SUNDAY NOTEBOOK - WINNERS CROWNED IN BRAINERD
Morgan Lucas and his family have business interest around the globe. He and fiancée Katie Pallone have traveled to Italy already during this season for a getaway vacation.
But the one place they all look forward to visiting is a small community in the birch-dotted northwoods of Minnesota known for its beautiful lakes and mosquitos nearly the size of clutch disks but peaceful scenery -- except for a mob of camping-crazy, NHRA-drag-racing-rabid revelers known collectively as "The Zoo."
"We talk about going to Brainerd all year long," the GEICO/Lucas Oil Top Fuel Dragster driver said.
After he bulldozed his way through some stout competition Sunday to win the family-supported Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd, Minn., Lucas and the family will be talking about this trip to Brainerd for years to come.
Lucas, the No. 4 qualifier, capped his rejuvenating day in the Midwest vacation spot with a winning 3.818-seconds, 316.90-mph pass on the Brainerd International Raceway 1,000-foot course. He defeated re-emerging points leader Antron Brown, who dogged him down the racetrack in the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Dragster with a 3.831-second elapsed time at 313.80 mph.
Brown was making his eighth final-round appearance this season and headed into Sunday's showdown as the points leader once again (and for the fifth different time this season). But Lucas denied him a class-best fifth victory and a fourth in the past six events. And after Ron Capps won the Funny Car trophy, Lucas also spoiled Don Schumacher Racing's chance for its fourth double-up performance in the past seven races.
"Hopefully it’s a sign of good things to come for us," Lucas said after accepting his seventh career Wally statue from "trophy girl" mom Charlotte Lucas.
In the first round, Lucas beat sizzling Steve Torrence with a track-record 327.90-mph speed and gained a berth in the Countdown to the Championship. He topped that by never trailing in the quarterfinals against Cory McClenathan or in the semifinals against Tony Schumacher.
(He said the ratio of Schumacher's winning against him "is like 30:1, so it's nice to get one back. He's a great driver, great ambassador for the sport, but you want to beat everybody you race, kill everybody you race. That's what's going to keep you going.")
His march through eliminations marked the first time since the early June Englishtown race that he had any success beyond the first round. It broke a streak of one DNQ (at Bristol) and five straight first-round defeats -- including the first two to Brown.
He earned his third victory in as many final rounds this year.
Lucas won from the No. 1 starting spot at both Gainesville, Fla., and Baytown, Texas. Those victories, coupled with his top-qualifying effort at the season-opener at Pomona, Calif., signaled a breakout year for the former sportsman racer.
Off the track this year, he hung out at the NFL's Super Bowl in the Indianapolis stadium that bears his family's name, became engaged, vacationed in Europe, and relaxed in fun ways between as attending the Kenny Chesney / Tim McGraw concert in Denver and playing golf near San Francisco at the site of the U.S. Open.
On the track his adventures hadn't always been as much fun, for, as he admitted Sunday, he "just got lost for a little while."
Then he came to Brainerd, a place he called "one of my favorite stops on the circuit" and "an easy spot to enjoy yourself and have fun." He certainly has had fun at Brainerd: he added this Top Fuel Wally statue to the one he earned in 2009.
Lucas said neither he nor his father gave the team any ultimatum or demanded a reversal of the first-round losses because this was a Lucas Oil-sponsored event.
"You know, I can't say there's ever been a threatening speech to anybody on our team, not even in years past," Lucas said. "My dad [Forrest Lucas] might get p----d off when we're not running good, but he's never come in and basically said, 'Get you r a-- in gear or get out.' He's never been that kind of guy. He just expects results, and if it's not working he makes a change. With this team, my dad's known there's a ton of potential there. We're looking at the big picture, as far as the future. So if we come here and get a win, it's just a testament to the fact that nobody gets down too much.
"I basically try to encourage," Lucas said. "My dad's the bad cop. I'm the good cop. That's what I love about him -- he's always there to have my back if something needs to get addressed."
In the process of winning Sunday, Lucas leapfrogged Shawn Langdon to take over sixth place. Bob Vandergriff hung onto 10th place, leaving 11th-ranked Clay Millican just a three-point gap to close by Labor Day at Indianapolis. That also left an ever-so-slight mathematic chance for 12th-place Khalid al Balooshi to vault into the top 10 before the fields are set for the playoffs.
"You can't help but get a lot of confidence out of an outing like this, but you never know with these cars," Lucas said. "We had a great car for awhile at the beginning of the season, then we had to change a couple of disks in the package and it just changed everything. Aaron [crew chief Brooks] has done a great job of looking at it and figuring how to improve and get the car down the racetrack. And I feel like a lot of hard work is starting to pay dividends."
But Lucas had predicted he could win Sunday, even before he arrived in town.
"With the way the weather forecast looks, this is going to be a good weekend for our car. It seems to like the cooler weather and it makes a lot of power to run in the cooler conditions," Lucas said with a nod to Brooks. "If we do our jobs right, there's no reason why we can't end the day with the trophy in our hands."
Brown, the No. 2 qualifier and 2011 Brainerd winner, had thought the same. And he came close to taking the $50,000 winner's share of the purse by beating Vandergriff then the Kalitta Motorsports duo of Dave Grubnic and Doug Kalitta to reach the final.
But the moment was Lucas' -- and the re-energized winner got an extra boost Sunday by nailing down his place in the six-race playoff that will begin at Charlotte, N.C., in less than four weeks.
Clinching the Countdown position, he said, "takes a lot of pressure off the next race. It will keep everyone on the team from getting too spun out during the week before Indy."
Anticipating that, he said, "Once we know we're locked in and the pressure is off, we'll start running better. If we can do that, we can mark that accomplishment off our list and set off to start working on the other goals we have for ourselves this year."
They point to Pomona, Calif., where he began the year as No. 1 to start the season. And he's looking for his first championship to bookend a comeback campaign.
BACK TO NO. 1 - If one would have told Ron Capps some five months ago that he was destined to take over the Funny Car points lead by the time the NHRA tour traveled through Brainerd International Raceway, the conversation probably would have induced laughter.
In April, the driver of the NAPA AUTO PARTS Dodge found himself 246 points behind leader Robert Hight of John Force Racing and appeared to be out of sorts.
Fast forward to Sunday’s Lucas Oil Nationals and Capps was anything but out of sorts. Point of fact, he was right on target after beating John Force in the final, while securing first-place in the standings for the first time this season.
"I feel we're in a good place with our NAPA team because we've been focused on getting ready for the Countdown,” offered Capps.
In pursuit of his 36th national event win, Capps had to deal with two of his Don Schumacher Racing teammates, Johnny Gray and Matt Hagan. It was not an easy pill to swallow by any means.
“It really wasn’t a good ladder,” said Capps. “I hate racing my own teammates. But, you can count on us racing it straight up all the time at DSR. That’s the way we do things.”
While not devastating in his quest to qualify for the Countdown to the Championship, a win for Hagan in the semifinals over Capps would have pushed him into the top 10. Instead, he holds 11th and is 19 points behind Bob Tasca III.
“Of course, I want Matt to get in,” related Capps. “But, I also wanted to win that round and the race.”
Against Force, Capps wondered if “Lady Luck” just might be on the side of the 15-time world champion. Force committed a red light foul in the opening round against Alexis DeJoria, but the latter crossed the center line during her run and was disqualified which allowed Force back in the show.
Force went on to pocket wins over Cruz Pedregon and Tim Wilkerson before lining up opposite Capps, who marched to his third win of the season with a 4.135-second pass at 304.05 mph.
“I looked for him at about 800 feet and saw he wasn’t there which was nice,” said Capps. “I’m just ecstatic about Rahn Tobler (his crew chief) and how he approaches his race days. I knew he would make the right choices.”
Interestingly enough, Tobler won the very first race at BIR in 1982.
"I'm real proud of Rahn Tobler and our entire NAPA team because they've been able to try things to get us ready for the Countdown during our qualifying and sometimes on race days without losing a beat.”
In addition to Hagan, three other drivers (Jeff Arend, Tasca III and Wilkerson) will be looking to claim the final two spots in the top 10 when the NHRA series concludes the “regular season” at Indianapolis in two weeks. Only 39 points separates Arend in ninth from Wilkerson in 12th.
