SUNDAY FINAL NOTEBOOK: BIG WINS ARE JUST PART OF TEXAS
REMEMBER ME? - While the buzz after qualifying was that Alan Johnson and the Al-Anabi/Toyota team had positioned themselves as the ones to beat in the Top Fuel championship, Don Schumacher Racing took the forefront once again Sunday at the AAA Texas Fall Nationals.
Antron Brown, in the Matco Tools Dragster, beat DSR colleague and FRAM/Prestone Dragster driver Spencer Massey in the final round to pull into a tie with Massey for the points lead as the National Hot Rod Association's Countdown shifts to suburban St. Louis this next weekend.
Brown ran his quickest time and fastest speed during eliminations - 3.898 seconds at 311.49 mph on the 1,000-foot course -- to hand homestate favorite Massey his second straight runner-up finish at this facility where he first watched drag racing as a kid in Fort Worth. Massey, runner-up here to Bob Vandergriff last season, countered with a 3.945-second, 300.60-mph effort.
As temperatures approached 100 degrees even as evening set in, the DSR already had burned six Countdown hopefuls and were turning the heat on each other.
Brown defeated Dave Grubnic, No. 1 qualifier Shawn Langdon, and Morgan Lucas to advance to the showdown of this 27th annual race at Ennis, Texas. He notched his fifth victory of the season and 20th of his Top Fuel career. It gives him another Dallas trophy to match his first-ever, on a Pro Stock Motorcycle, in 1999.
Massey eliminated fellow Texan Steve Torrence, entering points leader Tony Schumacher, and rapidly improving Brandon Bernstein for his eighth final-round appearance of the year. Massey beat Brown in the finals at Pomona, Las Vegas, and the Charlotte 4-Wide Nationals and lost to Brown in the Sonoma final.
Brown's first words were to praise his Brian Corradi- and Mark Oswald-led crew who rebounded beautifully after they lost in the first round at Charlotte because of a broken input shaft that damaged a dozen key parts on the car and tumbled from the lead to fourth place. That led to them battling their own car as well as the lineup they faced.
He said the team "stuck together" -- remarkable "because it was so easy to get down." He said the malfunction "wiped" out everything behind the motor plate back: the bellhousing, the clutch, the levers -- There was nothing we could use -- even the reverser was gone. The only thing that was still good was the rear end, from the motor back. So we saw that and were like, 'Oh, man, now we have to start from scratch, with a clutch that we never ran."
He said the dragster "was throwing us fits where it was being really aggressive, like it was trying to run faster than we wanted it to run. My boys just stuck with it. We kept believing. Lord knows that were all like, 'What do we got to do to get this thing to go?!' We kept on backing it off and it kept on trying to run fast. In the semis, that's where we got a little peace of mind -- it went down the track . . . It did it real easy. It did an A-to-Z back-off. It wasn't a little increment. Once it did that, you could see the smiles on our faces [as if to say,] 'We can make this better.' You can see the crew chiefs' minds. You can see the gears start rolling because now they can make it.
"In the final, we had to give everything we got, because you're racing the FRAM car. And those have been running good since Indy to here and we've been going back and forth all year [for the top spot in the standings]. We had to give it our all, and we just edged him out. And it felt really good to bounce back up," Brown said. "We're tied for the lead with four races to go, and its going to be a slugfest to the end. You've just got to keep doin' what we're doin'."
With the level of competition so intense, perhaps more so than ever before, it's maybe a positive sign that only four more races remain on the schedule. Otherwise, crews would be frazzled beyond fixing.
"Everybody's throwing haymakers. You look at everybody's lights -- everybody's pushing the tree. Everybody's running exceptionally well. It's an all-out battle royal out there right now. It's going to be some tough racing till the end."
His own strategy is relatively simple. "We just worry about each round," he said.
That certainly is a cliché, but it's truly what he and his team had to do to survive this elimination bracket, considering their own car was almost as much the enemy as any other racer.
"The other teams don't take us lightly. They don't think we're going to smoke the tires, so they go out there and run hard to beat us. This weekend, before we knew it, we were in the final and we actually felt confident that we had a good chance to win. The guys went out there and made the car do exactly what they wanted it to do."
All that troubles Brown is that the other nine teams in the Countdown are capable of finding that same charm.
HE IS AN OVERCOMER - If Bob Tasca III proved anything Sunday it is his ability to overcome adversity.
Despite being out of the Countdown for the Championship, Tasca captured his first win of the season at the NHRA Fall Nationals in Dallas.
In the finals, Tasca won a pedal-fest against Matt Hagan.
Tasca clocked a 4.826-second run at 197.59 mph to edge Hagan’s 5.025-second effort at 188.15 mph.
This was Tasca’s fourth career win in nine final rounds and his first victory since Englishtown 2010.
“This weekend kind of epitomized our whole season,” Tasca said. “We went through three motors and the guys have not worked this hard all year. But, we put Motorcraft and Ford in the winner’s circle where they belong. It is long overdue for our team and we just kept fighting.”
Tasca failed to make the Countdown to the Championship when he lost in the first round to Tim Wilkerson at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis.
What’s more, prior to the third qualifying session of the U.S. Nationals, Tasca and crew chief Dickie Venables, hired earlier this year, decided mutually to part ways.
Since Venables departed, longtime tuning duo Chris Cunningham and Marc Denner became the crew chief and co-crew chief for Tasca. Cunningham and Denner have been with the team since Tasca’s first year in 2008.
“We had a lot of turmoil in Indy and Marc and Chris really pulled together and got this car back on track,” Tasca said. “It wasn’t pretty, trust me. There was some driving that had to be done out there, but we got it done and got a win and hopefully this is the momentum we need to finish the year strong.”
Tasca beat Alexis DeJoria, Courtney Force, Cruz Pedregon and Hagan on Sunday.
“You just have to put yourself in a position to win,” Tasca said. “I kept telling my guys keep holding their heads high. We have all the best parts in the world and it was a matter of turning those knobs and getting some luck. A lot of people may not admit it, but luck plays a much bigger role in this sport that anyone cares to say, but it is putting yourself in a position to take advantage of that luck when it comes your way and we had some big wins (Sunday).”
Tasca also admitted not having a chance to contend for the 2012 championship is tough to digest.
“I took (Matt) Hagan back to his pit twice (Sunday) on my scooter and I said Matt this really sucks not being in the Countdown, but let’s make it miserable for everybody,” said Tasca to Hagan, the reigning world champ who also missed the Countdown. “He and I are on the same page. We are going to go out there and run as hard as we can run. We will keep track of our own points on our end and we will just get ready for next year. I think we are more determined now than ever before. Not making the top 10 was a lot of heartache for a lot of guys on this team. I said to my team this will be a defining six races. I want to see what we are all made of, me included. Are we just going to roll over and just play dead these next six races? Or are we going to come out with some fire in us and take this thing to Pomona (Nov. 8-11) and let everyone know we may not be in this year, but watch out next year. This weekend was a defining weekend for our team.”
ON THE RIGHT TRACK - Allen Johnson’s Mopar Dodge Avenger has been a measure of consistency all season.
He didn’t change his game plan at NHRA’s Fall Nationals in Dallas.
Johnson made a clean sweep of the event title by qualifying No. 1 and defeating Erica Enders in Sunday’s final round.
Johnson clocked a 6.598-second run to defeat Enders who slowed to 6.835 seconds.
“We have a great crew right now, making great decisions,” Johnson said. “We have great power with dad (Roy Johnson) and the engine guys. The driver fortunately has done his job (Sunday) and we just have to be consistent. That is a word we have preached all season, consistency. The Mopar Dodge Avenger was consistent. We were low all four qualifying rounds and I think we were low two out of the four rounds (Sunday) and we got the job done.”
