NHRA MID-SOUTH NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
SUNDAY NOTEBOOK - NO BLUES FOR TROXEL, SCELZI OVERCOMES GREMLINS, CONNOLLY COOKING IN MEMPHIS, HINES TAKES OVER POINTS LEAD
THIRD TIME A (BEAUTIFUL) CHARM- The weather was once again absolutely beautiful for the third and final day of racing at the 20th annual O'Reilly NHRA Mid-South Nationals at Memphis Motorsports Park. The temperatures dipped in the low 50-degree range overnight and the wind, which had been blowing briskly during both days of qualifying, died down by Sunday morning. Eliminations day began with a cloudless sky and temperatures expected to reach the high 70s to low 80s. Another huge crowd was expected to be on hand to witness the second of four races in the Countdown to Four.
FULL THROTTLE WINNERS - The teams of Tony Schumacher, Robert Hight, Greg Anderson, and Chip Ellis were the winners of the Full Throttle Pit Crew Challenge in Memphis. The Full Throttle Pit Crew Championship awards bonus money to one team from all four professional categories at each NHRA event. The program utilizes a points system, generally based on a combination of qualifying position and elapsed times to determine and award a winner at each race. Top Fuel and Funny Car teams receive $3000, Pro Stock, $1,500 and Pro Stock Motorcycle, $750. Points accumulate at each event to determine and award an annual season-end winner. The 2007 champions will receive $25,000 each for Top Fuel and Funny Car, $15,000 for Pro Stock and $5,000 for Pro Stock Motorcycle.
THE 'NINETY-PERCENT' RULE- The NHRA distributed a letter to the Top Fuel and Funny Car teams on Friday announcing the change to a 90-percent nitromethane/methanol mixture in 2008. The overall reaction was positive to the racers CompetitionPlus spoke with in Memphis.
"I think the cars are going to go much quicker," said Knoll Gas dragster driver Clay Millican. "The cat is out of the bag, so to speak, because we know how to make these cars run at 85-percent. It'll go two ways; when the conditions are right the cars will run much quicker and also we can adjust the cars in such a way that when we need more power we'll just give it more percentage. I don't know that they'll be a lot of big changes, hopefully it will help the life of the parts, but it remains to be seen. I'll be curious to see how it all works out. You just deal with what the rules are and that's kind of what we have to do. Whatever it takes to turn the win lights on. I'm glad I don't have to figure out how to run it."
Lucas Oil Funny Car owner and crew chief Jim Dunn, who was one of the people who was instrumental in making the push for the change, had this to say:
"If the tracks will hold the extra power we'll probably hurt more parts," said Dunn. "But most of the tracks won't hold the power. So right now with 85-percent, if we're 100-percent, it'll hold the power and that's when you run good. But that's what breaks the parts because we're right on the verge of breaking everything.
"Now with 90-percent, that doesn't mean I'm going to run 90-percent. Like here (in Memphis) where the air is really good, I'd have 85-86-percent in it. But when the air gets worse, instead of using more blower and compression, we'll put more nitro into it, they way we used to tune 20 years ago. There are a couple of killer tracks that will hold the power and then we'll break some parts, but we break parts now. For a little team like me and Densham's, it'll help us financially. The big teams, they don't care."
I'LL TAKE THE LEFT LANE (UNANIMOUSLY) - All the higher qualified fuel cars chose the left lane during the first round of eliminations. Three Top Fuel cars (those of J.R. Todd, David Grubnic, and Doug Foley) and three Funny Cars (those of Tony Bartone, Gary Scelzi, and Ron Capps) run from the right lane, with Scelzi taking his victory on a holeshot over Gary Densham.
The trend continued in Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle with all the higher qualified drivers and riders taking the left side. Once again three drivers won from the right lane in Pro Stock (Jim Yates, Larry Morgan, and Warren Johnson) with Yates and Johnson both taking victories on holeshots. Four riders won from the right side in on the Bikes (Steve Johnson, Hector Arana, Eddie Krawiec, and Matt Guidera) with Arana taking the victory on a holeshot.
The left lane choice trend continued during the second round up until the final pair of Pro Stock cars, when Dave Connolly became the first driver with lane choice to take the right side. Apparently, with no cloud cover and the sun beating down on the track all day, conditions began to change and so did the choice of lanes. Connolly took the win after the last-second decision to swap to the right lane.
NO BLUES FOR TROXEL IN MEMPHIS- Vietnam Veterans/POW-MIA dragster driver Melanie Troxel won her second event of the year in her third final round appearance after a terrific pedaling job in the semifinals against Brandon Bernstein. Troxel was able to get to the finish line first after both cars smoked the tires right off the starting line and the pedal-fest was on. She had no idea how many times she stepped on and off the throttle.
"I'm going to guess three or four," said a smiling Troxel. "I don't know if that's right or not, everything happens so fast in there you don't really know what you're doing you're just reacting to the car. That was a crazy run, I could hear Brandon over there pedaling away and neither of us could get the car hooked up. Thankfully the belt stayed on it, that's the first time this weekend that it hasn't gone to the finish line with the pedal down. It's just our lucky round and we're happy to be going on to the final."
Troxel defeated a resurgent Doug Herbert in the final round with a 4,728 at 313.22 mph to Herbert's 4.901 at 290.57 mph.
"My main goal for the rest of the season was to have a win going out of Top Fuel," said Troxel afterward. "It was a big deal to me too, for the guys on the team. I started working with them about the middle of the season and there a great group of guys and they've worked really hard in not quite perfect situations and they were really overdue for a win. They've been together for quite awhile and there a good enough team that they absolutely deserve to have a win.
"It's nice to get a win in for myself but probably more importantly to get in a win for them and for us as a group.
"I'm becoming more and more disappointed with not making the Countdown every week," Troxel added. "But I stand by what I said in the beginning; you don't ask your teammate to take a dive for you. If you can't earn you way there you don't deserve it. Our destiny was in our hands and we weren't getting the job done at that point. It's unfortunate that we turned it around right before the Countdown and didn't quite get things turned around to make it in.
"We're going to make the best of the situation and we're going to go out and play spoiler for the rest of the year. Without the pressure of the point's battle we're going to go out and have fun and try and go out and win every race."
MONSTER WEEKEND- Snap-on Tools driver Doug Herbert enjoyed an excellent weekend in Memphis. Herbert advanced to his second final round in three races after he defeated Doug Kalitta, Whit Bazemore, and Doug Foley to move into his 25th career final round.
"That's what Snap-on pays us to do," said Herbert. "Everybody on the team is doing a great job and we're making up some rounds."
'Dougzilla' was up against Melanie Troxel in the final round, with Herbert owning lane choice. The Snap-on Tools dragster came up short when Herbert smoked the tires near half track and Troxel drove on for the win.
BRING IT ON – Rod Fuller knows he needs to take out the cars in front of him to make the Countdown to Four and that includes red-hot Tony Schumacher. Fuller raced against Cory McClenathan in round one and they were the first pair down the track on Sunday.
"The butterflies were worse here than at Indy," said the driver of the CAT-sponsored dragster. "We had to get past the first round to even have a chance at this Countdown to Four. We got the CAT car in and everything is going good and we'll tune this thing up and hopefully we'll have the big black Army car (in the semis) and we can put this CAT car in the winner's circle today. I want him."
Fuller didn't get his wish after Doug Foley upset Schumacher in their round one race. Fuller was the upset by No.16 qualifier Doug Foley in the quarterfinals.
FOLEY FOILED AGAIN- The last time the No. 1 qualifier in Top Fuel won the race in Memphis was in 1989 and Doug Foley made sure that it didn't happen this year. Foley remained unbeaten against top qualifier Tony Schumacher after he defeated him during the first round of eliminations. Foley went on to defeat Rod Fuller in the second round with an excellent 4.605 at 309.13 mph and had some words for Fuller afterward.
"We're a new car on the scene here," said Foley, "and we've been running pretty good. We struggled this weekend but just as I was getting in my car I heard him call out Tony (Schumacher) and I thought 'don't give up on us. We're a good Evan Knoll car and we plan on going out and running good. Now I know why he (Fuller) called out Schumacher, he didn't want us."
Foley's bid for his first NHRA final round appearance ended in the semis when he crossed the centerline and was disqualified against Doug Herbert.
