NHRA SCHUCK'S NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
SUNDAY NOTEBOOK -
ON THE POSITIVE SIDE OF THINGS - Sometimes just going rounds is just as good as winning the race.
Rod Fuller advanced to the semifinals for the 10th time in 14 races Sunday at Pacific Racewaysand subsequently became the first Top Fuel driver to earn a position in NHRA’s new Countdown to the Championship format.
“I came back and the guys were down, but there’s no reason to hang our heads,” Fuller said. “We were the only car in the right lane to win first round. I’m so proud of Rob Flynn and the team and Lee Beard and the Matco team too. They helped us and the team concept helped us prepare our car for first round.
“I’m the first driver ever to clinch a spot in the Countdown. Our goal now is to make sure we go into the chase ranked number one. We might not win the Western Swing, but we’re going to try and make it two out of three at Sonoma.” - Bobby Bennett
PULLS RANK WITH TRACK-BEST RUN -- Whit Bazemore in the Matco Tools Dragster gave U.S. Army-sponsored Tony Schumacher a marvelous side-by-side race in their quarterfinal race. But he couldn’t match Schumacher’s 4.518-second elapsed time that was only a couple of hundredths of a second shy of the Pacific Raceways record but at a track-record speed of 333.25 mph.
“We lost lane choice, and the center of the right lane has some bald spots,” he said, explaining that he had to drive the Alan Johnson-tuned dragster in a specific groove down the tricky quarter-mile. “They don’t come that often,” he said of such runs.
FAST FLASHBACK -- Just after beating first opponent Alan Bradshaw, Tony Schumacher had flashback to 2000, when he red-lit in the opening round. The sun was in his eyes that day, so that certainly couldn’t have been what triggered the memory. But that day seven years ago, he lost a bet to then-Top Fuel star Gary Scelzi. His penance was to have his head shaved. So his Army-style haircut was a result of that first-round loss here and not because of the U.S. Army sponsorship, which didn’t come until the end of the following month, at Indianapolis.
FRIENDS -- Talk from the previous race, at Denver, about animosity between Whit Bazemore and David Powers Motorsports teammate Hot Rod Fuller fizzled Sunday with Bazemore’s compliment of Fuller. Following his Round 1 victory in the Matco Tools Dragster against Steve Chrisman, Bazemore said, “We’re trying to build a super team. We have two great crews, two great cars, and two great drivers. Well, sometimes just one great driver -- Hot Rod’s always great. I am sometimes.
RIGHT ON -- Hot Rod Fuller was the lone Top Fuel driver to win from the right lane Sunday. After eliminating Clay Millican with a ,4.552-second elapsed time at 322.53 mph in the seventh of eight pairings, he said, “There’s nothing wrong with that right lane. I don’t want the fans to think this is a one-lane racetrack. We just proved it with that 55, and she was pretty conservative.”
A LITTLE FOGGY -- Hillary Will, comfortable at this track after racing here dozens of times in the Top Alcohol Dragster ranks with Northwest legend Bucky Austin as a mentor, lit both lights immediately against Larry Dixon in their first-round match-up. After Dixon, in the SkyTel Dragster, won on a holeshot by about six-thousandths of a second, he said Will told him after they got out of their cars that her visor had fogged up and she staged that quickly by accident. Dixon said he didn’t think his light was all that stellar, but it was enough to advance to the quarterfinals against on-track nemesis Brandon Bernstein.
JUST HIS DAY - "Fast" Jack Beckman wouldn't have given a snowball's chance in Hades of getting to race on Sunday. When he raced and won, it provided proof that fate was on his side.
"We won the race," said Beckman, who with everyone else believed today would be a rain-out. "There's not an asterisk next to that trophy that says it was a hot (and wet) day or NHRA had to prep the track 50 different times. When I got up this morning I thought I'll go down to the pits just so they know I didn't sleep in and then I'll catch up on my blogs the rest of the day. We thought there was a zero percent chance of running. When we got two runs in I thought, Man, NHRA did a fantastic job to get us this far.
"I can't believe we finished the whole race today. They gave us a safe race track to run on. You look at the times (for all four cars) in the semis: 4.78, .79, .80 and .82. So, the race track was as good in the semis and the finals as it was all weekend long. And it's amazing. It's just starting to sink in right now. I got my second Funny Car Wally in a row, third in the last 15 races.
"When he (Force) beat us in the final at the race we set the national E.T. record in November last year, I didn't see him the whole race. Our car was trucking, the front end got light, it moved over. But I didn't think anybody was going to get around that car, it was a beast. And his win light came on.
"So, I wasn't taking anything for granted because I couldn't see him in the final (today). The car was moving good. The finish line can't come up fast enough when you don't know how far ahead of the other guy you are. Our win light came on, got the 'chutes out, I'm starting to slow down and all of a sudden I saw him. But what I saw was a big ball of orange coming out his fender. Well, I'm like, that's interesting. I beat him and he still gets more TV time than I do," laughed Beckman. "
Beckman isn't surprised to see Force coming into his own at just the right moment. The drag racing school instructor is confident that he is too.
"Nobody counted Force out of getting in this Countdown. That Castrol freight train is on a mission right now, but I would not switch our MTS Dodge for any other Funny Car in the pits right now. And I think if you look at the last five races, I think everybody would agree with me. We have got the baddest hot rod out there. And it's (crew chiefs) Todd Okuhara and Phil Shuler, and all those awesome MTS guys, who make it that way."
Beckman moved into fifth in the Funny Car point standings and has swept two of the three Western Swing events so far. - Bobby Bennett
OLD HEAP IS RUNNING - That'll teach them to count John Force out. If his final round fireball doesn't show that he's willing to go out in a blaze of glory -- nothing will.
A resurgent Force drove his Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang final round for the second time in the last three races and moved around Cruz Pedregon to claim, at least temporarily, one of the eight positions in the NHRA’s Countdown to the Championship.
Force kept alive his hopes of repeating as POWERade Funny Car champion by stopping No. 4 qualifier Tony Bartone in round one, dispatching former protégé Tony Pedregon and the Q Chevrolet in round two and turning back Mike Ashley in the semifinals.
His bid for a record eighth victory at Pacific Raceways came to an abrupt end in the finals when the engine failed at halftrack while he was leading Jack Beckman in the 20th annual Schuck’s Auto Supply Nationals.
It’s the first time this season that Force has been in the Top 8 in points and it put him in position to repeat as NHRA Funny Car champion. The No. 13 qualifier in a rain-plagued event that featured a single qualifying session, Force went to the final round for the 197th time in his storied career. - Bobby Bennett
DOING IT NOW -- John Force, who has been mired as far back as
20th place in the Funny Car standings said he hasn’t given his sponsors
their money’s worth this year. But he did in the first round, as the
No. 13 seed (16th on merit but beneficiary of NHRA’s Top-10 rule that
inserted Jim Head, Cruz Pedregon, and Gary Scelzi into the field).
Force eliminated No. 4 Tony Bartone to move into eighth place in the
Powerade standings. That put him on the provisional list of drivers
eligible to compete for the championship. Three more races remain for
him to secure a spot.
YOU AGAIN? - Mike Ashley just can't seem to get Force's number. For the second time in the last three races, the New York mortgage banker lost a tough match to the 14-time Funny Car world champion.
