SUNDAY NOTEBOOK - SHOE WINS UGLY, CAPPS WINS PRETTY AND ENDERS - STEVENS WINS ONE FOR THE GIRLS
THE COWBOY WAY - It wasn't pretty at all.
In a drag-racing weekend at Firebird International Raceway near Phoenix filled with Top Fuel track records -- including his own speed mark of 329.91 mph in the quarterfinals Sunday -- Tony Schumacher's most significant pass at the Arizona Nationals was downright homely.
His 4.60-second elapsed time at 213.20-mph on the 1,000-foot course was enough to push him past equally struggling Morgan Lucas in the final round.
But from his perspective, that unattractive performance was entertaining -- for himself and the crowd that braved cold, windy conditions all day.
"The fans got their money's worth on that run," Schumacher said of the tire-smoking, pedaling contest.
And he personally had the time of his life.
"Both of us were not taking each other for granted. Both cars were set up fast. Awful lot of fun," he said.
Before having had a chance to look at a video or replay of the pass, Schumacher said, "I haven't seen it yet, but I guarantee it had to be a close race. I could hear him the whole time. It was pedal-pedal-lift- straighten it out- do it again -- love it. It's cowboy stuff. I enjoy that race more than the records we set. That still proves you got to put a driver in the car to drive these things.
"My dad won't let me ride a bull, but that's the closest thing. That was crazy -- but fun," he said.
It takes a lot more than a loss of traction to embarrass Schumacher. Besides, although too many runs like that -- even to many victories like that -- aren't ideal and they're certainly not ones a racer tires to accumulate, once in awhile they're sort of a badge of honor.
"It caught me off-guard, but we have a machine, and if you do that every now and then, that's OK. If you can't find the edge, you're not running fast enough," he said.
The $50,000 triumph extended Schumacher's all-time class-best victory count to 70 and was his first since last September's record-breaking performance at the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis.
With that, he passed Winternationals winner Shawn Langdon for the points lead heading into the March 15-17 Amalie Oil Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla.
Schumacher said the number 70 was a bit of a relief.
"I was stuck on 69 for a long time. You know -- great car, great final round, great matches . . . and people were beating us. It was tough. You start to go, 'Man , what do you have to do to win one of these things?!' " he said.
"It's a phenomenal car that runs incredibly well. People know when they run the Army car what they have to do," he said.
Schumacher defeated Sidnei Frigo, Khalid al Balooshi, and Antron Brown to advance to his second final round in as many races this year and his 121st overall.
Army Dragster crew chief Mike Green didn't weight in with the media about what was going through his mind as he watched that heart-pounding race from the starting line. Schumacher spoke for him, though: "If you were watching Mike Green I'll bet that was as much fun as he's had in a long, long time."
Lucas banged on the throttle of his Aaron Brooks-prepped GEICO / Lucas Oil Dragster and countered with a 4.652-second E.T. at 258.67 mph. He jumped off the line first but lost traction. Schumacher did so right after, and the pedal fest began.
Ultimately, Lucas lost by only .0385 of a second.
"The car responded well all day," Lucas said.
He beat Clay Millican, Dave Grubnic, and Spencer Massey to reach his first final since he won last August at Brainerd, Minn.
"In the final, he got out ahead of us and his car died. We got the tires loose early. It's kind of baffling, because it was the only weak spot in the car today," Lucas said. "It just killed the tire. It must have been God's way of telling us it wasn't our day.
"I could have done a lot better job behind the wheel. I'm not hitting the tree as good as I'd like to and I didn't do a good job pedaling it against Tony," he said. "I've got some work I've got to do. Some drivers, being able to pedal the car is a real strong suit. I'd like to be one of those guys. Tony had a great race car all weekend and really a great car at both races this season."
He said Schumacher "We pushed the head gaskets out when I was pedaling it. Our motor was wounded at about 300 feet. I was just trying to get it down track and around Tony. Inside the car, it looked like we did. It was close."
The only non-Don Schumacher Racing driver among the final four, Lucas recorded his sixth runner-up finish in 13 final-round appearances.
"We're holding our own. That's the first final we've lost in the last seven tries. So there's no reason to be mad," Lucas said.
He's fifth in the standings.
"We're in the top 10 in points and I'm real happy about that," Lucas said. "If the weather is like it was last year, a lot of cars are going to run well. We know we have a good race car and can run with everybody. We just need to hang in there and keep that momentum going."
UH OH, SOMEBODY OPENED UP A CAN - Ron Capps opened a can on the Funny Car competition at the NHRA Arizona Nationals. He and crew chief Rahn Tobler used a hefty can of “Napa Know How,” the theme for his sponsor’s 2013 advertising campaign, and used enough of its contents to run roughshod on Sunday during final eliminations at Firebird Raceway.
While the Napa Know How mantra is a marketing theme designed to sell auto parts, Sunday at Firebird, the driver and his championship crew chief appeared to have a can of something working in their favor as they knocked off No. 2 qualifier Matt Hagan in the final round.
