Rumor Mill

2017 NHRA NITRO SPRING TRAINING NOTEBOOK - PHOENIX, AZ.

 

 

       


 

SATURDAY NOTEBOOK


PRITCHETT WORLD’S QUICKEST, FORCE FLEXES HER MUSCLE IN TOP FUEL, JOHNSON JR. REBOUNDS FROM DAMAGING WHEELSTAND, MEDLEN EXPLAINS HIS DECISION TO LEAVE JFR, SO DOES ANTONELLI

WORLD’S QUICKEST – Leah Pritchett and her Todd Okuhara/Joe Barlam-orchestrated Papa John’s Dragster crew rather liked having the NHRA Top Fuel bragging rights Friday at Nitro Spring Training at Chandler, Ariz.

So they went out Saturday and made sure they head into net weekend’s season-opening Circle K Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., as the team to beat – or at least one to fear.   

Pritchett led the dragster drivers Friday with a 3.677-second performance (unofficially fourth-quickest in Top Fuel history). But she upped the ante and lowered the elapsed-time standard, unofficially, Saturday morning. She clocked a 3.654-second pass (at 331.85 mph) for unofficially the quickest ever in the sport.

Because it occurred during a testing session and not an official NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series national event, the feat will not be recognized by the sanctioning body.

However, it was better than both Shawn Langdon’s 3.662-second E.T. in 2015, at Brainerd, Minn., and Steve Torrence’s 2016 blast at Sonoma, Calif., of 3.671 seconds, which the NHRA regards as the official national record.

Pritchett followed Saturday afternoon with a 3.691-second run at 327.51-mph.

MONSTER RUNS – Brittany Force was no slouch, either, Saturday. After registering consistent low-3.7-second elapsed times Friday and capping her day with a 3.704, she roared back Saturday morning in the Monster Energy Dragster with a 3.695-second E.T., 319.22 mph. She ran a 3.708, 324.90 later in the afternoon.

“I know as a driver there are certain areas that I want to work on, focus on more. Same as last year, same as the year before,” she said.

“The nice thing going into this next year is, you know usually with each new season, we throw a whole lot of change into the mix, whether it’s a completely new car, new team, or a new crew chief, and that gets a little chaotic in itself. And finding a new routine and adjusting to it, figuring it out, it takes a few races to get in that groove. So it’s nice that our team’ has pretty much stayed the same since last year,” Force said. “We’re kind of picking up where we left off going right into next season, which I think will help us out.”

Force’s name is in the preseason championship conversation, but she said that’s no worry for her.

“I don’t see it like extra pressure. I see it as motivation,” she said. ”That’s what the whole Monster team wants. That’s what our sponsor wants. They want o see us in the winners circle, and that’s where we want to be. And at the end of the year, our ultimate plan is to have that championship. That’s what we’re going for.

“We had a great season last year, but it’s nice that that first win’s kind of off our back. We don’t have the drama that comes with that, and all the added pressure that comes with that,” Force said. “Now we’re out here ready to get in this car. We know we can do it, because we’ve done it. We did it three times last year and it’s nice to have that attitude. You know you can do something and now you’re going after it more times than last year.”

Force won at Gainesville and the Charlotte Four-Wides as part of her No. 1 ranking in the standings, then later in the season, at Brainerd. She also was runner-up at Phoenix and Reading, Pa.

“I definitely learned from all of it,” she said, not differentiating between winning and earning a runner-up finish. “There’s been so many times where you’re at that final round and you’re almost there, and then finally winning the thing. So every run you learn something different. You pick up something out of it, whether it’s actual learning from the race car or just how to keep your attitude positive no matter what. So you learn all the time from them. Every situation is different. Nothing is ever the same out here. And you pick up the pieces and figure it out and use it the next time.”

WHEELIE GOOD TIME – Tommy Johnson Jr. said his test session was moving along smoothly – until his Make-A-Wish Dodge decided to pop a wheelstand during Friday’s session.

“I did exactly what Jack [Beckman] did here last year.  We fixed it. We’re good,” he said.

The Charger “wore a ton of clutch,” Johnson said. “It actually should have smoked the tires, probably would anywhere else. The track was so good it didn’t, but it just drove the front end up. We bent the chassis. The car’s running good.”

He started Saturday’s session with a new front end on his car, thanks to his John Collins-led team staying at the racetrack until about 1 a.m. Saturday.

MEDLEN, ANTONELLI EXPLAIN CHOICE – For so long, John Meden was an indispensable part of the brain trust at John Force Racing. But he left to join Don Schumacher Racing – three times, including twice this past offseason (one stint for just a few days).

It looked at first like a mass exodus as Jimmy Prock and the entire crew went down Northfield Road at Brownsburg, Ind., from Don Schumacher Racing to JFR. That prompted Jack Beckman, the driver of the exiting team, to wisecrack, “I guess I’m not as likeable as I thought I was.” But then Medlen returned to DSR – along with Dean “Guido” Antonelli, the JFR general manager. At one point, the scoreboard looked like a football coach’s Xs and Os and lines arcing everywhere.

But Medlen is settled back in and Antonelli is comfortable in his new situation. Together they are crew chiefs for Beckman, along with Neal Strausbaugh, you was assistant crew chief to Mike Green for the U.S. Army Dragster for the past few years.

And Medlen shared with Competition Plus his reasons for returning to JFR and returning to DSR.  

“I promised Jimmy [Prock] I would go with him. When I got there, the environment just wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. My heart was really here. It was really here with Infinite Hero, Terry Chandler, Don {Schumacher]. Although all the crew left, I just didn’t feel comfortable there,” Medlen said. “You know, it just didn’t quite feel right. I decided to come back.”

He said, “It’s bonding of people. We had a good bond with the crew guys. Jimmy and I and the crew worked together for 15 years. I didn’t really want to leave that. But I just wasn’t comfortable with John’s environment. Here, all the guys – Todd [Okuhara], Phil [Shuler], Mike Green Brian [Corradi], Mark [Oswald], John Collins, Rahn Tobler, Hop [Eric Lane] – just over the short period of time I’ve been here, we’ve really had a nice, tight bond. As a total group of seven or eight cars, the knit of all that fabric with that many guys, there’s more for me here than there.”

