MONDAY NOTEBOOK: A REALLY FAST FINISH ON MONDAY
SHAKING UP THE STATUS QUO - Underdog Khalid al Balooshi shattered the Top Fuel class' status quo Monday at the Auto-Plus NHRA Nationals, knocking off points leader and record-holder Antron Brown in the rain-delayed final round at Reading, Pa.
With a 3.910-second, 312.42-mph pass on the 1,000-foot Maple Grove Raceway course in the Al-Anabi-Toyota Racing Dragster, the Los Angeles-based Dubai native gave crew chief Jason McCulloch and the team its first victory since they won the Phoenix race last October 16.
In a race in which the national E.T. record changed hands four times with eye-popping passes in the 3.71- and 3.72-second ranges, the Wally trophy went to a first-time winner and No. 9 starter who had a pair of 3.9s in eliminations -- a Countdown non-qualifier who had won only seven rounds before this event.
Reigning Pro Modified champion al Balooshi, who lost in the opening round at the first 12 races of this rookie Top Fuel season gave an early indication this could be his race. He began eliminations Sunday by ousting Spencer Massey, the four-time winner and nine-time finalist this season who had led the standings on five separate occasions and was hovering in the No. 2 spot.
Then he defeated another upset-minded driver, Ike Maier, who had sent No. 1 qualifier Dave Grubnic home in the first round. In the semifinal, al Balooshi beat Al-Anabi teammate Shawn Langdon, who's in the thick of the Top Fuel title battle and had owned the E.T. record for a few minutes with his 3.712-second blast at 334.15 mph, the fastest ever in drag-racing history.
The lineup didn't get easier for al Balooshi. His final assignment of the day was to go up against Brown, who had trumped Langdon's record with a stunning 3.701-second run to defeat Brandon Bernstein in their semifinal. Brown had closed Sunday's rain-shorted activity with what at that time was the quickest Top Fuel pass ever.
Brown's high-performance had run its course, and he smoked the tires of his Matco Tools Dragster early in the final run and posted a 9.818, 75.99. Nevertheless, he heads into the Big O Tires Nationals at Las Vegas in three weeks with his points lead intact, thanks in part to the 20-point bonus for the national E.T. record.
Losing, Brown said, "is nothing to be disappointed about. No mixed feelings. We've just been firing off our best shots each round. There's no reason to hold our heads down. We got a record, got an extra 20 points. All in all it was a great weekend for points." He goes to Las Vegas in three weeks with a whopping 104-point lead over closest rival Spencer Massey with only two races remaining in the year.
Brown said he was amazed that he regained the national E.T. record -- and its 20 points -- with a 3.701-second pass at 328.78 mph in the semifinal round against Brandon Bernstein, who had a stellar 3.740 lap of his won.
"At the end of the racetrack, when they told me our E.T., I didn't even know we ran that quick, because I didn't see the scoreboard. I was just in awe. I was stunned.People thought I would be doing cartwheels and backflips, but I was just shocked. It hit me emotionally. It was a great hard fought battle all weekend."
Every week after seemingly bleak week, al Balooshi would praise his crew and promise that if he kept working hard behind the wheel he would bring home a trophy. And he kept his vow.
"I try my best, and I know everybody on the team tries his best. Finally I won the first one," al Balooshi said with a sense of relief in his voice. "I have been waiting about this position for a long time. This is one of the small things I can give my team and [team manager] Alan Johnson.
"Every car is flying. Everybody's close. I'm happy to do this one," he said. "Man, from the beginning of the week, if you keep watching it, every car in the qualifying . . . is looking to break the record. Everybody's looking to run fast."
Al Balooshi said he had an idea after Sunday's quarterfinal victory over Maier that it could be his lucky race.
"Yesterday I won the second round, I feel something -- my luck is open with me," he said.
He emphatically said he wasn't going to "take one for the team" when he met Langdon in the semifinal round.
"No -- no, no," al Balooshi said. He indicated that if that's how the Al-Anabi team operated, he probably would be in the Countdown: "Before that, in Indy, if I'm looking to do something like that, if Shawn give me the race, I'd be in the Countdown. But the race is the race, you know."
He said of their semifinal run Monday, 'I tell Shawn before the race, 'I try to help you but I'm not going to do anything that's good for you. Help yourself."
And with that, Khalid al Balooshi helped himself to his first Top Fuel victory and threw some extra excitement into the Countdown mix.
MR. CONSISTENTCY - Consistency paid off for Mike Neff at the Auto Plus NHRA Nationals in Reading, Pa.
Neff’s reward was capturing his first title at Maple Grove Raceway by defeating Johnny Gray in the nitro Funny Car final round Monday.
Neff clocked a 4.030-second time in his John Force Racing Mustang to defeat Johnny Gray who slowed to 9.305 seconds.
“This is exactly what we needed to do,” said Neff, who also tunes his Castrol GTX machine. “(Jack) Beckman and (Ron) Capps had a pretty good lead on us (in the point standings) and we can’t give up any more ground. Coming in here (to Reading), realistically, we were going to have to win the next three races if we were going to have a shot at it (winning the championship).”
Beckman (2,437) and Capps (2414) of Don Schumacher Racing are first and second in the points chase, followed by Neff at 2383.
This was Neff’s 10th career nitro Funny Car win and fourth this season.
“I give credit to Jack Beckman’s team and also Cruz (Pedregon), those three-second runs that was impressive,” Neff said. “I just didn’t have it (a 3-second run). I made my career-best runs here this weekend, 4.01 and 4.02 and I was pleased. I didn’t want to take the chance of trying to make it run 3 seconds and smoke the tires. I was just trying to play it safe and make some solid runs and just try and get the round wins. We did all we could here and it feels good to make some forward progress.”
During Neff’s four round wins over Tony Pedregon, Jim Head, John Force and Gray, his average elapsed time was 4.029 seconds. Neff beat Pedregon Sunday and then scored wins over Head, Force and Gray Monday. The race was completed Monday after rain and cold weather postponed the event Sunday.
The track temperature during Neff’s final round win over Gray was only 61 degrees.
“I honestly thought the lanes were pretty equal,” Neff said. “Johnny Gray made a great run the round before in that left lane, so I’m sure they felt comfortable over there, but it was nice for me to not have to change lanes even though I didn’t have lane choice. It just worked out.”
After six consecutive weekends of racing, Neff returns to action Oct. 25-28 in Las Vegas.
“I’m really looking forward to that,” said Neff about having a couple of weekends off. “It has been a long couple of months.”
Following Vegas, the 2012 NHRA concludes with the Auto Club Finals Nov. 8-11 in Pomona, Calif.
“You have to have it all right to get a win any more,” Neff said. “The biggest thing is it will be exciting. I want to be able to head out West with a chance. It would be a downer if we were out of it at this point. It is nice to be alive for the championship.”
111TH TIME IS THE CHARM - Denver-area Pro Stock racer V Gaines was oblivious to the cold and damp at Reading, Pa.
He wasn't intimidated by facing three champions with a dozen series titles on their resumes during Auto-Plus NHRA Nationals eliminations.
He wasn't wary of part-time points-wrecker Dave Connolly, who took on a late-season driving role and won the high-profile U.S. Nationals last month.
Gaines knew his Hemi-powered Kendall Dodge Avenger could deliver the goods. He was Friday's provisional No. 1 qualifier. The car carried him to a holeshot victory over Jason Line to land in his first final round since he won at Phoenix in 2008.
So he had nothing to feel inferior about at all in squaring off against Connolly. He paid no attention to the fact Connolly won at Reading in 2007 and 2010 and was runner-up at Maple Grove Raceway in 2008, as well -- and hadn't raced in 2009 and 2011 and there he was in the final round at this racetrack again.
Nothing was going to stop V Gaines from ending his 111-race drought Monday. He earned his fourth victory in 10 final rounds and his first victory in two finals this year, using a 6.515-second elapsed time at 212 mph on the quarter-mile for the Pro Stock trophy.
He improved three places in the standings with two more races left in the Countdown to the Championship. He entered No. 9 in the standings but will had to The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in sixth place.
Connolly, driving the Industrial Distribution Group (IDG) Chevrolet out of Victor Cagnazzi Racing, fouled out by one-hundredth of a second (.016) in his final-round chance for the fourth straight time he has raced at Maple Grove.
"You never want to go red but if you do the math, I don't know that it would've mattered," Connolly said. "I think V had us covered today. He ran a huge number and was there at the tree (with a .022-second reaction time). I'm happy for him. You couldn't ask for a nicer guy to race against in the final."
It was a bit of payback for Gaines.
"Dave and I waited in the rain for three days in 2007 here and came back in the semifinals and he beat us. I told him it was time to get even a little bit. It really made it special," Gaines said. It was that and knowing he eliminated a lineup of champions -- Warren Johnson, Greg Anderson, and Jason Line, with 12 series crowns among them -- to advance to his first final round since his hometown Denver race in July.
Gaines recorded a 6.489-second pass at 212.96 mph in defeating Anderson in the second round. That lifted him onto the top-10 list for quickest passes in class history, and the run marked both his personal-bests for E.T. and speed. His time was just seven-thousandths of a second slower than Line's opening-round E.T. that tied the second-quickest in Pro Stock history and was low E.T. of the meet.