POP GOES THE AIR BOTTLE- J.R. Todd had a little luck on his side during his round-one match-up with Morgan Lucas. The driver of the Skull Gear dragster dropped a couple of cylinders right off the starting line and oiled down the track after his motor let go but he still took the crucial victory when Lucas smoked the tires before the 330-foot mark.
"That was ugly," said Todd following the win. "It was out there spinning the tires pretty good and I probably should have pedaled it but I just legged it on through and it finally popped. I never saw him go around me and that's what we needed to pick up the win. We need to keep on going rounds today to make a move in the points and make that top four. As long as we can maintain pace with those guys in front of us we should be okay today."
The real drama took place ten minutes earlier in the staging lanes when the air bottle popped on his dragster in the staging lanes.
"It was kind of a last minute change to put the other air bottle on there," said Todd at the top end. "But my guys know what there doing and we'll be okay."
Todd, who entered the race in Memphis sixth in Countdown, needs all the round wins he can get after failing to qualify at the U.S. nationals two weeks ago.
NOT SHOWING POTENTIAL - Whit Bazemore remains eighth in the Countdown to the Championship standings. He lost in the second round to Doug Herbert.
“We’re very positive despite the result,” Bazemore said. “The car and the team are showing signs of what we want to be. We have a great team and we have not performed up to expectations, but things are starting to come together. We had a tremendous rebound from Indy and our first round E.T. was the quickest of the race. We’re confident we would have had a much longer day if not for a simple parts failure. We’re going to test tomorrow, but we’re up against time. We’re battling time. There are only two races to go to make up a lot of ground.”
“We made some good progress,” Beard added. “We qualified fourth with a 4.568 and the No. 1 qualifier ran 4.564, so we’re right with the leaders. We had low E.T. of the first round and that was low E.T. of the race and in the second round we had a parts failure. We broke a lifter and that caused the motor to run on seven cylinders. We’re going to run on Monday and work on our consistency. The car has the potential to run very fast.”
SCELZI OVERCOMES GREMLINS TO EARN VICTORY- Four-time NHRA world champion Gary Scelzi said his team fought gremlins all weekend, but he overcame them with his third victory of the year on Sunday. Scelzi opened the day with a holeshot victory over Gary Densham, then went on to beat Del Worsham and Tommy Johnson Jr. to finally square off against teammate Jack Beckman for the event title.
"Isn't it amazing what my little Hawaiian crew chief (Todd Okuhara) can do?" Scelzi said after his semifinal win. "He can make this short, little fat wop look pretty good. I'm excited as hell. This Countdown is a big thing for us. We struggled a little bit here but this car is really ready to rock and roll, we haven't unleashed the beast yet. Something's always breaking or going wrong, we've still got some gremlins.
"You know they got me monitored up on ESPN2 with Dunn and Page. It's hard for me to talk without cussing, so they took the radio out. They can't listen to me now!"
Scelzi defeated his teammate in a great final round race with a 4.886 at 314.61 mph to Beckman's very close 4.892 at 310.55 mph.
"Our tune-ups are very similar and the cars run very similar," said Scelzi. "It's scary how similar they are. I never saw him the whole way down there but that doesn't mean that you're ahead. So I saw the win light on the wall and I got on the radio to make sure. It was a great relief for my crew because everybody knew each other's tune up, they ran identical, fortunately we were the one's to win and I appreciate Beckman and Capps' guys. We're all working so well together and we've got three Schumacher cars in the final four right now. Now we need to stay there by the time we get to Vegas."
TOUGH TIMES- How tight was qualifying in Funny Car at the Mid-South Nationals? The drivers in the No. 15 and 16 spots, teammates Del Worsham and Jeff Arend, made identical 4.915-seconds runs and their positions were determined by their top speed. The No. 17 and 18 non-qualifiers, Jim Head and Mike Ashley, made identical 4.956-second attempts and both missed making the show by a mere one-thousandth of a second.
BECKMAN BREAKS IN NEW RIDE- Jack Beckman's Mail Terminal Services team debuted a new chassis in his first visit to Memphis Motorsports Park and the moved seemed to pay instant dividends. Beckman ran consistently in the 4.80s during qualifying, grabbing the No. 5 position with a 4.832 at 313.07 mph. It was a bold move considering that Beckman is just 18 points shy (less than one round win) of making the Countdown to Four.
Beckman continued his consistent performance on raceday, taking out Jerry Toliver with a solid 4.854 at 312.57 mph.
"Man, that thing wanted to go toward the centerline in the worst way," said Beckman. "I looked down at my hands and the steering wheel was hard left, I guess you're not supposed to drive looking at that. We're on a mission, we need to win races and we need to win rounds so the MTS Dodge is going and that was good run first round, hopefully it'll get us lane choice."
Fortunately it did. Beckman's 4.854 gave him lane choice over John Force's 4.902 for their quarterfinal match-up. Then Beckman went on a tear in the MTS Dodge, outrunning Force with a 4.897 at 308.35 mph and defeating No. 1 qualifier Robert Hight with a 4.922 at 306.53 mph to advance to his third final round of the season.
"I think they're going to make us race Herbert in the next round," joked Beckman. "How big can it get, John Force, Robert Hight, and with the points deal it has big implications. Watching Gary (Scelzi) win in the other lane and the rest of the cars smoke in our lane is nerve racking. Because you're telling yourself how to stage but then you're saying 'get ready if this thing rattles' to pedal it or grab the brake. It spun on the top end but it made it through the mid-section which kind of the opposite of what we thought. This is so awesome. I've been saying for a week I want to beat Gary Scelzi in the final. I hope Gary's okay with that now."
Apparently Gary wasn't okay with it after he defeated Beckman in the final round. All three Don Schumacher Funny Cars are in the top four in the Countdown.
THIRD PLACE - Ron Capps, once upon a time, had a firm hold on the top points ranking. Today he's happy to be in third. The pressure of the playoffs makes every tough match up a crucial one.
"I'm telling you, it was a long night last night knowing we had Tony Pedregon
first round. It was a huge, huge run first round to get by a fellow competitor
in the Countdown, and then we have to watch the guys who aren't in it, like
Tommy Johnson's team. They did a heck of a job getting down the track, and we
didn't. And guys like that are looking to be spoilers to get on TV, because it's
going to be kind of a fight as to who ESPN shows on TV and who they don't, with
"I'm really happy we're going to Dallas. I know that there's two races left and if you look at the points, they're so bunched up right now, so the drama is there already. Hats off to NHRA for doing this Countdown. We'll just try to stay in the top four and get to Richmond (the final race before the final four in points vie for the championship in the last two races) and leave Richmond in the top four still."
STILL THE ONE - Robert Hight still leads the Funny Car points. Some things never changed in Memphis for him.
For Hight, it was deja vu all over again. The 2005 winner of the Auto Club’s Road to the Future Award now has had the same result in each of his three career appearances in the Mid-South Nationals. Each year, he’s qualified No. 1, won two rounds and exited in the semifinals.
IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION - Tommy Johnson Jr. advanced to the semifinals after qualifying his Skoal Racing
Chevy Impala SS third for today's eliminations. Johnson defeated Kenny
Bernstein in Round 1 and Ron Capps in Round 2 to advance to his semifinal
match-up with eventual event-winner Gary Scelzi. Scelzi drove his Dodge to an
elapsed time of 4.908 seconds at 312.13 mph to get the better of Johnson's 6.064
e.t. at 176.26 mph.
"We're not in the Countdown for the Championship so we decided to try some stuff and do a little testing," Johnson said. "It looks like it's paying off. The performance has picked back up, and today it almost picked up too much. We had trouble getting it down the track, but I like what I see. There's a lot of potential there, and when the conditions are really good we can run the big number. Now we just need a little more time with it to learn how to make the adjustments to the racetrack. But it's definitely better and we're heading in the right direction now."
CONNOLLY COOKING IN MEMPHIS- Points leader and U.S. Nationals winner Dave Connolly continued his march toward the Countdown to Four with his third consecutive victory on Sunday.
A major moment during eliminations came when Connolly was the first driver with lane choice to swap lanes and take the right side in the second round.
"That's Tommy Utt for you," said Connolly, with his friendly southern drawl. "We've seen a lot of goofy things happen over there (in the left lane), some good cars that shut off. So at the last minute he made the call and I trust him completely. We picked up the win and this Torco Race Fuels Chevy Cobalt is going to the semis. Life's good right now, we'll see what happens next round.