He said he looked at the overall picture and didn’t make a personal statement.

“We do this for the drag racing, because we love to race. But we love to race because we want to win. Doing this for years and years and years and years, you realize if your heart isn’t in where you’re at, you don’t do it right. That’s just it. It’s a passion that you have to win. It’s such a passionate thing that if you can’t surround your environment in a comfortable, productive manner, it’s not good for you. It might be good for somebody else, but it’s not good for you,” Medlen said.

“For it to be the most productive, which is how we measure whether you win, it doesn’t matter what th E.T. – it matters whether the win light comes on. Your ability to win is being hindered by something psychological, or an uncomfortable environment, that’s not the way to get it done.”

Force said this weekend, “I love ‘em both.”

Said Medlen, “People are friends. John’s a good friend of mine.  Does it work together in a working relationship as good? Not as good as it could be. Nobody’s to blame. Stuff changes. I still want to race, still want to win.

Referring to Antonelli, Medlen said, “We’ve been through it all [with JFR] –  from way back in the beginning of the [Austin] Coil days – we’re the only ones who are left.”

For Antonelli, the choice represented his desire to be a crew chief again.

“When John started having to find new sponsorship, he wanted me to get more involved in the business, because he trusted me. He knows I treat his money like my money. But I started missing this,” Antonelli said.

“I was still at the races. I was still participating in the cars. But I’m a nut-and-bolt guy, not a pencil-pusher. Don was nice enough to give me an opportunity. It was the toughest decision I’ve made, to leave. But people were really receptive over here and nice. It’s a good environment, so  . . . pretty exciting.”

He had spent his entire pro-level career at JFR, so naturally he has had to make some adjustments, personally and professionally. However, he clearly looks back with fondness on his days at JFR.

“We had a pretty good run with Ashley [Force Hood]. I was a trainer with [crew chief] Ron Douglas, with Courtney [Force], trained her for a year. I did all Ashley’s training, and I did Brittany’s training. Jimmy Prock did a little, too.  I’ve got a lot of investment over there,” Antonelli said.

Joining the JFR ex-pats is Strausbaugh.

“Neal’s a blessing for us,” Antonelli said. “John’s been here a couple of years. But it’s new to me. And I’ve only ever worked at John’s. They make their own parts, just like DSR. I just know John’s parts. Having Neal over here gives me a crash course in learning the parts that are here.”

Those, he said, are decidedly different: “The clutch systems are different. The clutch parts are different. Our cylinder heads are all pretty similar because of the rules. Blowers are relatively similar because of the rules. The chassis are a little bit different. The concepts are a little bit different. The rules pretty much have people handcuffed. You can’t invent some trick widget without NHRA knowing about it. So all the parts are, in concept, the same. It’s just that one part’s maybe a little more robust than another. If it’s stiffer in the clutch, it makes it apply a little more different.”

 

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LATE FRIDAY NOTEBOOK

CANOPY STILL SCHUMACHER’S BEST FRIEND; FRIDAY’S TOP ELAPSED TIMES BELONG TO THE LADIES; BROWN SUPER-PREPARED; FORCE ENCOURAGES NEW DSR CREW CHIEF ANTONELLI  

SCHUMACHER PRAISES CANOPY FOLLOWING EXPLOSION – Top Fuel driver Tony Schumacher, uninjured Friday by a huge explosion during Nitro Spring Training at Arizona’s Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, had even further evidence that the canopy on his U.S. Army Dragster is a lifesaver.

“That was a big boom,” Schumacher said afterward.

“Anything that makes 11,000 horsepower, they’re going to blow up,” he said. “I got to run a 3.72 [-second elapsed time on the 1,00-foot course] and didn’t even make it to the finish line. What’s wrong with that . . .’til it blew up? We’re working on new parts and pieces.”

Both Schumacher and crew chief Mike Green said they didn’t know what triggered the fireball early in the second day of the preseason test session.

Nitro-class teams are gathered at the Chandler, Ariz., racetrack south of Phoenix, preparing for next Friday’s Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season-opening Circle K Winternationals at Pomona, Calif.

Schumacher said, “We ran a 3.70 flat yesterday, shutting off at 850 feet.” So he chalked up the incident simply to a racing mishap, saying everything would be all right, “other than a little destruction of the body, parts, and pieces, and some money spent.”

Green said the concussion came without warning.

“I think it was running pretty good. We can’t see anything. Something, you see that the boost goes up really high right before it blows up,” he said. “So we’re still determining what actually happened. But it seemed like it was running OK, pretty good.

“We’ll put it back together and go try it again.”

He said, ”We’ll see” about running again Friday.

“We’re going to take our time and get the car back 100 percent. So, we’ll see. We’ll probably run this afternoon. See how it goes.”

Schumacher filed this in his memory bank as further proof that the cockpit canopy, embraced by few outside his Don Schumacher Racing team and still the object of skepticism by many in the Top Fuel ranks for various reasons, is something he wouldn’t race without.

“You know what? It was fantastic. If I didn’t have the canopy on, I would have been engulfed in flames,” he said.

“That was a big boom. I watched the video. A little smoke and that was about it. I reached down to grab the fire bottles and looked around and saw the fire on the outside, and I don’t need the fire bottles. Magnificent,” Schumacher said.

“I think what they’ve done over the few years that we added it, it’s come a long way. I feel almost a false sense of security in these cars. There was a time, a long time ago, man … I started off at my first race, in Indianapolis, and we lost the future world champ,” Schumacher said, referring to Blaine Johnson.

“And from that day on, every prayer I said I pretty much thought I was going to die,” he said. “To get in a car where the best driver in the world died, how are we not? Over the years, there was a period of 10 years where it was pretty dangerous.

“I get in that car right now, and it’s not a false sense of security. We are in a much more secure car than we ever had before. That’s all I can say about it,” Schumacher said.

“We front halved the manifold, but the driver’s safe - no burns, no heat, no anything like that,” Schumacher said. “It’s a magnificent piece of machinery right now.”

