NHRA MILE HIGH NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
SUNDAY NOTEBOOK - TOP FUEL UPSETS MARK ROUND 1; FORCE ON THE MOVE; TODD, SCHUMACHER MEET AGAIN AT DENVER; BAZEMORE ISSUES INVITATION; CAPTAIN CHAOS ROLLS; WHAT’S CAPPS HEARING?; KALITTA WINNING UGLY; UNLIKELY UNDERDOGS; FATHER AGAINST SON . . .
THIS IS THE ONE - Forget his 20 other victories, winning today made Hot Rod Fuller feel legit. Fuller won his second event in 2007 at the expense of his teammate Whit Bazemore.
“There’s just something about this win,” Fuller said. “For some reason this win makes me feel legit. We’re racing without a primary sponsor and we’re down a few guys. To win this for Caterpillar and Wagner CAT is great. This is the fourth race of this swing and we dominated all weekend long. We had a few gremlins in qualifying, but we were the quickest of most sessions. David Powers and Tim Buckley have given us the opportunity to do this and keep racing and I thank them for that.
“This is just unbelievable. To give Caterpillar its first win in racing in a long time is special. This is huge. My team is amazing and Rob Flynn continues to do just a great job.”
BLAZING BAZE - Whit Bazemore's success today vaulted him into the eighth spot and a provisional spot for the Countdown to the Championship.
“We made a lot of progress in the points,” Bazemore said. “We had a good result with a car that really wasn’t the class of the field, so that’s good. When you have a good result when you’re struggling, that’s a good thing. I think the team really proved themselves this weekend. They’re the best and they really rose to the occasion and that makes me excited to be associated with a team like that. It was a great result for the (David) Powers organization and Rob Flynn has done outstanding. Are we tired of being outrun by our teammate, yeah we are, but they’re the class of the field and they deserve the success they’re having this year.”
ALL-DPM FINAL -- Whit Bazemore’s 0.034-second margin of victory over Tony Schumacher in the semifinals ensured the first all-David Powers Motorsports final-round match-up and Bazemore’s first in a dragster. “It’s great to be in a final and to have two David Powers cars,” Bazemore said. “I don’t know what happened to Schumacher, but I know we beat him.” Fuller beat Bazemore in each of their two previous meetings.
LITTLE BIT OF LUCK -- Whit Bazemore upset Bob Vandergriff in the opening round and advanced to the semifinals for the fourth time in this rookie Top Fuel season when upset-minded Mike Strasburg (who had just beaten top qualifier Melanie Troxel) fouled out. Bazemore went one better than the adage that a driver needs at least one lucky round. “That was our second lucky one today,” Bazemore said. “We spun the tires and lost a [blower] belt against Bob Vandergriff in the opening round. I saw him red-light. We’ve been on the wrong side of that before (although not in Top Fuel competition so far). So if the next person want to red-light, go ahead.” He couldn’t count on that from Schumacher. The U.S. Army-sponsored driver hadn’t turned on a red light all season.
FOUR UPSETS -- Four drivers from the bottom half of the ladder -- Mike Strasburg, Whit Bazemore, Larry Dixon, and Hillary Will -- advanced to the quarterfinals.
No. 16 Strasburg’s victory extended the class’ streak of first-round exits by the top qualifier to 13 this season. Bazemore enhanced his chances to improve from ninth place in the standings into the elite eight for the Countdown for the Championship by beating Bob Vandergriff. Dixon’s margin of victory over Doug Kalitta was just .012 of a second. Will declared herself “thankful” after recording low elapsed time of the round at 4.753 seconds.
Bazemore and Dixon went onto the semifinals. Strasburg jumped the gun at the tree, and Will struck the tires early on her KB Racing LLC-owned entry in Round 2.
REMATCH -- Clay Millican lost traction early in the first round, giving opponent Tony Schumacher the easy victory and set up a rematch from last year’s final round here.
This time, Schumacher and his U.S. Army Dragster beat J.R. Todd with a 4.840-second elapsed time at 310.55 mph to Todd’s 5.267/230.72 in the Skull Shine Dragster. Asked if the round-win made up for his defeat in last year’s final round, Schumacher said, “If we get to this year’s final and win, that’ll make up for last year’s final.”
MEET BANDIMERE SPEEDWAY -- Mike Kloeber and Bandimere Speedway became reacquainted after a hiatus of several years as he tuned Clay Millican’s dragster in International Hot Rod Association competition. So it took him awhile to figure out how to deal with the thin air. Consequently, he wasn’t able to pull a victory, well . . . out of thin air. It was Millican’s first trip to the mile-high quarter-mile, for the RATT – Back for More Tour Dragster driver and Kloeber had been busy, winning six straight Top Fuel championships. They weren’t able to stay in contention for as long as they would have liked because of traction problems, which are common here.
Tony Schumacher beat him with a pass of 4.805 seconds at 320.12 mph to Millican’s 7.482 at 112.43 mph.
“Once I learned how to run the engine on eight cylinders up here, it made the car smoke the tires,” said Kloeber. “I was never able to find the balance.”
BENDING THEM LIKE BECKMAN - Sometimes you know it is your day, even when you feel like the weakest link in the chain.
Jack Beckman is winning races like a seasoned veteran but he's the first to admit that he still has a lot of learning to do.
"I think our car and our team would have won three races by now," said an elated Beckman. "I replaced Whit Bazemore (last year for the last five events). Tomorrow he can get back in and be one of the top three Funny Car drivers. And I'm on a steep learning curve. I've definitely been the weakest link on the team. So, to get that first win of the season, especially with the momentum that we've had over the last four or five races, I don't know that it would have come at a better time.
"We were lingering down there around 10th or 11th (in points) and with this [Countdown] format, I think it's three separate seasons: until Indy, four races after Indy, the last two. So, you do look at it slightly different, but the purpose is still the same. We want to win every race we come to.
"I am so spoiled that I drive a car that could win every race we go to. When I won Las Vegas last year I knew I was going to win that race. I felt confident all weekend. [We] struggled a little bit this year."
Beckman added another chapter to his growing driver's manual. He learned what it takes to win on the mountain.
"It was a real hot race track, the tune-up up here is completely different, the car sounds and feels different. I wouldn't say I felt really comfortable this weekend, but Todd (Okuhara, crew chief), Phil (Shuler, assistant crew chief) and the seven other MTS Dodge guys always gave me a consistent car.
"All those guys deserve wins. They get bonuses. The better I perform, the better their paycheck is. Hopefully this time they will treat me to dinner. I've been doing that the last four months."
The largest lesson Beckman is learning is that comraderie is worth its weight in gold.
"I think it's cool to have the chemistry that we've got between the three [DSR Funny Car drivers: Beckman, Capps and Gary Scelzi]. Ron was so gracious down there. And, no matter the fact that they're leading the points and just stretched their points lead, losing sucks and losing in the final is really tough to do. But he was so gracious when he came over. It actually looked like he was happy for us."
A REAL BARN-BURNER - Ron Capps and Ed "Ace" McCulloch have certainly had easier days in the office. Despite the woes, the duo reached their sixth final round of the season and 51st of Capps' career
Capps stretched out his points lead over Robert Hight to 154.
En route to the final, Capps stopped Del Worsham, Jerry Toliver, and Scott Kalitta.
Those victories and just getting in the field came with a cost. Capps and McCulloch used up some parts and some oildown credits.
"Ace and I just talked," Capps said. "There is some carnage here in the pit area. A lot of teams really had some problems, had some oildowns. And we've built up a lot of credits with our oildowns. I'm proud of the Brut guys for putting a great car together.
"It's a brutal race up here. I don't think people at home really understand what these crew chiefs have gone through this weekend. We knew that Todd and Phil were going to step up. The mountain blocked the sun there for the final round and we knew they were going to run a 4.90. We just didn't have it. And that's OK. We're back down to sea level next weekend in Seattle and we'll get on with the swing.
"When John Force red-lit in the semifinals (against Beckman), I about jumped out of my seat. We were the pair behind him. So, I had to calm myself down.
"We almost wanted to burn the place down after last night," Capps said of the team's qualifying effort to finally get into the field in 12th in the last session. "It was so discouraging. We could not get the car to run. Ace was just beside himself. So, it was great to go rounds like we did today. We didn't even expect to get past first round, to be honest with you."
THEY'RE HEARING FOOTSTEPS - Yes, the competition had better start looking over their shoulders. 'Ole Mr. Brute Force has got momentum and he's using it.
Fourteen-time Funny Car champion John Force parlayed a semifinal finish into a launching point for a potential unprecedented fifteenth NHRA POWERade title. He fouled today and it was due to something he hasn't had a problem with this year.
The champion was excited.
“I was too amped up,” said Force. “I was trying to get my energy up for these kids 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,” Force 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.”
Indeed, after seeing his record qualifying streak end at 395 consecutive 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 POWERade points, one position removed from the Countdown.
LOOKING FORCE-FUL -- When Force red-lit against Beckman in the semifinals, he might not have looked all that strong in his Castrol Ford Mustang. However, Force, who entered this race in 13th place in the Funny Car standings but has been as far down the list as 20th (at Las Vegas, where he DNQd, and after the following race at Atlanta), is climbing through the ranks. His first-round victory over Gary Scelzi put him in 10th place, just 36 points out of the desirable No. 8 position. Only the top eight at the conclusion of next month’s Reading, Pa., race at Maple Grove Raceway will be eligible to compete for the series championship. He improved to ninth place with the second-round victory over Tony Pedregon. As for the red light, Force said he “just got jacked up. My fault.”
SOUND OF ‘CRAP’ . . . AND WINNING -- Ron Capps said his Brut Dodge Charger “sounded like crap from half-track on,” as it popped and banged down the right lane in his first run of the day, against higher-qualified Del Worsham. But he asked crew chief Ace McCulloch what the elapsed time was, and McCulloch told him he won with a 5.078-second pass. “Oh, never mind then,” Capps said with a big grin. “I guess it ran just fine.” Worsham ran a 5.148-second time. In his successful second-round race, against Jerry Toliver, Capps joked that his Dodge “sounded like Jeff Gaynor’s nostalgia car that I drive sometimes.” But it carried him to the semifinals for the first time in four races, since he did it at Joliet, Illinois, in early June, and lost to teammate Gary Scelzi in the final.