"It was magical run," Gaines said of his own 6.489. "It all starts out with a 60-foot [incremental time of 0.967 seconds] that I never dreamed we would run. That helped it a lot. Wow - being in the 6.40s club, didn’t dream we would be able to be there. But hey -- here we are, and it has worked out. We're just excited."
For Gaines, it was a nearly perfect weekend.
"We wanted to hang onto that No. 1 spot, which would have rally been something. But I'd rather win the race. We'll get that No. 1 spot sooner or later."
Gaines indicated that he was pleased with his major turnaround: "The way we started out the year, didn't qualify for five of the first [seven] races, then you come in and start making improvements and every week it gets better and better."
The 65-year-old Lakewood, Colo., resident said, "We're not worried about cold-weather running, because we're from Denver, 5,000 feet high. It showed this week we can compete in the cold weather. And boy, we're just ecstatic," he said.
His own driving has improved throughout the season, but he sloughed that off, choosing instead to allude to his full-service chassis- and engine-building shop.
"When the car's working well, it makes the driver look awfully good," the longtime owner-driver said with a hearty laugh. "I wish I could say it was all the driver, but the car is so fantastic right now, thanks to the guys at Lazarus [Race Cars] who make the car, and of course the motors from Madcap [Racing Engines], and most of all our crew. These guys, you know, when things are going bad, it's tough. But they've always been on the positive side and we've been able to make the rebound."
Gaines said he's glad he made the decision to build his own chassis and prep his own engines.
"It's so rewarding. You have no idea the pride that we have. We make the chassis. We build the motors. I can't say enough about leasing. We learned under Dick Maskin. We learned under so may people who helped us learn drag racing, as well as leasing us motors. Those were very [formative] years. Leasing is a good, good deal. But sooner or later, if you want to control your own destiny, you've got to build your own motors, got to keep your development in-house."
Going it alone isn't easy, though, Gaines would say.
"We really don't share information with anybody, don't really have any teammates. A single team, it's tough. And it’s good -- we keep all the information we learned. It's fantastic to be running this well."
Connolly, also the crew chief for Countdown contender Erica Enders, helped more than just his own reputation at this event.
He took out points leader Allen Johnson in the quarterfinals Monday in a most unlikely manner. Johnson picked a lousy time to commit his first foul start of the year, turning on the Christmas Tree's red light by six-thousandths of a second. Johnson had to be extra-aggravated, for Connolly nursed his broken car to a winning E.T. of 26.684 seconds at a snail-pace 25.96 mph.
It wasn't wrapped pretty, but it undoubtedly was Enders' favorite gift on the morning of her 29th birthday. Then he kept on helping Enders in the semifinal by beating Jeg Coughlin, who had taken her out in Round 2.
The trouble is, Connolly also gave the ultimate gift of the day to Gaines, one-hundredth of a second too eager at the launch.
"We actually struggled this morning and got a gift against A.J. so I guess we gave a gift back in the final. I can definitely leave here with my head up," Connolly said.
He'll shelve his helmet and firesuit for the rest of the season and focus on guiding Enders toward her first championship.
"We've raced six weekends in a row and they've been very good for us," Connolly said. "Two runner-up finishes and two wins isn't bad at all. We'll reload and get ready for Las Vegas in a few weekends and see if we can't get Erica [Enders] this championship."
Still, he can't help but love Maple Grove Raceway.
"There's definitely something special about this place," Connolly said. "It was a crazy weekend, certainly a big learning experience for me. We don't get to see cool weather conditions like this very often, hardly ever at all. Luckily, Tommy [co-crew chief Utt] has a lot more time running in conditions like this, and we were able to lean on his experience."
ANTRON'S PARTING GIFTS - It was a near perfect weekend for Antron Brown and the Matco Tools "Tools for the Cause" team.
Brown and the team leave Maple Grove Raceway with a national elapsed time record, along with the 20 bonus points, their 11th championship round of the season, and a whopping 104-point lead in the Top Fuel category with two races remaining in the six-race Countdown to the Championship. Brown also posted career bests in both elapsed time and speed this weekend.
Brown was runner-up to rookie Khalid alBalooshi of Al-Anabi Racing, who won his first Top Fuel title in the rain-delayed event completed Monday.
Brown earned his way to the final with a national elapsed time record 3.701-second pass at 328.78 mph in the semifinal round defeating Brandon Bernstein's 3.740 lap.
The best part about setting the national record for Matco's "Tools for the Cause" team is that it was worth 20 bonus points and they left Maple Grove with a 104-point lead over Don Schumacher Racing teammate Spencer Massey, who is second in points.
Brown went to his third straight final round and his fourth in the past six events but missed a chance at winning his seventh event title of the season.
The team wasn't hanging their heads after the final round loss to alBalooshi. Brown's dragster hazed the tires and alBalooshi posted a 3.910-second effort for the win.
"It's nothing to be disappointed about," Brown said. "No mixed feelings. We've just been firing off our best shots each round. There's no reason to hold our heads down. We got a record, got an extra 20 points."
Crew chiefs Brian Corradi and Mark Oswald approached the final round with a similar game plan to what earned Brown the semifinal win and national record. But the track couldn't handle the record-setting horsepower.
"We were going out there to hit it just like we did when we ran the .70 because that's what we needed to do to win," he said. "All in all it was a great weekend for points."
"We just have to get ready for Vegas and go out there and attack that race," Brown said.
THANKS MIKE - Mike Neff's final round win put a 55” flat screen TV into the hands of John Gibson of New Holland, Pennsylvania. Holland came to the races at Maple Grove Raceway on Friday where he stopped by the BrandSource and John Force Racing midway display to enter to win the “Win with Force” promotion.
At each NHRA national event when a JFR team qualifies No. 1 a lucky fan that has signed up at the JFR Win with Force display located in Nitro Alley will be eligible to win the BrandSource No. 1 Qualifier Award, a front loading washer and dryer set. If a JFR driver wins the event a different fan will win the 55” flat screen TV Winner’s Circle Award from BrandSource. At the end of the season a grand prize winner of the “Win with Force” Sweepstakes will be awarded a 2013 Ford Fiesta.
Fans can sign up to win at the John Force Racing interactive midway display. This 53-foot trailer will be in the Nitro Alley area of every NHRA Full Throttle Series national event in 2012. The “Win with Force” promotion now includes JFR team partners Castrol, BrandSource, Ford, AAA Auto Club of Southern California, Mac Tools, and Pleasant Holidays all joining together to create an incredible promotion for the fans.
MANZO SCORES NO. 100 - Frank Manzo raced to his 100th NHRA National Event win today and clinched his 16th NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series Top Alcohol Funny Car National Championship in doing so.
Manzo, who increased his final round win streak to 39, qualified No. 1 and ran strong all weekend including an event low 5.486 second pass in round 2 to beat Paul Gill. The Morganville, N.J., racer faced off with Paul Noakes in the final posting a 5.508 second lap at 263.20 for the win. Noakes was out first with a great .005 second reaction time and a nice 5.611 second lap but it was not enough for Manzo.
In Top Alcohol Dragster it was a pair of class heavyweights going to battle as Bill Reichert met up with Chris Demke with the 5-time national champion Reichert posting a 5.286 second run at 286 mph for the win. Reichert ran 5.20’s and .30’s all day coming out of the No. 1 qualifying spot. Demke had troubles right from the start and slowed to a 6.292 in the final.
Calvin Hill beat a pair of national champions in his final two rounds to take the trophy in Comp Eliminator. Hill first went up against Al Alkerman in his semifinal round, winning with an 8.075 second lap to advance to the final with Sal Biondo. Both drivers left early with red-lights giving Hill the win.
NEARLY PERFECT - Perfection is every race team's goal but few achieve it. Jack Beckman's Battery eXtender powered by Schumacher team came pretty close.
Beckman entered the event trailing teammate Ron Capps by 30 points in the Countdown to the Championship playoff.
But after dominating qualifying, setting a national elapsed time record that earned 20 bonus points and advancing to the semifinals, Beckman with crew chief Todd Smith and assistant Terry Snyder, took over the points lead after four of six-events in the Countdown.
They also set a national speed record of 320.58 mph, but that does not pay bonus points in NHRA.
Beckman holds a 23-point lead over Capps, who lost in the second round, and is 54 points ahead of John Force Racing's Mike Neff, who won the Maple Grove title.
"We had a great weekend. The disappointment was that it could've been almost literally a perfect weekend," Beckman said.
"We came to Maple Grove in second place and we are leaving with the points lead. The problem is our car was so, so great this weekend that nothing but the trophy would've satisfied us."
MONDAY MORNING QUARTERBACK - NTB/Service Central-backed Funny Car driver Johnny Gray has a way with Mondays, but getting to the final round of the Auto-Plus NHRA Nationals was just short of what Gray and his branch of the Don Schumacher Racing team really wanted: to win the event for Alex's Lemonade Stand in the car themed to raise awareness of and funds for the foundation.
Gray has historically done well when events are weather-delayed, and for the second consecutive season, he drove the Lemonator to the final round at Maple Grove Raceway on a Monday. Last season, Gray finished in the final to John Force Racing's Robert Hight, and this season, Gray forfeited the win in the delayed final to Hight's teammate, Mike Neff.
