ASHER'S INSIDER: FINAL EDITION - NHRA U.S. NATIONALS
MONDAY EDITION - PROOF POSITIVE: THERE’S NOTHING LIKE INDY!
It’s early Labor Day Monday morning at Lucas Oil Raceway in Avon, Indiana. There are already a lot of fans in the pits, but they’re strangely quiet as they walk around the cars almost reverentially. There are no engines running, at least not yet. The only sound that can be heard is the whirring and banging of the dozens of impact wrenches that seem to be going at the same instant in pit stalls from here to there. Even the mechanics are quiet, barely passing a word to one another, because they know in about three hours all hell is going to break loose as eliminations begin. For many it will be the toughest day they’ve had in drag racing. For others it will end in bitter disappointment, but for a very few it will end in the kind of elation they may never again experience in their lives. This is the Chevrolet Performance NHRA U.S. Nationals, the most prestigious and important race on the Mello Yello tour. It’s Indy, period, and there’s nothing else like it.
Stunning upsets highlighted the first round, with some of those upsets continuing right into the finals. Cars that should have won didn’t. Others that shouldn’t have, did. It is the way of drag racing. It’s the unpredictability that fascinates the fans, because they can never be sure who’s going to get to the finish line first. A driver who’s won 27 consecutive rounds can be sent home in an instant, while one who has a reputation for being late can put together four straight single digit Reaction Times and be in the winners circle. You just never know how things will work out, and that’s why they race.
Number 1 Funny Car qualifier Matt Hagan went down in that first round when his thundering Dodge stopped thundering and blew the tires off on the hit. There was some sort of failure in the clutch system, and tuner Dickie Venables knew it when the car was backing up from the burnout—but that’s why they race. Jim Campbell in Big Jim Dunn’s Dodge got the benefit of that one, and he was there to be had after he smoked the tires down track, but Hagan wasn’t in the picture at all.
The same thing happened in Top Fuel when Clay Millican was upset by Kebin Kinsley’s 3.813, losing with a much quicker 3.756. Millican had a decent Top Fuel light, but Kinsley’s was an other-worldly 0.013. That just doesn’t happen, and even Kinsley admitted “That was a mistake.” In other words, he was “trying” to redlight and failed!
Kinsley would carry that momentum into the final round, where he had his proverbial clock cleaned by Traxxas Top Fuel Shootout winner, Steve
Torrence. Kinsley did an excellent job in his first Indy outing, and had the elapsed times to go with his good driving. But, in the finale he simply overpowered the track, and Torrence won going away with a 3.757/322.96. We think you’ll be reading about Kinsley in the very near future, as this guy has talent, and no fear.
The Cinderella story in Funny Car would have had Campbell winning it, but he was sent packing by Ron Caps in the second round. Capps would go on to the finale against J.R. Todd, which turned out to be a terrific race, with Todd winning with a 0.054 R.T. coupled to a 3.923/325.61. Capps had a very good Reaction Time of 0.057 seconds matched to a 3.949/325.53.
Just as an aside of sorts, if you’re one of those people who don’t think much of Jr. Dragster racing, Todd first competed at Lucas Oil Raceway in 1993 in a junior car (“I lost in the championship final,” he said), and look where he is now. Those seemingly slow little cars help breed champions.
Let’s also mention that Todd probably shouldn’t have been in the finale at all. He was smoking the tires against popular Tim Wilkerson in the semifinal round when Wilk’s car got a little crossed up and took out two of the foam timer blocks for an automatic disqualification. The groaning from the crowd was audible over the sound of the next pair, which was firing up. Why did they want Wilkerson? Probably because he’s an independent and not part of a super team, and the fans can get behind that.
Drew Skillman is a highly skilled man. Please don’t flame us for that one! He is a very good driver in a very good car, and he proved that on Monday by ultimately defeating the Number 1 qualifier, Greg Anderson, in the final round. This was a day of six-sixty elapsed times, not six-fifties, so sheer horsepower often wasn’t the determining factor. Driving skill was, and there Skillman had it – in spades. Nobody had single digit Reaction Times or even low teens, but Skillman was more than good enough when it counted. Do not be at all surprised if he drives that big red Camaro right to the Mello Yello title. He has the ability to do so.