COUPLE OF ROUND-1 EXITS -- After Mike Strasburg eliminated Tommy Johnson’s wife, No. 1 Top Fuel qualifier Melanie Troxel, Johnson had the chance as No. 15 qualifier to beat No. 2 Jack Beckman. But no matter at which end of the order the husband-wife team started, they both went home early.
A PRO KNOWS -- Following Jack Beckman’s first-round victory over Tommy Johnson, track interviewer Alan Rinehart told the winner, “If there was anything wrong with that run, I couldn’t see it.” Replied Beckman, “I could feel it inside the car.” Beckman, an instructor at Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School at Pomona, California, then explained about all the subtleties of driving a Funny Car on this kind of a track and what kind of pitfalls to avoid at the various increments.
UGLY BUT EFFECTIVE -- Scott Kalitta won an ugly pedaling contest with Round 1 opponent Tony Bartone and won on a holeshot with an equally unattractive 7.030-second elapsed time. “I lost track of how many times I pedaled it. But I’ll take a win any way I can get it,” Kalitta, driver of the DHL Toyota Solara, said. Kalitta, who has won this race three times in a Top Fuel dragster (1994, 1995, and 2004), seized his momentum to beat Robert Hight in his apparently troubled Auto Club Ford Mustang. “Our DHL guys work awfully hard. We don’t give up,” Kalitta said. He moved onto the semifinal round for the first time since the Richmond, Virginia, race last fall.
PROBLEMS OF HIS OWN -- Robert Hight and Gary Densham were the fourth pair in Round 1, and Hight was the first Funny Car driver to avoid an upset. Jeff Arend (over Kenny Bernstein), Tony Pedregon (over Mike Ashley), and Ron Capps (over Del Worsham) had set a troublesome tone for top-qualifier Hight. “I heard Gary leave,” Hight said, alluding to Densham’s minus-.031 red light.” But Hight, who was spinning his tires and dropping cylinders as he ran down the track, had his hands full, said, “ I saw my win light and figured Gary red-lit.”
THIS ONE'S FOR DAD - Allen Johnson's victory marked the fifth of his career out of 11 final rounds. The last time he visited the winner's circle was Seattle of 2006.
No other win has meant as much to Johnson as this one did.
"It's just a fairy tale weekend," said Johnson, seated beside his dad and team engine builder Roy, who had suffered a heart attack earlier this year, and has recovered fully. "I'm sure Dad will second that. For this being a Mopar event, we were the fastest car, No. 1 qualifier: everything you can do we did this weekend and it feels really good."
What could have been a tragedy provided a reprieve from fate for the Johnsons.
"We were lucky we were in the right spot at the right time," Johnson said of Roy's attack in Phoenix. "It worked out that he's more healthy now than he was before then. So, you can tell he's smarter (because of the way the car's running.)
"That one race was a setback for him and the team. We've just come back even stronger and everybody's bound together and we tested our butts off and they put in long hours at the shop on the engines and it's just all starting to come together.
"We've been a win waiting to happen since the first of the year and just hadn't gotten a break. In the finals we got a break. We probably wounded our motor in the finals because we only ran 192 mph. Fortunately, Ron broke a transmission, so there's the break we were looking for.
"Going into the finals we knew it was going to be tough. He'd been fast all day. I had to do my job as a driver and the car and the motor had to do their jobs. Fortunately, we got by even though we didn't do our jobs. But it would've been close."
HAPPY DAYS ARE HERE AGAIN - That sound you heard in the distance was Ron Krisher sighing.
Krisher emerged from the outhouse and climbed his way into the penthouse by reaching his first final round of the season. This wasn't a matter of falling into the final round. The Valvoline-sponsored driver was the quickest in each round leading up to the finals.
The only thing keeping Krisher from making it a fourth consecutive was parts breakage.
"We broke the transmission - it dead-headed," Krisher said. "It doesn't come out of first gear and just stays in first, and then it goes to the moon. It's a shame. We had a good 60-foot (time), a good light, everything we needed to win that (final) round. It's been a long time waiting. It's been one tremendously bad year and we've struggled."
Krisher had 11 consecutive DNQs before qualifying 12th last week at Bristol.
THE CAGNAZZI FACTOR - When he was mired in the worst funk of his career, Krisher was convinced there was only one team that could bring forth a clean slate -- Victor Cagnazzi. His intuitions were correct.
Krisher's turnaround coincided with his decision to enter into an engine-lease program with Victor Cagnazzi Racing starting with the Norwalk race two weeks ago.
"At Norwalk we got a little bit lost on what to do with the motor because we really didn't understand it," Krisher said. "We didn't have a handle on the tune-up on the motor, and we didn't have a handle on what to do. At Bristol we did a little better but had some problems with a shorted-out water pump in final qualifying. In this race it really started coming together and then somebody throws a roadblock out there. What are you going to do? I don't get upset and I don't get too excited. Everybody here did a good job today, and when something breaks, it breaks. That's just the way it is. Sure, I would've liked to have won that race, but Allen Johnson wanted to win that race too.
"It's that simple. We have good people, we got a lot of help today, and we've got a good race car. We'll still struggle a little bit at Seattle running back down at sea level trying to figure out what it is we're going to do, but we'll overcome it, I'll guarantee you we will."
KRISHER OVERTAKES LINE -- No. 7 qualifier Ron Krisher earned his first elimination round-win of the season, holding off reigning series champion Jason Line, the No. 10 driver, in the first round. He had to run down Line, who left first with a .042-second reaction time to Krisher’s .076. Krisher said afterward, “Victor Cagnazzi has given us a lot of power.” Then, of sponsor Valvoline, he added, “I’m glad they stuck with me this long. It’s been a horrible year.” But that has to make it look a lot more palatable.
UNDERDOGS? REALLY? -- The Pro Stock ladder might have looked a little strange Sunday morning, with GM headliners Greg Anderson, Warren Johnson, and Jason Line all considered underdogs. Those “underdogs” have 10 series championships among them.
KNOW BETTER NEXT TIME - Greg Anderson learned a valuable lesson this weekend. Even if you're up to your elbows in working engines, take some time away to test prior to Denver. It could have made all the difference in the world this weekend.
"We're also definitely paying the price for not testing here," Anderson said. "It just took us too long to figure out what we wanted to do here. It took us until second or third round on Sunday to get a handle on it, and the driver didn't buy us another round, so we ran out of time, basically, and we're not going to win this race. It's disappointing. We're kind of kicking ourselves we didn't come out here and test, but that was our decision and we made it. We elected to stay in the shop and work on engines because of the tight schedule, and obviously it was a mistake."
RARE DOUBLE -- Bandimere Speedway fans saw something rare in the first round of Pro Stock action. In a battle of Pennsylvanians, Kenny Koretsky and Max Naylor recorded identical elapsed times, and Kurt Johnson and Jim Yates came along after that and did the same. Koretsky advanced with his 7.122 seconds at 193.74 mph, and though his speed was slower than Naylor’s 193.96, he won by virtue of his quicker reaction time. He was seven-thousandths of a second quicker on the starting line than Naylor (.041 seconds to Naylor‘s .048). Kurt Johnson won the right to race dad Warren in the quarterfinals with his .0026-second margin of victory over Yates. Johnson and Yates each clocked a 7.114-second elapsed time and Yates’ speed was faster (194.58 mph to 194.46). But the difference is in the reaction time, and Johnson cut an .025 light, while Yates was .051 on the Christmas Tree. “That was a perfect run by the ACDelco Chevy Cobalt,” Johnson said. “The only bad thing was I broke my helmet strap.”
FATHER’S DAY -- If you can’t holeshot you own kid, who can you holeshot? Warren Johnson had no qualms about doing it to his son, Kurt, in the second round. After eliminating KJ with a 7.150-second elapsed time at 193.54 mph to 7.143/194.44, WJ quipped, “He’ll probably have me [arrested] for child abuse, I suppose.” Warren Johnson had to face another Johnson -- no relation this time -- in the semifinal round, but he didn’t have as much luck. Allen Johnson advanced to his second final round of the year.
KORETSKY ROLL CONTINUES -- Bristol finalist Kenny Koretsky scored back-to-back semifinal appearances Sunday when he defeated Jeg Coughlin. What helped him reach his first final round since the 2005 Labor Day classic U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis were outstanding reaction times. That has served him well again, as he left on both Max Naylor and Jeg Coughlin. He had a .008 reaction time in the Nitro Fish Ultimate Gear Chevy Cobalt against Coughlin, who beat him in the Bristol final the previous Sunday.
“It must be the Powerade,” Koretsky, a/k/a CaptainChaos, said, kidding. “I’ve lost 25 pounds. That’s got to be helping.”
Actually, it’s not a “what” but rather a “whom” who has been helping Koretsky -- none other than Clay Millican, the Top Fuel driver for whom Koretsky was team owner until last winter, when he sold the dragster team to Evan Knoll.
“Clay’s a big help. Clay is so focused, great for the sport, great for me as a team owner, great with the fans, great on TV -- wherever he is, he’s great,” Koretsky said.
“It’s incredible the level of focus Clay has,” he said. “I watched him. I studied him. He has helped me . . . But I can’t reveal all of our secrets or Clay would be upset.”
The Captain said, “The ultimate goal is for both him and me to win the same national event. We might have to call the jet in for that or use Evan’s jet. That‘s going to be some party.”
The party’s on hold. Ron Krisher, who’s red-hot himself, advanced to meet Allen Johnson in the final round.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
TAKES ADVANTAGE OF GIFT -- Matt Smith limped to the finish line in the opening round with a 15.731-second elapsed time at a speed that might have gotten him run over on Interstate 70 near the race track (47.83 mph) because of a broken piston. But he won because Mike Berry had left the starting line too soon. But he beat Eddie Krawiec in Round 2 with a new motor.
LOUD BUT LOST -- Angelle Sampey, who made her Pro Stock Motorcycle debut here in 1999, said after beating Chris Rivas in the opening round, “His bike is so loud, I could hear it all the way down the track!”
