SUNDAY FINAL - FAMILIAR FACES RETURN TO THE WINNER'S CIRCLE
LESS SPECTACULAR, MORE GOOD - Maybe the next time Funny Car driver Matt Hagan visits zMAX Dragway at Concord, N.C., just down the highway from his Christiansburg, Va., cattle farm, everyone will remember him as Sunday's winner of the National Hot Rod Association’s Dollar General Four-Wide Nationals.
He failed to make the field for this uniquely formatted race last season and left in 17th place in the standings but gained worldwide notice for his spectacular explosion during qualifying, not something a race-car driver wants as his calling card. Oh, he has had happy memories at this newest track on the Mello Yellow Drag Racing Series tour. He reached the finals in 2010, and the following year recorded his first sub-four-second pass en route to winning the fall race.
But this was the sweetest moment here for Hagan, who beat three independent teams Sunday in the final round with a 4.071-second elapsed time at 315.34 mph on the 1,000-foot course.
"We finally put some gremlins to rest here at zMAX," Hagan said. "I love this track. It's home for me. It's a fast facility. Our car just ran phenomenal in Lane 2 all day long."
In breaking a 27-race drought that dates back to November 2011, at Pomona, Calif., he earned his first victory with new crew chief Dickie Venables.
"It says a lot about Dickie. Don Schumacher gave him an opportunity to come out here and do his own thing. He's taking notes home and doing what he's supposed to do and that drives me to do what I'm supposed to be doing."
Moreover, Hagan became the fourth driver this season to lead the Funny Car standings. He will take a 50-point lead over Las Vegas winner Cruz Pedregon to Royal Purple Raceway at Baytown, Texas, for next weekend's O'Reilly Springnationals. It's the first time he has led in points since he won the 2011 series crown.
The Magneti Marelli / Rocky Boots Dodge Charger driver was part of a double victory for Don Schumacher Racing, as the Top Fuel trophy went to Spencer Massey. This was the third time in five events that the organization won both nitro-class trophies and the 35th time since 2003.
He joined Courtney Force, Ron Capps, Johnny Gray, and Cruz Pedregon in locking in a spot for the $100,000-to-win Traxxas Shootout bonus race that will take place in September during the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis.
"It's a big win for us, to get into the Traxxas Shootout," he said. "It's been more than a year since we won. It's been too long. That feeling is great to have back. Obviously we don't want this to go away. Our guys are great. We have a couple of them here with their first win, and we're making memories that are going to last forever."
Sunday's memories beat the ones he stewed about last winter. But he indicated he has learned from that performance dip.
"You start fresh every year with a new slate," Hagan said. "I've had so much success at Don Schumacher Racing so early in my career. We just came off a world championship in 2011, and we came out and fell right on our face[s]. That's brutal.
"You're expected to rise to the occasion and it just wasn't there. The biggest thing that I learned from that was keeping my guys' morale up," he said. "That taught me a lot last year, to go through that struggle. It was very, very humbling. When we get these wins, you really have to enjoy them, because they aren't easy to get."
He said he'll be enjoying this turnaround victory, his sixth overall, if only for a little while.
"I've already got a load of cattle I got to get going tomorrow," Hagan said. "But that's not right now. I'm good right where I need to be right now with this race car and team, and this Wally is smelling like Mello Yello."
Blake Alexander, a 24-year-old from Smith Mountain Lake, Va., driving the Paul Smith-tuned Auto Service Plus Dodge Charger was runner-up at 4.156, 294.56. He was making only his second appearance at this event after losing in the first round in 2012.
Other finalists, who officially will be credited with semifinal finishes, were Tim Wilkerson and Chad Head. Owner/driver/crew chief Wilkerson, in the Levi, Ray & Shoup Ford Mustang, was runner-up at this race in 2011. Class rookie Head and his Head Racing Toyota Camry led the field.
CASHING IN - Mike Edwards wanted some proof his Interstate Batteries / I Am Second Chevy Camaro indeed was the best in the National Hot Rod Association's Pro Stock class.
It sure looked that way as he earned all five consecutive No. 1 qualifying positions so far this year. Who wouldn't be thrilled with that? The last time anything like that happened was 2004, when Greg Anderson began with six straight No. 1 starts.
But what Edwards, the Pro Stock points leader, wanted so desperately was a victory.
That had eluded him, in Mello Yello Drag Racing Series action and even the K&N Horsepower Challenge bonus race at Las Vegas. For some reason, Edwards could trump his rivals in qualifying but never on race day.
He even gained 20 valuable bonus points Saturday during qualifying for resetting the national elapsed-time record at 6.471 seconds -- the quickest in class history.
Edwards wasn't unappreciative of all that. But he didn't want to be winless for the first time in his career since 2007. He won't be, thanks to the all-Camaro-final Dollar General Four-Wide Nationals at Concord, N.C.
The Coweta, Okla., veteran and 2009 champion used an .009-second reaction time to edge Erica Enders-Stevens in the final round by 0.0379 seconds, or about 12 feet. He won for the first time since last Father’s Day at Bristol, Tenn., and became the first Pro Stock top qualifier to win at this event.
"It does feel satisfying to actually close the deal," Edwards said after recording his 35th career Pro Stock victory. "We've had numerous opportunities, I guess five of 'em. It does feel good to win. Anytime you can run real good and win, it feels good.
"It was just a phenomenal day -- phenomenal weekend, really. After all the rain, we got some great weather and some great racing. It just feels good to win. It really does," he said.
"Today we ran good, but we just were really, really conservative. I keep shooting myself in the foot on Sunday. We made a commitment that if we run really good, if we get beat it's not going to be because we squared the tires or shook the tires. We were going to get beat because something else happened, probably because of that lame-brained driver we've got," Edwards said.
