SUNDAY NOTEBOOK - WINNERS ARE CROWNED UNDER THE LIGHTS
POTENTIAL REALIZED - For almost four years, Shawn Langdon was the NHRA's hottest young driver with tons of promise yet no victory. After winning Sunday's rain-delayed O'Reilly Auto Parts Nationals from the No. 1 starting position, the Al-Anabi/Toyota Dragster driver shed the "win-waiting-to-happen" label in his 87th race.
With his leap from seventh place to third in the Top Fuel standings, he just might have a new reputation: "champion waiting to happen."
Langdon used a 3.785-second elapsed time at 326.71 mph on the zMAX Dragway 1,000-foot course in the final round to defeat Tony Schumacher's 3.808, 322.27 in the U.S. Army entry.
In giving the Al-Anabi team its first triumph of the season, Langdon denied Don Schumacher Racing a double nitro-class victory. The Top Fuelers ran after Ron Capps won over Mike Neff in the out-of-traditional-order Funny Car final.
This Alan Johnson-managed Al-Anabi Racing team has won the past two Top Fuel championships but had blanked until Sunday with its two newest drivers, Langdon and Khalid al Balooshi. Both had won titles in other classes and other series, but both have improved recently. And Langdon had swiped the past two top-qualifying positions and was making his second final-round appearance in the past four races.
"It feels awesome," Langdon said of earning of his first victory in a Top Fuel dragster.
"I'm really a firm believer that everything happens for a reason," he said. "I guess 87 races into it, I always kind of wondered, 'Man, what does it feel like? Why haven't I won? Am I doing something wrong?' I raced for the [Morgan] Lucas team for three years and we had a good car at times [that was] capable of winning. I came here to [team manager] Alan Johnson's and you know the team's based around winning. So you know you have an excellent car at all times.
"You get to the Countdown and it becomes crunch time and you start to think, 'Am I doing something wrong?' But I guess the way I look at it right now," Langdon said, "is I couldn't have scripted it any better. It's a surreal feeling.
"I'm really happy for the guys on the team. Their heads were never down, although we struggled a little bit early in the year. I just listened to Alan all year and he said we'd be there in the Countdown. I wasn't worried because those guys know how to win," he said.
Langdon called Johnson "a man with a plan" and said, "You never doubt Alan. That's one thing I learned in the past, racing against him and I've continued to learn being on the same team as him. He's always got a plan. He's always moving in the right direction, moving forward to progress this team to be better. He proved that today.
"We had a good car in qualifying, but we had a good car when it counted, in eliminations," Langdon said. "This is just what we were looking for. We came in 80 points down, and we knew we needed to make up some points in the first round. And now we're within a round of the lead."
The victory vaulted Langdon to just 19 points off new leader Schumacher's pace with five playoff races remaining. Langdon is only nine points behind No. 2-ranked Spencer Massey, while star-crossed "regular-season winner" Antron Brown lost his lead with a first-round loss caused by a broken input shaft.
Langdon said the quick success at the start of the Countdown is a "confidence-booster," adding, "To get the No. 1 qualifier and get the win, it's a great start for the team. The last couple of races, the car's turned around quite a bit. It has definitely helped me as a driver, to build my confidence up. Just an excellent job all around by the Al-Anabi team."
The Mira Loma, Calif., native said he never dwelled on any frustration, saying instead, "Being a competitor you want to win at all times. I just dug a little bit deeper. I just kept believing in the team, kept believing in what Alan and Brian [crew chief Husen] were telling me and just tried to do the best job I can as a driver."
Will he shave his beard now? He had said, "Sure. Why not?" Saturday evening after securing his third No. 1 starting spot of the year, but Sunday he wasn't as eager to get out the razor.
"I'm going to have to stick with the beard. I don't know," he said. "It might be a good-luck charm or something like that."
Capps piped up and said, "He said he's going to shave his legs."
Laughing, Langdon said, "Whatever. I'll shave whatever it takes to win, I guess."
Advised Capps, "I'd keep the beard."
He'll keep the mojo, too, he hopes, as the tour heads to the Texas Motorplex, south of Dallas at Ennis, Texas, this coming weekend.
Langdon advanced past Chris Karamesines, Bob Vandergriff, and Brandon Bernstein to reach his second final round this season and sixth overall. He also pushed his elimination record above .500, to 20-17. (He was runner-up to Steve Torrence in August at Seattle.)
Schumacher was going for back-to-back trips to the winners circle after capturing his ninth U.S. Nationals the Sunday before. His runner-up finish was his fifth in seven final-round appearances this year.
OFF TO A GREAT START - Ron Capps has been chasing an NHRA nitro Funny Car world championship since 1997.
The veteran driver has been a bridesmaid three times in 1998, 2000 and 2005.
Flash-forward to the present and Capps is making his best push yet to claim his elusive world title.
The driver of the NAPA Dodge began the Countdown to the Championship by winning the O’Reilly Auto Parts Nationals at zMax Dragway in Charlotte, N.C. Sunday.
Capps clocked a 4.067-second lap to beat Mike Neff who slowed to a 10.406 seconds.
“He (Neff) is a guy who can throw down at any time,” Capps said. “When we were in Englishtown (in June) I figured he was one of the guys in front of us in line who was going to have a 3-second run. He is a good friend and we have been friends for a long time. He came over before (the finals) and said ‘all right bro let’s have fun,’ in the surfer mentality he has. He walked away and got in his car and I got in my car. Then, at the other end, he came over and hugged me. It was cool to race him. There were no games.”
Capps beat Jim Head, Cruz Pedregon, and Matt Hagan before meeting Neff.
“As we saw at Indy (U.S. Nationals), Zippy (Mike Neff) ran the table there and won the race,” Capps said. “Then, we gutted out, without lane choice second round and the semis, and then we ran an 06 over there (in the finals). That to me was the most impressive thing for Rahn Tobler (Capps’ crew chief) to run an 06 when a lot of guys didn’t think they could go down the right lane. Then there is Zippy there next to me in the final and I thought he has a chance at going 2-0 and winning the first race of the Countdown. He is so capable of running as quick as anybody if not quicker, so we were pretty pumped up. They were screaming at us in the radio that the rain was at the highway and it was on its way. You just try to hurry up there and get staged and it just happened so fast, but what a way to start.”
Capps’ NAPA Dodge, which he drives for Don Schumacher Racing, remains atop the point standings at 2230, followed by Neff (2157) and Jack Beckman, Capps’ DSR teammate, at 2152.
This was Capps’ fourth win of the season and 37th of his career.
Despite Capps’ success, he isn’t making any bold statements.
“I’m confident, but you are stupid to get cocky about it or over confident,” Capps said. “I was still a nervous wreck inside when we ran Jim Head in the first round, but I think that helps me drive. I do not take anything for granted. I really thought we were in trouble without lane choice against Cruz (Pedregon) because he went 03 and we went 06 first round and I thought we were in trouble. Rahn Tobler pulled out an 06 in that right lane and I thought man this is going to be fun. I’m cautiously confident.”
Capps also took a minute to reflect on how his season has turned around since his first visit to Charlotte in April, which also was the first race Tobler began tuning his Funny Car.
“It was a dream that day,” Capps said. “All of sudden it was fun again. There were problems going on with that car and we went to the final round and it was fun again. Then, we went on a streak of six final rounds. How many times I finished second (in the point standings), I do not take anything for granted until you are in Pomona and you actually know that you are going to win it, which I have never had that case. Coming back here, what was unique, we made our first run Friday and it was pretty good. Then he (Tobler) did not sleep at all Friday night. He came in Saturday morning in the lounge and he said I think I found out why things have changed since we were here last. He has been chasing some stuff in the clutch even though we have been winning and doing well. Sure enough, he made that change and boom it went 09 in the middle of the day and moved us right up. That’s when I got a little more confident for the weekend.”
Capps knows what changes were made, but he wasn’t about to reveal them.
“I just can’t tell you exactly what they are,” Capps said.
Since Brainerd in the middle of August, Capps has been leading the Funny Car points, but he isn’t putting much stock in his position.
“We have been here before,” Capps said. “We led the points the first Countdown ever (in 2007). We were up by 100 some points going into it and I never saw it again. I do not talk championship yet. I do not even know about it. We are just going to go one race at a time. I learned it can be taken away from you so quick. This win, I take it like this could be the last trophy I ever have. That’s how tough it is to win out here. I cherish it (the win), but I do not get too cocky about it and expect it even though I have a team that can do it.”
WHITE KNUCKLE WIN - Jason Line’s early exit from the U.S. Nationals last Sunday proved to be an aberration.
The reigning NHRA Pro Stock world champ regrouped in grand fashion to win the O’Reilly Auto Parts Nationals at zMax Dragway in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday.
Line beat Allen Johnson in a wild final round that saw both drivers have loads of trouble right off the starting line.
Both cars went sideways when they took the green light. Line was headed toward the wall and Johnson the center line.
Line recovered to win with a 7.518-second lap in his Summit Racing Camaro, while Johnson pulled the parachutes early in his Mopar Dodge and slowed to 11.80 seconds.
“This was a very big win for the team and it had not happened in a while, so it feels pretty good,” Line said. “Our Camaro was bad to the bone (Sunday). I shouldn’t say this, but I am going to say it anyway, Allen (Johnson) very rarely does he pedal when he shakes. So, all I knew was I was getting back in it no matter what if I didn’t see him and I didn’t see him. I glanced over one time and I could see the nose of his car, but obviously he was not going any faster than I was. I destroyed the clutch in the process, but who cares? We won the race and it was a big win for us for sure.”
This was Line’s second win this season in his fifth final-round appearance. Line’s other victory came at Phoenix in February.
There was plenty of concern about the track conditions prior to Pro Stock’s final round at 8:40 p.m. Eastern Time since the track temperature was a cool 79 degrees.
Plus, Shane Gray had a spectacular second-round crash that he walked away from, so it is no wonder why track conditions for Pro Stock cars were a hot topic in the post-race press conference.
“It’s tough when you get conditions like this,” Line said. “They (NHRA) obviously sprayed after Shane’s incident, but the race track I thought was really good. It is one of those things that you had to be in the groove. If you were out of the groove, you were going to be in trouble. The final was another story. It was iffy. We kind of ran out of sequence because of the weather and it’s a tough deal. You deal with it the best that you can and it was what it was. Obviously it’s easy for me to say it was good because it turned out good. It was a hard deal and we made the best of a maybe not so great so situation.”
Line actually has experience excelling in cool weather and tricky track conditions.
Back in October of 2006 at the inaugural Torco Racing Fuels NHRA Nationals in Richmond, Va., Line in similar cool weather and tricky track conditions beat Tom Martino to win the race and go on and win his first NHRA world championship.