NOT CHANGING A THING - Apparently, now that Erica Enders has gotten used to collecting event trophies, she doesn’t want to change her approach one bit.
The Texas native captured her second straight victory on Sunday – the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals – at Brainerd International Raceway. It was her third victory of the season.
Heading into the 15th round of the 23-race NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series, Enders felt confident her GK Motorsports entry could hold off all challengers including the point leader Allen Johnson.
“There’s no reason to think we can’t win some more (races),” said Enders.
She did just that and in impressive fashion. To no one’s surprise, Enders and Johnson met in the final and it was the former who recorded a 6.569-second run at 210.05 mph en route to the win light.
Johnson, who had qualified second, had his Mopar Dodge shake the tires just off the starting line and the Tennessee resident had to shut off.
It was the first time since 1986 the number one qualifier in Pro Stock had managed to find his or her way to victory lane at BIR. Additionally, it was the first time in 25 years since a female (Shirley Muldowney) won at the multi-purpose facility. It was also the first time a female driver had won back to back since Angelle Sampey.
“They (the wins) keep coming and I love it,” said Enders. “The guys have been working real hard and it’s nice to see that hard work finally paying off. We are going to try and ride this wave as long as it lasts.
“We have a really great car right now and that makes Sundays a heck of a lot more fun. We’re all excited and optimistic about what the future holds.”
On the way to her meeting with Johnson, who she beat in the semifinals at Pacific Raceways outside Seattle (her previous win), Enders had to navigate around the likes of Shane Gray, Jason Line and Larry Morgan.
Morgan’s trip to the semis was certainly an interesting one. He was beaten in the second round by Mark Martino and had already targeted the next race on the schedule in two weeks, but suddenly his name was called to face Enders. Martino’s run had been thrown out due to his car being too light.
With her win, Enders jumped into fifth-place in the standings and is now just 25 points behind Mike Edwards in fourth. The big point winner of the day proved to be Ron Krisher who moved into seventh-place.
As the NHRA’s most prestigious race looms on the horizon, the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals during Labor Day weekend, it appears six drivers will be battling it out for positions seven though 10 in the standings.
Only 51 points separates Krisher from Ronnie Humphrey in 12th. The top 10 drivers following the Indy race will qualify for the Countdown to the Championship which begins at zMAX Dragway in Charlotte next month.
STILL WINNING - The Hector Arana father-son Lucas Oil Buell team have come closer than anyone to dealing a knockout punch to the Vance & Hines Screamin' Eagle Harley-Davidson dominators of the National Hot Rod Association's Pro Stock Motorcycle class.
They have been to the finals against either points leader Eddie Krawiec or Andrew Hines at four of the bike class' nine races. The Aranas have combined for five No. 1 qualifying positions. But they can't land the finishing blow.
Their frustration continued Sunday at Brainerd, Minn., in the Lucas Oil Nationals -- the one race they especially wanted to win because it is sponsored by their own team sponsor and boss away from the track at the Lucas Oil production plant at Corydon, Ind.
This time Hector Arana Jr. threw away his chance to beat Krawiec for the $10,000 victory and the satisfaction of breaking the Harley-Davidson streak. By .020 of a second, Arana Jr. left the starting line too early for a disqualification that wasted a 6.904-second, 192.52-mph effort.
It was a $6,000 mistake, for he wound up with just $4,000 and a renewed vow between him and his father to upstage their upstate rivals at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis during Labor Day weekend.
While Arana Jr. might have stewed about his missed chance, Krawiec celebrated the one he seized -- again.
Krawiec's victory preserved the perfect record this season for the Brownsburg, Ind.-headquartered team with his 6.896-second elapsed time at 192.47 mph on the
Brainerd International Raceway quarter-mile.
He has won all five of his final-round appearances, and teammate Andrew Hines has won the other three (and lost three times to Krawiec, as well).
"We know it's going to come to an end eventually," Krawiec, the reigning champion, said of the remarkable string of success his team has enjoyed.
"There's seven more races left, and who really knows what can happen within those races? The key thing is to have good lights and make consistent, smooth runs," he said.
"We've had some awesome 60-foots [incremental times] here this weekend," Krawiec said. "You can't be all over the board. You've got to manage the track. Our crew chief, matt Hines, is doing an awesome job with that. Obviously it shows. He's on top of his game. He's making all the correct judgment calls."
He didn't go so far as to say he was leaving the door open wide for his rivals, but Krawiec did say that "we struggled a little bit with my bike downtrack. Andrew's bike was the opposite. It struggled getting off the starting line and downtrack it was running good.
"That all came together for first and second round. We started really figuring it out," he said. "I think the weather came to us, honestly, on the tune-up on my bike, because we didn't even mess with it."
He said the fear was that with any tinkering "you might go backwards."
"Fortunate enough for me, I did my job on the starting line most of the race," he said, "although the guys were out there hitting the tree pretty hard, going teens and double-0s. So it's just one of those thing -- eventually they're going to get you."
Krawiec hemmed slightly at the notion but said that he thought he and Hines might be affecting the psyches of the competition.
"I think some people are taking stabs at it. You've got to be there. You've got to have a green light and you've got to have a good run down the track in order to get the win light," he said. "There's going to be times when we're going to bobble and make mistakes or be late."
He acknowledged that Arana had put a little pressure on him to cut a decent light: "I know Junior was on it. He was on it all weekend. I didn't want to be the one to give him his win light, so I just had to go after it.
"He had good lights all weekend. He had .030s. And if he's going .030s and he gets a little amped up, you've got to figure could go a teen. I saw him go double-0 in the semis and take out Andrew, so you know he's capable. The question was 'Is he going to try to stay in that window and go double-0?' I thought he was going to 'lax up' and maybe be in the .040 or .050 range," Krawiec said.
Moreover, he said, "I knew this being a Lucas Oil race, Hector Jr. had a little extra pressure to perform. And he wanted to."
Arana's eager-to-win father, after qualifying No. 1, also red-lit. He did it in the opening round against Michael Phillips by .043 of a second.
"We saw Hector Senior lose, and I was pretty shocked, to tell you the truth," Krawiec said. "I really didn't think that was going to happen." But he didn't think that meant he would have it easy -- he said facing Karen Stoffer no easy assignment. Then John Hall beat him off the line in the semifinals.
He said he wasn't sure at first if he had been late on the Christmas Tree against Arana Jr. and said he saw his win light flash on and "went, 'Oof. I dodged a bullet.' "
If Eddie Krawiec is going to race like Superman, he needs to be prepared to dodge bullets now and again
COMING ALIVE – For the last five races headed into Brainerd, Morgan Lucas has been anything but a sure bet. The best bet would have been to lose in the first round. The Geico sponsored driver came alive scoring his first round wins since Englishtown.
Lucas clinched his berth in the playoffs behind Doug Kalitta, who got in on Saturday.
LANGDON GETS HIS SPOT – Thanks to David Grubnic, Shawn Langdon clinched his spot in the Top Fuel version of the Countdown to the Championship. Grubnic defeated Clay Millican thus enabling Langdon to clinch despite losing to Cory McClenathan.
SURPRISE – Bruce Litton, fresh off a clean sweep of the IHRA Nitro Jam events in Canada, pulled off a big shot in the first round when his 3.884 performance was enough to take out Spencer Massey in the opening round.
LOSE A ROUND, LOSE THE LEAD – The first round loss to Litton cost Massey more than a chance to win the race.
When Antron Brown advanced to the championship round, he earned 60 more points than Massey to take a 58-point lead.
"Drag racing is full of ups and downs and at least we got our 'down' out of the way now," Massey said. "Now I'm ready for the upswing again. Hey, that was our only first-round loss of the year, and if we had to have one it's good to get it out of the way before Indy and before the Countdown."
BALOOSHI GETS ANOTHER – Khalid Al Balooshi appears to have fixed his early season woes. In his first-ever match against Brandon Bernstein, the defending NHRA Pro Modified series champion turned dragster driver, ran low elapsed time of the first round in scoring his third first round win of the season. It’s also his third in the last four races.
BAD TIMING FOR GOOD RUN - Brandon Bernstein ran his best lap of the weekend. Unfortunately for him, so did Balooshi.