"It just feels good to go down the track every run," he said. "If you give yourself an opportunity to go to the finish line, you've got a chance to win, especially in our car."
He noted that this is the first time the car had "Interstate Batteries" as the primary sponsor instead of "I Am Second," the faith-based program that Interstate Batteries CEO Norm Miller helped found. "It feels good to get their first win. Norm Miller . . . is a tremendous person. I owe so much to him."
He said the crew, which included "a couple of guys who didn't know the front [of the car] from the back," is "getting better. Everybody's learning the ropes. It feels good to win. Hopefully we can keep it on going."
Edwards' engine shop is in the Charlotte area ("We're over there where nobody's at," he said), giving all four Pro Stock finalists a heart-of-NASCAR-country connection. "Just hat's off to Paul Hoskins and Dan [Cordier] and Allan [Lindsey] and all those guys. They do a tremendous job. They worked hard over the winter," he said.
It showed most brilliantly in qualifying with the E.T. record.
"Phenomenal. I don't know -- it seems like we keep getting faster and faster," Edwards said.
In comparison to his 2009 title season, Edwards said, he has gotten off to a much better start this year. He had five victories that year, so he said, "wins aren't there yet. But anytime you can run good and have a chance, that's all you can ask for. Right now we're doing that. It's a long season. [We] feel good about our program, feel good about our car, and my team's coming together. One championship is awesome. Another would be great. That's a bird in the bush right now. We're just going to try to keep consistent now and try to keep the wheels on this thing."
He said he's "absolutely not" counting points at this stage of the season.
"The first thing we do when we set out is to make the Countdown. We haven't done that yet, so we've got to keep going," Edwards said. "It's two seasons in one. Once you get in, anything can happen in those last six [races]. It's a long season, but I like our start. I like the way our team's going. I like everything about what's happening. We've got some races to go. I hope we can get stronger."
He said, "Hopefully we can be on our game" when the series returns to zMAX Dragway in September for the Countdown to the Championship opener.
Part of his plan is not to let up on testing.
"We test all the time. We tested Monday and Tuesday before we came here, at home in Tulsa. This class, these guys, they're blood-hungry. They don't stop for nothin'. You'd better not look back -- they'll run smooth over you. We've got to keep our heads to the grindstone, keep working away."
Enders-Stevens, driving the Cagnazzi Racing-owned GK Motorsports/Charter Communications Camaro, had an outstanding. 020-second light and easily beat out other finalists Shane Gray and Anderson with her 6.521-second , 211-mph pass.
Gray, who lives in nearby Terrell and works out of Gray Motorsports' Denver, N.C., shop, established his career-best elapsed time (6.498 seconds) and speed (213.03 mph) in qualifying No. 3 Saturday. He improved both at 6.497, 213.33 in Sunday's first round. Anderson, in the KB/Summit Racing Chevy Camaro, missed the chance to claim his third straight Four-Wide victory.
Edwards opened an 84-point lead in the standings on second-place Allen Johnson heading to next weekend's O'Reilly Springnationals at Royal Purple Raceway at Baytown, Texas.
BACK IN THE WIN COLUMN - For the third time this season and the 35th time in the team’s history, Don Schumacher Racing took victories in both nitro classes Sunday. Matt Hagan earned the Funny Car victory at the Dollar General Four-Wide NHRA Nationals at zMAX Dragway and Spencer Massey earned his first victory of the season by winning his second-consecutive Four-Wide Wally.
Massey, in his third event final, took down his teammate Tony Schumacher, event top qualifier Shawn Langdon, and Brandon Bernstein with an ET of 3.771 seconds at 325.45 mph. Sunday’s win is the first win for the Texas native since Norwalk last year and the first final since his defeat by Antron Brown at Gateway Motorsports Park near St. Louis.
It was his 11th career NHRA Mello Yello Series Top Fuel victory.
The DSR driver definitely seems to have the Four-Wide format figured out, which isn’t surprising given the information has team has been able to mine from this race over the years.
“The last two years we’ve taken home the Wally,” Massey said in the media center following his win. “If you think about it, back when it was the FRAM car, Cory (McClenathan) owned this race track. So if you think about it, the first-ever Four-Wide was won by my crew.”
There is also a matter of confidence. Massey has been a title contender since his rookie season with Don “The Snake” Prudhomme and the track at zMAX Dragway, whether it’s Four-Wide or two-wide, is a comfortable one for him.
“When there’s a race track you do well at, you seem to do well at it,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense, but you just do well. And when you have confidence, it helps. When we pull in here, I know we can win because we’ve won before. We just go out there and do what we know how to do and have fun.”
The victory moves Massey to third in the Top Fuel points standings while the runner-up by Schumacher pads his points lead, thanks to two wins and two runner-ups in 2013.
In an interesting twist brought about by the Four-Wide format, Morgan Lucas ran a 3.795-second lap in the second round at 325.77 mph. And lost. On a double holeshot when Massey and Bernstein advanced with passes of 3.803 ET/318.62 mph and 3.818 ET/323.81 mph, respectively.
The next event for Massey and the rest of the NHRA is next weekend at Royal Purple Raceway near Houston.
ARANA REMAINS PERFECT - What’s the best way to describe the ups and downs of the Four-Wide format at zMAX Dragway? Scotty Pollacheck cut a perfect light in the final quad in the Pro Stock Motorcycle finals Sunday. And finished third.
It’s disappointing for the Star Racing rider and anything but for Hector Arana Jr., who earned his second victory in two NHRA Mello Yello Series PSM events this season. His 6.895-second ET beat defending class champion Eddie Krawiec, Pollacheck, and Jim Underdahl.
It’s another by-product of Four-Wide racing that saw Krawiec crawl into the field of 16 after qualifying 16th, Arana earning top qualifier honors for the race, and the pair still met in the finals. After last year’s near-complete sweep of the races by Harley-Davidson riders Krawiec and Andrew Hines, this year’s battle has been declared “The Hectors vs. The Harleys.” Hector Jr., son of former champion Hector Arana Sr., is OK with that.