“Just to stomp on the gas and run 4.037 like it did in the second round and we knew Hagan was going to be tough,” Capps explained. “You never know [if you’re going to win]. You wonder, is this going to be our day? Those are the days when you don’t win. That’s what happened against Courtney in Pomona. It was nice to get a victory.”
Capps drove past both Pedregon Brothers, first Tony and then Cruz, before beating Tim Wilkerson in the final round. He ran a 4.064 in the final round to beat Hagan.
Capps, who ironically scored his first round win at the racing complex, located outside of Phoenix, secured round win No. 479 in the championship round en route his 38th career national event title.
The victory propelled Capps into the early Funny Car point lead and further demonstrated the tremendous value on a new chassis the team unveiled last month during testing in West Palm Beach, Fla.
“This one likes to plant early,” explained Capps. “Rahn's worked in a new clutch package, and really he deserves more credit than he’s gotten. He’s taken something he was really uncomfortable with in a new car and worked really hard at it. We found out in Q-4 this weekend what it really likes. You give Tobler a good combination, and he’s going to bracket car it to death. That’s what he did.”
Bracket racing while running 4.0-seconds and over 300 miles per hour is no easy task at Firebird Raceway. His four victorious times during Sunday's competition ranged from the second round 4.037 in the second round to the winning 4.064.
“This is a treacherous track to drive. When you get off the concrete, you better hold on. Some of the best drivers were hitting cones and hitting the wall. You have to be on your game [here] more than any track we go to. I just didn’t want to let [my team] down.”
Treacherous or not, Capps has made a habit of mastering the Firebird racing surface and with Sunday’s victory increased his career wins at the facility to three with three runner-ups and two No. 1 qualifiers. Capps opened the event by getting crossed up in the first qualifying session and shortly after the run, Tobler reminded his driver of the track’s trickiness.
“It’s sort of like when we race Eldora Speedway and you have to pick your line all night long,” Capps revealed. “The good drivers can do that in a dirt track. For me, I was down on myself after Q1 on Friday because I let it get over and almost hit the wall, but then I felt better after Force knocked the timing cones out. That guy is truly the best in the world out there in the history of our sport. When a guy that good cannot hold on to his car, it gives you a little bit of retribution I guess.”
Winning does too.
ATTABOY GIRL - On a day when the mainstream media swooned over an eighth-place finish for a female driver, Erica Enders–Stevens wanted to do her part to show drag racing had already “been there, done that”.
Enders-Stevens, driving the GK Motorsports Chevrolet Cobalt, scored her fifth career Pro Stock victory and the second professional victory for a female driver already this season. Enders–Stevens' quicker reaction time enabled her to beat No. 1 qualifier Mike Edwards.
“We had come into this event following a tough weekend in Pomona where we blew up one of our best engines in the first round,” said Enders–Stevens, who entered Sunday’s eliminations as seventh quickest with a 6.555 best. “This was an important win for us to put everything together to get momentum for this season. We were able to run very consistent but not real well. We were right in the middle of the pack.
Enders-Stevens might have been just “one of the guys” for much of the weekend, but during the final round, she was brutal against the one driver who had bullied the competition all weekend long.
Her 6.538, 211.99 mph pass coupled with a .053 starting line advantage was enough to fend off a much quicker 6.520 recorded by Edwards.
“Sometimes consistency pays off,” Enders-Stevens added.
Enders-Stevens maintained a mid-6.5-second pass in beating Shane Gray, V. Gaines and Jason Line to reach the finals.
While Enders-Stevens was more than happy to make her mark as the only professional female racer to win on Sunday, she was all too willing to offer praise for Danica Patrick’s eight-place Daytona 500 finish.
“I’m really happy for what Danica did in qualifying for the Daytona 500,” said Enders-Stevens. “I knew this was going to be talked about for a really long time [with her running the Daytona 500] and she had a top ten finish. Tremendous job. I’m sure those [NASCAR Sprint Cup] cars aren’t easy to drive.”
While Enders-Stevens could have elaborated more, she chose to switch the conversation to the efforts of her team. She said they deserved a lot of credit for Sunday’s success.
“I couldn’t be more proud,” Enders-Stevens said. “Coming off of a season like we had last year and starting the season like we did this year. It’s kind of gut-check in the sense of ‘are we ever going to be able to get it done.”
“Granted, we are only two races into the season but we worked our butts off during the off-season. My team did. We didn’t test a lot and I was nervous coming into the season because all of the other big teams had tested so much. My team proved they can pick up right where they left off.”
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - KALITTA REWARDS THE BOSS; CAPPS AND EDWARDS REMAIN ATOP FIELD
HAPPY BIRTHDAY BOSS! - Kalitta Motorsports mastermind Connie Kalitta might be blowing out the candles on his birthday cake Sunday during the Arizona Nationals at Phoenix's Firebird International Raceway.
But Jim Oberhofer, the organization's vice-president who tag-teams the dragster program crew-chief duties with the sport's legend, has been busy lighting candles.