"Fourth quickest in that whole session and you come up against that kind of run," Bernstein said. "It's just bad timing, bad whatever. It's not like we ran a 3.90-something. We put together a great car."
Balooshi ran a 3.773 second pass at 322.81 mph, which was the quickest pass of the weekend to that point.
STATING THE OBVIOUS - After losing a first round race to Tim Wilkerson at BIR, which was impactful to the Countdown to the Championship standings, Bob Tasca III took a quick look ahead to the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals.
“It’s gonna make it interesting going into Indy,” he said. “This was certainly not what we were hoping for.”
MAKING HAY HERE – With No. 10 Bob Tasca III eliminated early, No. 11 Matt Hagan, who entered the weekend four rounds back in the points, sought to make hay while the sun was out. The full-time farmer ran a 4.016 to take out the No. 1 qualifier Jack Beckman, who expired an engine in the lights.
BETTER TO BE LUCKY THAN GOOD - When a driver commits a red light foul at the starting line, his or her day is quickly over, right? That would be dead wrong given John Force’s opening round result against Alexis DeJoria.
The 15-time world champion red lit for the second time this season against DeJoria, but the latter crossed the center line down track forcing a reinstatement of Force.
“We need those points to make the Countdown,” said Force. “What I did was screw up. My guys are going to beat the crap out of me.”
I USED TO LIKE YOU – Don Schumacher Racing drivers have long pointed out their willingness to race straight up. Lately this edict has done little to help Hagan, who is in the battle for his championship life. For the second time in as many races, Hagan was eliminated by Ron Capps.
IN THE PLAYOFFS – Mike Neff and Johnny Gray scored berths in the Funny Car portion of the Countdown by reaching the second round of eliminations.
I WAS THERE FOR A MOMENT – Jeg Coughlin Jr. entered the weekend tied for tenth in Pro Stock points with Ronnie Humphrey. He was eight points behind No. 9 Ron Krisher and a full round behind No. 8 V. Gaines. Both Humphrey and Gaines lost in the first round providing Coughlin with an opportunity to both gain ground and distance himself.
What Coughlin didn’t count on was Larry Morgan, who was one point behind in 11th, beating Vincent Nobile and then advancing to the semis.
POWER MAKES A DIFFERENCE – Mark Martino, a part-timer on the NHRA Full Throttle series, debuted a new engine program with Victor Cagnazzi and not only did he qualify 12th, he also knocked off heavy-hitter Greg Anderson. He took out Morgan to advance to his first NHRA Pro Stock semi-finals.
SCALE MAKES EVEN BIGGER DIFFERENCE - Talk about snatching away victory from the jaws of defeat. Pro Stock racer Larry Morgan was ready to pack up and head home after losing his second round race to Mark Martino, however, Martino’s car was deemed too light after hitting the scale following his 6.587-second run and Morgan was then issued a ticket to the semifinals. How big was that round win? Morgan moved into the top-10 in points and also into contention for the Countdown to the Championship.
OFF TO A GOOD START – This weekend Rodger Brogdon unveiled a new Chevy Camaro body and a new engine program with little testing before heading to Brainerd International Raceway. Brogdon qualified 14th in the field and made a good showing in his first round loss to Mike Edwards on Sunday.
"We might be ahead of where we thought we would be," Brogdon said. "We've got a long ways to go still, but I think we made good progress."
PRO STOCK BIKE
DOWN GOES ARARA, SR. – Hector Arana entered Sunday’s eliminations as a heavy favorite over Michael Phillips. History hasn’t provided the same dominance for the Lucas Oil-sponsored rider as Phillips carried an 8-2 advantage in their last ten meetings. Arana inexplicably fouled by .043 seconds handing Phillips yet another win.
PSM LOW ELAPSED TIMES – Andrew Hines was a few ticks behind Hector Arana throughout qualifying. This changed in the first round as Hines laid down the wood in his Harley-Davidson with a 6.865, 194.27. A round later Eddie Krawiec laid down a 6.87.
STOFFER GETS IN – Karen Stoffer got in the playoffs on the strength of her No. 5 qualifying position and reaching the quarter-finals.
Stoffer secured her spot by advancing one round further than Steve Johnson, as she beat Jim Underdahl in the first round, and Johnson fell to Scott Pollacheck.
"That was cool," Stoffer said. "That isn't necessarily our objective, as we have bigger fish out there to fry, but it's nice that we're locked in."
CARRYING ON THE FAMILY NAME – Hector Arana Jr., the lone rep of the Lucas Oil team following his dad’s first round defeat, ensured their team would have a chance to beat the unbeaten Harley-Davidson team as he used a .007 light to beat a quicker Hines.
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK -
NOT HAPPY AT ALL - The tone in Tony Schumacher’s voice told the real story of his emotions following his No. 1 qualifying effort at the NHRA Lucas Oil Nationals in Brainerd, Minn. He felt like being as bold as his dragster was in qualifying.
Schumacher was far more agitated by criticism over his newly approved canopy covering his Top Fuel dragster than his 3.791 elapsed time which stood for his third pole position of the season.
There was no smile on his face. The elation replaced with a solemn look of frustration.
“I think it was a godsend that we went out and ran the same number both times when we ran against my teammate who doesn’t have a canopy,” Schumacher said sternly. “I’m so sick of already hearing whining people out there saying, ‘oh my gosh, it’s all the canopy.”
“The car beside me doesn’t have one and he ran the same exact time. Get over it. If you don’t like what I am running then put one on your car and run just as fast. The thing’s about keeping people alive and I am sick of hearing people whine about netting one. They could have ordered one six months ago. Maybe it wasn’t approved. But, we did. You should have bought one.”
Then Schumacher sent a warning, he is willing to call them out.
“If I hear people whining, and I will start naming names, but I am sick of it already,” Schumacher added. “The car is great and meant to keep me alive. The guys who worked on it and developed it are phenomenal. I thank them for building me a good and safe race car.”
Lost in the controversy of the enclosed cockpit was the fact the Top Fuel field from first to sixth were closer (.020) than the top three Pro Stockers (.023).
“I don’t know how that’s possible, I ought to be three-tenths ahead of everyone,” Schumacher said sarcastically. “I must be shutting off early.
“But when you look at the class, we are all good. And, the class has been similar to this quite often. This is not a miracle. The top five of this class have been like this all year long. The conditions just happened to be good this weekend and it tightens up the competition.”
The three DSR Top Fuel dragsters held the top three positions and were .003 apart. They run a semblance of the same tune-up.
“You can have the same crew chief, tune the same car and have three different cars and they aren’t going to run the same,” Schumacher explained. “It’s not physically possible. They guys welding it, weld differently. It’s a different piece of metal. You take a new car out and win a race. The chassis have a lot to do with it. They can’t be replicated. They can be close and I can promise you the three crew chiefs don’t tune the same.”
And for Schumacher, the cars run the same his just doesn’t look the same. The criticism doesn’t make him run any quicker.
“It makes them look ridiculous, foolish,” Schumacher said. “It’s not like we pulled this out of the trailer and said, ‘oops … surprise!”
“We had this car out in testing. We invited every driver to sit in it. They could order it now. We don’t own it. Aerodine can sell it to anyone. We don’t care. We want people in it. If I thought there was an advantage, I sure as heck wouldn’t want anyone in it. We want to keep people safe and follow what Wally Parks started. I want a safer place to race. This is not an advantage. This is what racing should be. We all have it on the car to keep people from getting killed.
“Is that bold enough?”
SLIDING BY - Don Schumacher Racing’s “Fast” Jack Beckman clearly has to be a believer in the line “good things come to those who wait.”
Heading into Saturday’s action, the stars appeared aligned for Tim Wilkerson to grab his first Funny Car pole of the season. But, Mother Nature definitely had other ideas.
With only four pairs of racecars remaining in the final qualifying session for the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals, rain enveloped Brainerd International Raceway. Two hours later, Wilkerson was quickly shoved off the pole by Beckman after the latter posted a track record 4.019-second pass at 314.61 mph.
“I told the guys on the radio that at about 300 feet I knew we were on a run,” said Beckman, who directs the Valvoline Next Gen Funny Car. “We had to change fuel pumps (after session number three) and we had to get a fuel curve for tomorrow. I guess we’ll just leave those pumps in.”