"Once again, another great race with the champ," Ashley said. "We were almost dead-even off the tree, and his car just had a little more in it than ours. I almost caught him, but I think the ‘chutes came out a little early, and there just wasn't enough track.
"Still, our car is running right at the top of the pack, and we're solid in third place in the points, working our way into second, so, I'm very pleased with the weekend," he said. - Bobby Bennett
FIRST IN LINE - Let the record reflect that Ron Capps was the first Funny Car driver to ever claim a berth in the Countdown to the Championship.
Capps clinched a spot in the top eight despite a first-round loss against Ashley Force at the Schuck's Auto Supply NHRA Nationals.
Despite sporadic rain sprinkles, the fifth event of the six-race swing was completed today following only one round of qualifying on Saturday and a full schedule on Sunday.
Under clouds and in cooler conditions, Ashley surprised Capps and the crowd when she jumped first off the starting line with a .068 reaction time (.000 is perfect) to Capps' .100. This marked the first time in 19 rounds that Ashley Force out-launched her opponent in her rookie season. She put an exclamation point on that run by posting a winning 4.791-second pass at 311.70 mph to Capps' losing 4.840/319.90.
"We stayed in the left lane," said Capps. "Everybody was running great in the right lane. I was back in the lanes and (John) Force came back to talk to her, and Guido (Dean Antonelli), her crew chief, kept coming over. 'You guys are staying in the left lane?' he asked. And I said, Hey, talk to Ace (crew chief Ed McCulloch).
"We stayed in the left lane and we got up there and the car left and it rattled. When it rattles nowadays, it's usually because the car is a little bit on the softer edge, instead of aggressive. When it did that rattle, all of a sudden I saw her nose pop out. I thought, Oh, boy, it's like a video game. I'm watching my lane and in my peripheral I saw her nose pop out and then at half-track she went out to my front windshield. She just took a leap. They ran good half-track on, and then her car nosed over at the end, but it was too late."
As for clinching a spot in the Countdown, "Clinching is OK," said Capps, who has been a bridesmaid in the Funny Car championship three times but never a bride, "but you don't want to get complacent. That's where you get beat. Football teams do it. They're in the Playoffs, they take it easy, they have a bye weekend off, and they roll into the first round and they get their butts handed to them because they're lackadaisical. We don't want to do that. I've been there. I've been to Pomona and I've been second too many times to get in that mode. We're not going to let that happen this year." - Bobby Bennett
ASHLEY FORCE CRASHES -- Ashley Force followed her father down the track in the second pairing of Round 2. Right after he advanced by defeating Tony Pedregon, the 14-time champion praised his daughter’s progress but said that every run provides a learning experience. He alluded to the rookie’s accomplishments but joked, “It took me 30 years and I still suck!“
But within seconds, Ashley Force, running against Kenny Bernstein and the Monster Energy Dodge Charger, hit the wall nearly head-on around half-track as both she and Bernstein had to pedal their cars. Her Castrol Ford Mustang fishtailed several times, crushed into the wall, and spun around with a flash of fire, folding the body all the way back.
She was unhurt, popping from her seat right away, even smiling and within a minute wrapping her hair back in a ponytail and she spoke with her dad and Safety Safari members.
“I am just fine,” she said gamely. “I am sorry for my family and team, because I know what that’s like from watching my dad. I got into some trouble. My team is great, and I trust them. We’ll be back at the next race, at Sonoma.”
She said correctly that pedaling a car is not something a driver can learn without being forced to do it.
“That’s the toughest thing,” Ashley Force said. “In testing, you don’t practice pedaling.
I don’t have that experience. I can only get better by practicing -- but not like that!” (Brian Losness photo)
QUICKER AND QUICKER -- In the first three pairs of Funny Cars in the opening round, the winners -- John Force, Tony Pedregon, and Del Worsham -- posted successive low elapsed times of the round. And all raced down the right lane -- in contrast to the Top Fuel winners before them, seven of eight of whom took the left lane.
WE CAN DO IT -- Del Worsham said his upset victory over Tommy Johnson Jr. in the first round -- in 4.807 seconds at 318.47 mph -- was “by far the biggest run of the season“ in his Checker Schuck’s Kragen Chevy Impala. His team sponsor also is sponsor of this 14th event on the 23-race schedule, the Schucks‘ Auto Supply Nationals. So he understandably was pleased more than he usually would be. “We wanted to show that this team can win races -- that they at least can win a round!”
LOW-QUALIFIERS EXCEL -- Funny Car underdogs (John Force, Tony Pedregon, Del Worsham, and Mike Ashley) were 4-for-4 in Sunday’s first round. The class had a total of six upsets.
BREAKFAST IN REVERSE -- Gary Scelzi showed in the first round his resolve to secure one of the eight positions in the Countdown to the Championship that will be finalized at the end of next month (three races from now) at Reading, Pennsylvania. Opponent Robert Hight, the top qualifier, had major mechanical troubles with his Team Castrol/Auto Club Ford Mustang at the first hit of the throttle, but Scelzi didn’t coast. He clocked a 4.8720-second run at 316.75 mph. That speed far surpassed teammate Ron Capps’ class-best speed in qualifying and was third-best of the round. Said Scelzi, “If I didn’t puke n my helmet then, I’m never going to!” Referring to his .065 reaction time in the Mopar Dodge Charger (against Hight’s .079), Scelzi said, “I took a chunk (out of the tree).”
BUGGED -- “Fast Jack” Beckman was too quick and fast for Round 1 opponent Jim Head -- and for one sorry little bug. The insect flew into Beckman’s Don Schumacher-owned Mail Terminal Services Dodge Charger just as he was getting ready to run. After climbing from his car, Beckman mused about the entire 4.790-second, 323.43-mph run that represented low elapsed time and top speed of the weekend. Asked what became of the bug, he guessed, “He’s probably on the back window.”
TWO DIFFERENT STORIES -- Six of eight Funny Car winners in the first round came from the right lane. By contrast, only Hot Rod Fuller won in the Top Fuel class from that side.
MORE RAIN -- Sprinkles interrupted the middle of Funny Car eliminations in Round 2 and delayed action for 34 minutes.
RULES ARE RULES -- Tim Wilkerson took in stride the NHRA’s decision to bump him from the field Saturday, although he qualified with a 14th-best 4.968-second elapsed time in his Levi, Ray & Shoup Chevy Impala. He, Gary Densham, and Jerry Toliver dropped off the 16-car grid after rain reduced qualifying to just one round Saturday and officials invoked the so-called “Top-10 Rule.” That allowed previously unqualified Jim Head, Cruz Pedregon, and Gary Scelzi into the field.
"The rules are the rules," Wilkerson said. “There's not much we can do about it. We made a nice run. It should have been better, but we hit a big bump and it threw the blower belt off. We certainly would have liked another chance to improve. It certainly goes to show you how important one run can be and how important it is to be in the top 10.
"The worse thing about it,” he said, “is that we lose out on our qualifying money and points. But we have to live by the rules. So, we'll just have to wait until next week to do better."
This is not the first time this year that Densham and Wilkerson have been beaten up by rules and circumstances. They qualified first and second Memorial Day weekend at the International Hot Rod Association race at Tulsa. But rain again was the culprit. The IHRA declared the race postponed, and immediately after the call, the Oklahoma skies cleared up. As it turned out, the weather held up so that the race could have been completed. But Densham and Wilkerson were unable to return to Tulsa to run, because the make-up date was the same as the NHRA activity at Englishtown, New Jersey.