“For some reason, it appears that way,” Line said about his performances in these adverse conditions. “I wish I could tell you why that is whenever there are adverse conditions like this and it is real fast out there we seem to shine. I wish I knew why that was. I do remember that race (Richmond) very well because I set the record and won the event and that doesn’t happen too often. For some reason these weekends that have adverse weather end up helping us.”
The last two NHRA national events, Indy and Charlotte made for some long days with rain delays. When Indy was rescheduled to Sept. 8-9 because of rain it changed the schedule so there would be national events on five consecutive weekends, ending with St. Louis Oct. 4-7.
The hectic schedule isn’t lost Line.
“For us it is (tough),” Line said. “We have had a lot of carnage lately. Greg (Anderson, Line’s teammate) has been tough on equipment here lately. We will make the best of it. Our Summit guys, they do a heck of a job. Carnage is not a good word, especially when you work in the engine department. We have more bullets still.”
With his win, Line moved to just three points behind Johnson for the points lead. Line, however, isn’t taking anything for granted as the Countdown to the Championship has five remaining races.
“It is definitely going to be tough,” Line said. “Winning this race is a big way for us to start. It doesn’t mean a whole lot, but if you can get any kind of lead at all it is going to be a big deal because you have such quality cars in the top 10, especially the top six. It is really whoever lets the clutch out first. You are going to have to drive good and crew chiefs are going to have to do a perfect job on every run.”
HO-HUM - The two of them will be debating this final round between themselves for at least a couple of days, but Pro Stock Motorcycle finalists Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec knew one thing about the finish of the O'Reilly Auto Parts Nationals that makes them both feel like winners.
No matter who won, the Wally trophy was going to go back to the race shop at Vance & Hines at Brownsburg, Ind. -- where every bike-class Wally has ended up this season. Moreover, the Vance & Hines team tied the KB/Summit Pro Stock team of Greg Anderson and Jason Line in posting the longest consecutive winning streak at 13 races. That includes the team's two victories at the close of last season.
So while Hines and Krawiec can quibble about parts and pieces and tune-up subtleties with their Vance & Hines Screamin' Eagle Harley-Davidson bike twins, the rest of the Pro Stock Motorcycle class will have to go back to the drawing board in figuring how to halt that streak.
They kept up their domination at zMAX Dragway this weekend, as Hines took another giant stride Sunday in catching up with Krawiec, the current champion who still leads the standings and has a 10-point edge on Hines.
The edge on the quarter-mile Sunday went to No. 1 qualifier Hines, by .0042 of a second, or about 14 inches. Hines won on a holeshot with a 6.862-second elapsed time at 194.49 mph to Krawiec's quicker and faster 6.858, 195.14.
He said his bike wasn't making the speed Sunday that Krawiec's was so he "took a stab at a tune-up in the final that we hadn't gone in that direction today -- and it worked. I needed to try something. And what better time?"
As for the sting of success, Hines said, 'We know the streak's got to come to an end at some point. We have to take them one race at a time."
Although things went his and his team's way all day, he said the weather challenges annoyed him.
"It was a long day," he said, referring to all the rain showers and constant meteorological monitoring. "It was rather frustrating as a racer. It seemed like every time they [track-prep officials] were getting close [to having the surface ready to start eliminations] they would get another rain shower. Eddie being a track guy [he was dragstrip manager at Englishtown, N.J.'s Raceway Park before joining Hines as a teammate and co-worker], he knows how long it takes to dry stuff off. We just tried to stay calm. We had to keep our focus all day long.
"We were on a mission here, to defend our regular-season win streak of 10 in a row and we needed to come out here and see if we could come out here and do that, Hines said.. "Luckily everything in the end panned out for us. It's just a great feeling to start off the Countdown this way.
"Last year I really struggled. The motorcycle wasn't consistent and my riding wasn't consistent. To come in here this year and qualify No. 1 and win the race is huge for me," he said after recording back-to-back victories that nudged his career totals to 30.
"It could have gone wither way there in the final," he said. "That was also a 20-point swing either way. I came in here second to Eddie. I could have left here 50 behind if his win light had turned on. So it was big for my half of the team. Just got to keep that momentum going."
Both reached the final round by taking advantage of the Arana father-son duo's misfortunes.
Hector Arana's Lucas Oil Buell launched fine in his semifinal race against Hines, but it quickly went sour.
"It launched, and I felt the Gs pulling," Arana Sr. said. "All that is normal, and then suddenly, it just threw me forward. It threw me forward so hard that I hit the windshield. I could hear the motor on the rev limiter already, so I just pulled in the clutch and killed it right there."
Hines would have been hard to beat with his 6.858-second E.T. at 193.16 mph.
Arana Jr. jumped the starting line seven-thousandths of a second too quickly against Krawiec. He didn't know he had red-lighted, so he continued to race and his Buell spun the tire and later washed out down the track.
"They said the bike creeped," Arana Jr. said of his foul start. "But it was also dark, so you see the lights better, quicker. That's just what happens."
What happens next is the Pro Stock Motorcycle class heads with the rest of the pros to the Texas Motorplex, near Dallas, for the second of six Countdown races this weekend.
CHALLENGING AND TREACHEROUS -Larry Morgan said he had the steering wheel turned a quarter turn in his first round race in the O’Reilly NHRA Nationals at zMax. The veteran driver said he’s never made this much of a drastic turn in his over two decades worth of Pro Stock racing.
Erica Enders admitted she threw in the towel early on what could have been a winning first round run because he car felt just like it did the moments before she crashed in a testing accident years ago in Bradenton, Fla.
Shane Gray, in the second round of Pro Stock eliminations, had his Camaro drift onto the outer edge of the groove and the move ended up costing him a race car.
This was the challenging conditions many of the Pro Stock racers faced during Sunday’s rain-delayed eliminations. Many of the drivers who navigated the racing surface said the difference between a full run and aborted effort was based on the ability to keep the car in the groove.
“Turning a quarter-turn in one of these cars is a big deal,” said Morgan, who reached the quarter-finals Sunday. “In my whole career I’ve never had that much. I watched Erica from the other end of the track and she was big time loose. There was nothing she could do.”
Morgan, who at times has been outspoken against the NHRA, said he believed there was nothing the NHRA could have done.
“The spray just won’t adhere to the track,” Morgan said. “You have moisture in between and there’s nothing you can do.”
This was of little solace to Enders, who entered the Countdown 150 points out of first, falling two spots, to sixth, with the loss.
“I’ve got thousands of runs in these cars, and I’m by no means a Warren Johnson, and I’ve gone down plenty of dangerous race tracks and that was absolutely out of hand,” explained Enders. “It’s not what any of us expected for the first race of the Countdown. I expect a safe racing surface and that wasn’t given to us this first round and it’s really unfortunate. This is the race where you want to get off on the right foot. We left on Warren and were .988 down low and had him covered. The car was loose all the way down the track. When I plugged the car into fifth, it made a move. Then it made a second move and it felt the same as when I crashed in Bradenton. I just clutched and hit the parachutes.”
The moves Enders said she felt, showed on the car’s side g-meter which was pegged with energy from the car moving side to side.
“That’s what I felt from the seat of my pants, and on a normal runs, it is usually a half-inch … on that run, it was two inches,” she explained.
Enders couldn’t say for certain she would have crashed if she hadn’t aborted the run. What she could say is pulling the parachute is usually the driver’s last option to save an errant race car.
“Nine times out of ten, it straightens it up,” she explained. “It’s hard to say but I will tell you that’s the loosest I’ve been in a race car in eight years.”
Enders also said nine times out of ten this season, the track has been prepared to perfection. But this time, something was done different for Pro Stock.
Morgan pointed out there was only one option which could have made the track better was more cars down the track.
“The only thing that would have made it better was a lot of runs down the track,” said Morgan. “There was no win for them.”
And for Enders, there was no winning for her either.
“When you focus on the positives, our race car is in one piece,” Enders said. “It would be hell to build a new one in the Countdown.
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK -
Much like Al-Anabi/Toyota Dragster drivers and champions Del Worsham and Larry Dixon before him, Shawn Langdon has an even-keel personality. He has fewer years in the seat of a Top Fuel car than Dixon and fewer victories than they do. In fact, Langdon has none so far.
But that Wally trophy count could change soon, if Langdon continues to maintain his pace as the National Hot Rod Association championship run kicks into a higher gear Sunday.
On the strength of his 3.807-second, 324.12-mph effort during Friday night qualifying for on zMAX Dragway's 1,000-foot course, Langdon will lead the field for the O'Reilly Auto Parts Nationals at Concord, N.C.
But Langdon said he's feeling no extra pressure, either as the top qualifier or successor to reigning but retired champion Worsham -- or even because he has yet to make his first trip to the winners circle.
"As a driver, there's always pressure to do good. This team is built around winning. We haven't won this year, but I think we're heading in the right direction," Langdon said. "It's a good way to start the Countdown, qualifying No. 1, especially at the last two races. As long as we keep our heads on right, I don't think the pressure will get to us."
He said the team was gathering data for use in this race and ones like it with hot ambient and track temperatures slicker, more problematic conditions. Both he and Al-Anabi teammate Khalid al Balooshi gave their crews some valuable numbers Saturday.
"The biggest thing we were working on today was getting the car acclimated to the hot-weather tune-up with the hotter track," Langdon said. "It obviously made a pretty decent run Friday night, when the track conditions were a little better. But the conditions today will be a lot like tomorrow, I think.
"We got a little bit of work to do tomorrow, but fortunately we made a good run Friday night and Balooshi made two good runs today. So there's a lot of information that we'll be able to use for tomorrow," he said.
Al Balooshi, the Top Fuel rookie who drives the twin Al-Anabi/Toyota Dragster and will start sixth Sunday, picked up five bonus points Saturday. He and Morgan Lucas, who earned all of his qualifying bonus points in the GEICO/Lucas Oil Dragster Saturday, led the field with five points. U.S. Army Dragster driver Tony Schumacher, the No. 3 qualifier, followed with four points.
Langdon qualified for the Countdown last season but said, 'This year I have a little bit better race car. I have a good team behind me. They do an excellent job. Last year it was one of those things that we were shooting for a top-five deal, but witht his team I don’t think we're shooting for a top-five. I think we're shooting to go straight to the championship. That's our one and only goal."
He even shrugged and answered a casual "Sure. Why not?" when someone suggested that he shave his beard when he finally gets that first victory of his young pro career. "It's taken me only three months to grow it. If I win, who knows what will happen?"
Who knows what could happen against the 80-something-year-old Chris Karamesines in the opening round Sunday?
"They actually have a good race car," Langdon said of the No. 16-qualified part-time team. "Even thought hey qualified 16th, I don't think it shows how good that car can actually run. They can put up good numbers. They'll keep us honest. That's definitely for sure. So we've got to make a good run tomorrow, starting with the first round. It's very cool to race guys when I was a kid I came out to the track watching. I was standing on the other side of the ropes, getting his autograph. So it's pretty neat to be able to run guys like that."