It was Beckman’s second pole of the season and the sixth of his career. A two-time tour winner this year, the last time Beckman qualified at the top was in Denver – a race he won.
"We've been running well on a consistent basis and we made a decision to front half our chassis," he said. "Typically, we would like to take it out and test it one time and right after the Brainerd race we are going to have a two-day test session in Indianapolis. We just don't have the time with all the other teams in the shop to get the front half put on our car after Brainerd.
“Our goal is to win a championship so we feel like doing it now and running this chassis throughout the rest of the year gives us the best chance to do that."
Beckman will face 16th-place qualifier Dale Creasy, Jr. in the first round of eliminations on Sunday. Coming out of the second spot, Wilkerson will line up opposite Bob Tasca III.
“We’re not where we wanted to be, but I believe we have something for whoever we race,” said Wilkerson.
Other opening round match ups of note include Cruz and Tony Pedregon, John Force Racing teammates Mike Neff and Robert Hight, as well as Matt Hagan and Jeff Arend.
Hight arrived in Minnesota as the point leader, while Hagan is in the midst of a tense battle to get into the Countdown to the Championship along with John Force, Tasca III and Wilkerson.
BEST GAME IN TOWN? - A game of cat and mouse landed Hector Arana Sr. his fourth No. 1 qualifier of the season during the NHRA Lucas Oil Nationals in Brainerd, Minn.
Arana ran a 6.884-second elapsed time during Friday’s first session, just .003 ahead of Andrew Hines, who too made his best run in Q1.
“Today, I struggled a little bit,” said Arana. “My clutch tune-up is a little off. We made some different changes. We were chasing one end of the problem, and we had to go far enough back so we can find the proper thing to do tomorrow. Other than that, I am still pleased with the outcome.”
Ever since Friday’s opening salvo, Arana and son Hector Jr., have worked to improve the early portion of their runs. The end result was a measure of surprise they didn’t improve.
“We were really aggressive off of the starting line,” Arana said. “We wanted to lower the number to make sure I stayed No. 1. But yes, I am surprised the run held. We just need to make clean runs and we should do well tomorrow.
Arana said he was more surprised he didn’t beat his qualifying time but admitted he was also surprised the Harley-Davidson team, which seemed to dominate at will during the most recent bike event in Sonoma, didn’t step up.
“We look at the incremental numbers and they are definitely off,” admitted Arana. “I don’t know what they have done. But they seemed to have slowed down a little bit.”
Arana said he wasn’t surprised the NHRA didn’t adjust the rules for the Harley-Davidson combination. On paper, he believes, there isn’t much of an argument for the NHRA to intervene.
“The bottom line is the ET,” said Arana. “We are there with them. Makes it hard to say no parity. We are keeping up with them for now. I don’t know what they have. I know what I’ve got. We run all out and don’t hold back. Right now, I know they are running what we are but they don’t have to work on the car like we do. That’s alright. It just makes it part of the game.”
Come Sunday and in the Countdown, Arana believes, will determine who is playing a game.
HER FIRST NO. 1 - Erica Enders secured her first number one qualifier of the season during final qualifying for Sunday’s Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway.
Enders, in her GK Motorsports entry, held off the challenge from point leader Allen Johnson, who solidified his hold on second in the order after posting the quickest passes in sessions three and four.
“I’m so blessed to be driving this car,” said Enders. “We’re hoping the momentum we have right now will continue through the end of the season.”
After nailing her fourth career pole, Enders created a match up with 16th-place qualifier Shane Gray who, while seventh in the points, is in a real dogfight to remain in contention for the Countdown to the Championship.
“We set the car up like we were defending it (the provisional pole) and were looking to see if we could stay on top,” added Enders. “But, being number one doesn’t mean a whole lot if you can’t back it up on Sunday.”
The Texas native has split a pair of final elimination races with Gray to date this year. She’s seeking her third win of the campaign.
“There’s no reason why we can’t win a few more this year,” said Enders. “We don’t allow one event to be bigger than another. We just want to be cool, calm, collected and confident.”
Johnson will square off with 15th-place qualifier Chris McGaha in the opening round of action, while other intriguing first round match ups include Mike Edwards and Rodger Brogdon as well as Greg Anderson and Mark Martino.
Edwards, who finished qualifying in the third spot, will confront Brogdon in his brand new Camaro, while Anderson will begin defense of his 2011 event title when he lines up opposite Martino.
PERFECTLY CONTENT - Don’t believe the rumors. Khalid Al Balooshi isn’t planning a return to Pro Modified.
“I enjoy what I am doing now,” Balooshi said. “Just going to Top Fuel was a big jump. I think once I find a measure of luck on a consistent basis, you’ll see a lot more from this team. Besides, once you sit in the seat of a Top Fuel dragster, there’s no going back. ”
Balooshi has two round victories this season and entered this weekend’s NHRA Lucas Oil Nationals in Brainerd, Minn., ranked twelfth in points. The combination of a rookie driver and a score of misfortunes made the start of the season more than a challenging one.
“I got off to a bad start and the blame shouldn’t go on the team, crew chief, car or driver,” said Balooshi. “We just couldn’t catch a break. We’d be on a good run and something would always jump up and get us … a part would break or something like that. The chemistry just wasn’t there. I think we are on the right track now.”
The right track includes two first round wins in the last three wins. The defending NHRA Pro Modified series champion turned Top Fuel driver has a score of fans back in his native homeland of Qatar cheering for his success.
“They keep watching me and have been for a long time,” said Balooshi. “They were excited when I won my first round. Now they want to know when I am going to win my first race.”
Balooshi readily admits, Learning the ropes of driving and winning has been a lesser challenge than learning to speak fluent English.
“The key to winning Top Fuel is finding your luck,” admitted Balooshi. “I’m still working on the English part … have been for a couple of years.”
COMFORTABLY COMPETITIVE - Seattle’s NHRA Northwest Nationals provided iconic Pro Stock driver Warren Johnson with his first round win in over a year. The proclaimed Professor of Pro Stock racing said he celebrated the monumental victory by trying to figure out how he pulled off the feat.
Johnson defeated Shane Gray. He doesn’t believe the toughness of the class should be measured by his success or failure.
“We’re simply not spending any money,” said Johnson. “These guys out here just spend themselves into oblivion for ego sake and I’m not willing to do that. We are just out here experimenting.”
Johnson isn’t blind to the reality he could close up shop and become a well-compensated crew chief and engine builder since losing his corporate backing at the end of the 2008 season. Principle keeps him from headed this route.
“You could, but then you’d become a babysitter and I have no interest in that,” said Johnson. “I used to do that when I built engines for people. I learned during this time the driver is always right and the chassis and engine builders are wrong. The ones who are spending the money are always right. I just don’t have time for the intellectual intercourse.”
NOT A COMPLETE LOVEFEST - Tony Schumacher and Antron Brown are fast friends and teammates at Don Schumacher Racing yet they are two of the fiercest competitors in the National Hot Rod Association, ready to wage war on each other for a better starting position, victory, or championship.
That's nothing new, but the curious twist to their intense and unyielding competition Friday in Top Fuel qualifying centered on a 25-pound contraption that has caused a stir among the dragster drivers and team owners. It's the canopy that Schumacher and U.S. Army Dragster crew chief Mike Green have pushed for, Green even with a hefty donation from his own wallet.
Schumacher had the long-awaited, finally approved canopy atop his cockpit as the Lucas Oil Nationals got under way at Minnesota's Brainerd International Raceway. Brown's Matco Tools/Army/Toyota Dragster did not.
They ran identical elapsed times (3.791 seconds) in the second session to top the leader board. Schumacher grabbed the provisional No. 1 position with a faster speed, a track-record 323.97 mph to Brown's slower-by-an-eyelash 323.74.
That did little to unravel the unsettling mystery of this canopy. After two Friday qualifying sessions, it remained unclear whether the canopy is a safety feature or a performance advantage or both or neither.
And that's what has some Top Fuel veterans uneasy about its presence. They don't know whether to embrace it, be careful not to crave one quickly, pooh-pooh it, observe its performance, or complain it isn't available to them right now like it is to Schumacher.
The truth is that the NHRA has made the whole issue as clear as mud. By approving it for Schumacher's use in this 16th of 17 "regular-season" races -- just two before the six-event Countdown to the Championship -- the sanctioning body has generated some weird mix of disapproval, yet gratefulness, from the Canopy Have-Nots.