He tuned Doug Kalitta's Mac Tools Dragster to the No. 1 qualifying position Saturday, and the fact the 3.733-second, 329.02-mph performance on the 1,000-foot course rewrote both ends of the track record was mere icing on the cake.
"If we can get Connie a win here at Phoenix on his 75th birthday, that would be awesome," Kalitta said. "It'd be all-time. He just loves it out here. This is his extended family. We'll have to give him the Wally if we can pull it off."
He claimed his 32nd top-qualifying spot, second at the Chandler, Ariz., dragstrip, and first since last year's race at Sonoma, Calif., with a pass that tied Morgan Lucas' run last fall at Reading, Pa., for eighth quickest run in NHRA Top Fuel history.
For Kalitta, the run was especially satisfying, for it was as pretty a pass as the previous one was ugly.
"The run prior to that, when we got to the lights, we completely destroyed the engine," he said. "So it was on a nice run when we left -- clean pass from the Mc Tools car."
He said Oberhofer let him know he was going for broke.
"Jim O said, 'It's either going to make it or it's not," Kalitta said, smiling. "Fortunately it did.
"It was on a rail," he said. "That thing was as straight as an arrow. Usually when they're driving that easy, straight as an arrow, they're usually running good. It's hard to predict, really."
Kalitta said he planed to keep his focus Sunday in eliminations, where he'll start against No. 16 qualifier Spencer Massey.
"Maybe it’ll be my turn to beat him," he said. But he insisted, "I'm going to try not to pay attention to anything but that lane and my lights. There's a bunch of good-running cars out there. All the rounds are tough."
As Kalitta accumulates precious bonus points, critical even this early in his renewed quest for a Top Fuel championship to match his 1994 USAC national sprint car title, he had a satisfying qualifying effort. He earned six points.
Kalitta has had top speed of the meet both days, improving from 324.75 in the first session to 325.92 Friday evening and to 329.02 in his final qualifying pass of the weekend.
RAPISARDA TEAM IN GROOVE EARLY WITH BEARD, DIXON - The Top Fuel team that started out "Down Under" could before long become the team on top. Rapisarda Autosport International is on the rise, but that's not solely because of the powerhouse tandem of tuner Lee Beard and driver Larry Dixon.
It's largely because teenage brothers Santino Rapisarda and Santo Rapisarda Jr., who have served as the sport's youngest crew chiefs for the past couple of seasons, were willing to step back a bit and absorb some of Beard's expertise.
Beard, the team's new director of operations, is a three-time-champion tuner. And Dixon is a three-time champion driver whom the younger Rapisarda men say they can connect.
The result is a cohesive crew, and the Rapisardas said before Saturday qualifying for the Arizona Nationals at Phoenix's Firebird International Raceway that the "sacrifice" of any egos was worth it.
Santo Jr. indicated he and his brother naturally "might" have had some misgivings when they heard that Beard would head the team but said that quickly was erased.
"We thought we had a pretty good combination," he said with a bit of a playful grin. "But after seeing what Lee has brought to the table, it may have changed our minds a little bit. Lee's got a powerful combination, and we just needed to take a step back and learn from him."
Santino said he and his brother are open to change: "There's always a different way of doing things. Lee has a combination that can run a lot more power than we had last year." Besides, he said, "You can never learn enough, and these cars are constantly getting faster."
Beard emphasized that "we're a team. We're all working together. It's not a one-man show here, by any means." He said his new charges "have confidence in my skill, and they've been great students. They're very knowledgeable. The cars today are pretty complex, and they understand the car real well. So it's pretty easy to teach somebody who already has a real good background. They've been racing for a long time, and they want to be successful.
"They're getting to see firsthand how I do things, as far as organization of the equipment, the combination that I run, my thought process of tuning a fuel motor. They'll see it through a different set of eyes, different mind set," he said.
Though Beard often is busy at the side of the car and at the computer, he does take time to teach the Rapisardas why he makes the calls he does and doesn't just tell them what to do. According to Santino, "When he can, he explains bits and pieces to us. But we understand when he can't. We know enough where we can learn off his notes. We've been running a car by ourselves . . . Just learning Lee's way to do things. He's a very, very intelligent guy."
With the addition of Dixon and Beard, he said, "Communication has improved. When you talk about something related to the car, [Dixon] completely understands what you're talking about and we're all on the same page. It's all relevant to what Lee sees and what we see."
Beard was not unfamiliar to the Rapisarda team. He advised last year, but others were invited to do, too. "They [each] had their way of doing things," Santo Jr. said, "and we sort of got stuck in the middle."
But the team has a consolidated direction this season. And it's showing with Dixon's performances -- especially without the fresh parts they still are awaiting.
"They raced under the DSR umbrella for a year and a half with very little success," Beard said. "I think they won only one round of racing. We went quicker at the first race than they did the whole year and a half under the DSR umbrella [and had] a faster speed here. So we've already run quicker and faster in the first two races than they did [before]."
Team owner Santo Rapisarda Sr. said, "I can't wish for a better team than I've got now. Everybody's saying the same thing. People say it for me: 'You've got the best of the best.'