NO JINX HERE - No. 1 qualifying jinx? What is that?
Dave Connolly could have asked that question in Seattle.
Connolly captured his third Pro Stock win of the season by defeating Allen Johnson in the final round.
"We started off today watching it rain, waiting it out, wiping the car down," said Connolly. "The long day was well worth it. To get that Wally at the finish line was a real boost to this team. We wanted to recover from last weekend, we had a little hiccup in Denver, but we bounced back. To get that No. 1 qualifying spot, it's been a couple of years since I've had one of those, and then to take that all the way to the final, it was a lot of fun." - Bobby Bennett
LONG TIME - Connolly entered eliminations as the top seed for the first time since the 2005 NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals in Bristol, Tenn. He defeated Erica Enders in round one with a 6.691 elapsed time at 206.73 mph, Max Naylor in round two with a 6.668 second run at 206.51 mph, and Bob Panella in round three with a 6.671 e.t. at 206.54 mph.
In the finals, Allen Johnson's Dodge bolted out of the gate first with a rapid .019 reaction time, but Connolly's Chevrolet quickly reeled him in and thundered on across the finish line with a track-record elapsed time of 6.649 seconds at 206.20 mph. Johnson, who was making his second consecutive showing in a final round, followed with a 6.682 second run at 206.23 mph. The margin of victory for the Chevy Cobalt was .02 of a second, or approximately six feet.
"We saved the best for last and we needed every bit of it," said Connolly. "We pretty much knew it was going to be close going into the finals, and I guess the only thing I did was miss the tree a little bit with a .032 light. A.J. had us there, but this Chevy Cobalt definitely saved our butt. It was well worth the wait. Sitting in the staging lanes and the pits all day waiting for the rain to end kind of takes a toll on you, but the track was awesome. The NHRA Safety Safari did a great job prepping it for us in the final and we got to set the track e.t. record. You couldn't have asked for a better run in the final."
For Connolly, it was his 12th career victory, his 24th career final-round appearance and his fourth final round this season. Connolly's win today was also Chevrolet's 140th all time victory in the NHRA Pro Stock category, and earlier in the day he clinched a spot as one of the eight Pro Stock finalists in the Countdown to the Championship. - Bobby Bennett
TWO-IN-A-ROW - Allen Johnson landed in his second straight NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series Pro Stock final round today, his third of the season and 12th career, at Seattle.
"We had a great weekend and a great day," said Johnson. "It's bad to let Dave get by us in the final. We sort of handed it to him on a platter. Everybody on the team has done such an awesome job. I was lucky to have a pretty good day driving. We kept to our plan, got to second round, and the rest of it was gravy. So, yeah, any time you go to the final it's an awesome day, for Mopar and all the team.
"We started the Western Swing off pretty good. We'll go to Sonoma and see if we can't seal the deal." - Bobby Bennett
SAY WHAT? - Johnson couldn't remain silent on the consistency of the NHRA's track prep.
"Man, NHRA has got to be more consistent," he said. "They sprayed the starting line real, real heavy right before our run, and they hadn't done it all day. And that makes these cars a little bit upset. We didn't adjust to it as good as I guess Dave's team did, but they've got to be more consistent the way they prepare the track.
"That run right there we were ready to run. We didn't change anything from the previous run, but we just blew the tires off, it shook and we gave up three hundredths (of a second) down low. They only beat us by two. That's the difference."
KNOW YOUR ENEMY - Greg Anderson hasn't been too happy lately. He found little consolation in losing to former Pro Stock Truck champion Bob Panella.
Anderson's ride just isn't where he wants it to be.
“We’re having a lot of inconsistencies with our car right now,” said Anderson, following the disappointing loss in the second round. “Both the driver and the car did it job in the first round. In the second time out, everything went south and we didn’t rise to the opportunity. We need to work on fixing that problem so that we are ready when we get to the meat of the Countdown. We’ve got a lot of work to do over the next three races so that we are ready when we get to Indy.”
In the Countdown to the Championship, Anderson will continue to lead the NHRA POWERade Pro Stock point standings with three races left in the first segment. - Bobby Bennett
LUCKLESS IN SEATTLE -- Jason Line, the current series champion, was hoping to score his first victory at Pacific Raceways -- or at least make up for his first-round red-light disqualification here last season. He didn’t red-light, but he didn’t advance past Round 1, either. He lost to the higher-qualified V Gaines, as Gaines got off the starting line first (with a .049-second reaction time to Line’s .058) and used a 6.682-second pass to win. Line had a 6.697. The margin of victory for Gaines was slightly more than two-hundredths of a second – approximately six feet.
Line, though, said he‘s looking forward to the next race, at Infineon Raceway at Sonoma, California. He won that race last year and that started a string of three final rounds in a row and six in the last nine races.
THAT’S WHY HE’S THE PROFESSOR -- Warren Johnson took advantage of Richie Stevens’ red-light foul in the first rounds (after a little bit of gamesmanship at the starting line) to move into the top eight in the standings. That put the six-time champion in a position to grab one of the berths for the Countdown to the Championship.
HUGE BOOST FOR ANDERSON -- No. 5 qualifier Greg Anderson, making his 107th consecutive race, had the quickest Pontiac in the field Sunday with his Summit Racing GTO, thanks to his 6.688 elapsed time at 207.18 mph.
He said that having only one qualifying pass was disappointing. "We want as many runs as we can get to perfect our setup. We wanted to be conservative that first run, because we knew that we were going to have only one or two shots.” He was concerned about going “into race day not knowing what the track will hold.”
He learned in the first round against Jeg Coughlin it will take a 6.654-second E.T., which was low time of the weekend, and a 207.50-mph speed, which was fastest of this visit to Seattle. “We’ve been a little off, but we made the right decisions there,” Anderson said after winning in his 450th career round of eliminations.
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SATURDAY NOTEOOK -SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - PACIFIC RACEWAYS SPRUCES UP; ANOTHER UNUSUAL FORCE MOMENT; HIGHT’S NEW CAR DOES TRICK; RULEBOOKS HELPS SOME, HOSES OTHERS
PR BLITZ - Although few drag-racing fans got to see the improvements Friday because the first two qualifying sessions were rained out, Pacific Raceways has a few new features to show off this weekend.
Doug Greenfield, new general manager of the facility that will celebrate its 50th birthday next year, said a number of program are in the works, with even more to follow in their 5-7-year plan. “We’re making changes like you wouldn’t believe around here,” he said.
“The next project is we’re going to relocate the track,” Greenfield said. “This original track will stay. But we’ll have a sportsman track that goes north and south.”
Russell Stevenson, director of track operations, said Pacific Raceways has 17 acres of new paving, along with a brand-new state-of-the-art playground for children, coin-operated showers for men and women, more than 100 new trees, a new office building that includes a die-cast and art store and putting green. (The latter prompted Chris Blair, the GM at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and former Northwest Division director, to kid, “why didn’t you tell me I needed to pack my putter?!”)
“We’re cleaning the place up. Full sped ahead,” Stevenson said.
One of the new features is a three-tiered $2500-a table patio with umbrella tables on each side of the tower. The areas were full Saturday for the lone full qualifying session of the weekend.