PRITCHETT, COURTNEY FORCE SET PACE - Friday was Ladies Day at Wild Hose pass Motorsports Park. Leah Pritchett, in her Papa John’s Dragster for Don Schumacher Racing, gave an in-your-face 3.677-second performance – fourth-quickest, unofficially, in class history. And unofficially, Courtney Force helped christen her Advance Auto Parts Chevrolet with a 3.804-second elapsed time – quickest ever for a Funny Car driver.

"It's a pretty crazy experience," Force said. "It was exciting to hear the guys come on the radio and tell me what the car ran. I didn't think I heard them correctly, so I didn't get overly excited at first. I know this Advance Auto Parts Camaro made a good pass, but I didn't think it was a 3.80. It's crazy, and even though it is an unofficial national record since we are testing.  

"I'm still excited about it. That's a huge number for us to put on the board. We made two 3.84 passes today, which is pretty awesome. We are excited to be able to deliver this kind of performance for Advance Auto Parts. We are thrilled to be running so good in testing. I'm ready to get the season going."

She has only one week to wait before the Circle K Winternationals begins the Mello Yello Drag Racing season at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Calif.

“It’s pretty cool. I’ll be honest - it’s pretty cool,” Pritchett said of her feat. “But ultimately, it’s not Pomona, right? It’s not qualifying. What it means to me is all the hard work that the Papa John’s team has put in this entire off-season came to fruition. Now for us, it’s about our incremental numbers. Yes, we clocked our best career time, 3.68 this morning. We were like, ‘All right, that’s good.’ Yesterday we had even better numbers, and then today we solidified it with our 3.67, another career-best E.T. for me. It means a lot, but one thing for sure that I’m focusing on this year is not getting ahead of myself, or not getting too hyped up on those things. That’s because [crew chiefs] Todd Okuhara and Joe Barlam, they know what they’re doing. They spent a lot of time on creating power for this motor, and now it’s finally starting to show. So that’s what it means to me, is that they’ve done a kick-ass job and now we’re putting it on the track.”

She said that run felt different to her.

“You know, I’ll tell you something - it felt 100 percent different than it did yesterday, because yesterday we carried the front end so high and so long, for like 75 feet. I’m trying to steer the car, [and] it’s washing out right. I’m trying to steer it, the wheels come back down, it wants to shoot me toward the center,” Pritchett said. “I’m like, ‘This is a brand-new race car. Am I going to need to learn how to drive this thing all over again?’

“We stayed and put some weight on the front and made some other weight changes around there, some wing angle, another degree and a half. And then once this morning it got planted and I was like, ‘That’s my hot rod. That’s a race car, right there.’ So that .68 felt like a .68. That .67, I’m going to be totally honest with you, it probably has a little bit more, but it felt good,” she said. “They say that we’re rusty after off-season, I mean that’s a statement of fact. You don’t just not go 330 miles per hour for almost three months, so it’s every bit of the rush of a 3.67.”

NO TWINKLETOES – Three-time and current Top Fuel champion Antron Brown said people ask him what his defining moment was last year, and his answer often surprises people. He replies, “the St. Louis race.” Puzzled, people come back with “What? You lost in the first round at that race.”

Oh, he remembers. He reminds them that he and his Matco Tools/Toyota/U.S. Army team had a strong run and lost to Shawn Langdon by a mere three-thousandths of a second.

“We could have beaten any other car but two cars, and we happened to race one of them. We messed up in qualifying,” Brown said, lamenting that if had earned a more advantageous position on the ladder, “we would have been on to the next round. If we qualified in our normal spot, we wouldn’t even be talking about it.

“The cool part is it was like a wake-up call. We stayed after and tested. It wasn’t like we needed to test,” Brown said. What his team needed to do right away was to invigorate themselves. They decided, he said, “that we were going to come out of the box charging. We ain’t going to come out twinkletoes. We’re going to go out and throw the hammer down. From now on, that’s what we’re going to do.”

And that mindset didn’t end with the season or with Brown’s championship speech at the year-end banquet in November. It rolled out of the trailer here at Chandler, Ariz., along with the dragster, in the hearts and minds of crew chiefs Brian Corradi and Mark Oswald, assistant crew chief Brad Mason, and each crew member on that team. It translated to Brown firing the first title-defense salvo here in the preseason testing called Nitro Spring Training.

With a 3.701-second elapsed time at 323.97 mph on the 1,000-foot course near Phoenix, which improved his previous pass of an equally impressive 3.77-second E.T., Brown threw that hammer down. No one was going to call him Twinkletoes.

It was just the opening day of the three-day test period. “But the good part is getting the cobwebs broke out," Brown said. "The guys didn’t skip a beat, but when you don’t drive one of these monsters for two months and you get back in, I can honestly tell you when I stepped on the gas pedal and I looked away from the tree, and I looked down the race track, usually I can see the 60-foot clock cone going by. By the time I caught up with the race car, I saw the 330-foot cone.

"So, when you get back in and you’re on a low .70 run, and we shut off and went .75 though the first pass, I mean it definitely caught my attention,” he said. “But by the third run we made a really good run, like a .701.

“We started out of the box trying something different. And the next run we did something else different. And that last run we did something else different. So we got Brian, Mark, Brad, and all of our crew, they got a list of stuff that we’re doing. So each run they’re going to keep on turning, do a little of this, do a little of that. That’s what testing’s all about. We have a great combination that worked from last year, but they’re just trying to make things better. That’s why we come out and test and do what we do,” he said.

“And the track is plenty good,” according to Brown. “There’s still more out there. But we made a really good, good quality run. I tell you what, it gives you a little confidence boost.”

Tony Schumacher, in the U.S. Army Dragster, was second-quickest Thursday with a 3.705-second E.T. Friday Schumacher was maybe the hot topic of conversation because of his spectacular engine explosion, and Brown saw DSR colleague Leah Pritchett steal his thunder Day 2.

Brown said he has prepared each day for these days during the offseason.

“I work hard to make myself right for them [the crew] so we can be right on race day,” he said.

That’s not an exaggeration. Imagine a racer trying to match Brown’s intensity and beat at him at his own game of exhaustive physical and “focus” work. Here’s what they’re up against: Brown works with his usual personal trainer, but he has added another. He plays basketball, and buddy Tony Pedregon, who comes out one night a week to shoot, verified Brown’s intensity. “He’s a frickin’ wolf!” Pedregon, himself a one-time aspiring boxer and two-time Funny Car champion, said.