"I've said it time and time again, but it is such an honor to get to drive this car and bring awareness," said Gray, who started the weekend on Thursday by visiting with kids at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "One of the greatest parts about this is getting to meet kids like Mario. For all of the folks who brought their kids out this weekend, I thank you. This experience has been one of the most fantastic things in the world. These kids have more heart and more guts than anyone I know, and their parents do, too. It's just unbelievable.
"I love drag racing, and being able to share it like this is really a special deal. I always look forward to coming back here and running this car, and I'm hoping and praying that my sponsor will let us run this Alex's Lemonade Stand car next year, too. It's just a blast, and to go extra rounds and see the kids grinning when you get back with the car - it's just huge."
ONE MOPAR WINS, ONE MOPAR LEADS - Allen Johnson, the current Pro Stock points leader, drove his Mopar Dodge Avenger to the quarterfinals at Reading, where he fell to Dave Connolly on a red-light foul. The native of Greeneville, Tenn., was the No. 6 qualifier and was paired up with teammate Vincent Nobile in the opening round, which was run on Sunday, Oct. 7. Johnson used a pass of 6.526/212.43 with a reaction time of 0.018 to win the Mopar vs. Mopar match-up with Nobile, who countered with a 6.547/211.36 and a blistering reaction time of 0.007.
The opening-round victory at Reading marked the 300th round win of Johnson’s career, which has spanned 17 years in a Mopar-powered Pro Stock car. With two races remaining in the NHRA Countdown to the Championship playoffs, Johnson holds an 82-point lead over Line.
“To still have a four or five round lead in points after the weekend is great for us,” said Johnson. “Las Vegas is up next and is always a really good track for me. We won there in the spring and have great notes for that track. I feel like we are in a pretty good position with two races remaining.”
COUGHLIN FARES WELL - Riding a string of 6.52-second passes, Jeggie Coughlin beat veteran Ron Krisher on Sunday and then cracked the hottest driver in Pro Stock, Erica Enders, Monday morning to reach the semifinal round of eliminations for the first time since mid-April. With a trip to the finals on the line, he then fell to Dave Connolly by .01 seconds.
"It feels great to see our car number at the top of the (performance) sheets," Coughlin said. "The numbers are encouraging and I feel great behind the wheel. This is the most efficient the car has felt all year, and not just in eliminations on Sunday and Monday, from the start of the weekend we were much better than we've been.
"We managed to gain a few rounds on the drivers that were just ahead of us in the points so we're moving in the right direction. Our mile-per-hour is about eighth best now so we have some more to gain there but Roy (Simmons) and Nick (Ferri) are hard at it in the engine shop and should have some more goodies for us by Vegas."
SUNDAY NOTEBOOK: RAIN INVADES MAPLE GROVE RACEWAY
During cold, rain-interrupted Auto-Plus Nationals eliminations at Maple Grove Raceway in which he said "everybody was doing phenomenal runs," Antron Brown's winning quarterfinal elapsed time against Morgan Lucas was the most phenomenal of all.
Brown's 3.722-second blast in the Matco Tools Dragster was the quickest run in Top Fuel history. It surpassed the 3.728-second E.T. that Dave Grubnic ran Saturday in qualifying No. 1 at the Reading, Pa., racetrack to tie Spencer Massey's run this June at Englishtown, N.J.
That gives Brown two of the top four elapsed times in the Top Fuel class -- and they came within a seven-day stretch.
While he soaked in the satisfaction of the achievement, Brown didn't take any flights of fancy. "Ain't going to be no knockout blows here," he said. He knew he not only had to finish eliminations, which are set to resume at 11 a.m. Monday, but that he also has two more events to keep up his blistering pace. "We've got to go to Vegas and perform just like we've performed here and then we'll see where we're at."
For Sunday, his accomplishment against Lucas was as warming as a welcome cup of coffee would have been.
"Today was one of those days where the conditions were at their all-time," Brown said. "You had five guys in Top Fuel who had [3.]74 [-second E.T.s] first round. Those are some crazy-good passes." And Brandon Bernstein ran a 3.736-second, 330.31-mph effort in beating Tony Schumacher in the pairing immediately before Brown's.
Brown said it was cold and the track was tight, but he gave kudos to the NHRA Safety Safari crew because "they prepped it up."
His opening-round victory over Steve Torrence came in 3.745 seconds, "and I think I was like, the fourth fastest. We had to run that, because when you're racing somebody like Steve Torrence, first round, that was a final-round match-up first round. We just qualified in a bad spot and had to steal a first round -- that's how tight the competition is."
Against Lucas, who was sitting on the national E.T. record -- which is worth 20 critical points -- Brown said he knew "we had to step up, because the track conditions were going to be the same and they were going to prep it again. So it got better with more cars running on it. So we had to go out there and give it our all."
Astonishingly, Brown said, "There's still a little bit more left on the table." He said crew chiefs Brian Corradi and Mark Oswald told him his engine dropped a cylinder just before the finish line, meaning he could have registered an even more staggering E.T.
"That was why my car had a little squiggle. It wasn't because the tarck was loose. It was because it dropped a hole," the points leader said.
"There's more out there. We're nowhere by any means on the safe side of having a record," Brown said. "You still have Shawn Langdon with the Al-Anabi car . . . and [Doug] Kalitta went a [3.]739. You still have tow cars left [in the second round of Top Fuel eliminations]. Conditions are going to be better tomorrow -- still cool but with a little sun out. The track will be even better. They're going to go out there and throw down.
"We've got keep on and keep our head down and do what we've got to do and keep pressing hard if we want to try to get that record," he said. "And our main goal is try to get to the final. We have Brandon up in the semis, so we'll see if we can get by that round -- and keep on collecting points. That's the name of the game."
Brown reminded that the season has just nine more rounds of racing left.
He said these are great conditions. "And the way you can tell they're great conditions is not by what one car defines what the track does but it's when you look at all the cars. If you ran a [3.]79, you're on the bottom half of the field. The bottom half of the ladder! I ran a [3.]758, which started me off third for that session, and my hopes were that would keep us in the top five. I know some people could come up and knock you down. But we ended up seventh.
"So when I saw that, I thought, 'Man, these cats are not playin' around. This is the Countdown. All these teams want it and they're not scared to turn the screws up. All these teams are doing phenomenal jobs. And the track is in that type of condition. Maple Grove, on a cool day like it is, the track surface is really, really good. The concrete is really smooth. They've prepped the track right. And everybody is throwin' down, and it’s holding."
Despite his over-the-top performance Sunday, Browns said he didn't think he can derail rival and Don Schumacher Racing teammate Massey this weekend. Massey fell in the first round to Khalid al Balooshi in the first round.
"I don't think I can deliver a knockout punch here if we win the race," Brown said, "because we can go to the next race and we might not even qualify."
Don't laugh. Something similar happened last season to Massey. Here at Reading last October, he beat Del Worsham in the final round, despite Worsham setting the national E.T. record on that run. Then at the following race, at Phoenix, Massey had a title-killing DNQ.
If Brown should for some reason fail to make the field at Las Vegas, he said, "Spencer has a car and their tem is capable of going out there and wining the race." Moreover, he said, everybody counted Massey out after his team's Phoenix disaster, "and they came to the last race of the year two or four points out of first place because they came right back the first race after that [at Las Vegas] and won it. That's bow strong that FRAM car is. Ain't going to be no knockout blows here."
Meanwhile, Massey said his loss to al Balooshi was "a tough one to take. We ran great, but we just got beat. It just shows how tough it is out here. Not very often do you post a 3.77 and not get a win light.
"We've seen extreme conditions all weekend long," Massey said. "It's been cool, overcast, and fast. We just needed to be a little bit faster today."
Still, he said he admired his team. "These guys on my team haven't had an easy weekend. We had some problems in qualifying and hurt some parts, but our guys never stopped working. They've been grinding for six weeks now, and I couldn't be more proud of them," he said. "We'll just take these next two weeks off and relax and get recharged to make a strong run for it in these last two races. We may be down, but we aren't out of it yet."
Third-place driver Tony Schumacher, who drives DSR's U.S. Army Dragster, lost in the second round to Brandon Bernstein for the second straight weekend.
THEY CALL HIM FAST JACK - Jack Beckman has had no time this weekend to enjoy his Funny Car achievements.
He had to focus on eliminations so any celebration Saturday night of his record-setting qualifying runs during the Auto-Plus Nationals at Reading, Pa., were out. He had little time to revel in the aftermath of his pending national records for elapsed time (3.989 seconds) and speed (320.58 mph), knowing he had validated the E.T. mark with runs of 4.001 and 4.011. He didn't have a toast even to the fact he had improved his own national speed record (318.99 mph).
No. Beckman had to sacrifice the joy of being on the verge of gaining 20 more invaluable points in this NHRA Countdown race to focus on his first-round date with No. 16 qualifier Mike Smith.
As he saw No. 1-seeded Top Fuel driver Dave Grubnic lose to No. 16 underdog Ike Maier Sunday morning on Maple Grove Raceway's 1,000-foot course, Beckman had to appreciate that strategy. He went out Sunday and defeated Smith with a 3.986-second pass. It cemented his bid for the E.T. record that would be his if no one topped it in eliminations.