Connolly earned lane choice in the semifinals, where he defeated Jim Yates to reach his third consecutive final round and a chance at a three- peat. He defeated his major rival, Greg Anderson, in the final round with a 6.648 at 207.59 to Anderson's 6.658 at 208.65 mph.
"You couldn't ask for a better time to get hot," said Connolly. "Right before the first cut we win Reading and then continue the roll at Indy. It's just remarkable and I'm thankful we get to do it with the people we have on our team. I've said it before, I'm just a small part of the team and this whole process. I'm just the guy that gets to ride up and down the track in the car. Especially in the final, it was pretty wild, it was a fun ride."
NAYLOR KNOCKING ON THE DOOR- The way that Max Naylor has been running lately, it seems like only a matter of time until he breaks through for his first NHRA national event victory. Naylor won his race against Greg Stanfield with the second-best elapsed time of the first round, taking the win with a great 6.624 at 207.02 mph after Stanfield suffered a red light start.
"It's really running well," said Naylor, "I'm really happy for the whole Jagermeister team. I think you have to break the Hoosier tires in a little bit."
Upon inspection after the run Naylor determined that he had 36 runs on his current set of rear tires!
Naylor lost to Jim Yates in the second round after mechanical problems slowed him to a 11.792 at 73.96 mph.
YATES KNOCKS OFF NUMBER ONE- Jim Yates advanced to the semifinals for the first time since Englishtown after defeating No. 1 qualifier Max Naylor in the second round.
"I was heading for the centerline," exclaimed an excited Yates after defeating Naylor from the right lane with a 6.703 at 206.13 mph. "My GTO was all over the race track but I just kept driving, trying to get a win light, and thank God we got there first. Awesome opportunity out there, this race track has been really fast all weekend but since the sun has been beating on it we had to change the set up on it to get a little faster."
Yates was defeated in the second round by Dave Connolly, despite making his quickest run of eliminations with a 6.683 at 206.64 mph.
THE DREADED RIGHT LANE - Warren Johnson did everything he was supposed to do in the second round except drive through tire-shake. It wasn't for lack of effort, though.
WJ's car suffered severe tire shake almost immediately, shooting him sideways and forcing him to shut off, allowing his opponent to drive on for the win. Despite the initial disappointment, Johnson still found some positives to take with him from the weekend.
“Taking into account the weather conditions we experienced in previous Memphis races, this was probably the nicest weekend we’ve ever had here," Johnson said. "Unfortunately, our performance was not quite as noteworthy. We made a decent run in the first round, but there were enough changes made in the preparation of the lanes for the second round for which we simply couldn’t compensate, and, as a result, we shook the tires. For example, they used powder for the second round as opposed to spraying the lanes as they did in the first round, which, although it seems small, creating a slightly different surface.
“Although it looked catastrophic from the outside, we didn’t miss it by much. We could have been either 100 rpms lower or higher at the launch, and it might have fixed it, or we could have made a slight clutch adjustment to get us through. We had made a few changes to our GM Performance Parts GTO for the final qualifying session which obviously picked up the pace, and we ran pretty well in the first round today, so we’re actually leaving here in pretty decent shape. We just need to string together a few more of these round wins to have a really good day.”
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
HINES TAKES THE POINTS LEAD- Andrew Hines rode to his fourth win of the season and into the points lead in the Countdown to Four aboard the Screamin' Eagle/Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson in Memphis. Hines defeated Mike Berry, teammate Eddie Krawiec, and Peggy Llewellyn to advance to his fifth final round of the season. Then he knocked off a surprising Steve Johnson, who broke in the final round, to earn his third consecutive victory at the Mid-South Nationals.
Hines' Harley-Davidson was running quick and consistent all day with winning times of 6.928, 6.949, 7.043 and low elapsed time of eliminations with a 6.917 in the money round.
"That was an unbelievable final round," said Hines. "I just wanted to go out there and have green light. I red lit back in Indy and I was hating myself for it. I just held the clutch lever until I knew it was yellow and I didn't try and kill the tree and I didn't want to be really late, I just tried to be right on. From second gear on I never heard Steve and I figured by that time the V-Rod was running out in front of him. When I saw the win light come on it just blew my mind, I mean three years in a row here in Memphis is awesome by any team's standards. For my team to do it three years in a row, with three finals and three wins, it doesn't get much better,
"We were real leery about this Countdown to the Championship this year," continued Hines. "Right now it's worked in our favor but I'm still a fan of the old system. But we're number one right now and that's all that matters."
TWO SIDES TO EVERY STORY - Steve Johnson enjoyed his best weekend of the season after advancing to the final round on his Snap-on Tools Suzuki. The Alabama resident defeated Chris Rivas, Hector Arana, and Craig Treble on a holeshot to reach the money round for the first time this season.
The 20-year racing veteran broke in the final round against Andrew Hines to end his fantastic weekend.
But, while all might have appeared peachy on the outside -- on the inside Johnson's weekend was a tempest.
TREBLE CONTINUES TRUCKING- U.S. Nationals champion Craig Treble won his first round race after his opponent lit the red light and he recorded an impressive 6.969 at 192.17 mph. Afterward Treble admitted his team was getting serious about making the Countdown to Four.
"This is a brand new motor, we're still trying to get the feel for this thing," said Treble after the win. "Harry (Lartigue) went nuts directly after Indy and said 'man, we're second in the Countdown, we better get serious'. So he went out and bought a new motor. We went to St. Louis last week and made a couple squirts on it and tried to figure out where the sweet spot was and we're just finally getting to that spot."
Treble won his sixth consecutive round (including Indy) when No. 1 qualifier Chip Ellis suffered a red light start, handing the win to Treble. The rider of the Team Tigue Suzuki who laid down a stout 6.981 at 189.36 mph to earn lane choice over fellow Suzuki rider Steve Johnson in the semifinals.
Unfortunately, Treble lost to Steve Johnson on a holeshot in the semifinals after running a 7.051 at 190.08 mph to Johnson's slower 7.060 at 188.60 mph.
HANG ON SLOOPY - Matt Smith was anxious to pad his point lead -- maybe a tad bit too anxious.
Smith lost in the first round and fell to second in the points.
“I don’t know what to say,” said Smith. “I mean, I was ready. Heck I saw yellow and I let go. I can’t believe I went red. You have no idea how frustrated I am right now. We lost the points lead for the first time this year and I will just have to come out at Dallas swinging. It is crunch time and we have got to be in the top-four after this next weekend. We have got to be consistent and go some rounds in Dallas.”
LLEWEWLLYN FORGETS HER BATHING SUIT- Peggy Llewellyn, rider of the Rush Racing Products Buell, made a great run on her final qualifying attempt on Saturday with a 6.955 at 191.35 mph to jump into the No. 3 qualifying position for Sunday's eliminations. The run was even more impressive when you consider she put her bike into the sand trap at the end of the track on her previous qualifying attempt.
"I didn't bring the proper attire so I don't want to go back again," joked Llewellyn when asked about her trip to the 'beach.' "It was just a problem with the brakes and they got it fixed for the next round. It was just a little snafu on the Rush Racing Products Buell and my team got it all squared away and we went to number three."
Llewellyn had a crucial first round match up with another Countdown to Four contender, Karen Stoffer, but she remained focused on her own performance.
"I've been taking it like I have been all year," said Llewellyn, "I can't worry about who I'm racing, even though I love Karen to death. I know what I have to do, my process, my procedural steps and that's all I'm going to worry about. I can't think about point's implications and who's in the other lane. I have to worry about getting a six-second motorcycle down the quarter-mile."Llewellyn did her job against Stoffer, advancing to the second round with a 7.000 at 189.18 mph to a losing 7.047 at 190.24 mph. She returned to defeat Matt Guidera in the second round with a 7.006 at 189.84 to advance to the semifinals for the fourth time this season. That's where the day ended for Llewellyn, who lost to Andrew Hines when she slowed to a 7.176 at 187.03 against Hines' 7.043 at 190.92 mph.
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SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - THE LETTER, FULLER 'REGULAR SEASON' CHAMPION, HIGHT STEALS ONE, INDY WINNER DNQs, NAYLOR MAXED OUT AGAIN
COOL CONDITIONS, GREAT RACING- A cold front blew through the Memphis area late Friday evening, resulting in what may have been the best racing conditions in the 20 year history of the event on Saturday. The temperatures were in the low 60-degree range as Sportsman qualifying began at 8:30 a.m., and it stayed in the 70-degree range throughout the day. The only drawback may have been the stiff headwind blowing straight toward the starting line. But it was certainly better than the heat experienced at this event the last several seasons, when the race was held in the August heat, result in a rash of fans suffering from heat exhaustion. Sometimes it better to put the beer back in the cooler and drink some water!
