failure so we wanted this one pretty bad and poor ol' Haney and his guys were just in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Though understandably disappointed, Haney found encouragement in again lowering his career-best ET on radials, getting his 2018 racing season off to an encouraging start and contributing to an overall positive drag racing experience.
"Amazing. You know, we won Mid-West Pro Mod Series championships with both this car and my other car (a nearly identical appearing Pro Mod '16 Camaro) last year and to come out here and run like this and get to the final round and make career-best runs in this car, well, it really couldn't be much better," Haney said. "We didn't do any testing before coming here. None, and everybody knows that, so my team, I just couldn't be any prouder of them.
"And at the end of the day, between the grudge race Stevie and I did in qualifying and the way things ended today in the finals, I think what we did for drag racing is what's really important. In my opinion, and I think a lot of people would agree with this, I think this was one of the best radial races we've ever seen. And that's including everything, the talking crap leading up to it, the videos on Facebook, the trash talking and the betting at the track, it's all part of the bigger show. It all came together exactly as planned; it just didn't work out in my favor."
Also earning big trophies and checks at Lights Out 9 were Alabama's Shane Stack with a final-round Limited Drag Radial win over Ray Parsons; Ken Quartuccio of Wallingford, CT, in Outlaw 632; Mike Terry from Round Rock, TX, in Limited 275; and Rodney Ragan taking the Ultra Street honors home to Babylon, NY.
The X-275 win went to John Keesey of Coatesville, PA; Martin Connelley of Salyersville, KY, won in DXP 235; Georgia's own Ken Grant prevailed over a huge Open Comp field; and Hunter Burgess of Bankston, AL, won a double-breakout final over Dennis Smith in the 6.0 Index final.
SURPRISE, SURPRISE - With a quarter-final finish last fall at No Mercy 8 and a semi-final result this weekend at Lights Out 9, Tim Slavens might be forgiven for looking forward to a final-round appearance the next time he visits South Georgia Motorsports Park (SGMP).
"Yeah, that would be nice, wouldn't it? We just hope that they know we were here," he said with a laugh shortly after making a near-career-best 3.83 at 209.26-mph pass, but falling short of eventual race winner Steve Jackson in the Radials vs. the World (RvW) semis.
"We got off to a slow start here with no testing up front, so we struggled early on until finally in the semi finals it really started to come together for us. We knew Stevie was going to be tough, so we didn't throw the kitchen sink at it, but maybe the hand sink. We're pretty happy with our results here, though. We'll be back for sure."
In a sea of Pro Mod-style radial entries, Slavens' Tydo Race Cars-built ride stands out. "It's still a real '69 Camaro with a steel roof and quarters; it even has some of the factory floorboards in it," said Slavens, who qualified 19th with a 4.08-seconds pass at 186.15 mph. "It's got a Brad Anderson Hemi setup with twin 102-millimeter Precision turbos. The motor was built by Dave Campbell out of Bolivar, Missouri."
Slavens caught a fortunate break in round one of eliminations when he mustered only a 7.56 at 133.09 mph as Lester Johnson had problems staging and left too early in his blown '55 Chevy. An almost identical scenario followed in round two when number-three qualifier and new record speed holder Daniel Pharris also broke on the line and Slavens ran 4.30 at just 129.31, by far the slowest pass of all second-round winners to advance. In the quarter finals, Slavens improved once more, though, to 4.074 at 193.82 while sixth-place starter DeWayne Mills lost traction off the hit.
"We just got the car back together a week ago and this was our first time on the track this year," Slavens said. "So even though we had a bit of a slow start we were pretty happy to show that we can run fast when we need to. So yeah, we're looking forward to coming back."
CLOCK STRIKES 10 PM FOR THIS CINDERELLA - Despite not making a truly representative pass all week on the tricky SGMP eighth mile, Radials vs. the World (RvW) veteran Brad Edwards managed a 21st-place qualifying effort for Lights Out 9, then made it past a struggling Norman Bryson in the opening round of racing on Saturday night. That sent him to the second round Sunday afternoon, where he was paired up against fourth-place starter and past No Mercy RvW champion Jamie Hancock.
Incredibly, when it came time to fire up and start the burnouts, Hancock's nitrous-boosted '68 Firebird refused to start, apparently suffering ignition trouble at the worst possible moment. Edwards and his Asheville, NC-based team waited patiently for more than three minutes before the Lights Out starter waved them into the beams as Hancock dejectedly climbed from his car.
His dejection only deepened when even without watching Hancock knew Edwards' twin-turbocharged '97 Mustang Cobra faltered on the line and heard it idle down the track and into the RvW quarter finals. Edwards later explained his transmission solenoid had malfunctioned.
"Sometimes I’d rather be lucky than good," he admitted while preparing for his next round against Canadian Paolo Giust, who qualified fifth, then raced through Greg Powrie and Don Lamana. "We had a lot of problems, burned up three head gaskets on the weekend.