Not only was his Sunday morning pass quicker, it was the second-quickest pass in Funny Car history.
Again, he had no time Sunday to rejoice. He had to prepare himself while crew chiefs Todd Smith and Terry Snyder prepared his Schumacher Electric Dodge Charger for Monday morning's rain-delayed quarterfinal showdown.
Sunday's eliminations began two hours late, and teams waited out long delay after the first round of eliminations of Top Fuel, Funny Car, and Pro Stock. Then another wave of rain swept in, forcing officials to push the finish of the race to Monday -- something not uncommon at this facility.
When action resumes, Beckman will square off against points leader and DSR mate Ron Capps -- and the NAPA Dodge crew that was his team for the first four races of the season. At stake is the points lead with only two more events remaining in the season.
Capps brought at 30-point lead over second-place Beckman to Maple Grove Raceway. However, Beckman has cut the margin to 17 with his qualifying bonus points.
"I don't think we were trying to lower the record," Beckman said after his first-round performance. "It's a poker thing. You take a chance on locking up those 20 points, because another car could take it. Zippy [John Force Racing's Mike Neff, the No. 3 qualifier] could still run the record. And we'd like to leave with that 20 points. But you don't want to risk that and the round-win," Beckman said.
He said his crew chiefs were "probably pleasantly surprised, but they knew Friday with the 3.98 that there was more left in the car. I'm afraid there might be even more left."
Maybe his opponents should be more afraid.
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK: A DAY OF SPEED, HORSEPOWER AND MOST IMPORTANTLY, WORLD RECORDS
AUSSIE DAVE PROVES LUCAS CORRECT - Top Fuel's Morgan Lucas was right on several counts.
He said Maple Grove Raceway near Reading, Pa., is notorious for dazzling performance numbers, the racing surface is "dynamite" and would get only quicker in Saturday's qualifying sessions for the Auto-Plus NHRA Nationals, and his GEICO/Lucas Oil Dragster crew chief Aaron Brooks has the guts to be aggressive.
Lucas, who set the national elapsed-time record Saturday at 3.733 seconds (with yesterday's provisional No. 1 run of 3.760 as back-up). Provided no one trumps that Sunday, Lucas will gain 20 bonus points. After erasing the 3.735-second mark from Del Worsham in his runner-up finish here last October, Lucas is the No. 2 qualifier in this fourth of six Countdown races.
However, Lucas provided only one element of the high-performance high drama on the 1,000-foot course.
Dave Grubnic drove Kalitta Motorsports' Optima Batteries Dragster to the top spot with a 3.728-second, 327.11-mph pass that tied the quickest pass in the history of Top Fuel. It matched Spencer Massey's 3.728-second run this June at Englishtown, N.J. Grubnic's time is the Maple Grove Raceway record.
Furthermore, Doug Kalitta, Grubnic's teammate, clocked a 3.739-second E.T. at 331.45 mph in the Kalitta Air Dragster to record the sixth quickest and second fastest in the history of Top Fuel in qualifying No. 4. Only Massey, with his 332.18-mph blast at this year's Four-Wide race at Charlotte, has gone faster.
"It's great to be back in the No. 1 position. Not only that, but Doug Kalitta running side by side with me, running 331 miles an hour, it’s great for the team . . . for Connie [team owner Kalitta] . . . for all our guys who work on the car . . . for all our sponsors," Grubnic said.
"It's great day. We need to carry that momentum into tomorrow," he said, adding that Connie Kalitta will evaluate the data from that spectacular fourth qualifying session and determine the tune-up for race day.
"Believe me," Grubnic said, "if there's anything else that can be achieved, Conrad WILL go after it tomorrow. If it’s good conditions tomorrow, if there's more he can go after, he will go after it. But by the same token, tomorrow is another day. Tomorrow we have to race the car. That's the primary goal: going rounds and winning the event."
Meanwhile, Lucas said, "Even if it's just for a night, we're the national record holders," Lucas said. "All Grubnic has to do is make a run similar to what he did today, but right now that record is ours. I never fathomed actually holding the national record at this level of the sport. I can't tell you how proud of the team I am. This is too cool and a testament to the work the guys are putting into the GEICO car.
"If the car gets past the Tree, we'll feel good about our chances against anybody," Lucas said. "Our confidence is as good as it's been all year. The move we made today is a great start. We just have to keep working at it."
As Grubnic completed his historic run, he said he got a glimpse of the scoreboards and saw the numbers light up. He also said he knew something special was happening with his teammate's dragster.
"I saw the front of Doug's car right next to me," he said. "So I figured he must have run good. When we got to the end, I heard them cheering about Doug running 331.
"It's drag racing. We're always moving forward," Grubnic said after earning his first No. 1 spot of the seasona nd the ninth of his career (and first since May 3, 2008, at St. Louis). "The sport's very dynamic, and I'm thrilled that it was both Kalitta cars that did that."
Describing the run, he said, "In the car it felt good. When [dragsters are] on the edge, they get that tire chatter and you can feel it's on the edge. That felt good and smooth. And it felt stuck."
No. 3 qualifier Tony Schumacher also flirted with the national E.T. record in his U.S. Army Dragster in Saturday's first and third overall session, as he raced to the top of the pack and displaced Friday leader Lucas. Schumacher's 3.736 seconds was one-thousandth of a second short of tying the national E.T. record at the time.
The Nos. 5-7 qualifiers -- Shawn Langdon, Brandon Bernstein, and Antron Brown, respectively -- posted 3.75-second E.T.s. Bernstein and Brown had identical 3.758s.
In a first-round match-up with some international flair, Australian Grubnic will meet Canadian Ike Maier. Lucas will face Dom Lagana, and Schumacher will race Terry McMillen.
The other opening-round pairings in this 28th annual visit to the storied track will see Kalitta vs. Clay Millican, Langdon vs. Bob Vandergriff, Bernstein vs. Larry Dixon, Brown vs. Steve Torrence, and Massey vs. Khalid al Balooshi.
CHAMPIONSHIP MODE - Jack Beckman was extremely pleased to see his teammate and championship opponent Ron Capps step up in the final qualifying session at the Auto Plus NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway. With the threat of rain looming for Saturday, had the final session been rained out, Capps, who got in at No. 16 would have been Beckman’s first round opponent.
Capps pedaled his way into the field with a 5.964 at only 264.60 miles per hour after failing to make the show in either Friday session.
Ominous clouds hovered over the track located outside of Reading, Pa., for much of Saturday morning.
As if divine intervention came about on Don Schumacher Racing and Beckman’s favor, the clouds parted, and the qualifying-challenged NAPA team nailed their first under power run to the finish line with a 4.055 elapsed time.
“I did not want to see us pass them on a DNQ and them struggling, so that was great,” said Beckman. “Now we want to go out and win four rounds and take the lead the hard-fought way. If you ask me, on a scale one through ten about our weekend, this one is an eleven, would be an understatement.”
Beckman didn’t improve on Friday’s 3.989-second pass but ran strong on Saturday with a 4.003 and a 4.011.
“We want to win a championship and some would say they want to win at all costs,” Beckman explained. “I’m not one of those people. I want to win because we did everything right out there and we want the other cars to be at their prime. If we wanted to win at all cost, we’d just go around and steal everyone’s coil wire so their cars wouldn’t start up. We’d like to do it the right way here.
“I think it’s great, plus I like Ron Capps. I like Rahn Tobler, John Collins and the seven mechanics on that NAPA car, they are friends of mine and were with me for three years. I like those guys and to see the looks on their faces when their car lit up the scoreboard with a good run … they know they have a car that can play tomorrow. That’s awesome.”
Prior to the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte, the team owner made the controversial decision to move the crew from the Beckman-driven team over to the Napa team and vice versa. Beckman’s crew chief Tobler was reassigned to Capps and for a few races tuned both his new and former team. Schumacher later hired Todd Smith to guide the Beckman team.
“Right now we’ve got the best car here,” said Beckman. “We need to convert. We’ve had no problem in qualifying for the last three months. It’s converting that into Sunday round wins that we have to capitalize on.”
PRO STOCK'S LINE NABS NO. 1 , WHILE ANDERSON STRATEGY BACKFIRES - Jason Line said he always tries to put his KB/ Summit Racing Chevy Camaro in the Pro Stock class' No. 1 starting position.
And he did it Saturday in the final round of qualifying for the Auto-Plus NHRA Nationals near Reading, Pa. with a 6.515-second elapsed time at 212.36 mph on the Maple Grove Raceway quarter-mile.
And that sounds like an obvious goal.
But it wasn't what his teammate, Greg Anderson, was trying to do Saturday.
Line was amused by the way Anderson lifted off the throttle in an attempt to position himself on the starting grid so he could face points leader and season-long rival Allen Johnson in the hope of defeating him in the first round.
"It was entertaining to watch Greg try to pick his spot. He lifted. He was trying to pick his spot on the ladder. He was trying to race A.J. early and knock him out. That didn’t work out too well," Line said, chuckling. "If he had just kept it to the floor, he would have been on the pole. He was faster than I was at 1,000 feet."
Instead, the Summit tandem will be cheering for Vincent Nobile to help them do their work in making up ground on Johnson in this fourth of six Countdown to the Championship events.