UPSETS FEW -- This class didn’t see its first upset victory until the fifth of eight pairings. Antron Brown, on the U.S. Army Suzuki, earned the distinction courtesy of a .001-second reaction time. Geico Suzuki rider Karen Stoffer was the only other upset winner in the first round, taking advantage of Andrew Hines’ red-light foul. He jumped the tree by a mere two-thousandths of a second on his Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson V-Rod.
RED-LIGHT DISTRICT -- Five riders red-lighted in the first round: Mike Berry, Peggy Llewelyn, Hector Arana, Andrew Hines, and Craig Treble. Two others did so in the quarterfinals, including Karen Stoffer, who had advanced on Hines’ red light. She made the mistake against Angelle Sampey, while Antron Brown gave Matt Guidera a free pass to the semifinals for the first time this season but the seventh time in his 39-race career.
SONOMA-BOUND -- The Pro Stock Bike class’ next national-event appearance will be at the FRAM Autolite Nationals at Sonoma, California.
DID YOU KNOW?
TREADING ON NEW GROUND -- Max Naylor uses Hoosier tires on his Jagermeister-sponsored Mopar-powered Stratus.
WJ RULES ROUND 1 -- When Warren Johnson won his first-round race against higher-qualified Dave Connolly, he extended a remarkable streak. Only one driver ever has defeated Warren Johnson in Round 1 at Denver -- Bob Glidden, who accomplished the feat twice.
OOPS! -- Funny Car driver Jerry Toliver apologized to the Bandimere Speedway fans in his top-end interview Sunday following his first-round victory over pal Jim Head. The night before, after he drove into the sand trap and turned his Toyota onto its side, Toliver said, “I hate wrecking race cars, but s--- happens.”
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SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - ‘GOD’S JUST TESTING ME,’ ‘IF I HAD A DESK JOB, I’D BE INSANE,’ SUCCESSFUL SWAP, NEW LOOKS FOR LUCAS, PERSEVERANCE PAYS OFF FOR KRISHER
ROLLING ON - The CAT is on a roll.
Let us rephrase, the CAT dragster with Rod Fuller is on a roll.
Fuller extended his streak of qualifying his David Powers-owned dragster fourth or better at each race this season after the Las Vegas racer powered his Wagner CAT dragster to the No. 3 qualifying position Saturday at Bandimere Speedway.
Fuller's opening qualifying attempt, 4.615-seconds, held up all weekend but it wasn't for a lack of effort that he didn't improve. He even pulled a monster wheelstand on Friday night that wowed the crowd but didn't improve his position. Two attempts on Saturday proved futile.
“We’re lucky it broke the mag drive today,” Fuller said. “It would have been in the car for the first round tomorrow. We’re happy because of that. I’m excited. We had low E.T. of the first round today in the heat. We were going for it again on that last run, but it wasn’t meant to be. I like the No. 3 spot and we kept our streak of qualifying in the top four alive.”
Fuller will face off against No. 14 qualifier Morgan Lucas when Top Fuel eliminations begin at Noon (MT) on Sunday.
NEW LOOK, NEW LUCK? -- Morgan Lucas said his team is nothing if not bold.
“God hates a coward,” he said. “And we’re trying not to be cowards. We’re testing things.”
Indeed his Richard Hogan-led crew will have his red, white, and blue Lucas Oil Dragster looking radically different in the near future.
For instance, the red and blue will be gone by next week’s race at Seattle. “We’re going to put a new mag [magnesium] body on the car, so don’t expect any paint,” Lucas said.
They’re tinkering with other technical aspects of the car. “We’re going to try a Gibson injector later this year. Hopefully it’ll make my life better,” he said, adding that top contenders Brandon Bernstein and J.R. Todd have them.
Lucas, locked into 14th place in the order Saturday afternoon, experienced a mechanical glitch and had to shut down his dragster at the start of the evening session.
SUCCESSFUL SWITCH -- Melanie Troxel, who had a banner year with Richard Hogan as her crew chief in 2006, had to forfeit him to Morgan Lucas’ team a few weeks ago. Although the change has seemed to perk up morale and momentum on Lucas’ side, it hasn’t hurt Troxel, either.
Car owner Forrest Lucas said he is “more than very pleased with the Melanie Troxel team” and the jobs her new crew chief, John Stewart, and car chief, Lance Larsen, are doing. And few could argue with that, considering Troxel waited out a rain delay Friday night and stormed back with a 4.610-second elapsed time at 322.42 mph in the Vietnam Veterans/POW MIA Dragster to overtake Hot Rod Fuller as the provisional top qualifier -- and maintained her lead Saturday.
“We switched crew chiefs to fix [son Morgan’s] car and ended up improving hers,” Forrest Lucas said. “Being No. 1, I didn’t expect that up here. Everyone is always pessimistic about coming to Denver, and I was too. To come out with the No. 1 qualifier blows me away. I knew we had it in there, but the guys found it. It tickles me to death to know they can find it. I’ve been kind of bummed with our performance here lately. It’s certainly good to have something like this come out of it.”
HOME, SOMETIMES SWEET HOME
-- Top qualifier Melanie Troxel, who grew up here in the Morrison area
and said she considers "Denver in general" her home, has had quirky
luck at Bandimere Speedway, where she spent many weekends as a
youngster supporting dad Mike, a sportsman racer and 1988 Top Alcohol
Last year she entered the Mopar Mile High Nationals as the points leader. In fact, she had been points leader for the entire season. "This was the beginning of the decline," she said, recalling that her season unraveled and Doug Kalitta took over as the leader here with his semifinal finish.
"You know, it's funny," Troxel said, "I've had a few good results here, but that was when I came with underfunded teams. When I finally was with a team that had better funding, I didn't do as well."
Her first No. 1 qualifying position of the season nearly had a dark lining, as husband Tommy Johnson Jr. had to pedal his Skoal Chevy Imapala SS on his last opportunity to squeak into the Funny Car field. He said the car's misbehavior "made your heart drop. And I said, 'Oh, no! We can't have this!' " Meanwhile, Troxel was at the starting line, watching the drama unfold, nearly gasping at the close call.
FUNNY HOW THAT WORKS OUT -- Melanie Troxel said her season "has been kind of bizarre. We had a runner-up finish (at Phoenix) and a victory (at St. Louis). So it seems like a better year than it is." She said she and her Vietnam Veterans/POW MIA Dragster team has been fortunate enough to break into the top-eight group that is eligible for the championship chase by the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis. She said that naturally she would like to move up in that order, just to enjoy some breathing room. "We're finally heading in the right direction."
She agreed with Forrest Lucas that she has benefited from his personnel moves that were designed primarily to help his son and her teammate, Morgan Lucas. "Certainly the agenda was to get Morgan into the Countdown. But we're benefiting as a group."
LONG-TIME PALS -- Top Fuel driver J.R. Todd and crew chief Kevin
Poynter were friends long before they joined forces at Dexter Tuttle
Motorsports. They met several years ago, when Todd was working on Bob
Gilbertson’s Funny Car and Poynter was a crew member for Top Fuel
driver David Baca.
“He got to drive every now and then on Mondays,” Todd said, referring to the fact that Poynter -- who is licensed in both the Top Fuel and Pro Stock classes -- was a test driver for Baca. “He was driving before I was.”
The two often talked about their career dream, thinking that they someday might have fun competing against each other. But Poynter then hooked on for five years with John Force Racing, working on Eric Medlen‘s team. Following Medlen‘s death in March, Poynter moved to Tuttle Motorports.
“It’s still in the back of his head that he’d like to get in there and drive. I don’t think he can fit in mine, so I think I have a little job security there,” Todd said.
“It’s ironic that we’re here together,” he said. Hopefully we can get us a win together and maybe get us a championship together and dedicate it to Eric.”
THE HE-SAID-WHAT?! AWARD -- Drum roll . . . And the winner is . . . Clay Millican, who said after his third of four qualifying sessions, “I’m learning. I don’t know what I’m learning. I’m stepping on the gas and it ain’t going down through there,” he said of his RATT Dragster.
HOT DIGGITY DOG -- Top Fuel’s Morgan Lucas has struggled this season with six of his seven career DNQs, five first-round losses, and starting only three times in the top of the field. The only bright spot of 2007 has been his semifinal finish at Las Vegas. And, of course, losing close pal Eric Medlen added to his misery.
“To say we’ve had a roller coaster of a year as far as emotions . . . well, that’s a no-duh statement,” Lucas said. “But we’re working it all out. A bad day racing is better than any day of work in any kind of a normal job. If I had to work at a bank, I’d hate my life. I’m happy. I’m having fun. I’m as happy as I’ve ever been racing.”
He said what would make his situation complete is a Top Fuel victory.
“This is what I want to do for the rest of my life. Even though I might need to be committed heavily to Lucas Oil at some point in my life, this is my future and my hopefully family’s future -- when I have one.”
So what does he think is helping him most in his pursuit to improve in the second half of the season? Ta-DAH! “This beautiful, fine piece of machinery!” he said proudly, showing off like a game-show prize announcer his new hot dog machine.
“I have to credit all of our progress to this hot dog machine,” Lucas said. “When you’re not hungry, you think better. Anytime I’m hungry, I come up and grab a hot dog.”
He said it with great relish.
ROCKIN' AND ROLLIN' -- Jerry Toliver blazed into the 16-car field in his final chance Saturday, but on that run he also drove his Rockstar Energy Toyota Solara into the sand at the end of the track and flipped it onto its side, a la Tony Bartone the night before. One parachute came out but way too late to keep him out of the sand, and the other parachute didn't blossom. He drove straight on into the trap, unlike Bartone, who skidded sideways. After he scrambled out unhappy but unhurt, Toliver said, "We just got the back-up car today. I always hate wrecking a race car -- but $#!^ happens."
KEEP YOUR EYES PEELED - There will be an Eric Medlen tribute forthcoming this year in Indianapolis. While speculation is that it could be the return of the fourth car, this tribute will come whether that team returns or not.
NEVER LET 'EM SEE YOU SWEAT - It's a good thing that point leader Ron Capps is sponsored by a company that makes deodorant. He was sweating as a non-qualifier going into the final session.
"It rained after one pair of Top Fuel and before Funny Car, and a lot of fans left," said Capps, "but a lot of them stuck around. And, boy, they got their money's worth. I wish I could have crawled out of the car and gone into the grandstands for a couple of reasons. It was hair-raising to be holding that butterfly steering wheel with all the excitement going on.