THE LETTER- This letter was handed out to the Top Fuel and Funny Car teams on Friday at the Mid-South Nationals regarding the percentage of nitromethane allowed to be used during the 2008 season.
To All Top Fuel & Funny Car Owners, Crew Chiefs and Drivers
NHRA has had discussions with many team owners, crew chiefs and suppliers in the Top Fuel and Funny Car categories regarding the current nitromethane/menthanol mixture.
Beginning with the 2008 POWERade Drag Racing season, the maximum percentage of nitromethane used in Top Fuel and Funny Car categories will be increased from 85 percent to 90 percent.
We have heard concerns from some of you that the current 85 percent rule may be causing higher parts attrition rates for your vehicles. This rule is being made in response to such concerns with the desired results to extend the life of parts and reduce costs.
In 2008, NHRA will closely monitor the situation to determine whether the expected results are achieved. Any unfavorable effect may result in immediate adjustments.
CompetitionPlus will seek comments from drivers and crew chiefs throughout the weekend.
'TONIGHT SHOW' TRIVIA- The appearance of Ashley Force on 'The Tonight Show with Jay Leno' this past Monday marked the third appearance for an NHRA drag racer on the iconic late night show. Her father, John Force, made an appearance on the show 11 years ago and Shirley Muldowney also appeared with Johnny Carson in 1986. The guests with Muldowney that evening were Oprah Winfrey and Jerry Seinfeld.
ARMY STRONG- Tony Schumacher made his quickest qualifying run of the weekend on his fourth and final attempt, with a 4.564 at 313.73 mph, to solidify his hold on the No. 1 qualifying position in Top Fuel. It was the ninth No. 1 qualifying effort of the season for the driver of the U.S. Army dragster and the 44th of his illustrious career. Schumacher's performance is strengthening in perfect time for the Countdown to Four and he's carrying the momentum of his win at the U.S, Nationals right into eliminations here at the Mid-South Nationals.
"We were trying to run better than that," said Schumacher after qualifying ended. "We were definitely trying to do more than that and we've got as couple of things we need to figure but I feel good. Happy to be No. 1 now, we're going to need each and every point come Richmond. We'll take what we can get and try and win this race. It is not going to be an easy feat for whoever does it, its going to be well earned."
FULLER 'REGULAR' SEASON CHAMPION- Rod Fuller has mixed emotions when it comes to the NHRA's new playoff format and the Countdown to the Championship. The Top Fuel champion of the 'regular season' driving the David Powers/CAT dragster, Fuller entered the Mid-South Nationals third in the Countdown to Four, 34 points behind Tony Schumacher. After leading the points chase for 14 of the 17 races, including the nine races leading up to the U.S. nationals two weeks ago, Fuller views the situation from the standpoint of both a racer and a fan.
"There's two sides of me. The driver part of it is that I'm pretty pissed off about it," Fuller said bluntly. "I had 184 point lead coming out of Reading and to lose all that is pretty disheartening. We only had six races left after Reading and there were 24 available rounds and I had basically a 10 round lead. That's a good lead to have and so now it puts us in a situation where we can't afford to make any mistakes. We haven't made very many mistakes all year long and now we can't make any mistakes at all. As a driver you're like 'we'll just keep on doing what we've been doing all season long and not change our focus or what we've been doing.’ But honestly everybody's tightened up a little bit because it doesn't matter how the lead went, it's gone. Now we're third and we got to make sure that we put ourselves in that top four come Vegas.
"The fan side of me thinks it's great! It's good for our sport and good for drag racing," continued Fuller. "I don't agree with the two race deal (to decide the champion) at the end of the year because I don't think you can decide a true world championship in two races. It's not a real good true test of what a champion is and thing that bothers me is that this thing is going to change drastically I think from this year to next year. Leading all year there was nothing; no trophy, no bonus, nothing for leading the points championship and I don't think that's right either.
"You know honestly I hope I don't lead this next points session," Fuller added, "because the odds of leading all three sessions are pretty tough. Let Schumacher lead this next session and let his big points lead disappear and let it all go bye-bye for him in Vegas and I'll come back and take it over."
Fuller, who has been playing in pain with a knee injury suffered early in the season, will have to have it repaired at the end of the year.
"My knee feels great when I'm at home," said the Las Vegas resident, "I have a friend named Dave Tomcheck who is the head sports trainer at UNLV and he pretty much puts me through physical therapy every day, getting it strong and getting it limber. But then when I get away from there I'm up and about all day and doing things wrong. It's nicked up pretty good. I have a meniscus tear and a ruptured ACL so it needs to be fixed, but I have to wait until the season’s over and I get home.
"Usually I don't feel it," Fuller continued, "it's just one of those nagging problems that won't go away until I get it fixed. It kind of sucks, its hard for me because I'm out here on my feet all day and in the car. Driving is probably the easiest thing to do, it's just getting in and out and all that kind of stuff."
VANDERGRIFF STAYS IN THE HUNT- Bob Vandergriff Jr. started the day in the No. 15 qualifying position but a solid 4.589 at 317.12 mph moved him up to the No. 10 spot following the third session.
"That's okay," said Vandergriff after the run. "We kind of screwed up the runs yesterday, we had some problems, so we really just wanted to go down the race track. Nobody likes to go into that last session not qualified. For the UPS team that's exactly what we were trying to do. Now we should be solidly in so we'll go ahead and step on it for the next one."
Vandergriff, who came into the race fifth in the Countdown, just 16 points behind the top four, finished qualifying in the No. 11 spot and will face Melanie Troxel in round one on Sunday.
HIGHT STEALS ONE- Robert Hight stole the No. 1 qualifying position away from Ashley Force on his final qualifying run with the only sub-4.80 run of qualifying. Hight roared to a track record elapsed time of 4.762-seconds at 320.36 mph to earn his seventh No. 1 qualifying spot of the season and the 22nd of his career. He recorded the run with just one pair remaining to go, Ashley Force and her father John.
"This whole Auto Club team did a great job," said Hight after the run. "These Ford Mustangs are really running. There are a lot of little girls out there in the stands that are going to be mad at me, I'm going to be hiding this afternoon."
"We love coming here to Memphis," continued Hight. "I'm really glad they moved this race to a little cooler time. We're hitting it just perfect here. Jimmy Prock (crew chief) has this thing running unbelievable. It was going to run better than Ashley's 4.81 this morning but it broke a lifter and it dropped a cylinder and I shut it off. But it had better numbers to half-track than either one of our 4.81's last night.
"I feel bad for them because there my teammates and she hasn't had a No. 1 qualifier yet and she would of it if hadn't had been for me several times this year. We've bumped her every race. They're doing a great job and I'm glad her car is running good because we need her out there to beat some of these guys in the Countdown. And she's got a good enough car to do that.
"It was my daughter's third birthday this week and Ashley came there dressed up as Hanna Montana because my daughter Autumn loves her. And then Ashley made handout cards like the racers give out for my daughter to give everybody at her birthday party. I may not be welcomed back in the house because she loves Ashley.
"In a lot of ways qualifying No. 1 might have been a bad thing because now we're on the same side of the ladder as John (Force) and we're both trying to stay in this Countdown and stay up as high as we can. So we'll race in the semis if we both can get there."
BECKMAN BEAMING- Jack Beckman made three good qualifying runs going into the final session, including moving up to the No. 4 spot with a 4.851 at 313.73 mph during his third attempt.
"That felt good," said Beckman. "I think one of the guys left their Styrofoam cooler inside the car. There was white crap everywhere in there, I don't know where it came from but it sure makes it interesting at 313-mph looking around and watching that stuff. I think we've got another good shot at being up there with the Full Throttle points. We just need to win rounds tomorrow, we've got a great hot rod."
Beckman improved once again in the final qualifying session, recording a consistent 4.832 at 313.07 mph to remain in the No. 4 position going into Sunday's eliminations.
ASHLEY DNQs FOLLOWING INDY WIN- Mike Ashley, driver of the Torco/Skull Gear Dodge Charger that won the U.S. Nationals, was off his usual quick pace during qualifying and it bit him. Ashley, who had been fighting mechanical problems all weekend, entered the final session in the No. 13 position with a 4.916 at 311.13 mph,
"It's the same car (that won Indy) believe it or not," said Ashley. "It's got some electrical gremlins, it put a cylinder out there probably a second or two into the run. We'll get it, we're going to have to take a look and see why. But it went down the track, we just have to find that problem with that cylinder. We'll be okay for Torco Race Fuels and the entire team. I've got confidence in (crew chiefs) Brian (Corradi) and Mark (Oswald), they'll work it out."