Other first-round match-ups are Spencer Massey vs. Terry McMillen, Bob Vandergriff vs. Steve Torrence, Doug Kalitta vs. Clay Millican, Brandon Bernstein vs. Cory McClenathan, al Balooshi vs. Antron Brown, Schumacher vs. Grubnic, Lucas vs. Larry Dixon.
BIG DADDY APPROVES - About the only thing that kept Tony Schumacher's ninth U.S. Nationals victory from being perfect last Sunday was the absence of "Big Daddy" Don Garlits, the man he passed on the victories list to become the Labor Day classic's most successful Top Fuel driver. Garlits, who normally wouldn't miss the event he won eight times, stayed home at Ocala, Fla., with ill wife, Pat, to whom he has been married for 59 years.
Mike Lewis, Don Schumacher Racing's senior vice president, sent Garlits an e-mail following the completion of the rain-delayed race to let him know all the folks at DSR were thinking of him and Pat and had wished they could have been at Indianapolis to share the moment.
Garlits replied the next day by e-mail: "Thank you so much! I was watching on TV, and I felt like I was riding in there with Tony. The car is so beautiful, and you know the old saying; 'If it looks right, it probably is right!’ That is the comment that Connie Swingle made when we rolled the first modern RE [rear-engine] car out of the garage in Seffner [Fla.] in October 1970! That is my comment for the DSR T/F car that Tony drove to victory and a new Indy Top Fuel win record. My sincere congratulations to DSR, Tony's team, and Tony for a superb job of driving. He nailed his competitor to the starting line and never looked back!"
Lewis said Garlits' last U.S. Nationals crown came in 1986 in Swamp Rat XXX, which featured a cockpit canopy, and he said it was appropriate the first modern-era victory with a canopy car in Top Fuel would be Schumacher’s ninth at in Indianapolis.
Swamp Rat XXX is housed in Smithsonian's National Museum of American History as one of only three race cars on display.
For those who like to keep track of such esoteric statistics, Schumacher's ninth Indianapolis triumph came on Sept. 9 -- 9/9.
WHAT KIND OF VEHICLE IS THAT?! - Top Fuel points leader Antron Brown and Funny Car go-getter Alexis DeJoria are joining NASCAR’s Kyle Busch and Clint Bowyer in working with Toyota engineers to design their own street-legal Toyota rides in the Toyota Racing Dream Build Challenge.
These custom rides will be on display beginning Oct. 30 at the SEMA trade show at Las Vegas and later in a 28-episode online reality series at www.ToyotaRacingDreamBuild.com. Fans can visit the site to watch the progress of the builds and vote for the favorite of the four vehicles. The winner will receive $50,000 for their designated charity.
Voting will open Oct. 20 and will continue through Oct. 29. Fans will be able to vote once per day on Facebook, where they can also enter to win prizes, including a Toyota Racing "Dream Trip."
With his "Dragquoia" that's a hybrid between a Toyota Sequoia and a Top Fuel dragster, Brown is hoping to help Racers For Christ. His inspiration for this unique vehicle, he said, was a riddle: "How do I share with my family the adrenaline of driving a 7-8,000-horsepower dragster?" He and the Motorsports Technical Center have come up with a 650- horsepower supercharged Toyota Sequoia "Family Dragster," which Brown has nicknamed the "DragQuoia." It features a TRD supercharger, TRD braking system, Weld wheels, Aerodyne injector hat and butterflies, Mastercraft / Impact 3G, 1G, and Toddler G custom seats. The Brown family -- including wife Billie Jo and children Arianna, Andson, and Adler -- can expect to turn heads if they ride through their neighborhood in Pittsboro, Ind., in this vehicle, for sure.
Meanwhile, DeJoria is trying to raise money for Safety Harbor Kids with her version of a Toyota Tundra that she could battle the boys with in the rugged Baja off-road races. Tricking it out for her with ultra-tough custom suspension and bodywork (and high-end, all-out interior) is Racer Engineering, a specialized off-road-racing master builder from San Jacinto in the California high desert. Toyota is calling it "a truck with the heart of a dragster but the spirit of the open road."
Safety Harbor Kids since 2007 has been enriching the lives of orphans, foster children, and homeless children through education (college, career, and the arts). Its goal is to build a College, Career and the Arts Education Center as a hub to give disadvantaged children a place to go to help change their lives. At each "Special Event," SHK teaches children personal growth, motivation, career development, music, and art. Community members are invites to meet the children so the youngsters can see someone really cares. Other goals include establishing mentor relationships between community members and the children and giving the children a safety net as they grow up and leave institutional life.
Bowyer is using his so-called "Tekked-Out Prius," with state-of-the-art interactive interior gadgetry to enhance the driving experience in the hybrid car. He'll give his winnings to Emporia Community Foundation, which benefits his Kansas hometown and surrounding communities. It supports Big Brothers/Big Sisters, local schools, elder care, and the arts.
Busch is working on the "Rowdy" Edition Camry, complete with plenty of muscle, ground effects, and over-the-top features that speak to his Las Vegas upbringing. His charity is his own foundation, which benefits a wide array of causes that include recreational programs, teen and young adults, safe driving, and programs for the terminally ill.
'WHOA, SPENCER! ' - No one was more eager to dive into the six-race playoffs than Spencer Massey. Never mind that it began just five days after the delayed completion of the U.S. Nationals, for which he was No. 2 qualifier and runner-up. He has the seemingly boundless energy of a hyperactive child who wants to ride the roller coaster at the amusement park over and over and over, as long as he's allowed.
"I'm ready to get the Countdown started," he said this past week. "It's pretty simple: we need to win the race to get back to the No. 1 spot. With the points reset, we are all pretty close to each other now. So whoever wins the race will most likely leave as the points leader."
He came in 30 points behind Antron Brown. But after winning the $100,000 prize for capturing the Traxxas Nitro Shootout then missing out on U.S. Nationals hardware because of his other Don Schumacher Racing teammate, Tony Schumacher, Massey wants to be top dog again.
"With us setting the record and getting the win this spring I'm really excited to go back and get back out on that zMAX Dragway strip and see how fast this FRAM/Prestone dragster can go."
It went plenty quick and fast in the first day of qualifying for the O'Reilly Nationals. Massey was second to Shawn Langdon with a 3.811-second elapsed time and 322.73-mph speed.
"This race is really going to determine how the rest of the Countdown plays out," Massey said. "After the next two events, you'll really start to see who's pulling away and are going to be championship contenders. You're going to see who's on a hot streak and who's not. Hopefully we're on that hot streak."
FROM 'SHAKY AND CRAZY' TO SMOOTH - Morgan Lucas improved Saturday from 11th place to sixth in the Top Fuel order, picked up five qualifying bonus points in the day's two rounds, and got a better idea of what to expect from this racetrack. But Don’t ask him what happened to turn it all around.
"I don't know what all [crew chief] Aaron Brooks and the guys had to do to get the car turned around from what we had on Friday to the success we had Saturday," Lucas said. "It's impressive and a lot of fun. The car went from something that felt shaky and crazy to something that's smooth as glass."
He said he never really had a strong sense of what this zMAX Dragway racing surface was all about until this spring, when he was here with the tour for the 4-Wide Nationals and for a test session immediately after that. But he appears to be ready to go into eliminations with more confidence.
"Right now we've got to take what we learned in testing in the spring and apply it toward tomorrow," Lucas said Saturday afternoon. "Tomorrow the weather is calling for a lot of cloud cover, which more or less becomes our kind of racetrack, anyway.
"It's so much fun when the car goes down two runs in a row like that on a Saturday," he said. "That's not a common thing. Usually we're trying some stuff on Saturday. We ended up in the top half on a day when you are normally trying to cement your spot in the field. Everything we're doing revolves around the Countdown. Every point counts, and we're just trying to put ourselves in a decent position to finish strong at the end of the year."
TIGHTENING HIS BELT - Brandon Bernstein's blower belt could be blowing his chance to start the Countdown on the right foot. In his four qualifying passes this weekend in the MAVTV Dragster, every one ended with the blower belt getting chewed up and sometimes even flung from the car.
"Our run Friday night was going really good but it pitched with blower belt off way before the finish line," Bernstein said Saturday. "The last run today, actually made it to the finish line, but it destroyed the belt. It's just not happy for some reason. [Crew chief] Joe Barlam and the guys will figure something out. Hopefully the belt will stay on there all the way and we'll be all right." Bernstein is the No. 5 starter.
FOR TORRENCE IT ENDS WELL - Steve Torrence said he's happy finally with the performance this weekend of his Torrence Racing / Capco Contractors Inc. Dragster. "We made two good runs," he said. The trouble is that he made four altogether. Just the same, the last one produced a 3.846-second elapsed time at 322.50 mph, good enough for the No. 9 position. "We were very happy with the results," Torrence said. "We've been trying to solve some problems. The last run was fifth-quickest of the session, and an earlier one of 3.777 made us believe we fixed some of the troubling areas. We have a good car now. We are very optimistic about our chances." He will meet Bob Vandergriff in the first round.
JUST ONE TOP FUELER - John Force was as adamant Saturday afternoon at zMax Dragway as he’s ever been. Regardless of what was aired on ESPN3.com Friday afternoon, he’s only running one Top Fuel car next season and only if he can find enough sponsorship to supplement the effort.
This dragster, he contends, will be driven by daughter Brittany.
“I’m not in any talks with Larry Dixon,” Force confirmed. “ESPN talked to me in Indianapolis who are the people I’d look at [for Top Fuel]. The first person they mentioned was Larry Dixon. I pointed out he was a great champion and did the whole deal. But I will tell you, the driver of the dragster will be Brittany.”
Force confirmed Brittany was meeting with sponsor reps from children’s television network Nickelodeon on a possible deal.
Brand Source will be part of the deal, Force confirmed, and has funded her testing efforts this season.
“Because of the Countdown, we are going to hold off in testing Brittany until after Reading,” Force explained. “I have to get her in the range of 80 to 100 runs. We’re at 50 runs now. She’s already got her license. I just need to get those 100 runs.”
Don’t misunderstand Force he’d love to have two Top Fuels, if he had the money to support it.
“And I just don’t have it,” he added.
STARTING FROM THE TOP - Tim Wilkerson entered the NHRA O’Reilly Auto Parts Nationals at zMAX Dragway without a No. 1 qualifier in the 2012 season - 17 races.
Wilkerson made sure his streak ended, with a 4.048-second elapsed time in qualifying to clinch his first No. 1 seed of the season and the 17th of the Springfield, Ill. driver’s career.
Wilkerson’s time gave his Levi, Ray and Shoup Shelby Mustang team some positive momentum in the first race of the six-race Countdown to One.
“It’s a good step in the right direction of winning a couple, three rounds a weekend,” Wilkerson said. “Two rounds a weekend. By the time we get to Pomona (for the season finale on Nov. 11), they’ll have to contend with us.”