"With the staging lanes angled as they are, as you rolled down you could see what was going on in front of you down the track because it's up a hill. Every pair of cars that went down there bumped us further back, and pretty soon we were on the bump, and then the pair in front of us bumped us out of the show. So, there you are, on the starting line, not in the show, knowing that there's a good chance that, with all the stuff that is on these cars, if one little thing breaks, goes wrong, doesn't work right, malfunctions, whatever, you're not in.
"And yet, Ace (crew chief Ed McCulloch) and the guys pulled it off. But, man I'm growing old fast. You look around and these crew chiefs look like it's Indy Monday morning right now. These guys are so worn out trying to get these cars to run up here on the mountain. I've got a lot of respect for the crew chiefs.
"We're glad to be in. I don't care who we're racing. It doesn't matter. We're in the show and we don't have lane choice for the first time this year. I told Ace that that's one more thing you don't have to worry about tomorrow. We don't have to pick our lanes. We'll just roll up there and race."
Capps meets up with No. 5 qualifier Del Worsham in the opening round of eliminations on Sunday.
I DID SOMETHING RIGHT? - Del Worsham came into Denver looking to close the gap of 55 points that kept him from a spot in the coveted eight in Funny Car points to qualify for the Countdown to the Championship. After qualifying fifth on the Funny Car ladder for tomorrow's eliminations, he's off to a good start. The California native drove to his best qualifying effort of the season with an elapsed time of 4.893 seconds at 314.46 mph on a cooler track after today's brief rain delay, and nearly matched it on Friday's night session when he ran a 4.897 e.t. at 318.09 mph.
"You don't get to say this too often in the Funny Car class, but it ran almost exactly what we were trying to run," Worsham said after his Friday night run. "As a matter of fact, my dad told one of the CSK guys, right before the run, that we would run between 4.88 and 4.91, so there you have it. It was really a nice pass, at a very critical time for us. We don't have much cushion, in terms of picking up the points chase to get in the top eight, and the Friday night runs are going to be huge from here on out.
"What we've had, for quite a few races now, is a really fast race car. We've just been working hard at finding the limits with it, and I know we've made some mistakes, but the problems we've had haven't been performance related at all. I'm just really glad we were able to come out here (Friday night) and do that. It gives the guys a lift, and it gives the driver a lift too."
FLAIR FOR THE DRAMATIC - Jack Beckman has a flair for the dramatic and the final session of Funny Car provided an excellent example.
Beckman equaled Hight's 4.862 elapsed time but the 313.84 speed was all that did him in. His trap speed was just a hair slower than Hight's 314.02 mph.
Hight set his fast lap on Friday evening, Beckman established his under similar cool conditions today following a rain delay. He matched his previous season-best qualifying effort of last weekend in Bristol, Tenn.
"No. 2 two weeks in a row," said Beckman. "I tell you, if you look at our qualifying, we've been stout lately. We went to a top-half car recently and now we're a top-four car in qualifying. Both of our stellar runs were basically in night-time conditions and we struggled in the hot conditions, which is almost opposite for us. We have an awesome hot-weather tune-up. But I'm so confident that we'll be right back tomorrow (during eliminations).
"The interesting thing is, you couldn't write a better script for the Countdown to the Championship points chase," said Beckman, who is in the coveted yet tenuous No. 8 spot. "I don't wish any ill on any Funny Car team or driver - I love and admire all of them – but, Cruz Pedregon and Ashley Force, who were on either side of us in the points, did not qualify today, TJ (Tommy Johnson Jr.) is breathing down our neck and we have him first round. So, we really have a chance to control our own destiny tomorrow and obviously the goal is to win the race. But, if we start chipping away at the round wins, we might find ourselves off that bubble position and in seventh, and maybe even higher."
KORETSKY CONTINUES ROLL -- Kenny Koretsky was the first to break the track record with his 7.047-second pass at 195.03 mph Friday night. That elapsed time put him third overall, his best this season, and matched him with fellow Pennsylvanian Max Naylor, who qualified 14th at 7.096/194.52 Sunday.
Koretsky also ran 7.130 seconds and shut off early on Saturday's first run.
"Eddie (crew chief Guarnaccia) made the
decision because he wanted to conserve our motors," Koretsky said. "We
are extremely happy with the way the car is running."
The driver known as Captain Chaos is fresh from a strong performance at Bristol, Tennessee, where he advanced to the final round but lost to Jeg Coughlin by two-thousandths of a second.
CHANGING OF THE GUARD - Today, for the first time since the Reading, Pa., NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series event of last year, a Pro Stock car other than the dominant Summit Racing Equipment cars of Greg Anderson and Jason Line and the "yellow" Victor Cagnazzi-owned cars of Jeg Coughlin and Dave Connolly qualified on the pole for a national event.
CLONING SUCCESS - Defending event champion Dave Connolly hopes to duplicate last year's winning effort after qualifying in the fifth position.
"Overall, we're definitely pleased with the way the car's been performing," Connolly said. "Week in and week out we've got top four cars, and that makes it nice coming to all of the races knowing you have a shot at winning. Even coming up here, we didn't get any time to test or do anything like that and we came out here and qualified both cars in the top half. We tried some things on different runs, like this morning we tried something that didn't really work out well, but when you're limited on your testing schedule, I guess you have to try and use qualifying once you're safely in the show. We'll just kind of look over the notes, see how everything pans out and we'll just try and make the best call for tomorrow and see what we can do out there."
TESTING THE DAY AWAY - Solidly in the field after Friday's two qualifying runs, Kurt Johnson used Saturday as a "test session" to see what would and wouldn't work on his ACDelco Chevy Cobalt and held on to the fourth qualifying position.
"Looking at the atmospheric conditions, we knew we weren't going to pick up today and were pretty sure we wouldn't get bumped out of the fourth spot" Johnson said, "so we elected to try a few different things today. As a result, we were able to break in some tires and learn a few things that will help us not only tomorrow, but in the long run as well. It was something we really needed, making it into a productive day. Having accomplished what we wanted, we'll put our ACDelco Cobalt back to where it was on Friday and get ready to race. It's a combination we know works well on the mountain, and we're looking to get about four round wins out of it tomorrow."
MOPAR MOMENT -- Neither Allen Johnson nor Richie Stevens won Thursday night’s bathing-suit contest or the river-rafting contest at the Mopar Big Block party at Golden, Colorado. But the Don Schumacher Racing duo were at the top of the order when it really counted, finishing 1-2 in qualifying with respective elapsed times of 7.032 and 7.035 seconds.
“It’s just a dream come true, especially for my dad,” Allen Johnson said, referring to dad Roy. “He has worked his whole life to make things jell..”
Johnson earned his first No. 1 spot of the season and third of his career, thanks to his father’s engine work. He said Mark Ingersoll has been fine-tuning the chassis set-up “and Dad’s been sneaking up on the motors.”
He marveled at the turnaround for the 65-year-old Roy Johnson. He suffered a heart attack in February at the race track at Chandler, Arizona, and actually died in the hospital. Electric shock brought him back, and Allen Johnson said, “ three days later, he was back at the shop and he’s been working ever since.”
"The deal in Phoenix with his heart and everything we went through, it's just real special for him, and especially to do it here for the Mopar event."
Stevens, whose father, Richie Sr., has been active in his career, too, spoke highly of Roy Johnson’s contribution, as well. “Roy’s been making some real good power,“ he said.
Stevens said he drove their cars in the 7.03-7.04-second range in a test session at Bandimere Speedway in May, the week before the Topeka event. He drove both cars, he said, needling his teammate, “because Allen was on a business trip to Jamaica.”
Both agreed that their timing was perfect to impress sponsor Mopar and its business associates at this race the company sponsors. “Mopar’s got to be happy with it. We are!”
Allen Johnson said the short but turbulent ride down Clear Creek and its 40-degree waters -- which aggravated his wrist injury that included strained ligaments and left Stevens with a sore knee -- “didn’t do a whole lot for us. But the whole week has been magic.”
As for his hand, Johnson said his Team Mopar crew has doctored the shifter on his Dodge Stratus, fixing it “to where I don’t have to hold it so hard.”
HAPPY DAYS HERE AGAIN -- Ron Krisher missed the cut at every one of the first 11 national events this year and finally broke his drought last week at Bristol, Tennessee. And he jumped into the top half of the field here Friday and stayed there Saturday.
Thanks to a new, long-term contract with Victor Cagnazzi, help from drag-racing veteran Tommy Lee and crew member (and former Pro Stock driver) Tom Martino, a crew that refused to quarrel among themselves during the advertsity, and some valuable help along the way from Greg Stanfield, Krisher has improved.
“If we’ve got the power, I’ve got the people here on my team to get us where we got to go,” the Warren, Ohio, resident said.
WORST START -- Greg Anderson, a six-time winner in 2007, will make by far his worst start of the season Sunday. He qualified ninth after racking up eight top-qualifier awards and starting second twice and third once. His previously worst start was fourth, in February, at Chandler, Arizona.
“Why aren’t we running better? I don’t know why," he said. "We aren’t running good. That’s why."
Understandably baffled by his worst starting position on a day in which only the 17th and 18th drivers exchanged positions, No. 9 Anderson neverthleless took a positive outlook.
"Really, we haven’t been making clean runs and the engines aren’t performing in the altitude as we had hoped," he said. "It’s kind of a double-edge deal. If we can take another step like we did in that last qualifying run that would help. We picked up five hundredths on the last qualifying run over the one earlier today. If we can do that again and pick up at least half that amount tomorrow in eliminations, I think we’ll be all right. There are a lot of things we can do to make it better. We just have to turn the right screws.”
Anderson had a 2004 victory at Bandimere Speedway. Justin Humphreys will be his opening-round opponent Sunday.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
FATHER KNOWS BEST -- Top qualifier Matt Smith was looking for some useful data about the Bandimere Speedway quarter-mile since he became his own tuner of the Torco-sponsored Buell.. So he turned to the man who has taught him all about the sport and inspired him: his father, Rickie Smith.
“I don’t know how to crank up one of these bike things. That’s the truth. I don’t know much about ’em at all,” Rickie Smith said. However, he trusted his instinct and gave his son some tuning suggestions, sharing what he knows about the thin air and how it affects motors.