But they live in Indiana, where basketball and auto racing of all kinds are rivals for the most popular interests. So both have adopted Hoosier Hysteria – and Brown said it is helping his driving: “I got my endurance up a lot better than in previous years.”

Brown, who’ll be 41 years old in March, increased his court time from one day a week to three mid-week days and a game on Sunday for a church-affiliated league as a teammate to younger athletes, many of them college-aged.

“So I’ve been running a lot. It helps me. I wouldn’t run that hard on a treadmill, trust me,” he said.

Brown has one motivator.

“I hate losing. I’ve always hated losing,’ he said. “And when I get defeated, I always look back. I’m my own worst critic. I always try to find a way and say, ‘How can I get better? How can I learn from when I lose?’ ”

The beauty of it for him is that he doesn’t have to fight for supremacy or make victories happen all by himself, for this is not an individual sport.

“When you play a team sport, which NHRA drag racing is - there’s not just one person who can make this happen – it’s very seldom you find every single guy on the team shares the same desire. Everybody has different mottoes, like: ‘I’m just happy to be on a great team. Man, we’re doing good.’

Those are ‘come-along guys.’ We don’t have any of those guys,” Brown said. “Everybody here is to put the work in to fight to win. When you get that, that’s when you get this special team. Those teams don’t come around every day.

“Brian, Mark, Brad, ‘Red,’ all the crew guys, we all share that desire. When you get that, no matter how hard it gets, how hard we fall, we get back up even stronger,” Brown said. Of anyone wishing to replace him as champion, he said, “They’ve got to get to that realm where they want it just as bad as we do – but not just want it. They’re going to do things to go get it.”

Brown went after it both days of testing here. After Thursday’ performance, he said he didn’t make a full pass but “we almost did. I shut off at 800 feet. We didn’t go all the way down, but it was good enough to run a [3].75 at 300 miles per hour, 307. I tell you what, it catches your attention, you know what I mean. Hey, it’s just like diving in the swimming pool. You can’t ease in, you might as well just go jump in. Back home where it’s going to be cold and you know it, you may as well go jump in and get used to it. That’s always been our theory, my theory. I couldn’t be more happy or more stoked just to be back out here, doing what I love to do.”

THE DAD SYNDROME HITS FORCE – Eyebrows arched and imaginations ran wild when Dean “Guido” Antonelli left John Force Racing during the offseason. Arizona native Antonelli was the team’s General Manager and had been a fixture there. He was the boss’ choice for crew chief when daughter Ashley debuted as a Funny Car driver, the first of three sisters to drag race professionally alongside Dad.

But John Force showed at this Nitro Spring Training he has no hard feelings. In the first time since Antonelli joined JFR rival Don Schumacher Racing as one of three crew chiefs for Funny Car’s Jack Beckman and the Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge Charger, Force couldn’t help but cheer for his former employee.

“I embarrassed myself,” Force said. “I know they were over there, working on the car. But when I heard it start, it was just . . . he and John Medlen were special to me. To know that they’re OK, that’s important.

“When Guido left, yeah, that hurt. Kelly’s still with me,” Force said of Antonelli’s wife, who has managed the Brownsburg facility since it opened. “I was best man at their wedding. But Guido got an opportunity. I’m not going to stand in anybody’s way. He come to me and was very upfront with me. And I love him. And that’s why when his car fired, I was jumpin’. I want to see him do good.

“There’s something about family. No matter what happens in the end, in the long run – not in the short run – one way or the other, they always come home. That’s what I’m countin’ on,” Force said. “I’m trying to make us whole again and certain people . . . The only way I know how to run a business is with the people that made it.”


EARLY FRIDAY NOTEBOOK

GREEN, TOTTEN PURSUE LICENSING UPGRADES, MR. MAGOO RETURNS, BROOKS AND PEDREGON FORGE PARTNERSHIP, CRUZ’S GENERAL MANAGER WANTS TO SPICE UP NHRA VIDEOS WITH SNAP-ON

PRO MOD’S GREEN GOES NITRO – Tim Wilkerson fans were pleased Thursday to see the Levi, Ray & Shoup Mustang back on the racetrack after a long winter’s nap, but the driver inside wasn’t Wilkerson. And it wasn’t his son, Dan Wilkerson. Behind the wheel was fulltime PDRA Pro Mod racer Chad Green, of Midland, Texas., making his career-first pass in a nitro-powered Funny Car.

Richard Hartman, Wilkerson’s crew chief, said Green’s 300-foot spurt early Thursday was the first step in upgrading his competition license. Green has an Alcohol Funny Car license.

“That was awesome. That was great. I’m ready for more,” Green said following his initial pass. “This is fun. It’s faster [than a Pro Mod]. They’re both challenging in different ways.”

Green said he has considered competing in the J&A Service NHRA Pro Modified Series, “and we might still do that. We don’t know.”

But as Hartman said, for Green, “this has always been a dream to go nitro racing.”

Green, 43, works in the oil fields.

“I own a service company,” he said.

He and Wilkerson did not know each other, but a mutual friend introduced them. He said “it’s very cool, very cool” that Wilkerson entrusted his car to him for the licensing procedure.

“Tim would love to have a second car, with his kid in the car,” Hartman said. “It just takes money. It doesn’t take twice the money. It takes actually more. Your whole infrastructure has to change. When you start adding cars, everything has to change. And you can’t work out in the parking lot. I’ve never been to Tim’s shop, but from what I understand, one operation just fits in there.”

As for Wilkerson and the LRS Mustang, Hartman – who Thursday afternoon said, “I didn’t see the car from Pomona until today” – said, “We’ve got a few things we’re trying, nothing too major. We’ve got some things we’ve got to sort out, but we’ll wait until Tim’s back in the car.”  

Don Sosenka

MR. MAGOO IS BACK – Testing Friday at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park had a blast from the past. Call it The New Magoo.

Don Soskenka was back – as a crew chief for the all-volunteer crew rather than driver – with the fan-favorite Mr. Magoo Dragster. Nebraskan Terry Totten, a sportsman racer, will drive the Top Fueler at selected races within roughly a nine-hour radius of his hometown of Omaha. The unsponsored car will promote Military Suicide Awareness.