I'm spending money , but now I'm spending it for good reasons. Last year I spent a lot of money, but I didn't get anywhere."
He said he, like his sons, has a new role. It's simple: "paying the bills."
Today, he'll tell people, "I have a good package" in Beard and Dixon. "We're as good as anybody here."
PLAYING HIS CARDS RIGHT - Johnny Gray carried a hot hand from Friday’s qualifying in the NHRA Arizona Nationals into Saturday, and the result was the procurement of his fourth career No. 1 qualifying effort and second consecutive at Firebird Raceway, the desert-based drag strip located outside of Phoenix.
Gray remained atop the sixteen car field on the strength of a 4.034-second pass from Friday’s second session and followed up the incredible run with another, a 4.045, 314.46, during Saturday’s Q3 session.
“We wanted to run really good on Saturday and the first run was just spectacular,” said Gray. “The run was really stupid fast for the session. We came back feeling as if we had gotten away with something, so I believe [crew chief] Rob [Wendland] backed the car down some. We backed it down too far and had some things go wrong on the track and stuff. The track got better than the car was. You learn something every time you go to the starting line. We feel really good going into Sunday.”
And Gray, who readily admits 2013 will be his final full time nitro racing season, really would like to win a race at Firebird, if only to satisfy a personal goal.
“Who knows? Maybe I can get this one off of my bucket list,” Gray said.
Clearly Gray brings arguably the strongest car into Sunday’s final eliminations, but this status, holds little water for the veteran driver from Artesia, New Mexico.
“It makes it harder because it pressures the driver up,” admitted Gray, who meets past NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series champion Robert Hight first round. “You really feel if you don’t do well, it’s because you screwed up and not the car. It’s a two-fold deal. You really gotta be good along with the car.” Gray understands, when you have perfect weather as the two-race old series has experienced, and you have a quick cars there are really no valid excuses for shortcomings.
“I love it. I’m from New Mexico and it has been real cold there. But, I spent the winter in Florida and it was real warm there. It’s been great to race in this great weather, and we had it in California. Then we come here and the days have been beautiful. We’ve all been here when it wasn’t so good. The weather looks good for Sunday and I believe the [NHRA Safety Safari] has done a great job prepping the track. We should see some spectacular ETs early on Sunday.”
While winning is held in high regard for the ultra-competitive Gray, it’s winning while showcasing a Funny Car honoring his late father which means the most. He would like to see the ride continue on once he’s hung up his firesuit for good.
“At the end of the year, when the deal fell apart, I had already given my word to the team. You come into this world and you go out, and all you have is your word. We started out as a tribute car for my dad and as the excitement has grown, this has turned into such a great deal. Me and the guys are having an absolute ball.
“We are definitely looking for sponsorship for the car. We’d love to get some sponsorship where we could keep the deal going and put another driver in it. I’d just like to be a team manager. We are definitely looking for sponsorship and I have a few drivers in mind. It’s a great team and I’d like to keep them together. I’m turning 60 in March and I’d like to get out of the seat.
FORCE HOOD HAS NO SECRET PLAN FOR RETURN - Fans hoping for Ashley Force Hood's quick return to the NHRA Mello Yello series after the birth of her second child this May will be disappointed with what the two-time Mac Tools U.S. Nationals Funny Car winner had to say Friday afternoon.
Ashley lowered those expectations while sitting in the John Force Racing motorcoach with sisters Courtney and Brittany between Arizona Nationals qualifying rounds at Firebird International Raceway.
"I don't know, to be honest," said Force Hood, the 2009 championship runner-up to brother-in-law Robert Hight. "Everyone thinks I have some secret plan in my head and I just don't tell it.
"First, it's hard to look past this summer. To think of him (son Jacob John) and another newborn is coming, it (racing) probably would not be anytime soon, just because it would be too hard to juggle all that," she said. "You'd have to have a full-time nanny with you on the road. You're so busy (as a driver) and I couldn't count on my husband (Dan) because he's working on Courtney's car.
"I know people think I just don't want to tell them. If I knew, I would tell, because then people would know and not look at me like . . . I'm not good at keeping secrets," Force Hood said.
Ashley then politely engaged in one writer's theory that she might make a comeback in Top Fuel, as sister Brittany's teammate. (Brittany smiled and said, "Yeah," when the question was asked.)
"I would prefer Funny Car, only because I've driven them and have never driven a Top Fuel dragster," said Ashley. "There's a lot of factors that go into it. It's not just, 'I want to do this or that.' Is there a seat available? Is there a team available? Is there financial backing? It's not just, 'I want to do this in this car.'
"If I were to go back, I wouldn't say 100 percent it would be in Funny Car, but I'd pick that because that's where I came from. But I'd also pick to have my old team back. Dan said, 'That's a little bit of a stretch because your team is spread out.' My guys are (working) with them (sisters) and I feel comfortable with that because I know they're good and they're safe in their hands." -- Michael Knight
WANTS MORE - Rodger Brogdon is solidly qualified for Sunday's Pro Stock eliminations field at the NHRA Arizona Nationals, but he's clearly looking for more.