Bob Vandergriff, owner-driver of the C&J Energy Services Dragster, said he hasn't decided just how he feels about the canopy but that the unavailability of it could be a blessing.
"We haven't seen it in competition, and that could change the initial opinion, for the better or the worse, depending on what we see from the implementation of it on the DSR cars," he said.
"I'm not sure anything should be allowed two-thirds of the way through the season due to the unknown effect it could provide for the DSR teams," Vandergriff said. "I'd probably have preferred it be allowed starting with the 2013 season. But with it being allowed now, we will see the results before next year starts. So -- pluses and minuses on the timing of the approval."
Jim Oberhofer, Kalitta Motorsports vice-president and crew chief for Doug Kalitta, said, "I kind of wonder is if there is an advantage to have that thing -- I guess we'll see as we get into the Countdown if the Army car starts to run better than it already runs -- how quickly is that canopy going to be available to all the other Top Fuel teams that might think there's an advantage to have that thing?
"Is there only one canopy out there? How long does it take to build these things and to install it and all those other things? My feeling is they could have approved this then said, 'All right -- you need a minimal amount sitting on the shelf.' That way they're available for other teams who that possibly want to install it for this race or for Indy," he said.
"Or they could have said, 'It's approved but you can't run it until next year.' That would have made it simple," Oberhofer said. "You know if that car goes out and runs good -- I mean, it's already a good-running car to begin with -- but if it goes out and runs even better, then you're going to get a lot of people complaining about it, saying there's an advantage with that thing."
Morgan Lucas, driver of the GEICO/Lucas Oil Dragster, said, "The NHRA's tech department doesn't always have the best timing when it comes to some of its rulings. I believe that a change this significant needs time -- like the off-season -- for teams to research the equipment themselves before it becomes accepted for competition use."
Schumacher, as he always has, said resolutely again Friday that the canopy's purpose purely is safety.
"It's phenomenal," Schumacher said. "You're safe. You're in the thing. They close it and you feel . . . I don't know . . . a sense of safety -- which is the whole point. For 16 years I've driven this open cockpit where you can see things. Parts and pieces could fly in. And I'm in the capsule. We've been looking forward to doing that for a long time.
"What the advantage is is life expectancy. I want to live longer, and that's what we're doing it for," he said. "There's no one out there who can dispute it. If you don't own one, if you like it and think there's an advantage, put it on your car. I recommend it highly. Simple as that."
According to Schumacher, the canopy project is a noble new development in keeping with the legacy of safety-conscious NHRA founder Wally Parks.
Said Schumacher, "Wally Parks founded the NHRA to keep people safe: get 'em off the street, put 'em in race cars with roll cages and safety people. And that's what we're doing. All of us working together are going to make that happen. We're trying to make this car go out and be the future so other people put it on their car and we don't have to see any more tragedies."
Oberhofer, respected by peers and the sanctioning body alike, questioned the need for the canopy. To help him shape his opinion, he turned to boss Connie Kalitta, because the drag-racing pioneer has "made a lot of laps down the racetrack himself and has been around the sport continuously probably longer than anybody" and because "he has probably burned more nitro than anybody out here."
He asked Kalitta, "Have you ever seen anybody get hit with something driving a Top Fuel car, whether it's a bird or whatever?" Oberhofer said he inquired about "the things that Tony Schumacher was saying that either happened to him or came close to happening to him."
He said Kalitta's reply was that "in all my years of racing, I've only known of two people and they drove Comp dragsters back in the '70s." Said Oberhofer, "He said as far as a Top Fuel car, he doesn't recall anybody getting hit with anything making a lap down the track."
Kalitta, he said, keenly observed the canopy at preseason testing in January in South Florida. Part of his interest was sheer curiosity, for he had used a canopy years ago when innovator "Big Daddy" Don Garlits gave it a whirl.
Oberhofer said, "He told me liked the looks of the thing and thought it looked cool. Whether there was an aerodynamic advantage to it, I'm not sure if that's something he was thinking." He said Kalitta was inquisitive because "it kind of gives the Top Fuel class a different look."
Both Oberhofer and Vandergriff said they have been concerned about the weight issue the canopy raises.
"From what I understand, the whole system adds a little over 30 pounds," Oberhofer said. "I would have to leave that up to Doug [Kalitta] whether he would want something like that on the car. To add that kind of weight, right now I'm not in that position. Doug Kalitta is not Doug Herbert size, but he's also not Antron Brown size, either.
"I want the car safe, and if there is a safety advantage of having it, then OK. But right now I don't see that with that thing," he said. "I feel our cars we have right now are pretty safe. Doug feels safe driving the car. That's the most important thing."
Oberhofer said he isn't alone in his apprehension about the weight.
"My biggest worry -- and I think I share a lot of the feelings of the other crew chiefs who are working with Schumacher [DSR] . . . Our concern is that they were going to allow them to run this canopy and that they were going to add weight to us because of that," he said. "Doing what they did, they allowed them to run it and they didn't put weight on us -- which is good, and I hope they keep it that way."
Vandergriff, who said, "Currently we are not ordering it," shied away, in part because of the extra poundage. "As a bigger driver we can't afford the weight increase to our car. If NHRA raised the weight limit to allow for the increase in weight the canopy and its related components add to the cars, then we would seriously consider adding one. I'm all for safety improvements, and at face value this appears to be one."
Lucas had even more worrisome reasons for not approving the canopy with enthusiasm.
"We think there are some potential fire hazard issues that have not been addressed and that the added weight will make the cars more difficult to stop," Lucas said. "Given those questions, I cannot see Morgan Lucas Racing pursuing a canopy any time soon."
That kind of doubt makes the approval of the canopy something about which not every Top Fuel racer is doing cartwheels. But Schumacher is a believer. It might not have helped him Friday at Brainerd, but it certainly didn't appear to hurt his performance.
So the jury is still out regarding the Top Fuel canopy, and so far it has yet to return a unanimous verdict.
TAKING SOME GETTING USED TO - This weekend at Brainerd International Raceway, Pro Stock driver Rodger Brogdon officially joined the new Camaro club and thus far the reviews have been favorable.
“Honest answer -- it’s going to take some getting used to,” said Brogdon. “But, I think the car is going to be really good. We’re getting a handle on it pretty quick. Our car is basically the same as our GXP, but the differences are it’s a new car and a new Camaro body. Overall, it’s been pretty good.”
Through three qualifying sessions, Brogdon sat in the 14th starting position. The other Camaro drivers surrounded Brogdon in the line up – Greg Anderson (5th), Jason Line (9th) and Shane Gray (16th).
GEE THANKS - With Don Schumacher Racing’s Matt Hagan fighting for every point he can get in an effort to grab the final entry for the NHRA’s Countdown to the Championship, the third qualifying session in Brainerd did not prove to be of tremendous value. After starting the round holding fifth in the order, he was promptly knocked down to eighth by a trio of drivers, which included his DSR teammates Ron Capps and Johnny Gray.
STATEMENT TIME SUNDAY - After qualifying 10th for Sunday’s Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals, JEGS/Mopar Dodge driver Jeg Coughlin Jr. will definitely be looking to move up the food chain in the Countdown to the Championship standings.
Tenth in the points with just two races to go before the playoffs begin, Coughlin Jr. will square off with fellow Mopar driver V. Gaines in the first round of final eliminations.
“There are a lot of battles with Countdown implications out there tomorrow," Coughlin said. "We feel like the JEGS/Mopar Dodge can get the job done and improve our position in the Countdown."
When he confronts Gaines, who qualified seventh, Coughlin knows winning that round and more would be huge as he diligently pursues the post season.
"Of course winning that many rounds is easier said than done in this class," Coughlin said. "It's been a building year for us, and we've not won rounds like we have in the past. But we've made a lot of progress in the shop and at the track here. The next step is to find another hundredth of a second or two and then we'll be back up among the elite cars."
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - TIME TO START ALL OVER AGAIN
SCHUMACHER LOVES TF CANOPY, LOVES BEING NO. 1 - Tony Schumacher last led the NHRA Top Fuel standings five races ago. He hasn't won four races like Spencer Massey or Antron Brown -- or even three like Steve Torrence or two like Morgan Lucas. He's ranked third in the class and is fending off upstart single-car owner-driver Torrence, who is within a point of him.