Old bikes ruled in Pro Stock Motorcycle. The Harley-Davidsons swapped new bodywork onto last year’s chassis, and Hector Arana, Jr. dragged out last year’s ride to get into the show. Lo and behold, guess who made the finale? Eddie Krawiec and Arana. Unlike Pro Stock, if you were racing on two wheels and didn’t have lights in the teens or even single digits you were going home. The men and women who wheel these machines all have stunningly fast reflexes, ‘cause when the light goes green they’ve already left! Krawiec had a 0.025-6.858/196.90 package that was simply better than Arana’s 0.010-6.886/195.48.
It’s rare to see someone making the turn off at Indy as a winner and not smiling, but that was Sidnei Frigo after he won Pro Mod over a trouble-plagued Troy Coughlin. Frigo wasn’t exactly riding a rocket ship, as his second exploded engine of the weekend slowed him to a 6.318. He almost crashed making the turn as he slid through his own oil.
So, in a little over 1,000 words we’ve told you about Indy, but if you’re naïve enough to believe these few words have told the complete story, you’re kidding yourself. We would need about ten times that many to do the race justice. There really is only one way to get the complete story, and that’s to witness this event in person. We’ve never liked the term “bucket list,” but if you have one, this race should be on it. Sure, it’s long and it can darn sure be tiring, but what’s a little fatigue when you’re witnessing the most impressive drag race there is? Do yourself a favor, and book your hotel room for next year’s race this week, before you forget. You won’t be sorry. We haven’t been since 1967, and we still believe there’s nothing like it.
SUNDAY EDITION - THE JACK BECKMAN LUCK THEORY
The guys who work on the Infinite Hero Dodge for Jack Beckman believe that their driver has the ability to mix exceptional driving skills with uncanny luck. They’ve seen it time and time again, and witnessed it again at Indy on Sunday when Fast Jack slipped and slid his way to the ultra-heavy Traxxas trophy and their $100,000. We know the trophy’s heavy ‘cause Jack said so!
Anyway, even Beckman admitted that Robert Hight had the better car all day, but as we’ve all seen so many times, having the better car doesn’t always make you the winner, and that’s what happened here. Hight opened with a 3.889 over J.R. Todd while Beckman was even quicker in downing Tommy Johnson, Jr. with a 3.872. But after that Hight kept thumping and Beckman started going backwards. In the second round Hight had a 3.893 ready or the boss, John Force, while Beckman’s luck kicked in when he sputtered and banged to a 4.942 as Ron Capps’ NAPA Dodge was shedding parts in the other lane. Beckman had the same kind of luck in the finale, although there was nothing “wrong” with his 3.952. It’s just that Hight was suddenly spinning the tires to a 4.360. “Robert definitely had the better car today,” Beckman said, but note that he was saying that from the winner’s stand, where he “endorsed” the winning check to “Fast Jack’s Wife!”
This is Indy, the marathon, not the sprint, so there’s a full day left, and it’s the all-important day, when dreams will be realized – and shattered. The points-and-a-half situation at this race will probably have some ramifications as to who makes or doesn’t make the Countdown. There’s more money on the line, too, but the reality is that the racers probably wouldn’t care how much the payout is because this is Indy. Former winner Larry Dixon put it better when he said, a few years back after losing to Tony Schumacher in the finale, “You don’t understand. I wanted that trophy.” It wasn’t the money and it wasn’t the points, it was winning the U.S. Nationals that counted. Every man, woman or child who’s racing on Monday feels the same way. This is anything but just another race.
Unfortunately for those who weren’t qualified before Sunday, the weather got a little warmer while the track got a little slower. There’s no question but that it hurt more than one competitor, but here’s the thing: They’d had three previous opportunities, and if they smoked the tires, tossed the blower belt or worse, those are the breaks of racing. If you’re coming down to the last two qualifying sessions, and you’re not in, there’s no one to blame, not even yourself (unless you drove like an idiot, or your tuner suddenly decided you’d only need 50% nitro for the last shot).