Wilkerson earned the 10th and final spot in the Countdown. He makes his first start in the Countdown against Todd Lesenko, who earned the 16th and final spot at zMAX.
As for Wilkerson’s strategy, what will it be in the Countdown’s first race?
“I think we have cloud cover tomorrow that’s really more dangerous than what (drivers saw in qualifying) in reality. Then you’ve got tire shake problems that arise,” Wilkerson said. “We’re just going to race the racetrack and race whatever lane we decide to take, and if we can’t get down the racetrack that’s not going to be Todd’s fault.”
Wilkerson said he has his eyes set more on what he and his team can do than what any of his opponents may do.
“The strategy has to be, ‘don’t worry about who you race. Worry about where you’re at, the lane you’re racing and the conditions you’re racing under. That’s what we’re going to do,” Wilkerson said.
Wilkerson’s entry into the Countdown reset his hopes of a championship, which he says is a positive. He didn’t win a race in the 17-race regular season, but Wilkerson enters round one of the Countdown just 110 points behind leader Ron Capps.
“I think that you need to put it all behind you now and worry about the upcoming round and that’s it,” Wilkerson said. “Doesn’t really matter what we did the first 17 races. We’re going to go up there and do what we did in qualifying, which is try to be one of the quickest cars on the racetrack. You go into the countdown in 10th place with no place to go but up. We’re excited to be here.”
THERE'S ANOTHER ONE COMING - Another generation of John Force Racing is waiting in the wings.
Autumn Hight, the eight year old granddaughter of John Force, has a race car on the way. The order was placed Monday, her eighth birthday.
“Eight years old is the age when it starts, so we ordered her one,” said father Robert Hight, who is married to Force’s oldest daughter, Adria. “She’s excited about it, she loves it. She loves drag racing so much that she would travel with me every weekend if she could.”
Hight said he showed his daughter the rendering of the forthcoming car and she was overwhelmed with emotion.
“She loves pink and purple, so we had our graphics guy design a car with this color theme,” said Hight. “When she saw the car, she just grabbed me and hugged me. It was inspiring to see how excited she was.”
Hight estimates the car will be finished in time to display at the upcoming NHRA event in St. Louis. The unveiling cannot come soon enough for young Autumn.
“The first thing she asked me was if she could race it this year,” Hight added.
Hight understands the toughest challenge in his daughter's racing will not be in teaching her to drive, but instead keeping her media-swooning, sponsor-grabbing grandfather in check.
“I’m gonna let her grow at the pace she wants to grow,” explained Hight. “When he [John] saw the design of the car, the first thing he pointed out was there was no room for sponsors.”
Already Grandpa has taken the initiative to get the granddaughter’s team established with the best equipment available.
“We have to get her a truck and trailer,” Force immediately proclaimed upon learning of Autumn’s aspirations. “An eighteen wheeler or maybe a pick-up truck ...”
Autumn’s mother spoke up, in an attempt to slow her father down.
“She’s only going to run in the parking lot,” Adria advised.
Then Force, promotional gears in his mind turning, offered, “She’ll be on tour!”
In other Force grandchildren news, Force added, grandson Jacob John Hood took his first steps during the second week of the NHRA U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis.
FOCUSED ON TITLE RUN - Robert Hight enjoyed more perks than just being the NHRA Funny Car points leader when he won four of this season’s first five races.
The early success also afforded Hight, the driver of the Auto Club Ford, the chance to test new setups in the following races because he had a wide berth between himself and the cutoff for the 10-driver Countdown to One.
Hight’s four wins – at Firebird (Az.) International Raceway, Gainesville Raceway, The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and at zMAX Dragway – came in succession.
Did Hight, who hasn’t won since, want a break? Not at all.
“I love it,” Hight said. “Momentum is a huge thing in this sport.”
Now the six-race Countdown begins at zMAX. Hight said his team started it with the mindset of being through with taking risks on setups. They’re ready to make a run at what would be Hight’s second Funny Car championship.
Hight’s four early wins helped him enter the Countdown in second place, 30 points behind top seed Ron Capps. With the first four Countdown races coming in four straight weeks, Hight said his team is aiming for another four-in-a-row streak.
“The way this all works and having four races in a row, I believe that it’s going to be (like) if a guy can come through here with a win you can carry that momentum right through to the next week,” Hight said. “Four in a row, just bam, bam bam.”
Hight got his bid for a second consecutive zMAX win off on firm footing. His elapsed time of 4.116 seconds in the second qualifying session put him fifth on the qualifying chart.
The key to returning to winning form, he said, is simply being consistent.
“If you can really knock them out in this first four (races), you’re looking good,” Hight said. “It’s all a matter of getting hot at the right time. You’ve got to come together as a team and (succeed) when it counts.”
Hight would know.
He barely qualified for the 2009 Countdown, entering the run for the championship without a win; but he turned it around quickly, winning the first two Countdown races on his way to the championship.
Hight said his team has maintained the same focus it had in the early-season winning streak. But the Countdown gets everyone on Hight’s John Force Racing team – driver included – pushing to reach greater heights. It’s definitely possible, he said.
“Everybody’s a little more up and excited now that it’s the Countdown. Not that we weren’t focused but we’re ready to rise to the next level,” Hight said. “My guys have promised me they’re going to give me the next eight weeks and we’re going to hit it as hard as we can.
“Some of the (early-season) things we tried didn’t work out. But I’m fine. I think we have as good a shot at winning this as anybody else.”
FORCE VS. FORCE – The good news for John Force entering the first round of the Funny Car O’Reilly Auto Parts Nationals at zMAX Dragway is he’s very well-versed in his opponent.
The bad news?
Force’s opponent is a member of his John Force Racing team. She’s also his daughter, Courtney. Adding insult to injury for the 63-year-old Force is the fact he’s the No. 11 seed to 24-year-old Courtney’s No. 6 spot.
Force said his focus is still on winning the event and doing as well as possible in his Castrol GTX Ford Mustang the rest of the season. His final qualifying run on Sept. 15 – a 4.133-second elapsed time – bumped Force from 13th to 11th.
Courtney Force’s TRAXXAS Ford Mustang moved to sixth on her final run with a 4.109-second elapsed time.
The elder Force said he doesn’t want to be knocked out in the first round of the race, but not just because he’s racing his daughter.
“I know enough about tuning a racecar (not) to be stupid,” Force said.
“I’ve got a friend (at the track), Bruton Smith, (who) spent billions of dollars on the Bellagio, putting my name on the grandstands and I’m not going to embarrass my friend, so I’m going to give him a racecar (Sunday).”
Force said prior to qualifying his relationship with Courtney is more of a father-daughter partnership.
“If I ran it as a boss we’d be fighting all the time,” Force said. “It’s more father-daughter, wanting to make sure she doesn’t fail.”
Force, a 15-time champion, enters the race ranked eighth in the Countdown to One with 2,020 points. Courtney Force (2,040 points) is sixth.
CAPPS READY TO RACE – Ron Capps said he feels ready to compete.
The driver of the NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger enters the first round of Funny Car action at zMAX Dragway ranked first in the Countdown to One points. He’s got six races to hold onto the lead.
Capps’ confidence grew after qualifying.
His elapsed time of 4.096 seconds in qualifying put Capps in the No. 4 spot for the first round. He’ll face No. 13 seed Jim Head.
“We thought we’d improve and it did (Saturday) morning,” Capps said. “To go .09 in the heat of the day was awesome, so I think we’re ready here.”
Capps joked about John Force’s relationship with zMAX Dragway owner Bruton Smith, saying he wanted to tell Force he had just left Smith’s suite – but just to joke with Force, who he would’ve faced in the first round had Force not improved his time in his final qualifying run.
Capps enters the O’Reilly Auto Parts Nationals with three wins on the season, at Atlanta Dragway, Bristol Dragway and Brainerd International Raceway.
GILBERTSON FALLS SHORT – Funny Car qualifying for the O’Reilly Auto Parts Nationals at zMAX Dragway proved to be unkind to the most local of its participants.
Gastonia, N.C. resident Bob Gilbertson’s elapsed time of 4.321 seconds in qualifying on Sept. 15 left Gilbertson unable to make the field.
Gilbertson’s Tricktank.com Monte Carlo BAE missed the race by .008 seconds to No. 16 seed Todd Lesenko’s Jim Dunn Racing Impale BAE. Missing the cut was the least painful of what he faced on Saturday. When time came for the first qualifying run, a call came over the NHRA official radio stating Gilbertson would be late because the tow vehicle suffered a flat tire. Then moments after he was bumped from the field, a call went to race officials letting them know Gilbertson would have to spend some time waiting as the same tow vehicle would not start.
AND A SOPHOMORE SHALL LEAD THEM - Vincent Nobile didn’t expect to finish with the No. 1 Pro Stock seed after qualifying at the NHRA O’Reilly Auto Parts Nationals at zMAX Dragway on Sept. 15.
Nobile’s Mountain View Tire Dodge Avenger made sure he bested his expectations.
The 20-year-old Nobile posted a 6.548-second elapsed time in qualifying to secure the first top seed of his career.
“It’s definitely a surprise, but it’s a pleasant surprise,” Nobile said.
Nobile’s best career start was far from a one-man effort.
“For my team it meant the world to them, just because they worked so hard on the car and it performed (the way they wanted),” Nobile said. “I owe it all to the team. They made the car go fast. I just drove it. But coming into the weekend I did not expect to be No. 1 qualifier.”
Nobile’s first-round opponent, Lewis Worden, hasn’t qualified for an event since 1997. Worden made his first attempt since 1999 at the MAC Tools U.S. Nationals at LucasOil Raceway at Indianapolis in early September. Nobile said he won’t take Worden for granted – even though Nobile was in eighth grade the last time Worden was on track before Indy.
“When you’re in the show it’s anyone’s game, so I’m going to go up there and do my own deal,” Nobile said. “Even though I’m No. 1 qualifier it doesn’t mean I’m not going to go up there and try my best. I’m sure Lewis is going to do the same thing and give me a run for my money.”
Nobile enters the first round at zMAX without any previous No. 1 qualifier experience to draw upon, but he knows what it takes to win. Nobile has two wins this season. He captured victories on April 29 at Royal Purple Raceway and on July 8 at Summit Motorsports Park.
Nobile said his drive for a third win of the season won’t be an easy one, but it’s definitely possible – especially considering his car’s speed.
“It’s nice to know that I have a car that can beat everyone out there,” Nobile said.
“Considering if I have the same reaction time as someone, I’ll have (an advantage) with the car, hopefully.”
Nobile's No. 1 seed snaps Jason Line’s four-race top-seed streak at zMAX dating back to the Four-Wide Nationals in 2010.
MR. VERSATILE - Driving a race car is second nature to Dave Connolly.