This was Johnson’s fifth win of the season in eight final round appearances. Johnson now has 14 career national event wins.
More importantly, Johnson remains atop the point standings, 93 points in front of reigning world champion Jason Line.
Johnson beat Warren Johnson, Dave Connolly, and Vincent Nobile before meeting Enders.
“We knew it was going to be tough going in,” Johnson said. “We got the side of the ladder and I looked at it (Saturday night), and I knew I was going to have to work (Sunday). We just took it one round at a time. We are not getting ahead of ourselves. Every qualifying round is as important as Sunday rounds. We are trying to build those little points, trying to just stay consistent and stay calm. I’m up for this challenge and I’m enjoying it and I’m working at it.”
Johnson and his team return to action Friday through Sunday at Midwest Nationals in St. Louis.
“You wish it (the next race) was (Monday) to keep it going,” Johnson said. “We have a little maintenance to do and the crew is tired. We have been on the road four weeks in a row already. The guys are ready to go home and see their wives and relax a little bit and one of the guys told me a minute ago, we are not fast enough let’s stay (Monday) and test. I told them, you go tell them.”
During this memorable season, Johnson has made a point to cherish every moment.
“I’m not going to reveal it until it is over, but somebody (who has won several championships) called me and gave me some really good advice before this thing ever started,” Johnson said. “He told me to enjoy it and have fun. I will reveal that if we do it (win the championship) and say it was very important.”
Racing at St. Louis, which has been off the NHRA schedule for a few years, would seem to present a challenge for Johnson, but he does have some data about the track.
“Fortunately we were one of just three teams that tested there (St. Louis) this year,” Johnson said. “We got a little data in the bank. We went there right before Chicago (June 28) and tested there for three days. The track had not changed much. The starting line will be very, very good. Down track can be a little marginal. The air is going to be awesome there. I have already looked at it, it is going to be in the 70s, and what we are hoping for as the team out front is the chance to set the national record and get 20 more points. I can’t believe I’m saying that, but we are looking for every opportunity for points.”
WHO YA GONNA CALL? STREAKBUSTER - Conspiracy theorists might wonder why the Vance & Hines Screamin' Eagle Harley-Davidson team was conspicuously silent at the AAA Texas Fall Nationals this weekend, following grumbling about its year-long domination -- and the widespread belief that the new rules designed to hamper them slightly for the sake of parity have no real effect.
Whatever might or might not be happening behind the scenes, the indisputable truth is that neither points leader Eddie Krawiec nor Andrew Hines, winner at four of the previous seven races and runner-up at two more of those, were around for the finals Sunday at the Texas Motorplex at Ennis, south of Dallas.
Conventional wisdom would have put one of "The Hectors" -- Hector Arana Sr. or Jr., on their Lucas Oil Buells -- naturally in the final round. After all, they were the qualifying leaders both days, while the Harleys lagged behind. But they, too, were out of the mix.
Arana's race day was over before it started. He said his bike engine "was purring like a kitten," then it refused to turn over when he got to the starting line for his first-round meeting with Redell Harris. His son gave away his chance to win from the No. 1 qualifying spot, red-lighting against Michael Ray in the quarterfinals. "Sometimes you live by the Tree, sometimes you die the Tree. Unfortunately, this weekend, I died by the Tree."
But Michael Ray surely doesn't care about any of that. And it doesn't matter to him that few paid attention to him as the No. 8 qualifier.
All he cares about is that he won the race, earned his first National Hot Rod Association victory, and the relocation from Memphis to New Braunfels, Texas, to follow his dream worth all of the trouble.
Ray, 28, whose official name is Paul Ray Jr., rode the Matt Smith-prepped Viper Motorcycle Company/Gottspeed Racing Buell to a winning 6.920-second elapsed time at 192.77 mph on the Texas Motorplex quarter-mile, defeating equally hungry six-time tour winner Karen Stoffer, the No. 10 qualifier. She posted a 7.028-second, 190.48-mph pass on her GEICO Suzuki in her first final round of the season.
"All the turmoil that's just been brewing for a year now since the Harleys started their dominating performance and the rule change . . . [to see] a Buell and a Suzuki in the final for the first time in I-don't-know-how-long, I think it just shows that right now if you’re coming out here and putting in the work, you can go home with a win and take a big swing in points, like we did," Ray said.
With due respect to Harley-Davidsons, "It was just the right time at the right place, and I did my job. And (tuner / fellow rider) Matt Smith did his job). I left on Andrew [Hines, in the semifinals], and I just outran him. I'd like to say [the new rule] is a huge help, but it just goes to show that hard work [pays off]. Don't give up, don't cry about the rules, don't complain about the rules. My business and life coach tells me that you can only control yourself, and that's what we did today. Those guys are awesome and to beat 'em is huge."
In snapping the Vance & Hines streak at 11 races, Ray improved from seventh place to fourth in the bike-class standings.
He started racing in 2005 with the Gottsacker family of New Braunfels, near San Antonio, competing in the All-Harley Drag Racing Association's 24" Challenge class.
"I won my first national event here on that," he said, "so it's kind of fitting that I did it here on our Pro Stock bike. I was three-time champion in AHDRA. I just kind of paid my dues, started out riding John Hammock's Pro Stock Buell on a limited basis. As the opportunities came forth, I took advantage of them and didn't let the sponsors down and people who believed in me down when we got here."
The second-generation racer said he was thrilled his parents got to witness the victory Sunday. "My dad really, really worked his butt off for a chance to win one of these Wallys and he never did it. And for me to be able to do it with my mom and dad here . . . If you can count the sacrifices that a parent makes for their kids to be successful and live their dream, it's a fairy-tale ending to a great weekend."
Giving a nod to friend and San Antonio racer Peggy Llewellyn, who won the bike trophy at this race in 2007, Ray said, "It's really surreal, and I don't think it's really sunk in yet that I'm getting to go home with the biggest thing that I've worked my whole life for.
"When we got here this weekend, we knew we had a great bike that could go out there and be competitive, coming off our performance in Charlotte [where he had a modest quarterfinal finish]," he said. "I just knew that as long as I just kept my cool and rode the bike consistently, there's not a better tuner out here when it's hot than Matt Smith. And I think we showcased that today."
As for championship intentions, Ray said with confidence, "I think there's no better time than now to start a run at it. We went from seventh to fourth, and I don't think there's any better team on Sunday to be consistent than our bike. That's what it takes to win championships. I think if I'm sitting here answering these same questions in Reading [two races from now], my response might be a little bit different. But right now I just want to go out and be consistent and then let the points shake out where they're supposed to."
Krawiec increased his points lead to 11 over second-place Hines.
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - THE FORCES SCORE TOP SPOTS
HORSE-POWER - “I'm Seabiscuit,” replied John Force, 63, when asked if his victory over Ron Capps in the $100,000 to win Traxxas Nitro Shootout showed he was a veteran gunslinger.
Force decided he was more like a horse thought to be a basic loser, who turned into a major winner. Seabiscuit was named American Horse of the Year in 1938, which included the defeat of famed Triple Crown winner War Admiral.
Seabiscuit, an undersized, knobby-kneed foal, was not exactly the prototype race horse of his era; just as Force was far from being a leading driver early in his career. Even as Seabiscuit grew older, he was often the butt of jokes by those tending to the stables and was never believed to have much of a future as a race horse. The same future Force admitted, many in the sport of drag racing had for him.
Like Force, in time Seabiscuit won prestigious races and appeared to be well into a successful career until he suffered a serious injury. The vet experts said Seabiscuit would never race again. However, with a steady regimen of training the written-off horse not only returned but also scored two major, big money victories.
Force’s personal Seabiscuit injury tale occurred five years ago and is one of a driver severely injury in a serious accident at the Texas Motorplex. Force was airlifted to a local hospital where he recovered and convalesced himself back into the cockpit.