"We definitely haven't shown what we can do," said Brogdon, who placed his ProtectTheHarvest.com Chevrolet Camaro in the No. 11 position with a 6.578 at 210.70 mph. "I'm confident we're at least three- or four-hundredths (of a second) slower than where we should be. We should've gone a high .54."
The issue, Brogdon says, is with him. The team is working on a tune-up that has the potential to be faster, but it also alters his shifting routine.
"I've been having a lot of trouble getting my shifting down because we're trying some different things with the car," Brogdon said. "I'm used to driving it the other way, and it's going to take some more runs to get used to it."
Given how close the ultra-competitive Pro Stock class is, routine is everything, and even the slightest change results in an adjustment period. Still, Brogdon remains confident in himself and the team.
"The guys that I've got are very smart," Brogdon said. "They're doing a good job. Our main problem is me. In Q4, I finally shifted decent, but we went up there pretty soft because we had to go A to B to get some data for tomorrow.
"The way we're doing it now is going to be faster. I've just got to get the job done."
Brogdon will face four-time Pro Stock champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. in the first round of eliminations Sunday at Firebird International Raceway.
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - ANTRON REBOUNDS, GRAY HONORS AND EDWARDS THE SECOND IS THE FIRST
HE'S UNSINKABLE - Call him the Unsinkable Antron Brown.
The Matco Tools driver showed that not even a nasty-looking crash that destroyed his race car -- not even a quick turn-around time to learn brand-new, untested version of it -- could stop him from driving to the top of the Top Fuel pack.
Brown took the provisional No. 1 qualifying position Friday night with a 3.765-second pass at 314.83 mph on Firebird International Raceway's 1,000-foot course to cap the opening day of qualifying.
Brown will have to weather two Saturday qualifying sessions if he is to lead the field in Sunday's eliminations.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, CONRAD! - Kalitta Motorsports owner Connie Kalitta will celebrate his 75th birthday Sunday.
At a pot-luck luncheon in his honor yesterday in the hangar at the team's/Kalitta Air headquarters at Willow Run Airport at Ypsilanti, Mich., Doug Kalitta talked his drag-racing legend uncle into wearing a festive hat shaped like a birthday cake and sprouting (fabric) candles.
But if Connie Kalitta is the kind who likes to receive gifts early -- for a build-up to the big day -- he got two of the best he could have hoped for Friday.
The two Kalitta Motorsports Top Fuel drivers, Dave Grubnic in the Optima Batteries Dragster and Doug Kalitta in the Mac Tools Dragster, ruled the class in the opening session of the Arizona Nationals. They did until Tony Schumacher came up in the final pairing and ran a 3.768-second pass.
Doug Kalitta still had the fastest time, at 324.75 mph. He still had the fastest speed at the end of the second session, improving to 325.92 mph in the Jim Oberhofer-prepped car.
They finished the day in the provisional third and fourth positions in the order, with two final sessions set for Saturday.
HONOR THY FATHER - For Funny Car driver Johnny Gray, the 2013 season will be his farewell to fulltime drag racing. And when he learned his sponsor from the past few years would not return, he and his sister, Terry Chandler, decided to sponsor the Dodge Charger themselves and turn it into a tribute to their late father.
The elder Gray wasn't keen on his son "fooling around" at the racetrack. He thought he should be devoting more attention to their oil and gas industry enterprise, Mar-Bob Energy. But when he finally agreed to come to the NHRA races and see what excited his son so much, he had to admit those Funny Cars were pretty exciting.
He came back and would bring his friends, and while Johnny and his crew were preparing the car, they would play the card game "Pitch." So the spread-out hand of playing cards that festoons each side of Gray's Dodge give a nod to the game his dad loved to play.
Gray wanted this tribute to be incredibly special, and in Friday evening's qualifying session at the Arizona Nationals, near Phoenix, he drew a Royal Flush.
Thanks to the right calls from crew chiefs Rob Wendland and Rip Reynolds, Gray ran a 4.034-second elapsed time at 313.80 mph on the 1,000-foot course at Firebird International Raceway, near Phoenix, to become the provisional No. 1 qualifier.
WOO-WOO! DIG THOSE BUDWEISER ABS! - The last of John Force's eight victories at Firebird International Raceway came February 19, 1995 -- with a less-than-dignified top-end reaction that involved the late Al Hofmann, his most biting critic, and the late TV commentator Steve Evans.
Hofmann had accused Force of hiding some sort of traction-control device in his race car, saying otherwise Force could not have recorded such stellar performance numbers at the beginning of the season. The NHRA had inspected Force's car, and it passed every inspection. Crew chief Austin Coil testified publicly that everything was on the up-and-up. But Forces' detractors were not convinced.
Then, after Force climbed from his Castrol GTX Funny Car, Evans got in on the act.
"The rumor was I was carrying the device in my firesuit," Force recalled. "And we were at Phoenix and here I was standing at the end of the track and Steve Evans said, 'John, I hate to ask you this, but you have to prove right now on national TV that you're not carrying that device.'