Johnson came into this race with a 109-point lead on No. 2-ranked Line. In qualifying, Line earned more bonus points than anyone in the class, with nine. Johnson and early leader V Gaines each grabbed six.
"Vincent is certainly capable of beating him," Line said. "Tomorrow it should be fun to watch, especially if it's cold out. You could see a record fall besides. That 20 points could come in real handy."
As for his own chance to rewrite the national E.T. record he set here a year ago, Line said, "We should've been faster than we were. I don't know why we weren't. Certainly these cars are capable of going .44 or .45 very easily, maybe even faster. It takes the perfect conditions and the perfect racetrack. To have all those things line up is difficult."
A record simply would be an extra reward for Line, who said he and Anderson "feel we have a chance to win the race and certainly do some damage to A.J.
"Obviously that's the goal," he said, acknowledging that that's "easier said than done. A lot of things have to fall into place for that to happen."
Line said jockeying for position on the ladder is a risky proposition and that he always would choose just trying to race to the top of the order.
"There are too many variables," he said. "You've got to count on everybody else to do the right thing. We don't even know what we're going to do, let alone what anybody else is going to do," he said. "I just try to be No. 1. That's my goal always."
He was, although his E.T. wasn't the stunning 6.477-second beauty with which he set the national record here a year ago, but it was strong enough to give him his second straight No. 1 qualifying position, seventh of the year and 31st of his career -- along with a match-up against Shane Gray in Sunday's first round of eliminations.
Line denied 65-year-old V Gaines the first top-qualifying position of his 19-year Pro Stock career. Gaines had led after the middle two sessions.
Johnson didn't talk as though all the KB/Summit team's strategizing was bothering him. All he chose to talk about was being prepared for Nobile.
"We have to go out and do our job in the first round tomorrow," Johnson said. "Vincent is always a tough opponent, and he has just as good of a car as us. And we know he has plenty of horsepower under the hoods with the engines that dad [Roy Johnson] and his guys build. Every round out here is tough, and tomorrow will be no different."
Line knows that, too.
First-round Pro Stock pairings include Mike Edwards vs. Ronnie Humphrey, Gaines vs. Warren Johnson, Anderson vs. Larry Morgan, Erica Enders vs. Kurt Johnson, Jeg Coughlin vs. Ron Krisher, and Dave Connolly vs. Frank Gugliotta.
CAUSE FOR CONCERN - Spencer Massey experienced a massive engine explosion during Saturday’s first qualifying session at the Auto Plus NHRA Nationals. As spectacular as the boomer was, Massey, the Prestone-sponsored driver said it paled in comparison to the one he suffered Friday evening.
The fact he’s able to make a comparison, Massey believes, makes a statement on when the team has an issue they need to rectify quickly.
“We thought we had it figured out, but obviously we didn’t,” Massey said. “We’ve looked everything over and believe we’ve found out what the issue is.”
Massey said he didn’t know what the issue was.
“It was a pretty big bang,” Massey said. “Last night was worse because I had a lot of fire come around to the front, around the windshield and cockpit. It got very hot behind the seat. This was my first big fire and definitely the largest explosion I’ve experienced.”
Friday’s carnage was also the worst damage he’s ever seen a race car he’s driven sustain.
Massey is expected to have an enclosed cockpit for next season. Friday’s fire, while not entering the cockpit, had the potential to be a lot worse.
“You see fire; having the extra protection is something you don’t mind having,” added Massey.
HARLEYS TO THE TOP, AGAIN – Eddie Krawiec scored his fourth No. 1 qualifying effort of 2012. He will face Craig Treble in Sunday’s first round of eliminations.
Krawiec ran a 6.799-second pass at 196.56 to lead the bikes at the Auto Plus NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway. Teammate Andrew Hines was second with a 6.824. Hector Arana finished third with a 6.834.
“Today’s first session was okay, rattled the tires a bit, the track was really tight and really good,” said Krawiec, whose No. 1 was his first at Maple Grove Raceway. “It’s actually hard to get down in these conditions. You rarely race on a track that tight. We got a little bit of data and information and came back for the second run.
“We worked it through there and get it past the 60-foot mark without rattling. It shook, a little bit, about .4 or .5 into the run. Luckily it drove right through it. We still had a great 330 run. That’s pretty much what you’re looking for. The 60-foot can be off a little as long as it continues to gain momentum.”
As good as the conditions are this weekend Krawiec believes the chances of a record for the class this weekend are slim to none.
“You’d have to have at least a 1.02 60-foot and I don’t see that happening,” said Krawiec. “It’s like I have been telling everyone … that was 30 pounds ago. I think if you knocked off a stellar run you could go 6.77 or .78.”
IT'S COMPLICATED - Morgan Lucas' 3.733-second pass at 330.96 mph eclipsed Del Worsham's national-record run of 3.735 last year at Maple Grove Raceway. The 3.760-second, 326.95-mph run he used to take the provisional No. 1 spot Friday night is within the mandated one percent required to validate the record. However, he will start No. 2 in Sunday's eliminations.
Dave Grubnic ran a quicker 3.728-second lap at 327.11 mph to take the No. 1 position in flurry of record-setting performances Saturday. However, Grubnic still hasn't made a run that backs up his mark as the record.
Lucas, deferring to the seemingly confusing NHRA math, said, "Even if it's just for a night, we're the national record holders. All Grubnic has to do is make a run similar to what he did today. But right now that record is ours. I never fathomed actually holding the national record at this level of the sport. I can't tell you how proud of the team I am. This is too cool and a testament to the work the guys are putting into the GEICO car."
FOURTH TO THE THREES – Cruz Pedregon joined Matt Hagan, Ron Capps and Jack Beckman as the only Funny Car drivers to run a three-second pass since the series went to a 1,000-foot course.
Pedregon’s 3.997-second elapsed time during the third session of Funny Car qualifying at the Auto Plus NHRA Nationals, marked the first time two cars in the class had run in the threes at the same event.
Crew chief Lee Beard immediately praised the Maple Grove Raceway racing surface.
“The whole gang at Maple Grove have given us a superb race track, and there are great conditions,” said Pedregon. “It just feels great to be a drag racer today.”
Pedregon was in awe of his run.
“The 3.99 was the run of my life,” said Pedregon. “I’m so happy for Snap-on, Toyota, Wix Filters and all who have believed and supported this team for years. It’s extremely hard to propel a 2600-pound race car to run Top Fuel times. It’s a true credit to this team and having good equipment on the car.”
'CRUNCH TIME NOW ' - Shawn Langdon's approach matched Schumacher's. The Al-Anabi-Toyota Dragster driver said midweek, "With only three races left in the season, it's crunch time now. There's no room for errors on anybody's part, so if we're going to keep the Full Throttle Championship in the Al-Anabi pit, we're pretty much going to have to be flawless in these last three races."
He wasn't flawless in qualifying, but he's in a strong position Sunday with a No. 5 start. And, he said, he's ready to use that to his advantage.
"With the competition level in Top Fuel as high as it is, it's very possible for the guys in first, second and third in the points to lose early so if that happens, we definitely need to capitalize on it," Langdon said. "We want the ball to be in our hands when we roll into Pomona next month. We don't want to have to depend on other people to make it happen for us. We need to roll into Pomona knowing that we can take care of our own business and not leave it up to other people.
"The Al-Anabi car is running really well, so I'm not concerned at all. We've had a good car in qualifying, and we know where we are going into race day," he said. "The last two weeks, we've made picture-perfect runs in the first round of eliminations and even set low E.T. for the round in St. Louis. The last three races should all be at least a little bit cooler, which should play into our favor, because we can be a little bit more aggressive with the tune up and make strong runs."
ENDERS POISED, STRATEGIZING - Monday is Erica Enders's 29th birthday, and the No. 2 Pro Stock qualifier wants to treat herself to another victory. If she does, it would be her fifth this year and would put a considerable dent in the 126-point cushion leader Allen Johnson had on her when they came into this race.
She's No. 3 in the standings, but she spent some time strategizing the scenarios for Sunday as she takes on Kurt Johnson in the opening round and Johnson faces Vincent Nobile. Jason Line is the No. 1 qualifier again this weekend, like he was at St. Louis a week ago, and she said he best qualifying attempt of 6.538-seconds at 211.39 mph "wasn't a killer run by any means, but we're within a hundredth or so of Jason. Tomorrow, the ladder looks OK, and we'll hope for a long day."
Here's how the GK Motorsports driver said she envisions the day going, along with teammate Dave Connolly. She's thinking they would meet either Johnson or Nobile in the second round should they all get that far.
"Me and Dave are not on opposite sides of the ladder this week, but we won't have to meet each other until the semis, provided we get past first and second round," Enders said of her and Connolly, who also serves as her crew chief with Tommy Utt.
Mac Tools U.S. Nationals winner Connolly, racing for only the seventh time this season, said, "The ladder finally worked out well for us. Erica and I are on the same side, but we can't worry about that yet. I've got to get by Frank [Gugliotta] first, and even then I'll have A.J. or Vincent. We've got to go to work tomorrow and do some damage for Erica -- and ourselves."
Enders said she'll be a Nobile fan Sunday.