The Pro Stock driver, who was an accomplished sportsman driver before he turned professional, is pulling double-duty again. Just like he did in Indianapolis, he is driving team owner Victor Cagnazzi’s COPO Camaro Stocker in addition to the IDG-sponsored Pro Stocker.
Connolly, in his sportsman efforts, has performed flawless to this point. He ran a 9.489-second elapsed time during qualifying to qualify No. 1, -1.111 under the CC/Stock Automatic index. Saturday morning, he won his third round race and will race in Sunday’s quarter-finals.
This is just a continuation of Connolly’s driving dominance. He scored a Pro Stock victory in only his third time behind the wheel of a Pro Stocker since last year.
Connolly’s versatility appears seamless when adjusting to the demands of racing various styles of racing vehicle.
“I guess it all goes with the experience of racing so many cars over the years,” explained Connolly. “They are definitely two different kinds of animals. I have one with an automatic which tries to stand on its bumper every time I launch and the other picks up three seconds and 60 miles per hour with a five speed. They are two different kinds of animals.
“I cannot explain how I adapt to them, I just do it.”
In Pro Stock, Connolly qualified No. 8 and will race V. Gaines in the first round.
WANTED: TURNAROUND - Allen Johnson figured out how to handle Bristol Dragway, his home track, where in June he topped both NHRA Pro Stock qualifying sessions and finished second.
The Greeneville, Tenn. native’s newest challenge? Finding a way to succeed in the O’Reilly Auto Parts Nationals at zMAX Dragway.
Johnson, the driver of the MOPAR-sponsored Dodge Avenger, said he’s never had the kind of good Bristol fortune he enjoyed in June at zMAX.
The reason is more technical than just bad luck.
“Every racetrack has its own character, and this track certainly does (as well),” Johnson said.
“As you leave the starting line it’s flat where you’re sitting and as you drive off there’s a hump there. It makes the balance of the car really finicky. We’ve not hit on a good run yet down low because of that. The air is about the same here (as Bristol), though.”
zMAX seems to be the thorn in Johnson’s side when it comes to the 23-race season.
But, Johnson brought more than just momentum – and four wins in 2012 – to zMAX. He’s also got a better car than he had at the Four-Wide Nationals in April.
Johnson’s 6.560 elapsed time in qualifying on Sept. 14 put him fourth on the qualifying chart.
The time would be a solid result for most drivers, but it wasn’t what Johnson had in mind when his Amoco Racing team arrived at the track. Johnson’s past struggles at zMAX, where he’s past the second round only once, have fueled his fire to finish first.
“(The qualifying time was) not horrible, but it’s probably not where we should be,” Johnson remarked.
We’re better than we were (in April) but we’re still not where we need to be.”
Johnson has reason to set the bar high. He’s first in Countdown to One standings with a 30-point cushion. A win at zMAX would only enhance his hopes of a championship.
Johnson isn’t leaving anything to chance this time around. A Countdown-opening victory at zMAX is just what Johnson said his team needs to propel them to a title.
“We’ve made some wholesale changes (to the car),” Johnson said, “so hopefully this will be the ticket.”
NOT SO HOLY SMOKE - After opening with two solid runs on the first day, Greg Anderson came back with a competitive 6.585-second, 211.30 mph on his first attempt on Saturday. However he was not as fortunate on in the final qualifying session, as smoke erupted from under his car almost immediately due to a rare engine failure, forcing him to shut off early and coast across the line. Fortunately, his 6.560-second time from Friday night remained his run of record, earning him the third starting position and a first-round encounter with Shane Gray.
“I’m sure we made a few highlight reels with our engine issues in the fourth session, which is never a good thing,” said Anderson. “At KB Racing, we take pride in our engines, and when we lose one like that it’s extremely disappointing. We have plenty of them, so we will certainly regroup. We’ll put another one in tomorrow and go race, seeing if we can do a better job than we did today.
‘These Summit Racing Camaros are acting like they want to run, but we’re just not getting clean starts. We’re going to keep digging until we get it right in low gear. Once we do that, I think we can run with any car out there. It’s just a matter of doing it. Obviously we have a lot of thinking to do overnight, but we have a chance, which all you can ask for. We’ll come out swinging tomorrow morning, hoping we made the correct changes and run well.
“We’ll forget about the engine blow up for tonight because there’s nothing we can do about it. When we get back to the shop on Monday, we’ll shed a tear or two and figure out what we need to do better so it doesn’t happen again. But for right now, we’ll just put another engine in and try and get the chassis set-up right.”
WORDEN GETS IN – Lewis Worden will make his first NHRA Pro Stock start since 1999 at zMAX Dragway.
Worden, a Festus, Mo. native, returned to racing at LucasOil Raceway at Indianapolis after a lengthy absence but he missed the field at Indy. Worden’s second time out proved to be the charm.
The driver of the Jim Cunningham Ford Mustang posted an elapsed time of 6.676 seconds in qualifying, which was enough for the No. 16 seed.
Prior to his run at Indy, Worden wasn’t sure when his last attempted race was. He hadn’t competed in a Pro Stock event since the 1999 AutoZone Nationals at Memphis Motorsports Park.
“It’s been so long I can’t even remember, to be honest,” Worden said. “Ever since I got out of racing (in 1999) I still stayed connected.”
Worden’s No. 16 seed surprised the 56-year-old former construction worker. He didn’t think he had the car – or the reflexes – to make the field, but he made it happen.
“You can always expect the unexpected in Pro Stock,” Worden said. “You never know. It takes luck. It takes skill. Right now, (it was) luck more for us than anything. We’ve got a ways to go with our program. But we know that, and we’re trying.”
When he entered zMAX Worden hadn’t qualified for an event since 1997, but putting an end to the 15-year streak – which Worden figured would never end – was a great relief.
“By all rights Kurt (Johnson) should be in over us but he just had an unfortunate day and luck was on our side,” Worden said.
“It’s a tremendous confidence boost.”
Worden said his approach to facing No. 1 seed Vincent Nobile – who was in grade school when Worden last raced before Indy – would be the same as it was in 1997.
“It’s the same thing. We have to go up there and do the absolute very best we can,” Worden said. “It’s all we can do, and we’re definitely going to do our best.”
LINE SEES STREAK BROKEN – Jason Line and the No. 1 Pro Stock seed at zMAX Dragway have been synonymous with one another since 2010.
Line entered the O’Reilly Auto Parts Nationals having earned the pole at zMAX for four races in a row, dating back to the 2010 Four-Wide Nationals.
Line, a Mooresville, N.C. native, fell just short of a fifth straight top spot at his home track. His elapsed time of 6.554 seconds in qualifying put him just .006 seconds behind Vincent Nobile.
Line, the defending champion, hasn’t won since the Arizona Nationals on Feb. 19, the second race of the 23-race season. He trails points leader Allen Johnson by 30 points.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
BYE-BYE BABY - The fortunate seem to get even more fortunate.
Andrew Hines, who's on a roll with his Vance & Hines Screamin' Eagle Harley-Davidson, earned more Saturday than the Pro Stock Motorcycle class' No. 1 qualifying position for the O'Reilly Auto Parts Nationals at Concord, N.C.
He also got a bye run in Sunday's eliminations at zMAX Dragway in this first race of the Countdown to the Championship. The class is one entrant short of a complete 16-rider field, so Hines will advance automatically to the second round.
He earned the distinction with the 6.851-second, 195.82-mph pass he clocked on the quarter-mile course during Friday's evening session. So his first real competition will be in the quarterfinals against the winner of the Karen Stoffer-Shawn Gann match-up.
"I've never had a planned bye run," Hines said after holding off teammate Eddie Krawiec and both Hector Arana Jr. and Sr. in two Saturday sessions. "I've had opponents break before staging. But it's kind of nice. It's going to make me sleep a little easier. That first run in the Countdown is crucial. You've got to get by that first round, and hopefully they keep coming after that. To know we're going to get a win light first round makes everything a little easier.
"It's unfortunate for the class that we didn't have a full field, but to have a chance to learn for the tune-up for the first round, to take a stab at something we might not try on Sunday is going to be beneficial to us," Hines said. "We tried a little bit in that last session, and I lost a couple miles an hour. We're going to obviously try to put up a good E.T. first round, but hopefully what we changed for tomorrow will work."
He said Krawiec's bike has been consistent all weekend but his own needed something, because it wasn't as consistent even with a nearly identical tune-up. We changed something on my bike down track and he went 193 and a half and I went 192.0. So we know that didn't work. So we're going to go back to something that I had similar earlier in the weekend and probably go extreme the other way and see what happens. We're going to, I guess, swing for the fences, because we know what we did last run slowed it down."
Hines has won four times and had three runner-up finishes to Krawiec as the Harley-Davidson duo has won all 10 previous bike-class appearances on the Full Throttle Drag racing Series schedule.
In the past six races, he has won three times (at Chicago, Norwalk, and Indianapolis) and qualified either first or second all but one time, and that time he started from the No. 3 slot. He brings a 29-6 record into eliminations as he leads the field for the 33rd time in his career, the third time this season and the first time at the newest of Bruton Smith's gleaming racetracks.
Hines is looking to register back-to-back victories, just like he did at Chicago and Norwalk.
Keeping the team streak alive is in the back of his mind, too. With a nod to Pro Stock's KB/Summit team of Greg Anderson and Jason Line, Hines said, "We're chasing Jason and Greg from 2004. They had 13 in a row as a team. And we're doing 'Operation Appreciation' with the Summit boys, going over to Europe [as part of a USO-organized tour to visit American military troops]. So that'd be something cool to talk to them about and see what they thought about their time then. Hopefully we can pull this off and be able to tie them."
He said the left lane at zMAX Dragway is "not exactly great, compared to the right lane" and called it "tricky for our motorcycles, at least." He said his bike didn't leave the starting line well in the first session Saturday in the left lane. Then he said his team "thought we calmed Eddie's bike down for the left lane in that last session, but again we overestimated the track. It's probably going to be a right-lane racetrack for our motorcycles. So we're going to do our best to keep lane choice."
Other pairings for the first round are Hector Arana Sr. vs. Michael Phillips, Matt Smith vs. Steve Johnson, Krawiec vs. LE Tonglet, John Hall vs. Scotty Pollacheck, Hector Arana Jr. vs. Chip Ellis, and Michael ray vs. Jim Underdahl.
With Krawiec landing on the other side of the eliminations ladder, Hines said, "we're going to take it as it rolls."
So far it has been rolling all their way.
TALE OF TWO SOUTHEAST TRACKS - Both provisional Pro Stock Motorcycle leader Andrew Hines and No. 2 Eddie Krawiec ran 195.8-mph speeds Friday in the first day of qualifying at zMAX. Their first trip of the year to the Southeast -- at Valdosta, Ga., for pre-Gainesville testing -- yielded the first unofficial 200-mph pass from Krawiec. No one has been able to post a 200-mph speed all year, although crowds across the country have been egging on the two Harley-Davidson riders all season.