"Well, I had to yank my pants down to prove it," Force said. "I unzipped my firesuit and dropped it to the ground and, buddy, when you see a guy like me with his Budweiser abs, it ain't a pretty sight. OK? Sitting there in my underwear, ol' skinny legs . . . My wife cried, said she couldn't go to church for months. But there was no device on me. We were just good, and we're still good to this day."
Fully clothed Friday, Force had to settle for the tentative No. 17 spot in the order -- on the outside looking in.
NO. 1 FOR THE IAMSECOND - A majority of Pro Stock cars need about 50 runs to effectively find their groove. Let the record reflect Mike Edwards’ IamSecond.com/Interstate-sponsored Chevrolet ZR-1 Camaro needed only 25 runs to get a No. 1 qualifying position. It needed only four more to get another one, if only provisionally.
“Hat’s off to Jerry Haas and his entire team back in St. Louis for building me an incredible race car,” said Edwards. “This Camaro is just fast. I’m just tickled to death with the car. My guys have been working really hard over the winter as has everybody else. It’s just a great effort by the team. We don’t have many runs on this car and it is already running good. Hopefully we can build on these runs and make it even better.”
Edwards covered the Firebird Raceway quarter-mile in 6.489 seconds at 213.13 miles per hour to establish both ends of the track record during Friday’s first session at the NHRA Arizona Nationals outside of Phoenix. The run, according to Edwards, corrected [in altitude] would have been a 6.41 at sea level.
“That’s phenomenal,” Edwards said. “I’ve never corrected that well before, maybe a 6.42 best. It was awesome.”
And for Edwards, the corrected factors may add to the wow factor of any incredible run, but for him and the team, it also serves as an important tuning tool.
“We all look back to this and it enables us to correct our runs,” Edwards explained. “If you correct your best, it proves you just made your best run ever.”
Edwards confirmed his run wasn’t the best ever in terms of correction, adding Jason Line ran a corrected 6.41 last year in Pomona.
Friday’s Firebird run went a long way towards soothing the pains of a first round loss last weekend in Pomona.
“We shot ourselves in the foot last week,” admitted Edwards. “We want to go down the track with every run, and now our focus is about giving ourselves a chance. It feels good to run good, but we have to do better.”
Saturday’s forecast calls for similar conditions as Friday, as for Edwards, this lends to the belief the final qualifying day will yield more of the same.
“Should be, the track came around with better air for everyone,” he confirmed. “It might be a little warmer, but as a whole I think we will all do well.”
Edwards said his team will celebrate reeling in the track records because of the off-season efforts which made this provisional accolade possible is a morale booster.
“Any time you work as hard as my guys did,” Edwards explained. “They hardly left the engine shop over the winter. They worked and worked. And even though we got the car late, this success is a testament to the guys at the shop. They have done a great job.”
So did the Camaro.
“I just can’t get over how good this Camaro is,” Edwards said. ‘Me and the rest of the Camaro guys, Greg or Jason, have to work together to get the No. 1 on the window at the end of the season.
COUGHLIN DOUBLES AS SUPER GAS TUNER - For the first time since 2009, four-time Pro Stock champion Jeg Coughlin will be working directly this weekend with nephew Troy Coughlin Jr., tuning a '57 Corvette roadster that the family's third-generation racer will drive in the Super Gas class.
Troy Jr., an accomplished E.T. bracket driver, will be aiming for his third national-event victory. He already has two in the Super Comp class, from 2009 at Las Vegas and the 2010 U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis. He made two passes Friday and said he's getting his car dialed in for eliminations, which start Saturday.
"The last time I drove a race car prepared by my Uncle Jeg, it was 2009 and I was in Las Vegas, so yeah, I'm pretty excited about Phoenix," T.J. said, remembering his first career victory.
"I've been working hard this off season on my reaction times, and I've been working with a trainer to get in better shape," he said. "Now it's time to go racing and having my Uncle Jeg there to help me is better than anything I could ask for to start the season.
"I'm so happy to have this opportunity. Kevin [Kleinweber] drove this car in Pomona last weekend, and he said it was perfect," the younger Coughlin said. "So all I need to do is not mess anything up and I should be good."
Not messing up is Uncle Jeg's goal this weekend, too.
He didn't necessarily mess up at Pomona. He reached his 86th career final round and red-lighted by .014 of a second against Vincent Nobile. But his own car and a series of goofy circumstances at the starting line denied him his 53rd Pro Stock victory.
He started out with what appeared to be a bye run. Nobile's car had trouble after his burnout, stranding him a few hundred feet down the track. So Coughlin shut his car off to give Nobile time to recover. Once Nobile managed to get his car in reverse, Coughlin realized his JEGS.com/Mopar Dodge Avenger would not re-fire. "A wire had come off the starter," he said. "The guys were scrambling and pretty much pulled the front end off the car to see what was wrong before they figured it out. This time, Vincent was the one waiting for me, even though the chief starter was waving him up to the line. It was pretty crazy. Even after all that, I didn't see a red light coming. I'd been really pleased with my driving all weekend. It just kind of happened."