Unfortunately, Ashley was unable to make it into field on his final run, suffering his fifth DNQ of the season. Despite entering the race second in the Countdown, Ashley's failure to qualify may turn out to be a death blow for his chances at making the final four running for the championship following the race in Richmond.
WHITE KNUCKLE TIME FOR PEDREGON- Tony Pedregon entered the final qualifying session not in the show at Memphis. The driver of the Q Racing Chevy Impala came into the event in third place in the Countdown to Four.
"I hate to put ourselves in this situation," said Pedregon, "but we came here with a slightly different combination. I believe in my crew chief and I believe in my team. We're going to have good conditions coming into this last run. I think this little bit of cloud cover is going to help keep the track cool. I know it was close to 120-degrees (on that run) and we probably weren't counting on it getting that warm. We've got our job cut out for us and I'm sure it's going to challenge us this next session.
Despite already being in the Countdown to Four, Pedregon's team made changes to the car following the U.S. Nationals.
"We changed it a little bit," said Pedregon. "We were hurting some parts, not a lot. We're just addressing the fuel system and I think what its doing is causing the car to make more power which could be a good thing. We just need to control the clutch enough to get the car down the track. It's probably going to take a high 4.80 to make the field."
Pedregon was up to the task in his final qualifying effort, laying down a 4.840 at 316.38 mph to make the field and keep his chances for a championship alive.
"I've never blown a motor and been so happy," said an obviously relieved Pedregon after the pressure-packed run. "It was a good read on the track by my guys. We expect to be in the field but we certainly don't take it for granted, that was a clutch run."
FORCE VERSUS FORCE- Number one qualifier Ashley Force raced against her father John during the third qualifying session and remained in the No. 1 spot with one session remaining.
"I have a really great team and great crew chiefs in Guido and Ron," said Ashley Force after the run. "But we're real excited to be getting down (the track) every round of qualifying. It just makes it that much more comfortable and having a good feeling about race day coming tomorrow. Hopefully we'll make another good one, all of our teams are doing real great and maybe we'll go some rounds tomorrow."
Afterward their run, John gave the fans another one of his memorable interviews.
"She's a good old hot rod, she's starting to dance," said Force about his car. "I just love racing my kid, its cool. (Austin) Coil is screaming something is wrong again as usual, I must not have given him enough money in his raise. We're just excited for Mach 1 Air, all the guys, Brand Source, Mac Tools, Castrol, Ford, and Triple A of Southern Cal that take care of these old heaps. And there goes my heap. No, there goes my daughter's heap. Is this real TV … oh, we're talking to the fans! Howdy!
Unfortunately for Ashley Force, she was knocked off the top of the Funny Car heap by teammate Robert Hight in the second to last pair of cars to run in the last session. Ashley finished in the No. 2 position, equaling her career-best qualifying performance from Indy, just two weeks ago.
"They're a real pain in my butt this year," joked Ashley, referring to the Robert Hight team.
NAYLOR TAKES IT TO THE MAX- Max Naylor made the quickest run of his career to grab the No. 1 qualifying position following the third Pro Stock session. Naylor, coming off of his surprising No. 1 qualifying effort two weeks ago at the U.S. Nationals, drove the Jagermeister Dodge Stratus to a track record elapsed time of 6.594 at 207.37 mph to nail the top spot going into the last session. Naylor knocked off Jason Line just moments after he appeared to have the No. 1 spot wrapped up.
"I'm pretty happy about that," said Naylor following the impressive run. "Jason (Line) gave me a nice one finger salute and I appreciate that, got to love him."
Naylor's numbers held up to record his second No. 1 qualifying effort in a row and prove that his effort at Indy was no fluke.
"I took delivery of a new Rick Jones car right after Chicago," said Naylor, "and we went from being a bottom-half car then to being a top-half car. We're learning how to qualify, now we just have to do a little better learning how to race. On race day conditions change and we haven't always been doing everything we could to put ourselves in a good position.
"It's taken the work of the whole crew and we've taken the methodical approach," Naylor explained. "Five heads are better than one and we go at it from a group approach and try to look at everything. I certainly don't know everything about it and neither does anyone else on the crew. We sit down and take a look at where were at and try evaluate some things and its far better for us to do it that way.
"The other drivers in the class has been very gracious in there comments," added Naylor. "There all tough competitors and we're still pushing to do as well as we can at the remaining races."
LINE MOVES UP- Jason Line improved by nine spots on the Pro Stock ladder during the third qualifying session with a stout 6.596 at 208.68 mph. Line jumped from No. 11 to No. 2 with the run and was pleased with the effort from his Summit Racing Pontiac GTO team.
"It was a pretty good run," Line said afterward, "and it's about time. We've been stinking up the joint lately, so it felt really good and I'm happy for all the guys. At least finally some of the hard effort is paying off. Sometimes things just don't go your way and that's just the way it is."
Line entered the Mid-South Nationals in the sixth in the points. He finished qualifying in the No. 2 position and will race fellow Countdown to Four competitor Warren Johnson in round one on Sunday.
COUGHLIN LOOKING TO JOIN TEAMMATE AT TOP- Pro Stock driver Jeg Coughlin Jr. had a disappointing day during Friday's qualifying at the Mid-South Nationals. The two-time winner of the event entered the race just 11 points shy of making the cut to the Countdown to Four, but he finished the day in the lower half of the field in the No. 12 spot with a 6.736 at 204.94 mph.
"This class can be humbling at times," said Coughlin, one of only 11 racers in history with 50 national event wins. "You can be off by a fraction and it looks like a mile on the time sheet. When a field of 16 cars is separated by four hundredths of a second, it's very, very close racing. Any hiccup is magnified.
"There's a little bug we need to find in the set-up. We've already had a team meeting and the guys have elected to stay up all night if necessary to figure this car out. The good news is that our teammate Dave Connolly is the No. 1 qualifier with the exact same tune-up so we know where we need to be."
The cool conditions on Saturday seemed to favor Coughlin's chances of improving and he took full advantage of the opportunity. The driver of the Jegs.com Chevy Cobalt moved up from 12th to 6th during the third session with a 6.619 at 207.98 mph. Coughlin finished qualifying in the top half of the field in the No. 7 position and face Mike Edwards in round one of Sunday's eliminations.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
ELLIS INTO THE 80s- Chip Ellis showed everyone at Memphis Motorsports Park just how good the conditions were on Saturday at the beginning of the third Pro qualifying session. Ellis blasted to the second-quickest run in Pro Stock Motorcycle history with a stunning track-record run of 6.892 at 193.21 mph to remain in the No. 1 qualifying position going into the final qualifying session.
Ellis remained on top following the final session, grabbing his third No. 1 qualifying honor of the year, all within the last four races, and the 10th of his career.
"I didn't think it would be that quick (the 4.89)," said Ellis. "My crew chief George Smith finally got here this morning, and he told me the bike was going to go a 6.89 or 6.90, and I said 'yah whatever'. I said it's too windy out there, probably a .95 or a .96. He said it's going to go 6.90 at 193, and then I really laughed at him when he said 193.
"He was right, man. I mean he hit the nail on the head and the bike ran perfect," Ellis continued. "It was out there and we took it. Just having good momentum going into the first round tomorrow feels great to me. One round at a time and if you go the most rounds your going to be in it at the end and that's what we're looking to do.
"The bike's running great, everybody's working good together and we're just having fun. We missed the tune up on that last run, we put a new tire on and we didn't 60-foot at all. The horsepower is still there so obviously if the conditions are the same we should be able to run the same. It's just a matter of being able to get it down the race track and we'll be fine tomorrow."
"There's no backing down," added Ellis. "You go for a number every run. It's just a matter of making sure you've got the right tune up and if the bike leaves the starting line it's going to run the number. That's the tricky part out here, getting the clutch and tire combination and wheelie bar height right to make it all work together. We're going to go for it in the morning. That 6.89 was pretty much a perfect run, perfect tune up, everything. There wasn't much left. I just want to go drive the bike good, if I do that the numbers will be what they are and that will be the best they can be."
