NHRA SUMMERNATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
FUN TO DRIVE IT - Brandon Bernstein won his third event of the season in his fourth final round appearance of 2007, driving his Budweiser/Lucas Oil dragster to a 4.582-second finish at 320.51 mph.
The final round matched Bernstein with his close friend JR Todd. Both drivers dedicated victories in previous events to their fallen friend Eric Medlen.
The Topeka triumph was Bernstein’s 15th career win and his second at Heartland Park - Topeka (2004).
“It just seemed like Tim Richards had a perfect handle on this track,” Bernstein said. “When he gets like that on race day, it is pretty tough to beat him. He consistently makes the car runs 4.50s and that’s what wins races – consistency.
“When we needed to run the number, he made it do that. When that happens, it is fun to drive this car.”
Bernstein was having lots of fun as the scoreboard lit up with elapsed times and speeds of 4.578, 327 (Hillary Will), 4.555, 319.07 (Whit Bazemore), and 4.566, 319.52 (Tony Schumacher).
Bernstein’s slowest run, a 4.582 elapsed time at 320.51 MPH was enough to beat Todd’s 4.667, 299.86. Upon exiting their cars, the drivers embraced.
“We both want to win, but at the end of the day, we are two buddies that are drag racing and having fun,” Bernstein said.
DUBIOUS HONOR - Let the record reflect, JR Todd is the only Top Fuel driver to reach three finals with as many crewchiefs in the same season. This marked only the second race for Kevin Poynter who succeeded Johnny West. West left the team to join Clay Millican.
Todd began the season with Jimmy Walsh, who left to join Kenny Bernstein.
NO. 1 JINX CONTINUES -- After underbudgeted underdog Joe Hartley, the surprise No. 1 qualifier, smoked his tires immediately and lost in the opening round to Cory McClenathan, he said of his fortune, “It can only go up.”
However, he said, “We can’t get away from that No. 1 jinx.”
Indeed, none of the class’ top qualifiers this year has won a race. The only nitro driver to win from the top of the order this year’s is Funny Car’s Gary Scelzi -- and he did it at the season-opener at Pomona, California.
But only Melanie Troxel in Top Fuel and in Ron Capps in Funny Car -- both at St. Louis -- have won from the bottom half of the ladder.
In Pro Stock, the scenario is different. Three of Greg Anderson’s four victories in the first seven races have come from the No. 1 position.
FULLER SHRUGS OFF SETBACK -- Hot Rod Fuller said he’s “not disappointed about the weekend,” despite losing in the first round for only the third time this year and yielding the points lead to Brandon Bernstein.
“We raced smart all weekend long. That’s gotten us to the top, but it will get you sometimes,” he said after losing to Doug Kalitta, who had turned in the quickest and fastest lap of the round, a 4.549-second elapsed time at 325.85 mph. “If you average our reaction time in, we had the second fastest package of the round other than Doug. It just wasn’t meant to be. We’re going to a track that we do really well at and it’s notorious for being fast. Today was just a matter of circumstances. It’s just part of racing.”
Fuller will pull into Joliet, Illinois, second in the standings. Fuller is winless at just two of the 21 tracks on the Powerade Drag Racing Series circuit -- Heartland Park Topeka and Bandimere Speedway, near Denver.
NO LAS VEGAS LUCK -- Morgan Lucas certainly is looking back fondly at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. It was the only venue this year at which he has advanced past the first round in eight races. When he lost power Sunday against a tire-smoking Dave Grubnic, it thwarted any hopes of a big rebound from his two consecutive DNQs. Lucas was a semifinal finisher at Las Vegas.
STARTING OUT BETTER -- Tony Schumacher broke a string of four Round 1 defeats, beating Scott Palmer to open his day in the U.S. Army Dragster. This time he made it to the semifinals, where Brandon Bernstein won with a 4.566-second run at 319.52 mph against Schumacher’s 4.589/324.20 mph.
"It was a close race and we just came up short at the finish line. We had our sights set on winning the race, for sure,” Schumacher said, “but I believe we took some major steps here today. We were able to get down a very challenging track with some consistency. That's something we haven't been doing of late. Overall, I believe this can be considered a get well weekend for the U.S. Army team."
THIRD TIME THE CHARM - The third time was the charm for Mike Ashley, whose Topeka final round marked three finals in two seasons.
Ashley drove his Torco/Skull Gear Dodge Charger to his first career win with a 4.896 at 310.70 over Jim Head, who drove his Head Racing Toyota Solara to a 4.918 at 308.50.
“I’ve won lots of races in the Pro Modified division,” said Ashley, a two-time NHRA Pro Modified champion. “But nothing compares to winning an NHRA POWERade national event. This is terrific. That is mainly because the competition is so fierce in this class.
“I just put this team together at the beginning of the year and we’re already third in the points. I say this a lot, but I am a dreamer. This is a dream for me and I encourage anyone who shares the dream to go for it. That’s what we had to do and we stuck with it.”
Ashley said he felt a win was coming, but couldn’t prepare for the enormity of the moment.
“I don’t know what emotion to exhibit next,” Ashley said. “I don’t know whether I should laugh, cry, eat, drink or smoke a cigar. I don’t know what I should do next. I just know I need to savor this moment because they don’t come around too often.”
Ashley had an inkling that it was going to be his day when he stopped Del Worsham in the first round. In eight head-to-head meetings since his 2005 Funny Car debut, Ashley hadn’t beaten Worsham.
Not only did he beat Worsham, Ashley laid down the low elapsed time of eliminations with a 4.793.
Ashley went on to beat Ashley Force in the second round and Jack Beckman in the semis.
“I really feel like we have a winning team,” Ashley said. “We have been consistent and competitive. If you look at our car, we’ve made it down the track a lot of times fast. We have a good testing program and that’s what has paid off.”
ASHLEY’S INSPIRATION – Ashley said it was good-natured ribbing that started the whole snowball effect of motivation rolling.
Ashley crossed paths with Chuck Worsham prior to eliminations and he pointed out an exchange served as bulletin board material.
“I told Chuck that I wished I could meet them in the final round,” Ashley said. “Let’s face it Del has beaten me every time we have raced. He looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, I have to be honest, we get a good night’s sleep when we know we have to race you the next day.
“I thought that was a little bit of a dig. I thought through karma that he just stabbed himself in the chest. I knew I won the race then. There were no hard feelings. I just knew he was toast from that point on.”
Ashley wants to clearly point out that the incident was all in fun. He has the utmost respect for the Worshams.
“I love Del Worsham and his whole team. He and Chuck Worsham are two of the best people you’ll ever meet. They did a lot for me and helped me to get started they are a class act.
“They just motivated me today.”
DID YOU KNOW? – Head’s last win at Topeka came in 1996 as a Top Fuel driver.
IT’S ABOUT TIME - John Force earned his first round win of the season when he defeated Jeff Arend with a 4.824 at 321.35 in his Castrol High-Mileage Ford Mustang.HIGHT OF FRIGHT -- Top qualifier Robert Hight gave everyone a scare in the second round after he beat Scott Kalitta across the finish line by one-hundredth of a second. His Auto Club of Southern California Ford Mustang suffered an explosion and turned into a fireball in the left lane.
The car skated across the track in front of Kalitta, banged the wall hard, and shot back across the track, slamming into the left wall. Hight flipped up the escape hatch and rode nearly on top of the car until it traveled into the sand pit at the end of the racing surface. Then he jumped from the car and ran to safety. He appeared uninjured and said, “Doing good here” to let everybody know he was fine.
Then the issue became whether his Jimmy Prock-led team -- which would have help from the crews of already-eliminated John and Ashley Force -- would be able to prepare the car for his semifinal date with Jim Head.
Said Hight, “This is the best team out there. I think we can get it fixed and give ol’ Jim Head a race.”
The damage was extensive. The concussion destroyed the intake valve section on the No. 5 cylinder and put out two rods on that same side of the motor. One observer said the car “looks like a log that’s pulled out of campfire, and it smells that way, too. You walk into his pit and it smells like burnt everything.”
But it appeared Hight was right. He was able to pull up to the line as Head waited patiently for the Auto Club Ford to scramble from the pits and even repair a last-second problem. Fans in the starting-line grandstand gave the Force Racing team a standing ovation. In the end, Hight’s crew shut off the engine and Head made a solo pass.
“Once we saw the extent of the damage we did not plan on leaving the starting line,” Hight said. “We wanted to get it back up here and you never know what could happen. If you at least stage the car you have a chance of winning another round and that is what we planned to do all along.”