On Saturday, during the special-race-within-a-race during the AAA Texas NHRA Nationals, Force showed determination and heart can go a long way toward success.
Force, in three rounds, outreacted all three of his opponents, beating both Jack Beckman and Jeff Arend before getting the best of a much quicker Ron Capps. Force beat him on both ends of the track with a .019 starting line advantage and 4.218 elapsed time.
“I’m beat up, tore up, but I’ve got a lot of heart,” said an emotionally drained Force, Saturday evening. “So was Seabiscuit. Sometimes when they tell you that you can’t win; you have to have heart. Sometimes if you believe hard enough the stuff happens.”
And sometimes, one must take matters in their own hands as did Force when he was the last man standing in his quartet of drivers.
One by one, Force watched this teammates fall from competition. First, eventual No. 1 qualifier Courtney lost to Capps. Then Mike Neff lost to Johnny Gray and Arend took Robert Hight out.
“We work together as one team, but when they go out, something happens to me,” Force admitted. “I’m so much into my team winning and I want to see them do good and I have to get my fight up. When I see them winning I’m okay. But, when they gave me the trophy that was the icing on the cake today.”
Almost. Hight then qualified for Sunday’s eliminations after struggling throughout qualifying.
“I almost knocked the two Traxxas girls out of the truck when they told me Robert finally qualified --- freaked me out,” explained Force. “I thought to myself, ‘what else can go right today?’
Force then reflected on his career, which he acknowledges isn’t your average underdog and pony show.
“I’ve won a lot of championships but I’ve been an underdog my whole life,” said Force. “I always got beat up in school. I couldn’t play baseball and lost every football game. It was always a fight just to get there. Yet I’ve been able to win 15 championships. But when my people go down, especially Courtney, that’s when the other person in me comes out.”
The victory marks nineteen times he’s reached the finals of a specialty race since joining the NHRA tour full-time in 1979. His total bonus winnings, including this weekend's check from Traxxas, add up to $1,160,500.
Not a small feat for a dreamer from Yorba Linda, Ca., who learned a long time ago channeling his inner Seabiscuit can pay off.
“Nobody knows this game better than me,” Force said. “And no one loves it as much as me.”
Spoken like a true thoroughbred.
GOING TO THE TOP - Tony Schumacher sounded so sure Friday night that his 3.829-second run at 320.13 mph would hold up Saturday's heat at the Texas Motorplex as the Top Fuel class' No. 1 qualifying performance for the AAA Texas NHRA Fall Nationals.
But even an educated gut feeling can be wrong.
Under sunny skies, Shawn Langdon put a dark cloud over the U.S. Army Dragster team's cheerful mood with a 3.827-second elapsed time on the 1,000-foot course in the Al-Anabi/Toyota Dragster. It came at a 322.34-mph speed to tie Doug Kalitta as the fastest in the class so far this weekend.
Langdon simply called third consecutive No. 1 qualifying feat -- this time in a huge leap from the No. 16 spot -- another testament to "Alan Johnson's magic."
He said team manager Johnson "came out this morning a pretty much said that he wasn't worried about getting in the field, that he wanted to go to No. 1. Fortunately we were in the right lane for the right conditions and it stuck, got it by two-thousandths of a second.
"We came out for the second run," Langdon said of the fourth and final qualifying chance, "and our main objective for the second run was to get a good set-up for tomorrow.
As he and his team began to focus on their first-round meeting with Scott Palmer, whose engine exploded in a fireball around half-track in the last session, Langdon said, "We want to keep lane choice, and we want to make sure we got good runs in both lanes. I think we accomplished that today. It definitely gives the driver a lot of confidence.
"I think the mojo's going good right now," Langdon said. "We're looking to keep this car in the winners circle. That's our main goal."
In other opening-round match-ups, Antron Brown will face Dave Grubnic, and it will be J.R. Todd vs. his one-time mentor Bruce Litton, Morgan Lucas vs. Bob Vandergriff, Tony Schumacher vs. fellow Chicagoan Chris Karamesines, Steve Torrence vs. fellow Texan Massey, Doug Kalitta vs. Brandon Bernstein, and al Balooshi vs. Terry McMillen.
Clay Millican and Rob Passey failed to qualify.
With teammate Khalid al Balooshi's matching Al-Anabi/Toyota Dragster running well enough to land him in sixth place, Langdon said, "He's stealing a couple little qualifying points from the other cars, which is helping us out. So hopefully he can steal a couple of rounds tomorrow."
Langdon entered the weekend in third place, just 19 points behind leader Schumacher and nine behind No. 2 Spencer Massey (who qualified a surprising 10th).
Langdon will be gunning for back-to-back victories after starting the Countdown last week at Charlotte in the winners circle. He said that celebration was under control.
"We had some fun in the pits. We didn't do nothin' too crazy," he said. "We went back to the hotel and sat around the campfire and just enjoyed it, just soaked it up. I think everybody was drained from the day. It was a long day. We just had a couple of cocktails. That was about it."
If all goes well at Ennis, Texas, south of Dallas, Sunday, maybe he'll start longing for a steak dinner. But he knows the eyes of Texas -- and his competitors -- will be on him.
"Sometimes it's nice to fly under that radar. When you’re ton top, everybody's trying to knock you down," Langdon said. "No matter what, I think we're still on everybody's radar."
That, too, is an educated guess. And regardless of the temperature, nothing will change that.
A SECOND FOR COURTNEY - While her famous father was busy winning $100,000 in the Traxxas Shootout, Courtney Force was occupied scoring her second No. 1 qualifier at the AAA Texas NHRA Fall Nationals. Force’s Friday Night 4.081 second pass at over 308 mph topped the charts and stayed that way through the final three rounds of qualifying in an 18 car Funny Car field.
“Going into the No. 1 spot, obviously you never know what is going to happen on race day, but it definitely put us in a good position. I think we have a good race car. This Traxxas Ford Mustang is showing that it can run in the heat, it can run when the track cools down and I think we’re going to give everyone a run for their money,” said Force.
Force picked up eight bonus points over the two days of qualifying hits; the highest amount she has scored all season at any one event.
The Rookie of the Year front-runner will have lane choice over the No. 16 qualifier, Todd Lesenko, in the opening round of eliminations tomorrow.
“We’re going to have lane choice tomorrow and it’s definitely where we want to be when we’re picking up those points, you know. It’s always good picking up those bonus points going into the Countdown to the Championship. We try to get every point we can because it’s all going to count in the end. But most importantly going to the No. 1 spot at the top and holding it for three rounds (of qualifying) and going into race day tomorrow,” said Force.
Force suffered an unexpected first round loss in the Traxxas Nitro Shootout to Ron Capps.
“On the Traxxas Shootout, it was definitely unfortunate. Capps is tough to beat. He went out there and ran a great number in the heat. Unfortunately we dropped a hole and it threw a spark plug out, but that last run we went out there and we didn’t know if it was going to go down the track or not. We wanted to just push it as far as it could go and see what the track would take in the heat and we made a good number. We’re happy with how the runs have been and definitely feeling confident going into race day tomorrow,” said Force
When asked if a pole position helped with the sting of a first round loss in the Traxxas Shootout, Force said, “Yes, it definitely does when you’re bummed that you can’t get that Traxxas Shootout win especially when you are the Traxxas Ford Mustang out there. You definitely want to get that win for your sponsors especially at their home track. They are based right out of here in Plano, Texas and we really wanted to get that win; really wanted to get that trophy. That was awesome, but you know what, I get to stare at it from afar because my dad will be holding it so it’s definitely cool.”