Hines said Friday night that his brother, crew chief and three-time bike champion Matt Hines, didn't get their tune-ups from the Valdosta experience.
"Valdosta stuff, down there at South Georgia Motorsports Park, you've got to throw all that stuff out the window," Andrew Hines said. "It's like Candyland when you test there in late February, early March. It's stuff you never see -- barometer's at 30.30, altitude that's minus-600 feet where the altitude we're running [on the average is] 1500 feet. You go down there to have fun. You just can't put up those numbers. It's astronomical.
"A couple of years ago we tested down at West Palm Beach, and that was more realistic to what we ran at Gainesville," he said. "If you want to go put up big numbers and make people [competitors] mad and have fun, it's a good place to go, Valdosta."
Aside from some shuffling at the bottom of the order among Steve Johnson, LE Tonglet, and Chip Ellis, the pro Stock Bike order stayed the same through Saturday's first, and third overall, session.
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - AND THE PLAYOFFS BEGIN TODAY
DOG DAY AFTERNOON - Tim Wilkerson relishes his role as Funny Car’s ultimate underdog.
Friday night, the dog’s bite was a lot bigger than his bark.
Wilkerson, armed with a 4.048-second run, sped to the top of the Funny Car leaderboard during first day qualifying for the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Nationals at zMax Dragway outside of Charlotte, NC.
Wilkerson then improved on his first round qualifying effort, and in doing so, snagged the lion’s share of qualifying bonus points. He pulled to within four points of ninth place Jeff Arend by earning six bonus points.
“We’ve had a pretty good car for the last two or three races,” said Wilkerson, who clinched his place in the playoffs last weekend in Indianapolis. “We are trying to capitalize on that a little bit. We are trying to make better runs. We’ve had a good bit of success with it. Hopefully our run will keep us in the top two or three. Our goal this season is to not draw a superstar in the first round.”
Lately Wilkerson is the one who has filled the role of superstar. He entered last weekend’s NHRA U.S. Nationals as the twelfth ranked point earner and in reaching the final round, ascended as high as ninth in the point standings before an oildown penalty dropped him to tenth.
“The bonus points are going to be a big part of this,” Wilkerson admitted. “Those bonus points are what got me here. I wouldn’t have been in the Countdown without them. I curse them during the regular season when I am doing bad and praise them in the playoffs when I am doing well. I’m the perfect politician.”
Just like politics requires walking a fine line, so does earning the bonus points. Wilkerson had a meeting prior to Friday’s qualifying with his crew to express the importance of attention to detail.
“My team manager Bob Wilber walked into the pits this morning and said, ‘It seems a bit tense',” Wilkerson explained. “I think at this point it has sunk in with the team we have a good car which can go rounds and possibly win the thing. I think if you look at this from a crew member angle, it puts the pressure on all four of my full-time crew guys.”
An average top tier team carries about ten full-timers.
“I got my team together and reminded them they are a good group of guys,” said Wilkerson. “I let them know what has been happening to the car was not their fault. It’s not their fault. I’m tuning around some inferior parts and things are going to get better. I stressed the importance of making sure their part of the car was bolted together properly. I let them know I wasn’t going to let them down.”
How did the team respond?
“We had a group hug,” Wilkerson admitted.
NO FRUSTRATION HERE - Anybody would have had to have looked really closely to see the frustration in Top Fuel driver Shawn Langdon this season.
He showed huge strides at the second race on the National Hot Rod Association's Full Throttle Drag Racing Series schedule, qualifying No. 1 and appearing poised to match the reputation of the Al-Anabi/Toyota Dragster he was stepping into. It had carried Del Worsham to more than a few dominating performances in his swan song as a driver, a championship farewell.
But after that Phoenix blossoming, the weeds of competition and of learning a new combination (with a car that had a pretty doggone effective one before) crept in. They appeared to have impeded Langdon's growth. But he trusted in team manager Alan Johnson. And his patience and trust are paying off.
The young driver, in his first year of tutoring from champion-molder Johnson and the guidance from quiet mechanical miracle-maker Brian Husen, remained optimistic. Week after respectable-but-ultimately-frustrating week, Langdon expressed his faith in Johnson and crew chief Husen and the team that certainly hadn't forgotten how to send a driver off the starting line in winning style.
Maybe they saved their best for when it really counts -- or at least timed it to look that way.
Langdon raised eyebrows for knocking off the undeniably hot Spencer Massey at Indianapolis as No. 1 qualifier with the fourth-quickest pass in 1,000-foot Top Fuel history.
Then Friday, in the second session, Langdon ambushed another Don Schumacher racing driver -- early leader Tony Schumacher -- to take the tentative No. 1 spot for the O'Reilly Auto Parts Nationals at Concord, N.C.
He blasted to a 3.807-second, 324.12-mph run on the 1,000-foot course at zMAX Dragway, leaving provisional No. 2 Massey in his wake at 3.811, 322.73 and No. 3 Schumacher at 3.817, 326.95.
But it was Doug Kalitta, who's No. 4 overnight, who stole some of the limelight Friday. Kalitta was fastest with a 326.95-mph speed.
Still, Langdon has the time to beat in two qualifying sessions Saturday as the Countdown to the Championship is under way with the first of six pressure-packed and calendar-loaded races.
Making a bid for his second straight No. 1 qualifying position and third of the season, Langdon said, "I guess right now would be the perfect time to peak.
"We've been making a lot of changes to the car, and it's been responding very well," he said. "The track got a little tricky. We saw a bunch of cars smoke the tires in front of us on the last run. I saw Alan [Johnson] and Brian [Husen] -- they got really hard at work for a second there, messing with a couple of things to make last-minute adjustments. They did a good job and it held.
"Hopefully it will stick No. 1 tomorrow. Tomorrow might be a little bit better. There's a possibility we could improve on that a little bit," Langdon said, "but hopefully it'll stick."
He said he'll be grabbing every available point the can on every day of every race.
"Every point will matter in the end," Langdon said after missing out on tallying points in the first session but leaping from 12th to first in the evening opportunity. "If you can pick up a couple of little bonus points, you make up a round or touring the Countdown."
Langdon said he knows if he simply performs in the top tier, such matters will resiolve themselves.
"It just kind of coincides with making fast runs and getting high up in qualifying position and getting more points on that. The bonus points will fall into that," he said. "The main thing is keeping the car fast and keeping it aggressive but also keeping it consistent, too."
Langdon called it "an honor to drive for this team" but conceded that the wait for the tune-up to come around, naturally, has been frustrating for a young gun who wants to win races and a championship. "We have high expectations. The competition level has been so tough.. [The team leaders] come and say, 'Hey, we're trying some new things. Bear with it. I have 100-percent faith in this team. I wouldn’t want to trade seats with anybody else out there. So when they say, 'We're working on stuff. Bear with us and we'll get it figured out,' I got 100-percent trust in them.
"We hardly let anything from this year discourage us. The crew guys, they have high hopes for the Countdown. Me, as a driver, I'm definitely counting us in for the championship," the No. 7 seeded driver said.
Maybe Langdon's accomplishment Friday is a result of positive karma, too. Last week he participated back in Brownsburg, Ind., where Alana Johnson Racing is headquartered, in the Hendricks County Community Foundation's eighth annual Habit of the Heart fundraiser. The charity helps local women and children in emergency need, providing more than $130,000 in grants for needs that include eyeglasses, hearing aids, dental work, clothing, and other essential items.
Langdon participated in "Monte Carlo Night," a celebrity dealer competition with WIBC Radio host and former Indianapolis Colts player Joe Staysniak to determine who could raise the most money in 30 minutes. Al-Anabi executive chef Dustin Gagna offered a gourmet dinner for the auction that raised $6,000 for Habit of the Heart.
THE ONE TO BEAT - Vincent Nobile, when analyzing himself, always viewed himself as a potential race winner over the No. 1 qualifier. Qualifying No. 1 was one of those feats he hoped for, but never really anticipated.
Friday night in Charlotte, Nobile experienced what he’s been missing since he started driving Pro Stock two seasons ago.
At least provisionally, Nobile is the quickest Pro Stocker at the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Nationals hosted by zMax Dragway with two sessions remaining. His 6.548-second elapsed time is .006 quicker than Jason Line.
“It felt good,” said Nobile. “I knew when I clutched it, it was a good run. Then my crew came over the radio and told me how fast I had run, and I was shocked. It was a great run. We went back and looked at the computer graph for the run and it looks flawless.”
Where did the lack of No. 1 confidence come from? According to Nobile, the quick qualifying effort isn’t in the teams DNA.
“We’re always striving for No. 1 but we are not like all of these other teams that go testing every week,” said Nobile. “We are weekend warriors in the truest sense. We pack the car up after the race and roll it out for the next one. We rarely test, or try to improve ourselves, like that. When we test, it’s usually at the event.
“Depending on the air we get tomorrow and the time we run, I believe it will hold. We can even improve with the way the car is running now. It’s responding to everything we are telling it to do. We made a few changes after Q-1, and it liked it. There’s no reason why we can’t do even better.”
Nobile is aware of the No. 1 qualifier jinx and isn’t the least bit intimidated.
“Erica won two races ago from No. 1 and there wasn’t a jinx there,” Nobile explained. “When you’re the fastest car, you are the car to beat. Apparently I am the car to beat right now. I just need to make sure I do my job and keep us No. 1.”
Nobile said the team hasn’t done anything out of the ordinary outside of discovering an electrical issue which has limited the Moutainview Tire-sponsored Dodge Avenger.
“We haven’t done any testing but we did discover an electrical issue which had been plaguing us,” said Nobile. “It has been bothering us for about a year now. We figured it out today and it shows.”
Tonight Nobile says he’ll savor the moment.
“I never really figured I’d get a No. 1 qualifier and last year, I never even figured I’d win a race,” said Nobile, a three-time winner on the tour. “Once we got our first win, it’s all kind of started snowballing.”
LEAVING THEM GREEN WITH ENVY - Picture Andrew Hines in the one corner of the massive "Taj Ma-Hines" motorcycle-wizardry facility, the specialized and sophisticated Vance & Hines race shop at Brownsburg, Ind.
Picture him wearing a shop apron and deviating from his mechanical menu as he used some new utensils and ingredients to find some extra horsepower.
Then it'll all be clear what Hines was doing when he said Friday after grabbing the provisional No. 1 qualifying position for the O'Reilly Auto Parts Nationals at Concord, N.C., that he "tried a couple of components on my bike that I whipped up in the shop just this past week."
Like some Martha Stewart souffle that really hits the spot, Hines found satisfaction in posting a 6.851-second elapsed time at 195.82 mph on the zMAX Dragway quarter-mile. He wasn't sure which was more delicious, starting the Countdown to the Championship as the quickest Pro Stock Motorcycle racer or outdoing teammate Eddie Krawiec.