The crowd on Sunday was good, but it paled in comparison to Saturday’s, which was exceptional. It will be interesting to see what the turnout is on Monday. Before their passing both Wally Parks and Board member Dick Wells had been advocating a change in the Nationals schedule which would have shortened the event by a day, with final eliminations on Sunday, not Monday. Wally was an astute observer and realized that with a changing economy drag racing’s fans could no longer walk into their jobs at midday on Tuesday with impunity. Jobs were too hard to get to risk losing a good one, and both men understood that, but they obviously couldn’t get the rest of the management team to go along, so we continue to race on Labor Day Monday.
We had some sponsorship news yesterday, but have only one note in that area for today, and that’s about Funny Car racer Justin Schriefer who, between Saturday night and Sunday morning removed the Westside Tractor Sales Company logos from the flanks of his Dodge and replaced them with a simplistic JSR – Justin Schriefer Racing. For being one of the lowest of the low buck racers Schriefer does an admirable job.
Once the sun came up over the horizon you just knew that getting into the show was going to be tough, and it was. Jim Campbell “survived” in Jim Dunn’s car, so Jeff Diehl and Bob Bode ended up being the duo kicked to the curb at the end of the day.
Nobody was going to, and nobody did, come close to Matt Hagan’s 3.799 (which seems to have come maybe a week ago), so the list pretty much remained the same. Behind Hagan are the JFR entries of Hight, Courtney and John, with Beckman, then Todd and so-on. It is a very good field with only three cars in the fours and eight in the three-eighties. Depending on the conditions, the racing should be very good on Monday.
The Top Fuel field is the quickest ever for thousand foot racing, running from Clay Millican’s 3.663 to Kebin Kinsley’s 3.808. We’re expecting terrific competition, but the real competition may be among the tuners, not the drivers. Very few drivers are capable of making major adjustments to their cars and driving in less than four seconds and one thousand feet of race track, so if it’s hot and greasy, the guys making the calls will end up being the real race winners, even if they don’t get to stand up there with the trophy. We think the crew chiefs rarely get the credit they deserve. Sure, when the track’s tight, the air’s killer and the car flies it’s easy to credit them for what happened, but their real jobs come into play when the conditions are lousy. That’s when every seemingly minute decision turns into something much bigger.
If ever there was an individual who quickly embraced something new it has to be Dodge Pro Stock driver Deric Kramer. He took the concept of the Burnout Contest (we just decided to capitalize that in case it continues beyond Indy) to heart and resoundingly won the $5,000 and at least two sets of Goodyears. One of his crewmen let the world know it was coming on Sunday morning, because as Kramer pulled into the water he was waving his arms, exhorting the crowd. Kramer needed no extra motivation. He set the Line-Lock and annihilated the tires, then let go of the button and drove way out beyond the Tree. Yes, the fans loved it. It was, as they say, worth the price of admission.
Greg Anderson remained at the top of the charts, with Tanner Gray right behind him. Pretty much everyone else stayed where they were, although there were some decent times recorded. This is one of the unfortunate aspects of any race, but particularly Indy with its five qualifying sessions. The conditions are all-important, and this isn’t the first year when Friday was perfect and things went downhill from there. It’s frustrating for everyone when things change like that.
It was the same thing in Pro Stock bike; some good times, but nothing earth-shattering. The Harleys remain untouchable, but behind them are now Hector Arana, Jr., Matt Smith and then Chip Ellis. If you didn’t run better than 6.984 you were headed home.
Pro Modified had their first round of eliminations late Sunday, with Richie Stevens (yes, Erica’s husband), Jonathan Gray, Troy Coughlin, Shane Molinari, Steven Whiteley, Sidnei Frigo, Danny Rowe and Rickie Smith advancing into Monday. Ah, that Tricky Rickie! Even though it didn’t “count” he did a burnout for the ages, blistering the tires almost flat in the water box and then carrying it out further than any of the Pro Stock drivers did. Another very cool show, and that’s what this is about, show business, even though some would argue it’s about racing. It’s the show that brings in the people, not the actual racing – at least for most paying spectators.
Even if every other car smokes the tires, Monday’s going to be fabulous because this is the Nationals. There is nothing like it, now or ever. About 16 hours from this writing the first round of Top Fuel is going off. We wouldn’t miss it, and you shouldn’t either.