“Oh, definitely,” he said with a smile, addressing the media after the race. “Anytime I hear my name mentioned, it’s a really big confidence booster. I just thrive on all of that. I use all that to go forward and put all that energy into doing well, get good lights and ride the bike really good.”
While the Lucas Oil team, now featuring a third Arana, Adam, made the V-twin team earn their success last year, they were shut out of the winners circle the entire season. With Hector Jr. batting 1.000 so far this season, it builds momentum he hopes to continue into next weekend’s race at Royal Purple Raceway near Houston.
“When you get into a rhythm, everything comes together for the team,” he said. “It makes it so much easier to go rounds in the races and it’s just awesome. That’s why we’re out here doing it.”
A fierce competitor, Arana still looks out for his family and was hoping to see both his dad and little brother go further into the program here Sunday.
“I was kind of disappointed in that,” he said. “I wanted to see my brother get a round win and I wanted my dad to get a round win and I want them to do well.
“I want to see them (in the winner’s circle) with Wallys. It gave me extra motivation to win this race for them for what they didn’t get to do.”
But he was just as quick to say he wouldn’t have given them a pass had he faced them later in the day.
There were some surprises in Sunday’s race as well, with “Kalifornia” Katie Sullivan winning her first-ever round in PSM competition over Hector Sr. and former zMAX winner Steve Johnson. Unfortunately she fouled out in the next round.
The red light also bit North Carolina native Shawn Gann Sunday. He advanced to E2 but fouled out by .009 seconds in his quad, preventing him from making the finals.
Matt Smith Racing, fast on Saturday with expectations of making the finals, continued to have problems. Team owner and 2007 champ Matt Smith broke his second drive shaft of the weekend in the second round, leaving him coasting across the line. Matt’s wife and teammate, Angie, went out in the first round after cutting a light of .021, but spun the tire at around 40 feet.
Finally, there was confusion with the third MSR rider, John Hall, and Krawiec, when Krawiec tried to stage in the lane that Hall was in. Hall had the lane choice and Krawiec was informed of that and moved over a lane. Race Control didn’t make the change, however, so it was believed briefly that Hall was going to advance. The young rider ran an impressive 6.885 that should have moved him to the finals, but his reaction time of .170 sent him home early.
Arana’s victory, the fifth of his career, gives him 248 points, nearly 100 markers ahead of Pollacheck’s 155 in second, with Krawiec rounding out the top three with 143 points.
CHAMP DELIVERS - Troy Coughlin raced to the NHRA Pro Mod Series victory Sunday at the Dollar General NHRA Four-Wide Nationals fueled by Full Throttle at zMAX Dragway. The NHRA Pro Mod Series portion of the event was contested in the traditional two-lane configuration.
"Charlotte's such a great place to race," Coughlin said. "The JEGS.com car was rocking and rolling. I've got my family with me, and I couldn't be more excited."
Defending world champion Coughlin powered his JEGS.com Corvette to his third career victory in the popular 250-mph doorslammer touring series with a final round performance of 5.893 seconds at 242.19 mph. Runner-up Kenny Lang trailed Coughlin with a 5.898 at 246.98 in his Summit Racing ’63 Corvette.
"I'm not sure what the reaction times were there in the final, but it was a tight race," Coughlin said. "I could sense that he was there. I could hear that thing humming. But we got him. Thank God. What a day."
To advance to the final round, Coughlin raced past Chip King, Mike Castellana and Mike Knowles in earlier rounds.
"(Crew chief) Steve (Petty) and all the guys did a fabulous job of putting this car together for race day," Coughlin said. "It's been a dream to drive."
With the win, Coughlin moved into second place in the series standings, 19 points behind leader Von Smith. Smith lost in the second round to eventual runner-up Lang.
The NHRA Pro Mod Series continues with the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA SpringNationals presented by Super Start Batteries, April 26-28 at Royal Purple Raceway near Houston.
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - BEAUTIFUL DAY ARRIVES FOR FINAL QUALIFYING DAY
LANGDON TOPS QUALIFYING - When Al Anabi Racing’s Shawn Langdon finally landed in the NHRA Mello Yello Series Winners Circle at zMAX Dragway last fall, it was a popular win for the fan favorite. Langdon made sure everyone knew the victory wasn’t a fluke when he drove his Al Anabi Silver rail to the top of the charts Saturday, earning top qualifier honors with an ET of 3.751 seconds at 327.90 mph.
It is his first top spot of the season and sixth of his career. Langdon’s teammate, Al Anabi Gold pilot Khalid al Balooshi, took the fourth-place spot going into Sunday’s eliminations.
The Brownsburg, Ind., native ran a 3.79 in his first pass, but felt sure the team had more speed on tap for the final qualifying run because of a mechanical glitch.
“The first run we made today, the 3.79, we felt we left a little bit on the table,” Langdon said, addressing the media after qualifying. “We shot a plug out, around half track, so we only went 318 miles per hour. We felt pretty confident that if the track was holding up pretty good, we could shoot for the No. 1 qualifying position. Fortunately, it held.”
Top Fuel’s qualifying was washed out Friday, giving the drivers only two runs Saturday to make Sunday’s eliminations. The weather conditions were perfect on the last day of qualifying, cool and sunny, and teams took advantage of the opportunity to go fast. Two other drivers also ran in the .70s, with defending race winner Spencer Massey running a 3.774 and Morgan Lucas putting down a lap of 3.788 seconds.
“We feel pretty confident at this track,” said Langdon, who is currently fourth in Top Fuel points. “The Al Anabi cars have run pretty good here in the past. It’s the site of my first victory. We definitely came into this weekend with a lot of confidence and high hopes.”
