New Orleans is a city of Saints and sinners, wrought iron and rhythmic jazz, Mardi Gras and mystique, and a penchant for attracting destructive hurricanes. It's also home to popular drag racer Richie Stevens, come holeshots or high water.
And the high water has come, first with 2005's infamous Hurricane Katrina, which left her calling card -- 17 feet of floodwater -- in Steven's suburban Metairie home. This past week, seven years to the day later, a rude and uninvited interloper named Isaac blew into Stevens' neighborhood and damaged his windows and gutters and dumped water all over.
So once again, like in 2005, Stevens fled New Orleans to come and race in the Pro Stock class at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis. And once again, he has had to block from his mind the ruin and rubble and rebuilding he'll return to after Labor Day.
The last time he came home to tackle the effects of Katrina's tantrum, Stevens brought with him the satisfaction of a runner-up finish. The Big Go made going home to the Big Easy, well, much easier to handle.
"After 17 feet of water in my house, I can withstand anything. I don't think too much can top that," Stevens said. "But this time it wasn't as bad -- not even close. We've still got another month of hurricane season, so I don't want to jinx ourselves. I try not to think about it."
He couldn't help it, though. Said Stevens, "It's just a coincidence it came on the anniversary of Katrina, seven years to the day. It's a pretty eerie scenario, fleeing New Orleans and coming to Indy." He said it can be difficult, "with everything going on at home and keeping on top of things," but he said being able to race here this weekend is a welcome diversion from hurricane-saturated news and realities.
"I'm just trying to block it out and focus on putting on a good show," he said.
His assignment this weekend is a detour from his American Drag Racing League (ADRL) schedule and championship pursuit. He's chasing Cary Goforth for the Pro Extreme series title.
Thanks to Mark Eckman and his St. Louis-headquartered company CarSafe, Stevens' sponsor for the past two years in ADRL competition, Stevens was able to pull together a car and team to race in the Pro Stock class alongside fiancee Erica Enders.
And like with his hurricane-U.S. Nationals connection, Stevens has a sense of déjà vu with his team this weekend. He's driving buddy Allen Johnson's former Dodge Avenger, the one he was test-driving last December as Johnson recuperated from surgery to repair a torn bicep. It's the one in which he clocked the 6.466-second elapsed time that's the quickest ever in a Pro Stock car. (It's not an official record, although it's quicker than Jason Line's national record 6.477 from last October at Reading, Pa., because it occurred in a non-sanctioned regular-season NHRA event.)
Stevens clearly is excited about the possibility of setting two records in one year in Allen Johnson's equipment.
"That'd be great," he said. "Just to have the opportunity to run that car for him in the offseason was awesome. To run that 6.46 with a 6 was icing on the cake. It kept the rust off of me, driving an NHRA car. I hadn't driven one in over a year. I was the last one to drive this car. Going into this weekend we didn't have a chance to test this car. So Q1 will be the first time I've driven this car since last December."
His last fulltime gig in the NHRA was in 2007, but he hasn't been stewing about how he'll perform. Anyone who knows Stevens would describe him as "laid-back." So that serves him well in this situation, for he hasn't been fretting about having no time to reacquaint himself with the Avenger.
"It's great because there is no pressure. This is our off weekend, then we head to Memphis as soon as we are done in Indy," he said. "All these guys (and girl) have the pressure of the Countdown, but I’m just here to give it my best shot at the race and get some well-deserved exposure for CarSafe and Valspar.
"I've just got to cross my fingers. I'm a winger, not a planner," he said. "I'm going to go up there and wing it."
He said his goals were to "put the car in the middle of the pack and be a player on Monday."
In Friday's lone qualifying session, Stevens sailed down the left lane in 6.673 seconds at 207.46 mph. With that, he claimed the provisional No. 7 spot in the Pro Stock order. He credited those surrounding him.
(For those keeping score, Stevens was No. 2 in the order Friday before Enders made her class-best 6.624-second, 208.84-mph pass to help bump him down in the order.)
"As last-minute as this deal was, I think I got the best group of people. I have Rick Jones and Rickie Jones, who built the car. I have Allen Johnson power. I've got Mark Ingersoll, and he's been Allen's crew chief for so long he knows that car like the back of his hand. And I have Adam Lambert from Penske Shocks, who spent many nights working on that car when Allen had it. It should be a good deal."
Ultimately, Stevens said, "I hope it leads to some more races. And I hope Mark Eckman with Car Safe is happy with it. Maybe I can run some more races with it and if not, I still have a good car in ADRL and I have a good chance to win the championship. Cary Goforth and I are tightening down for the last [charge]. We have three races left. I'm No. 2 in points, right behind him. If this doesn’t lead to more races, I still have three ADRL races to go and a chance to go out there and win a championship and maybe focus on NHRA for next year."
Stevens said Eckman "has been sponsoring me for the last two years in ADRL, and we just had an opportunity to run a car at Indy. I've been meaning to do some NHRA. I figured Indy would be the bet place to do something. I talked to Allen Johnson, and we're leasing his back-up car he ran last year. And it's going to be pretty much an Allen Johnson car: his car, his motor, his tune-up, all the parts and pieces -- just running it ourselves.
"A while ago, we discussed pulling some things together to give it a shot at Indy, then a few weeks ago it all came together," Stevens said. "I can't express how appreciative I am to Mark Eckman and the guys at CarSafe for supporting and believing in me and my Indy dream. I also need to thank my long-time sponsor and good friend Randy Tinsley with Valspar, Roy and Allen Johnson for making a fast hot rod available, the Rick Jones family for hauling the car and handling the ‘dirty’ work, Buddy Perkinson for lending us parts, Tom Pierson at Pierson Construction, Adam Lambert at Penske Shocks, my fiancé and competitor for the weekend, Erica Enders and especially my dad for the unconditional support," Stevens said. "I owe it all to them because without them, I'd be here on the line, watching."
The deal, Stevens said, "was thrown together at the last minute, but I feel pretty confident we'll have good equipment," he said. "If we can run what Allen's been running, we shouldn't have any problems. I'm excited about it. Mark and CarSafe have given me an opportunity to go out there and race when nobody else would. I just want to put on a good show for him."
The effort has been a shared one. "A bunch of people pitched in and threw some money up," Stevens said. "We're going to go out there and try to take the trophy home."
What's his strategy if he finds himself facing Enders in head-to-head competition?
"I'm going to give her a damn good race," Stevens said. "Hopefully we won't have to race each other, unless it's in the finals. It's all on the line right there. One way or the other, the trophy's going back to New Orleans. She's got a real good car now. Outside of her, Allen's probably got the best set-up. We'll see what we can do with it."
Thanks to Victor Cagnazzi, Gaston Kearby, Tommy Utt, Dave Connolly, and an organization dedicated to excellence and perseverance, Enders is a legitimate contender for the NHRA Pro Stock crown. By the time they walk down the aisle later this year, both could be reigning champions
"Believe me, I'm giving it all I've got," Stevens said.
He said that's a real possibility: "She has a good chance. She's running exceptionally well."
Stevens is the only driver to win a Pro Stock national event in three sanctioning bodies: NHRA, ADRL, and the International Hot Rod Association.
If he should win the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, Stevens will know he has worked for it.
"Just putting the deal together at the last minute has been challenging. We got it all handled, but we didn't really need this Isaac storm to come," he said.
That means he will need to find a high shelf on which to place the Wally. But he said he was planning to do that, anyway.
"It would go on the highest shelf possible," he said, "because that's the nost prestigious one we can have."
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