“I’m very proud to have accomplished that (No. 1 spot) at the track that my dad wins the Traxxas Nitro Shootout and I go No. 1 and we both do it at the track he crashed at a few years ago. It’s definitely a special moment for both of us,” she added.
Even with this being Force’s second No. 1 qualifier of the year, her rookie year at that, Force still feels like she needs to continue battling it out for Auto Club’s Road to the Future Award for NHRA’s top “Rookie of the Year,” despite being the only rookie to make the Countdown to the Championship and win an NHRA event.
“It’s definitely still on my mind. You never know what’s going to happen, but we’re going to keep going and pushing our car to do the best we can at every race, try to pick up as many points as possible and really just try to prove to everyone that we’re out here to win and (we are) not just a new driver. I am still learning, but I’m out here to win as well,” said Force.
“Obviously when we’re four of the eights cars in the Shootout we expected to at least go another round or two and unfortunately most of us went out in the first round, but to have my dad take it all the way and get the win is a huge accomplishment for us. When we’re bummed that we didn’t make it that far, at least a teammate and my dad was able to take that win home for John Force Racing and all of our sponsors, especially Auto Club because this is their race,” said Force.
The enormity of scoring his 28th career No. 1 qualifying position was not lost on Pro Stock veteran driver Allen Johnson.
DOUBLE DIGITS - The reality of winning the top spot in the Pro Stock division at the AAA Texas Nationals left him feeling a bit sentimental.
“I can remember my first like it was yesterday,” said Johnson, whose first came in Columbus, Ohio in 2006. “I wondered if I would get another one after that. It’s been a great year for the Mopar Dodge Avenger; qualifying number one 10 times and four wins. Hopefully we can add a few more here this season. We’re hitting on all cylinders. We have a very consistent strategy right now. We are just trying to make good, clean and safe runs. We’re not pushing it and it is still coming out right.
“Hopefully, we can take the strategy and go through eliminations tomorrow. If we need a little more, we can still push the envelope a little bit. It’s a good feeling.”
Johnson’s 6.550 run at 211.99 miles per hour held through a tough second day of qualifying.
With four races remaining after this weekend, Johnson isn’t counting points yet, nor is he abandoning the game plan which brought him to the dance.
“My strategy as a driver through this Countdown is to focus on racing one round at a time,” said Johnson. “I just need to race myself. I challenge myself to have .020 lights, at the worst. That was my strategy and I’m not going to pay attention to who is in the other lane. I’m going to race myself and just try to stay consistent.”
Johnson's first round in Sunday’s eliminations at the Texas Motorplex is against No. 16-seeded Warren Johnson, a cagey veteran of the Pro Stock wars.
“Warren has been an idol all of my life and we have raced a bunch of times,” said Johnson, who estimates they’ve raced 50 times in the last 17 seasons. “He’s probably got the winning record. It’s always good to race him, he’s a good racer.”
ARANA IN THE HEAT - Hector Arana Jr. surprised even himself and upstaged his father Saturday in qualifying No. 1 again for the National Hot Rod Association's AAA Texas Fall Nationals at Ennis, south of Dallas.
He rode his Lucas Oil Buell to a 6.852-second elapsed time on the Texas Motorplex quarter-mile to lead the field for the second time in a row, the second time season, and the first time the Denver race in July.
Hector Arana Sr., Friday night's provisional No. 1 qualifier, held onto the top spot through the early Saturday (third overall) session.
The Vance & Hines Screamin' Eagle Harley-Davidson tag team of Eddie Krawiec and Andrew Hines were the third- and fourth-place qualifiers.
Arana Jr. said he didn't expect to have the low E.T. of the weekend in the scorching mid-90s temperatures with a racing-surface thermometer reading 128 degrees.
"I honestly did not," he said, confessing that he even told someone right before he ran, "We're not going to pick up. It's too hot." Afterward securing the ninth top spot of his young career, he said, "Surprisingly, we did. Finally everything came together.'
He was referring to the motor he named for his sister, Abigail, and the specialized clutch package that goes along with it. He had tried to make a transition from his "Gracie" motor that's named for his mother to "Abigail" but that Abigail wasn't always cooperative at first. She blew up, then the crankshaft malfunctioned.
"We always knew it could run good," Arana Jr. said. He said "Abigail" is making him go "faster and faster because we're learning this new engine and how to tune it and the different characteristics of what it wants."
He said he didn't think the 10-pound weight the NHRA added to the Harley-Davidsons made a bit of difference this weekend.
"I've crossed the scales 10 pounds heavier and it hasn't affected our tune-up or anything, " he said. "I've done it. I haven't seen a difference. So I don't see why it should be a difference on them."
Perhaps Arana Jr. got some fresh inspiration Thursday. That's when he and crew members Daniel Gonzalez and Charles Gordon got the grand tour of the Naval Air Station Fort Worth Joint Reserve Base. They got an up-close look at F-16 Falcon fighter jets that the 457th Fighter Squadron out of the 301st Fighter Wing uses.
Arana Jr., a fulltime mechanical engineering student at Purdue University - College of Technology at New Albany, Ind., learned about maintenance of the F-16 and ejection techniques the airmen at the base learn. He also spent time with Lt. Col. John Marusa - call sign "Farmer" (appropriate for the racer who calls himself "a peasant") and Marusa's crew chief, Sgt. Steve Joubert. They taught him about preparation for flight. Afterward the drag-racing team watched from the flight line as the F-16s took off on sorties. Arana Jr. said he also learned about various transport vehicles and weapons as he interacted with a handful of reserve personnel working at JRB.
"Any time we have an opportunity to go out and do extracurricular activities and take a break from racing to clear your mind - and then also to go out there and hang out with the military who do so much for us who enable us to be able to do this sport - it's always a privilege," Arana Jr. said.
Arana's mission on his first sortie Sunday at the Texas Motorplex will be to battle No. 16 starter Matt Guidera.
He said he's ready to "go for it," especially using consistent reaction times.
Other Round 1 pairings pit Michael Ray and Scotty Pollacheck, Hines and Steve Johnson, Chip Ellis and Mike Berry, Arana Sr. and Redell Harris, Jerry Savoie and Karen Stoffer, Krawiec and Shawn Gann, and champions LE Tonglet and Matt Smith.
Unqualified, along with John Hall and local racer David Barron from nearby Waxahachie, is Michael Phillips, last year's Pro Stock Motorcycle winner.
"We've been struggling all year," Phillips said. "Went out testing January 16. I crashed the bike, tore it up. And after that, everything we do, the bike's not responding to nothing we do to it. We've just been having one thing after another that's been going on with it."
COSTLY OILDOWNS HAUNT MILLICAN - Overall, Clay Millican said, he's searching for the "magical combination" he used to have when he was the Top Fuel driver to beat in six International Hot Rod Association championship seasons. For the immediate future, though, he said he needs to learn to keep the racetrack clean, for oildown penalties are what cost him a spot in this year's Countdown.
He won more rounds than Bob Vandergriff, who earned the No. 10 position they were fighting each other for at the U.S. Nationals, the final race before the fields were set. Millican won 10 rounds, Vandergriff eight. But Millican lost 70 points to oildowns.
"That's nobody's fault but our own. We won enough rounds to be there, but we're not," the Parts Plus/Hope4Sudan Dragster driver said. "We won more rounds than Bob did, but he did a better job of keeping his motor clean. The man got in and we didn't. I'm hoping he does good, since he's the man who beat us out of it.
"Yeah, we did shoot ourselves in the foot," he said, "but nobody did it on purpose. Some of it was driver error, and some of it was we had a weird mechanical issue that we have since found. It's part of Top Fuel racing. I would have loved to have a shot at the championship for Parts Plus, but we did it to ourselves."
Oildown penalties were not new to Millican when he started racing in the NHRA. "IHRA's the one who came up with these oildown penalties to begin with," he said. And oddly enough, oildowns actually have helped Millican in the past.