SATURDAY EDITION - TORRENCIAL DOWNPOUR!
Holy cow, a new word – “torrencial!” Kind of has a nice ring to it, but regardless of what you think of our abusing the English language this way, here’s the straight story: On this day, on this track Texan Steve Torrence was the master of all he surveyed. He didn’t rotate the earth, didn’t run the quickest elapsed time or do pretty much of anything – except win the Traxxas Top Fuel Shootout’s one hundred grand at the expense of last year’s winner, Tony Schumacher.
Torrence was on top of his game all day long, as was his team. They never missed, never faltered, never did anything but go from here to there quicker than the other guys. Yeah, the times were terrific. If you didn’t run quicker than 3.750, you weren’t going to the next round. Sample this: In the first round Schumacher downed Brittany Force as both cars stopped the timers in identical 3.747 second elapsed times – but Tony left first with a 0.063 light to Ms. Force’s 0.076. Then Doug Kalitta dumped Leah Pritchett with a 3.730, Torrence toppled Clay Millican’s 3.734 with a better 3.725, with Terry McMillan closing out the round with a stunning upset of Antron Brown in 3.774 seconds – the only winning time slower than that 3.750 we mentioned.
To get to the final you had to run better than 3.730. Schumacher did it in 3.727 seconds over McMillen, and Torrence did it in 3.711 seconds over Kalitta. And the finale? What a disappointment – not! Torrence had a killer 0.048 light and coupled it to a 3.673/329.50 over Schumacher’s 3.680/330.31. It really was a great race.
So, yesterday we all froze our butts off, but today was glorious – and so was the crowd. It looked like the biggest Saturday crowd we’ve seen at Indy in some time, and that’s oh-so-good for the sport. But we noticed something about that crowd. Many of them began drifting away before the second pro session. They weren’t bored, they’d just had enough fun. We’re sure in saying that because we spoke to some of those departing, and that was their story. They loved what they’d seen, but they weren’t about to stick around for the Traxxas finale early in the evening, not after having been out there all day.
The show? It was great, from the Golden Knights Army parachute team, with each and every jumper landing to thunderous cheering, to the old-style AA/GS cars that made demonstration runs. It was a day jam-packed with action that thankfully took place in front of a monster crowd.
Clay Millican might not have won the Traxxas deal, but he did come out for the second session and stun the troops with a fantastic 3.663 for the top spot. At the top end Millican quietly told a friend “There’s a lot more left.” If there is everyone else better be ready come Monday.
Earlier in the week we heard a rumor that the Doug Stringer-owned team might be having some problems, but Stringer put that to rest, telling us that his sponsorships from PartsPlus, Great Clips and Strutmasters have all been signed through at least next season and more likely two years beyond that. The program with the University of Northern Ohio has not yet been finalized, however.
Fourteen of the 16 Top Fuel qualifiers are quicker than 3.80 seconds, making this a super-strong field – and qualifying isn’t even over! Were the other two positions to be filled with three-seventy runners it would not only make a good story, but it would make for one hell of a race.
The field isn’t quite as deep in Funny Car, and while Robert Hight moved up a little with a 3.807/336.23, nobody came close to Matt Hagan’s 3.799. Four cars remain in the fours, but we’re hoping that will change on Sunday but again, everything will depend on the weather conditions, as any fan of drag racing knows and understands. Your engine might make six million horsepower, but if the temperature’s 99 and the humidity’s 98% you’re not going to be able to use much of that power.
Greg Anderson snuck around Tanner Gray for the top spot in Pro Stock with a 6.561, and, while there was some movement on the list, the fact remains that a lot of quality cars are mired in the bottom half of the field. Jason Line, for example, is 12th with a 6.61, and behind him are both Vincent Nobile and Jeg Coughlin.
And that Pro Stock burnout contest? The first session was won by Shane Gray, who blistered the tires from the water box onward. But interestingly, no one bothered to even try in the second stanza, so no points were awarded. This brings up the question of whether or not this is even worth continuing, but the racers will have to decide that themselves. It’s their show, so it’s their decision whether or not to participate and back the concept, or ignore it and just try to race. We’re for anything that spices up the show, and that’s what the racers have to come to grips with. In the pro categories drag racing is all about the show more than it is about actual racing. Sure, the competitors won’t agree with that, but that’s their decision, too.