"We waited on Jamie on that round for as long as we could. The starters were starting to get ticked off so we had to pull it in. Got lucky because the car wouldn’t bump in properly, it didn’t act right. But the way the rules state, no man can be disqualified on a bye run for any reason once you’ve taken both bulbs. We took them, we just took them really fast. You know, we got lucky because if we had raced him, he would have beat us to death."
After completing pitside repairs to take on Guist, Edwards said he hoped it would be enough because the Canuck' blown '69 Camaro had been very consistent and "ridiculously fast" throughout testing qualifying and eliminations.
"We just slung a Hail Mary tune-up in it, "Edwards said. "We don’t know if the head gasket problem’s fixed, we don’t know what this tune up’s going to run, we don’t know anything except we’re going to go up there, throw the kitchen sink at it, say a prayer and hold our eyes open."
Edwards and Giust left with reaction times just one-thousandth apart and the Mustang and Camaro appeared welded together at half-track, but near the top Edward's slowed to a 4.135 at just 159.68 mph, while Giust advanced to the semis with a 3.837 at 194.41, representing his best E.T. of the week to that point.
The semi-final pairings will feature Giust against Keith Haney, who has lane choice after his nitrous-fed '16 Camaro posted a 3.814 at 198.20-mph win over Kenjo Kelley. The other semi will see Steve Jackson with lane choice over Tim Slavens after Jackson went 3.810 run at 198.20 to beat Ryan Martin, with Slavens posting 4.074 at 193.82 to beat a traction-challenged DeWayne Mills.
Dave Vasser believes strongly in two things: a good product and loyalty. During the Lights Out 9 event at South Georgia Motorsports Park, both were put to good use.
Vasser, the CEO of Nitrous Outlet, a leading nitrous oxide and accessories supplier, unveiled the newest item on his growing product line.
Vasser and his team designed the Tower of Power with the X275 [drag radial] racer in mind.
"The [X275] class is restricted to 125 thousandths worth of [jet] on a big block and 140 thousands worth of [jet] on a small block," Vasser explained. "When you get to the point, we’ve dominated that class since it’s early beginnings with our customers, and it’s getting more and more competitive. It’s even at Duck’s race, and before it was just kind of popular in southern Texas. With the class growing like it is, that means it’s just getting more competitive. And in order to make sure that our customers are staying on top, we went in to try to figure out how we create more flow across the jet.
"What we realized is by removing the restrictions of the phase change areas and the restrictions in the turns, we’re able to move more volume across the jet by just simply changing the orientation of how we’re feeding into the plate."
Only three teams in Valdosta were running Vasser's Tower of Power, a number he expects to grow by the time tour rolls back around for the October No Mercy event.
"We’ve had customers in this class that our competitors beat down these guys doors and offered them free product to switch and they’ve never left our side," Vasser explained. "And it’s a two-way relationship; they feed us data, we continue creating a product that puts them in the winner’s circle. I’ve always said that if you give the right racer the right product, he’ll show you what it’s capable of doing, and that’s what these guys have done for us.
"We made sure that on these, we could only build so many before No Mercy, and the orders that we took and promised were the ones that were currently already running our product, or are very faithful to us, and we showed our loyalty back to them by making sure they had the product first."
Vasser has always considered himself to be a big-picture person, and in addition to remaining on the cutting edge of technology, he's also heavily vested in safety. Safety is just as important to him and his team as a good product and loyalty.
"Safety is really big to us," Vasser explained. "We try to educate the racer because, for one, we want people to be safe and not get hurt, and we want them to be able to enjoy what they’re doing. We’re the only company that offers a bottle trade-in program where you could actually bring your old bottles, and we’ll give you $100 for your old bottle toward the purchase of a new bottle. We have people that trade in torched bottles, beat up bottles. We got people that trade in new bottles that just want a new valve. But the purpose was just to get the old bottles out of circulation and make it affordable for the racer to be able to get rid of that bottle and not take a total hit on it."
Vasser has even turned down business in the interest of safety.
"We won’t fill any bottles that come in that are torched, painted, re-powder coated, and out of date," Vasser said. "And the reason why we don’t fill bottles like that is that it’s a hazard to our employees, but it’s also a hazard to the racer. Sometimes they get a little upset with us, but we take that opportunity to educate them and show them how to determine when the bottle’s out of date, and then tell them for $25-$30 they can actually go get that bottle re-certified."
And at the end of the day, it’s racing fast and racing safe that matters.
"The last thing we want is the government to have to step in and put more regulations on us, and make it unaffordable for us to be able to do what we do," Vasser said.
IT GETS YOU EVERY TIME - It was bound to happen. During Sunday afternoon, after four days of capacity crowds, a brazen race fan in the clear view of the track announcers Brian Lohnes and Lee Sebring, as well as MotormaniaTV's live stream, walked over to the fence and began the process of removing a banner while the race was going on.