JFR had a spare chassis but NHRA rules prohibit a raceday chassis substitution.
Hight said the labor of his team was an inspiration.
“They are the best,” Hight said. “We had it started and there was a little leak. I couldn’t see it from where I was at but they did a great job and I am very proud of them. It is really cool to be on this team because nobody ever gives up, ever.”
The Heartland Park – Topeka spectators offered a round of applause for the wearied team and the car was shut down. Hight heard them.
“It sent chills up my spine,” Hight said.
STARTING OUT SCARY -- Scott Kalitta’s second-round close-call against Robert Hight finished an already eventful day. In his first round victory over Jeff Arend, Kalitta was on the gas and off again, damaging his Toyota Solara in winning by four-hundredth of a second. “I think it went through the clutch,” Kalitta said. “Is said, ’ Is it going to blow up or what?’ I think the clutch is gone, because it was nasty-sounding.”
HEARTBREAK AT HEARTLAND -- Heartland Park Topeka is the track at which, two years ago, Gary Scelzi started teasing John Force by calling him “ol’ Seabiscuit.” But Seabiscuit the Thoroughbred proved his doubters wrong. So did Force did in 2005 -- but not Sunday.
Scelzi beat Force, and it was the first time in 23 races here that Force, an eight-time Topeka winner, has dropped out in the opening round. It also was his fifth first-round loss this season. That leaves Force with a 1-6 record in elimination rounds, along with one skipped race and one failure to qualify.
Ashley Force followed with a first-round victory against Kenny Bernstein, who admittedly had a spotty record against female drivers in the Top Fuel class. With her father’s luck at Heartland Park missing Sunday, Ashley Force said, “Maybe he passed it along to his little one.”
JOHNSON JINXED? -- Tommy Johnson Jr. could use a bit of luck himself for his Don Prudhomme-owned Skoal Chevy Impala. He qualified sixth but fell to No. 11 Jack Beckman in the first round. Johnson started the year with five opening-round losses and a DNQ but appeared to make progress at the previous race with a quarterfinal finish.
7-CYLINDER EFFORT -- Tim Wilkerson said after is first-round victory over Jerry Toliver that his Levi Ray & Shoup Chevy Impala SS was “a seven-cylinder race car.” That worked against Toliver, but not against Jim Head in the second round. Wilkerson left first against Head, but the veteran from Ohio used a 4.958-second pass to nick Wilkerson and his 5.004.
"We had pretty decent runs today," Wilkerson said. "On the first pass it put a hole out early, and on the second run it put one out late. We were close on the first run and were looking to go a little quicker on the second. But it's just not tuned up enough for this crummy weather.
"It was a pretty respectable weekend, really,” he said. “We made it down the track on every run, so it's showing some good signs. I don't think we have a super-duper race track tune-up yet, but it seems to like everything I do to it. So, now we'll go to the next race and see if we can get it respond even better."
ON THE LIST - Greg Anderson is seventh on the list for leaders in NHRA national event victories (professional categories) and third among Pro Stock drivers. The only Pro Stock drivers with more wins are Warren Johnson (96 wins) and Bob Glidden (85 wins).
The most prolific Pro Stock driver since 2002, Anderson has won the last eight final rounds he’s been in extending back to last season. This was his fifth win of 2007 in the eight races contested thus far and the 14th time he’s turned back Connolly in 21 career races. In final rounds against Connolly, Anderson holds a 6-3 advantage.
“Those are amazing numbers and I don’t know how we did it,” reflected Anderson. “As I’ve said before it all comes back to the KB Racing crew and the team that (team owner) Ken Black has assembled. We’ve got a great operation both in the shop in Mooresville (North Carolina) and on the race circuit. We’re all happy campers let me tell you. That car was an absolute rocket ship. I’m living life and having a great time doing it.”
GOOD DAY IN THE OFFICE - In reaching the final round, Anderson, from Mooresville, N.C., defeated Max Naylor in the opening round of eliminations, former NBA player, Tom Hammonds in the second round, and two-time Pro Stock champion, Jeg Coughlin. Against Coughlin, Anderson set both the Heartland Park Topeka (HPT) track elapsed time record (6.682 seconds) and the track speed record (207.24 mph).
“That was a good day at the office,” Anderson said on the winner’s podium following the race. “ I so proud of (crew chief) Rod Downing, my crew, and everybody who has worked on this race car and built these engines. We showed them this weekend what we do during the week. We worked hard the last three weeks. We spent a lot of time on the test track. When you get a break you have to get at it or those guys and gals are going to get around you.
“We had two cars that we had to run in the semifinals and finals that are putting a lot of heat on us (in the points). They’ve been running great. Everybody in this class can beat you at any given time but it’s extra pressure when you run up against the Jegs car and Connolly’s car. I can’t remember the last time the two of them have red lighted against me. That’s the results of my Summit Pontiac running like it did this weekend. It was an absolute monster. I’m a lucky man. I had a great race car and I didn’t screw it up.”
In addition to winning today at HPT, Anderson has put his KB Racing-owned, Summit Racing Equipment Pontiac GTO in the HPT winners circle three previous times (2003-2005). In 2003 and 2004, the three-time POWERade Pro Stock champion took the win light over Kurt Johnson. While in 2005, Anderson got the best of Dave Connolly.
Anderson continue to lead the NHRA POWERade Pro Stock point standings with 798 points. He leads second place Dave Connolly by 222 points, third place Jeg Coughlin by 251 points, fourth place Jason Line, his teammate, by 297 points, and fifth place Kurt Johnson by 400 points.
ONE-TWO PUNCH - Anderson and teammate Jason Line qualified one and two for the NHRA King Demon Crown in Joliet, Ill.
Anderson and Line collected 17 of the 22 available No. 1 qualifying spots during the 22-race qualifying span for the King Demon Crown
The three-time and defending NHRA POWERade Pro Stock champion Anderson, who won the King Demon Crown last year and in 2004 and was runner-up in 2003, collected 11 No. 1s during the qualifying span, earning the top spot. He accumulated 3,600 points.
“It’s a great feather in the cap of crew chief Rob Downing and all the crew on the Summit Racing Pontiac that I drive,” said Anderson following the close of qualifying at the NHRA O’Reilly Summer Nationals at Heartland Park Topeka, the final event at which drivers could accumulate points for the King Demon Crown.
“They earned it. Obviously, they are in charge of how that car runs and performs. It’s how that car qualifies through the season. It has nothing to do with driver reaction time or anything like that. It’s the crew that put us No. 1. I’m just the lucky guy that gets to drive it.
“Starting from the No. 1 position gives me confidence. I think we’re peaking at the right time and have a great shot at taking home another big King Demon check.”
Reigning NHRA POWERade Pro Stock champion Line, with six No. 1s during the qualifying span, was runner-up for the Crown in 2006 and 2005, earned the second spot with 3,390 points.
Line echoed Anderson’s comments. “The bottom line is that if it was not for the crew on both of these Summit Pontiacs, neither Greg or I would be in a position to go after the King Demon Crown at Chicago. I’ve been runner-up at the past two King Demon Crown events. This year I would like to take it to the next level. No matter the outcome, we want to keep this title in the KB Racing family,” said Line.
HAVING TO DRIVE IT - Dave Connolly knew he needed a near-perfect start in the final round of Sunday’s O’Reilly Summer Nationals at Heartland Park Topeka if he was to challenge Anderson. He missed it by eight-thousandths of a second on the minus side and fouled out in the battle between the No. 1 and No. 2 drivers in NHRA POWERade Pro Stock competition.
Anderson won with a 6.704-second, 206.86-mph performance to get the win. Connolly’s Torco Racing Fuels/Seelye Wright Automotive Group Chevy Cobalt had a 6.747 at 204.66 mph.
“I was happy getting to the final,” said Connolly. “We didn’t run as well as we liked to today, not like we did at our last race at St. Louis (May 6). Overall, it was a good weekend. We’ve been here for three years and went to the finals all three. Unfortunately Greg has been the one to beat us both times.
“We had to go for it in the final. I got lucky to drive well enough to get there. It was one of those deals where he was outrunning us by four-hundredths (of a second) and he was leaving with a .020-second to .030-second (reaction time). I had to go for an 0 and just missed it a little bit. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. The guys did a great job. We are looking ahead to next week (at Joliet, Ill.) to race in the King Demon Crown special race that pays $50 grand to win.”