"It's brought my performance closer to Eddie's, which has been an issue as of late," Hines said. "It's nice to be able to run the same speed as Eddie. That just proves how good of a tuner Matt [bother Matt Hines, his crew chief] is. We finally figured it out."
Regardless of the internal contest of who's best, the Vance & Hines Screamin' Eagle Harley-Davidson tandem set the bar for the class on the first of two qualifying days for Sunday's eliminations. The two ran nearly identical numbers. Krawiec, the leader in the opening session and top seed in the six-race playoff, had his best run at 6.853 and improved his speed in Q2 to a class-best 195.85 mph.
Hines, winner of the previous race, said both of his runs "were exceptional. It went perfectly straight down the racetrack. We've got to credit that to all the testing we did before Indy and all the runs we made at the U.S. Nationals. The bike's on a rail right now. The set-up we have in it, it drives away from the starting line and puts up a good 330 (-foot) number.
"It's really hard for us to do that at this track because of the way the starting line drops off," he said. "The track is entirely downhill from the starting line to the finish line. The transition is at the staging beams. This track is just a little different when the vehicles go over that transition. The bike tends to over-rotate when the back wheel goes over that section. So you see a little bit different look in your wheel speed. It's not something normal. We don't put up the big 60-foots [incremental speeds] like you do at other tracks.
"It's something that has thrown us a curveball in the past, but we stayed here last year on Monday and tested with my motorcycle and found a set-up that worked for my bike that we're still fine-tuning."
Hines will have two chances Saturday to record his third top-qualifying position of the season, 33rd of his career, and first at this this sparkling five-year-old Charlotte Motor Speedway facility where he never has won. And he said Friday evening he's not optimistic that this E.T. will remain the standard.
"It's probably not a run that's going to stick," he said. "I'm sure tomorrow morning's going to be 'the run,' which is typical of the Pro Stock Motorcycle class. Luckily we were able to get two solid laps under the bike. We'll come out tomorrow swinging and try to keep our Harley -Davidsons in front."
The nature of the weather and conditions at Charlotte are slight speed bumps for his team, Hines said.
"We do run really good speed at this track for the air we have. We've got quite a bit of water grains (in the air). Definitely having more water in the air down here [in the Southeast] is something we have to adjust to. It's just part of the geography here, being close to the ocean. Just the nature of the South, I guess," Hines said. "But luckily we've been able to stumble upon a tune-up that and we're still fine-tuning that with our fuel timing and our clutch setups. It's great to have the motorcycle we have right now."
Moreover, he said, "It's nice to have a change of pace and come here to Charlotte at the beginning of the Countdown and have a great motorcycle. Last year we struggled. We were blowing the tire off right and left. Fortunately, everything's worked out really good so far."
Part of that is winning the U.S. Nationals just days ago.
"Having that U.S. Nationals win was a big relief off my shoulders, because we've been chasing that event for so long. And to finally get a Harley-Davidson in the winners circle with the U.S. Nationals Wally was big for us, a big momentum-changer.
"I had a great-performing motorcycle there. The other three races that I won, it was average. I won two races on a holeshot, and one was on a red light. Hector [Arana] broke [at Indianapolis], but I had the bike there that had to be beat. That did a world of wonders for my confidence."
Hines clarified, saying he wasn't having a bad season by any means but had been lagging behind points leader Krawiec as the two of them beat up on the rest of the class all year.
He noted that he's definitely counting points. "Eddie has five. I have four," he said of the qualifying bonus points from Friday.
No telling what he'll have to whip up to keep the upper hand, not just on Krawiec but on the rest of the field Saturday and Sunday.
WRONG INTERPRETATION - Bob Tasca III said exactly what he meant.
Tasca, in the midst of a tight battle for the No. 10 and final NHRA Countdown position, was sitting in the back of the staging lanes during the first round of eliminations at the NHRA U.S. Nationals, when ESPN interviewed him.
When the subject of DSR teammate Matt Hagan (not in the top ten) beating Ron Capps was broached, Tasca responded, “I’m not surprised.”
“The statement I made is exactly what I meant,” said Tasca.
Understanding what he said was not the issue. Interpretation, he added, became the issue.
Tasca said there was an outcry suggesting his comments were an accusation Capps intentionally smoked the tires in his Funny Car to let Hagan advance.
“I wasn’t surprised Hagan beat Capps, why should I be?” Tasca asked. “They are the world champs and the last time I checked, Hagan is a pretty good driver. Not to say Capps isn’t a good driver with a good car. Anybody can beat anybody out here.
“When ESPN asked the question it caught me off guard, ‘Oh my God, Hagan beat Capps.’ Therefore I responded that I wasn’t surprised. That’s all I said and I think it was taken out of context. Maybe some people had too much time on their hands and read too much into the statement. That’s drag racing and you saw three other cars smoke the tires at the hit of the throttle in that lane.
“If people want to get excited about it, then let them. But, that’s exactly what I meant.”
Tasca added he’s never been one to throw stones at other drivers, and certainly didn’t this time.
“I don’t talk about it and never have,” said Tasca. “This sport is so unpredictable. Before you accuse anyone out here, you had better have a lot of facts to back it up. I was in no way trying to insinuate anything other than I wasn’t surprised he beat them. I am good friends with him and if he wants to talk about it, I am open to it.”
Capps said he hadn’t seen the broadcast but was made aware of the comments. Having enjoyed a good racing relationship with Tasca, he said he didn’t believe Tasca was pointing an accusing finger.
“I’d be surprised if Bob would have accused someone like that,” admitted Capps. “He knows me and knows me better than that. I’ve said stuff before that was taken the wrong way before.”
HAPPY TO BE BACK - Larry Dixon is back in the seat of a National Hot Rod Association Top Fuel dragster -- just where fans and his colleagues alike have figured he should have been all along this season.
And while he's not driving for a high-budgeted team and in the thick of title run as he was for most of his 17-year career, the three-time champion said he's thrilled to be the competitor and not the announcing-booth commentator.
"I'm excited," he said.
That might not sound like a grand, ringing endorsement of his Dote Family Dragster ride, but anyone who knows Larry Dixon knows he doesn't have to jump up and down and talk as fast as he can drive to convey his emotions. Those two words -- "I'm excited" -- pack a punch for the former Snake Racing and Al-Anabi Racing star.
He didn't have to wait to get to zAMX Dragway at Concord, N.C., to compete in this weekend's O'Reilly Nationals for the joyous feeling through this new opportunity. He said he could feel it during his workouts at the gym earlier in the week back home in the Brownsburg, Ind., area.
"Working out with a purpose, it was different this week," Dixon said. "When you're running on the treadmill and logging in miles, now there's a carrot out there that you really can see. That made it exciting. So that was good for a couple miles an hour on the treadmill, to be able to ramp it up."
He said the Doug Kuch-led Dote Racing crew is a "great group of guys, and they all get along really well. I'm happy they wanted me to drive their car, and I'm happy to be out here racing."
Most racers don't relish sitting on the sidelines, and Dixon really didn't, either. But he said he performed "to be 100-percent honest, really well" as a spectator.
He said, "I love this sport. Even though I've been driving for 15 years, I've spent more time out of the car than in the car, whether it was crewing or watching my dad race or whatever the case is. I'm just a huge fan of NHRA drag racing. So I was good with it. I'm watching all these guys run off all these great times: Spencer Massey at Englishtown and all that. And I was happy for them. That was all cool stuff.
"But now I get to go out and play, too," Dixon said. "I found a car that's got my name on it, and I'm happy to be here."
For years he was so immersed in his work that he didn't have time to visualize the whole spectacle of an NHRA national event. With no driving obligations, he said he discovered the bigger picture, what fans see and what he perhaps needed to understand to sell the sport to potential marketing partners.
"I don't know that's it's a benefit," he said of sitting out awhile. "The one thing I learned is that you're going out there and selling our sport to Corporate America." He said he "had spent so much time underneath the awning" that he missed "outside of it what a great package we have to offer, not just with the competition and the racing but with the interactive midway displays and the hospitality programs and what everybody out here does to entertain the customers.
"For me, that was something I probably paid less attention to. So that time off allowed me to see that," Dixon said before qualifying No. 14 in his first pass down the track this year. "We've got a great show and hopefully at a great value."
Dixon never was smug when he had a steady driving job but said always he recognized the personal anguish an unemployed driver is experiencing.
"You feel for them. Everybody out here who isn't in a car and walking around with their helmet bag is wishing they were in a car. I get it and I understand it," he said. "Obviously you've got to do whatever you can to get yourself back in a car if that's what you want to do."
Dixon, who'll turn 46 next month (October 23), indicated he still has a few years of driving left in him. He hasn't had a set timetable for retiring but said "somewhere around 50 was always my number.
"I don't have any aspirations to drive in my 60s or anything like that, but to be involved with a team to the point where you can step out of the car and still have a purpose out here, that was really important to me. It goes back to I love this sport. I'm still on schedule right now."
And back where he belongs.
NOT SHAKEN, NOT STIRRED - Todd Lesenko was missing from the line-up of drivers during the first Funny Car qualifying session at the O’Reilly NHRA Nationals at zMax Dragway.
Lesenko, driver for Jim Dunn Racing, had his hands covered in grease working on the car he drives. Before he made a qualifying run he and the team wanted to go over the car with a fine-tooth comb to make sure every aspect of the 10,000-horsepower Funny Car was in proper working order if only to prevent a repeat of what transpired in consecutive runs at Indianapolis.
Just last week, Lesenko walked away from two accidents where his race car exploded an engine and launched the carbon fiber bodies. He was uninjured save for rib soreness.
Lesenko now says the team feels as if they have come close to pinpointing the cause of the catastrophic damage.
“We think we have,” said Lesenko. “We have gone through every aspect of the car including the wiring. The valve springs are getting a good close look too. We’ve changed the profile on some camshafts. The car is getting checked from stem to stern in order to get the issue resolved.”
Lesenko believes what transpired was a matter of the team running on the edge.
“You have to run that way to keep up with the caliber of cars we have out here,” Lesenko explained. “Unfortunately the issue happened twice in a row and we are hoping it doesn’t happen a third time.”
The fact he grenaded engines in consecutive runs doesn’t deter him from climbing behind the wheel again.
“We hoped to make a short squirt on Friday but I wouldn’t have minded keeping it to the floor and running all the way,” Lesenko said. “I need to make some runs.”
Lesenko admits he’s been blessed with the ability to push incidents such as the Indianapolis explosions to the back of his mind.
“I go to the starting line knowing I’m well protected,” said Lesenko. “I just don’t think about it. I focus on making good runs, going rounds and winning races. If I was truly scared of a car, I would never be standing here with grease on my hands and working to get it ready.”
The team sat out of Friday qualifying with plans to make two attempts on Saturday.