"I can remember back in the IHRA days, we won and we left the race losing points," Millican said with a laugh. "Luckily that year it didn't cost us a championship. I've dealt with oildown penalties most of my entire Top Fuel career, because the IHRA came up with those years and years ago.
"On the flip side of that," he said, "the IHRA used to take oildown penalty money and give it to the team that had the cleanest year. And we won that before. So I've been on both sides of this oildown penalty thing."
Making the Countdown certainly is every driver's goal, but the ever-smiling, never-rattled Millican said he knew by the time he arrived at Indianapolis that "the only way we were going to get in the top 10 was if Bob somehow stumbled and we were able to get by first round. It's not one of those things that even got me down at all, to be honest with you. We knew where we were at.
"It's disappointing," Millican said, "but I ain't letting it eat at me. Now we can look at it as, 'Go out there and try to win a race.' Points don’t matter. It's all about winning races. When it's all said and done, it's all about winning races."
Doing that in the NHRA as a single-car team has become a difficult proposition. Again, Millican knows the landscape. But he knows for a single-car team to compete alongside the multi-car entries, that independent must have a car that is performing in tip-top condition. And his hasn't been for awhile.
"When we first came over here," Millican said, "we didn't run a full NHRA season. We went 10 races and went to three straight final rounds. When your car runs good, it doesn't matter where you race at. Truth be told, you go back and look at the record: It didn't matter if we raced in the IHRA or the NHRA. Our car was competitive in both places. It didn't make any difference."
Ultimately, he conceded, the difference in being a superhero in the IHRA and struggling to be a contender in the NHRA "all comes down to the multi-car guys. They have equipment that we don’t have and can't buy. When we go to the starting line, we've all got the same kind of parts. The difference is they've taken those same parts and massaged 'em -- worked on 'em, dynoed 'em. And we don't have that ability.
"They can take one qualifying run, and in a lot of cases they've got three different runs to look at from one qualifying run. You give any team three runs in the exact same conditions, they're going to be better. So that's what you're battling out here," he said.
It's the same situation Brandon Bernstein was in last season, when he defied the odds and finished sixth in the final standings. It's what Steve Torrence has overcome to be in this year's Countdown with his new Torrence Family/Capco Contractors Dragster. It's what Vandergriff had to fight against to barge into the top 10. It's what Terry McMillen has faced.
Fans love an underdog, but underdogs don't truly enjoy barking up that tree. And Millican's no different. "Being a single-car team's tough," he said.
He'll have the rest of this season to regain his form for a better season in 2013. And that's what Millican surely knows he can do, maybe feels he deserves.
"We were on top, almost unbeatable, at one point there. I enjoyed that, and I want to get there again," Millican said. "But you've got to find that combination that makes it happen for you. We used to have that magical combination. We don't have it right now. We're working on it, though."
That's typical of Clay Millican, to leave the discussion on a positive note.
FROM 'WITCHCRAFT' TO WINNERS CIRCLE? - While it was startling to see Michael Phillips, the 2011 Pro Stock Motorcycle race winner here at the Texas Motorplex, hadn't made the field yet after the third qualifying session, Phillips wasn't all that surprised.
First of all, he said, "We've been struggling all year." But more reassuring was his reminder that this is the same circumstance he was in here last September before he made the show in his final chance and was the star of it Sunday afternoon.
Lightning will not strike twice in this case, for Phillips fared worse in the fourth and final qualifying session and will miss the cut. His best run was 7.179 seconds at 186.12 mph on the quarter-mile course, but the bike fell off to a 7.211, 185.33 in the last-ditch effort.
Even if it had happened again -- and Phillips said he's plenty capable -- it still has been a long, hard row to hoe for the Baton Rouge native.
"Went out testing January 16. I crashed the bike, tore it up. And after that, everything we do, the bike's not responding to nothing we do to it," he said. "All year stuff's been breaking that shouldn't break. The front end, it's just like somebody took a saw and cut it in half. We've just been having one thing after another that's been going on with it.
"It's rough, man. We've been from one extreme to the other extreme, comparing notes to last year, [that] engine to this year's motors. We've just been struggling," Phillips said. "I don't know what the deal is. I haven't changed ignitions. I haven't changed front ends. Whatever you can buy to put on these bikes, I done bought everything brand-new and put on it. It's just not responding to nothin' I'm doing to it, so I don't know. It's like somebody got this thing witchcraft or something."
His plan, of course, is eventually to conquer whatever the problem is. "We're just gradually trying to creep back up on our tune-up and get the bike going again," he said.
He wasn't panicked in the pits before the final qualifying session Saturday, for remembered what he went through a year ago.
"Basically everything that's going on now at this race last year is going on again," Phillips said after Q3. "We didn't get in until the last session. So the tune-up that I had on the last session last year is the tune-up I put in it for this [third] session. We went a 6.96 [to qualify 14th here last season]. If I get it where it don't slip the clutch down the racetrack I should be able to go .95, .94, or something like that."
He said, "Right now [the Suzukis are] having a problem with the crankshafts. You can switch from one crank to another crank and you can lose 13 horsepower. Actually, the motor that I ran in 2010, which is the motor I was running the first couple of runs [this weekend], the motor is not up to par.
"This engine here is one I built. I took the clutch set-up and took the clutch set-up from [a previous] motor. It just knocked the clutch out of it the first pass. This thing's got an extra eight or 10 more horsepower than what my other one had. So we're just going to try to go out there and get it stuck to the track and do my job to ride the bike and do like we did last year . . . win the race again," he said.
His fellow racers shouldn’t underestimate him, he said.
"Those guys know I've been out here awhile. I've been Pro Stock racing since 1992, '93. They know I'm one of the best guys up on the starting line. So I can handle my own up on the starting line. If I can get in, I can figure out a way to win," Phillips said. " It's like Dave Schultz said when I first came into this. Dave said, 'You're can be the best rider in the world, but if you can't go out there and race on Sundays, you're nothing'. That's one thing I can do. I can race on Sundays."
But not this Sunday.
MINOR LOVE SPAT? - When Alan Johnson walked away from his role as Tony Schumacher's crew chief, Schumacher vowed that he always would cherish their time as collaborators, always would be civil to Johnson and his new team, and always would respect Johnson's genius that led him to five consecutive Top Fuel championships. But that doesn't mean Schumacher and Johnson can't have a natural rivalry, a desire to beat each other convincingly.
Sometimes that rivalry might extend to off-track matters. Schumacher said Friday evening he thinks that's what is happening regarding the controversial cockpit canopy.
After Schumacher claimed the provisional No. 1 qualifying position, Competition Plus' Bobby Bennett remarked to him that both his U.S. Army Dragster team and Johnson's Al-Anabi/Toyota Dragster team are coming alive at the right time of the season.
"We are," Schumacher said. Then he launched into a conversation about Johnson's team and the canopy.
"I love how Alan's got our windshield on now. Cool," Schumacher said. "I was the one that walked over and said, 'You guys really still racing with, basically, a billboard in front of the driver? Doesn't that seem kind of stupid?' And Brian laughed a little bit and he goes, 'Yeah, man. We need to put that on.' And the next week they had it on. I'm not taking credit for it. Alan's more than smart enough to know that. But when you see a car performing well, look at it and do what it does.
"It's funny," Schumacher said, "after leaving my dad [the "Don" of seven-team Don Schumacher Racing], I'll bet you Alan does not want to put the canopy on or give credit in any way, shape, or form to my dad for being part of that.
"But eventually he's going to want it. Eventually he's going to see something," the points leader said. "And we all know that the safety aspect of that is unsurpassed. There's nothing to this day safer. When people start getting over their little 'I don't want to do it because he did it,' they're going to put it on because it is flat the safest car out there -- and it's bad-ass-looking."