"First round, yes," Enders said. "I love Allen, but hopefully for points-sake, Vincent takes him out, and then Dave will grab Vincent second round, because Vincent's right behind me. Tomorrow could be a really interesting day for points. It's definitely all got to go our way. We've all definitely got our work cut out for us, but I'm excited," Enders said. "I like the pressure. I like that it's crunch time. We'll see how it goes."
IN THE THICK OF ACTION - Brandon Bernstein marveled at the sparkling numbers the Top Fuel class put up on Saturday's scoreboards and knew he was in the top-half-of-the-ladder mix with the ProtectTheHarvest.com/MATV Dragster. "That third qualifying run we made was amazing," Bernstein said. "It's was such a tremendous rush to make a pass like that one." He said of his own sixth-place qualifying position, "Sixth place with a 3.75, that's just crazy. But we know where we need to be and where we need to go from there. I know my crew chief Joe [Barlam] can tune it any direction we need to go."
He said he was "in position where we could go for it a little on that last run," Bernstein said, "especially after we saw the [record breaking] runs going on in front of us. We had to take a chance." He struck the tires on the final attempt. "If it would have hit and stuck, it probably would have run a 3.72 or something," he figured. "Any time you go quick and fast and are able to repeat it, that's a good feeling. You can win a lot of races that way, especially if you are quick on the back half of the runs."
TITLE HOPES DASHED - Tim Wilkerson entered the Auto Plus NHRA Nationals with a slim chance to challenge for an NHRA championship. Those slim chances were erased with a wacky flame pattern blowing from the headers of his Cobra Mustang during the final qualifying session.
Wilkerson ran a 4.273 on the troubled run, good enough for 15th at the time. However, runs by Tony Pedregon and Ron Capps (the points leader) relegated him to the No. 17 spot and outside of the field.
If there was ever an inopportune time for a DNQ outing, this was it for the Levi, Ray & Shoup team.
"If you run a 4.27 on this track, where records are falling, you're probably not going to be in, and we aren't," Wilkerson said. "You need to be awfully lucky to make the field running like that, and it's asking too much to think Tony and Ron's cars were going to be worse. Hey, our mentality stays the same. We'll go to Vegas and Pomona and do everything we can to win those races so that we can finish as high in the points as possible. No heads are hanging here. We still have nothing to lose.
"And you know, I went over to Johnny Gray's and met a little boy, just the cutest little kid, and he has inoperable brain tumors. That puts everything in a different light. So we didn't make the field at this race. That's tough to take, but it's really nothing when you put it in perspective. We'll go get 'em in Vegas in a couple of weeks."
TASCA THE TEACHER - Bob Tasca III is an accomplished drag racer with national event victories to his credit and a handful of No. 1 qualifying efforts. The driver of the Ford Motorcraft/Quick Lane Cobra Mustang has mastered the art of driving a fuel Funny car at four seconds at well over 300 miles per hour.
How did the driver, from one of the more famous drag racing families, learn how to drive?
Tasca went to school.
In two weeks, one of the more celebrated students of Roy Hill’s Drag Racing School will return as an instructor. Roy Hill’s Drag Racing School will be conducting a special two-day class featuring the Cobra Jet vehicles on Oct. 16 and 17 at zMax Dragway.
“It’s gonna be a lot of fun,” said Patrick. “I remember being one of Roy’s students and we had drivers come in. I remember Larry Dixon and Robert Patrick came into one class. I was just learning how to drive, so whenever I can I give back and help Roy.”
Hill’s drag racing school became the official drag racing school for Ford Racing and as part of the alliance schools new Cobra Jet owners on the nuances of racing the special edition Super Stock and Stock vehicles.
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK: LET THE KEYSTONE RUMBLE BEGIN
FORTUNATE OILDOWN - Jack Beckman and his team have been perplexed for the last week.
Following a No. 1 qualifying run on Friday evening in St. Louis, his Dodge Charger Funny Car fell off the pace by .02 seconds. The team, while still winning the race, changed three different superchargers, three short blocks, data recorder, fuel pump and even replaced ignition systems twice.
A week later the car still had bad ju-ju going on.
On Friday evening at Maple Grove Raceway, an oil-down during the evening session would seemingly fix the teams ills. The ironic part is the oil-down didn’t belong to Beckman.
The oil-down belonged to Lesenko, who ran in the pair before Beckman was scheduled to run at the Auto Plus NHRA Nationals. Only after Beckman had performed his burnout did NHRA Race officials give him the command to shut the car down. Beckman and qualifying partner Jeff Arend were given the option to return to the pits, service their cars and return as the last pair in the session.
Beckman’s team made barely made their way back to the staging lanes in time to run but what followed left the Schumacher Electric-sponsored team scratching their heads.
Beckman thundered to not only the No. 1 qualifying position but also a provisional world record of 3.989 seconds at 320.58 miles per hour.
“It’s hard to think we were down on power after that run,” said Beckman. “I’m just not sure if we tuned around the problem or if suddenly we found it. It’s ridiculous to ask how you just lose power in one of these cars. We’ve just been chasing issues.
“We went back to the pits and changed the clutch. They strapped me in, in the pits, and towed me back up. I’m not so certain it isn’t scarier being towed to the staging lanes. We got up there just in time because the rules state you can go back to the pits but you must be back before the category begins. I’m not saying we could do this every time. If I thought it would work, I would. I was just so impressed to see my team face so much challenge and step up for that run and get it perfect.”
Beckman believes getting shut-off can sometimes be a hassle but the right call was made.
Instead of chastising the NHRA Safety Safari crew member who made the decision to reveal he’d found oil on the track, Beckman was full of praise and admiration for a person he said exhibited character.
“I was surprised they started us so quickly, but what I love most about what NHRA did; the track observer had the guts to radio in that something was on the track and they didn’t think it was safe,” said Beckman. “That’s a tough call for someone to make. Then the NHRA said to shut the cars off – I appreciate that. It was a hassle, a pain in the butt. It would have been frustrating if we didn’t run well when we went back out there. That is putting your money where your mouth is when you say safety is paramount. I truly appreciate that.”
If Beckman’s run holds, it will be the fourth of his career.
“I’m not sure that run is safe,” admitted Beckman. “I’m not a weather guy and I can tell you there is nothing wrong with this race track. As long as the track doesn’t get too warm, I’m not so sure another car or two won’t put up another three-second run.”
For now Beckman is counting the points with impending weather forecast for Saturday. If Saturday qualifying is washed out and the fields are set, with Capps outside of the field Beckman could pull into a tie with a first round win or the lead with a win and a back-up of the record.
“Anybody who says they don’t count points is either terrible at math or a liar,” said Beckman. “I think we are going to have to look at taking a shot at the record since we are securely qualified.”
Beckman will need a 4.023 to make the run an official record. If he can run as quick as 3.95-seconds the Friday run would serve as a back-up.
Shawn Langdon never has shrunk away from the legacy that reigning but retired Top Fuel champion Del Worsham left him with the silver Al-Anabi/Toyota Dragster. He has expressed his joy and responsibility in accepting the ride for team manager Alan Johnson.
Just the same, he knows the expectations team owner Sheikh Khalid al Thani of Qatar has for him. He knows the fans are smart and have a long memory, enjoying thoughts of how much Worsham dominated last season after his switch from the Funny Car class. And likely nowhere this year has he felt that pressure more than Maple Grove Raceway at Reading, Pa.
That's where Worsham set the national elapsed-time record at 3.735 seconds in a stunning final-round loss to Spencer Massey last year in a rain-delayed showdown. The Al-Anabi/Toyota team's history here includes Top Fuel victories in 2009 and 2010 with Larry Dixon.
And Langdon did his part Friday, taking the early lead at the Auto-Plus NHRA Nationals with a 3.762-second, 328.38-mph pass that was nearly three-hundredths of a second quicker than nearest opponent Doug Kalitta (3.789, 327.59). Langdon's speed was his career best, the Maple Grove Raceway record, and eighth-fastest in the 1000-foot era.
But his former boss, Morgan Lucas, came out early in the second session and upstaged him by two-thousandths of a second to become the overnight leader. Despite a wiggle as he cross the finish line, Lucas recorded a 3.760-second E.T. at 326.95 mph to grab the tentative No. 1 spot.
Lucas, who seems to shine in rain-disturbed races, is seeking his fifth top-qualifying position of the season but first since April at Houston. Lucas -- who had an excellent start to the year followed by a mid-season slump with a DNQ at Bristol and first-round losses at the next five races before winning at Brainerd, Minn, -- is making a late-season comeback and said before taking to the track, "I've got a good feeling about what we can do this weekend.
"Aaron [crew chief Brooks], he knows what this track's capable of. We went 3.74 in Gainesville on a 100-degree racetrack. There's no reason we shouldn't think we'll be able to run a .72-.73 on a track like this." Lucas said." And I think people probably just missed out tonight. That's why we have to be on our game tomorrow."
His predictions: "Tomorrow, the first session's going to be just as fast as it was tonight. The second session, depending on weather obviously, it's probably going to be just as fast as that one was."
Said Lucas, "This track is dynamite. All you have to do is just hit everything right and you'll run fast. If that run keeps us top four through tomorrow night, I'll be really pleased."