None of that fazes Schumacher.
"The U.S. Army dragster is still the baddest hot rod in the world, in my book." Schumacher said. Already in the Countdown field, he said, "The reality is we need to stay in third, to hold onto third. At the end of the day, when the championship is settled, we need to get there and kick some butt."
He did Friday evening.
Ushering in a new era of Top Fuel design by racing with a canopy over his cockpit, Schumacher was quickest and fastest Friday in qualifying for the Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd, Minn.
His 3.791-second, 323.97-mph blast on the 1,000-foot Brainerd International Raceway course set the bar overnight. Don Schumacher Racing teammate Antron Brown, the early leader, matched that 3.791 but relinquished the top spot because of speed. Brown posted a 323.74-mph effort.
In improving from his first-session effort of 3.847 seconds at 318.99 mph, Schumacher rewrote the track speed record. He eclipsed the 323.04-mph mark that DSR colleague Massey set last year. He wasn't far off Larry Dixon's August 2010 track elapsed-time record of 3.786.
He said he's pleased with the performance of the car with the Aerodine-produced canopy affixed -- although he insisted again that the device is no performance-enhancer.
He said his Mike Green-led U.S. Army team has worked like soldiers to make sure the canopy is not simply a 25-pound albatross, that is doesn’t slow the car down so that other drivers won't want to take the opportunity to protect themselves.
He continued to express his belief that the canopy project is a noble one, in keeping with NHRA founder Wally Parks' mission to keep drag racers safe.
Schumacher said of his first competitive runs with the canopy on the car, "It was good. It takes some getting used to. I've said it's like you're driving and you've got snow on the windshield and you wiped off the center of it to see through it -- except you’re going 320 miles an hour.
"It's phenomenal, though. You're safe. You're in the thing. They close it and you feel . . . I don't know . . . a sense of safety -- which is the whole point," he said.
"For 16 years I've driven this open cockpit where you can see things -- part and pieces could fly in. And I'm in the capsule. We've been looking forward to doing that for a long time.
"I guess you've got to give credit to the Army team for building it -- they did an amazing job making it safe," Schumacher said, "and Aerodine for perfecting this thing -- and NHRA you've go to give credit."
He compared his performance to that of Brown, the early Top Fuel leader Friday and the second-quickest of the day in the Matco Tools/Army/Toyota Dragster: "I've got a [canopy] on my [cockpit]. Antron doesn't. They put a wicker [wickerbill] on our cars and we just ran the exact same number.
"The funny part was when we tested in West Palm [Beach, Fla.], all three of our cars [including Massey's FRAM/Prestone Dragster] would go out and make a run and we all ran within one-thousandth of a second. I had the canopy and they didn't," Schumacher said. "Could have saved ourselves enough money and time and said, 'That's enough data,' because it really was. You can put stuff on computers, but the fact is when three cars go out and run within one-thousandth of a second -- several times, like we all did -- I don't think there's an advantage to anything.
"What the advantage is is life expectancy. I want to live longer, and that's what we're doing it for," the seven-time Top Fuel champion said. "There's no one out there who can dispute it. If you don't own one, if you like it and think there's an advantage, put it on your car. I recommend it highly. Simple as that.
"Wally Parks founded the NHRA to keep people safe: get 'em off the street, put 'em in race cars with roll cages and safety people. And that's what we're doing. All of us working together are going to make that happen," he said. "We're trying to make this car go out and be the future so other people put it on their car and we don't have to see any more tragedies."
He summed up his day by saying, "For the car to go out there and not miss a beat and go fast and qualify No. 1, it’s a perfect situation."
Green, who started the canopy project with money from his own pocket, and the crew deserve credit, Schumacher said.
"My guys worked so hard to get this thing to where it's at and to make it so we weren't going to come to the first race and be a tenth of a second behind where it was so overweight that the other drivers didn't want to do it."
He said today's racing is not like the days when Alan Johnson was his crew chief and the U.S. Army car was ruthlessly dominating. Therefore, the added weight of the canopy caused a major concern -- and this presented extra work for a team already adjusting to other teams' overshadowing performances. So it's not like his team had nothing to lose by pursuing the radical device.
"This too tight now. We win and lose races by a thousandth of a second. So to put that canopy on and to have it slow down? We can't afford to lose more races," Schumacher said. "To go out there and run like it did, to show that we can do this is exactly what we needed to have to raise the guys' spirits. That was a ton of work. They were day and night making this happen."
Furthermore, Schumacher said, "In the process, we were working on a tune-up issue. We'd been smoking the tires and getting beat. I've gotten beaten by a thousandth of a second three times in the last six races. That is a problem, and it had nothing to do with the canopy," he said. "To really have it come together, we're getting closer to [solving] some of these problems we were struggling with the last few races. And that's a curveball, to take a 25-pound weight and set it on someone's lap and say, 'Good luck tuning the car now.' It's a pretty big difference. And to go out and take the No. 1 spot . . ."
He said the noise level inside the cockpit is markedly different with the canopy installed.
"We tested in West Palm. I took my earplugs out. The first round I got out and said, 'Geez, I don't know -- Is the car running?' It's just quiet," he said. "And 16 years of doing the same thing over and over again, where you give it gas and you hear the motor go 'Brrrrr' and whenit spins the tires you can hear it go, 'Rrrrrrrrr.' All of a sudden you've got this canopy and you put earplugs and you can't hear squat. So I took 'em out.
"When the car's on a run it's a little louder. It's not as loud as it was with earplugs in and the canopy closed, but it's louder than just with earplugs. I'll get used to it," Schumacher said
He said the second run Friday "was the first run that it left real hard and pulled the clutch down. It sounded great. The run before it was going through the clutch and the RPMs were high and it was fairly loud. You won't know until you smoke the tires."
For Friday night, all Schumacher was smoking was a celebratory cigar.
WILK TO THE TOP - He may be scrambling to make it into the Countdown to the Championship field, but rest assured Funny Car pilot Tim Wilkerson will definitely not let the pressure get to him.
“All you can do is strap in and do your best,” said the Levi, Ray & Shoup Mustang driver.
On Friday, the initial day of qualifying for the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals at Brainerd (Minn.) International Raceway, Wilkerson not only strapped in but outperformed everyone on the way to the provisional number one qualifying spot.
His 4.049-second jaunt at 307.16 mph was a tick better than 15-time world champion John Force, who recorded a 4.067-second 1,000-foot trip at 311.15 mph.
“We had stellar conditions here today,” said Wilkerson. “The track was even better for that second run. We were lucky to get it to go right down the middle there.”
Following Wilkerson and Force in the lineup going into Saturday’s qualifying action was Jack Beckman, Cruz Pedregon and Matt Hagan, respectively.
Wilkerson and Hagan are waging a late-season battle for the 10th and final qualifying position for the playoffs which starts in Charlotte next month.
"It's also not just us trying to get in right now, and that's another challenge,” related Wilkerson. “Matt Hagan has gotten hot at the right time, so now he's in 11th place and we're behind him by a round. We'll approach every lap in Brainerd and Indy the same way and if we come out of Indy not in the playoffs our job will be to spoil the party for the teams that are. We'll be aiming to win every round and every race, for the rest of the year. It's the only way we know how to do this."
Wilkerson, who is seeking is first number one qualifier of the year and the 17th of his career, said he will be taking a baseball approach to every lap from this point forward.
“We’re going to go up there and try to hit the thing hard,” he said. “We've been working awfully hard all year, and I think we finally have the car like we want it, so maybe we can still do some good out here.
"We love Brainerd, we love the area, and we love the fans, so it's always a lot of fun. Winning is fun too, so maybe we can string together some more good laps and make the most of it."
ENDERS STAYS ON A ROLL - To say Erica Enders is on a roll would be a dramatic understatement. After scoring her second Pro Stock victory of the season in Seattle two weeks ago, the Texas resident proceeded to take the provisional number one qualifying spot after the first day of qualifying for the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals at Brainerd (Minn.) International Raceway (BIR).
Sixth in the Pro Stock standings, Enders has already locked up a berth in the Countdown to the Championship. Hence, with two races to go before the “second season” begins, it’s all about refinement.