LLEWELLYN GOES TO THE BEACH- Peggy Llewellyn put her bike into the sand trap for the first time in her career following her first run of the day Saturday. Llewellyn drove the Rush Racing Products Buell into the No. 6 position with a very respectable 6.992 at 190.65 mph and everything appeared to be normal as she traveled through the shutdown area. But she couldn't make the turn off at the end of the track and nosed her bike into the sand. She was unhurt and the Buell was quickly removed from the sand. There appeared to be little damage to the bike.Llewellyn returned for the final session and moved up to the No. 3 position with an outstanding 6.955 at 191.35 mph. She'll race fellow Countdown to Four participant Karen Stoffer in a crucial round-one match up.
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FRIDAY NOTEBOOK – ASHLEY FORCE A HEARTBREAKER, CONNOLLY STILL COOKING, WELCOME HOME CLAY, ARMY DUMPS BIKES, STEVE JOHNSON SHREDS ONE
CHANGE FOR THE BETTER (WEATHER) – The NHRA's decision to move the 20th annual Mid-South Nationals at Memphis Motorsports Park from mid-August to mid-September appears to have worked in both the fans’ and the racers’ favor as far as comfort goes. The temperature was in the in the mid-80 degree range at noon, compared to the near 100-degree heat the last two seasons. While it was still humid (the track is very close to the Mississippi River) it was like night and day compared to the last two seasons. A stiff headwind helped to keep things fairly comfortable and made walking around the pit area much more comfortable than in at past events. The tropical storm that blew through Texas on Thursday bypassed the Memphis area and left nothing more than scatter puffy clouds and little threat of rain.
THE SHOE DROPS AGAIN- U.S. Army dragster pilot Tony Schumacher continued his annual season-ending tear with his ninth No.1 qualifying effort of the season with an strong 4.565 at 325.45 mph effort during Friday's evening session, Schumacher, who won the first race of the season from the top spot at Indy two weeks ago is confident times will improve for everyone during tomorrow's qualifying.
"It's not going to stand up if temperatures are in the 70s tomorrow," said Schumacher. "We were expecting it to be cool today and it didn't get here yet. It's supposed to be cool tomorrow but on our run tonight it was soft. It was a great run, good, solid, straight down the track run. It burnt one piston out of it and it was real soft in the middle, we had a lot more we could have given it, and I'm sure other teams are the same.
There's more left. Tomorrow, if the sun's not pounding on the track and it stays in the 70s we'll try and go out and do some more. We need to run good, its crunch time, and no time to really be soft right now."
TODD REBOUNDS- J.R. Todd got off to a horrible start in his quest to make the Countdown to Four in the Skull Gear Dragster with a DNQ at Indy two weeks ago. But the two-time 2007 national event champion began his weekend in Memphis with a great run after Todd laid down a solid 4.595 at 312.06 mph to grab the No. 2 spot after the opening the first session.
"We needed that after Indy," said Todd. "It felt like it put out a cylinder right before the lights down there. That's a good run out of the box for us. Everybody thinks we might be down and out after what happened at Indy but we're not giving up and we need to go some rounds starting this week and this is a big week for us."
Todd recorded a 4.632 at only 284.99 mph and finished the first day of qualifying in the No. 8 spot on the strength of his opening run.
WELCOME HOME CLAY- Hometown drag racing hero Clay Millican, driver of the Ratt-Back For More/Knoll Gas dragster, was delighted to see a huge banner stretched across the back of the starting line tower proclaiming 'WELCOME HOME CLAY.' Millican, who lives and has his race shop within several miles of the facility, was thrilled with the sentiment displayed by the folks at Memphis Motorsports Park but denied any added pressure racing in front of so many of his friends and fans.
"I think it's really awesome that the people here at Memphis Motorsports Park put that huge banner up at the starting line. It's pretty cool to pull into your home racetrack and see this huge banner with your name on it. That's pretty awesome. The one big advantage is I know I've got a huge cheering section and that's pretty cool."
"The only pressure there is self induced," said Millican. "You're driving the same car and working with the same group of guys and it’s a 1320-foot dragstrip. The only difference is I get to sleep in my own bed at night. The one big difference is the phone rings a whole lot with people needing to get in and out of the race track and I want to make sure that all my friends and family are taken care of the best I can and hope that they have a good time. Once it's time to hop in the racecar then it's down to business as usual.
"Not being in the Countdown is a disappointment but at the same time we're here to do a job for Evan Knoll and everybody that supports this car. I don't even want to think of myself as being a spoiler. I just want to think of it as trying to put the win lights on."
Despite making more runs down the Memphis quarter-mile than just about any other driver, especially when you include his sportsman racing days prior to turning Pro, Millican doesn't feel any home track advantage.
"I don't feel like I have any advantage and the reason is the track has had some grinding work done on it for this weekend so it's not really the same track," he explained.
Millican will be testing a new car at Memphis on Monday as the team continues preparations for next season with newly assigned veteran crew chief, Johnny West, who has been working with the team most of the season and recently took over the crew chief duties after Mike Kloeber departed the team. Millican finished the day in the No. 12 qualifying spot with a 4.612 at 326.16 mph.
ASHLEY FORCE A HEARTBREAKER- After her successful appearance on the Jay Leno show on Monday night, Ashley Force continue her exciting week with a great opening day of qualifying in her Castrol GTX Ford Mustang. Force roared to a great 4.905 at 299.60 mph to end the first session in the No. 2 spot. "It's great to be back at the track in familiar territory. Being up on stage in high heels isn't really my thing. I'm glad to be back in my fire suit with my Castrol Mustang. I'm so proud of my guys and that was a good first shot out but I'm sure they'll be plenty of great racing to come today."
Things got even better for the sport's next superstar during the evening session as she drove her Mustang to the No. 1 qualifying position with a stellar 4.810 at 316.38 mph. The Force team finished the day holding the top three positions with Robert Hight No. 2 (4.811) and John Force No. 3 (4.821).
"My team is doing awesome, we knew this would be a good night," said an excited Force after exiting the car. "I still don't know what I ran but everyone's happy so I know it's something good. I knew it was a good run because it hurt my heart. I actually felt pain in my chest."
After her teammate Robert Hight missed knocking her off the top by one thousandth of a second, Ashley was extremely happy.
"Maybe Robert felt bad for me for all the times he's taken the No. 1 spot. That's so amazing and awesome for the Castrol Mustang. Hopefully we'll hold on to it this weekend and go some rounds."
After asked about Saturday's conditions Force quickly replied.
"I don't want to think that much," she laughed, "I just want to get down the track from A to B and that's what my team's doing, so I can't complain."
Bob Frey quipped over the PA system, "Spoken like a real driver, 'I don't want to think too much.'
In the pressroom Ashley truly seemed to share her father's gift for entertaining interviews.
"It's great to get down the track on your first two runs," said Force, "because if you don't, it totally changes the rest of your runs, how they tune the car and everything if you're not in on those first two. So now that we're in the show, we know we're staying in there, they can really kind of push it and see what else the car can do and get a little better prepared for raceday."
With the Force cars one, two, three, Ashley was extremely enthused.
"The teams are all very excited, especially dad. All the teams are really pumped up and excited. It would be perfect to end the week with a victory because I'm a little embarrassed when people come up to me and congratulate me on my win for the AOL thing (World's Hottest Athlete) and I'm crushed because I'm like 'that's not the right win.' There's another kind of win that people in our sport find more important find more important. So I told my team 'we got to get a win now.' I don't want to end this year and that's my only win. Even though that was a fun competition, we want to win races."
Force was asked if she was getting more comfortable racing at night.
"I'm getting there. I'm finally getting used to the flames outside my window. That seems like such a dumb thing but I'm not used to that in an A/Fuel dragster and a Super Comp dragster. It's something that takes getting used to. Whenever we have cylinders drop and we have flickers, out of the side of your eye you think something is blowing up and I'd lift and they'd go 'what did you do it was running good'. And I'm like 'I saw explosions' and there like 'that's called header flames.' So now my team picks on me there like ‘keep it between those header flames.' But I am starting to get a lot more comfortable and that will only just take more and more laps in these cars at night."
SPINNING WHEELS - The Memphis Motorsports Park quarter-mile was tricky at the top end during the first Funny Car qualifying session, as evident by the amount of tire spin experience by most of the cars. The early incremental numbers were very good but the speeds were down with only 7 of the 19 cars running over 300-mph and Del Worsham running top speed at 312.28 mph.