With only two qualifying sessions, teams were forced to focus on strategy more so than taking advantage of the conditions to run for records. Langdon said his team was no different.
“With the rainout yesterday, you kinda have to go a little bit conservative on the first run. Fortunately, we felt we hit it pretty good on that first run with that .79.
“We felt pretty confident going into that second run that we could go up there and if we could lay down a picture-perfect run, we felt that we could get that .77 and I think we exceeded our expectations.”
Langdon will face Sidnei Frigo, Tony Schumacher, and Brittany Force in his quad on Sunday. Eliminations are scheduled to start at Noon local time.
A CHANGE OF HEART – NHRA Top Fuel racer Morgan Lucas considers himself a drag racing traditionalist. This is why Lucas wasn’t initially a fan of the four-wide drag racing concept when it was introduced in 2009 on an exhibition during the inaugural Carolinas Nationals at the palatial zMax Dragway located outside of Charlotte.
Despite his dyed-in-the-wool attitude, Lucas volunteered to be part of the introductory show.
“I tried to be a part of the exhibition,” Lucas admitted, with a smile. “I quickly had a reality check in the difficulty of staging up. I was honored to be a part of it even though it required a first round loss, which I wasn’t too happy with.”
Lucas’ respect for the four-wide came later in its existence.
“I was always a sucker for the classics,” Lucas said. “In the beginning this four-wide came across as gimmicky. I was really closed minded. I see what it has brought to the sport and now I have a better vision of what NHRA and Bruton had.”
Lucas believes the improvements in the staging process made all the difference in many drivers accepting the format.
“The improvements to the staging bulbs have made all of the difference,” Lucas said. “The current configuration makes those in the first year appear prehistoric. I think this enabled the NHRA to actually make the conversion in the bulbs on the normal tree. They are so much crisper and easy to see. Bruton and the NHRA have worked hard to make this a lot better.”
Four-wide drag racing, Lucas believes, forces the participants to become increasingly aware of their surroundings.
“As a driver, I think you have to completely change your mindset,” said Lucas. “You have to really go over center on the focus thing. You have to do that because it can be so easy to become distracted and look at the other side of the tree. And, it can really screw your perspective up.
“I’ve grown to appreciate the fun in this because it allows the drivers to stand out a bit more. I really believe it makes you sharper when you return to the conventional format.”
RAIN-RAIN, GO AWAY - Second-generation drag racer TJ Zizzo wasn’t just frustrated at the weather that rained out both rounds of qualifying at zMAX Dragway Friday. He was also nervous about the weather at his home near Chicago.
The creek near his home turned into a river thanks to the more than six inches of rain that fell in mere hours Thursday and Friday. In addition, the home of his father, team owner Tony Zizzo, no longer had a driveway thanks to the rising water.
“We thought we were going to have to build a dock off the front porch,” the younger Zizzo said. “But it’s all good. The rain finally stopped and now we can focus on the task at hand—getting our dragster down the track!”
MAKING PROGRESS - Brittany Force in her four-wide debut also turned some heads with a constantly improving Castrol EDGE Top Fuel dragster. The rookie driver opened the day with a 3.839 second run and followed it up with a 3.836 second pass in the second and final session. At the end of the only day of qualifying the rookie driver was pleased to be the No. 9 qualifier, her highest starting spot in her young career.
“We only got two runs and coming into the race we were hoping for the four qualifying runs to get used to four-wide. We were consistent both runs and we improved on our last run which is always good. We are moving in the right direction. In my canopy I don’t have much side vision but it is definitely a lot louder,” said Brittany Force, a quarter-finalist at the SummitRacing.com NHRA Nationals two weeks ago.
“For me staging is just so different. My first run today I was in lane one which is the furthest lane on the left and it was pretty easy since the Christmas tree looked like it normally does. You are just waiting on three other cars to pull in. The last run I was in lane three which is the lane second from the right and I got a little confused for a second. The two runs were enough to get me comfortable though. I am looking forward to going some rounds tomorrow hopefully.”
In the first round of Top Fuel Force will face off with No. 1 qualifier Shawn Langdon, No. 8 qualifier Tony Schumacher and No. 16 qualifier rookie Sidnei Frigo.
HEAD OF THE CLASS - In a crazy finish to the rain-shortened qualifying process at the Dollar General Four-Wide Nationals, NHRA Funny Car rookie Chad Head scored the first No. 1 qualifying position of his three-race pro career Saturday at Concord, N.C.
He covered the zMAX Dragway 1,000-foot course in 4.014 seconds at 315.19 mph in his Head Racing Toyota Camry.
The aftermath of his feat was just as wild, as the former Al-Anabi General Manager brought along best buddy Del Worsham as his "public-relations representative." They worked together for many years with nostalgia ventures and at Al-Anabi Racing, before Head teamed with his father, Jim Head, to race the nitro car and before Worsham left for Kalitta Racing to tune, then drive, a Funny Car -- as Head's on-track rival.
Moreover, Head entered the media center, yakking on his cell phone with Top Fuel No. 1 qualifier Shawn Langdon, his other driver at Al-Anabi Racing.
So nothing -- including the class losing two Friday qualifying chances to rain and high winds -- was routine Saturday in this most unusual of drag races at arguably the fanciest dragstrip in the world.
"I expected success with my father being crew chief. He's very talented," Head said, crediting the entire crew. "That just shows how good a job he's doing, because I've got a long way to go. I'm just hanging on. I'm just lucky the car went straight. It's got nothing to do with me or with my ability. It's 100 percent on those guys, the way they set the car up.
"There's no way with 25 runs that I have the ability to go to 4.01," he said. "That just shows you how good that team is."
He said, "The track definitely came to our tune-up.