They worked Saturday, as Matt Smith kept his lead in the bike class with a 7.347-second elapsed time and top speed of 180.24 mph.
He said he and his team “were trying stuff we shouldn’t have been doing” and that his dad “got us back on the right track. He gave me some pointers on what to do up here (on the mountain). We just needed a baseline [tune-up], and he gave us a baseline.”
He’ll face hometown favorite Mike Berry in the first round of eliminations Sunday.
MAYBE NEXT TIME -- Missing the Pro Stock Motorcycle field were Tom Bradford, Shawn Gann, Michael Ray, Scott Lewis, and Ryan Schnitz. They’ll have to wait until the Sonoma race, which will close the Western Swing two weeks from now. V Gaines, Ben Watson, and Tony Rizzo failed to qualify in Pro Stock.
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FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - TURNAROUND FOR TODD, ‘BLOWIN’ IT UP,’ FROM OWIE TO WOWIE, KID CHAOS, ANDERSON ’CONFUSED,’ AND THE SPINS AND SPILLS OF FRIDAY
UNHURT -- Comp Eliminator driver Ricky Schadle, of Lakewood, Colorado, escaped injury when his ’53 Studebaker got away from him and hit the wall, rolled, and caught fire. After being checked out by track emergency medical personnel, Schadle was not transported to a hospital.
NO PLACE LIKE HOME - Nothing makes a driver smile more than delivering the top qualifying spot in front of the hometown family and friends. That's exactly what Melanie Troxel did with her Vietnam Veterans POW-MIA tribute car.
Troxel grew up in nearby Littleton, Colorado and began her career at Bandimere Speedway at 16.
“I can’t think of a better place than right here to run so well,” said a gleeful Troxel. “We're basically starting over with a new team and a new car. We've done well as far as not DNQing or making any big mistakes but we haven't yet seen at that point the performance we all knew was there with the change of crew chiefs three races ago. You have to build chemistry with your team. Each week, we were getting better and better and my comfort level has taken a step up. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where we found the performance, but we’re very happy to have it.”
What could have been an adverse situation played into the hands of Troxel and her tuners Jon Stewart and Lance Larsen. The ten-minute rain delay provided the opportunity to refuel the car and refine the combination before their final attempt of the day.
“I didn’t think it was raining that hard,” said a relieved Troxel. “Someone from the far end must have radioed in saying that it was worse down there. I kept saying ‘no, I want to run, I want to run’ and didn’t want to shut it off. Obviously, after they shut us down it did get worse, but quickly dried up. The guys on the crew rapidly refilled the fuel tank and I, as a driver, had to stop and take a big deep breath in the car and refocus on what we had to do.
“On the run, the first half of the track in the car was a handful. It was trying to move out to the groove pretty hard and I questioned whether it was going to make it down the track or not. Once I got it back straight, it was pretty steady the rest of the way.” - Bobby Bennett
‘J.R. TODD, 180’ -- J.R. Todd has a different vantage point at this race than he did last season, figuratively and literally.
The driver of the Dexter Tuttle Motorsports/Skull Shine Dragster was a virtual unknown last July when he went unnoticed by fans as he helped set up his team’s work area at the far end of the pro pits. He became an instant success, though, when he beat Tony Schumacher in the final round on a blistering-hot day, triumphing in triple-digit temperatures.
This week, fans were waiting for him, seeking autographs and conversation with the defending event champ. It’s easier to find him, too. He has prime real estate in the Top Fuel pits.
“They found a spot for me at the end of the track,” he said of last year’s location. “Now we’re up here on the front row. We’ve got to move that Skull Shine product and make (sponsor) Evan Knoll happy.
“It’s a total 180 from last year,” Todd said. “Up here on the mountain is where it all began for me.”
Since that time, Todd has experienced just about every thrilling and every crushing aspect of drag racing.
“It’s has definitely been a roller-coaster season in ’07,” the 2006 Rookie of the Year said, flashing back to the Winternationals victory to open the season, the death of close friend Eric Medlen, the revolving door of crew chiefs that has brought him first-timer Kevin Poynter, his sentimental victory at Houston, and the chance to win a championship.
“A win here would put us in the [championship] hunt,” he said. “Right now we’re sitting in a good position. If we can have the kind of success we had on the [Western] swing last year, I think we stand a good shot at being the points leader. That would help my comfort level going into Indy, for sure.” The U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis is where the new Countdown to the Championship narrows the field of contenders.
“When we came out swinging at Pomona, my goal was to contend for the championship. I haven’t changed that,” Todd said.
“We started out with one crew chief, and we’re on our third right now. But I’ve been to the finals with all three. I need to get K.P. a win and complete the trifecta.”
FULLER'S LESSON - If you can't get the top qualifying position, at least win the crowd over. That's the philosophy point leader Hot Rod Fuller used in procuring the No. 2 qualifying position.
Following a brief rain delay Friday night that
kept the final four drivers waiting, Fuller was ready to erase the
eight-year-old track record to which Jimmy Prock (crew chief now on
Robert Hight‘s Funny Car at John Force Racing) tuned Joe Amato. The
4.584-second pass from 1999 remains intact, but Fuller gave the fans
something to remember -- a wheelstand. It forced Fuller to lift off the
throttle and coast to a run of 5.557 seconds at 150.70 mph, which left
him second in the 16-car order.
“We might not have set the track record, but we won the crowd over,” Fuller said. “They knew the car was going to run fast. But a wind gust came through and lifted the front end up. And luckily I caught it in time and sat it down as easily as I could. It definitely got my attention. The car was going to set the track record, but the car is in one piece and I know and all the fans know who the fastest car on the property is.”
Actually, Melanie Troxel was quickest, at 4.610 seconds, and No. 3 qualifier Dave Grubnic was fastest at 327.82 mph. But he led the Top Fuel field on his opening run of the weekend with a 4.615-second, 319.75-mph effort. And no one can dispute the success that Fuller has had this year.
He had earned three No. 1 qualifying awards before pulling into Bandimere Speedway, and this season, crew chief Rob Flynn has kept him qualified no lower than fourth this season. Fuller has started eliminations as the No. 2 qualifier five times and third on two other occasions. And he had been fourth only twice. In addition, Fuller has led the Top Fuel standings after nine of the first dozen races.
On top of all that, much of Fuller’s performance has come without major sponsorship, making his accomplishments all the more remarkable. This weekend he has Caterpillar sponsorship (Wagner Cat), and he will at Sonoma later this month, as well (Peterson Cat).
It’s success Fuller has had, but it not success he has savored.
“I should be enjoying this season. I’ve been the points leader pretty much all year long. I haven’t enjoyed it,” he said. “I’ve been stressed out, trying to find a sponsor.
“I think God’s just testing me and saying, ‘I’m not going to give it to you easy,’ “ Fuller said. “I spent 16 years, trying to get to this spot where I’m at. I don’t think God wants anything to come easy for me.”
MILLICAN’S SHOW TO PREMIERE -- “Blow It Up,” a new television show that Top Fuel driver Clay Millican hosts, will make its debut at 10 p.m. (EDT) Sunday on SPEED TV. It’s part of SPEED TV’s “Launch Hour,” a new series that airs show pilots whose futures will be determined by viewer feedback.
“I hope the fun we had making the show comes across,” Millican said. “Hopefully they’ll enjoy it. If they do, we’ll get to make more. It is going to be interesting. I haven’t actually seen the finished product.”
Rich Christensen, creator and host of “Pinks,” dreamed up this program and chose the excitable and affable Tennessean to host.
The format has speed-shop entries from around the country competing on eighth-mile or quarter-mile tracks until one competitor can’t come back or blows up his ride.
“It’s me against the car,” Millican said. “I choose the number of laps I want the competitors to make and their job is to make that number and my job is to blow it up before they get there. It’s me versus the cars.”
Ray Iddings, co-producer of “Blow It Up,” said the first show “was fantastic and Clay is a natural host. One of the best parts for me personally was just to meet Clay. I always watch Clay, because when he pops out of the car he always has the best, wittiest things to say. He really gets to shine in this because he didn’t have the burden of having to run 300 miles an hour to think of the perfect line.”
Millican and the television crew will tape their fifth show Wednesday, July 25 at Memphis Motorsports Park.
BEARD’S SON MAKING MARK --
Karting newcomer Zach Beard, 16-year-old son of veteran nitro-class
crew chief Lee Beard, has been impressive on a national level as a
Vintage Design Inc. Development Driver. He earned the pole position
last Saturday at Utah’s Miller Motorsports Park in the Stars of Karting
SpecRacer event and finished fourth.
Along the way, he learned to scramble back from adversity on the track. “I was happy to salvage a fourth-place finish, after holding the battery with one hand and steering with the other on Saturday,” the Avon, Indiana, teenager said. “That took away my ability to fine-tune the carburetor. My crew chief, Shawn (Regula), did a great job assembling a new cart and putting me in position to earn the pole.”
A day later, Beard started from the outside of the front row, led the first nine laps, and finished second at the same track. He was a mere three-thousandths of a second too slow to capture his second pole position in as many days.
Before that, he recorded a podium finish May 19 at a race at New Castle, Indiana.
Zach Beard third in the Eastern Division standings after two of four events, and the Utah effort helped him gain the Western Division lead. His next race will be an East Division event Aug. 3-5 at Shawano, Wisconsin.
In his first season driving for Toronto-based First Kart North America, the Covenant Christian High School student won the Homestead (Florida) Karting Facility on the Florida Winter Tour. The event featured the best young racers from the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and South America.
Lee Beard tunes Whit Bazemore’s Matco Tools Dragster for David Powers Motorsports.
Photo courtesy of David Powers Motorsports
PRODUCTIVE PROCK -- Jimmy Prock, Robert Hight's crew chief, has
been extremely successful at Bandimere Speedway, both with John Force
Racing and earlier with five-time Top Fuel champion Joe Amato, for whom
he was crew chief from 1995 through 2000. Prock tuned Amato to
back-to-back Mile-High victories in Top Fuel in 1999 and 2000, before
winning with Hight in the Auto Club Funny Car in 2005.
ROBERT’S RUN -- Robert Hight is the only Funny Car driver to have led the standings at least one time in each of the last three seasons. He also has qualified No. 1 for almost one-third of the races in which he has participated (19 of 58).