“There’s no better time than the present to capitalize on our good race car and the momentum we have,” said Enders. “But, it’s a new race weekend and we’re all starting from scratch.”
Enders posted a 6.550-second pass at 210.50 mph to edge out points leader Allen Johnson for the top spot in the first-day order. Johnson, who has won two of the last three races, stopped the clock with a 6.560-second run at 210.81 mph.
Rounding out the top-five heading into final qualifying on Saturday were Mike Edwards, Vincent Nobile and Greg Anderson, respectively, who is the defending event champion.
“We went out and swung for the fences in that second session and fortunately it stuck all the way down. I do think we have some room for improvement. We go out fairly early tomorrow and it will probably be cool. We’ll just see what happens.”
Enders, who is bidding for her first number one qualifier of the season, lost to Anderson in the 2011 final at BIR.
“Last year, we had a good race,” added Enders. “We almost got it done. It gives us a lot of confidence going into the weekend knowing that we did well (here) last year.”
With only stops in Brainerd and Indianapolis remaining before the NHRA’s version of the playoffs commence, Enders is clearly seeking continued improvement to go along with more positive results.
“The next two races are important before we head into the Countdown,” she offered. “It positions you for those final six races. We’ve all been working hard and it’s starting to pay off. It couldn’t have come a better time too.
ARANA THE ANIMAL - Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Hector Arana Sr. has one of the broadest and warmest smiles of anyone in the NHRA's Full Throttle Drag Racing Series. But so often he's far too absorbed in the minutiae of his motor to relax and flash that grin.
He was all smiles Friday at Brainerd, Minn., as he took the provisional No. 1 qualifying position for the Lucas Oil Nationals. After all, this is the race that Forrest and Charlotte Lucas sponsor. They also happen to be his 9-to-5 bosses at the synthetic oils and lubricants plant at Corydon, Ind., as well as the longtime sponsor for his motorcycle-racing operation.
The Lucas Oil Buell racer covered the Brainerd International Raceway quarter-mile in 6.884 seconds, an elapsed time that was just three-thousandths shy of the track record his son set last year.
"I was surprised that my first round was an .88 [6.88-second E.T.]," Arana Sr. said. "I just couldn't believe it, but the bike hooked up. It left good, and I was really pleased. I was pleased with the preparation of this track. But it’s always been great here.
"There's something special here, and it's not just the track," he said as he anticipated his fourth No. 1 start of the season. " It looks like it's even the people working the track, the Safety Safari, the fans. It's like the whole attitude's different. It's more . . . it seems like it's relaxed. We're supposed to enjoy this. That's the feeling I get. I feel like 'I don’t care -- I'm having a great time!' and things just fall into place."
Provisional No. 2 qualifier Andrew Hines was fastest in the class Friday, but his 193.57 from the first session fell far short of the track-record 196.82 that the Vance & Hines Screamin' Eagle Harley-Davidson rider established seven years ago. It is the longest pro track mark at BIR.
Arana Sr. said this 31st annual visit to the Minnesota northwoods (and its crazy on-site campground nicknamed "The Zoo") "is one race I seem to be more relaxed [at], because the fans there are so great to the racers, especially those of us sponsored by Lucas Oil. The way they treat us at the Zoo -- they show us the appreciation. When I go to Brainerd, I don't feel the pressure. I feel more relaxed, I feel happier. We want have a great time and let the fans know we appreciate them."
This trip to "The Zoo" also brought out the animal in Arana, the 2009 Brainerd winner and series champion who's fourth in the standings and definitely loaded for bear to overthrow the dominant Harley-Davidson team in the Countdown.
"With the streak that the V-Rods are having," he said, "wouldn't this be the greatest moment if we could pull one off and hand Forrest Lucas the trophy? They're the best sponsors you can ever have."
Ultimately Aranma Sr. knows that he must take care of his own business, he said.
"We've got the performance. We're running well. We just have to take care of our program and focus only on our program," Arana Sr. said. "The other teams are going to do what they're going to do."
Arana Sr. and Hines were the only two Friday to perform in the 6.8-second range. Hector Arana Jr. was third at 6.905, 192.71 and Eddie Krawiec fourth at 6.909, 192.11.
Completing the top half of the ladder so far are (fifth through eighth, respectively) Karen Stoffer, LE Tonglet, Scotty Pollacheck, and John Hall.
CRUNCH! - The John Force Racing (JFR) Technology trailer was involved in what was classified as a “minor parking incident” Wednesday on the grounds of Brainerd International Raceway. Apparently, a track sign and the cab that was pulling the JFR Technology trailer did not see eye-to-eye while the latter was maneuvering into the pits. Fortunately, only cosmetic damage was sustained on both fronts.
OOPS - Doug Kalitta can clinch his position in the Countdown simply by making the lineup Saturday. But he lost five points in Friday's first qualifying session for an oildown from his engine explosion about halfway through his run.
BACK IN THE SADDLE AGAIN - Dom Lagana said he's "super-excited to get back in the car." And no wonder. Since Dom last competed in NHRA action, in June at Bristol, Tenn., older brother Bobby Lagana Jr. drove the Paul Richards Racing NTB/Service Central Dragster in match races at Edmonton and Grand Bend, Ontario, as well as at a special event at Buffalo. Then during the NHRA's Western Swing, both Lagana brothers worked as crew members for California racer Mike Salinas at Sonoma and helped him make the Top Fuel field for the first time in his career.
"Really, it just keeps us fresh," Dom Lagana said. "We like being able to help out our friends, and it's a good way for us to stay out there when we aren't racing our own car. In between everything that we've had going on, we've been working on our stuff, keeping everything serviced and getting it all prepared for this weekend."
Finally, Friday it was his turn again, and he was 17th after his first try.
"Sometimes, when you haven't been in the car for a while, you get nervous. But I I'm feeling pretty good right now," he said before making his first qualifying run.
He raced at Brainerd for the first time last year, and his off-beat personality and love for the quirky meshed perfectly with the energy he said he got from "The Zoo." It's the trademark on-site campground that's full of enthusiastic and uninhibited race fans.
"It's definitely an experience to race there," he said of Brainerd. He called the fans "hardcore" and said the "NHRA is really lucky to have that kind of support from such a strong fan base. Everyone should make a trip to Brainerd for this race at least once in their lifetime. We're always motivated to do well in our NTB/Service Central dragster, but with that kind of support, you just can't wait to put on a good show for everyone. It's just awesome."
BROWN NOT JOKING - Thanks to Shawn Langdon beating him in the quarterfinals at Seattle two Sundays ago, Brown had to store his Western Swing broom in the closet. But he whipped it out again early Friday and swept to the tentative No. 1 qualifying spot.
In the Matco Tools/U.S. Army/Toyota Dragster, Brown vacuumed the biggest share of the bonus points in the opening round with his 3.829-second, 320.81-mph run.
Brown, winner at three of the past five races, remains in attack mode. He came into the weekend No. 2 in the standings, just five points behind leader Massey. And though he has secured his place in the Countdown to the Championship and knows the points will be reset after the next race, he still wants every single marker he can get his hands on.
"We're in a tight points race, and it would be crucial for us to go into the Countdown No. 1. If you do that, you're in great shape," Brown said. "At the very least, we want to start the Countdown in the top-three, and that’s where we are right now."
He knows he has a lot of momentum right now, but he isn't letting up.
"You still have to [be] focused and not at all relying on what you've done in the past. One big thing about drag racing is you can be a hero one race and a zero the next race. We have to go in feeling poised and feeling hungry because drag racing is so humbling. We need to go in there and focus on qualifying. It's all about points right now. We need to get as many bonus points as we can," he said. "Then, we need to focus on eliminations and go as many rounds as can.
"We need to attack each round as if it's our last. We have to get in that zone for the Countdown," Brown, last year's Brainerd winner, said.
So that serves notice for his competition, DSR teammates and everyone else. Antron Brown isn't kidding around.
Schumacher already knew that. "We know everybody’s going to be on their A-game, because it's the race before Indy. Everyone wants to do everything they can to be ready for the last regular-season event," he said.
So Schumacher wasn't at all surprised at the ferocity with which Brown kept the pressure on the rest of the class Friday, too, in the early going -- or the fact Brown matched his elapsed time in the second session but conceded the lead because of a slower speed to Schumacher's track-record mph.