We learned a couple of interesting things about Pro Stock Motorcycle that we’ll pass along. First, Hector Arana, Jr. formally withdrew his Lucas Oil Buell early Saturday morning, and dragged out last year’s ride because they felt it was better right now. They were right because Arana ran a 6.871 for the fifth spot.
The Harley-Davidsons remain at the top of the list, but we have to apologize for yesterday’s comment about how the Vance & Hines team had figured out their new rides, which would become a nightmare for everyone else. It appears that they haven’t figured out those new machines, so what they did was attach the new bodywork to last year’s chassis, and that’s why they’re flying. Basically, they’re racing proven parts and pieces with a fresh set of glass around it. We’re not knocking it, we’re just reporting it.
There appear to be 657 Pro Mod cars here. Okay, so it’s only 26, but they are putting on a terrific qualifying show. The list of cars running quicker than 5.90 goes all the way to Number 21, with seven cars well under 5.80. Mike Castellana’s blown Camaro tops the charts with a 5.709/252.52.
On a late Saturday night it’s a little tough to deal with the fact that there are two full days of racing left in the Chevrolet Performance NHRA U.S. Nationals. But that’s just one of the reasons it’s the real Nationals – and we wouldn’t have it any other way. Stick around, and we’ll see you tomorrow.
FRIDAY EDITION - COLD OUTSIDE, HOT ON THE TRACK
There’s Still Nothing Like the U.S. Nationals
We’ve been to the Nationals – and really, forget what they tell you, there’s only one authentic, none-better Nationals, and that’s the one with the U.S. in front of its name. Yeah, that’s right, it’s this one, the one they contest over Labor Day weekend, the one every single driver would rather win than any other race.
Where were we? Oh, yeah. We’ve been to the Nationals. Like almost 50 times, and if we’ve learned nothing else from this race it’s that you can never bet on the weather. We’ve seen it blistering hot, and we’ve seen it not only hot, but so humid the Tree was even sweating. Ya got us. That was a lie. The Tree always maintains its cool. Regardless, when you’re not sweating at Indy you might be freezing – not literally, of course, but it can get darn cold at Indianapolis, even on Labor Day weekend, and such was the case here on Friday. The real shame of the weather situation was that it obviously kept a lot of local spectators home, and they missed a great show from the one professional qualifying session that highlighted the day’s activities.
Rather than searching for a starting point for our story – you know, talking about someone’s earth-rotating elapsed time, or the speed that was so fast you couldn’t even see the car – let’s start with NHRA’s latest effort at trying salvage Pro Stock – a burnout contest. As one respected national magazine editor said in response to the announcement earlier this week that the “winner” of the Best Burnout in each of the five qualifying sessions would receive a set of Goodyear Eagles, with the overall winner picking up $5,000, “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.” For those purists who have decried every single change that took away from their view of drag racing, i.e., the best car and river wins, period, and nothing should get in the way of that, the Best Burnout contest had to be complete heresy, but what do we know.
Well, we know this much: Nineteen cars appeared for the qualifying session, and only two drivers even appeared interested in trying to spin the tires much beyond the starting line. The winner was determined by how loud the cheering from the fans was when they ran the two burnouts again on the big screen. Allen Johnson, who announced his pending retirement earlier in the day, came in second to Vincent Nobile, who actually did a good job of smoking the tires past the Tree. Nobile’s car, by the way, is now sporting a “The Original Papa John’s” sign on the front fender and no, they don’t have a deal with the pizza chain, it’s an ode to Nobile’s father, John. Anyway, Nobile got the free tires and a leg up on everyone else for Saturday and Sunday.
Can we rate the burnout deal a bust? No way, it’s far too early for that, but here’s the thing: What’s the tipping point between smoldering the tires and hurting the clutch or some other part, that ends up producing a non-competitive elapsed time, or the $5,000 for winning the contest? We may not know where that tipping point is, but the guys who run these cars sure do, and that’s what may have held some of them back on Friday. For pure racing the conditions couldn’t have been much better, so we’re betting that most of the guys weren’t about to take a chance on losing what might be their best shot all weekend just for a set of tires and maybe some money.