SEEING RED - Another strong semifinal showing by Jeg Coughlin Jr. Sunday at Heartland Park Topeka kept the championship hopeful solidly in third place in the POWERade Drag Racing Series points. Coughlin crushed six-time series champ Warren Johnson and squeaked by V. Gaines before losing to top qualifier and points leader Greg Anderson with a red-light foul, meaning Coughlin left the Christmas Tree before the green light shined.
"I think that's just the second legitimate red-light start I've had as a professional," Coughlin said. "It's a very close race between our two racecars and the two over there at KB Racing and I knew I'd need everything to beat Greg in the semis. We had the car set on kill and I was up for the race myself. I just let it go a little too early."
Coughlin's red-light came by a just two-thousandths of a second as he left in -.002. A perfect light is .000. It was a good gamble as Anderson went on to run the quickest and fastest pass in Heartland Park Topeka history, a whopping 6.682 at 207.24 mph.
"The top four cars in the class are mine and Dave (Connolly's) and Greg and Jason (Line's). As it turned out, the final four cars at this race were the same four cars and the final two were Dave and Greg, who are the top two in the points. It's just so close between the four of us right now. It's definitely some exciting racing going on."
WIN BY RED LIGHT . . . -- Tom Hammonds’ Chevy Cobalt broke off the line in his first round against Richie Stevens, but Stevens had a red-light disqualification by three-thousandths of a second to hand Hammonds the victory. But Hammonds jumped the gun in the second round and gave Greg Anderson a free pass to the semifinals.
FOR COMPARISON’S SAKE -- The NHRA Top Fuel and Funny Car winners each receive $40,000 in addition to their Wally statues, and the Pro Stock winner earns $25,000. By contrast, Tony Stewart was the 43rd and final finisher in the Daytona 500, and he received $334,931 for his showing in the February classic. At the Memorial Day-weekend Indianapolis 500, Roberto Moreno was the first to drop out , and for finishing 33rd, he received $218,000 from the Indy Racing League and $224,805 total. And he finished just 36 laps of the 200-lap marathon and finished two places behind where he started.
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‘OVERWHELMING’ -- Part-time competitor Joe Hartley said being Top Fuel’s No. 1 qualifier in front of his hometown crowd with his 4.518-second elapsed time at 323.12 mph is “overwhelming.”
Hartley, born and reared in Omaha, lives in Portland, Oregon, where last summer he earned a degree in mechanical engineering from Portland State University and works as a design engineer. The team originally was based in Nebraska but moved to Wichita, Kansas, for a few years, then moved back to Omaha.
And the performance increase, he said, “comes from never giving up.” But he said clutch and oil changes the crew made to the car in the offseason have been “significant to the tune-up.” He also said that the return of Kent Urban from a stint at Kalitta Motorsports has made a huge difference and contributed to the improved stability of the team.
“We feel good about our tune-up,” he said.
Hartley and his team decided before the start of this season that they could be competitive at 10-12 races, so he isn’t a fixture on the 23-event circuit. “Getting some of the money from qualifying No. 1 will help. But until we get some sponsorship, we’ll have to stick to our 10-12 races,” he said.
He said he plans to run next weekend at Joliet, Illinois, then sit out eight races until the Brainerd, Minnesota, event. His schedule also includes Indianapolis, Dallas, Las Vegas, and the season finale Pomona, California. He said his father’s Nebraska-based software company, Pro Data Computers, funds the race team.
The announced agreement of NHRA’s sale to HD Partners Acquisitions this week, Hartley said, made him optimistic that a fresh set of operators will “open a lot of doors” for the sport and that, consequently, will filter down to the teams and help the smaller-budgeted racers.
But for right now, he said leading the field -- “something we always hoped for but never thought we could pull off” -- feels pretty good. We’ve tried long enough. It’s about time it paid off.”
MULLETS RULE! -- The Evan Knoll-owned RATT Dragster invokes a lot of memories this weekend.
For driver Clay Millican, it restores the memories of being an influential teenager and the days of head-banging hair rock. Yes, he had a mullet and is proud of it.
“Absolutely and not only did I have the mullet, I also had the curl kit in the back,” Millican admitted. “I had the mullet and the little mustache. I was stylin’ in 1984, jamming with RATT. I was there.
“I still jam to RATT,” he said, “but this time it is with no mullet and a few grey hairs. In my mind, I still have the mullet sashaying in the wind.”
Millican said he’s still finalizing his plans but expects to make it to the RATT Back for More opening act in Greenville, South Carolina, later this month.
“If I can get away, I am on the plane and on my way down there,” Millican said. “It’s one of those things where we are trying to arrange for all of the crew to be there. Maybe I can grow my mullet back or get one of those weaves.”
Stephen Pearcy arrived in Topeka late Friday night after a four-hour wrong-direction scenario that sent him on a tour of Iowa. Actually, he was in the state of confusion. That didn’t deter the eager rock star.
“Stephen finally made it to the track last night and it didn’t take long to realize he was no casual fan,” Millican said. “This guy loves drag racing and it show when you talk to him. He’s old-school.”
Millican said Pearcy’s initial introduction came because he was Roland Leong‘s neighbor.
“Stephen told us about seeing Roland’s cars on the ramp truck back in the day. We were talking about his days with Dale Pulde. That came up in conversation, and he told me how he used to crew on a few Funny Cars,” Millican said.
“The only difference between him and us racing fans is that he can sing.”
FOR A GOOD CAUSE - Bob Vandergriff, Jr. was on a mission this weekend. While driving his UPS-sponsored dragster remains his key objective, he was executing his salesman skills.
Vandergriff was selling for a good cause. A children’s hospital visit was enough to convince Vandergriff to the importance of raising funds for the Children’s Hospital of Atlanta.
Vandergriff has formed the Vandergriff Foundation in order to do that.
Vandergriff peddles a combination pink/blue bracelet similar to the yellow ones marketed by bicycle great Lance Armstrong for cancer awareness. He says the pink and blue represents the children.
“We want to make a difference in children’s lives,” Vandergriff said. “Hopefully, we can raise money to put into helping children get past whatever problems may be troubling them.”
Vandergriff said a visit to the Memphis St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital was more than enough to tug at his heartstrings.
“It took me about a week to recover from that,” Vandergriff recalled. “Seeing the little children in those situations is something I will never forget. Having children of my own just gave more a reason to get involved. I couldn’t imagine being a parent and experiencing that.
“I have a platform with UPS out here that I can do this. I am excited about being involved in this.”
EXTRA HELP -- Robert Hight said testing at Indianapolis’ O’Reilly Raceway Park during the tour’s idle weeks is what propelled him to the No. 1 qualifying spot this weekend.
“Even though we had a good car, [crew chief] Jimmy Prock wasn’t satisfied,” Hight said after knowing his 4.754-second elapsed time from Friday would hold up as quickest.
He might have a bit of an edge, too, because of his Kansas connections. “Farmer Dave” Finney, his cylinder-head specialist, and Alex Leggett, clutch expert on the Auto Club of Southern California Ford Mustang, are native Kansans.
CAPPS DNQs -- Points leader Ron Capps failed to qualify at Heartland Park Topeka, breaking his streak of 55 races dating back to the fall Chicago race in 2004. Top qualifier Robert Hight, after turning in what he called “our best qualifying effort this year,” inherited the Funny Car class’ longest current streak at 53 events.
But Hight took no particular glee in seeing Capps sidelined Sunday. “I feel bad for those guys,” he said of the Ace McCulloch-tuned Brut Dodge Charger team. “Next week it could be me sitting on the outside. But with Ron Capps out, it‘s a chance for us to move up in the points.”
"You can have a [bad] weekend for much worse reasons,” Capps said. “You know, John Force's team and Robert Hight, who is second in points coming in here, missed a race. And there's been the biggest names in the sport that have not qualified this year. Including THE biggest name in the sport [John Force, at Las Vegas].
"So, yeah, it felt like somebody hit you with a baseball bat,” he said. “It's the worst feeling to smoke them that early and coast down there knowing you're not in the show. But, honest to God, from the heart, it does not knock any of the confidence I have in our team.”
He said his considerable points lead allowed him and his Don Schumacher Racing team to experiment a little.
“We made a decision to front-half our car prior to this race because of the Bristol postponement and the grueling six-race swing. We've run this car for some time. We've gone to a lot of final rounds and put a lot of runs on the car. And Ace has a plan for everything he does. We're behind him no matter what he does,” Capps said.