LET THE GAMES BEGIN - Over the course of the next eight weeks, 40-professional drag racing teams will do battle to determine who is the best in the top four Full Throttle Drag Racing divisions.
The NHRA will kick off its Countdown to the Championship this afternoon at Charlotte’s zMax Dragway as the top ten point earners in the Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock motorcycle divisions battle for the series championships. To qualify for a run at the title, drivers had to be in the top ten point standings of the first 17 events. Following last weekend’s NHRA U.S. Nationals the sanctioning body reset the point standings staggering No. 2 through No. 10 in ten point intervals. The No. 1 seed was given a one-and-a-half round headstart, thirty points.
Antron Brown [Top Fuel], Ron Capps [Funny Car], Allen Johnson [Pro Stock] and Eddie Krawiec [Pro Stock Motorcycle] enter the playoffs as the No. 1 seeds in their respective divisions.
Of the quartet of leaders, Brown surrendered the least amount of a lead at 5 points while Johnson gave up 42 points.
Brown has been in a neck and neck battle with teammates Spencer Massey and Tony Schumacher with the lead changing hands multiple times from February until last weekend. Both Brown and Massey have won four races while Schumacher has won two.
Each point, Brown admits, even though he was the least impacted, was tough to surrender.
“I’m not enthusiastic about giving any points to anybody, trust me,” Brown said. “I like the lead we had. This is the hand we are dealt and no sense in crying over spilled milk.”
Johnson, in the Pro Stock division, scored his lead on the strength of 36 round wins and the bonus points awarded for leading qualifying sessions. The NHRA awards three bonus points for leading a session. Johnson’s reset point total is the equivalent of 14 No. 1 qualifying sessions.
“I’ve been a very big proponent of the Countdown every year until this year,” said Johnson with a laugh. “I was usually always back in fifth or sixth place. Those years I gained, but this year I lost … gosh. It makes it exciting when we are all starting out grinding. This battle will be intense and everyone from racers to the fans will feel the intensity.”
The NHRA adopted the Countdown to the Championship format in 2007 following the lead of NASCAR’s “Chase for the Championship”.
The first season of the NHRA’s Countdown featured two resetting of the point standings narrowing to eight and then four. The NHRA adjusted the format to one reset, ten participants and a six race playoff ever since.
Brown raced in the NHRA’s Pro Stock Motorcycle division when the Countdown was introduced. He wasn’t an overwhelming fan of the format of the program then but has learned to adapt to the newer format.
“In NASCAR, if you make a mistake early in the race, you can make it up,” explained Brown. “In drag racing, you make a mistake and your day is done. The Countdown only gives you six races. We’ve adapted to it and gotten used to it. You use some of the regular races as test sessions and when the Countdown comes, you race hard. One thing about it, it gets our fans excited. You have ten people racing for a championship.”
However, with the introduction of 1,000 foot racing and the parity of the Top Fuel division, Brown believes his class is one of the few which didn’t need the Countdown. Six different drivers won races this season in the dragster division.
This marks the second time Brown has been the No. 1 seed in the Countdown. The last time, under the old format in 2009, Brown accrued enough points he could have won the championship.
“We probably didn’t need a Countdown this season,” Brown admitted. “We have about five cars right now who could win it all. Back in the day you might have had a one or two car championship race, not now.”
READY TO DANCE - When Bob Vandergriff Jr., clinched a spot in the Countdown last Sunday, it was far from dramatic.
Vandergriff lost in the first round of the U.S. Nationals to Khalid alBalooshi, but secured the coveted 10th spot when Clay Millican also was defeated in the first round and alBalooshi was beat by Spencer Massey in round two.
“At Indy, I was actually pretty pleased with the way our car ran,” Vandergriff said. “We struggled through the middle part of the season, but we made some changes and fixed a few things and at the last four races we have been running pretty good. At Indy, it took low ET of the first round to beat me. He had to run a 3.78 to beat my 3.81. We ran 325 mph and 284 mph to half track, so our car was really running good. That part I was pretty pleased with.”
Vandergriff is upbeat as he prepares to compete Friday through Sunday in Charlotte, N.C. The six-race Countdown to the Championship begins at Charlotte’s zMax Dragway.
“I have some optimism going into the Countdown,” Vandergriff said. “We kind of limped our way into the Countdown, but now we have a chance to resurrect our season. Like I told my guys, we kind of got a mulligan, and now we have to make the best of our opportunity. I think we can do some damage in the Countdown. We are excited about the way our car is running right now.”
Millican’s quest for a Countdown spot was doomed by the fact he was docked 70 points throughout the season for oil downs. Vandergriff’s team lost no points for oil downs.
“That’s a reflection of our team and of our crew guys and crew chief (Rob Flynn) that we didn’t receive one oil down penalty all season,” Vandergriff said. “That’s one thing that we can hang our hats on a little bit; that we have a good running car now and we didn’t have to suffer any consequences that Clay Millican’s team did.”
Vandergriff said J.R. Todd will compete with him as a teammate at NHRA’s national event in Dallas Sept. 20-23. Todd has competed at four events this season with Vandergriff, the last being at Indy when he upset Steve Torrence before losing in the second round to Antron Brown.
“We are talking about maybe having J.R. at St. Louis (Sept. 28-30), but he will be there at Dallas for sure,” Vandergriff said.
Vandergriff won his first NHRA Top Fuel national event at Dallas a year ago.
Vandergriff also takes pride in the fact he qualified for the Countdown with far less resources than his fellow competitors from Don Schumacher Racing, Al-Anabi Racing, Morgan Lucas Racing and Kalitta Motorsports.
“This is something we need to build on,” Vandergriff said about making the Countdown. “That’s why we have J.R.’s car out there so we can share in that information because of the resources those other teams have.”
Vandergriff’s best 2012 qualifying effort was third at the season-opening Winternationals in February. He also made it to the semifinals in Houston before losing to eventual race winner Morgan Lucas.
A NEW DAY, WITH CHALLENGES ... - Losing in the finals of NHRA’s prestigious U.S. Nationals last Sunday was tough for Hector Arana Sr. to accept.
Not only was he beaten by Harley-Davidson rider Andrew Hines, but he also blew the motor in his Buell during the run at Lucas Oil Raceway.
“That motor is all gone,” Arana Sr. said. “The motor was running good and we ruined a good set of heads and now I’m back to square one trying to see what I have got.”
Making matters worse for Arana Sr. is he doesn’t have much time at all to regroup because the six-race Countdown to the Championship begins Friday at Charlotte, N.C.
“The rain delay at Indy caused us to lose days we could have been working on our motors,” Arana Sr. said. “We have been hustling over here this week, trying to get things done. We have to find a set of pistons so we can put something together.”
Arana Sr. enters the Countdown in fourth place, 50 points behind leader Eddie Krawiec, Hines’ Harley teammate. Hector Arana Jr. is third 40 points back. Both father and son ride Lucas Oil-sponsored Buells.
The standings, however, are the last thing on elder Arana’s mind right now.
“I lost my motor (at Indy) so I have to put something together on my bike,” Arana Sr. admitted. “The other motor I’m putting together is so we can have one for a spare. Otherwise, we are going to go to these next four races without a spare engine. We have got to have a motor before we leave for Charlotte. We have to have a motor built or have things so we can put a motor together at the track. This is the most hectic week we have had all season.”
After Charlotte, the Countdown moves on to Dallas (Sept. 20-23), St. Louis (Sept. 28-30), and Reading, Pa., (Oct. 4-7) on consecutive weekends.
Arana Sr. also realizes he has to find a way to stop Harley-Davidson’s domination.
Krawiec, the reigning world champ, and Hines have combined to win all 10 of NHRA’s Pro Stock Motorcycle national events this season. Krawiec has six wins and Hines has four. The U.S. Nationals actually was the 12th win in a row for the Harley riders dating back to the 2011 fall race in Las Vegas.
“We are trying to stop that streak, that is all we can do,” Arana Sr. said.
Arana Jr. was the last rider other than Krawiec or Hines to win an NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle national event when he beat Krawiec on Oct. 16, 2011 at the Arizona Nationals.
“Every little point in the Countdown counts and we need to try and get all the points we can,” Arana Sr. added. “Charlotte is one of my favorite tracks. I’m looking forward to going there and see if we can stop those Harleys.”
Hector Sr. has two runner-up finishes this season and four pole positions. Hector Jr. has three-runner-up efforts and one pole position. - Tracy Renck
NEW SPONSOR FOR DUNN - After an explosive, yet promising NHRA Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, Jim Dunn Racing and driver Todd Lesenko are right back in the saddle and competing at the NHRA O’Reilly Nationals in Charlotte, NC. The team introduced another new sponsor to the sport, Eco-Absorb, after great results with their continuing primary and associate sponsor programs for Grime Boss hand wipes and Tap It Brewing this season. Damaging two Funny Car bodies at Indianapolis forced the team to bring out a new Dodge Funny Car body, which will be green in recognition of Eco-Absorb’s corporate colors.
Eco-Absorb, manufacturer of an environmentally friendly spill clean up product, is headquarted near the race team shop in Southern California, and has an ownership group with strong interest in reaching automotive enthusiasts, as well as the business-to-business connections that exist in the sport. The light weight, super absorbent product provides the perfect material for do-it-yourself mechanics, shop owners, service centers, trucking companies, as well as auto parts, hardware, and mass retailers. Race fans can learn about Eco-Absorb online at www.eco-absorb.com and purchase the product directly or through HomeDepot.com.
Todd Lesenko, driver of the Eco-Absorb Funny Car, has taken the week to prepare for the NHRA national event in Charlotte following his excitement of qualifying for the NHRA U.S. Nationals and then suffering an engine explosion that catapulted the Grime Boss Funny Car body. One day later, Lesenko won his opening round match up over #2 qualifier, Jack Beckman, only to suffer another engine explosion which left the team unable to make the call to the starting line for the quarter-finals. “Indy obviously had its highs and lows, but we’ve determined the source of the engine failure, and the team re-grouped with new parts, and a new body for our sponsor this weekend, Eco-Absorb” said Lesenko. “The car is running much quicker and faster and our goal is to qualify and win rounds at Charlotte this weekend to provide great exposure for Eco-Absorb as well as associate sponsors Grime Boss, Tap It, Lincoln Tech and others.”
Jim Dunn Racing is not new to bringing sponsors like Eco-Absorb into the sport, and helping them generate new business channels for their products. Additional Jim Dunn Racing primary and associate sponsors, Grime Boss and Tap It Brewing have experienced this first hand. Tap It gained distribution into new states and venues along the NHRA tour, and the popular Grime Boss hand wipes have been connected to new retailers.
Team Manager, Jon Dunn, is looking forward to this weekend’s race in Charlotte. “It’s great to introduce a new sponsor and product to NHRA fans” Dunn said. “In addition to being so much more absorbent than traditional clay-based floor products, Eco-Absorb is much safer to handle and dispose of for the consumer and the environment.”
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