STARTING THE WEEKEND ON A HIGHT NOTE - Robert Hight, driver of the Auto Club Ford Mustang, made the best run of the opening qualifying session with the only sub-4.90 run of the first round. Hight drove to a 4.844 at only 299.46 mph to grab the top spot and go into the crucial night session in the final pair.
"Being number one in the points, Jimmy Prock he comes here and he's still trying things," said Hight after the run. "Now isn't the time to be trying things, I'm not sure. I think the best thing is to go out here and just be cautious but I tell you what, he's the master and he does whatever he does and I hope he keeps doing it."
TOLIVER IN THE ZONE- Funny Car driver Jerry Toliver debuted a new paint scheme on his Toyota Funny Car prior to the beginning of professional qualifying. Toliver has added Auto Zone as a new associate sponsor, whose corporate home happens to be based in Memphis.
"Toliver Racing is extremely proud to have brought Auto Zone back into NHRA Drag Racing," said Toliver in the pressroom after unveiling the new paint scheme. "We want to thank all the people at Auto Zone for coming on board and believing in what we are doing and becoming a huge part of what this program is all about."
WIDOW MAKER- Jerry Toliver opened qualifying with a 3.80 elapsed time. Yes a 3.80! Afterward it was discovered that there was a Black Widow spider on the staging beam, which messed up the electronic timer on the run.
CSK TEAM OPENS STRONG- Del Worsham and Jeff Arend both began the weekend with good runs in their CSK Funny Cars during the opening session on Friday. Arend, who qualified No. 1 at Indy, grabbed the No. 3 spot with a solid 4.915 at 309.84 and Del Worsham qualified sixth with almost identical 4.920 at 312.28 mph.
"It's important to make a good run on the first lap down the track and getting good position for tonight," said Worsham. "Having a good run under your belt kind of sets the tone for the whole weekend. So hopefully the blue and red Checkers Schuck's Kragen cars will have a good weekend.
CONNOLLY STILL COOKING- Dave Connolly picked up right where he left off after his back-to-back wins at the last two races in Reading and Indianapolis. Connelly qualified his Torco Chevy Cobalt in the No. 1 position after the first day at the Mid-South Nationals with a track record 6.673 at 205.26 mph.
"Indy was a big race for us," said Connolly, "especially with the Countdown, you know we only have four races to stay in the top four cars. To get four round wins at Indy was pretty special and to come out here and just pick up the momentum and stay on the pole the first day was pretty good too.
"I think it's all because we did a bunch of testing because when the track gets as good as it gets tonight that’s when we've been having some problems. And it appears we might have got that problem fixed. I'm looking forward to racing it seems like we have a car that'll go down any track now and that's going to be key because track conditions vary from place to place. I think we've got a real good race car right now and we just need to keep up pace. I think the weather conditions will get a lot better tomorrow so we'll see how it is and adjust from there. A lot of guys are running good, Greg (Anderson) always runs well and Larry Morgan is running good. But I like our chances right now and we'll just have to see what tomorrow brings, it'll probably be a totally different day."
ANDERSON STARTS ON TOP - Still stinging from his final round loss to Dave Connolly at the recent U.S. Nationals, which prevented him from his fifth straight victory at the world's biggest drag racing, Greg Anderson wasted no time in rebounding with a solid opening qualifying run to grab the top spot after the first session. Anderson laid down a 6.697 at 205.88 mph that would probably have thrilled any of the other 23 drivers in competition.
"That was a whole lot better than a couple of weeks ago at Indy," said Anderson. "It felt pretty good, there were a couple of bumps there but other than that it's not too bad for the first run. That's a good tuning lap right there.
"Indy wasn't that bad, I can't cry. I sure would have like to get that fifth Indy title but runner-up wasn't so bad and Dave (Connolly) did a heck of a job, he deserved that race, he won it. I deserved runner-up I guess and I got runner-up."
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
COUNTDOWN … WHAT COUNTDOWN? - Despite a season that has seen its share of highs and lows, Chip Ellis feels like his performance is peaking at just the right time for the NHRA's version of the playoffs. The rider of the Drag Specialties S&S Buell entered the Mid-South Nationals after an outstanding performance at the U.S. Nationals that included qualifying No. 1 out of 29 Pro Stock Bikes, winning the Full Throttle Pit Crew Challenge, finishing runner-up in the Ringers Gloves Pro Stock Bike Battle and reaching the semifinals during eliminations. Ellis jumped up to third place in the Countdown to Four with two races remaining to make the cut but he's not concerned with the NHRA's new playoff format.
"Everyone's been talking about this Countdown thing," said Ellis. "The only thing I care about is winning the next round. I don't care about the Countdown to Four, I don't care about the Countdown to Eight and I haven't all year. I've cared about the next round. Because if you don't win the next round nothing else matters. I don't care about any of that. I'm going to let you all (the media) worry about it. I'm just going to try to win the next round.
"We had an awesome bike at Indy, it was running good, it just didn't run good the two times I really needed it to," Ellis added. "We had some mechanical issues and when I ran Matt Smith in the semis I had a bad light. It's always if I would of, could of, should of but if the bike would have performed like it did the first two rounds on Monday we could have beat Matt. I'm just happy we did as well as we did. We had an outstanding weekend and that says a lot about our team. We haven't had as good a season as we could have because we've done a lot of testing all year. But now we've gone back to the basics with the bike and the driver and I feel very confident."
Ellis did admit that the Countdown is working to his team's advantage.
"As far as the points, for us the Countdown is definitely working out in our favor," said Ellis, "because right now is the time to peak and I believe we're working on that."
Ellis grabbed the No. 1 spot after the first session with a 7.065 at 186.28 mph, grabbing the top spot with a faster speed after friendly rival and former teammate, Matt Smith ran an identical elapsed time but had a slightly slower speed at 186.20 mph, a difference of eight-hundredths of a mile per hour. He return for Friday's second session and blister the quarter-mile with the only 6-second run of the event so far with a great 6.997 at 187.44 mph to end the first day in the No. 1 position.
BIRD STRIKE- Another reason that the No. 1 qualifying effort by Chip Ellis was so impressive was that his crew chief all season, George Smith, was not in attendance at Memphis on Friday. Smith's airplane hit a flock of birds on take off earlier in the day and he was unable to make it to the track in time for qualifying. Ellis made the tuning adjustments himself with help from Pro Stock Bike guru, George Bryce, who adjusted the clutch.
ARMY ENDS PRO STOCK BIKE ASSOCIATION - This statement was handed out to the media at the Mid-South Nationals at 4:15 this afternoon by Chris Dirato, U.S. Army Racing team public relations representative.
The U.S. Army today announced the decision to step away from its Pro Stock Motorcycles Don Schumacher Racing sponsorship agreement after the 2007 NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series season.
"Given the great pride the program brings our soldiers and everyone associated with the U.S. Army Pro Stock Motorcycles, this was not an easy decision to make," said Col. David Lee, Director of Strategic Communications. "We do, however, remain committed to NHRA and its fans who continue to support our program and soldiers and look forward to continuing our sponsorship of the DSR Top Fuel team."
"We want to thank Angelle Sampey, Antron Brown, Steve Tartaglia, and the members of the Pro Stock Motorcycle team, as well as the entire Don Schumacher Racing organization, for their professionalism and their performances on behalf of the U.S. Army. We also want to thank all of the fans who support the U.S. Army Racing program, and we wish Angelle and Antron the best of luck moving forward. We are proud of our teams and the effort put forth by the riders and the crew throughout our relationship."
Angelle Sampey and Antron Brown were unavailable for comment following the announcement. Sampey and Brown finished their first day as Pro Stock Bike free agents qualified No. 10 and No. 6 respectively.
JOHNSON SHREDS ONE - Steve Johnson averted disaster during his first run the weekend when his Snap-On Tools/WyoTech-backed Suzuki shredded the rear tire right at the finish line. The tire sent pieces of the bodywork all over the track and forced Johnson into the opposite lane, but he expertly brought his motorcycle to a safe stop, and was still able to record a 7.131 at 179.83 mph to grab the No. 8 position.
"We went down there about 1200-feet all of a sudden the motorcycle started vibrating like crazy," exclaimed Johnson. "We went through the lights at 179-mph and I'd already shut off and it was banging up and down and I'm like 'the engine didn't blow up' and I couldn't understand what was going on. So I pulled over right away and I'm looking down to see if there are parts everywhere and there's not, and I don't know what's going on.