He said the last six runs he made at the Winternationals have sent him into this weekend with a lot of confidence. "The guys performed flawlessly, and we had a car that was more than capable of winning," Coughlin said. "That's all you can ask for. We'll win more of those deals than we'll lose, so you just move forward.
"We've won there in the past so we know how to get it done," he said. "It's a storied facility and between the drag strip, the Bondurant School and the lake, there's so much history. I stay at the track in a motorhome and I always enjoy my morning jog around the lake or a bike ride over to those foothills. It's a great way to focus your mind on the racing ahead."
THURSDAY NOTEBOOK - AN INTERESTING VISIT TO THE DESERT, WILL IT BE THE LAST?
THEY'VE DONE WELL HERE SEPARATELY . . . - Larry Dixon's march to 62 victories, second-most in Top Fuel class history, started at Firebird International Raceway in 1995.
"I have some great memories from Firebird, as I won there in my second Top Fuel race," Dixon, driving today for the Rapisarda Autosport International team, said.
That first victory for boss Don Prudhomme, in only his second start,, Dixon said, "was special when I beat Shelly Anderson in the final. That was a great team and a fast car, and I was not about to be late at the starting line. I had a great light and won my first NHRA national race. It was a thrill."
His crew chief, Lee Beard, is himself a two-time Firebird winner, and Dixon spoke with all the confidence that they could get their first victory here together this weekend.
"The Rapisarda team did a great job at Pomona with five clean runs in our very first time on the track in 2013," the three-time champion driver said.
He qualified 13th in Pomona's quickest field in class history last weekend and lost a close first-round race to Antron Brown. But, he said, "considering we slammed everything together in under six weeks, it was a stellar performance for this team. And I see a lot of potential with Lee and the Rapisarda family."
IMPROVING BUT NOT SURPRISED - Second-year Top Fuel driver Khalid alBalooshi left Pomona in a career-best third place in the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series standings. "Our Al-Anabi team had a very good weekend," the Dubai native/Los Angeles resident said. "My crew chief [Jason McCulloch] gave me a very good car all weekend. What we did and the way our Al-Anabi team raced on Sunday in California is what I thought we would do, and everybody on our team feels the same way. It was not a surprise. Our team is much better than it was last year, and I think we will have a very good year Being third in points feels good. I know that last week was only one race, but I am feeling good about our crew chief, every person who works on our team and our season."
ZIZZO NEEDS ROSETA STONE - Racers often say their cars "talk" to them. Popular Top Fuel driver T.J. Zizzo, who said his Winternationals weekend was "one of the top five worst weekends in the 33-year history of Zizzo Racing," said his car has been speaking to him and his crew -- "but right now, it's talking to us in a foreign language that none of us understands, and we need an interpreter."
His PEAK Motor Oil Dragster had something big to say last weekend at the season-opener. It's "Es en fuego" in Spanish . . . "È il fuoco" in Italian . . . and "Это находится в огне" in Russian. Whatever language, "It's on fire!" was something the whole Chicago-headquartered team recognized.
"I feel really bad for PEAK, for our other marketing partners, and for our fans," Zizzo said. "Not being able to test meant having to race to the finish line with some bad combinations, which led to a big boom. But we have a great team, a team that has been together a long time. Our [car] is showing promise.
The team is hoping to solve the language-barrier problem before its next scheduled Mello Yello Drag Racing Series appearance, at the March 15-17 Amalie Oil Gatornationals at Auto Plus Raceway at Gainesville, Fla.
FUEL-LEAK-PROOF NOW? - A fuel leak was part of the cause of Tony Pedregon's fiery, body-launching qualifying run a week ago at the Winternationals, his American Racing Toyota Camry team said this week.
"We have gone through the car front to back and believe we know what the cause was," Pedregon said of what he understatedly called "an unpleasant surprise."
Despite qualifying 14th with the 4.225-second, 248.89-mph run, he called the season's first appearance "a challenging weekend" but said, "We had another Toyota body that will start off Phoenix this weekend."
Pedregon won this event back in 2007, setting the standing national quarter-mile elapsed-time record at 4.659 seconds.
PROBLEMS SOLVED, THEY SAY - Tommy DeLago, crew chief for Alexis DeJoria's Kalitta Motorsports Tequila Patrün Toyota Camry, said, "You never know what conditions you're going to find in Phoenix. Some years it's really good and you can lean on it and run some good E.T.s, but it's one of those places that you don't really know what to expect until you actually get there. The good news is we know what the issues were in Pomona and we are able to fix them. So we should have no problem getting down the track this weekend. From there, we will focus on making the car go faster and being more competitive."
DeJoria said, "I feel good going into Phoenix, even though we had issues at Pomona. At least we found the problems and fixed them. Overall, we've been making it down the track. This is a process, and it takes time to build a new tune-up."