REMEMBER ME? - The last time Rick Stewart, the former NHRA starter, was at the Texas Motorplex, he stood for four consecutive 15-hour days, baking in the Dallas sun while getting covered in rubber and grease.
Stewart, 71, is enjoying his new life as an administrator of honey-do lists and watching drag racing from a different viewpoint as a retiree.
“It has been a pleasurable experience,” Stewart said. “This time I get to sit down and watch the race in a nice air conditioned suite. I get to watch my heroes and the race cars running down the track. I still get to see all the wonderful people I raced with. I am thrilled to be back here.”
While Stewart admits he doesn’t mind watching the race this weekend from a comfortable setting, he sometimes misses the role he played for 15 years, a role he filled following the retirement of the legendary Buster Couch. Stewart was also a Top Fuel racer from 1962 until 1971.
“When you look at it, I’ve been involved in racing for nearly 50 years,” Stewart admitted. “And, all of a sudden, when you’re not part of it, not go to a drag strip for six months can be tough.”
The spare time, Stewart said, has been filled with other important chores.
“My wife has kept me busy with her honey-do list,” Stewart said with as smile. “Time has slipped by and before I knew it this weekend crept up on us. Got everything caught up [at home] and I’m enjoying everything.”
Stewart said he walked away at the right time but admits he wanted to stay in the sport a few years longer maybe in a different role. In the end, Stewart and the NHRA decided to go in different directions.
“It came as a shock and took me a little while to get over,” said Stewart. “We talked about it and it was a mutual thing. I’m 71 years old. Fortunately, I’ve been blessed by The Man with good health. It was just an honor and pleasure to be the one to follow behind Buster Couch.
On thing Stewart has always known, but now talks about freely is “there is life after racing. Without the real life, there would be no racing life.”
HAPPY ANNIVERSARY - Tequila Patrün Toyota Camry driver Alexis DeJoria, marking the first anniversary weekend of her professional debut, said, "We’re already doing better than we did at this race last year. We had some nice, solid runs during qualifying, and I’m happy to be going into tomorrow in the top half of the field." She's eight and will meet and equally overdue Bob Tasca in the first round.
WANTS A FOUR-WHEELED VICTORY - Antron Brown won his first Wally trophy here in 1999, on a Pro Stock motorcycle. "This track has always been real special to me, because it's where I got my first professional win. It'd be really cool to win one in Top Fuel, but we're just going to take it one round at a time and stay focused on the task at hand. Tomorrow is race day and it's where all the points are made and we've got to go out there and get after it." He's qualified eighth and has lane choice in the first round of eliminations against Dave Grubnic.
Reflecting on his 3.948-second pass at 306.88 mph in the heat Saturday, the Matco Tools Dragster driver said, "When you go out on the track early in the day like we did (Saturday), we weren't quite sure how good the track really was. The last couple of pairs showed us when they ran high (3.80s). We can step it up a little because the car was really soft, and it went down the track really, really easy. We're looking good for (Sunday), because it's going to be really hot. We know now in those conditions you have to go out there and try to run a 3.88 to 3.90 to get the job done. All in all, we are right in the mix.
"The cool thing for tomorrow's first round is that we're going to have lane choice, which is going to be really important," Brown said. "(We're) just going to go out there and hit it hard. It's going to be a tough match-up but everybody is in the same situation. We just have to go out there focused on each run, stay poised and go to work."
THE 'HIGHT' OF UNLUCKINESS - Tim Wilkerson thought he might get a bit of a break by qualifying No. 2. But noooooo. "You wouldn't think you'd have to run Robert Hight in Round one," the Levi, Ray & Shoup Shelby Ford Mustang owner-driver said, "but unless they were going to give us a free pass, I guess it doesn't matter. You're going to have to run as quick as the lane will allow you, no matter who you race. So that's what we'll do, and we'll try to give them all they can handle. We'll be ready."
MOTORPLEX BRING BACK MEMORIES FOR MASSEY - Spencer Massey, like Shawn Langdon, just turned 30 years old this month.But when he comes to the Texas Motorplex, he's still like the little kid who saw his first pair of Top Fuel dragsters go down the all-concrete dragstrip in 1986 and was fascinated with the sport. It was here that Massey first sat in a Jr. Dragster and won the track championship in 1998.
He earned his license in Texas, at Houston. And winning titles in his first season became a bit of a habit, as he did that the first season he drove a Top Fuel car, winning his first two races -- the first also in Texas, at San Antonio -- on the way to the IHRA Top Fuel series crown.
"Every year the Motorplex has been open, I've been there to smell the nitro, to live and breathe drag racing," said Massey, who drives the FRAM/Prestone Dragster fro Don Schumacher Racing. "That's where I first got my taste of it and where I knew I wanted to go Top Fuel racing. I've won a lot of junior races there, some Super Comp amateur dragster bracket races, but to win there in a car that I've always dreamed of driving would be just unbelievable. It wouldn't be like winning a season championship, but it definitely would be huge in my life. That's always been one of my life goals, and to achieve it would just be incredible. Obviously, it would be huge to win there for many reasons. It would be huge for championship reasons, for simply winning another race, and because that's where I've been every year to watch Top Fuel drag racing."
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - HOT FRIDAY IN DALLAS
COURTNEY RULES! - When the day was done Courtney Force laid claim to one provisional top starting spot and one guaranteed starting spot.
Force made a 4.081-second pass in the second round of of qualifying for the AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals to score the provisional No. 1 position. The pass also enables her to head into Saturday’s special race within a race, the Traxxas Nitro Shootout, with the freedom to concentrate on winning instead of focusing on earning a place in the field.
Force also led the first qualifying session with a 4.182 while most of her fellow competitors struggled with a baseline.
“It’s definitely nerve-wracking,” admitted Force, adding, “and I think by our performance, we proved we have a good race car. We can run it in the heat of the day, as well as when it cools down. I’m hoping my run stays on top for tomorrow. I really don’t believe the track will cool down as much as it did today. I’m really hoping it will stick because our main focus is on this Shootout tomorrow.”
Force, who drives the Traxxas Funny Car, was the eighth different Funny Car winner this season. Her victory came one race too late to be automatically seeded into the “Shootout” field. Her berth came via a combination of fan vote and lottery drawing.
Ron Capps, the current Funny Car points leader, is her first round opponent.
“We are the first pair out and he is going to be a tough opponent,” Force admitted. “He’s tough to beat and one of the best cars out here. But then again, I feel like I have one of the best cars out here in Texas.”
Force appeared overly amped up in her post-qualifying press conference.
“Maybe it’s the Full Throttle I’m drinking,” Force admitted. “Or maybe it’s just the adrenaline of coming out of a race car and hearing my guys yell I went to the No. 1 spot. I was hoping this run would be so exciting and make me so proud. This would be my second No. 1 in my rookie season. This has been a great year for us.”
Winning on Saturday and remaining No. 1 would make the season even greater.
LURKING - The rest of the Top Fuel class might not like to hear what Tony Schumacher is saying again.
No, they're not concerned about talk of his new canopy. Instead, what they might feel uncomfortable hearing is his familiar speech about loving the pressure and wanting to be the go-to guy when the stress level soars.
He said it again Friday at the Texas Motorplex after staking the U.S. Army Dragster to the provisional No. 1 Top Fuel qualifying position for the National Hot Rod Association's AAA Texas Fall Nationals at Ennis, near Dallas.
"Larry Bird said it best: 'In the closing seconds of the game, I always wanted to have the ball in my hands for the last shot and not anybody else in the world.' When it comes down to it, I want that shot," Schumacher said. "At that moment when you have to win, we've proven that we can do it."