Lucas' pass was a bit wobbly there at the end, but Lucas said afterward, "To be completely honest, as good as a run as 3.76 is, (A) had I driven it straight and (B) had the belt stayed on, it probably would have run [3.]74-75. But I still thought a 76 wouldn't have ended up No. 1 after the way guys ran the first session.
"We were just trying to focus on getting down the racetrack so we didn't have to worry about it tomorrow," he said. "I'm really pleased with that, but we've got to get the car to move early.
"This track is always fast, and it's just going to get quicker tomorrow," Lucas said. "Hopefully we can take what we learned today and maybe pick up a little bit in the first few incrementals and step up a little bit."
Lucas said hearing fans tell him that he's having a great season is hitting the point home harder. And, he said, it’s a lot more gratifying to hear that than all the encouraging but telling remarks such as "You'll get there."
He said, "We're not there yet, but we're a lot better than where we were. We've accomplished more in one year than I've probably done in my whole career. The biggest thing I think our team was missing was the chemistry we have now.
"I think Aaron has the balls to be aggressive -- and to look at something and say, 'I screwed up' and go back up and fix it rather than try to find some other reason. He's really objective and common-sense-minded. I think that's our team needed," Lucas said.
He said his crew always has "done a good job putting the car together" but said "I think a lot of people wanted to point the finger toward them or toward me. I think now that we got the right people in place and the combination's right, it’s really proven to complement our whole program. The money has always been there. The people have always been there. It's just a matter of putting it all together."
Lucas provided a bit of levity when asked if he was apprehensive about being too aggressive in his first run or on the first day, given the unfavorable weather forecast.
"We're all too young on our team to probably look that far ahead," he said.
But he was looking ahead plenty.
"Reading is known for big numbers. If the track is like it normally is, we should be able to fly down there," Lucas, the No. 6-ranked Countdown driver, said days before his first run. "Our biggest problem is getting this thing to leave the starting line, because the air is so good the car wants to overpower the track surface. [Crew chief] Aaron Brooks does such a great job in those kinds of conditions. If we can get the car on the right path we'll be all right."
Morgan Lucas looked more than all right Friday night.
MOUNTAIN MAGIC - If National Hot Rod Association veteran owner-driver V Gaines were home at the Denver suburb of Lakewood, Colo., he would be dealing with that area's first snowfall of the season.
Instead, he's at Reading, Pa., where he took the Pro Stock class by storm Friday, registering a 6.544-second elapsed time on the Maple Grove Raceway quarter-mile in his Kendall Dodge Avenger to become the provisional No. 1 qualifier for the Auto-Plus Nationals.
If it holds through Saturday qualifying, Gaines will earn the first top-qualifying position of his 19-year Pro Stock career. And he'll be seeking his fourth overall victory and first since the 2008 Phoenix event.
"How about that? It's pretty amazing," the low-key 65-year-old racer said.
"Short times were really, really good. I shut it off at 6.40 [seconds] into the run. So I guess we're lucky it went as fast as it did," he said. "Shutting it off early will hurt the mile an hour more than it will the E.T. But it certainly had a little more left in it."
As for proof that this means his in-house engine program has arrived, Gaines said, "We've been improving steadily, since about Atlanta, and we just keep getting better and better every week -- obviously making mistakes, but certainly forward progress and having a lot of fun.
"We're in charge of our own destiny, and nothing's more rewarding than to have a run like this after the guys in the engine shop that madcap there -- they're working day and night and day and night -- and I got to tell you, we've got a lot of things coming. So I'm really excited about what the future holds for us."
He attributed his Friday success to his chassis and credited longtime crew chief Clyde West. He said, "Clyde and the crew . . . Are working on that chassis day and night. We're starting to learn what it wants and what it doesn't want. So we're getting closer."
Gaines, exhibiting his dry sense of humor, indicated he didn't think he had much of a chance to hold onto the No. 1 position through two rounds of Saturday qualifying. He said he knew what would seal the deal for him: "A rainstorm."
That isn't out of the question here, where rain already has cost the sportsman racers a couple of days of qualifying and some schedule abbreviations.
Gaines laughed at his assessment but said, "Obviously we've got a good combination. We all read the weather forecast, and it’s hard to say what it’s going to do. If the weather conditions change, it throws a whole new opportunity out there. So we'll go out there and see what we can do."
He said that a visit to Reading -- and this weekend in particular, with a 30-degree drop in temperature overnight predicted -- means "we change everything. There's a lot of guesswork involved, because we don't race in those conditions too often. It's a new area for us. We're not really a cold-weather race [team]. That's an area we're going to have to work on this winter. And we'll do so. We've been running really good in the hot weather. So we'll just work on it."
He said the fact his race shop/engine shop is located a mile high, in the Denver area, is as sound an explanation as any for that contrast.
"People say you can't have an engine shop in Denver, but you know, we're running pretty good. I think those are pretty impressive numbers," Gaines said. The mile-an-hour number would have been a little more impressive if I had kept that gas pedal all the way down to the end. Unfortunately we'll never know that."
Gaines spoiled longtime racing friend and points leader Allen Johnson's return to the top of the order. The Greeneville, Tenn., native took the early lead with a 6.544-second E.T. in his first attempt.
Dogging Johnson was Jason Line, who came here last October and set the track and the national elapsed-time record at 6.477 seconds. Neither -- no one -- drove that quickly Friday and Johnson conceded the top speed of the first session to Line, who clocked a 211.43 to Johnson's 211.39.
But Johnson got the three precious bonus points from Q1 with his 6.545-second E.T., while Line could muster an outstanding 6.553 but had to settle for the early No. 2 position.
Johnson, the Team Mopar/J&J Racing Dodge Avenger owner-driver, has led the Pro Stock field at seven of the past 11 races, including six in a row.
HARLEYS RIDE TO THE TOP AGAIN – Eddie Krawiec is the provisional No. 1 qualifier in the Pro Stock Motorcycle division.
“Every time you come here to Reading in October, it means good air and conditions … we have that here,” said Krawiec, who claimed the top perch with a 6.821-second elapsed time at 196.19 miles per hour.
“We have overcast skies and the track is really good, tight. This makes for good elapsed times. The end result, with weather coming, we wanted to get down the track in the first session, so we could work on it with the second. I think it showed. I think there’s maybe a hundredth out there.”
Hector Arana Sr. led the first session and was on pace with Krawiec in the second session when his bike wouldn’t shift. Arana ran a 6.834 during the first session.
A LEGEND CALLS IT A CAREER - Bob Frey, the voice of NHRA Full Throttle drag racing, is hanging up his announcing microphone at the end of the season. His announcement was made on Dragracecentral.com.
Frey, who has been announcing since 1966, said his retirement was just a matter of the right time to settle down.
“There are a lot of things at home I would like to do and take care of,” Frey said in the statement posted on Dragracecentral.com. “I have six grandsons and I would like to see them grow up, play ball and be a bigger part of their lives. Plus, after all these years on the road, I'd like to share some time with my wife.”
Frey’s career began as an announcer at Atco Dragway and included a stint at the IHRA before becoming one of the most recognized voices at the NHRA. He also penned columns for both National DRAGSTER and Dragracecentral.com.
“I've been doing this since before Funny Cars or Pro Stocks were even classes," Frey said. "I've been blessed to meet most of the stars of the sport and to be able to call them friends. It's been a great ride but it's time to move on."
Frey said he plans to remain involved in the sport by serving as emcee for the Don Garlits Hall of Fame inductions and the DRAW auction in between select events. He’ll also continue to write his weekly columns.
Frey will announce the remainder of 2012 NHRA Full Throttle events.
“I've enjoyed every aspect of my career but I'm looking forward to slowing down,” Frey concluded. “I'd like to thank everyone who has been so kind to me over the years, especially everyone at NHRA. It's been a dream job and I will miss it."
THINK PINK - The men-folk in the Full Throttle pits proudly adorned their pink in recognition of October’s Breast Cancer Awareness initiative. Friday, at Maple Grove Raceway, a few of the female drivers revealed a program of their own.
In conjunction with VP Race Fuels, three prominent female drivers will sign special commemorative pink fuel containers. The containers, with the autographs of Courtney Force, Alexis DeJoria and Erica Enders will be auctioned with proceeds going to breast cancer research.
“Being a female, breast cancer is something we could all face in our lifetime,” said DeJoria, who admitted her sister is battling ovarian cancer. “I know a few women who have battle breast cancer. This means a lot to me. To be able to come out and represent and support is great.
“It all affects us, it’s very real. It’s unfortunate. Being a public figure, I want to do everything I can in support. This is a very wonderful thing for VP to do.”
Enders said she was equally impressed with VP’s involvement.
“I think it’s awesome what VP has done to help support breast cancer awareness,” said Enders. “I used to race a pink car, and I’m close to getting my guys talked into letting me run another one.”
Courtney Force is the only female driver with a completely pink car which serves as a major inspiration.
“I’m so excited to be able to run a car representative of breast cancer awareness,” said Force. “I’m excited because I get to run a pink car. The vision of what we hope to accomplish with this makes me proud to be a part of this. I really hope we can get it in the winner’s circle to bring even more awareness to Breast Cancer Awareness month.”