“We’re here to get his license. He needs to make two full passes and one half-track [pass], one 500-footer. He’s got to go 240 miles an hour,” Sosenka said, playfully adding, “I think this car will do that in reverse.” He said he’s shooting for accomplishing all that by the end of Friday’s session.

Sosenka and Totten have been friends for about 20 years.

“We worked together off and on, mostly on,” Sosenka said, “so we decided to get together and do some NHRA events this year. We’re going to do for sure eight events. Hopefully we’ll do good with the car.”

Totten owns the car, a Murf McKinney-built dragster he bought from former racer Marshall Topping. Totten called it “a sister to the car he used to have – same vintage.”

Sosenka said, “When I was running my car, Terry would be with us. So he said, ‘Hey, Don, you want to be my crew chief?’ I said, ‘Yeah! Thanks a lot!’”

Totten said, “We’re running this car on our dime, with no sponsorship. So we figured if we were going to do it, we were going to do it for a nonprofit [organization]. So we picked that one.” His wife’s cousin introduced Totten to the cause.

Statistics show that at least 22 times daily a veteran takes his own life, and at some marches to raise awareness about veteran suicide, each participant carries a rucksack filled with 22 pounds of symbolic personal mementos to salute their military service. That’s one pound for each veteran who commits suicide each day.

“We’re just spreading the awareness to get people to challenge themselves,” Totten said.

The goal is to show that help and information are available for veterans and to teach the veterans’ loved ones the warning signs that a veteran needs mental-health help. “People are coming back[but] their fight’s not over.”

He said he’ll have the car on display on Veterans Day this fall.

Terry Totten

Totten, a plumber by trade, said, “We can pick and choose our events. We don’t want to go broke. We’ve been able to do it for a lot of years, but we don’t get to go to a lot of events. But NHRA pays a decent qualifying purse for (Nos.) 1 through 16 for somebody who can do it without it costing them a lot of money to get there.

“So we can do Denver, Brainerd, Chicago, St. Louis, Dallas, and Houston. Topeka is our home track. This is a big deal for me,” Totten said. “I have my A Fuel license. I haven’t been able to cross-license because to try to get two of these Top Fuel or Funny Car in the same place at the same time to watch a licensing pass is nearly impossible. It’s been something we’ve been trying to do. There are some test sessions they have after some national events. The we run into a crew situation where they have to go back to work on Monday.

“Even with all the planning to get out here, it has still been a challenge,” Totten said. Last-minute parts purchases and various glitches aside, he said, “We thought we were home free when we got the car in the trailer and headed out. Then we had two traffic re-routes from accidents and road construction. Sour 24-25-hour road trip turned into a 30-hour trip.”

They arrived at Chandler, Ariz., well after sunset Wednesday, almost a day after other teams were set up and prepping their cars.

“Last year we were going to attempt to do this, and my wife and I had a baby on January 4,” he said. “January 4th and February2nd came way too [close together]. His one-year-old daughter has a fantastically helpful eight-year-old sister to help Mom so Dad can go racing.” Totten said he also has two female dogs. “I’m surrounded by women,” he said, enjoying the rare “Guys Time Out.”

He said he hasn’t had any time with his young family, his own plumbing company, and working on the race car in any spare evenings to seek sponsorship. But he said he’d welcome any help. “We go with zero, so anything above zero is a benefit,” he said with a laugh.  

The plan, Totten said, was “to make a minimum of two hits, hopefully three, Friday, then at least one, maybe two, on Saturday. We hope to get packed up and out of here by 5 on Saturday so we can get home and in bed Sunday night in time to go to work on Monday.” He said missing the Super Bowl is no big deal to him: “This is our Super Bowl.”

Same for Sosenka, who will return home to an Antonio when Totten heads to Nebraska.

Sosenka emerged with an Alcohol Funny Car in the 1970s. His father, Frank Sosenka, owned a San Antonio auto-parts store whose previous owner had the surname “Magoo,” and the elder Sosenka simply carried on the name. So the dragster’s nickname actually referred to the family business and not the whimsical cartoon character – although the Sosenka family did know a real Mr. Magoo.

“Well, that, too,” Sosenka said, sharing that he actually plays off the character of the notoriously near-sighted fictional Mr. Magoo: “Usually I wear three sets of glasses when I work on the car on trivial stuff.”  

Furthermore – and this rather amuses Sosenka – he is the source of a term used around the racetrack now and again. Several years ago at the Seattle race, Sosenka helped Schumacher coin a slang term.

“I beat Tony. He smoked the tires. I was racing him in Top Fuel. And at the line she smoked the tires. At the end of it, he came up and said, ‘Man, I got Magooed on that one.’ So [that phrase] kind of stuck around the track. Once in a while I go past the first round.”

Schumacher brought it up when he won at Epping, N.H., in 2015, referring to the time he “got Magooed.” The term, in general, refers to someone experiencing success but being not fully aware of how it happened, much as the cartoonish Quincy Magoo would get in tough situations without even knowing it but always survived successfully or at least none the worse for wear. Maybe for Schumacher it was literal – he got beaten by Mr. Magoo. Nevertheless, he and Sosenko carved out a little drag racing trivia together. Now the Top Fuel class just might present more chances for racers to “get Magooed.”  

Troy Coughlin Jr.

VISUAL STIMULATION – When Cruz Pedregon pulled to the starting line Friday at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, he brought more than his Aaron Brooks-led crew of mechanics. His entourage this weekend included videographers.

Team General Manager Caleb Cox said, “Snap-on is going to make some cool videos. We’ve got some guys from Speedhunters and some guys from the Drift Series coming out to make videos.

Speedhunters describes itself as “an international collective of photographers, writers, and drivers with a shared passion for digging up the most exciting stories surrounding Car Culture happening anywhere in the world.” The Black Magic Formula Drift Series features tire-shredding skidding and sliding around a serpentine course, flirting with walls and cones and barriers, and what nitro racer JR Todd – a one-time ride-along passenger – described as burnouts literally with a twist that are “definitely out of control but in control.”