"This is a great facility. [Owner] Bruton Smith, [track operator] Christian Byrd, they do an awesome job here. Look at this place. How many times do you get to come to a four-wide racetrack with grandstands on both sides? It's beautiful," he said.
That he registered a 4.014 -- a 4.01-anything -- was purely a blessing, he indicated.
"I couldn't see much from half-track on," Head said. "I was lucky enough to see the finish line and hit the parachutes and didn't hit anything. So that's good."
According to Head, any number of racers -- including Worsham, Alexis DeJoria, and any of the John Force Racing or Don Schumacher Racing drivers -- could lower his class-leading E.T. Sunday, if he could post a 4.01 with a 103-degree racing surface.
He said his dad is one of those racers who'll preface a pass by saying, "Just going to try to slide it down there -- 4.08, 4.10." If he learned anything in his preseason testing with dear ol' Dad, Chad Head should have known he was in for a pretty quick ride Saturday.
Maybe Head was being a bit modest, for this ride was not unlike that very first one, which came in testing at a West Palm Beach, Fla., track that like zMAX Dragway is all concrete and offers nearly identical conditions.
He remembered that first-ever run and shared a bit of his dad's dry sense of humor -- or accidental sense of humor, in this case. His first run off the trailer in Florida was a 4.05-second elapsed time at 280 mph, an experience that he said "scared the s--- out of me!"
He said his father "came back and apologized to me" after the rookie got spooked and aborted the run. However, Chad head said Saturday, "He didn’t apologize this time. He just kind of grinned at me and said, 'What do you think of that?' "
Del Worsham was impressed. Worsham, who qualified fifth Saturday, genuinely was as excited for Head as he would have been for himself. Maybe it was pride in knowing he was a bit responsible for Chad Head sliding into the cockpit.
"Del took me up to Bakersfield, and we made six runs in the Nostalgia Funny Car," he said, referring to the one Worsham built for Jim Head. "That's when it started. I really had no intentions of ever getting in this [nitro] car, ever.
"The only reason I left Alan Johnson [Al-Anabi team manager] at the end of 2012 was to pursue [his dad's] construction business. This just came along," Chad Head said. "If I've got the ability and I can stay up with [his dad's] ability, then I'll continue. If not, I'll fire myself."
The Mello Yello Drag Racing Series' lone four-wide-formatted event might seem like an unlikely place for a class newcomer to earn his first No. 1 spot. But head said, "Four-wide, two-wide, I'm just looking up there [at the Christmas Tree], trying to stage the car. Other than a bunch more lights on the Christmas Tree, I can't tell the difference."
In a final session that saw Gainesville winner Johnny Gray fail to qualify his Pitch Energy Dodge and Robert Hight experience an engine explosion that launched the Auto Club Ford Mustang body into the grandstands, Head has his own problems.
His parachute deployed early and he had to shut off his engine and coast to a 6.806, 70.79. Although no one else could top his early-Saturday pass that was .019 of a second slower than Matt Hagan's September 2011 track elapsed-time record of 3.995 seconds, head said, "I didn't do a very good job" on that last chance. "My brain was at the finish line and I was smoking the tires at 200 feet. That's just a rookie mistake."
Head said Hight's incident "probably startled me a little bit. Maybe that's why I screwed up. Maybe not enough runs . . . I don’t know. I've just got to do a better job."
He did say that he was concerned when he saw track officials, including Byrd, dashing to the scene of Hight's incident, as that signals a serious concern. "It's all fun and games until somebody gets hurt," he said. "Thank God Robert was fine and the fans are fine."
As far as the delay in the action disrupting his own rhythm, Head said he hasn't had enough experience with such occurrences to know how it affects him in general. He said, "I just get back in the car and hope for the best.
That's what he'll be doing Sunday as he meets Hight in the first round of eliminations, which start at noon.
Despite his vast knowledge of track prep, team managing, Nostalgia Funny Car racing, and even IndyCar experience, Head downplayed his skills. The happy news, though, is his father's instructions to him at the start of his Funny Car career were simple. Jim Head told him, "Don't hit anything, and don't cross the center line."
Worsham piped up at that point and said, "I believe the exact quote from Jim was 'If you hit one thing, you're done.' "
The only thing Chad Head hit in his third race, after starts at Gainesville and Las Vegas, was the top of the qualifying chart. So far Dad can rest easy.
ALL SAFE AND SOUND - The NHRA released a statement after Robert Hight's body-blasting incident that said the Mustang carbon-fiber shell landed in a walkway in front of the eastside grandstand at zMAX Dragway. As a precaution, two fans were evaluated and released by on-site paramedics.
Hight, who was down toward the bottom of the lineup with the last of only two chances to qualify, raced down Lane 4 in his Auto Club Ford and his engine began to drop cylinders before it shockingly exploded and blew the body high into the air. Here's how Hight described the run:
"It ran 6.13 in the first session and more than likely that will not keep you in the show. There are too many good Funny Cars here. This is a little different ballgame because we are four-wide, so you don't know who is behind you that could still bump you out. You are trying to figure all that out in the water box. I knew I needed to make a good run. I hit the throttle and it instantly goes to the right and I knew it had a cylinder out," he said.
"The last few runs it has done that -- it has gone right down the race track. It doesn't even put a mark on a piston. I am fighting it back to the left, then all of a sudden it puts a cylinder out on the left side and it goes towards the center line. But I get 'er straightened out. Everything is good, but the motor didn't sound right without a doubt. I didn't know if I was qualified and I had to stay with it. It just blew up. Luckily no one was seriously hurt. It was obviously a malfunction."
High said, "If it would have just had one cylinder out at the hit, that thing would have motored down there like it has done the last 10 runs. There was some sort of malfunction, and we will fix it tonight. We will be back up there tomorrow in the ballgame, trying to defend this four-wide title."