ON THE SIDE -- Tony Bartone was uninjured, but he scared the grandstands full of people and team co-owner Diane Dunn in Friday night’s second session. Bartone ended up in the sand pit at the end of the track, his Lucas Oil Chevy Monte Carlo on its left side. His parachutes failed to deploy, and he tried to save the car body damage by keeping it out of the trap. He slid the Chevy sideways with about 200 feet of asphalt left, and when it skidded into the sand, it flipped over onto its side. Bartone appeared more emotionally “sore” than physically sore as he walked away from the scene.
“We made a halfway decent pass,” said Bartone. “The car went to about 1,100 feet and people at the far end told me they saw red flames coming out of it, meaning the motor was going away. For nighttime qualifying, my job is was to drive it to the finish line. I went to hit the parachute handles and wound up bending them in my hand. I went up to hit them again and they bent more. At that time I knew I was in trouble, so I went to the brakes. The car slid quite a ways and then turned sideways before it went into the sand trap and rolled a couple of times.”
Bartone insinuated to the top end safety crew the extra safety equipment can be a burden at times. He found out that sometimes comments like that can come back to teach a lesson.
“The lap before I was just making comments to the NHRA about how many harnesses we have on and it was on safety this and safety that,” said Bartone. “We were so strapped in and it seemed we had so much stuff on us that I could not even get out of the car.
“One lap later, I’m eating my words. The car went over twice and I was buckled in my seat and didn’t move, didn’t get thrown around and knew exactly what was going on the whole time. That was the first time I ever got out of a car upside down. It wasn’t a good feeling!”
Bartone hurried back to the pits after the mishap to carefully inspect the Funny Car he'd rolled in the sand. He later surmised the damage was repairable and the car would run on Saturday.
“I’m fine and nothing hurts,” he said. “My wrist is a little banged up and sore, but that’s it. Other than that, my hat’s off to NHRA. The safety inside the car is incredible. My body went through something that looked wild when you see it on TV. We were lucky and away we go. Hopefully, the chassis is fine because we can use it tomorrow to compete this weekend.
BIG SWING -- Tim Wilkerson has gone from one end of the spectrum to the other in a few short days. He enjoyed his best weekend of the year at Bristol Dragway last weekend at the O'Reilly Thunder Valley Nationals. He earned his first No. 1 qualifying position and first semifinal-round appearance of the season in his Levi, Ray & Shoup Chevrolet Impala SS. He anchored the field of 16 with a 5.290-second elapsed time Friday night.
LOW ENERGY FRIDAY -- Still unqualified are energy-drink sponsored Jerry Toliver and Kenny Bernstein.
HEY YA'LL WATCH THIS - Those top secret parts will get you
every time but Mike Ashley isn't not worried. The New York mortgage
banker is confident that his new billet blower courtesy of his former
Pro Modified crewchief Chuck Ford is the answer.
Ashley caught on fire during Friday's initial session and followed up with flameless fire during his second attempt, landing in the No. 2 position with a 4.889 elapsed time at 311.34 MPH.
After driving through an flaming engine fire in the first round of qualifying in the Mopar NHRA Mile High Nationals, Mike Ashley blasted the Torco Race Fuels, Inc. Dodge Charger R/T to a pass down the quarter-mile at Bandimere Speedway, in Morrison, Colo. during the second round of qualifying Friday night, ultimately earning the provisional No. 2 spot heading into heat-of-the-day qualifying on Saturday.
On his first attempt of the day, Ashley's car started to smoke at about 300 feet and blew up at about half-track. He struggled to keep the car straight and out of the guard wall, finally bringing the Torco Dodge to a halt with the assistance of the NRHA Safety Safari.
"This is the first time we've actually used one of our new blowers from our blower development program during qualifying, and it gave us a lot more boost than we anticipated, eating up the engine and making a pretty good fire," Ashley said.
"I hit the [fire extinguishing] bottles and got it mostly out, but had trouble stopping the car because of all of the oil on the track. I have to hand it to the Safety Safari guys - they are truly amazing. They helped me get it stopped and got me out of the car, all while there were still flames from the blown engine.
"When we finally got the car back to the pit, we had to do a lot of work to get it back into shape for the night session. To come out and run the second-quickest was really awesome - and I'm really proud of the entire crew," he said.
On the last run, Ashley admitted there was performance left on the table.
"That second lap really felt good," Ashley said. "I actually think we had more in it, but to go into Saturday sitting number two is a great feeling" - Bobby Bennett
RUB IT IN - Ashley, who is know to provide extra benefits for his crew, decided he would motivate his team with a different "perk" each week - this week hiring a professional massage therapist to rejuvenate the crew between rounds.
"This is a tough enough job as it is. Put six weeks in a row and everyone can get over-stressed at any time. There's nothing like a good massage to relieve stress, so, I wanted to get them through this weekend with a 'gentle touch.' So far, it seems to be working," Ashley said. - Bobby Bennett
FROM OWIE TO WOWIE -- Richie Stevens and Allen Johnson fared much better in Friday’s qualifying runs in their Stratus Pro Stock cars than they did at Thursday night’s “Rumble In The Rapids” inner tubes during sponsor Mopar’s Big Block party in nearby Golden, Colorado.
Stevens came out of frigid Clear Creek with a banged-up knee after Thursday evening’s rubber-raft race against Don Schumacher Racing teammates Johnson, Jack Beckman, and Gary Scelzi. Crew member Mike Gott said Stevens was limping for awhile (not to mention shivering, because his pal with the towel was on the opposite bank from where he exited the water). But Gott said Stevens’ knee improved after a few beverages later that night: “That diminished the pain.”
Johnson already was smarting from a motorcross bike wipeout on his Greeneville, Tennessee, property just before last weekend’s race at Bristol. The track doctor at Bristol Dragway told him that his right wrist wasn’t broken but said it appeared Johnson had suffered some strained ligaments. He iced it but, Gott said, “he said it was pretty tender when he plugged [his Team Mopar Stratus] in fifth gear.” He took to shaking hands with his left one.
So as he paddled and madly tried to propel himself through the water Thursday and his raft bounced and bobbed through Clear Creek and a big whirlpool-like element near the end of the water sprint, Johnson aggravated his injury.
“He’s going to baby it along,” Gott said early Friday. “But one those guys get in their cars, their minds are on the cars. If your hand’s hurting, you think about it when you pull the parachutes and hope your win light’s flashing.”
What Stevens and Johnson saw on the board after their first qualifying attempt Friday -- and certainly what the teammates saw in the night session -- took their minds off their aches and pains at lest for a few minutes.
In the afternoon, Stevens posted a 7.076-second clocking, which held up as low elapsed time until Bristol winner Jeg Coughlin Jr. trumped him with a 7.071-second run at 195.34 mph for the early lead. Stevens and Coughlin were the only drivers quicker than 7.08.
Johnson was two positions back, in fourth place, with a 7.082-second, 195.28-mph salvo. He and Kurt Johnson had identical times, but Johnson settled in third place with a faster speed, 195.59 mph.
Stevens remained in second by the day’s end, but Johnson vaulted past him with a track-record 7.032-second pass at 195.73 mph to take the provisional No. 1 qualifier award. Johnson said he thought the number would hold up.
“It couldn’t be any better. It just worked out that way. We tested well here -- right before Chicago . . . after St. Louis . . . It was a long time ago.” He said his father and crew chief, Roy Johnson, has more than recovered from his life-threatening heart emergency in February at Phoenix. “Now he has more energy, more creativity and more brainpower than he had before.”
However, his own wrist and hand don’t feel any better, Allen Johnson said. “I told them at the top end when I got out [following his class-leading pass] that I thought I was going to throw up, it hurt so bad.”
LOOK OUT FOR KID CHAOS -- Kenny Koretsky was excited enough Friday to make the 16-car grid with a 7.130-second, 194.49-mph effort that started him in the No. 11 spot. And he was proud of the fact that this Mopar Mile-High Nationals race is the 200th in his NHRA Pro Stock career. Captain Cahos is especially charged up these days about the emergence of son Kyle as a racer.
Already Kyle Koretsky has received the nickname “Kid Chaos” and is set to have his own T-shirts among the Nitro Fish Ultimate Gear line of apparel. But don’t think he jumped without discipline right into the Super Comp dragster that his father bought from Dave Connolly, the one in which Connolly’s father Ray recently won a race -- or that he will move into the Pro Stock class without preparation.
“We’ve got to keep him focused. He‘s a free spirit,” Kenny Koretsky said. But he assured, “Kyle went to Jimmy Harrington’s [driving] school and drove Super Comp and Super Stock cars. He made 13-14 runs in the 8.40s and 8.50s.”
Already he has won seven or eight rounds of competition, but according to the veteran Pro Stock driver from Richboro, Pennsylvania, Kyle Koretsky will not slide into a Pro Stock car until he makes between 100 and 150 half-track and full-track passes. “He’ll go to the Eddie Guarnaccia-Kenny Koretsky Driving School. That’s a first!”
The plan is to have Kyle Koretsky enter four races in 2008 and compete for Rookie of the Year honors in a full schedule in 2009.
BACKSLIDING -- Rookie Pro Stock driver Bill Windham, struggling with a flare-up of previous disk problems, is scheduled to undergo back surgery Monday afternoon. His doctor suggested, though, that he should be ready to race again later this month by the Sonoma event.
CONFUSED? -- Maybe the most startling quote of the day came from three-time and current Pro Stock champion Greg Anderson. “I’m a little confused right now,” he said after landing in 14th place with a best effort Friday of 7.098/194.91 in his Summit Racing Equipment Pontiac GTO.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF -- Provisional No. 1 qualifier Matt Smith knew better than to ask, but hey -- he’s a risk-taker. He knows well that “nobody shares secrets” in the Pro Stock Motorcycle pits. “Today was interesting. Today was the first time I’ve got to come to the mountain and tune the bike myself. Wouldn’t nobody give me a tune-up. I asked around what they all were doing,” he said with a sly grin that almost reminded folks of his famous Pro Stock dad, “Tricky Rickie” Smith. “Nobody gave me any hints. Nobody.” He figured it all out on his own, though, so maybe his competitors will fishing for hints Saturday.