The facility, more than just a drag strip, houses a 2.25-mile road course. Greenfield said, “We’re trying to light the road course. And we’re hoping that by September We’re going back to having car clubs. We’re looking to put in a country store for the racers. We’re just trying to make it a little more racer-friendly, which it really needs to be.”
AND YNOT? -- Top Alcohol Dragster driver Jim Whiteley and his YNOT Racing team is initiating a campaign to raise funds for and awareness of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital at this race and next weekend’s FRAM-Autolite Nationals.
YNOT Racing, which has gathered support from Torco Racing Fuels, will pledge funds per run at both the races and is challenging other teams to do the same. One hundred percent of funds raised will be presented to the renowned Memphis medical center that the late actor Danny Thomas founded, that shares its scientific discoveries with medical communities around the world, and that does not charge families for treatment that insurance does not cover.
“St. Jude has been near and dear to my family’s heart for a long time,” Whiteley said. I’m excited about seeing what we can do on this project. With the help of all the great teams and drivers in the NHRA series, it will be a success.”
TODD WILL TAKE IT -- J.R. Todd might not have liked it, but he took it.
“It kind of stinks to get only one run, but it’s my first No. 1 [qualifier award] so I’ll take it,” the Torco/Skull Shine Dragster driver said following his 4.577-second run at 318.39 mph Saturday.
He said he had an eye on the sky and was prepared to make an acceptable run, knowing it might be his only one. “I was ready to go out there and pedal it if I had to [but] it was a nice, smooth run.”
Todd said final eliminations (whenever the rain allows them) will be the same for all the drivers, “not knowing what to expect after the rain washed away the rubber.”
SCHUMACHER READY -- Tony Schumacher, the U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster driver, drew the No. 5 starting spot after Saturday’s single-pass qualifying results. He covered the quarter-mile in 4.63 seconds at 306.12 mph. The reigning Top Fuel champion, who is 2-for-3 in final rounds at Seattle since 2004, will face Alan Bradshaw in the first round, whenever that comes. Weather forecasts are not promising.
“We want to run tomorrow," he said. "But we will be ready to pick up the challenge Monday or even Tuesday, if need be.
"We didn't have a great run,” Schumacher said, “and with only one time down the track might not have all the data we'd like to prepare for eliminations," he said. “But there is nobody better than (crew chief) Alan Johnson and this U.S. Army Racing team - just like the soldiers stationed around the world - at rising to the challenge, despite the odds, and getting the job done."
Five is Schumacher’s lucky number this weekend. He’s fifth in the standings, too. At the moment he is qualified for the field of eight that will cut off following the Reading race, the third after this one. Schumacher is going for his fourth consecutive and fifth overall series title.
WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM RULEBOOK -- Dave Grubnic needed a little bit of help from the rulebook to get his Zantrex-3 Dragster into the field. His only run down the Pacific Raceways quarter-mile yielded a 10.268-second elapsed time at 82.03 mph. But because he is eighth in the points, he was granted the No. 16 position. That made Morgan Lucas the odd-man-out among the 17 entrants vying for 16 spots.
“I’ve figured out every way not to qualify this year,” said a good humored Lucas despite not making the race. “The fact of the matter is I’ve been at a race where this has happened before – Bristol 2005. At that race, we qualified No. 2, but were solidly in the top 10 and it really wasn’t an issue. It’s one of those circumstances that as much as we don’t like it, at some point later on in my career, it’s going to be the same thing for me.
"As much as I want to
be mad about it, I can’t. The part that
does upset me the most is my crew guys.
I really worry about them because I did a really bad job of saving the
car this morning. I’m not thrilled and
not exactly happy about it. I haven’t
been in that situation of pedaling for a while.
So, we’ll just deal with it. It’s
just another speed bump, but we’ll stay strong. Eventually, it’s going to be okay and we’ll
muscle through it.”
I MEANT IT -- Doug Herbert, driver of the Snap-on Tools Dragster, qualified No. 6 with a 4.63-second, 313-mph effort and said he aims to make good on his promise to run well at Seattle.
“It’s good to get qualified in the top half of the field again,” Herbert, who did that last a Bristol, also with a No. 6 showing. “We will just have to wait and see if the weather cooperates with us. Like I said earlier, we are determined to make a good showing here, and we will do it, whether it’s tomorrow or Monday.”
NEW CAR DOES JOB -- Hight has fought inconsistency, despite two victories, earning his fifth No. 1 qualifier award of the year Saturday, and compiling a 20-9 round-win record. But his Team Castrol/Auto Club Ford Mustang hasn’t been consistent since he changed chassis after an engine explosion, fire, and crash in May at Topeka.
Since moving to a back-up car, he hasn't lasted past the quarterfinals. But he got his new car at Denver and said crew chief Jimmy Prock and his charges have been working on the car from the minute he lost in the second round last Sunday at Denver.
"We just haven't been able to get back in a rhythm," Hight said before yesterday’s run.
After his 4.800-second pass at 300.53 mph, he said, "You always have new-car bugs. But I’m pleased with this new car and how it steers. It drives like the old car we crashed at Topeka. I‘m amazed it was that flawless.”
However, he said the run “wasn’t perfect,” adding that “one run isn’t enough.” It was Saturday afternoon.
THE INS AND OUTS -- Jim Head, Cruz Pedregon, and Gary Scelzi were added to the Funny Car field because of their current top-10 status. But NHRA’s ruling came at the expense of Gary Densham, Tim Wilkerson, and Jerry Toliver -- all of whom did run quick enough to make the field.
WEIRD HAPPENINGS -- John Force, notorious for being involved in unusual occurrences at Seattle, got his moment of weirdness out of the way in Saturday’s first session of qualifying.
The Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang driver was in the opposite lane from Tommy Johnson Jr. when the Skoal Chevy Impala suffered an engine concussion on its way to the provisional No. 6 spot with a 4.887-second elapsed time at 287.90 mph.
The body blew off Johnson’s chassis and shattered. Neither driver was injured, and both did a masterful job of driving through, under and around the flying shrapnel.
“Boy, stuff was flyin’!” Force said after barely anchoring the 16-car field with a 6.038-second run that started unraveling about half-track and watching. Then he called out to Johnson, “Hey, Tommy, you know how to put on a show, son!”
The same certainly could be said of Force. In his bid for an unprecedented 15th series title, the Yorba Linda, California, driver is on the move through the Funny Car ranks. He has come from as far back as 20th place to ninth. But he has this race and just three others (at Sonoma, California; Brainerd, Minnesota; and Reading, Pennsylvania) in which to move into the elite eight, according to NHRA's new Countdown to the Championship format.
“This is crucial,” Force said of this lone stop in the Pacific Northwest which this year is more than just the 14th of 23 events in the Powerade Drag Racing Series.
LOOKS CAN BE DECEIVING -- Announcer Bob Frey pointed out to Pacific Raceways fans that on the front of Gary Scelzi’s Dodge Charger body is a likeness of the Fresno, California, driver himself. As he sat next to close friend Jim Head in the opposite lane with a bright paint job on his Toyota Solara body that one photographer said “looks like Walt Disney threw up on it,” Frey said, “If you look closely at the front of Gary Scelzi’s race car, you’ll see a picture of . . . Gary Scelzi. If you look closely -- really, really closely -- at Jim Head’s car . . . you’ll get a headache.”
FAVORABLE PRECIPITATION - Ron Capps has seen his season full of those "when it rains, it pours" scenarios. This time they raindrops fells into his favor as he landed in the seventh position.