He's talking high-pressure situations and last-minute, do-or-die circumstances. He's back in the points lead, although he knows Spencer Massey and Shawn Langdon and Antron Brown and Doug Kalitta and Morgan Lucas and Brandon Bernstein and Steve Torrence -- everybody in the class who's in the Countdown -- is coming after him. And he likes it. The pressure doesn't faze him.
While the thermometer rose, Schumacher and Mike Green kept their cool. And Schumacher produced a 3.829-second elapsed time at 320.13 mph on the 1,000-foot course.
"We've said we're a good high-pressure team. How do you get any more high pressure than that?" Schumacher said. "Friday night's going to set the field. It's going to be 90 today, 90 tomorrow, and 90 on Sunday. You're not going to run fast during the day. That's the run [Friday night's]."
And he said he's counting points -- somebody's counting points -- and they all add up.
"We won a championship by two points [over Larry Dixon in 2009]. They all matter," he said of each marker. "The first round I was a little disappointed that we didn't get any. But it's not like I can drive harder or try more."
He said Friday night is the time to shine and "if you can't make that happen, maybe you can win the race -- don't get me wrong -- but those are the points that are going to add up and make rounds. So it does matter. We pay attention to it, and I actually think it's pretty exciting."
Schumacher had the lone 3.82-second elapsed time as he supplanted early leader Khalid Al Balooshi. Doug Kalitta was second Friday with a 3.836-second E.T. (at the class' fastest speed, 322.34), and part-time Vandergriff Racing partner J.R. Todd was third with the only other 3.83 (3.839, 317.34).
"We're No. 1. I don't care who's 2, 3, or 4," Schumacher said. "But I do know my teammates are 6 and 10 and they're on the other side of the ladder. It can change tomorrow, but that's where it is right now. They're good cars. They beat me more often than anybody. So I’d prefer to have them later on in the rounds and have someone else deal with 'em first.
"We want to go out and dominate and leave nothing on the table," the seven0time champion and two-time winner this season said. "Somebody has to put 'em out. If some other team can't get it done, beat 'em, I want to be the guy to do it."
Schumacher is looking for his fourth No. 1 start of the year and 71st overall.
KILLING THEM WITH CONSISTENCY - Allen Johnson continues to hit “home runs” in the NHRA Pro Stock Series.
Johnson gained the provisional No.1 qualifying position on the strength of a 6.568 run at 211.43 miles per hour. He edged out No. 2 Jason Line who turned in a 6.586, 210.54 performance.
A bona fide long ball hitter earlier in the season, Johnson found his base-hitting groove in the AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals, upping his on-base percentage by running the quickest elapsed times in both sessions to also gain six bonus qualifying points. Should the run hold through Saturday, it will be the 10th No. 1 qualifying efforts this season for Johnson.
“Our game plan with the Mopar Dodge Avenger is consistency,” said Johnson. “We’ve done that so far after two runs. We won both runs and that’s what we were shooting for. We want to build up those little points. It’s a great track and great surface. There’s a lot of traction out there and that’s what we were banking on.”
The racing surface at the Texas Motorplex, the original all-concrete drag strip, is much different than the one Johnson faced last weekend at zMax Dragway, another concrete track.
“The difference between Charlotte and here is Charlotte (is like) a ski ramp – flat on the starting line and ground downward,” explained Johnson. “It’s really, really finicky for Pro Stock cars because as your rear tires go through the staging beams they start dropping and the rearend starts trying to kick the rear of the car out. This means you really have to keep the front end of the car down. It makes it a little tricky and the car wants to spin the tires.
“We never really got a great handle on it there. It was decent on race day but Jason and Greg they have a handle on that track. They test there all of the time.”
At the Texas Motorplex, Johnson is the dialed driver.
“This track is great, it is flat, and without the ski slope,” Johnson explained. “It’s a more narrow groove. If you stay in the groove, you’re going to be okay. It’s smooth.”
And just like the Motorplex, no one is smoother than the driver from Greeneville, Tenn.
“Everything is perfect right now,” Johnson said, face beaming with pride. “We’re beating on eight-and-a-half cylinders. We just need to do more of the same – be consistent.”
MAKING HAY WHILE THE SUN IS OUT - Score one for the peasants!
Hector Arana Sr. led the Pro Stock Motorcycle class in Friday qualifying at the National Hot Rod Association's AAA Texas Fall Nationals, and Hector Arana Jr. is second overnight, trumping the Vance & Hines Screamin' Eagle Harley-Davidson duo of Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec.
Arana Sr. posted a 6.898-second elapsed time at 195.11 mph, and Arana Jr. was one-thousandth of second behind at 6.899 (at 193.63) on the Texas Motorplex quarter-mile at Ennis, south of Dallas.
The Milltown, Ind., father-son Lucas Oil Buell team has earned five No. 1 qualifying positions in the 11 bike races so far this season. But with a collection of five runner-up finishes to match, they have not stopped the Harley-Davidson dominators. In fact, Michael Ray (Atlanta) and LE Tonglet (Chicago) are the only other riders to advance to a final besides Krawiec, Hines, and the Aranas. Krawiec and Hines have faced each other in four finals.
Krawic, the points leader and first-session low qualifier, ended Friday's action in the No. 3 spot with a 6.906 E.T. at 194.30 mph, and Hines followed in fourth at 6.917, 194.10.
Knowing how they like to needle Krawiec and Hines, who have swept all the victories this season so far, no one would be surprised if the Arana tandem were to bring out sandbags again, like it did in July at Sonoma.
That's when Arana Jr. likened his team's situation to working like hard-toiling peasants, subsisting on the leftovers from the kings of the manor, the Harley-Davidson riders. The Arana crew creatively came to the starting line that weekend, wearing peasant-style garb fashioned from bed sheets from the local Wal-Mart shelves. The sandbags indicated that they thought the Harley-Davidson team wasn't letting everyone see its full potential.
The feudal images began a bit of feuding, but Krawiec and Hines weren't offended. They played along with it. Five races later, the Harley-Davidson "masters" of the class hadn't let up with the floggings. The NHRA imposed an additional 10 pounds on the Harley-Davidsons for the remainder of this season, starting at this race, as part of its announcement of 2013 rules aimed at class parity.
"I believe we have to take the opportunity now and see if we can come up with a win and grab some points, because once they dial it in, those extra 10 pounds, they might not have the perfect tune-up yet or the clutch combination because of the extra weight," Arana said, referring to the NHRA's latest action. "We have to take advantage of the situation for later.
"The rule changed a little bit. It could give us a small chance of knocking them down, stop the wins, the streak that they're on," Arana Sr. said.
Arana's laugh answered the question about how long he and the other Buell and Suzuki riders will have to make up ground on the Vance & Hines team. "That team right there is excellent. They've got excellent crew chiefs and management. It won't take them long at all," he said, emphasizing every word, "as you can see in the first run of qualifying.
"I was surprised what they ran, Arana Sr. said. "I believe they just missed their tune-up and we were there to grab those extra points."
As he seeks his fifth top starting spot of the season and 22nd of his career, Arana said, "I definitely feel happier. We have more momentum going, especially with the second run. We picked up the pace a little bit, and the track has been great. We can probably get even more aggressive tomorrow."
Naturally, Arana is proud of his son's performance, but he even wants to ace him.
"When I seen Hector run an .89 (6.899), and my early run was almost perfect, I go, 'Wow! An .89! What does this kid have that I don't have?' Then I took the pole," Senior said.
Their weight and riding style, and therefore their tune-ups and set-ups, make their bikes not as much in synch as they might like to have them, he said.
"Pretty much his style, my style, the bike, everything is different. We try to get as close as we can, but it never works out that way," Arana Sr. said.