Participation by Speedhunters and drifting videographers signals an intention to inject a visual jolt into drag-racing indulgence. It’s a hook for younger fans, proof that the sport is certifiably extreme and avant-garde.

“We’re going to have a boom lift over the Funny Car on the starting line, make a cool shot of it taking off from the line. I don’t know what they’re planning on shooting from that angle, but it’s got to be pretty cool,” Cox said.

“We’ll probably stick Go Pros all over this thing: put one on Cruz’s face, point one back toward the motor,” he said, referring to the small action cameras designed to provide unique angles.

Pedregon has had some experience with this sort of experiment. He shared in a Snap-on-sponsored ride swap with off-road-racing champion Bryce Menzies at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“When we raced Bryce’s Trophy Truck, we had [a camera mounted on the license plate, one on the top, one on Cruz’s face,” Cox said. “The one on the face is kind of weird. It depends on where the visor clicks. And if he can see it, it kind of messes with him.

Everything else, he doesn’t care. As long as the track doesn’t care and we don’t break anything, we’d love to do it all the time.”

Cox – the embodiment of young, bold, and trendy – said, “It’s good for the sport. I put that on his Instagram and it got 100,000 views. That’s what this sport needs. It needs that kind of content. I understand it’s FOX’s stuff and this and that, but we’ve got to think of a way to get cooler content.”

He said NHRA drag racing is “awesome, but it has to be shown that way. That’s what I think could make this sport that much better. You want to target these kids who are 12 to 30. You’ve got to make these col GoPro clips, something different. You’ve got to look at paintball, motocross, the drift series. You’ve got to look at the stuff they make. That stuff’s hot! You’ve got to think outside the box.  That’s the biggest thing.”

Too often, drag-racing fans have been baffled about why America, which loves the outrageous and the extreme, hasn’t embraced the sport in astronomical numbers.

“It used to,” Troy Coughlin Jr., one of the NHRA’s rising stars, said. “It was part of the culture of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. It seems like it fell off from the late ‘80s on.

“We still think it’s buzzing, because that’s what’s in our minds,” he said, offering an explanation of his generation’s social habits. “I really think it’s the technology age today. There’s so much in scope now that we can see what everyone’s doing every minute of the day with our cell phones, and it just takes a lot out of the equation. The amazement level – of what’s amazing – has totally changed.”

He doesn’t disagree that the entertainment-hungry public expects more than previous generations did and that we as a society almost are jaded by all the modern, high-tech gadgets available.

“We now know what our friends eat for lunch and dinner and why and who they’re with. I mean, what else is there to do? There’s less time to think about entertainment. There’s more reason to watch it on your phone or your computer. There’s just more going on,” Coughlin said.

But it’s not the same as live, in-person interaction, with people convening for a common purpose. And it’s ironic that for all of the world’s technological advances to improve communications, society seems more disconnected on a personal level than ever before.

“Exactly,” Coughlin said. “They’re all Facebook live and they’re all tuned in and all three-way-ing on the phone or doing facetime. That seems to be a connection now. It’s weird, because we have family dinners a lot during the summer when Pappy [family patriarch Jeg Coughlin Sr.] is up here in Ohio [from Florida], and there is nothing like personal family dinners.”

Perhaps ironic, too, is Coughlin’s suggestion for helping drive fans to the racetrack to soak in the sensory-overkill moments and enjoy the group experience.

“We see what they want now. They want technology. They want amazement. Our demographic right now for NHRA isn’t all that, because that generation’s getting older. I think we need to have a better app and have a better electronic business going for NHRA and make it interesting and make it special when it can be live,” he said. “It needs to be special and built up. I just think it’s got to go there. Have an app that you can build a race car, any type of race car, and it teaches you the rule book and you can race it – ‘Oh, and by the way, there’s Pomona in 40-some days – why don’t you come out? Here’s a ticket.’ ”

PEDREGON, BROOKS BOND – Cruz Pedregon, the veteran Funny Car owner-driver and two-time champion, believes he finally has found a crew chief and ideological racing soulmate in Aaron Brooks, a man whose team presence will allow him to step back  bit and enjoy the operation he has worked so hard to build.

And he had only one word to describe how that feels: “Halle-frickin’-luljah!”

The Snap-on Tools Toyota Camry boss didn’t make a pass in Thursday’s first on-track opportunity of 2017 at the Nitro Spring Training event. But he’s convinced that once he gets rolling, he’ll be the Cruz Pedregon fans have expected to see winning and fellow racers have expected to threaten them.

“We’ll be successful. The question is how soon will we get up to speed. There are some variables. Aaron has tuned a dragster for five years [at the now-parked Morgan Lucas Racing]. I fully expect this car to be running with the top group of cars immediately. And yes, I said it,” Pedregon said with a proud nod for punctuation.

He’s brimming with optimism, especially following a 2016 season he characterized as “just the bottom of the barrel” and a confession that he thought that in “2015 we pretty much sucked, too.”

With Brooks’ arrival, he believes that will change. Besides, he said, “There’s only one way to go, and that’s up.” However, no matter what his past two seasons had brought, Pedregon is confident Brooks is the no-longer-missing piece to his team puzzle.

Hiring the latest wrenching wunderkind following the NHRA Finals last November,

Pedregon said, “was a no-brainer. As an owner, when Aaron became available, I was over there [at the Morgan Lucas Racing pit] as soon as the last pair of cars ran. Within a half-hour, I was talking with Aaron. He was pitted right behind us. So there was no question [he was going to try to hire Brooks]. It wasn’t like Aaron came to me, looking for a job. I was like OMG, as the kids say nowadays, this is the guy I need over here. He’s a blue-chip, top-five guy.”

He said he thought someone else would snap up Brooks first. “I thought, ‘Well, there goes that. It was a good idea.’ Fast forward a month – it all came to fruition,” he said.

In conversations with top-fight tuner Alan Johnson, seeking advice for restoring his Camry to championship contention, Pedregon said, Brooks’ name came up repeatedly. “All this was happening in concert with what I was already thinking,” he said.  

Brooks on board is a reality, and Pedregon said he admires his crew chief’s professionalism and philosophy.