HAGAN' / zMAX COMBO BETTER TODAY - For Matt Hagan, love is starting to win in his love-hate relationship with Charlotte Motor Speedway's zMAX Dragway. He made the first sub-four-second pass in NHRA Funny Car history (3.995 seconds) here in September 2011. He also gained some dubious fame at this event, riding out a spectacular engine explosion last season, then fielding attention from around the globe -- like the iconic "ABC's Wide World of Sports" skier who falls and snowballs down the slopes to illustrate "the agony of defeat." Hagan hopes he's beyond that but said Saturday, "This four-wide stuff is tricky. It's kind of like throwing your name in the hat and seeing what gets drawn. I think that we are getting the handle on it. Dickie [crew chief Venables] put a good lap on the board this last lap, and it's really coming together. I feel confident for tomorrow, and we'll have lane choice," the No. 6 starter (at 4.137 seconds, 303 mph) said.
The Magneti Marelli / Rocky Boots Dodge driver even had no hesitation to say, "I think the lanes we'll pick will be 2 or 3." That sounds like Hagan isn't superstitious. After all, Lane 2 was the scene of his blow-up. But it was the one in which he set the track record, too.
The his remark about wanting to win was unclear whether it was motivational. He said, "The guys are working hard. Any time we get in a pinch, tensions get high and everyone's necks are on the line. It's the ones that rise to the occasion and adapt that end up on top."
YOU JUST NEVER KNOW - When Tim Wilkerson plans everything well, sometimes it all goes haywire. Sometimes when nothing is going right, it seems, he turns in a strong performance. Go figure. With just one day of qualifying to make the field, Wilkerson dropped a cylinder in his first run and still nailed down 11th place. Then ignition problems arose before the warm-up and the car wouldn't fire. That cost an extra 20 minutes, as he and his team had to hustle to the starting line. (With the four-wide format, that meant even less time than normal to spare.) At that point he knew he had the ignition trouble fixed but wasn't as confident about the tune-up. However, he ran the quickest E.T. of the session -- a 4.095-second run -- and improved from 14th to fourth.
"We chased the ignition problem for what seemed like an eternity, and kept going round and round without figuring it out, and that was getting a little frustrating," he said. "We finally got it worked out, and it was a good learning experience for my guys, to keep calm and just work through it without panicking. Then we put the body on the car and the parachutes popped out, just to drive the guys a little more nutty. We got up there a little late, but we made it and the thing ran right on down there like we knew what we were doing."
His group for Round 1 of eliminations Sunday includes Courtney Force, Del Worsham, and Cruz Pedregon. That, Wilkerson said, "is not doing us any favors. That's three tough cars we have to run with and we have to be better than two of them to advance. You'd think you might get a better draw after running that good, but this is how drag racing works and how the Four-Wides work."
FIVE IN A ROW - Mike Edwards raced to his fifth consecutive No. 1 position of the season in Pro Stock, powering his I Am Second Chevy Camaro to a national elapsed time record of 6.471 seconds at 213.64 mph. It is Edward’s 46th career No. 1 position and he will open eliminations against Vincent Nobile, V Gaines and Frank Gugliotta.
“Today was an awesome day,” Edwards said. “I never would have believed that we could be No. 1 at the first five races. That’s so hard to do. So far, qualifying has been great, but I need to work on race day. Hopefully we can run good tomorrow.”
Jeg Coughlin will start second in Pro Stock with a 6.495 at 213.47 in his JEGS.com/Mopar Dodge Avenger, while Shane Gray qualified third in his Gray Motorsports Chevy Camaro with a 6.498 at 213.03.
BUDDY IS BACK - NHRA Pro Stock racer Buddy Perkinson returned to competition at the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals with a new sponsor. Sunglass manufacturer Hoven Vision will sponsor the 21-year-old driver for multiple races during the 2013 NHRA Mello-Yello Season.
“I’m excited to be racing again,” said Perkinson. “I really appreciate everything Hoven Vision is doing for us."
Perkinson began his racing career in the NHRA Jr. Drag Racing League and went on to drive Comp Eliminator in 2010, where he made two semifinal appearances. In 2011, he made the move to Pro Stock, driving for Cunningham Motorsports. He also raced for Larry Morgan and worked with legendary Pro Stock driver Bob Glidden to fine tune his skills. In 2012 he filled in for Mark Martino at the last minute for the 2012 Midwest Nationals and qualified in the No. 5 spot.
“It’s been 10 months since I’ve competed and I’m itching to get back behind the wheel,” said Perkinson. “It’s been hard work putting the car back together and updating it since we haven’t run it for a year. We’ve been in the shop 60 to 70 hours a week to get it ready for the Charlotte race.”
Unfortunately for Perkinson, his 6.756 wasn't enough to crack the 6.69 bubble.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
HECTOR JR. TOPS PROGRAM - In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Hector Arana Jr. earned his first No. 1 of the season and 11th of his career with a performance of 6.826 at 195.19 on his Lucas Oil Buell.
Arana Jr., who won the season-opening bike race in Gainesville, Fla. a few weeks ago, will try to make it two in a row when he meets a tough set of first round challengers in brother Adam Arana and the Screamin' Eagle Harley-Davidson duo of Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec.
“We had all the ingredients today for fast racing,” Arana Jr. said. “Thankfully, I was able to get the No. 1 spot. It’s pretty cool to be able to do this at the four-wide. The [four-wide format] is different, but in reality, it’s the same as two-wide racing. You just have to focus on what you’re doing. It’s not that hard once you get the [staging] lights down pat. I try not to worry about anything else; I just focus on my bike and on my set of lights.”
Scotty Pollacheck was second with a 6.834 at 193.88 on his Sovereign-Star Racing Buell and the 2010 winner of this event, local favorite Matt Smith from nearby King, N.C., was third with a 6.837 at 194.63, on his Viper Motorcycle Company Buell.