"This is another one of those strange weekends," said Capps, driver of the Brut "Test Drive" Dodge Charger R/T and the Funny Car class points leader. "And we ended up with lane choice for first round, which is always a goal. We were in the top half of the field after that one round of qualifying and you just don't know. When there's a chance of rain you don't know if they'll get just one session in or get another one in.
"So, at the last minute Ace (crew chief Ed McCulloch) made a change to make sure the car went down the track instead of really going for low E.T. That's what you have to do in those situations. If you go out and you have to pedal the thing because you think you need to get into the show deeper, then you risk hurting things and breaking parts and hurting the body and it's not the smart way to go about it.
"So, we got in the show, we got to make a run, we got some data, and we have lane choice first round. There's two races left in the six-race swing, and this is just part of it. You just have to wait and see what happens."
As for having only one round of qualifying to tune from, "I used to worry about it a lot," said Capps, "and hanging out with Ace and all these veterans you learn you can't control Mother Nature, so you just kind of wait it out.
"It's the same for everybody. If anything, I feel probably more comfortable than anybody just rolling up there on race day, even if we didn't get any runs in. NHRA should have years ago set it up so we set the field by points if it rains, and do what NASCAR does. They run off points and you go racing." - Bobby Bennett
IT MUST BE NICE - And you thought the media had it made? Try working on Mike Ashley's crew.
"We're in the show, and we are really confident about tomorrow," Ashley said. "While we were waiting for the rain to clear, the guys worked on servicing heads and blocks, getting ready for tomorrow and looking forward to Sonoma next weekend."
As the crew worked in the pit, the team took turns getting a massage from the therapist Ashley had commissioned to keep the team relaxed and focused for race-day.
"It's been really nice - last weekend and this weekend, having Jody here, working on the guys, keeping their muscles relaxed. Today, she even got to work on some of our sponsors - Deanna from Oakley came by, and even one of the chaplains from RFC. No one was stressed, and we just kept focused on what we had to get done. - Bobby Bennett
YOU KNOW YOU'VE ARRIVED WHEN ... - Someone wants to write a book on you. That's what Ashley spent much of Friday's rainy day working on.
"Yesterday was actually a long day for me, despite the rain. I spent about four hours in an interview with Tim Lewis, the writer of a book about me and racing called 'Expect to Win,'" Ashley said.
Ashley said the book is due out later this year. - Bobby Bennett
THE DOWNSIDE OF THE RULEBOOK - Jerry Toliver will file this in his personal log book - being a ROCKSTAR doesn't guarantee a starting position on Sunday and neither does a run that puts you in the sixteen-car field.
It may not have been the prettiest thing -- but Toliver got in with a 5.595-second, 221.49 mph effort. And it put him 15th place, for awhile. His ROCKSTAR Energy Drink Toyota Solara experienced mechanical trouble during the run."
"We got bumped," said Toliver. "NHRA' rules for one qualifying run provide for the top 10 to be in the starting lineup if they didn't run quick enough. The three drivers who were not qualified all were added to the field, one of them at our expense. It's unfortunate, but it is what it is.
"And it's disappointing because we thought we would definitely improve our time in the second session, but it was rained out."
Toliver's problem was traced to an air bottle.
"A faulty air bottle didn't react to the timers, Toliver said, "and it retarded the magnetos and slowed us down. There's not much more for us to do but go on to Sonoma (Calif.) and get ready for next week's race. - Bobby Bennett
NOT KORETSKY’S DAY -- Saturday was not Kenny Koretsky’s day. The Nitro Fish Ultimate Gear Chevy Cobalt driver, who had gained 167 points in the previous two races, failed to qualify.
To compound his aggravation, he nearly didn’t get to make his final attempt. He sat in the left lane, waiting on Tony Rizzo to stage to his right, when his light went green. The early word was that Koretsky would be charged with a run, even though he never moved. Officials then checked to see if the Christmas tree were functioning properly. Koretsky and Rizzo were allowed to give one last go. After all that, Rizzo broke and Koretsky turned in a 6.75-second run at 204.35 mph, not quick enough to top Erica Enders’ bump time of 6.733 seconds.
GREAT WHILE IT LASTED -- Denver finalist Ron Krisher, who was starting to turn around his season after breaking his string of DNQs at Bristol two races ago, missed the cut again.
DEJA-VU -- Dave Connolly, who reached the final round here three years ago the same day dad Ray did in the sportsman ranks, earned the third No. 1 qualifier award of his career.
His first came at Memphis in 2004, but his second one came under similar circumstances.
"This race was just like the one in Bristol (2005) when we had one qualifying run and I was No. 1,” the Cagnazzi Racing/Torco Chevy Cobalt driver said.
“We would've liked one more run Saturday, but we'll take it. Our team picked up $3000 as the low qualifier and $1500 from the Full Throttle Pit Crew Challenge, so it already has been a good weekend."
His elapsed time of 6.664 seconds at 206.42 mph in the only dry run of the day led a field that was the only one among the pro classes that didn’t have to add top-10 drivers and bump out legitimate qualifiers.
"We changed our combination from Denver to Seattle Thursday and picked up where we left off," Connolly said. "Tommy Utt, our crew chief, set the car up to do down the track.”
In the first round, he will face No. 16 Erica Enders, who sat in the staging lanes as part of the next pairing when the rains came, waiting to see if her 6.733 elapsed time was enough to keep her from being bumped.
MISSING THE CUT -- Besides Kenny Koretsky and Ron Krisher, the other drivers missing the lineup were Ben Watson and Tony Zizzo.
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FRIDAY - SOGGY SEATTLE A WASHOUT FRIDAY
No drag-racing fans this weekend would believe that old song that starts with the line "The bluest skies you've ever seen are in Seattle."
The Puget Sound port and jewel of the Pacific Northwest -- a city that calls itself "The Emerald City" -- is famous for Boeing airplanes, Microsoft computer systems, and Starbuck's coffee, even grunge rock . . . all of which makes America hum.
But Friday, just when drag-racing fans were ready for a fifth straight weekend of action, Seattle showed off what it is probably most famous for -- rain. Quite a contrast to the hot, muggy conditions the National Hot Rod Association competitors have gotten used to this summer, Seattle offered, as always, the alternative.
Seattle's famous rains came and stayed, forcing officials Friday to scrap the first two qualifying sessions. Weather forecasts don't look much more promising for the rest of the weekend, but the schedule calls
for qualifying sessions at 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Saturday.
'WE ARE DETERMINED' -- Don't get Doug Herbert riled up. The Snap-on Tools Dragster driver is 6-foot-4 and weighs 220 pounds. But he is getting himself psyched up after three straight first-round defeats.
"We are determined to make a strong showing this weekend," Herbert said. "We held the track record here a few years ago and would like to set it again. All the trees up here make lots of oxygen, which helps
the cars breathe better and produce more power -- pretty much the exact opposite of what we had last week in Denver."
With four races left until the next phase of the Countdown to the Championship, Herbert is 123 points outside the top eight.
"Our goal is to be racing for the Championship," he said. "We have a fast car and just need for a little luck to swing our way."
He has runner-up finishes at Atlanta and Englishtown and has qualified in the top half of the ladder five times (including a season-best No. 2 at Atlanta and fifth at Gainesville and Joliet), but those have been tempered by seven total opening-round losses and three DNQs.