DID ANYONE MENTION LUCAS OIL? - Brandon Bernstein, driver of the MAVTV/Lucas Oil Dragster, is down to the 11th hour on a couple of matters. He can guarantee himself a spot in the Countdown to the Championship if he lasts one round farther Sunday than either No. 10 Bob Vandergriff or No. 11 Clay Millican. Moreover, he is scrambling to make the Traxxas Shootout bonus race for dragsters that will take place during the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis.
One of the Traxxas Shootout spots will be determined by a fan vote and lottery. So Bernstein has launched a "BB Is For Me!" campaign.
"I love having that race within a race," Bernstein, who was fifth in the Brainerd lineup early Friday, said. "When you have that shootout race on Sunday, it gives you that extra day of race-day mindset. I'm counting on the fans to get me in the race."
Voting begins Sunday, following the Brainerd race, online at the NHRA Facebook page or by following the link at www.BBis4me.com. During the weekend, fans will be encouraged to come up with their own outrageous reasons to vote for Bernstein via Twitter by mentioning @BB_is4me or with the hashtag #whyyoushouldvoteforBB.
He said it all "sounds a lot easier than it can be in reality. It'll be nice to clinch at Brainerd, and then we can just race Indy and not have to worry about having to do anything to get into the Countdown. The car has been running terrific, so that's a goal everyone on the team thinks we can attain."
Lucas Oil co-founder Charlotte Lucas hands out the winners trophies at this event, and Bernstein said, "The winners circle with the Lucas family is special. Hopefully this can be a weekend were we can get both my teammate Morgan Lucas and myself into the finals and guarantee a big celebration at the end the day."
So Bernstein should be feeling no pressure. His tasks are to get the MAVTV/Lucas Oil Dragster in the winners circle . . . at the Lucas Oil Nationals . . . in front of team owners and race sponsors Forrest and Charlotte Lucas . . . and wage a successful campaign to get into the Traxxas Shootout, which will take place at Indianapolis . . . at Lucas Oil Raceway.
COUNT THEM IN - You can now count John Force Racing’s Mike Neff and Don Schumacher Racing’s Johnny Gray among those qualified in the Funny Car class for the upcoming Countdown to the Championship. After both drivers completed their first qualifying run at Brainerd International Raceway, each punched a ticket for the playoffs.
IT TURNED OUT OK - Turning on the red light at the Christmas Tree doesn't count against a racer during qualifying. And for top-five Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Karen Stoffer in Friday evening's qualifying session, that was a marvelous rule. She jumped the gun by a whopping .127 of a second. She posted a 6.918-second E.T. at 192.30 mph that topped her first run of 6.958, 192.14 -- and she stayed fifth in the order.
COUNTDOWN IMPLICATIONS - Steve Johnson and John Hall entered the weekend out of the top 10 and trying to climb into Countdown contention. Johnson is 57 points behind No. 10 Shawn Gann, and Hall is 62 points behind Gann. The two top-10 hopefuls fared better than Gann did in Friday qualifying. Johnson is 10th so far. Hall was sixth in the order but dropped to eighth in the second session. But both still are among the top 12, while Gann is stuck in 14th place with two ore Saturday sessions to try to improve.
LUCKY TRIO - Only three bike riders improved positions in the second session -- LE Tonglet, Scotty Pollacheck, and Jim Underdahl.
EAGER TO VISIT 'REAL HEROES' - Vance & Hines Screamin' Eagle Harley-Davidson Pro Stock Bike teammates Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec are the newest recruits to the Summit Racing Equipment's offseason visit to the troops overseas. They'll join Pro Stock champions Jason Line and Greg Anderson in the November 24 – December 1 salute to the U.S. servicemen and servicewomen that will branch out from Ramstein Air Base in Germany to include stops in the United Kingdom, Bosnia, and Kosovo.
Hines, who participated in Junior ROTC throughout high school and grew up hearing dad Byron Hines' stories of service in the Vietnam War, said he's eager to make this tour that's being arranged through Armed Forces Entertainment (AFE).
"This trip will be a great way to give back to the military," the three-time bike-class champion said. "We appreciate everything they do for us to give us the freedom to come out and do what we love to do. To be able to go over there and talk with all the guys and gals one-on-one and let them tell us what they do will be something very special.
"I have a tremendous amount of respect for everything they have done for us over the years. I grew up learning about all the history my dad had in the military being in the Army back during the Vietnam War, and it's going to be very interesting to see some of the work the troops are doing now and to give something back to them," Hines said.
"Hopefully they will really enjoy seeing Harley-Davidson riders. Harley-Davidson is an American icon, and I believe we have a tremendous following overseas. So we're going to try to give the troops some great times to remember and put smiles on some very deserving faces. This is something that is very special to be a part of and something I'll remember for a lifetime."
Krawiec, the two-time and reigning champion, said he expects "it will be a life-changing experience, getting to see everything the troops do to preserve our freedom and allow us to do what we want to do. For us to be able to pay them back in some small way is a lifetime opportunity and something not many people are even asked to do. So I'm glad to be a part of this tour.
"I can't wait to do something for the troops. I know they get a lot of enjoyment from watching our Harley-Davidson Screamin' Eagle/Vance & Hines Racing team, and in some of their eyes, we're the heroes. But in reality, they are the ones to be looked up to, and this trip will be our chance to tell them that and thank them for their sacrifice."
A HOME GAME, KINDA SORTA - Although the record books will show that Summit Racing Camaro driver Greg Anderson has more wins at other tracks than he has at Brainerd International Raceway, site of this weekend’s Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals, it is hard to argue with his record of success in the North Star State. After all, as a Duluth native, BIR is where the four-time champion cut his drag racing teeth, starting out as a spectator and crewman for his father, and evolving from a crew chief for fellow Minnesota legends John Hagan and Warren Johnson into a winning driver of his own, with three home state national event wins to his credit.
As he prepared to hopefully repeat his winning performance at this event from a year ago, Anderson credited his many successes to his years of experience on the venerable quarter-mile, which he believes gives him an added feel for the surface, and what it takes to master it.
“From standing on the starting line first a crew guy and then as a crew chief to then climbing behind the wheel as a driver, I have a lot of laps under my belt at Brainerd International Raceway, more, in fact than at any other one we race on,” said Anderson. “As a result, we know it well, and the more comfortable you are with a particular track, the better you seem to perform. The Summit Racing Camaro crew is going back there this year hoping to duplicate our winning performance from a year ago.
“I’ll admit that we’re happy to be off the West Coast and racing somewhat closer to home. We’ll be rolling into Brainerd looking for a big weekend and trying to gain some ground on (current points leader) Allen Johnson. He’s had his way the last few races, and it’s time for us to make him realize he has some competition. It’s up to us to get these Camaros up to speed and back in the game, which we hope will happen this weekend.”
Ironically, at the other end of the spectrum is the experience Anderson has with his race car. The Brainerd race will mark the KB Racing team’s eighth with the legendary Chevrolet muscle, and although they have already been able to score one win in three final round appearances, they are still very early in the learning process. As such, its true potential has yet to be reached, although every pass down the racetrack provides them with valuable information, getting them closer to having a solid handle on their ride’s performance envelope.
“This team could certainly use a win but even more than that, we need to find some extra performance in order to consistently contend for race wins every time we go out the door,” said Anderson. “That’s not normal for us. We know we need to get our cars ironed out, and with the Countdown rapidly approaching, it’s time to get in gear and start operating at full song. We’ve been racing tough and finding ways to go rounds, grinding our way around a race track, but we need to do something spectacular, setting low elapsed times and keeping lane choice, doing all the things we need to score points and win races. That’s what we’re looking to get back to.
“Getting a handle on a race car, especially in the middle of the season, is a lengthy process, but we learn a little more every week. After each race, we come back and we study our notes. Due to some scheduling conflicts we weren’t able to get Jason’s or my cars out on the track, but we did make some test runs with Ronnie’s (Humphreys) Genuine Hotrod Hardware Pontiac that we believe can help us. Between the homework and the testing we hope to have picked up something valuable that we’ll be able to bring to Brainerd to make these Summit Racing Camaros even faster. We’ll have a lot of family and friends on hand this weekend, and we certainly don’t want to disappoint them.”
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