FIRST ROUND PRO MOD IN THE BOOKS - NHRA Pro Mod Series No. 1 qualifier Danny Rowe was upset in the first round of eliminations Saturday at the Dollar General NHRA Four-Wide Nationals fueled by Full Throttle. The popular 250-mph doorslammer touring series is competing in the traditional two-lane configuration.
Rowe qualified on top with a 5.867 at 249.07 in his Agave Underground Tequila ’68 Camaro, but his machine suffered tire-shake off the starting line in the first round of eliminations and Mike Knowles cruised to the victory in his ’68 Camaro.
Other first round winners in the second of 10 events in the NHRA Pro Mod Series were defending world champion Troy Coughlin, local favorite Rickie Smith, veteran driver Kenny Lang, 2010 world champ Von Smith and Mike Castellana.
Sunday’s second round pairings, which are scheduled to begin at approximately 3:30 p.m., include Coughlin vs. Castellana, R. Smith vs. Steve Matusek, Knowles vs. Clint Satterfield and V. Smith vs. Lang.
WHO'S IN, WHO'S OUT - First round results and second round pairings from the NHRA Pro Mod Series portion of the fourth annual Dollar General NHRA Four-Wide Nationals fueled by Full Throttle at zMax Dragway:
ROUND ONE -- Clint Satterfield, Chevy Camaro, 6.090, 238.68 def. Pete Farber, Dodge Daytona, foul; Von Smith, Camaro, 5.884, 245.67 def. Eric Latino, Camaro, 5.928, 246.80; Troy Coughlin, Chevy Corvette, 5.909, 248.52 def. Chip King, Daytona, 6.015, 249.81; Steve Matusek, Ford Mustang, 5.987, 250.55 def. Mike Janis, Camaro, 7.000, 147.79; Mike Castellana, Camaro, 5.945, 243.06 def. Kevin McCurdy, Camaro, 6.096, 239.53; Rickie Smith, Camaro, 9.215, 100.24 def. Chris Juliano, Mustang, 9.285, 128.38; Kenny Lang, Corvette, 6.401, 173.52 def. Doug Winters, Chevy Bel Air, 7.199, 150.03; Mike Knowles, Camaro, 5.963, 241.67 def. Danny Rowe, Camaro, 10.359, 85.96;
ROUND TWO PARINGS -- Knowles vs Satterfield; Castellana vs Coughlin; Lang vs V. Smith; and R. Smith vs Matusek.
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - RAIN SHORTENS FRIDAY FOUR-WIDE ACTION
A BETTER TURNAROUND – Last fall, as Pro Stock driver Shane Gray competed in final eliminations at the NHRA Nationals, he lost control of his new Camaro and instead of winning a race in which he was ahead, his 200-mile-per-hour race car turned sideways, spun around and went airborne before flipping multiple times. He was uninjured in the incident.
Friday at zMax Dragway during qualifying for the NHRA Dollar General Four-Wide Nationals, a combination of Mother Nature and a quick elapsed time made him the provisional No. 1 qualifier. Rain and a severe weather threat forced NHRA officials to cancel Friday’s competition.
Before the rains came, Gray ran 6.601 seconds at 210.67 miles-per-hour to lead the field. He proved the accident is now behind him.
"It's over and done with, and I don't think about it anymore, to tell you the truth," said Gray of the mishap. "I've had probably 12-14 test laps down that track since then, and that day is behind me.”
Those test laps came in handy for Gray.
"It felt pretty good, and we just made the same run here that we did in testing, so it all translated back. That makes us real happy, because that's exactly what we want and need to do. I do wish that the weather had cooperated and everybody would have had a chance to get down the track. I certainly don't think it's going to stick because the weather is going to be very different tomorrow. Somebody will run a .58 or a .59, but if we can be in the top half and have a shot, then I'm happy."
A TRAIN WRECK OF A SITUATION FOR MORGAN - After the way the last few days have gone for Larry Morgan, he’ll proudly take a No. 2 provisional spot at the NHRA Four-Nationals, even if it was achieved with less than half of the class getting the opportunity to run.
The veteran Pro Stock driver from Newark, Ohio, was testing on Wednesday at Rockingham Dragway when his Lucas Oil-sponsored Mustang caught fire and nearly burned to the ground in the shutdown area.
“Just making my last run of the day, ran a .55, and as I got to the 1,000-foot mark s*** started breaking loose and I had a fire coming through the firewall,” Morgan explained. “I got shut down and jumped out of the car. I tried to rip the front end off and of course the left front fender is almost up over the hood because it had already burned so much.”
The end result for Morgan was a charred race car and a lot of melted wiring.
“We got here with no wiring on the car,” said Morgan. “I had a hard time wiring because the wires were so nuked we didn’t know where anything was. We did get to make a run and we were lucky to get that in.”
Morgan ran a 6.644, 208.14 to find a flame-free baseline for Saturday’s remaining two sessions.
“When I got here to zMax, I was a mess,” Morgan admitted. “A total train wreck. I really wasn’t sure what I was going to do. But now I am feeling better. I can smile now.”
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
HALL TOPS BIKES - The NHRA Mello Yello Series Pro Stock Motorcycle class only had one opportunity for qualifying Friday at zMAX Dragway for the Dollar General Four-Wide NHRA Nationals but John Hall of Hamden, Conn., made it count with a provisional-pole-sitting ET of 6.930 seconds at 191.08 mph.
The bikes finished Q1 and the Pro Stock cars were able to get a few doorslammers down the track before the rain that had threatened all day finally came down in buckets, forcing NHRA to cancel the remaining schedule. Saturday’s schedule of events will go on as originally planned.