“We chose to put a new car together for this race and part of this Countdown, whether you want to call it the good side or the bad side, is that it's going to basically reset all the points. And, if you're one of the eight, resetting the points by 10 is nothing in our sport. And having the points lead of 121 coming in here, we will most likely leave here with the points lead. And that's OK,” Capps said.
"And, to be honest with you, you wonder how those Nextel Cup guys can get out of the car and just be OK with an OK car or top-five finish, and I know how they feel right now. It's OK. It's not the end of the world,” he said.
"I tell you, we have the best sponsors in the world. They were the first ones over here patting us on the butt, telling us, 'No problem,' and they mean that from the bottom of their hearts,” Capps said.
“Unfortunately, we're not going to gain those points,” Capps said. “It just reiterates how tough our sport is, having to qualify every race and not have owners or drivers points to get you in with a provisional.”
Hight’s first-round opponent will be Cruz Pedregon, who eliminated him in the opening round at the previous race, at St. Louis.
HAVING HEADS EXAMINED -- Racing helmets, as wonderful as they are, are not custom fits. “They’re like socks -- one size fits all,” John Force said. And in the wake of Eric Medlen’s fatal crash in March, that isn’t good enough for the team owner and 14-time champion.
“Winning and safety are my priorities,” Force said. And while some might joke from time to time that the popular and personable Force needs to have his head examined. But that’s just what he is going to do.
He and teammates Ashley Force and Robert Hight, his daughter and his son-in-law, are planning to go to Los Angeles as early as this next week to, in his words, “get our heads scanned” as a first step in getting custom-fitted helmets.
John Medlen, Eric Medlen’s father and crew chief, has been involved heavily in the decision-making process regarding safety changes for the team. “He got so excited yesterday about the technology of the helmet to save Ashley and other kids,” Force said about Medlen.
Force was quick to say that the current helmet situation might not be wrong for other teams or wrong in general. He simply said it was not adequate for his team. Furthermore, noting that helmets for Formula One drivers can cost as much as $22,000 apiece, he was cautious about calling for immediate and widespread changes.
11,503 VOTERS CAN'T BE WRONG . . . OR CAN THEY? - A recent online poll of avid NHRA fans presented the following statement and question: "Only four Funny Car drivers have qualified at all seven events this season. Who will miss next?"
The choices were Ron Capps, Gary Scelzi, Tony Pedregon, and Checker, Schuck's, Kragen blue team driver Jeff Arend. Throughout the course of the online voting, the "turnout" at the polls was enormous, as more than 19,000 fans cast their votes to show their opinion on the subject. In the end, the consensus was overwhelming, as 60 percent of the vote went for Arend to be the next to fall.
The fact 11,503 people voted for him to make the next misstep did not escape Arend and his team, and they used the stat as "bulletin board material" in their transporter.
As it turned out in Topeka, Arend made it 8-for-8 by qualifying in the No. 8 spot. Big hitters Capps and Pedregon failed to make the field, thereby proving more than 11,000 “experts” wrong.
"We all thought it was kind of funny, and I really wasn't surprised, because those three guys are superstars," Arend said. "But we also took it to heart, and our mantra has been to prove more than 11,000 people wrong. I think we did that. I wouldn't have thought both Ronny and Tony would miss the field here, but this is what it's been about all season. Big names are going to miss the show every week, because the math says it has to be that way.
"The poll was a bit of a motivator, there's no doubt about that, but you can't just get all pumped up to be good out here. You have to be calm and methodical. But you know, if it wasn't in our minds, I don't think we would have all been talking about it today,” Arend said. “And I have to say that this isn't about anything other than trying to prove people wrong. I respect Ron and Tony immensely, but this was about how people perceive of us, and it mattered to a group of guys wearing blue CSK shirts. I'm really proud of this team."
ALL ABOUT PERCEPTION - Tony Pedregon doesn’t have a major factory program, but that hasn’t stopped him and his brother Cruz from shopping around for one. A recent announcement that Toyota will supply their teams with support vehicles has raised many questions considering they are perceived as a Chevrolet factory operation.
Sometimes looks can be deceiving.
“We really don’t have much of a program with Chevrolet to begin with,” Pedregon said. “It seems like they invest most of their money into their Pro Stock program. They did provide us with an Impala body because over the years we have done a lot for them.
“Cruz and I are one of the few teams that have major sponsorship like Schumacher, Force and even Prudhomme. When it comes to the cars, there isn’t really that much of a program there for us.”
Pedregon pulls no punches. He’s gunning for Toyota backing and regardless of how low the bottom floor is, he’ll work his way to the top if given the opportunity.
“Our hopes are that we can help lure Toyota into this sport,” Pedregon said. “I know they are looking at it and see a lot of value in it. More than that, they see a lot of their customers at the races. They have a really good product and their numbers speak for themselves. They invest an awful lot and have plants in San Antonio and Indianapolis. Toyota employs a lot of people here in Kansas.”
Rumors suggest the brothers possess a Toyota body. Pedregon says that is not true. At this point, Pedregon said, he is happy running the Impala shell.
“The Toyota body that is running now is exclusive to Alan Johnson,” Pedregon said. “We are hoping that we can work with them to build a body. Right now it is just support vehicle help only. Every little bit helps a team like us. That’s really the extent of it at this point.
“The Impala body is no doubt more aerodynamic than what we had been working with prior. It has worked out well,” he said. “With not having as good of a body as Schumacher and Force, we beat their teams on a lot of occasions.”
Pedregon said that earning his niche with Toyota will come down to being more creative than the next team owner. “Cruz and I are just trying to get creative and work with the companies that are willing to do it with us,” Pedregon said. “We have to look at other avenues to bring in that support.”
A TURN-KEY TF? - Jack Beckman tested a Top Fuel dragster last week in Indianapolis. The sophomore Funny Car racer drove the ex-Melanie Troxel SKULL SHINE dragster that she vacated when moving over to the Morgan Lucas team.
Beckman said no imminent plan exists to switch to a dragster. The test was nothing more than keeping that car turn-key if a deal comes along for a second Don Schumacher Top Fueler, so the start-up will be minimal, Beckman said.
“My crew got elected to go out and test the car in Indy,” Beckman said. “We’ll probably have one more shake-down before the end of the year. That way, what Don has is a car ready to go once he decides what he wants to do.”
So how did he do?
“It was a very difficult race track,” Beckman said. “There were a lot of other good drivers out there, and out of their runs, one may have hit the 300-foot mark once. It wasn’t for lack of effort.
“The IRP crew was there and [track specialist] Lanny Miglizzi was on hand, too. I have pictures of Lanny scraping the track. It was just a difficult track. We made three runs, two of which were early shut-offs.”
Beckman’s best during the test session wouldn’t make it in an average field, but a 4.78 elapsed time and 299 mph with a soft tune-up proved to be better than average for the day.
“It would have been nice to leave with a 4.5-second tune-up, but the track just wouldn’t take it,” Beckman said. “I think it was a success. There weren’t the usual butterflies that would accompany something like this.”
Even the crew passed the test.
“It took them all of three runs to figure out how to make a long car run,” Beckman said. “The clutch program is different. When we got back after making a run, the guys forgot which side of the cockpit to go to in order to drain the oil.
“It was interesting watching the fastest Funny Car crew wrench on a Top Fuel car.”
Beckman’s test marked the first time he has been in a dragster since November 2005.
THE LUCKY BAD BREAK - Greg Anderson nailed his fifth No. 1 qualifying spot this season in eight races at the NHRA O’Reilly Summer Nationals being held this weekend at Heartland Park Topeka (HPT).
It was a twist of fate that landed Anderson in the top spot at the end of Friday’s qualifying.
In the opening session of qualifying, Anderson was in the right lane. He launched and then shut the car down in third gear. Thinking that the run (8.834/108.78) would never make the field, which it did, he bypassed the scales failing to get his Summit Racing Pontiac weighed. As a result, the run was disallowed and Anderson received no time.
Because cars are paired in the next session by their times in the first session, and since Anderson received no time, that disqualification placed Anderson in the second pair in the second session. After a short rain delay just prior to the beginning of that session, qualifying resumed and Anderson ran a then track record elapsed time of 6.709 seconds at a speed of 206.48 mph, also a track record. After running only three pair, is when fate intervened in the form of Mother Nature.