SCALI MAKING COMEBACK? -- Geno Scali opened his bid for a first No. 1 qualifying position since the 2005 NHRA Finals at Pomona, California, by clocking a class-best 7.397-second elapsed time. The 2003 series champion was the lone rider in the 7.3-second range.
TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES -- Andrew Hines, who won from the No. 1 spot at Joliet, Illinois, then beat Matt Smith in the final round at Norwalk, Ohio, in the most recent Pro Stock Bike event, had his bike pushed from the starting line before his first qualifying chance. And Smith appeared to have trouble for a few seconds in the next pairing.
Announcer Bob Frey said of Hines’ predicament, “Something’s not right.” Then, mocking his own mechanical inexperience, he said, “There’s probably something more technical than ‘Something’s not right,’ but that’s all you’re getting from me.”
Smith, trying to build on his final-round momentum at Norwalk, saw his scare last just a few seconds.
When his Torco Buell team was huddling frantically around the bike at the starting line and Smith had stepped away from the seat, Frey said, “They’re working on Matt Smith’s bike. I’m not a great mechanic, but anytime the rider’s off the bike, that’s an indication things aren’t going well.” But whatever his problem was, Smith hopped back onto his bike, staged alongside Angelle Sampey, and ran a 7.420-second pass at 180.24 mph -- strong enough for third place on the tentative list.
LADIES DAY AT G-SQUARED -- Chip Ellis made the field in Friday’s opening session, and that was some cause for celebration, considering that mechanical troubles prevented reigning series champion Andrew Hines from making an attempt and the fact that accomplished riders Shawn Gann and Ryan Schnitz failed to beat Peggy Llewelyn’s bump time of 7.606 seconds. The biggest cause for celebration in the G-Squared pit was the Thursday birth of Kendall Dee Johnson to crew chief Ken and wife Kassie Johnson. The 7.14-pound, 20-inch Kendall was born in Georgia. The G-Sqaured family also was celebrating Julie Bryce’s 10th birthday. Julie is the daughter of team co-owners George and Jackie Bryce.
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THURSDAY NOTEBOOK - PARTY ON! BENDING
THE RULES OF PHYSICS. HOMECOMING. NEW CHASSIS. PIVOTAL
RACE. . . . IT'S DENVER!
BIG-BLOCK PARTY! - The Mopar Big Block Party in downtown Golden, Colorado, traditionally kicks off the annual Mopar Mile-High Nationals.
And the streets of downtown Golden will shine even brighter this Thursday, as attendees will witness the unveiling of the striking gold “tribute” paint scheme that Gary Scelzi will carry on his Mopar/Oakley Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car at the 28th Annual Mopar Mile-High Nationals, scheduled for July 13-15 at Bandimere Speedway at nearby Morrison.
Scelzi is a four-time NHRA POWERade Drag Racing champion (three in the Top Fuel class and one in Funny Car) and has two NHRA Funny Car victories this year. He comes into Denver fifth in the NHRA Funny Car standings. The special gold Mopar Mile-High Nationals “tribute” paint scheme is a thank-you from the brand to the man who brought the 2005 NHRA Funny Car championship to Team Mopar.
The unveiling, set for 7 p.m. on the Mopar Big Block Party stage, will include Scelzi and his family, wife Julianne, and sons Dominic and Giovanni, along with Team Mopar representatives. NHRA announcer Bob Frey will serve as emcee during the reveal ceremonies.
Since taking the reins of the Team Mopar and Don Schumacher Racing Funny Car in 2003, Scelzi has become a fan favorite of the Mopar Nation. The outgoing driver’s off-track antics (he was ordained as a minister to officiate at the wedding of a Mopar-crazed couple during the 2006 Mopar Big Block Party) coupled with his overwhelming success on the track (10 NHRA Funny Car wins along with the ’05 title) have endeared him to Mopar fans.
“The Mopar brand is driven
by people and passion, and Gary Scelzi is passion personified,” said Kevin
Miller, Senior Manager, Brand Strategy & Mopar Performance. “Gary’s passion on the
track powered Mopar’s successful entry into the Funny Car division in 2003, and
he took the brand to the mountaintop with his 2005 NHRA Funny Car championship.
The special Mopar Mile-High Nationals ‘tribute’ paint scheme honors Gary for the many
accomplishments he has earned while carrying the Team Mopar banner.”
The Mopar Big Block Party will start at 6 p.m. Frey will interview Team Mopar drivers and representatives from 6 to 7 p.m. on the Mopar Big Block Party stage.
The “Mopar Rumble in The Rapids” is scheduled to take place from 6:30 to 6:50 p.m., with Scelzi, Ron Capps, Allen Johnson and Richie Stevens Jr. participating in the rubber raft race down Clear Creek in Golden.
Then at 7 p.m., Scelzi's new paint scheme will become public, and Team Mopar and NHRA drivers will take part in an autograph session from 7:15 to 8 p.m.
Drivers scheduled to participate include Gary Scelzi, Allen Johnson, Richie Stevens Jr., Ron Capps, Jack Beckman, Erica Enders, V. Gaines, Max Naylor, Angelle Sampey, and Antron Brown. Former NHRA Pro Stock driver and current Team Mopar Formula Drift team owner and manager Shaun Carlson will also participate at the event.
The Chicago cover band Maggie Speaks will also take the stage at 7:15 p.m. to perform as Mopar fans meet their favorite drivers and take in the sights of Chrysler Group display and concept vehicles.
This new attraction, the “Mopar Rumble in the Rapids, is a just-for-fun rubber raft race that replaces HEMI power with hydro power to determine who is fastest away from the track. Mopar fans will not want to miss the chance to see if their favorite Team Mopar drivers can move the paddles as fast as they can hit the pedals.
"The Mopar Mile-Highs are always fun," Scelzi said. "There's always exciting things going on with the Big Block Party in Golden on Thursday night, and now the rubber raft race on Clear Creek that Mopar is hosting, which includes me, my teammate Ron Capps and the Mopar Pro Stock boys Richie Stevens Jr. and Allen Johnson. It's going to be a blast. I bet someone is going to get wet. That's a given."
Capps saw that coming. "I don't know whether to wear my good clothes or not," he said, "because I have a feeling I'm going to be in the water."
But don't let that fool anybody -- he's looking forward to it. "The Denver race is always a lot of fun," Capps said. "My daughter, Taylor, is coming for the first time without her little brother, Caden, and she's really excited about that. My wife, Shelley, and I always look forward to the Big Block Party downtown in Golden that Mopar puts on every year."
STRAIGHTENING IT OUT -- Buddy Lazier, the 1996 Indianapolis 500 winner, is from Vail, Colorado. And the IRL driver (who, along with brother Jacques, followed their father into open-wheel racing) said recently that he has enjoyed his experiences at this mile-high dragstrip that's wedged into the side of a mountain southwest of Denver.
"It's a really good drag track. I know the family who owns that, and they're really great people," he said of the Bandimere family. "They have Friday night drag races for all the kids, to keep 'em off the streets so they don't street race. They get to go out to that race track, which is one of the best in the country."
Lazier got the chance several years ago to experience what drag-racing fans call the "sensory-overload experience" by standing between the lanes as the nitro-powered cars launch. And he said he never will forget it.
"I think I still have rubber in my hair from eight years ago," he said with a laugh. "When those things go thundering by, you feel it I your chest cavity. You feel it everywhere. But worse than that, four days later, you still smell the rubber in your hair, because those things are constantly burning rubber."
Nevertheless, Lazier seems fascinated by the science of drag racing.
"In Indy Car, we can make our cars go so fast around a flat, two-and-half-mile race track. We're bending the rules of physics," he said. "But really, to be able to make a race car that has 8,000 horsepower . . . make it go over 300 miles an hour in a quarter-mile is really phenomenal. That's bending the rules of physics on a quarter-mile."
Could he become the first Indianapolis 500-Mile Race winner to drive a nitro-powered car?
"I would love to do it. I'd probably try it and do it when there was good ride and I could make some money doing it. I think it is exciting," Lazier said. "My only problem is I would probably be purposely trying to make the rear end go out so I could steer. I don't know.
"I think they make tiny little corrections," he said of drag racers. "They're real talented drivers. It's a different form of motorsports. But make no mistake, it takes a lot of ability to make one of those Top Fuels go that well."
He can work on the lingo later.
RACING, NOT REUNIONS, PRIORITY -- Last year's homecoming couldn't have been more disappointing for Littleton native Melanie Troxel. She had led the standings for the entire first half of the season, winning along the way at Pomona and Las Vegas and finishing as runner-up at Phoenix, Gainesville, Houston, Atlanta, and Joliet. But J.R. Todd stole the spotlight, winning his first NHRA Top Fuel race. And Doug Kalitta took over the points lead as he started his second-half domination.
The driver of the Vietnam Veterans/POW MAI Dragster has put that all behind her and said she's looking forward to returning home again and racing on the track where her Top Alcohol racer father Mike taught her about the sport.
“I grew up running at Bandimere Speedway, so it’s always nice coming back home to get to race there and to see family and friends,” Troxel said. “We’ve been so busy with the constant racing schedule and things going on in the off-season that I don’t get the opportunity to make it back there very often.”
Troxel has had to adjust to the midseason crew-chief change. "It takes a little while to work through all this to get some rhythm going again," she said. "We’re seeing improvements with the car, but we’re not getting the results we want on Sunday. We know it’s just a matter of time before we see that turn around.”
This time as she takes to the Bandimere Speedway track, Troxel has a St. Louis victory in two final-round appearances. But she has had nine first-round defeats, including at all of the past five races.
“That’s definitely been the situation this year,” Troxel said. “We’ve struggled and gone out in the first round a lot this year, but when we do get past first round we perform very well. And I can’t think of a better track to continue that trend than my hometown track in Denver.”
"Home" doesn't guarantee "sweet." Ultra-thin air and ultra-hot temperatures will make tuning tough for crew chiefs and driving dicey for the competitors.
“It’s always tricky to run
at altitude, and that makes it something of a challenge for the team,” she
said. “We don’t get to run our normal tune up at this track, so again, we’ll be
making some changes. We know the track surface itself will be good. I think all
the teams have made some big strides in the past five years on compensating for
the thin air up here. I think we can look forward to some good elapsed times.