“He’s here. He wants to be here. He believes in the operation. He’s a Funny Car guy, like I am. We all love dragsters. I drove dragsters,” Pedregon said. “He said he’s ‘looking forward to mixing it up’ with these other Funny Car guys. And I like the term ‘mixing it up.’ That’s a competitor for you. I know what he means by that. He wants to beat their asses is what he wants to do. That’s my attitude.”

Pedregon likened the NHRA offseason to the NFL’s or MLB’s free agency free-for-all and said securing Brooks was a coup.

“A lot of teams are graded by who scored the biggest free agent, who upgraded. You can argue it back and forth, but I absolutely think we came out of this with Aaron Brooks – Are you kidding me? I couldn’t be happier.

“The thing that I’ve always known but that reared its head the last couple of years is that a lot of what you see out on the track – not only our car but any car – is what you do back at the shop, how you prepare. The product that you see out at the track is what you did, whether it’s training for months or lifting weights with athletes. In auto racing, it’s ‘How did you prepare? How is the car put together?’ And that’s where Aaron is going to take my team to another level,” he said.

“While I enjoyed success as a tuner-owner-driver,” Pedregon said, “I never would be a guy at the shop, for example, assembling the management box – which is the brains of the race car – or designing things. I’m truly a driver and an owner. I can tune with the best of them, in my opinion, but I never lived at the shop. I never was that guy who was in there daily, working with the guys and building the machine. I didn’t take the position of running and tuning the car as I saw fit just because I wanted to, like I wanted so badly to be so busy that I wouldn’t have time for the fans, wouldn’t have time for anything.  I did that because I have a vision. And he absolutely fits the vision.

“Aaron literally dazzled me,” he said. “My car hasn’t had that attention to detail. He built this car like a doctor would do surgery. That’s the kind of guy I want.

“I have a lot of faith in Aaron.  Part of what makes Aaron successful is his preparation,” Pedregon said. “The first thing you have to do as an owner is create fast horse, a fast car. You can put any jockey on a donkey and it’s not going to run out front. You can put any jockey on Secretariat and it’s still going to be a fast horse. That’s the way cars are.”

What will make the difference this season, he said, are “what you don’t see and what isn’t talked about that goes into these cars.”

Brooks was a breath of fresh air for Pedregon.

“There’s not one crew chief I’ve hired since 2000, when I formed my own team [to whom] I didn’t bring up the word ‘preparation’ as being the most important thing. Now, whether that got carried out is debatable. And in a lot of cases it absolutely did not - it went in one ear and right out the other. There’s only a few guys capable that could satisfy at least my hunger for what I call preparation. This guy [Brooks] is one of them. I could count on one hand the guys in this pit area who have that kind of capability.

“I support Aaron. We came together and formed a bond. He’s going to be here for years to come. And some things we didn’t have to talk about. Some things we didn’t have to say,”

Pedregon said. “Our first meeting we were going to meet for lunch for an hour, and it lasted five hours. Obviously, there was chemistry, a lot of things [about which] we thought alike. It’s me recognizing what the team really needed. I’m going to support him. You say, ‘How do you support him?’ Buy the things he thinks are important to making the car go as fast as it possibly can. I know what we’re up against. While he was racing Top Fuel, I was sitting here, a lot of times getting my rear end handed to me. So I know what it takes.”

If Pedregon thinks he’s lucky to have Brooks, he understands that Brooks, too, has a prime opportunity. Brooks was the Funny Car crew chief for Del Worsham at Alan Johnson Racing, and he was assistant crew chief under Mike Neff for Gary Scelzi when the Oakley-sponsored driver won the 2005 Funny Car championship at Don Schumacher Racing. He worked with Frank Hawley, Melanie Troxel, and Don Prudhomme Racing in the category, as well. So he joined current crew chiefs Jimmy Prock, Todd Okuhara, Richard Hogan, Mike Green, Jim Head, Brian Corradi, Mark Oswald, Todd Smith, and Mike Kloeber with both Top Fuel and Funny Car experience. So Brooks has a chance to show his talent and versatility.

Pedregon said, “He’s in a great spot here. He’s got an owner who believes in him. Luckily, with Snap-on and my other sponsors, we have a budget that it takes. He has come in here and -  I’m not giving him a blank sheet but pretty close to it, because he thinks the right way. He views racing the way I do.”
 

THURSDAY'S BEST ELAPSED TIMES

Robert Hight      3.886
Courtney Force 3.894
Tommy Johnson Jr.         3.904
Matt Hagan        3.95
Alexis DeJoria    4.00
Ron Capps           4.01
Jack Beckman    4.03
J.R. Todd              4.03*
 
Antron Brown   3.701
Tony Schumacher            3.705
Brittany Force    3.769
Steve Torrence 3.82
Troy Coughlin    4.08
Leah Pritchett    4.29
Clay Millican       4.72

THURSDAY - MILLICAN REFINING, PALMER CHEERLEADING

REFINING, LOOKING FOR CONSISTENCY – Clay Millican said the Parts Plus / Great Clips Dragster team concentrated during the off-season on “refining what we did last year. This is the third year of the team. So now we do have a little information. We’ve got a little bit of data. Our car ran really, really well last year. We qualified No. 1 a couple places, qualified No. 1 at Vegas at the end of the year. So now, all we’ve got to do is turn some of that performance into just a more steady string of those performances.

“And I think we’re going to be able to do that,” he said. “I mean, I really do. The car ran in the .60’s and it’s done it on numerous occasions now. And all it is now is just a matter of doing it over and over and over again. That’s really kind of what we worked on- just refining. What areas that maybe there’s a little bit more performance there, and what areas caused us to spin the tires from time to time. So, track information will go up, which is huge.”

Millican said he has a realistic goal for this test session that’s the last tune-up before the season kicks off in one week at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Calif.