"We are doing a better job of consistently making it down the track during qualifying, but then we have parts failures and other crazy things happen to us on race day. Hopefully that stuff is over with. We're ready to show what we can do, and we are determined to start showing it this weekend."
I LOVE SEATTLE! -- It might be tucked up in the northwest corner of the United States. And at this point it never has been one of the palaces of drag racing. But Pacific Raceways has a special spot in Morgan
"Seattle will always be a favorite of mine," the 23-year-old Top Fuel driver and proud sportsman racer said. "It's where I made my first move up to the alcohol ranks, and that's kind of where it all started for me. I remember meeting so many people that weekend, and that's a great memory to have."
Lucas is nothing if not patient. Still waiting for his first Top Fuel victory, he said he believes it will come eventually.
"As far this weekend, it's just about anyone's race," he said. "I know our time is coming. And we've been having some consistency in qualifying, so I'm feeling confident we'll get it together and bring some good news our way."
He was buoyed by teammate Melanie Troxel's performance last week in Denver, especially considering that his Lucas Oil Dragster and her Vietnam Veterans/POW MIA Dragster are identically prepared.
"Look at Melanie’s performance last weekend in Denver," Lucas said. "She was No. 1 qualifier and ran quickest elapsed time of the event. It doesn’t get any better than that. We’re running the same tune up and
we’ll see those same results very soon.
"It's great to see the progress we’ve made," he said. "We're gathering information for a great baseline tune-up to build from and then carry it out from there. Richard (crew chief Hogan) and John Stewart
(Troxel's crew chief) have been working closely together, ensuring we have a great combination. It's coming. Once we get there, it will be one quick race car."
At Seattle in 2003, Lucas moved up to the Darien/Meadows Top Alcohol Dragster ride that close buddy Brandon Bernstein had used to catapult into the Top Fuel class before him. Lucas has reached five final rounds in his short Top Fuel career.
NOW, WHERE DID THAT GO?! -- Cory McClenathan knew he had it. He remembers having it, at least for awhile. But he just can't seem to find it. And he really needs it right now.
"We need to find our consistency again," the driver of the Scott Griffin Motorsports FRAM Dragster said. "We need to get past the first round on Sunday or we’ll be on the outside looking in when the top
eight start the second part of the playoffs."
He is 10th in the standings, four round-wins away from the final field of eight that will move on to the next round with their championship hopes.
"I know I've been saying this for awhile, but we are now four races away from the end of the first segment of the Countdown," McClenathan said. "We need to start winning more rounds if we want to stay in
It sounds so simple, yet it can be so hard to do. But McClenathan said Seattle just might be the one place his dragster can get back in the performance groove..
“Being at sea level, with all the trees around the track, enables our motors to make more horsepower easier, and that makes the motors more efficient,” he said. Then, referring to his crew chief and assistant crew chief, he said, "Wes (Cerny) and Tony (Shortall) had to put a lot of stress on the superchargers at Denver, but we should be able to get down the track much better at Seattle."
In his 16th full season of competition, McClenathan has won 29 times, including once at Seattle. He was runner-up here three times. And he was runner-up this May at St. Louis.
IN COMFORT ZONE HERE --Tony Schumacher, who won here last July for the second time in three years and was runner-up in 2005, said he has no idea why he is so successful at Pacific Raceways.
"For sure, we've done exceptionally well the last three seasons," the reigning class champion and driver of the U.S. Army Dragster said. "I guess we just get into a comfort zone out there. I always get asked +about why we're successful at certain tracks and not as successful at others. There's really no clear explanation for it. I know that Alan Johnson (his crew chief) has plenty of solid data to draw from. That's good enough for me."
He rallied in the last half of the 2006 season to steal the title from Doug Kalitta in the last run of the last race of the year -- and the Seattle race, on the heels of his St. Louis breakthrough victory and runner-up finish at Denver, was part of the trigger for that. This time as he arrived at Pacific Raceways, he wasn't on such of a roll.
He's fifth in the standings. If the Countdown field were set now, he'd be in easily. But he knows he's vulnerable, with Bob Vandergriff, Funny Car driver-turned-Top Fuel rival Whit Bazemore, Dave Grubnic, Melanie Troxel, and Cory McClenathan eager to strike.
"We have a little bit of a cushion between us and that eighth position (126 points)," Schumacher said, "but we certainly don't want to leave anything for chance with four races left until the cutoff. We need to keep running like we did in Denver."
He advanced to the semifinals but lost a close race to Bazemore.
NO. 8 AND HOLDING -- Cruz Pedregon had excellent (and equally surprising) company in Tim Wilkerson and Ashley Force last weekend when he missed the Funny Car field at Denver by just four-hundredths of a
second. Despite that, he remains eighth in points, with resurgent John Force just 16 points behind him and always-dangerous Tommy Johnson Jr. only 31 behind.
"We will be fighting hard to get to the winners circle in Seattle," said Pedregon, who hasn't won here but was runner-up to John Force in both 2004 and 1993. “We need to continue to perform consistently and go
rounds to move up. I am confident in our team. We have a great group of guys preparing the car and great sponsors behind us all the way," said Pedregon, who was No. 1 qualifier here in 1993 and 1995.
In spite of never having left here with a Wally statue, Pedregon said, "I love racing in Seattle. Our Advance Auto Parts Chevy Imapala will be breathing easier at sea level, which will mean fast times and a great
show for all the drag-racing fans in the Pacific Northwest. We had a bump in the road last weekend and we were fortunate it didn't hurt us too bad in points."
He has three races after Seattle to make sure he's in that Countdown to the Championship.
LOGIC WOULD TELL YOU . . . -- Del Worsham is making a terrific case for earning his first victory of the season and his second in Seattle.
"We have the best car we've had in over a year, right now," he said. "We seem to have fixed the parts-breakage problem, we've been really good in terms of consistency, and we've come out to a couple of race
tracks, lately, thinking we didn't just have a chance to win the race but that we really should win the race. Unfortunately, the breaks haven't gone our way and we have very little to show for it.
"I say 'very little,' rather than nothing," Worhsm said, "because we've been qualifying at every race since Gainesville, and in 2007, that's a big accomplishment. Today, if you make the show, you're instantly
picking up a round on at least three very good teams, because that's how many have to DNQ every week. So we lost in the first round in Denver, but we picked up a round on Ashley Force, Cruz Pedregon, and
Tim Wilkerson,and all three of those drivers are right around us in the points.
"That's the 'glass half full' way to look at it, I guess, because we also missed a shot at picking up tons of points. But, when you race Ron Capps like [we did last week at Denver in the first round] and it's side-by-side the whole way, you can't cry if he beats you. On that lap, we were 99 percent as good as the top guy in the whole class, but we came up a few feet short."
NEW TRACK? NO PROBLEM -- Justin Humphreys has been busy with Sport Compact/Nopi Series competition, which does not visit Seattle's Pacific Raceways. But he isn't concerned about racing on a new track this weekend, because crew chief Eric Luzinski has been to Seattle before, most recently as crew chief for the late Scott Geoffrion in 2003. And Luzinski said he didn’t expect any problems with the high-altitude Denver set-up and the sea-level Seattle conditions.