“What we need is a healthy weekend. We surprisingly haven’t fallen back in the points standings as much as we could have. Even with our first-round losses, we haven’t dropped out of the top eight, so we need to take this opportunity to go out and put in a solid finish that will move us up a spot or two in the NHRA Countdown to the Championship.”
ON THE VERGE OF A SURGE? -- Does John Force have his mojo back? He hadn't won a race all season until last week at Bristol. But he'll try this weekend to win back-to-back tour events for the 26th time in his career and to climb into contention for one of the eight spots in the NHRA’s new Countdown to the Championship format.
That 123rd victory moved him up only two positions, to 13th, in the Funny Car standings, as he tries to recover from the worst start of his 30-year career. It ensured that he has won at least one tour event for 21 consecutive seasons.
"This ol' Mustang is finally starting to talk to me," the driver of the Castrol GTX® High Mileage Ford said. "We changed hot rods (at the start of this season), and the new car just wouldn't talk. No matter what we did to it. I couldn't beat my own daughter with it." He lost to 24-year-old class rookie Ashley Force in the first round in May at Atlanta Dragway in the first father-daughter match-up in pro sports history.
question that we've struggled," Force said. "In one year, we went
from being one of the greatest teams in the history of the sport to the cellar;
to being the worst. We finally just reached a point where we brought all the
guys in and just asked 'em: Anybody change their medication? Have a stroke?
Bump their heads? Anything?
"Finally, there were only two things left (to change)," Force said. "One was the chassis and the other was (crew chief Austin) Coil -- and I ain't firing Coil, 'cause if I did, he'd write the tell-all book and probably make a lot of money."
After losing in the first round two weeks ago at Norwalk, Ohio, Force's crew swapped out the old Murf McKinney chassis for a new one. The two supposedly were identical. Force said he believes otherwise.
Regardless, whether it was the chassis change, one of the many adjustments Coil and co-crew chief Bernie Fedderly made, Force broke his 12-race jinx. And he said he was proud that the team stuck together through thick and thin.
"With all the yellin' and screamin' and fightin' that's been going on around here, bottom line, we're family and we kept it together," Force said.
In his last 15 appearances at Bandimere Speedway, Force has won five times, most recently in 2003. The six previous times he has won the race immediately preceding the Mile-High Nationals, he has won at Denver three times (1994 and 1996 after winning at Topeka, Kan., and 2001, after winning a special 50th anniversary event at Pomona, California).
In fact, Force has earned back-to-back victories more often than anyone in drag-racing history, 45 times.
"I believe in miracles," Force said, "but it ain't just about winning. It's about doing your best. I remember that when I think about Eric (late teammate Eric Medlen). If I don't make it, I'm still going to fight down to the last race, because that's what it's all about. In the end, we may not make the chase [Countdown to the Championship], but at least we got our heart back."
TURNING IT AROUND -- Robert Hight will return to the Bandimere Speedway quarter-mile as the track record-holder for both time (4.796 seconds) and speed (322.58 mph). His car was the first to break the 4.80-second barrier at altitude. However, he knew such performance superlatives wouldn't be in his future if he didn't make a change in his Ford Mustang chassis.
After sending his competitors in a tizzy with his domination therough the first six races of this season, Hight's Auto Club of Southern California entry suddenly has developed a Jeckyll-and-Hyde personality. He won twice (at Las Vegas and Atlanta) in four final-round appearances and set the two quickest quarter-mile times in Funny Car history: 4.644 seconds at Pomona, California, and 4.634 seconds at Chandler, Arizona.
He appeared to be on cruise control. But then an engine explosion and fire sent his Ford crashing into both guardwalls and then into the sand pit after a June 3 semifinal victory at Topeka, and his performance hasn't been the same since. Forced into a back-up car because of chassis damage, Hight has won just two rounds since Topeka, and at Joliet, Illinois, he took the first DNQ of his career.
But, like his father-in-law, John Force, he has a different chassis this weekend. Even though crew chief Jimmy Prock has told him the McKinney chassis the team has used at the last four races is no different than the one it is adapting for this week's event, he and Prock agreed to make the change. They said they were inspired by Force's victory that ended the 14-time champion's dry spell.
Prock said Hight
definitely is not the problem. "No one's more consistent on the (starting
line)" Prock said. "You look at his (reaction) times and they usually
don't vary more than a couple thousandths. The problem is the car just isn't
reacting. He hits the throttle and it doesn't move, at least it doesn't move
like it used to."
Drivers have a difficult enough time at Denver because of the elevation and occasionally because of the blistering heat, such as last year's. The ambient temperatures were in triple digits each day at the 2006 Mile-High Nationals. So why, of all times, would the team decide to try something new, especially something as critical to performance as the chassis?
"Our goal the next
five races is to develop the best car we can to race for the
championship," Hight said. "When we get to the Countdown (a six-race
shootout that begins with the Labor Day Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at
Indianapolis), it's not going to be the fastest car that wins it all. It's
going to be the car that's the most consistent. And we're not there yet."
Hight trails only leader Ron Capps as this halfway-point race opens.
CAPTAIN CAUTIOUS -- The grandstands were buzzing at Bristol after Kenny Koretsky’s dazzling performance in Greg Hill’s Indicom Electric/Nitro Fish Chevy Cobalt. After all, the driver affectionately known as "Captain Chaos" came within a mere nine inches (0.0024 seconds) of seizing the first Pro Stock vistory of his 30-year NHRA career.
“I had a lot of people call to congratulate me Monday and Tuesday,” Koretsky said, referring to his first title-round appearance since the 2004 Indianapolis race and only his second ever. “All the responses made me feel good. It was great getting to the finals, but I really want to win a race.”
Koretsky , of Richboro, Pennsylvania, used outstanding reaction times all last Sunday -- including the 0.001 light that helped him defeat Greg Anderson in the first round and the 0.033 (his slowest of the day) to top pal Larry Morgan in the quarterfinals. Koretsky used a 0.006 to upset Dave Connolly in the semifinals.
“I heard that my total was the best race-day reaction-time average ever. My average was 0.013 and there haven’t been any under .025. That’s pretty impressive."
But he wasn't taking anything for granted as he headed to Denver, saying, "We need to get in the field solidly at Denver and then run well on race day.”
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN -- Reigning Pro Stock champion Jason Line will begin the weekend in fourth place in the standings, 312 behind the leader, teammate Greg Anderson. But will Line have any magic here? Denver was pivotal to Line's championship march last year.
He was runner-up in the KB Racing LLC Summit Racing Equipment Pontiac GTO in 2006, and that allowed him to overtake Anderson for the points lead. Line held onto it for the rest of the season.
This year, Line's reaction times have been suspect. He knows that and said he thinks he's on a positive swing.
“I won’t say my driving has won awards, but I have been in three finals and I’m currently fourth in points,” Line said. "I’ve been on both sides of perfect this season. That is to say, there are times I’ve been late and most recently times I’ve been early. But at least I have experienced both, and it is now my job to get my reaction time between the two extremes. I am more comfortable in the car and see good things happening for the remainder of this season.”
Last year, Line was the No. 1 qualifier here. He owns both the track elapsed-time and speed records at 7.062 seconds and 195.65 mph.
SNEAK PEEK -- Class rookie Justin Humphreys has had a sneak preview of Bandimere Speedway.
“We had the opportunity to test at Denver about six weeks ago so we do have some data to work with,” the 30-year-old Monrovia, Maryland, driver said. "The motor we used Sunday was our Denver motor, so we were able to put some laps on it at Bristol, too.”
Humphreys, who drives the RaceRedi Motorsports/ Knoll-Gas Energy Pontiac GTO and has some of the best help in the business in crew chief Eric Luzinski and engine builder Richard Maskin. And they have helped him qualify at four of the past six races in this highly competitive class that offers no margin for error. Humphreys also was a semifinalist last Sunday at Bristol and in May at St. Louis.
“I’m having the time of my life,” he said. “We didn’t expect to do much this year because it was our first one. Just to qualify is something else . . . but to get to the semifinals twice feels great. Everything is coming together. It just takes time.”
Humphreys previously competed in Sport Compact and NOPI Series racing. But who knows if he was a Boy Scout? Maybe he was -- he's prepared.
PRO STOCK BIKE
THESE GUYS ARE THINKING -- Steve Johnson's analytical mind has been in overdrive recently, thinking about how his Snap-on Tools Suzuki will stack up against the Buells and Harley-Davidsons . . . and how he'll fare in the dash for the top eight who'll compete for the championship . . . and how to outsmart the challenging Bandimere Speedway quarter-mile.
“Believe me, everyone’s feeling the pressure, 'cause everyone’s got the same goal right now: Make it into the top 8 in the points,” he said.
Johnson’s crew chief, Mark Peiser, has been successful at Denver before, and he knows what he has to do to help Johnson to his first victory since the 2005 U.S. Nationals.
“We’ve already installed different transmission ratio pistons,” he said, “but that’s not the only changes we’ve made to our Suzuki. I could outline those changes, but then Steve would kill me.
“Seriously, we’ve given
this coming weekend’s race a lot of thought, and I’m confident the changes
we’ve made will result in our being very competitive against the rest of the
“The real problem with racing at Bandimere Speedway is that the Harleys and Buells are running 160-cubic-inch engines and the Suzukis are limited to 101ci. At sea level, there’s parity between the two combinations, but at 5,800 feet, those V-Twin guys kill us with their bigger engines.
“You’ve also got to balance the changes you make to the motorcycle. Go too far and it’s going to be gasping for air and not making enough power. Don’t go far enough with your changes and the motorcycle just won’t go down the track quick enough to make the field.”
Johnson said a Wally
statue from Bandimere Speedway would have an honored place in his trophy case,
said, “There are four or five races that everyone wants to win. Races like the
Gatornationals and the U.S. Nationals are really important, but when it comes
to the points, they’re no more important than the Mile-High Nationals. What I
like about this race is the challenge. You’ve got to make major changes to your
combination, so this race is just as much about the decisions the crew chief
makes as it is about what the rider does.
“The bottom line," Johnson said, "is that everyone has to pull together to win, and I think our team is doing that. We may not have the quickest motorcycle this coming weekend, but as long as we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot we’ve got a team that’s capable of winning. I think we’re more than up to the challenge."
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