“Run One affects all the rest of them. What your goal is for Run One affects everything,” he said. “We won’t do any full passes. I shouldn’t say that. We weren’t planning on any full passes last year. The car was running exceptionally well going only to half-track. I made a phone call to Doug [team owner Stringer], who wasn’t here for testing, and I said, ‘You know if I had run the last run through, it would have gone .60-something.’ This time last year, .60’s, I think, had only been done once, Brittany had done it earlier in the year at West Palm Beach. And so in, like, the very last moment, Doug was like, ‘Run it all the way’ – the hero run, so to speak. We only planned on going half-track again. We didn’t have a new blower belt on it. But it had numbers good enough, it was the quickest numbers I had ever made at that point up to half-track. And it still, I can’t remember what it was at the finish line, but even coasting it was like miraculously fast. But we weren’t prepared to make full runs, so we didn’t have a new blower belt on it. Anyway, whatever. So, I shouldn’t say we’re not going to make any full runs, because Saturday, our evening run, we might get a phone call to make that hero run.”

“We’re working now on just refining what we’ve learned and pushing, obviously. You got to try to go quicker all the time. We’re trying to go quicker more often, because we had no problem going quick. It’s just we need to do it more often,” he said.

Crew chief Dave Grubnic, Millican said, “comes into every weekend and especially testing, he’ll have a list of what our goals are. And if we accomplish the first thing on the list, then we move to No. 2. If we don’t accomplish No. 1, then he may adjust accordingly. But he’s very detail-oriented and has a plan every time we go to a racetrack.”

Fans will be on hand Saturday, and Millican said he recognizes they like to see something more exciting than spurts and scheduled half-track passes. However, this is work, and what the team needs to do might not involve full passes.

“We’re a single car team, and we don’t have the inventory some of these guys have. We always look at that. And I have to be honest with you - I think teams with the gigantic budgets should look at that, as well. Me, as a driver, having never owned a team but I certainly have written the checks to pay the bills, I always look at is as it’s my stuff. So I’ve seen what it costs to do this. So I always try to think about that when I’m in the car.

We don’t have unlimited resources here. We race Pomona next week, so you’ve got to be smart about your testing.”

AMPED HAMSTER – Clay Millican called his crew chief, Dave Grubnic, “super-smart” and “super-talented.” And he has that kinship with the Australian native and Montana resident because, as Millican said, “he’s spent 20 years out here driving these things.”

Millican said, “He’s fun to work with. I can’t do anything in the car that he can’t relate to. He’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve done that. I know what you mean’. So that’s fun. I’ve never had a crew chief that’s driven, so that’s been a lot of fun for me. I had Lance [Larsen]. I still have Lance. I’ve worked with Johnny West. Johnny drove, but it was Funny Car, so he didn’t relate to the dragster thing at all. I worked with Kurt Elliott. So I’ve worked with a few different guys. Grubby is a real deal dragster driver. So he’s been awesome.”

And Millican has one special person to thank for the pairing – his wife, Donna Millican.

“She didn’t know him personally,” Millican said. “But Grubby kind of took off for a year. He showed up at Indy with the Rapisarda team. Immediately that car went record E.T. for that car. Like immediately. Second run, I think it made, they made their quickest run ever. Dom [Lagana] was in the car. And Donna made up her mind right then. ‘You know, when we start this new team, that’s who we want.’ She was adamant about it. And of course, it was [team owner] Doug Stringer’s decision. Doug follows drag racing, and they had one conversation and it was done. I mean, that’s who we got.

“You know, when we were having the conversations, we knew we were going to have Lance. Him and Doug have been friends for ever and ever and ever, and we were just having a conversation [about] who are were going to get. She didn’t hesitate. She spoke right up: ‘It’s David Grubnic, that’s who we need.’ So we had a list of a couple guys. Doug made one phone call to Grubby and we were done.”

That’s a bit surprising, for Donna Millican isn’t one at all to dictate policy when it comes to the racing team with which her husband is associated.

“She has always behind me, no matter what, good, bad, or indifferent. She doesn’t really, like, get in there and [say], ‘We’re going to do…’. She’s not that kind of wife at all. I mean, she’s awesome. She and I are attached constantly, so she knows everything that goes on. Most of the time, she knows more of what goes on outside of this pit area because she’s here all the time - absolutely more than me. Because I’m inside our little box here all the time.”

Actually, Millican said Grubnic, in a sense, was inside his little box as a driver. And that has made Grubnic’s learning curve as a crew chief a little bit harder.

“He spent 20 years strapped in when it was time to look at the racetrack.That’s been the one area where he felt like he was lacking a little bit. I think now he’s really starting to come into his own on the track information. It’s obvious he can make the car run. He just felt like, and this is not me knocking him, this is him saying this, I’ve heard him say it. You know, being strapped in the car when it was time to make the decision on what to do, that has probably been his, a little bit of what he was lacking,” Millican said. “And now this will be his third year of actually going out there, looking at the racetrack, and twisting his foot on the track like you see all those guys do.”

Grubnic decidedly makes excellent FOX TV video when he is studying the racetrack.

“Oh, he’s intense,” Millican said. “He’s like a hamster full of Mello Yello. He is. He’s walking and moving, and he’s intense. When it’s race-car time, he’s definitely serious about it. And he’s good at it. He does care about it, and he’s fun to work with.”

THAT’S MY BOY! – Top Fuel owner-driver Scott Palmer and his crew have been working hard in the pit but are planning to run only when that wouldn’t inconvenience Steve Torrence. He’s being respectful of the time constraints on the Capco Contractors/ Torrence Racing team crew members who have been helping him prepare his dragster.    

“We’ll make runs as Dom [Lagana] and Stewie [John Stewart] get time,” Palmer said. “Torrence’s car, we can’t interfere with that. They’re nice enough to help us. They’ve helped us a lot – just guidance alone, to keep us from buying the wrong parts, has helped a lot.”

Dom Lagana’s older brother, Bobby Lagana, also has invested a lot of time in Palmer’s growing operation.

Palmer said he was thrilled for Dom Lagana’s success last week at Melbourne’s Calder Park Raceway in Australia. Lagana, driving for Rapisarda Autosport International, earned his first victory.

“He’s our boy. The only thing better than our deal here is if it happened to Dom. Bobby and I sit back and watch Dom run and we’re proud,” he said. “It’s like: ‘That’s Dom!’ I don’t ever get butterflies or anything when I’m driving, but when Dom drives and I see Dom in the car, I get butterflies. It’s like your kid driving. It’s like your family out there driving: ‘It’s Dom!’ Bobby and I do the same thing.”