Nobile, by the way, ended up eleventh with a 6.615. Would he trade that in for Tanner Gray’s top-of-the-list 6.566? We think he would – in a heartbeat. Behind Gray there were seven other cars in the ‘fifties – not
including Allen Johnson’s Dodge, which sputtered, popped and banged to a depressing twelve second elapsed time. Did the burnout hurt the car? We’ll try to find out tomorrow.
There have been years at Indy when the Friday night session ended up being the only decent one all weekend. If you didn’t get in Friday, you weren’t getting in, period. That won’t happen now, as spots are arbitrarily left open for the later sessions, and that really is a good thing. But, if the rest of the weekend doesn’t match up to Friday’s conditions, you’ll soon know it.
The living nightmare has arrived, people, at least in Pro Stock Motorcycle – the Vance & Hines guys have figured out their new rides. Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec ran identical 6.825s (Hines got the top spot on speed). The nearest rider to them was Suzuki hitter Jerry Savoie with an eighty-seven-seven, with teammate L.E. Tonglet hot on his heels with an eighty-nine-four. Everyone else appeared to be out for little more than a Friday night cruise. Okay, that was harsh, but we’ve seen this movie before, and so have you. When the Harley-Davidsons are thumping, everyone else looks like they’re carrying an extra 200 lbs. on bikes with one less cylinder. Yeah, it’s harsh, but it’s also reality.
The fuel portion of the evening’s activities was superlative. It was just dark enough for great header fires, but light enough to read every single name on everyone’s car. You just knew there were going to be great Funny Car times, with only one driver disappointing, and that was Ron
Capps in the NAPA Dodge, which sputtered and slowed to a ten second time. Tommy Johnson, Jr. wasn’t much better with a nine second card of his own, but what the heck, just about everyone else up above those two was flying. Most of ‘em anyway.
Give it up for tuner Dickie Venables, who lit a fire under Matt Hagan’s Dodge that didn’t go out for 3.799 seconds at 338.77 MPH, both new track records. For the record, that fire Venables lit was inside not outside the car’s engine. Even if it wasn’t on fire, it as one heck of a run.
After that one trackside observer was foolish enough to say to another, “Robert Hight’s gonna run 340 or better!” I know, I know. I should learn to keep my mouth shut, ‘cause Robert could “only” muster a 3.827 at a paltry 330.96 MPH. Hight was the leader of the JFR group, with Courtney and her dad right behind him with a 3.847 and 3.849, respectively. Then came both Kalitta cars, with J.R. Todd at 3.865 and Alexis DeJoria at 3.881. Eleven cars in all ran in the threes, with the others all suffering some problem or other that slowed then into the fours and below.
Everything’s dependent on the conditions, of course, but if it’s like this on Saturday night, well, Hagan’s mark could go by the boards and we could end up with the quickest field ever.
Coca-Cola, which announced an extension of their title rights sponsorship with NHRA until 2023 earlier in the week, also unveiled a new Mello Yello-themed car, which will be driven by Antron Brown and carries what appears to be equal signage from Matco Tools and the U.S. Army. Brown rewarded their faith in him with a 3.689, just behind Doug Kalitta’s 3.682, but those were second and third place performances. The leader of the pack is Todd Okuhara. Oh, wait. Okuhara’s the tuner. The driver is Leah Pritchett, and if ever someone was proven to be at the right place at the right time it’s her, because the Papa John’s Pizza ride has to be one of the best ever. Behind that top three was the last three-sixty runner, Clay Millican in his David Grubnic-tuned PartsPlus/Great Clips machine.
The most impressive performance of the evening? That would be the 3.796 cranked out by young Ashley Sanford in her first-ever national event appearance. It was reportedly just her fourth run in the car!
This is a jam-packed weekend, with Saturday bringing the Traxxas Top Fuel race and Sunday the Traxxas Funny Car extravaganza. And then there’s that little matter of qualifying for the actual race. Four sessions remain, two each on Saturday and Sunday, and then comes the all-important race day
Monday. Get some sleep. You’re gonna be doing a lot of walking around the pits in the next couple of days, so sleep tight, eat right, and we’ll see you back here, same time tomorrow.