"Hey dumbass, we can see you taking the banner," yelled Lohnes to the banner lifter, who looked into the sky as if to wonder how someone could see him.
With the newly acquired banner under-arm, the individual took off running and almost immediately wiped out on the hill.
But this act was a close second in the Lights Out 9 Darwin Awards, as Friday night an apparently over-served race fan opted to participate in an ill-advised foot-race.
After losing the race on a starting line holeshot, the unlucky participant lost control in the shutdown area, fell face-first, and involuntarily did a scorpion maneuver before finally flipping over where he laid motionless for a brief while before medical personnel arrived on the scene.
The foot-racer didn't die, but the incident didn't do him any good either. Half of the skin on his face remained on the concrete the next morning.
QUALIFYING NOTEBOOK -
MILLS AND SGMP - As the reigning back-to-back Radials vs. the World champion of Donald Long's No Mercy event, DeWayne Mills is no stranger to success each fall at South Georgia Motorsports Park. However, victory in Long's Lights Out spring race has remained elusive for the drag radial veteran from Sand Spring, OK.
"Yeah, this Lights Out race hasn’t been too favorable to me. I felt like we had it won a couple of times, but then it rained out," Mills said. "So if we don’t get caught and it don’t rain, I mean we could do it this year. We’ll see. If you qualify, you have a chance.
"The first qualifier this week, we spun early. The second qualifier it got out about 2.2 (seconds) and started chattering the tires and then about 2.5 it smoked them more or less. It still had enough steam to go down through there with a .95, but we wanted to step it up a bit. The main thing is just to make the show."
Mills eventually ran 3.855 seconds at 206.89 mph in the third and final session on Saturday afternoon to place his "Golden Gorilla" '68 Camaro sixth in the 32-car field. He followed up late that night with another solid 3.867 at 206.95 to easily outdistance 27th starter Jason Hoard.
Mills stressed the nature of drag racing means never knowing exactly what's going to happen, yet he expressed confidence in the deeper he goes in eliminations the better his outcome will be.
"I always run my best in the finals anyway. We’re either going to spin or win," Mills declared. "You know, if the driver’s maybe late on the tree we might lose on a holeshot, but when it gets right down to it, if we make it to the semis, it’s on. You know what I mean? We kind of hold back a little bit. If we get caught holding back and get beat, well, that's just one of those things. But we'll try to make it to the end and let 'er rip and just see what happens."
KICKING THE HABIT ... INTO HIGH GEAR - Drag racing can be a tough addiction to kick.
Thomas Patterson knows all too well the withdrawals and need to replace void when one walks away from drag racing. A little over a decade ago, Patterson and his father Richard walked away from fielding a two-car Pro Modified team on the NHRA tour.
The Pattersons learned drag racing is a lot like the Eagle's Hotel California where you can check out, but you can never leave. This is not to say they didn't give an honest effort.
"I got into doing road racing," Patterson said. "That Trans Am TA2 class stuff. It’s fun. You get to stay in the car for an hour, but it ain’t drag racing. I missed drag racing."
Richard said they wanted to get away from the grind of running two Pro Modified cars, a never-ending maintenance chore for one car much less two.
So how did the Patterson's ease into drag racing again?
They wanted something simpler, so now they have three cars.
They left because two cars were overwhelming but come back with three?
"Big difference between Pro Modified and X275 cars," Richard declared. "I just didn’t want to work that hard to run a Pro Modified style car. I mean, it’s a lot of work. Thomas didn’t want to work that hard, so we just did this just to keep racing."
At the Lights Out 9, the Pattersons had three cars in competition; three in the X275 drag radial class and one in the Outlaw 632. The real kicker is the quartet of real steel cars he's got are all street legal and are DOT titled and run in the seven-second zone.
"It’s got a real frame under it and all that," Richard said, pointing to the blue 1967 Camaro with a black vinyl top which Thomas drives. "It’s really a street car with semi slicks on it. They all got titles on them; you can drive them I guess if you want to. The Pro Charger ['69 Nova] car, you can drive it down to the store."
In addition to those two, there's a nitrous-injected 1966 Chevy II and another first-gen Camaro. James Kay drives one, Stefan Petersson another and Wayne Long all handle the driving chores.
In fact, one of those cars, the '69 Nova was purchased at the Meacom Auction, and immediately moved to Long's race car shop and prepared for X275.
Snagging these classics is no major feat for Richard, who estimates he has about 50 of them in his shop located outside of Houston, Texas.
"Been able to collect a good number of cars from Cadillacs to virtually any American car," Richard confirmed. "We only have one foreign car, and that’s Thomas’s, he got a McLaren. But the rest of them’s Corvettes and Mustangs, stuff like that. A ’66, ’70 Mustang. That’s really the only two Ford’s I’ve got. No Mopars. Although I’ve got a Mopar coming, one of the new Demons coming, supposed to be here anytime."
Of all his neat cars both in Valdosta racing, and back home it's actually one so ugly it would make a train take a dirt road which tickles his fancy the most.
"I got a ’38 Nash that’s just ugly as sin, but it’s got everything on it, all the conveniences," Richard said with a proud smile. "But it ain’t painted, and it’s got screen windows in it. It’s just ugly, but I like it because I can drive it anywhere and I don’t have to worry about it."
GIUST ENJOYS HIS SOUTHERN COMFORT - With a brand-new, supercharged 526 Hemi beneath the hood of "Black Betty," his '69 G-Force Camaro, Canadian racer Paolo Giust enjoyed a little southern comfort in Valdosta, GA, Saturday afternoon as he qualified fifth in Radials vs. the World (RvW) for Lights Out 9. Giust ran 3.850 at 193.90 mph in the third and final qualifying session, improving slightly from 3.862 at exactly the same speed the previous day to maintain the same starting position.
The engine was a last-minute arrival on Wednesday after crew chief Jim Salemi drove it more than a thousand miles down to South Georgia Motorsports Park (SGMP) from MSR Performance in Medina, NY.
"Jim is the builder of the car, the tuner of the car, and my very good friend. We've raced together a long time," said Giust, who lives in Osgoode, ON, another 400 miles farther north, near Canada's capital city of Ottawa.
Despite three of the top five RvW qualifiers running blown power, including teammates Jeff Sitton and Steve Jackson in the two top spots, Salemi doesn't feel the combination has any inherent advantage on the tricky SGMP eighth mile this weekend.
"At the end of the day it’s all just about adapting to the track conditions and figuring out what the car will do, what the track will give you," he said. "Everybody’s got more power than they need, at the beginning for sure. And the quicker we can get the power back in, the better off we are, the quicker it will go."
Saturday night's opening round of eliminations confirmed Salemi's analysis, as Giust made the second quickest run of the session at 3.847 seconds to beat Greg Powrie in a 2000 Camaro. Only Daniel Pharris in Andrew Alepa's twin-turboed '15 Corvette ran quicker at 3.798 and an other-worldly 214.01 mph that set a new drag radial tire record.
Regardless, Giust said he feels good going forward. "So far it's been great down here and we're having fun," he said. "I feel confident."
SITTON SEALS THE QUALIFYING DEAL - With a stunning pass in the last of three qualifying rounds for Radials vs. the World at Lights Out 9, Jeff Sitton eclipsed teammate "Stevie Fast" Jackson for the number-one start based on mile per hour alone. Sitton exactly matched Jackson's 3.787-seconds elapsed time from earlier in the session, but his supercharged 2017 Camaro crossed the finish line at 198.70 mph, .64 mph faster than Jackson, to earn the top spot.
Sitton expressed surprise at the result.
"You know, we did not plan on making that run. The car just hopped up and ran. It had a little more in it than we thought. We were honestly trying to run probably a mid .84 to .85 pass," he claimed.
After smoking the tires in his first attempt Thursday night, Sitton and crew chief Jeff Pierce put together a decent 3.97 pass in round two the next day, but knew they needed more for Saturday afternoon's final.
"We were really just trying to get a good starting place," the Texas businessman said. "When you jump from a .97 to a .78, that just doesn’t happen. It’s just one of them things you’ve got to appreciate when it does because it doesn’t happen often, so I’m going to soak it up."
Not one to rest on his laurels, though, Sitton immediately set his goal to meet Jackson in the final round on Sunday.
"I mean, it’s still anybody’s race. Qualifying good is a little advantage, but I mean deep down we’re realistic about it," he said. "We’d love to be one and two in the final. You know, that’d be awesome as a team. Steve and I are close enough, it’s just about us as a team winning."
THE INSPIRATION RETURNS AS SPONSOR - Mickey Thompson Tires & Wheels is again serving as title sponsor of Lights Out 9, "The Baddest Small Tires Races in the World."
Leading the small tire category with its ET Street Radial Pro line, Mickey Thompson has supported the annual event since 2009. This year’s races are set for Feb. 15-18 at South Georgia Motorsports Park in Adel, Georgia.
"The largest small-tire radial drag race in the world is back, and we wouldn’t miss it," said Ken Warner, Vice President of Marketing, Mickey Thompson. "As always, the event promises to provide a unique brand of motorsports excitement for racers and spectators alike, and is a great showcase for our ET Street Radial Pro line."
Lights Out hosts an estimated 400 competitors over 10 racing classes, each with purses reaching as high as $10,000, as well as an exclusive Radial vs. The World class that offers a whopping $50,000 prize to the winner.
Mickey Thompson’s ET Street Radial Pro is a purpose-built race tire for classes requiring P275/60R15 or P315/60R15 tires built from size-specific materials. The radial features next-generation construction designed to take more power for better launches, a reduced tread pattern for maximum traction, and is for racing only – not street use.
STEVIE FAST AND THE RADIAL VS. THE UNPREDICTABLE WORLD - Despite finishing Friday as number-one qualifier for the headlining Radials vs. the World (RvW) class at Lights Out 9, "Stevie Fast" Jackson predicts a wide-open field for eliminations.
Several inches of rain fell on South Georgia Motorsports Park (SGMP) over a period of four days prior to the event, leaving its eighth mile as an essentially bare concrete surface. With few slick-tire cars on the track to help lay rubber down on the racing grooves, it creates a challenging task for the SGMP track prep crew.
"The track guys have been working 'round the clock on the surface and it is getting a little better, but it’s definitely going to be a tuner’s race," said Jackson, who ran 3.804 at 196.93 mph in the first of Friday's two qualifying rounds to sit atop 51 RvW entries vying for 32 raceday spots. With one last qualifying opportunity on Saturday before round one of eliminations that night, Daniel Pharris was second at 3.810 and a class-leading 211.43 mph, Mark Micke ran 3.855 to sit third, Keith Haney's 3.858-seconds top qualifier from
Thursday's lone session was bumped down to fourth and
Canada's Paolo Giust rounded out the top five at 3.862 seconds.
"It’s challenging out there," Jackson confirmed. "But I love races like this. All of these cars are capable of running fast enough to win now. The home-run ball I think is out of play. But because of that it’s very exciting because there will be a lot of upsets. Underdogs can win.
"It’s not a who’s got the most horsepower race and it’s kind of fun. And the track may come around, so you might have some of both worlds. It might be a deal where you know Friday and Saturday the track’s challenging, but it could be killer tomorrow night and Sunday. I’ve probably walked to the starting line a hundred times to see where it's at. As a tuner and a driver it’s fun. You don’t know what you’re going to get up there."
At Lights Out 9, Jackson is calling the tuning shots on "The Shadow," his supercharged 2015 Camaro, while Jeff Pierce is on hand to handle teammate Jeff Sitton's similarly powered "Hyde" '17 Camaro.
"I normally run Jeff’s car, my car and a couple of customer’s cars, but I’m trying to get where I can focus a little bit more on my program," Jackson said. "We just haven’t made a bunch of runs. But we’ve got good, smart people working on this stuff; we’ve got top-notch equipment and this is my kind of race. I like it when it’s tricky."
If less-than optimal track conditions persist, Jackson believes the team that can put a series of low-to-mid 3.80s together throughout five rounds of eliminations may well be the last one standing Sunday night.
"I think it’s going to be whoever can run up and down the race track and call a shot, adjust for weather and track conditions and be pretty good on the tree. Everybody that’s got these cars is smart. You’ll see that group hone in I think around that mid-3.80 and it will be whoever can drive it best and make good decisions.
"And it’s going to be me; I’m going to be the one standing there at the end," Jackson confidently declared. "Hopefully it’ll be me and Jeff racing in the final. We might even back down the track and race in reverse. Who knows?"
As with all things drag racing, only time will tell. - Ian Tocher
TALKING SMACK - Apparently trash-talking can be as crucial in drag radial racing, as an aggressive tune-up. One produces the other at Lights Out 9, the popular drag radial event hosted by South Georgia Motorsports Park.
Stevie "Fast" will be the first to testify.
"I wasn't planning on running for the No. 1 qualifier, but I was inspired," Jackson admitted.
And for Jackson, he needed very little inspiration after seeing Keith Haney thunder to the top of the leaderboard in Thursday's opening session.
"The pocket carnival midget had on his No. 1 qualifier shirt on Friday, and he made videos about me because I had only made one decent run. I spun out on Thursday. I told [Haney] to wait about 12 hours, and I would get him straight."
Jackson straightened the rest of the Radial vs. The World field with a 3.804 second elapsed time at 196.93 miles per hour. Friday's qualifications were much better than Thursday, largely in part because of a racing surface willing to cooperate with the 50-plus entries within the Duck X Productions top of the food chain division.
"I didn't run too fast, I just eased it down there," Jackson explained. "The car ran good, and the track came around good today. Today was the first day we've had a good one to race on. As you can see everyone is ripping down there. It's normal SGMP. I wanted a second run today because I was going to really hang my wee-wee out there."
OH MICKE - Fresh off a U.S. Street Nationals win last month at Bradenton, FL, Mark Micke now has his sights firmly set on repeating the feat this weekend at Lights Out 9 in Valdosta, GA.
"It was an awesome way to start the year. Now we’re feeling pretty good because we were thinking about not going and just testing here. But now I’m like, feeling pretty good about going to Florida. We got all the bugs worked out and we're ready to win here, too," Micke said.
To that end, the M&M Transmissions owner and his car owner Jason Carter have been busy making improvements to their record-setting, twin-turbocharged '78 Chevy Malibu.
"We've worked on quite a lot in the off season, the transmission, torque converter, shifter, we're using all of our M&M stuff, of course, and made a bunch of changes there," Micke said prior to Friday's lone Radials vs. the World (RvW) qualifying session at South Georgia Motorsports Park. "The engine, Chris Nelson got us some horsepower over the winter, and Jason got us some guys to do a little aero work on the car. We're ready."
Micke described a true big-block Chevy engine beneath the hood of the familiar blue 'Bu that has been winning major races as far back as 2000 when it prevailed in Super Street at the World Street Nationals in Orlando.
"It was one of the original twin-turbo deals, so there's a ton of history with this car," Micke said. "We won some NMCA championships, won back in the ADRL, won their first drag radial championship. It's a good car, got a good pedigree.
"The engine is 548 cubic inches, so decent but not crazy. It has a 4.84 bore space, just a little short of .900. It’s all billet, Dart does the block work on it. The heads are from Dave Visner, VED helps us design all that. Twin turbo, of course, Garrett 98 millimeters. In fact this weekend we've got all our Garrett guys here doing a lot of stuff; they're a huge part of our program. So overall, it’s just a good combo. Jason’s had these motors since back at MTA Super Street days and we’ve just evolved them."
While obviously proud of his team's early-season success at Bradenton, Micke admitted that race serves largely as a precursor to their main focus on promoter Donald "Duck" Long's huge drag radial extravaganza's each spring and fall at Valdosta.
"Everything we do is for these races," he stated. "I mean there’s a lot of guys that are great promoters and a lot of other great races; but to be honest with you, for all the radial guys, it’s Donald’s races that matter. It’s Lights Out, No Mercy; that’s what it’s about. As for us, that’s what we bust our ass for all winter, and that’s why we went to Florida and tested hard and did our thing, because this is the race you want to win."
With one round of RvW qualifying left before eliminations begin Saturday night, Micke was in good shape with a Friday-evening pass of 3.85 seconds at 205.29 mph that placed him third on the list behind only Daniel Pharris and top qualifier Steve Jackson. Micke insisted he's not concerned with the slightly off pace ETs for everyone and fully expects track conditions to improve and tighten up the field.
"The way it is now I think it spreads the field out to be honest with you," he said. "When the track’s really good, it’s a lot easier to negotiate. And guys with let’s say less data, less runs, it makes it easier. I know because I’ve been that guy with less data, less runs, and when the track’s good, it’s easier for me to run. When its trickier, you’ve got Stevie, you’ve got Dewayne Mills, Andrew Alepa, and those cars, and hopefully we’re one of them, we maybe have an advantage over some guys because we run this a lot in the summer, so we kind of get that, we can all fall back on some stuff. The problem is right now in Radials vs. the World, it’s a home-run contest a lot of times, and we all get caught up in that dang number.
"But right now we all now know it’s, 'Hey let's just qualify well.' But I think you’ll see, we went up and looked at the track a while ago and it’s making a change. I mean, you’ve got Wade (Rich) and his guys up there working it. They’re no dummies; they know what the hell they’re doing. They’re going to get us a track; you’ve just gotta' be ready for it when it comes. That’s why we’re all sitting here. We’re going to tune our shit down, but then when the track makes a change, we’ve got to be ready to go the other direction."
Micke confirmed he'll also be making a return trip from his home in Jefferson City, MO, to Valdosta next month for Long's inaugural Sweet 16 event, in which RvW racers will compete for a $101,000 winner's purse in front of a wide Internet audience but only a very select, limited number of live spectators.
"Wouldn’t miss that for the world, man. I mean, you don’t get a shot to run for a hundred grand very often. So I’m excited. That ought to be a hell of a race. I mean, I really respect what Donald’s trying. He’s trying something different," Micke said.
"We always laugh, because who would have thought eight or 10 years ago that drag radial could be like this? People would be like, ‘Crazy! There’s no way!' But now look at it. It’s insane racing.
"We’re fortunate. We’re involved with everything, a lot of NHRA Pro Mod, PDRA, what have you; we work with all those guys. But I’m telling you, the RvW-style cars, there’s no other class like it in drag racing."
AN ENTRY LEVEL EXPERIENCE - Blake Copson had no visions of grandeur, but his vision was pretty grand in itself.
Copson made his driving debut at the Lights Out 9, piloting a Radial vs. The World entry, arguably one of the toughest cars to drive with its 10.5-inch wide, radial tires. Consider this; he's made this class his entry-level division.
"It started off as a 275 car, and the cost involved for one of those is not too far from this," Copson explained. "So we said screw it, we’ll go big and detune it and just let me get comfortable. We’re in no rush. So, that’s what we’re doing.
"And we’re working with Jamie Miller, Pro-Line. They’re wonderful. They’re making me feel very comfortable. And yeah, we’re just having fun. It’s definitely not the most entry-level, but we’re just looking to get me comfortable and eventually as time goes on, we’ll turn it up."
Copson's 4.369 put him 34th quickest, short of the 4.306 bump spot.
"We knew if we could run a 4.30, a high 4.20, that would be a major success for us," Copson admitted. "Just want to get me comfortable, that’s all. So that’s all we’re looking to do. No rush for anything. Just taking our time."
Copson's first hit came on Thursday of the event, but not the first time he's made a run down the drag strip. He's a graduate of the Frank Hawley Drag Racing School where he licensed behind the wheel of a Super Comp-style doorslammer.
"This is a brand new car; it’s not the ideal situation for a new driver, but we’re going to take extra caution," Copson said.
RETURNING TO THE SCENE - Lyle Barnett has seen the videos; his favorite one he estimates 40 times over the course of the last year.
Last year, at Lights Out 8, Barnett returned to the same track where in 2015 he'd suffered a fire in his Radial vs. The World; a fire which subjected him to 28 seconds of direct exposure to the flames which resulted in third-degree burns to 15-percent of his body.
The first time back to the scene of the horrifying incident resulted in his most cherished victory. A year later, he's still basking in the glow of fate.
"I watch the videos of that day, over and over," Barnett admits. "It was cool to come back here period and race again, but it made the full circle deal to come back here and win. It was big not only for me but for my Dad, for my family, for my team. You know I think for racing as a whole it was, you really couldn’t have written a better story I don’t think."
Winning a drag race takes determination and skill; winning a drag race after going through hell and living to tell about it is another thing.
"That win’s not enough," Barnett declared. "I want to win the LDR [Limited Drag Radial] championship this year bad. That is my number one goal for the year. We’ve worked hard; everybody’s worked hard; we’ve made a lot of changes over the offseason, and I want to go after it this year."
Barnett lives life with a new normal.
"I was actually thinking about it yesterday," Barnett said. "You know, there for a while, it was. Obviously, it was different. But now I don’t really remember the old normal. This is it. This is how it is. Since the crash, it just is what it is. I still wake up every day and put my left foot in my underwear first. So it’s really just became my new normal life.
"Other than some occasional stiffness from the grafts on my hands, and my eyes watering, I’m good with it. It’s different but it is my new normal, and I make the best of it."
The new normal includes a new approach to drag racing.
"I'm much more cautious," Barnett said. "I was always a safety advocate I guess. I got a little careless there unfortunately when my wreck happened. But I do make sure that I do a last good safety check, make sure the shield’s down. But I don’t necessarily think my driving style has changed. I’m not as ballsy as maybe Stevie [Jackson], but just more cautious when it comes to making sure all my gear’s right, make sure it’s adjusted right, making sure everything’s on.
"So that part of my driving style has changed. And I think my wreck changed a lot of people’s driving styles in that sense. Everybody’s safer I feel like.
"You know, you pay attention to that stuff now. Walk up to the water box and look into the window, you might be looking for what they’ve got going on in there, but I look for gloves and stuff like that. And I’ve seen, it’s still, it amazes me a little bit that there are still people out there that just haven’t taken the initiative to buy the right stuff. Some of them are on the national stage if you will, you see them on TV and stuff, so I guess that kind of narrows it down."
Barnett revealed he was diagnosed with PTSD following his incident and believes there are those who have experienced tragic accidents who are undiagnosed.
"I’ve got a pretty cool service dog that I got not long after that that helped out with that a bunch," Barnett said. "I got over that hump pretty quick. You know, there are some people here this weekend that dealt with some fire stuff that are dealing with the aftereffects of that.
"It was a tough hurdle to overcome. I did therapy, and I got a dog and stuff, but overall I’ve been very blessed. I’ve had a pretty easy recovery deal overall. Physically, mentally, all of it has been … I’m lucky. Being young, I was 24 when I wrecked; I’m 27 now. So age helped a lot. I was young, healthy, in shape. That played a big role, that was on my side."
And for the fan favorite Barnett, that's as good as anyone could hope for.
AN ARMY OF SOME - Troy Smith, a 15-year Army veteran, who served the majority of his time in Special Operations, understands the importance of secrecy. However, when it comes to his racing endeavors, his Top Secret Racing moniker is just a name, but far from reality.
Smith, of Clarksville, Tenn., uses his 1968 Camaro as a man to reach military veterans.
"I was in special operations, so I was gone often," said Smith, who was medically retired in December of 2016. "So I was basically gone half the time. And so when I got sick and came home, it was a really tough adaptation for our family to get used to Dad being back home, and then Dad being sick and all the troubles that came with that.
"It was real stressful on our family and one way that we got through all that was through working on the car and drag racing and things like that."
The time spent together with the car was beneficial to the family and eventually revealed a bigger mission.
"We kind of saw the people that came over and helped us and what it did for them, and we started getting messages about people that were in a bad spot in their life after transitioning through the military,"
Jessica, Troy's wife, owns the car, in the legal sense. However, there's a score of military veterans who feel a measure of ownership in the sense of pride.
"Our Camaro is 100 percent American made and veteran built. Our engine this year is built by four disabled veterans, two military children, two service veterans and numerous civilian advisors and helpers along the way," Smith explained. "Our transmission’s also built by a disabled veteran that owns A&H Transmissions in Clarksville, Tennessee. All of our stuff is powder coated by an active duty soldier who owns Armored Coating. Our uniforms and shirts and all of our soft stuff is also made by an Army wife, Gina Miller at Flip of the Wrist."
Smith admits as positive as the car is, it can scare him from time to time as he found out during Wednesday's testing.
"It scared me pretty good last night," Smith said. "So the first run it did a little wheelie, which is what we did last year. But we just ran last year footbrake. This year we’ve picked up about 200 horsepower and a trans brake. So that was the first time I’d ever launched on a trans brake. The first time I did it, and it came out pretty good.
"The second run, it did a really nice wheelie, and my glove got hooked on the shifter, so when I banged it into second, it jerked the front-end again, and I ripped it back into first. So we kind of jackrabbited all the way through half-track, but it still seems to be in one piece."
WALKING IN THEIR SHOES - Smith, and fellow Army veteran and extended teammate Barry Cook, are racing together with special racing shoes this weekend. Now, these special shoes have no unique features or cutting-edge safety technology. They do; however, have special meaning.
Their shoes are inscribed with the names of fallen comrades.
"Barry and I had an idea," Smith explained. "We’ve lost a lot of friends and family members. So we each have some names on our shoes and I’ll just kind of start with mine."
And with a solemn look, Smith wastes little time with the parade of patriots.
"On the outside of my left shoe, I have First Lieutenant Jaime Campbell. She was a friend through middle school and high school. We rode horses together in 4-H and stuff like that. She went on to be a military pilot like myself, and she was killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. So we have her name on the outside of my shoe.
"On the inside of my left shoe is Mark Patrick Trost. We were lucky enough to meet Mark’s sister on an event last year and were able to kind of memorialize Mark. And we called her this year and asked if we could put Mark’s name on our shoes. He was a Vietnam veteran, did multiple tours and then came back and went through struggles with PTSD and such basically lost his fight with that and committed suicide in 2008."
"Directly across from him is a set of initials and it’s D.T. And D.T. wanted to remain anonymous. He’s still alive and he is just a huge advocate for veteran’s causes. It kind of symbolizes that if we can get D.T. and guys like Mark together, we can prevent that stuff going on in the future.
"Then on the outside of my right shoe is a soldier that died out of my last unit, a very secretive unit, so we just refer to him as Jake. He left behind a wife and five kids and his parents. We have him out there, just remember him. There’s a lot of people out there still getting through that for him. So we’re racing in their memory today. And then Barry’s got names on his shoes as well."
Cook proudly describes his honorees.
"I’ve got is Phil Svitak," Cook said. "He was a fellow second 160th guy with me. He was killed in action over in Afghanistan. Actually, I was out there that night, lost a couple of birds, and he was flying a mission to go in and save a couple of guys and ended up getting hit.
"And then another guy I’ve got is Christian Sapp. He’s actually Pops that runs around on the property; it’s his son. So Pops told us the story about him, and it moved us quite a bit. He was a Navy diver that got killed a couple years ago, actually during this race."
HANEY TOPS THURSDAY'S RUNS - Keith Haney heard all the wisecracks; largely those from Lights Out 9 promoter Donald "Duck" Long and his cronies over the last week. The good-natured ribbing focused on everything from his physical stature to his driving ability.
Thursday night during Radial Vs. The World's lone session, Haney shut them all up, and didn't even have to open his mouth.
Haney, the driver of the Enigma 2016 Camaro, thundered to the provisional low qualifying position with a 3.858 elapsed time at 196.62 miles per hour.
"I really didn't do anything but let go of a button, I have the team who have done all of the work, and they made it all happen," Haney explained. "At the end of the day, it's more about them than me."
Haney's purpose-built Camaro struggled in Wednesday's open-testing which resulted in long hours for the Enigma braintrust of Brandon Switzer and Bradon Pesz.
"There was a four-hour conversation Thursday evening that I was not a part of," Haney admitted. "The Brandon's and our shop guys came together with a plan for a new combination."
Haney had one test hit on Thursday afternoon, and consensus beforehand was one of uncertainty.
"At first I was supposed to drive it to the 330, but then I was told to go to the finish line, so I did it."
Haney lit up the scoreboards with a conservative 4.04 elapsed time, and then baseline run was enough data for the team to tune for Q-1.
"Everything worked as it was supposed to, or at least that's what they told me," Haney said. "The way it usually works, is I ask them what they did and they respond with get in the car and drive."