The rains returned and the remainder of all qualifying was canceled with Anderson sitting on top of the Pro Stock field at the end of the first day of qualifying.\
“There was no sense weighing (after that first run)…so I blew by the scales,” said Anderson, after Friday’s qualifying. “I’m looking like a genius because I did that, but it was purely luck. That’s just dumb luck.”
It wasn’t dumb luck that nobody was able to take the top spot away from Anderson. In fact, he gave his opponents something to think about when he lowered his elapsed time record of Friday night in today’s final qualifying session, blazing down the HPT quarter-mile in 6.703 seconds.
“You have to be real careful on your burnout or you’re going to mess up your whole run,” said Anderson, as he talked about the improvement the Safety Safari made to the starting line for the final two sessions of qualifying. The three-time NHRA POWERade Pro Stock champion felt that the Safety Safari, considered one of the best at track preparation in the business, had made both lane equally good and indicated that the fans would see some good side-by-side runs during eliminations tomorrow.
TO THE LEFT - Both of Anderson best runs came in the left lane but he did not feel that would present a problem tomorrow. “I’m not concerned about the right lane. The two runs I made in the right lane was not an issue with the track. On one run I broke a spark plug and on the other I didn’t have enough clutch in the car. We underestimated the track. It’s nothing to blame on the race track. You can run in either lane,” reflected Anderson.
In the opening round tomorrow, Anderson will go against the No. 16 qualifier Max Taylor. Taylor qualified with a pass of 6.773 seconds at 204.14 seconds.
At Heartland Park Topeka, Anderson has put his KB Racing-owned, Summit Racing Equipment Pontiac GTO in the winners circle three times (2003-2005). In 2003 and 2004, the three-time POWERade Pro Stock champion took the win light over Kurt Johnson. While in 2005, Anderson got the best of Dave Connolly. Additionally in 2003 and 2005 he took the top qualifying position each year and added another one today.
TIGHT FIELD -- Only seven-hundredths of a second separate No. 1 qualifier Greg Anderson from No. 16 Max Naylor. Anderson leads the field with a 6.703-second pass and had top speed, as well, at 206.48 mph.
Anderson’s elapsed time was six-thousandths of a second quicker than his clocking Friday night in a session aborted by rain.
NO CLOWNING AROUND - Larry Morgan said he wanted to make someone’s day and did just that. He invited a clown to the race.
Never mind the fact Morgan’s crew thinks he’s a clown incognito; Morgan extended the invitation.
Fumbles the Clown was in the Morgan house … eh … pits.
“I’ve got my own personal clown,” Morgan said, laughing with the response. “We went to eat breakfast and this guy was clowning around in there. He asked me if I was with a team and I told him yes. Then he hinted that he would love to come to the race. I extended the invitation and he came.”
The time frame was tight for Fumbles. He had an hour to spare and that was long enough to make an appearance on the starting line for Morgan’s third qualifying attempt.
“Actually, we are in the entertainment business,” Morgan said. “We are at a circus. We need to have a clown, so we brought one. I think we’ve always had one -- he just wouldn’t dress up.”
Morgan, who has taken jabs at the NHRA over the last few years, said the clown act was not a subliminal message based on Friday’s track situation. He had an honest-to-goodness clown opportunity and took it.
Besides, Morgan said, the NHRA was doing all they could to rectify the situation.
“There was nothing that NHRA could have done about the starting line,” Morgan said. “It wasn’t their fault. It was an unfortunate deal for everyone. Then the rain came.
“A man just wanted to come. I got him up on the starting line. He is from around this area and had never done this. I just made his day.
“I feel good that I did this. After all, this is a circus around here and we have to have a clown.”
V. Gaines was asked what his contribution to the circus would be. Gaines offered a high-wire act tomorrow as a part of the Morgan show.
GOING FORTH IN FOURTH -- "Everyone's had their hands full with this race track," Jeg Coughlin said after taking the No. 4 spot in the order with his Jegs.com Mail Order Chevy Cobalt. "It's very touchy and, believe me, the crew chiefs are earning their pay out there, because one slight move with the tune-up in either direction can spell trouble.
"As a driver, you always strive to be perfect but you really put in that extra effort when you have a tough race track, because you want to remove as many variables from the equation as possible,” he said. “Right now we all seem to be clicking together well."
Coughlin is third in the standings, 15 points behind No. 2 Dave Connolly, his teammate at Victor Cagnazzi Racing. Connolly was No. 2 qualifier Saturday. Coughlin will meet No. 13 qualifier Warren Johnson in Sunday’s opening round, and Connolly will face Greg Stanfield.
WORKING TOGETHER FOR THE BETTER -- Trevor Ashline, president of Safety Solutions, said the head and neck restraint system they developed for John Force Racing soon will be available for public consumption.
“It not only takes care of frontal impacts and angular frontal impacts that the SFI standard always did just for drag racing but also handles tire shake, vibrations, side impacts and basically every direction,” said Ashline. “It’s not a device that you can use for road racing, because you have to be able to turn your head more, but a purpose-built drag racing item.”
Ashline has found an unofficial testing/marketing partner in the safety development business with ISP’s Kris Van Gilder.
Gilder’s ISP has experienced an increase in demand for their form-fitted seats and head systems. Together, Safety Solutions and ISP are sharing data to assist in making better products.
“We do all of our crash testing together,” Van Gilder says. “Trevor needs seats to test his head and neck restraints. We work as a good team and we are sharp in working with the belts. We both understand that they belts are the most important part of a seating system to secure an occupant.
“We actually spend more time working with a team on its belts than selling our own units. At the end of the day, we want to make sure a racer is the safest he or she can be.”
ORTEGA FORMS OWN FIRM -- Javier Ortega, Executive Director of the NHRA Xplod Sport Compact Racing Series, has resigned from his longtime position as Sport Compact Special Events Director at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park at Englishtown, New Jersey, and established Ortega Global Solutions. OGS is an event production, promotion, and consulting company specializing in the Import/Sport Compact tuning industry.
“I’m leaving Raceway Park so that I can be a leader in the next phase of Sport Compact and the wide variety of events that can be conducted around the industry,” Ortega said.
He has been entrenched in the Import/Sport Compact tuning industry for more than 20 years. In 1992, Ortega noticed organized import drag events growing on the West Coast and began to urge Vinny Napp, owner of Raceway Park, to have an import event there. His passion for the Import Scene grew in the mid-90s when Ortega opened one of the first import tuner shops on the East Coast, Drag Racing Technologies or DRT, which fr many years was the place to go to build a serious race car from the ground up.
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THE LONG AND GRINDING ROAD - The Topeka event marks the beginning of a stretch for the POWERade Drag Racing Series that will include eight races in nine weeks. That stretch will include the re-scheduled O'Reilly Thunder Valley Nationals, July 6-8 at Tennessee’s Bristol Dragway.
The series moves next to Joliet, Illinois, June 8-10, followed by one weekend off. Action resumes with six straight races – at Englishtown, New Jersey; Norwalk, Ohio; Bristol, Tennessee, then the grueling Western Swing of Denver, Seattle, and Sonoma, California.
Top Fuel’s Tony Schumacher said, “It’ll be a grind for everyone.”
But Funny Car rebel Jerry Toliver had his own spin on it. “Eight races in nine weeks could help us,” he said. “Having the late start makes it hard on us to catch up with the pack. If we get on a roll and things go our way, we can make up some lost ground [in the standings].”
“His Funny Car rival, Ron Capps, said of himself and his buddies, “Our wives are wanting to get us out of the house because we're going stir crazy. But, being the points leader and coming off a win like we did, it's nice to have the extra time to kind of enjoy it.”
Pro Stock’s Richie Stevens saw both sides of the issue.
“It’s a struggle on the team to get the cars to the races. They have only a few days to get there, and they need to pack everything up,” he said. “But it keeps me in sync with driving. It keeps you in a competitive mode when you go back-to-back like that. I’d say the only tough part about it is if you go to all these races and you hurt a motor, you’ve got to struggle to fix it between races. Hopefully we won’t run into that problem.”
His teammate, Allen Johnson, said, “We’ve got a professional, long-term relationship team that has done it forever. It’s going to be a little bit of a mess, [racing] eight out of the next nine weeks. But we can do whatever it takes.”
FRESH FUNDS -- A couple of pro racers have acquired additional support. Scott Griffin, new owner of the FRAM Dragster that Cory McClenathan drives, announced Friday that his race tam will partner with JET, maker of woodworking and metalworking machinery, air tools, and material-handling equipment. JET is a first-time sponsor in drag racing.