"They pushed me all the way around and then everybody says 'look at the tire' and there was a chunk out of the tire probably the size of a coffee saucer. You can imagine when we balance these tires on a wheel balancer there pretty precise, within a quarter of an ounce. So you miss a chunk of rubber out of there and you've got a mess, plus it took out $500 worth of carbon fiber. It took out the rear fender, part of the bodywork, it just made a mess out of everything. That was the first time anything like that has happened to me."
Johnson returned for the second session and slowed to a 7.187 at 185.18 mph to end the first day of qualifying in the No. 11 position on the strength of his first run.
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THURSDAY NOTEBOOK -
STANDING AT THE TOP - There’s no view like the one from the top.
Tony Schumacher is leading the NHRA Top Fuel standings for the first time since last year’s final event in Pomona.
Schumacher has two reasons why he’s atop the pecking order – (A) The new Countdown to the Championship and (B) Winning the NHRA MAC Tools U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis.
“That was huge,” said Schumacher about his Indy conquest. “We captured a prestigious race and also moved into the lead. We couldn’t have asked for anything more. Now, of course, we have to keep plugging along in Memphis.”
This weekend is one of three races that remain in the NHRA’s Countdown to Four. The other races will take place in Dallas and Richmond, Va., over the next four weeks.
“It’s very clear what the U.S. Army team needs to do in the next month – we have to remain in the top four if we want to go for our fourth straight title,” added the Chicago native. “The real objective is that we want stay number one and have everyone chasing us.”
NEW SKIN – Brandon Bernstein’s sponsor Budweiser could be establishing a precedent for the marketability of the NHRA’s new playoff format.
“We are so excited to debut a new Budweiser Countdown paint scheme at Memphis,” said Bernstein. “As far as I know, we’re the only team that will have a specialty car for the ‘playoffs’ and we owe a big tip of the helmet to Budweiser for initiating the concept. It’s the car we’ll campaign for the five remaining races this season.”
“Brandon and the Bud King team are long-time partners, and Brandon is having an amazing season with a career-best five wins,” said Randall Blackford, director of Budweiser marketing. “Week in and week out, Brandon is a tremendous ambassador for Budweiser and for the sport, and we’re excited to celebrate his push for the title with a special red and silver-flamed paint scheme for the Budweiser/Lucas Oil Top Fuel dragster.”
“We are celebrating our 28th season of Budweiser sponsorship,” said team owner and six-time NHRA world champion Kenny Bernstein. “Our contract with them is extended to 2009 which will become the longest consecutive major team sponsorship in auto sports history at 30 years. The Countdown paint scheme concept demonstrates their high level support for our program. We’re very fortunate to be a member of the Anheuser-Busch corporate family.”
TIGHTER THAN A KNOT – Bernstein is one of eight drivers closely seeded in the second of the three phase playoff system.
“The Top Fuel field is very competitive and you hold your breath until you know you’ve qualified for the event,” said Bernstein. “Once you’re in the field, then the pressure begins to go rounds. I don’t think you’re going to have any room to stumble.”
Bernstein is fourth in point standings heading into Memphis, 86 points out of the lead. That equates to four rounds and some qualifying points.
“We’re all pretty much bunched up at the moment, but the spread will grow after the Memphis race no doubt,” continued Bernstein. “The Friday night qualifying session traditionally presents the best conditions for the quickest runs which are important in getting seeded in the field. A bobble there could mean you’ll be on the outside looking in on Sunday morning.
“Tim (Richards crew chief) has done an awesome job tuning us to five wins this year, and we’re hoping the new Countdown paint scheme on the Budweiser/Lucas Oil Dragster will provide a little more momentum heading into the final races of the season.
PICKER-UPPER - A repeat of his 2006 Memphis win would do wonders for the morale of Doug Kalitta and his team.
“Yeah, we finally got a win in Memphis last year,” Kalitta, a 43-year old resident of Ann Arbor, said. “That seems like years ago now. Defending our title in Memphis would be great and would certainly go a long way to ending this year on a positive note.”
Kalitta defeated his Kalitta Motorsports teammate Hillary Will in last year’s rain delayed final round Monday at MMP, 4.604 seconds, 313.95 mph to 4.644 sec., 312.13 mph.
DOWN, BUT NOT OUT - A non-qualifying outing at Indianapolis struck a blow to J.R. Todd’s championship challenge, but it didn’t knock out the 2006 NHRA rookie of the year.
“We are in a difficult position,” said Todd. “We are far enough behind the leaders that we have our work cut out for us this week at Memphis (site of the O’Reilly Mid-South Nationals, Friday through Sunday, the second of four Countdown to Four races in the title hunt). It was good to get last week off because we were able to prepare for this race.
“We can’t afford any more slip-ups, that is for sure.”
Although he dropped just one position in the revamped standings, Todd finds himself 52 points (2092-2040) out of the No. 4 berth currently held by his close friend Brandon Bernstein.
“We definitely have to maintain the pace of the guys in front of us and even go farther than some of them if we want to sneak into that top four, which probably means getting around my buddy Brandon,” Todd said. “Hopefully we can go to some late rounds in Memphis and maybe even come out of there with a win.
“There’s no better way to bounce back than with a victory coming off a DNQ. It proves that we aren’t in that big a hole if we can come back with a win. It would boost the team morale and get us off on the right foot for this three-race swing we have coming up.”
STILL TRYING – Morgan Lucas said his first part of the season was less than spectacular. But now things are getting better – much better.
“We’re just building our momentum,” said Lucas. “Lately, we’ve been on a string of runs that have shown the true potential of this team. We’re consistent today, which had been our shortcoming in the past, but now the future is firing on all eight cylinders.”
In last year’s rain delayed Mid-South Nationals, Lucas defeated, J.R. Todd on Sunday and Bob Vandergriff on Monday morning before Hillary Will knocked him out of contention. He ran a race best elapsed time of 4.637 seconds against Vandergriff in the quarterfinals and qualified ninth with a time of 4.676 seconds.
This year at MMP, Lucas will be trying to score the first professional win of his career. “We never stop trying,” said Lucas. “We made some good runs lately and there’s not any way we are giving up this late in the season. We’re here to win races and we want to continue our success into a great start for 2008. Everything we’re learning now, especially until race conditions, will give us a head-start for next year.”
FUN AGAIN - Gary Scelzi isn’t taking a year off and that has him excited about his chances in 2007.
"It makes me a little more excited to know that I'm obviously going to be back next year, and that this won't be my last visit to Memphis," said Scelzi, who's driven the Mopar/Oakley Dodge Charger R/T to two national-event wins this season in two final rounds.
"But it's crunch time for us. We need to do well in Memphis to get ourselves back in this Countdown. We had our throw-away in Indy (first-round loss at the U.S. Nationals, initial event of the Countdown to Four) and now it's do or die. These next events - Memphis, Dallas and Virginia - are three very important races to us.
"I don't know what the temperatures are going to be in Memphis. I think they're going to be a little cooler than we were used to last year, which is going to be great for us.
"But, if it's hot, we have a tune-up for that too. We just need to go there and pay attention. I haven't won this race since 2000 in Top Fuel, so it would be great to have a good weekend and hopefully a final-round appearance, at least, for the Mopar/Oakley Dodge.
"I know Todd (Okuhara, crew chief, along with Phil Shuler) is excited about it, so am I."
MOMENTUM – Indy winner Mike Ashley is determined to ride the team’s momentum headed into Memphis.
"Trying to put that win into words is still difficult, but amazing and awesome come to mind right off the top," Ashley said. "I can't say it enough, that the win was a team effort, and I have the best team and sponsor in drag racing behind me."
Ashley is ranked second in POWERade Championship points and just 21 points out of the lead -- solidly ensconced among the top four who will advance to the next stage in the NHRA championship battle: the Countdown to One. This weekend is the second of four events in the next month that determine which of the top teams will advance and compete for the Funny Car crown.
"We have a goal oriented culture. At the beginning of the year, the team set a goal to make it to the playoffs, and we accomplished that. Before the last race, we made another goal, to make it to the next step in the Countdown, and so far we're right on track," he said.
"Absolutely, winning Indy was huge, and moving into second place is an important milestone, but in the championship picture it's only the first step and there still are 12 rounds of racing left until the next cut, and we want to win as many of those as possible. I've won two world championships before in Pro Modified, and this class is no different. Every round, every run, every single action is critical to our outcome."
NEW PIPE - