Morgan Lucas and his family have business interest around the globe. He and fiancée Katie Pallone have traveled to Italy already during this season for a getaway vacation.
But the one place they all look forward to visiting is a small community in the birch-dotted northwoods of Minnesota known for its beautiful lakes and mosquitos nearly the size of clutch disks but peaceful scenery -- except for a mob of camping-crazy, NHRA-drag-racing-rabid revelers known collectively as "The Zoo."
"We talk about going to Brainerd all year long," the GEICO/Lucas Oil Top Fuel Dragster driver said.
After he bulldozed his way through some stout competition Sunday to win the family-supported Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd, Minn., Lucas and the family will be talking about this trip to Brainerd for years to come.
Lucas, the No. 4 qualifier, capped his rejuvenating day in the Midwest vacation spot with a winning 3.818-seconds, 316.90-mph pass on the Brainerd International Raceway 1,000-foot course. He defeated re-emerging points leader Antron Brown, who dogged him down the racetrack in the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Dragster with a 3.831-second elapsed time at 313.80 mph.
Brown was making his eighth final-round appearance this season and headed into Sunday's showdown as the points leader once again (and for the fifth different time this season). But Lucas denied him a class-best fifth victory and a fourth in the past six events. And after Ron Capps won the Funny Car trophy, Lucas also spoiled Don Schumacher Racing's chance for its fourth double-up performance in the past seven races.
"Hopefully it’s a sign of good things to come for us," Lucas said after accepting his seventh career Wally statue from "trophy girl" mom Charlotte Lucas.
In the first round, Lucas beat sizzling Steve Torrence with a track-record 327.90-mph speed and gained a berth in the Countdown to the Championship. He topped that by never trailing in the quarterfinals against Cory McClenathan or in the semifinals against Tony Schumacher.
(He said the ratio of Schumacher's winning against him "is like 30:1, so it's nice to get one back. He's a great driver, great ambassador for the sport, but you want to beat everybody you race, kill everybody you race. That's what's going to keep you going.")
His march through eliminations marked the first time since the early June Englishtown race that he had any success beyond the first round. It broke a streak of one DNQ (at Bristol) and five straight first-round defeats -- including the first two to Brown.
He earned his third victory in as many final rounds this year.
Lucas won from the No. 1 starting spot at both Gainesville, Fla., and Baytown, Texas. Those victories, coupled with his top-qualifying effort at the season-opener at Pomona, Calif., signaled a breakout year for the former sportsman racer.
Off the track this year, he hung out at the NFL's Super Bowl in the Indianapolis stadium that bears his family's name, became engaged, vacationed in Europe, and relaxed in fun ways between as attending the Kenny Chesney / Tim McGraw concert in Denver and playing golf near San Francisco at the site of the U.S. Open.
On the track his adventures hadn't always been as much fun, for, as he admitted Sunday, he "just got lost for a little while."
Then he came to Brainerd, a place he called "one of my favorite stops on the circuit" and "an easy spot to enjoy yourself and have fun." He certainly has had fun at Brainerd: he added this Top Fuel Wally statue to the one he earned in 2009.
Lucas said neither he nor his father gave the team any ultimatum or demanded a reversal of the first-round losses because this was a Lucas Oil-sponsored event.
"You know, I can't say there's ever been a threatening speech to anybody on our team, not even in years past," Lucas said. "My dad [Forrest Lucas] might get p----d off when we're not running good, but he's never come in and basically said, 'Get you r a-- in gear or get out.' He's never been that kind of guy. He just expects results, and if it's not working he makes a change. With this team, my dad's known there's a ton of potential there. We're looking at the big picture, as far as the future. So if we come here and get a win, it's just a testament to the fact that nobody gets down too much.
"I basically try to encourage," Lucas said. "My dad's the bad cop. I'm the good cop. That's what I love about him -- he's always there to have my back if something needs to get addressed."
In the process of winning Sunday, Lucas leapfrogged Shawn Langdon to take over sixth place. Bob Vandergriff hung onto 10th place, leaving 11th-ranked Clay Millican just a three-point gap to close by Labor Day at Indianapolis. That also left an ever-so-slight mathematic chance for 12th-place Khalid al Balooshi to vault into the top 10 before the fields are set for the playoffs.
"You can't help but get a lot of confidence out of an outing like this, but you never know with these cars," Lucas said. "We had a great car for awhile at the beginning of the season, then we had to change a couple of disks in the package and it just changed everything. Aaron [crew chief Brooks] has done a great job of looking at it and figuring how to improve and get the car down the racetrack. And I feel like a lot of hard work is starting to pay dividends."
But Lucas had predicted he could win Sunday, even before he arrived in town.
"With the way the weather forecast looks, this is going to be a good weekend for our car. It seems to like the cooler weather and it makes a lot of power to run in the cooler conditions," Lucas said with a nod to Brooks. "If we do our jobs right, there's no reason why we can't end the day with the trophy in our hands."
Brown, the No. 2 qualifier and 2011 Brainerd winner, had thought the same. And he came close to taking the $50,000 winner's share of the purse by beating Vandergriff then the Kalitta Motorsports duo of Dave Grubnic and Doug Kalitta to reach the final.
But the moment was Lucas' -- and the re-energized winner got an extra boost Sunday by nailing down his place in the six-race playoff that will begin at Charlotte, N.C., in less than four weeks.
Clinching the Countdown position, he said, "takes a lot of pressure off the next race. It will keep everyone on the team from getting too spun out during the week before Indy."
Anticipating that, he said, "Once we know we're locked in and the pressure is off, we'll start running better. If we can do that, we can mark that accomplishment off our list and set off to start working on the other goals we have for ourselves this year."
They point to Pomona, Calif., where he began the year as No. 1 to start the season. And he's looking for his first championship to bookend a comeback campaign.
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