DeLgo talked about giving the car "a bigger window of opportunity as far as being even more consistent than how it was in testing. Unfortunately, it showed its head a little bit this past weekend in Pomona when it got a little warmer out than what we had seen in testing, which made it a little finicky. But I feel good about the plan we have in place."
SAFE MOTORING - Funny Car points leader Courtney Force will continue to serve as spokesperson for the Ford Motor Company's nationwide teen safe driving program for the third straight year. She will participate in a monthly radio show, write blogs for the program's web site (www.DrivingSkillsforLife.com) and attend a special conference in the fall.
"Last year I know we reached a lot of teens and hopefully they got the message about practicing safe driving. This year we are going to continue to try and get this important message to as many teens and parents as possible," she said. "I focus on being the safest driver I can behind the wheel of my Traxxas Ford Mustang Funny Car at 300 mph, as well as my Mustang on the street. There are so many distractions on the road, and I really want to work with as many people as possible to make sure that everyone is safe on the road and doing what they can to practice these driving skills."
Ford DSFL's National Tour will be in the Los Angeles area March 2-3. To sign up, visit https://www.drivingskillsforlife.com.
ALREADY AHEAD OF 2012 - Matt Hagan gave himself permission to "take five" and go fishing near Phoenix with some buddies during the short week after the season-opener rather than flying home to Christiansburg, Va., and back out to Phoenix three or four days later. He'll never relax in his quest for another Funny Car championship, but he had to breathe easier, at least, knowing hi sperformance in the Mopar/Rocky Boots Dodge Charger last weekend puts him way ahead of where he was this time (and beyond) last year.
In 2012, Hagan didn’t score a round-win until the fourth race of the season, and he followed that with a DNQ at Charlotte and another opening-round defeat at Houston before reaching another quarterfinal. Hagan never got past the second round until the 14th race of the year, at Sonoma, where he broke out for a runner-up finish.
So he and new crew chief Dickie Venables have a decent foundation on which to build. Hagan beat Tim Wilkerson but lost to eventual winner Courtney Force (against whom he was 2-3 last season in her rookie year).
"I think Dickie was relieved to get that first weekend out of the way," Hagan said. "He's got a little bit of data on his own now and a lot of data from the past. So we'll take that to Phoenix and see what we can do. I look at it this way: we're one race in and already have our first round win under our belts. Sometimes getting that first one can be the toughest and we've already accomplished that."
GETTING TO KNOW YOU - The first race of the season is over, and drivers know where they're strong and where they need improvements. Mike Edwards, the 2009 Pro Stock champion and the quickest Winternationals qualifier, is no exception.
"We are extremely pleased with the first race. Even though we experienced some clutch parts failures in the first round and could not back up the No. 1 qualifying spot in eliminations, we still believe we have a great race car moving forward," The IAmSecond /Intertstate/Penhall Camaro driver said. "At this moment, we only have 28 laps on this new Chevy Camaro, so we know we have a lot to still learn, of what it likes and probably more importantly, what it does not like."
He said it's "showing some great promise. In the past, Firebird and its track conditions have proven to be rather tricky at times. So we are entering this race, knowing we cannot swing for the fences on every run and have to take a very, very conservative approach and make sure we make quality laps each time down the quarter-mile. We will just try and work our way into the tough Pro Stock field and not set our goals on setting track records.
"Understanding we have a new car with little data to work with, we are hopeful to grab a spot in the top half of the 16-car field and then go for the Wally on Sunday. That is not our usual approach each race weekend, but the combination of the new car and Firebird's track surface that is different than any other track we compete on, makes us take a step back and make sure we get down the track, which in the end could pay off."
He said his "I Am Second" sponsorship has had fans asking a lot of questions about what that means. It's a faith-based program that simply encourages each one of us each day to put God and others before ourselves. "It just gave us the opportunity to share the message in a greater way," Edwards said. "We are expecting much of the same this weekend from the fans in Phoenix. We know there are some amazing things to come from this partnership the rest of this year and in the future" -- and maybe for eternity.
LET'S START AGAIN - An uncharacteristic engine failure last Sunday cost Erica Enders-Stevens a chance to advance thought he Winternationals Pro Stock field after qualifying third. But
Enders-Stevens, one of only six women ever to compete in the class since the NHRA introduced it in 1970 and by far the most successful, said she's ready to regain her consistency this weekend and give herself a do-over for the start of the season.
"I'm really excited to be a part of the new Mello Yello Drag Racing season," she said. "Phoenix is a home town for me. I have a lot of family there. We performed well in Phoenix last year. It was definitely a race we should have won, and I want to go back and get it!"
She drove her GK Motorsports Chevy Cobalt to four victories and a fourth-place finish in the Countdown to the Championship and was one of two women to claim professional category victories at the same event. She and Funny Car's Courtney Force shared the winners circle last August at Seattle.
"Last year was a dream year for me and I’m very blessed," Enders-Stevens said. "The competitiveness in me wants to capitalize on that this year and do even better. Our sights are set on the championship. We've definitely got the team, the car and power to do so. We're very excited about this year and plan to do better than last year."