"Each motor is different, likes its own tune-up. The weight of my son, the way he rides, the clutch is always different. So we can't really share that much information, but the advantage is we more or less know what's going on. I know his set-up. He knows mine. So we watch each other to see what happens at the starting line." He said he hopes he's always the second of the two to run "so I can take advantage of that."
Competitor Matt Smith, the 2007 champion who's in the provisional No. 13 slot, said he thinks the immediate 10-pound weight addition to the Harleys "is a joke."
Smith told Competition Plus' Tracy Renck on Thursday, "NHRA told us all year long that they [Harley-Davidsons] do not have a performance advantage, yet they are changing the rules like they are for next year. Obviously, they know more than what they are telling everybody else. Regardless, they got paid to let this happen this year by Harley-Davidson. Just flat honest, there is no other reason they would have done what they did to the class this year. For them (NHRA) to add 10 pounds, they are just justifying that they can say that they did something. That's all they are looking at. That 10 pounds is going to do nothing to them. The only way that Harley-Davidson and Eddie Krawiec and Andrew Hines are going to lose a race this year is either on a parts failure or they screw up. That's it. They will sweep the whole year unless one of those two things happen."
If Smith is right, at least Hector Arana Sr. wants to be there to take advantage of that.
AN HONEST LEADER - Bob Tasca is used to being a leader. He's a leader in business, and that's what he wants to be in his Motorcraft/Quick Lane Shelby Ford Mustang Funny Car. And it's gnawing at him that he isn't in the Countdown and that in five of the previous six races he has lost in the first round. But he's still a leader, for leaders take responsibility, give credit where it's due, and know how to turn disappointment into a learning experience and, ultimately, success.
"To perform is everything to us," he said. "When you don't perform, you just didn't get the job done. All you can do is get up off the mat time and time again. The champions have all been on the mat, and they have risen again. And that's what we'll do, too.
"We went into Indy 10th in points with two hungry teams behind us. One of them was our Ford Shelby teammate, Tim Wilkerson, and his Levi, Ray and Shoup team. As luck would have it, when the race was rained out and NHRA added two qualifying sessions, we drew Tim first round. Only one of us was going to make it into the Countdown to the Championship, and Tim got the job done.
"When you're up against a teammate like that, it's tough. As much as you want the best for them, you still want your team to be the team that makes it happen. We're a determined team, though, and we're going out to the next few races to win some races," Tasca said. "I can tell you this: through the tough times you find out who you are and what you're made of. How we perform over these next six races will define our season.
"When I get discouraged about things that happen at the track, I try to keep everything in perspective. Fans tell me all the time about struggles they are going through, from dealing with cancer to supporting a loved one who is serving overseas in our military. You name it. We all have struggles," he said, "and it is those things that matter most. We do have a job to do, though, and that's what we'll focus on at the track."
The prominent Northeast Ford multi-store dealer also is a myth-buster.
"It's playoffs time and we're spoilers. Let me tell you two things about being in our shoes: No. 1, I'd be lying if I said we aren't disappointed; and No. 2, people say the pressure is off for the rest of the season if you don't make the Countdown. That isn't true," he said.
"Our goal is to finish strong. It would mean everything to our team to end on a high note.
There is no such thing in motorsports as a time when the pressure is off. We are always under pressure to perform," Tasca said. "This ain't driving to church Sunday morning. This is the real deal. There are real consequences. That's where we live, under pressure, and if you can't perform under pressure, you can't perform."
And that's unacceptable to Tasca.
"The only reason why I'm racing is to compete for a championship," he said. "To not be able to do that is gut-wrenching, but you can take that energy and turn it into negativity or you can take that and be positive. I'm excited.
"The day I'm not excited about going to a race, I won't do it. I'm excited about playing spoiler," Tasca said. "We'll go out and make as much noise as we can and learn as much as we can to put ourselves in position to win. This is the time we'll see what my Motorcraft/Quick Lane team has, what I have. This is when we say, 'Here's what we can do.' "
LONE STAR LOVE - Shredded blower belts, cell-phone overload, an onslaught of Aggies, and a flood of free-ticket requests, not to mention an around-the-clock schedule of baby son Landon have put a little chaos into Top Fuel driver Brandon Bernstein's life recently. But this week he's repeating his familiar "It's all good" line.
He's back in Texas, ready to give Steve Torrence and Spencer Massey a challenge for "Best of Texas" honors this weekend. Bernstein grew up in Dallas and earned a Bachelors degree from Texas A&M University. But with his semifinal finish at Charlotte as encouragement, he's eager to put the ProtectTheHarvest.com/MAVTV Dragster in the winners circle in front of family and friends.
"It's always nice to come back home to Texas," Bernstein said, enjoying the fact mom and stepdad Donna and Jerry Easom are on hand, along with a lot of expected -- and surprise -- college pals. "I'm sure I'm going to have tons of college buddies who I'm sure are going to show up out of the woodwork. The ones I know well are blowing up my phone, and the ones I only know casually will be at the ropes yelling, cheering us on."
He said crew chief Joe Barlam and the team "have licked the problem we were having with the blower belt" and "thankfully the car is starting to run quick and consistently. Now that points have been reset, momentum and the standings can swing wildly. We just need to keep collecting points in every way we can."
He has been runner-up twice this season, at Englishtown and Denver, and has reached two semifinals, at Sonoma and Charlotte. So he's showing signs of a surge. "If we would have gone into Charlotte and lost first round that would have been far from an ideal situation" Bernstein said. "You can't really complain about going to the semifinals or finals. It's so tough to win these days, so getting at least that far is where you want to be."
He's in seventh place in the standings but is just a little more than two rounds of racing out of fourth place.
EXTRA SPECIAL RACE - Kilgore, Texas, native Steve Torrence said all the Countdown races are special, "but this one is very, very special, because the Motorplex is my home track and we want to do well. It's where I started racing."
He's eighth in the order now, thanks to a first-round defeat at Charlotte last Sunday. But the Torrence Family / Capco Contractors Dragster owner-driver is buoyed by being home this weekend. "It's really cool to be contending for the championship and having one of the Countdown races here," he said. "We have a lot of Capco people, friends, and fans supporting us.
"I have a lot of good memories of racing at the Motorplex, and I hope to add another one this time," Torrence said. "The best one so far is when I clinched the 2005 Top Alcohol Dragster championship there. That was a big thrill."
CAUTION: ALLIGATOR BACK ON TRACK - Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Jerry Savoie missed the past three races, at first because of inventory, then because a hurricane made an uninvited visit to his home state. But he's back with his White Alligator Racing Suzuki, not too far from his home and alligator farm in Cut Off, La., making the trip "next door" to the Texas Motorplex.
Savoie had planned to skip the Brainerd event because he had just one working motor and little chance of making the Countdown. But he had planned to enter the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis, but Hurricane Isaac blew that idea out the window. He also had planned to pass on the Charlotte race, to support his son Gerald at an award ceremony.
"I just couldn't leave, and I had to stay and ride it out. I've been missing this," he said of the competition, "but my business, and more importantly, my family has to come first."
Gerald Savoie, he said, "won first place in two contests for a really large deer that he harvested at our ranch down in Mexico in 2011, and one award ceremony was the weekend of the postponed Indy race, and the other was the weekend of Charlotte – so I had already planned to miss Charlotte. But we're back this weekend, and we've got the Suzuki all ready to go."
Crew chief Mark Peiser, he said, has told him the team has two strong Suzuki engines and two more Buell motors. Savoie said, "We may stay and test the Buell on Monday for St. Louis. We're good to go, and it'll be up to me this weekend to do my job. I feel a little rusty, but I imagine it'll all come back pretty quickly."
His first pass after the layoff -- a 7.027-second, 189.84-mph showing -- landed him ninth in the order, just one-thousandth of a second shy of making the top half of the provisional lineup.
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