Luzinksi and engine builder Richard Maskin helped give Humphreys his career-best start in Pro Stock last weekend at Denver – No. 8 – in the oppressive heat and thin air, by far the toughest conditions on the
“It will be easy to change,” Luzinski said of the tune-up adjustments. “We’ll probably go with the same setup we used at Englishtown (in New Jersey last month). We always have a good barometer in Seattle, but, as
I recall, the track can be a little suspect sometimes. With the power we have, I think we can make a good, conservative run Friday and go from there.”
That was iffy as rains set in for the morning, but at least the team was prepared.
Humphreys was eager to get started. “This is a new track for me,” he said. “It's exciting to visit new places, because I feel comfortable with what we have going on.”
He's just leaving the technical aspects to Luzinksi. “He’ll do his job and I’ll do mine,” Humphreys said. That has worked for him so far, as he has two semifinal finishes among his five races. When Humphreys has
missed the 16-car cut, it has been by the narrowest of margins: two-, three-, four-, and five-thousandths of a second.
“We have done better than we expected at the beginning of the year,” Humphreys said. “We passed the goals we set, and now we want to get this car into the finals. We will by trying our hardest until the end of the year.”
BE LIKE LAST YEAR! -- Jason Line has done some comparisons. And the Summit Racing Pontiac GTO driver and current class champion is not excited, exactly, with what he has discovered.
“Over the last 10 races last year, I had my Summit Racing Pontiac in six final rounds. I need to do the same thing this year beginning right here in Seattle," he said.
He's fifth in the standings, easily in the Countdown field at the moment, but he can't be pleased that the Cagnazzi Racing duo of Jeg Coughlin and Dave Connolly has taken over the second and third spots
behind his own teammate, Greg Anderson. And Denver winner Allen Johnson has slipped into fourth place for Team Mopar.
"We have the power plant to do that again this year," Line said of his past performance. "The rest will be up to me."
The happy news for him is that he likes Pacific Raceways. "“I like the Seattle track, because you can generate a lot of power there. I think I was No. 1 there last year, but this year I need to close the deal.”
At Pacific Raceways last year, in the 100 degree plus heat, Line did drive his KB Racing LLC-owned, Summit Racing Equipment-backed Pontiac to the top spot in qualifying, running a 6.690-second pass. But he red-lit against Max Naylor in the opening round. Since turning pro in 2003, Line, the reigning NHRA POWERade Pro Stock champ, is still seeking his first Seattle victory.
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THURSDAY NOTEBOOK - WHAT IN THE WORLD WILL SEATTLE AT THROW AT FORCE TEAM THIS TIME?
Countdown concerns on every driver's priority list at Pacific Raceways
Something goofy seems to happen to John Force every time he comes to Seattle for a National Hot Rod Association race.
"What do y'all have in your water up here?" the 14-time Funny Car champion once asked as he exaggerated about "not just one or two people but whole grandstands of fans streaking" when such peccadilloes were popular.
The Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang driver didn't raise much of a stink about it, but one year, he said, Northwest fans pried open the door of a portable restroom and snapped photos of him inside. Another time, a distraught spectator jumped in Force's rental car in the pits and refused to budge, claiming she was going home with him to let him rescue her from her miseries. One fan ran up to Force as he was heading for a restroom and asked for an autograph. Force tried with all his might to remove the cap from the man's pen, with no luck. "Huh-huh," the man laughed, "I glued the cap on. Gotcha." Said Force, "It's a good thing he said he was my biggest fan, because if he had been an Al Hofmann fan, I would've decked him."
Then in 2001, the chain broke on Force's trailer lift, sending one of his Ford Mustangs crashing 15 feet below onto crew member Phil Schuler, who was left with broken ribs and a cut arm. (Schuler now is giving Force fits on the track as "Fast Jack" Beckman's assistant crew chief.)
In the mid-1990s, as Force was preparing to face Ron Capps in eliminations, someone accidentally spilled a tray of nuts, bolts, and assorted parts in the rival driver's pit. Force turned around to see his young and sympathetic daughters (including Ashley, who's trying to beat them all now in her own Castrol-sponsored Mustang) helping Capps and his crew pick up the mess.
What awaits Force at Pacific Raceways this weekend in the Schuck's Auto Supply Nationals is anybody's guess. But maybe the better question is what will Force throw at the Seattle track? He has been on the move, from as far back as 20th place to ninth. To bid for his unprecedented 15th championship, he has this race and just three others (at Sonoma, California; Brainerd, Minnesota; and Reading, Pennsylvania) in which to move into the elite eight, according to NHRA's new Countdown to the Championship format.
Just the same, he's not without his share of troubles. After beating Gary Scelzi and Tony Pedregon, the only two who have swiped the Funny Car title from him since 1993, last Sunday at Denver, a case of "happy feet" cost him a shot at his second consecutive victory and a provisional berth in the Countdown. He had a red-light start in the semifinals against eventual winner Jack Beckman.
He took the full blame. "I was too amped up," he said. "I was trying to get my energy up for these kids (meaning his own crew, as well as son-in-law and No. 1 qualifier Robert Hight, and his own daughter Ashley, who had failed to qualify but was cheering him on) and a drank a bottle of Coke Blak on top of a bottle of POWERade (between the second and third rounds). My wife even asked me if I was sure (I wanted to do it). I did and I just went up there and got happy feet.
"It was all my fault," he said, "but at least I know what’s wrong and I’ll fix it. The important thing is we’ve got our ‘ol hot rod back. She's starting to talk.”
He's trying to recover from his worst start ever. He saw his record qualifying streak end at 395 races and after qualifying 13th, 10th, and 12th two times, the 58-year-old icon has qualified No. 5 and No. 6 at the last two events and moved into ninth place in the standings.
Ashley Force, leading Rookie-of-the-Year candidate, stumbled for the second consecutive race in the Castrol GTX Ford and will go into this Seattle race in 11th place, the first time she’s been out of the Top 10 in three months.
Hight beat former Force teammateGary Densham in the first round at Denver but saw his hopes go up in smoke in the quarterfinals as a loose oil line on his Team Castrol/Auto Club Ford pumped liquid underneath the rear tires in his race against Scott Kalitta.
Hight, who owns the two quickest quarter-mile times in Funny Car history (4.646 and 4.636 seconds), has done well at Seattle. He lost to his teammate, the late Eric Medlen, in the 2005 finals.
"It'll be emotional," he said of this return to Seattle, "because this is the first event we've been to (this year) where Eric won before." Medlen died in March from injuries suffered in a testing accident at Gainesville, Fla., dealing a devastating loss, not just to John Force Racing, Inc., but to the sport itself. One of the tour's most popular young stars, Medlen had worked alongside Hight for five championship seasons as a crewman on John Force's Castrol GTX® Ford Mustangs before getting a once-in-a-lifetime chance to drive one of the most powerful Funny Cars on the planet as the successor to departing champion Tony Pedregon.
Thrown into the mix as a rookie with no previous competitive experience, Medlen won a race at Brainerd, Minn., in his first season (2004) while finishing fifth in points. His performance amid rampant skepticism paved the way not only for Hight, but also for 24-year-old Ashley Force, who is in her rookie season in a 330 mile-an-hour Mustang.
All the memories will come rushing back this week at Pacific Raceways, where Medlen won the Schuck's Nationals in 2005 and set the existing track record (4.735 seconds). For Hight, though, those memories will be even more vivid insomuch as he was in the other lane for the 2005 final.