Pro Stock’s Mike Edwards’ “Young Life Sending A Kid To Camp” program is growing in its third year with additional support from fellow competitor Allen Johnson and manufacturer ProJacks. The venture has sent nearly 300 kids to a Young Life camp. “We knew the racing community was a giving bunch that would do almost anything to give those not as fortunate as us a chance at something better,” Edwards said. “That is why we started this program and now it is accomplishing just that, giving kids some hope for the future.”
Drivers V. Gaines, Kenny Koretsky, Jeg Coughlin, team owner Evan Knoll, W.W. Engineering , and competitionplus.com and have joined the effort. To become involved, contact Mike Edwards Motorsports at the track or by calling (918) 486-6453.
GETTING A LEG UP -- Joe Hartley will testify nothing is better than momentum and a hometown advantage.
“It’s amazing," Hartley said. "I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet that we are actually sitting in the No. 1 spot. If we can hold it or even maintain that top portion of the field going into Sunday, it will be great. It gives you that much of a better chance going into Sunday.
“They put us in the Tricky Tipster in National Dragster, which is kind of an odds to win and is 14-1,” said Hartley. “We’ve always had such bad luck here in Topeka, we just really wanted to have a nice run out of the box. We were shooting to run a high .50, or a low .60, and to be able to rip off that .51 right out of the box was very awesome. This is what we consider our hometown track. There is nothing close to the team out of Omaha; the team used to be based out of Wichita. We have a lot of guys from Kansas working on the car. So, this is our hometown track. Over the years coming here we’ve maybe qualified once, so to come out here this weekend and start as strong as we did is awesome.”
His first career provisional #1 was a bit out of the ordinairy.
“It was kind of a weird run," Hartley said. " On a lot of the quicker runs I’ve had, you really kind of have to handle the car out there in the middle of the track. This run was so smooth, and so straight I really didn’t think I ran that fast. It was a little bit of a shock to me. It was a nice, smooth run, but it was kind of a shock.”
Friday night qualifying was cut short because of inclement weather. Although the night was brought to a close, Hartley and team are elated to be in the strong position they are in.
“There are a little bit of mixed feeling there,” said Hartley. “There is a part of us that doesn’t mind the rain came and be able to hold that No. 1 spot. But we did want to run for that .40. We had a game plan to try and pick it up a little bit and dip it into the .40’s.”
LOTS OF HART-LEY - Joe Hartley, drag racing’s new low-budget favorite-son racer and popular underdog, grabbed the early Top Fuel lead with a 4.518-second elapsed time at 323.12 mph, acing current series champion Tony Schumacher by. .011 of a second.
“We were hoping it’d run a low .60,” a pleasantly surprised Hartley said.
Even Schumacher, who desperately wants to get back in a winning groove, expressed excitement about Hartley’s performance Friday. “How about that?! That‘s what happens to us on Sunday” Schumacher said, after his 4.529 that netted him the No. 2 spot, just ahead of the David Powers Motorsports tandem of Whit Bazemore and points leader Hot Rod Fuller.
Hartley, the No. 16 qualifier at the season-opening Winternationals at Pomona, California, defeated No. 1 qualifier Schumacher in Round 1. Hartley was runner-up to J.R. Todd at Houston, then he beat the more seasoned Dave Grubnic in the first round at Las Vegas (for the second straight race). In four races this year, Hartley has a 5-3 elimination-round record, a positive contrast to his 9-26 overall mark.
When Schumacher made his run and the 4.529-second E.T. flashed on the scoreboard, announcer Bob Frey praised the pass but wisecracked, “He ain’t no Joe Hartley.”
LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON -- Drag racers hear the name “Bowling Green, Kentucky” and think of the Hot Rod Reunion. But the city will have a different special meaning for Top Fuel driver Clay Millican. It’s where younger son Dalton earned his first All-Terrain Vehicle Association victory last Sunday in just his third race.
The Blue Grass Nationals marked an improvement for Dalton Millican, who finished a not-so-shabby third, then second, in previous races. He took the lead on both of his motos and never surrendered the leads.
“I was absolutely tickled about him winning his first national event in just his third race,” said Dalton‘s proud father. “He ran real well. He got a holeshot and led the race from wire to wire in his first moto on Saturday. That put him in a good position for Sunday’s race. He got another holeshot start and led from the rest of the way. His last lap was faster than the first three, so I guess all the exercise he’s doing is paying off.”
The 14-year-old rides for the Knoll Gas Lonestar Racing Team, and his boss is the same as his dad’s: Evan Knoll. “Evan and Dalton seem to have a pretty darn good race bike,” Clay Millican said. “Now Daddy’s just sitting back being the nervous father and having a blast.”
True to his reputation as a preteen, Dalton Millican, who was banged up numerous times as a skateboarder and rough-and-tumble boy, crashed in Friday’s action and seriously damaged his bike. Parents Clay and Donna didn’t arrive until Saturday and didn’t witness the mishap, but Clay said later, “It bent the grab bar at the back of the bike -- broke off the controls, clutch lever and brake lever.
“He flipped it pretty good,” Millican said. “The bike went end over end a couple of times. The people at Lonestar should be proud of how tough everything is. We were nervous about him becoming a little timid when it came time to go out again, but Dalton went right back out there and ran really well. He seems to be getting comfortable on the new Lonestar Racing bike.”
Dalton’s teammate, Keith Parker, repaired the bike. But he, too, crashed on his first moto in the 30-plus BC Class but rebounded to second place in his final moto, putting him fourth overall.
Clay Millican has had more than three cracks at winning an NHRA race, but he has won six straight IHRA series championships. He’ll be looking this weekend at Heartland Park Topeka for that elusive first NHRA “Wally” statue to go with all of his Ironmen trophies.
TOPSY-TURVY TOPEKA -- While Snap-on Tools Dragster driver Doug Herbert said he’s looking to make that field of eight for the Countdown to the Championship, looking ahead to the races leading up to the list-defining U.S. Nationals, he took a quick peek back at his racing luck at Topeka.
“I’ve had a little of it all in Topeka,” Herbert said. “I crashed here in ’93, which definitely was one of those bad experiences. But I’ve also won here, back in ’99 against Joe Amato.”
He said he’ll have special incentive this weekend to earn his first victory of the year. “My sister, Heather, will be here cheering for me and the Snap-on Tools team on Sunday. She is in the United States Army JAG Corps and has recently been moved to Missouri,” he said. “I don’t get to see her as often as I would like, and would really like to celebrate with her in winners circle.”
Herbert needs to make the field first, of course -- something he was unable to do Friday, 17th in the lineup, nothing close to Scott Palmer’s early bump time of 5.937 seconds.
Also unqualified in their first attempts were two-time 2007 winner J.R. Todd, 2005 Topeka winner Dave Grubnic, and veteran Cory McClenathan.
SITTING THERE, GETTING ACQUAINTED - - Fourteen-time champion John Force would have been proud of Hillary Will if he had seen her there at the Kalitta Motorsports shop in Ypsilanti, Michigan, during the past few weeks. Just like he used to do when he was trying to make a name for himself in Funny Car competition, Will tried to reconnect with her Ken Black-owned, Kalitta-managed dragster during the extended layoff.
“I have to admit that I actually spent time at the shop just sitting in my dragster,” she said. “It has been an unusual couple of weeks for me, because we have had three weekends in a row without a race. That is unheard of in NHRA POWERade drag racing.”
But, as she said, she “managed to stay pretty busy with our unplanned off-time. I went to the NASCAR race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Charlotte, North Carolina.” The experience was an eye-opener and not because of the stock-car spectacle at the Coca-Cola 600.
“I had a great time, but it made me miss drag racing. I was reminded how fan-friendly NHRA drag racing is, and it made me appreciate being able to interact with the great fans of our sport,” she said. “Being a spectator also reminded me how fortunate I am to be able to drive, compete, and win in a race car. That’s exactly what I plan on doing this weekend.”
Less than a year ago, Will won the International Hot Rod Association’s marquee race at Norwalk, Ohio -- where she’ll return with the rest of the Powerade Drag Racing Series regulars for an NHRA inaugural after the Englishtown classic.
This weekend’s O’Reilly Midwest Nationals is the eighth of 17 events in the first segment of the Countdown to the Championship process, and Will is 11th -- three shy of the title-contention lineup.
She was 12th in the order after Friday’s initial run.