The car isn’t the only pink statement Force is making this weekend. Her crew has begun to champion the cause.
Force’s all-male crew donned bright pink hats as part of their uniform.
“They are excited about it,” admitted Force, saying there was no push back to the pink hat edict. “They sent me a picture [of the crew with their hats] and said this was awesome. They understand the reason behind it and it’s excited to be a part of it.”
Seeing her fellow male racers unveiling pink race cars pleases DeJoria, as well as Force and Enders.
“I think it’s great they are comfortable with themselves to the point they can run a pink car,” DeJoria said with a smile. “It’s a new day and age. You don’t have to be a girl to run pink.”
Added Force, “It really doesn’t matter if you are a male or female, as long as you are bringing awareness.”
With a broad smile, Enders made a bold proclamation.
“I love it!” Enders exclaimed. “Real men wear pink.”
TRIPLE PLAY - Dave Connolly will pull triple-duty in this weekend at Maple Grove Raceway.
Connolly plans to drive IDG Chevrolet Pro Stock car, the Berger Chevrolet COPO Camaro in the Stock Eliminator class and continue in his role as crew chief alongside Tommy Utt on Erica Enders' KLR Group Pro Stock Chevy.
Connolly hopes to add to his success at Maple Grove, as he's raced to the finals in Pro Stock the last three times he's driven at the track. Connolly won in 2010, finished runner-up in 2008 and won in 2007.
"You never know about Reading," Connolly said. "It's an interesting place. You could go out there, and it could be record-setting conditions, or it could be hot and nasty. You just never know what you're going to get. Maybe we'll get lucky and try to set a record and get some bonus points."
He's talking about Enders' car, which sits third in the Pro Stock points standings with three races remaining in the Countdown to the Championship. His role as crew chief is as satisfying as his driving duties these days.
"It's always something that intrigued me," Connolly said. "Pro Stock is such a technical class. There are so many key ingredients that go into making a good run, from bumper to bumper. It's like an ongoing science project. I've grown to like it quite a bit. It gives you a lot of gray hair, but it's fun. It's all about the challenge, and that's probably been one of the biggest challenges I've ever faced."
Connolly is still challenged by driving, too. In a part-time role, he won the U.S. Nationals last month and has been to two other final rounds.
So how does he stay sharp with so much on his plate?
"It's something I've always done," Connolly said. "Ever since the age of 15, I've always been behind the wheel of something. There's no substitute for seat time, and I've gotten plenty of that the last 13, 14 years of my life. Being around racers 24/7 and eat, sleep and breathe it, it becomes second-nature to you at some point."
LAST DANCE - Larry Dixon, a three-time NHRA Top Fuel world champion, is finishing up his three-race stint driving the Dote Racing Top Fuel dragster this weekend.
And, Dixon has enjoyed his return to the driver’s seat.
“It has been real nice from that standpoint,” said Dixon about getting back behind the wheel. “I really appreciate the Dotes for giving me the opportunity to go out there and run those three events with them and for them.”
Back in early September, Dixon signed on to drive for Dote Racing at Charlotte (Sept. 14-16), St. Louis (Sept. 28-30) and Reading. Dixon replaced Hillary Will at Dote Racing.
At Charlotte, Dixon qualified No. 11 and lost in the first round to Morgan Lucas. Last Sunday at St. Louis, Dixon was No. 10 on the qualifying ladder and was upended by Khalid alBalooshi of Al-Anabi Racing in the opening round.
“They (the Dotes) use a Murf McKinney car, and that’s probably what I spent 10 years of my career in,” Dixon said. “So, it was just like old times. Climbing back in the car felt real nice.”
Prior to Charlotte and St. Louis, the last time Dixon was behind the wheel of a Top Fuel dragster was at the 2011 NHRA Auto Club Finals on Nov. 13 when he lost in the semifinals to Tony Schumacher in Pomona, Calif. Dixon was driving for Al-Anabi Racing.
Alan Johnson Racing and Dixon agreed to a mutual separation Dec. 12, 2011. Alan Johnson Racing manages the two-car Top Fuel operation of the Al-Anabi Racing Team.
“So far the most challenging thing is trying to qualify in the top half of the field,” Dixon said. “Doug Kuch (Dote Racing’s crew chief) and the Dotes have a lot of very nice equipment and they are a very talented team and we are going to try and get some rounds this weekend.”
Dixon has 62 national event Top Fuel victories, including wins at Maple Grove Raceway in Reading in 2009 and 2010.
“I’m looking forward to going there,” Dixon said. “I watched my dad (Larry Dixon Sr.) race there in the 1970s, so I have been going to that race track for an awful long time. With them moving Maple Grove into October, from September it certainly, when the weather permits it is definitely a fast track for all the categories. From a racing fan’s standpoint it is exciting to go to and watch all that go down and hopefully be a part of it.”
Following this weekend, Dixon will continue trying to establish his own Top Fuel team, Larry Dixon Racing.
“It is still a work in progress,” Dixon said. “As of right now, I’m going to Las Vegas (Oct. 25-28) and Pomona (Nov. 8-11) as a racing fan. Then, I am working my tail off away from the driver’s seat to try and get funding to be back out there racing next season.”
PRETTY IN PINK - Who would have thought so many men were clamoring to wear pink.
This weekend, at least three Top Fuel dragsters competing at the Auto-Plus NHRA Nationals, will run pink paint schemes in support of Breast Cancer Awareness. In one way or another, the disease has touched the drivers of these race cars.
Dom Lagana joins Antron Brown and Terry McMillen as those drivers racing for the cause.
"Oh man, the NTB/Service Central car looks awesome, and we can't wait for everyone to see it," said Dom. "We're always excited to get out there and race, but this weekend is going to really mean a lot to us. We all believe in this cause. Our mom, Marie Theresa Lagana, passed away December 14, 2000 from Leukemia, and for Paul Richards and his brother Dave, this is a real special deal too because their mom, Peggy, is a two-time breast cancer survivor who has been cancer-free for almost 10 years. To be able to come out there with the support of Service Central and raise awareness like this just gets us that much more pumped up to do well."
Brown, one of seven Don Schumacher Racing drivers, has had the deadly disease affect him personally as well as the DSR family.
Linda Matranga, Brown's mother-in-law, is a breast cancer survivor; as is Ellen Tobler, wife of DSR's NHRA Funny Car points leading crew chief Rahn Tobler.
Those close connections have inspired Brown to embrace wholeheartedly sponsor Matco's Tools' Cause campaign to benefit the Susan G. Komen for the Cure organization.
"Wearing my pink suit and driving that pink dragster will be just like flying Matco's red, white and blue colors. It's great to be part of Matco and be able to help others, Brown said. "That's God's way and the American way."
Starting on October 1, Matco began donating 15 percent of the sale of each product purchased from a list of selected items with a guaranteed minimum donation of $100,000 to the Susan G. Komen for the Cure® organization.
In the end, Brown's unique firesuit, helmet and the race team's pink crew shirts will be on eBay.com in November with all proceeds going to Susan G. Komen for the Cure®.
McMillen is in his second tour of duty with a pink dragster. He's racing to support She4Life, a charity which supports everyday necessities to help families fight the fight in the battle to be cancer survivors.
“Our whole team is excited about wearing pink again this October,” McMillen said. “In fact we’re real excited about seeing many other teams going pink this season. No other form of motorsports has this much support for Breast Cancer Awareness from multiple teams and we’re proud and honored to be a part of it. I know my guys are glad they’re not the only ones wearing pink in the pits this year.”
Last season, in October, McMillen’s team helped raise nearly $40,000 for their favorite charities. They’re hoping this season will be as successful. For a $50 donation to She4Life friends and fans can place names on McMillen’s dragster to either honor or in memory, of those that are fighting cancer or who have lost their fight.
“Seeing those names on the dragster last season was touching,” McMillen said. “Not only for us, but for all the people that saw their name or the name of a loved one on the car. So, this year we wanted to open it up to everyone by giving them an opportunity to help with a small donation and to see the name of a loved one on the car. We call them cancer survivors. I like to call them cancer warriors. They didn’t just survive this life challenge, they beat it every day like the enemy it is.”
This is why three seemingly tough men feel even tougher wearing pink.
ON THE CUSP - Mike Edwards currently sits in sixth place in Pro Stock points. He'd like to be higher but right now he'll take what he can get.
"We're still fighting as hard as we ever in this class of reaching the top," Edwards said. "We have been trying to get our edge back and have been testing real hard in achieving that. We've had a strong car, but not getting the results we were hoping for coming up short in eliminations. For the rest of the season, our goal is reaching the final at every event and hope that leads us to an outside shot at a championship."
This weekend's event is pivotal in the grand scheme of his championship efforts. With 12 rounds remaining in the season, he's 261 points behind leader Allen Johnson and on the cusp of elimination from contention.
"Maple Grove has created a lot of excitement over the years and we have come close a few times, but never able to grab the trophy there. I know every single member of this team is focused on performing at our best in Reading.
"In the past, you could always throw your best at the Maple Grove track and it usually would stick," he added, referring to the performance potential. "If God is willing, I hope this is the start of some great runs for this team that will include a victory and maybe start us down a path to the ultimate prize at the end of the season - a second championship. All I know is I'm looking forward to it!"
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