"I remember we had lane choice," said the 2005 NHRA Rookie-of-the-Year. "The right lane has always been the best lane, but the problem is, it can suck you to the inside and that's what happened. I got just a little too far inside and Eric made it down the bad lane and beat us by a couple feet (.055 of a second)."
If there is a chink in Hight's armor, it is his recent lack of consistency, the result of a chassis change that followed an engine explosion, fire and crash in May at Topeka. Since moving to a back-up car, the seven-time tour winner hasn't advanced beyond the second round.
"We just haven't been able to get back in a rhythm (since the crash)," Hight said. "When we didn't qualify (at Joliet, Ill., the only such misstep of his career), we missed our best chance because we forgot to take the throttle stop off after the burnout. Then, last week at Denver, I thought we had a car that could win, but a line came loose in Round 2 and put oil under the tires. It seems like we're just a little out of sync.
"It's been really frustrating for Jimmy (crew chief Prock), but I know he'll figure it out and when he does, we're going to go out and win this championship."
He only can hope nothing really goofy happens at Seattle.
WELCOME TO NORTHWEST? -- Clay Millican is the International Hot Rod Association's most successful Top Fuel driver with six consecutive championships and 50 victories in 59 final-round appearances. But he never has won in NHRA competition (although he reached three straight finals in 2004) -- and he never raced at Pacific Raceways before. So the driver of Evan Knoll's RATT - Back For More Tour Dragster is hoping he can christen his first trip here with a first NHRA victory.
Maybe he'll get some help from his Northwest connections.
Crew chief Mike Kloeber lives in Vancouver, Washington, across the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon (yes, as the team works on the car in Atoka, Tennessee). And Kloeber has had previous success as a tuner at Pacific Raceways.
“The last time I was there was 1997, and I was working with Kristen Powell. She was the No. 1 qualifier," Kloeber said. "I am really familiar with the weather and am looking forward to running as close to home as I’ll ever get. We have lots of friends in the Seattle area who are coming to the race."
Same for crew members Justin Crosslin and Kris Martin. Both are from Eastern Washington, on the other side of the Cascade Mountains. Martin is from Wenatchee, in the orchard country, and Crosslin is from a few miles north of there, from the much smaller town of Entiat, near the Lake Chelan resort area.
'WE HAVE POWER NOW' -- Seattle, located on Puget Sound, has its share of beaches. But Funny Car driver Jerry Toliver doesn't plan to drive into the sand here like he did at Denver last weekend during qualifying. But he does plan to put up the big numbers, like he did on the run that landed him into the sand trap last Saturday night.
That pass of 4.893 seconds at 319.60 mph in the Rockstar Energy Drink Toyota Solara not only put him in the field on his last chance, but it made his fellow drivers take notice. His speed was more than two miles an hour faster than any other Funny Car driver's and was better than all but two Top Fuel speeds that weekend.
And by taking Toliver from outside the 16-car grid to No. 4 in the order, it made a statement for this team that got a late start and didn’t make its debut until the fifth race of this year.
The power issues that hobbled Toliver and crew chief Dale Armstrong earlier seemed to have been cured. And Toliver said he is eager to see what the Toyota will do at sea level.
“We zeroed in on the power issues and fixed them,” Toliver said. “Now we have some power. . . and that was at Denver. We are constantly refining the program, and I think we have caught the pack that was ahead of us."
Said Armstrong, who guided Toliver to three victories in four final rounds and a career-best third-place finish in 2000, "Seattle is a sea-level track, and we will be running better there. I think our Friday night qualifying program is way better than it was before.”
WANTS MORE -- A runner-up finish July 1 at Norwalk, Ohio, only whetted Kenny Bernstein's appetite for more success in the Monster Energy/Lucas Oil Dodge Charger.
“We know we have the talent in our camp to be competitive,” Bernstein said. “We proved that by going to the finals a few weeks ago. It is extremely important for us to go rounds in Seattle. Our focus with four races remaining is to try to earn a spot in the countdown to eight, which sets up the first cut line for the newly formatted championship chase."
But he has even more motivation this weekend.
“Additionally, we have a personal desire to win in Seattle to pay tribute to our friend, Russ Tom, who we lost in a helicopter crash last October," he said. "Russ was a sponsor on our Budweiser/Lucas Oil dragster driven by my son Brandon. He was also a personal friend and owned Downtown Harley-Davidson in Tukwila.
“On Thursday, many of us who used to gather for an annual ride will draw together to celebrate his life and love of motorcycles by participating in the Russ Tom Memorial Bike Run," Bernstein said. "Russ was a true competitor and used to come to Seattle and some of the other races to root for our team. He kept us in stitches most of the time with his stories and antics. He is truly missed.”
Fans, motorcycle and car club members joined Kenny and Brandon Bernstein for the Russ Tom Memorial Bike Run. They left from the Downtown Harley-Davidson store at 5 p.m. and rode to the Auburn sports bar/restaurant BB Magraw’s. There a local band entertained, while fans and riders entered to win prizes. A silent auction will benefit Boyers Children’s Clinic. Russ Tom Memorial Bike Run t-shirts are available for purchase.
'MAY HAVE TO MacGYVER IT' -- Warren Johnson, the Professor of Pro Stock, expressed perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the Western Swing: “We’re at the mercy of what we brought with us, what we can buy on the road, and what can be shipped from the shop, so we may have to ‘MacGyver’ a thing or two to get us through.”
And the wildly different tuning tests are sometimes more than a crew chief humanly can study for. But Johnson said he and right-hand man Terry Adams "have patched up our share of race cars, so this shouldn’t be a problem."
And what lesson can't use a sense of humor along the way? Said Johnson, "I’ve long contended the only thing I can’t fix is the crack of dawn and a broken heart, and I might even be able to tape those together.”
Johnson, a six-time champion, doesn't want to have his heart broken at the dawn of NHRA's new Countdown to the Championship program. He and his GM Performance Parts GTO are ninth in the standings, two points behind No. 8 Richie Stevens. Only the top eight at the end of the Aug. 17-19 Reading, Pennsylvania, race will be eligible to compete for the championship. Only the Seattle and Sonoma events on the Western Swing and the Brainerd, Minnesota race (near Johnson's boyhood home of Hibbing, Minnesota) are left before the final charge at Reading.
“With the number of races before the end of the first round of the Countdown dwindling, the sense of urgency increases as we fight for one of the top eight spots," he said. "The easiest way to put it is that our program is headed in the right direction, but we just have to go faster."
And who knows what the Seattle track will allow? It has its plusses and minuses.
“Right now, it appears the track will be about the same as it was last year, although the slightly cooler temperatures that are being forecast should help. It’s not a pool table, but it’s better than it has been," Johnson said.
“Even then, the situation will be the same for everyone. So for now, our focus will be on getting our GM Performance Parts GTO ready to handle whatever’s thrown at it. After all, we’re not looking for a miracle, just the winner’s trophy.”
SWEET SEATTLE -- Kurt Johnson hasn't advanced as far as the semifinals in the previous seven races in his this ACDelco Chevy Cobalt, and he said, "It’s time to get healthy.” He has come to the right place.
He has won three times (1993, 1999, 2005) in five final-round appearances, has qualified second three of the past four years, has 12 top-half qualifying 13 starts, and is 27-10 in elimination rounds at this facility which recently changed its name from Seattle International Raceway back to the original Pacific Raceways.
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