ARMY RESURGENCE ? -- Tony Schumacher, the reigning Top Fuel champion, is a distasteful sixth in the standings, borderline-vulnerable in the scramble for the top eight positions by Labor Day weekend.
"Admittedly, we have not been real successful of late," the U.S. Army Dragster driver said. "With that said, we've still managed to stay in the top eight, which is critical in the new Countdown to the Championship format. We're certainly expecting better days ahead. We've got to get back to victory lane for our hard working soldiers."
He knew if he were to whittle that 128-point gap between himself and leader Hot Rod Fuller and snap a streak of four Round 1 losses, he would have to do it on the track. "After the Bristol race was postponed, it was nice that we all got to spend some additional quality time with our families," Schumacher said, “but I have to admit that I'm ready to get back to work. I guess I have to fill my need for speed."
And what a daunting assignment for the four-time champion. In 12 visits to Heartland Park Topeka, Schumacher has totaled but 10 elimination round-wins and no final-round appearances.
"It's been tough out there for some reason," Schumacher said. “History aside, we need to start moving in the right direction on Sunday. These first-round losses have to stop right now.”
PINCH-TUNER? - Brian Corradi, crewchief for Mike Ashley, has been on a tear in 2007 with three consecutive top qualifiers. After tuning Ashley to the provisional #2 spot on Friday, he'll step aside for a pinch-tuner.
Mark Oswald will be calling the shots in place of Brian Corradi, who is being carted home on team-sponsor Evan Knoll's private jet to attend high school commencement ceremonies for his oldest son, Nick.
"We are all about family on this team, and I wouldn't have had it any other way," Ashley said. "We'll be just fine without Brian, and we all send our congratulations and wish Nick the best of success as he graduates high school. It's a very special time - and, thanks to Evan, Brian won't have to miss a moment."
Corradi is scheduled to leave Topeka early Saturday morning and return later the same night. Qualifying will continue with sessions scheduled at noon and 2:30 p.m., and Ashley said he's confident the car will run well, despite Corradi's absence.
"Mark was the first nitro crew chief I ever worked with, and has taught me so much about driving, it won't affect me at all.
"I don’t make the calls on the car, but, I think probably the game plan will be, if I had to guess, do the same thing we always try to do - give the track as much as it can take without going over center."
SO TIRED, TIRED OF WAITING - - Jerry Toliver is tired of waiting. All NHRA drag racers are tired of waiting. But the ROCKSTAR Energy Drink Toyota Solara driver sat out two seasons -- and five races into this one. At the previous race, at St. Louis, he qualified for the 16-car field for the first time this season. And his first-round defeat May 6 has made him all the more eager to get rolling again.
“I think the car has shown some progress,” Toliver said of his Dale Armstrong-tuned flopper. “Unfortunately [at Gateway International Raceway], we weren’t able to go down the race track that Sunday morning. We are anxious to see if the changes we made on the car then are going to work in Topeka. If they do, we are certainly on the right track.”
He had throttle-linkage trouble against Ashley Force in that race.
“The car does seem to be responding to everything we are doing, and that’s very encouraging,” he said. In general, he said, “The car’s performance has come around very quickly . . . It has been great.“
When he took his sponsor-influenced sabbatical from the Funny Car class, it had grown into a fiercely competitive category. Nothing has changed, unless it has gotten more so. “Funny Car is as tough as it has ever been. It’s a feat just to qualify. All the qualifiers are tough now,” Toliver said, noting that it naturally follows that “winning is not an easy task.”
Toliver’s 4.903-second elapsed time at 317.05 mph left him 10th among the 16 provisional qualifiers after one session Friday.
I’D SOONER BE NO. 1 -- Gary Densham was the No. 1 qualifier last weekend at the International Hot Rod Association’s Sooner Nationals at Tulsa. But rain washed out Sunday’s eliminations, and Densham will be racing in NHRA competition at Englishtown, New Jersey, on the make-up weekend. But the experience, costly though it was to his Torco-Racebricks Chevy Impala SS team, served as a great tune-up for this event. Densham was fourth in the order after the opening session Friday, behind Robert Hight, Mike Ashley (who set the track speed record at 327.11 mph), and John Force.
Tim Wilkerson, who gained valuable seat time in his new Impala last weekend at Tulsa Raceway Park while qualifying No. 2, was fifth on Friday’s early sheets.
ITCHIN' ... AND SCRATCHIN' -- Itchin’ . . . and scratchin‘ -- Funny Car point leader Ron Capps said, “Everybody's got the itch” to get back to racing. And if Capps, who has won three of the seven events in hand this season, should win this weekend in his newly painted Brut “Test Drive” Dodge Charger, the victory would rank right up there with some of his more memorable trips to Topeka.
He won here in 1998 and again last year.
"In 1998, the year that we had to go back another weekend after a rain-out, it was after midnight when we ran the final round against Al Hofmann," Capps said. "Not only did we win, but it blew the clutch up, and there was a shower of sparks from about 1000 feet on, all the way through the shutdown area. I remember it vaulted us right into a major fight for the championship with John Force, and [this] was a place that Force had owned. He'd won it so many times that to go in there and steal a win from him was gratifying.
"I also remember that nothing was open by the time we got out of the track, and we ended up having a team party at the truck stop at about 3 o'clock in the morning.
"Last year, when we won again,” Capps said, “it was a very difficult weekend. It was hot, and track conditions were unbelievable. Anything under five seconds was a good run. I remember the Brut team fighting adversity, fighting the heat, and coming out on top. Not only that, but beating John Force [in the final] and Robert Hight that day was huge.”
Huge, too, was the disappointment of not making the grid in Friday’s first chance. His Charger encountered shake at about half-track. It’s little consolation, but he found himself in excellent company with Kenny Bernstein and Tony Bartone.
UNCHARTERED TERRITORY -- Camp Mosul will receive the cards that race fans fill out this weekend at Jack Beckman’s Funny Car pit, the Don Schumacher Racing hospitality area, and the U.S. Army Interactive area on the manufacturers’ midway. The promotion is part of the continuing Mail Terminal Services “Mail From Home” program for American troops stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Beckman, too, is in a bit of unfamiliar territory. This is his first trip to Heartland Park Topeka.
"Kansas saw the first NHRA national event ever in 1955,” Beckman said, turning historian, “so racing at Heartland Park is kind of a return NHRA's roots for me.” Of course, he was referring to Great Bend, Kansas, where an abandoned airstrip in the central Kansas town hosted the first NHRA national event and attracted more than 200 competitors from across the nation.
"I'm driving such a good car that I think that we're just a win waiting to happen, and this could be the weekend. There isn't any reason that the MTS Dodge can't win every weekend, which, of course, is unrealistic,” Beckman said. “But we have to start winning pretty soon, and this could be the weekend. I just want to start getting the momentum back."
He was 11th after his first qualifying attempt, with a 4.914-second elapsed time.
‘OH, TOTO -- Friday’s harsh weather in Topeka didn’t surprise Funny Car driver Del Worsham one bit.
Worsham, runner-up at St. Louis in the most recent race completed, said, "We've had our share of interesting midwestern weather over the years, from tornadoes to wild temperature swings and just about anything else you can imagine. It is Kansas, after all. You'll notice they didn't place The Wizard Of Oz in California or Oregon. They needed to put it out in the plains, where all the wild weather is. But all in all, I love the track and love the town, we just need to find a way to get deep into the field, and then get right back to winning rounds again on Sunday."
Despite not faring all that well at Topeka, Worsham said he enjoys coming to the heartland -- and Heartland Park.
"I've always enjoyed coming to Topeka, for a lot of reasons,” he said, “but we've never had tons of luck on the track here. It's a great town that really embraces this huge event, and that means something to all of us.”
He didn’t have tons of luck Friday, but he did start the weekend with a 5.176-second elapsed time that put him 14th in the 16-car field.
DISTANT MEMORY -- It was the day after her father’s 2005 Funny Car victory at Heartland Park Topeka that Ashley Force first tried out her dad’s Castrol-sponsored Ford Mustang Funny Car. Friday she closed the day in ninth position.
WANTED: STARTING LINE RUBBER - Greg Anderson's first qualifying run was negated, but that didn't stop him from coming back to establish both ends of the Heartland Park - Topeka track record. The lack of a gripping starting line didn't deter him either.
“It’s very tricky, and it’s funny because if you see cars leave the starting line out there, they aren’t sliding all over the race track," Anderson said. "The rest of the race track is fine. It’s from the water box to 60 foot. It’s not attracting any rubber; it’s not holding any rubber. So, if by a miracle you can do some sort of a burn out and get enough heat in the tires to get off the starting line, then you are fine.
"Luckilly, I was able to do a proper burnout, half of a proper burnout, it still spun hard in low gear, but once I made it to second it was clear sailing. The issue is the water box not attracting any rubber, it’s not holding any rubber, and you can’t build any heat in your tires on your burnout. When you aren’t building the proper amount of heat in the tires, you’ve got no traction when you stage the car, and you’re spinning the tires.
"If you make it through there, just spinning the tires, but you make it through there, it’s a thin line, and then you are fine. If you don’t get enough heat in the tires on the burnout, you are not going to go two foot, and that is what you saw tonight.”
Anderson said that Saturday will bring a new day, or maybe not.
“I think [the sun] may help a little bit tomorrow," Anderson said. "Honestly, I could be wrong. It could make it worse, but I’m hoping it helps a little bit. It seems like the rubber needs to get a little bit softer, it’s a little hard right now and not sticking to the track. We used to beg for no sun because it usually makes the track better, but that’s when you are going already on top of rubber. When you are going on bare concrete, maybe the sun will help, we’ll see tomorrow.”
MARTINO BACK AT IT - Tom Martino has found another paying gig starting this weekend. If things go well, he could be a part of Ron Krisher’s supporting cast for at least the balance of the 2007 season.
“I got the call after St. Louis,” Martino said. “They were struggling with the car and had some engine issues. I’m not doing anything with the engine but I am trying to help with the car some and taking a bit of the load off of Ron. I’m just trying to help him get turned around and headed in the right direction.
It’s still too early to measure how long this association will last.
“I have come to learn in racing that your job is only secure the day you are there,” Martino said. “It can change at any time. The previous job I had, I thought I did a good job. Someone came along with money and I was out of a job. Someone could come along here and sell something else and I could be out of a job again.
“All I can do is to do the best I can and give the man his money’s worth. Let the chips fall where they may.”
Martino’s last victory came in 2006 while driving a second car for V. Gaines.
BE PREPARED -- Resting, spending time with family, taking a little time off . . . No one would have caught Warren Johnson slacking off in the recent down-time. He said that during the past few weeks, he, son Kurt, and his crew “turned our attention towards building a larger inventory of parts for both my GM Performance Parts GTO and Kurt’s ACDelco Cobalt. We’ve also tried to squeeze in a little testing since time will be extremely limited once we get started in Topeka.”
Always focused, Johnson said he wasn’t wasting any time during the extra time off. “Our goal is to be as ready as we can be to deal with any eventuality that comes up over the next two and a half months. It’s a crucial part of the season that has now been compacted, and we can only hope that Mother Nature will give us her full cooperation,” he said. “For now, we’re just a bunch of Boy Scouts – being prepared for whatever gets thrown at us.”
However, he didn’t anticipate being pushed from the starting line before he could make a pass Friday.
W.J.’S TOPEKA DOSSIER -- Warren Johnson was the first No. 1 NHRA Pro Stock qualifier in Heartland Park history. In this 24th appearance here, he leads all Pro Stock competitors with five victories in six final-round appearances and seven No. 1 qualifying positions. He’s 38-18 in elimination rounds for a .679 winning percentage
So what does he think of the place? “Overall, it’s been a pretty decent place to race over the years,” Johnson said. “We typically don’t run a lot of speed there because of the elevation and the warmer temperatures we have there. The owner has been putting a tremendous amount of money into the facility since he purchased the track in 2003, and though the improvements were primarily centered on the road course, we have also indirectly benefited.”
DAUGHTER-DAD MOMENT -- Eight-year-old Erin Johnson’s soccer team had lost 10-2 to a rival team earlier in the season. But the Georgia youngsters bounced back by defeating that same team in the youth league championship recently.
And her dad got to witness it. Kurt Johnson doesn’t normally get to watch daughter Erin’s games or son Conner’s soccer games, either. He‘s usually busy, pursuing the NHRA Pro Stock championship. But after watching her team battle through the tournament, winning each time by a single goal, Kurt Johnson said he was going to use that triumph as his inspiration this weekend in the O‘Reilly Summer Nationals.
“It was exciting. I was extremely proud of my kids and happy I was able to be there to see it. But now it’s time to get back to work, and this weekend, our ACDelco Cobalt crew is going to use their performance as our inspiration,” he said. “I guess you could say my daughter has shown me how to win.”
Kurt Johnson knows how to win. He has done it 36 times, including once this season at Firebird International Raceway, near Phoenix. But he never as done it at Topeka. He has been in the final round in three of the last four years.
And Erin Johnson’s perseverance, indeed, motivated her father Friday, for he was quickest and fastest in the class after the first session with a run of 6.744 seconds at 204.85 mph.
“Every year, I have a little added motivation heading to Heartland Park Topeka, simply because it’s a track where I have yet to win,” said Johnson. “We’ve come close in the last few years. This year, we’re in great shape, coming off a decent showing in St. Louis and pretty pleased with how our ACDelco Cobalt is running. We also have a good notebook on the track, so we’re ready to win.
“We have our work cut out for us.” he said. “After all, my daughter has set the standard, and now it’s up to us to live up to it.”
'I'VE BEEN EVERYWHERE, MAN ...' -- Richie Stevens can be restless. “I like this time off, but as soon as you’ve been home for a couple of days you want to get back out there,” the driver of the Don Schumacher Racing-owned and J & J Racing-tuned Team Mopar/Valspar Dodge Stratus said. “You’re so used to racing all the time.”
His teammate, Allen Johnson, is seventh in the Pro Stock standings, but Stevens is 10th. Johnson entered this event third in the order for $50,000-to-win the King Demon Crown bonus race and is sure to make the top eight, but Stevens remains on the bubble.
So the New Orleans native has more than just the tall task this weekend of trying to qualify for this race. Because of the Bristol postponement, this is his last chance to make the bonus-race lineup. To make the most of it, he has been testing at various tracks.
“We tested in Chicago last week and did some runs out there, and we went out to Denver earlier this week to do some testing at the track before we come back out for the race in July,” Stevens said.
So where was Richie Stevens Friday? Fourth in the order at Heartland Park Topeka, one-thousandth of a second slower than Allen Johnson.
The King Demon Crown race is scheduled to run during the Route 66 NHRA Nationals at Chicago next weekend.
Stevens said the Bristol situation “kind of hurt me a little bit, because now I only have one race before the King Demon shootout. Hopefully at Topeka we can pull one out. I think we need to qualify fifth or better and have the person ahead of us DNQ to get that last spot. We’ll try to do what we can.”
CONNOLY - KJ RIVALRY -- Dave Connolly, last year’s Pro Stock winner over fellow finalist Kurt Johnson, was second to K.J. Friday in the order.
POINTED IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION -- Former Sport Compact Series competitor Justin Humphreys said he likes the direction his RaceRedi Motorsports team is headed -- especially after qualifying 15th and upsetting reigning Pro Stock champ Jason Line in the first round at St. Louis.
He wasn’t crazy about the fact that the car had problems at the first hit of the throttle in Friday’s rain-delayed opening qualifying session. But that’s a bump in the road; he likes the overall potential.
Humphreys, who drives the Knoll-Gas Motorsports Pontiac GTO, tested at Joliet, Illinois’ Route 66 Raceway and made 12 runs in two days. Earlier this week, he tried out mile-high Bandimere Speedway, near Denver.
“Everything is coming together,” Humphreys, who turned 30 last Saturday, said. “Richard (team engine builder Maskin) found more horsepower and his guys and Eric (team crew chief Luzinski) and my guys have been working together on new combinations.”
Then in the semifinals, tire shake kept him from advancing at Dave Connolly’s expense. He had a near-perfect .003 reaction to Dave Connolly’s also-impressive .031. “He said I would’ve whipped him if I hadn’t had tire shake,” Humphreys said of eventual winner Connolly.
After one session, Humphreys was unqualified, along with Max Naylor, Ron Krisher, and Kenny Koretsky.
TRUE COLORS -- Jeg Coughlin declared this week, "The yellow and black is back." JEGS.com, the Internet-based high-performance mail order parts giant, moved from major associate to primary backer of his Victor Cagnazzi Racing Chevrolet Cobalt in the three weeks since the last event at St. Louis. He started Friday’s qualifying in eighth position with a 6.779-second pass.
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