Coming from the other side of the country, Oregon native Scotty Pollacheck took the No. 2 slot with a 6.939 with Shawn Gann rounding out the top three at his home track with an ET of 6.943 at 193.93 mph.
Class points leader and Gatornationals winner Hector Arana Jr. qualified sixth with a pass of 6.970 seconds at 193.10 mph while defending PSM champion Eddie Krawiec did not make it to the starting line. Defending event winner Matt Smith, who won the only Four-Wide race to include bikes, finished Friday in fourth.
Qualifying resumes Saturday at 12:15 p.m. local time with eliminations scheduled for Sunday at Noon.
DEFENDER OF THE TITLE - This weekend is the fourth Four-Wide NHRA Nationals at Bruton Smith’s Bellagio of Drag Strips, zMAX Dragway, but only the second event featuring the Pro Stock Motorcycles. North Carolina native Matt Smith won the only previous race for the bikes in 2010 and if he has his way, he will continue to be the only two-wheeled winner in this race.
“We’re coming off a No. 1 qualifier in Gainesville four weeks ago and to be the defending champs (for Four-Wide) and the only winner, we’re going to try to make it two for two,” the 2007 class champ said prior to Q1 Friday. “I’d like to stay the defending and only person who has ever won a Four-Wide for the motorcycles.
“We’re going to see if we can do it. The tune-up’s strong and we’re going to see if we can go down the track since the rain’s coming and then we’ll get after it tomorrow.”
And the rain did come following the first round of PSM qualifying, which sees Matt in the provisional fourth slot after a run of 6.961 seconds at 182.01 mph.
GRABBING MORE POINTS - With the NHRA Mello Yello Series Pro Stock Motorcycle points lead thanks to a victory at the season-opening race at Gainesville, Hector Arana Jr. comes into this weekend’s Dollar General Four-Wide NHRA Nationals at zMAX Dragway with some bragging rights. But just because he’s on top doesn’t mean he’s confident at his first-ever Four-Wide experience.
“I’m a little nervous,” he said before taking his Lucas Oil Suzuki to the staging lanes prior to the only round of qualifying the bikes would get thanks to a rain-out. “It’s four bikes going down the track. I’m just hoping I’ll be able to stay focused and hoping all four bikes in the staging lanes won’t confuse me.”
Although the Harley-Davidsons of Eddie Krawiec and Andrew Hines won every race but one last year, the Suzukis of Arana and his father, former class champion Hector Arana, kept the V-Twin gang honest. This year, the Lucas Oil team, including another Arana, “Little Hector’s” brother Adam, plans to maintain their hold on the top spot.
“It feels good. You always have the extra pressure, but it’s good. It keeps you working hard.”
And speaking of Adam, also facing his first foray into Four-Wide, Arana Jr. said having his little brother on the tour has been positive.
“It’s good,” he said. “I’m glad he’s able to come along and experience the rush of riding Four-Wide and be in front of the fans and everything else. I’m glad he’s able to experience all that like I got to.”
Hector Jr. qualified sixth in the only round run Friday on the strength of a 6.970 at 193.10 mph pass with Adam putting down a strong run of 7.090 seconds at 192.82 mph to put him in 10th. The patriarch of the Arana clan will have his work cut out for him after losing power halfway through his run and gliding across the stripe with an ET of 11.037 seconds.
GETTING THE MIND RIGHT - After what she would agree is too many seasons of sporadic starts due to lack of sponsorship, North Carolina native Angie Smith is racing for a berth in the NHRA Mello Yello Series Countdown to 1 in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class.
Driving for her husband, 2007 class champion Matt Smith, Angie drove to two semifinal rounds last year and looks to continue that success this season. For the veteran racer, it doesn’t matter if she is racing a single event or fighting for a season title, the goals are the same.
“I’m going in with the same mindset as going into (a race weekend), the goal is to qualify,” she said Friday at zMAX Dragway on the first day of qualifying for the Dollar General Four-Wide NHRA Nationals. “Then after you qualify, you need to qualify well. Then on race day, you gotta win rounds. That’s the only way you’re going to get into the Countdown is to win rounds on Sunday. Take it or leave it, that’s what it is.”
Angie wants to keep the Four-Wide PSM victories in the family, as Matt won the only other event in which the bikes ran in 2010, so she tested here prior to this weekend. She feels the information gained gives her an edge.
“We’ve tested twice since then at this race track and we’ve made some huge changes for me,” she said. “I think we’re going to do well this weekend and I think we’re going to do well for the rest of the season because we made some huge changes. The bikes are way different than Matt’s, but I think it’s what I needed being a girl and being smaller than the guys we race.”
Unfortunately, the bikes were only able to run one round of qualifying before the rains came and canceled the remainder of the schedule for Friday, leaving Angie on the outside looking in at the 17th spot. She ran a 9.138 second ET at 104.02 mph after leaving the line late in her group.
CHAMP TOPS FRIDAY QUALIFYING - Defending NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series world champion Troy Coughlin raced to the qualifying lead Friday in a rain-shortened day of action at the Dollar General NHRA Four-Wide Nationals Fueled by Full Throttle at zMAX Dragway. The race, which is being contested in the traditional two-lane configuration, is the second of 10 races in 2013 for NHRA’s popular 250-mph doorslammer touring series.
Coughlin powered his JEGS.com Corvette to a leading time of 5.963 seconds at 243.72 mph. Pro Mod teams were only able to get in one of their two scheduled qualifying sessions before NHRA Officials were forced to cancel the balance of the day’s racing due to persistent rain showers and high wind in the area.
Danny Rowe was second in his ’67 Camaro with a 5.966 at 244.07 and local favorite Rickie Smith, from King, N.C., was fourth in his IDG Camaro with a 5.977 at 242.41. Series points leader and 2010 champ Von Smith was seventh in his vintage Dr. Moon Camaro with a performance of 6.033 at 236.92.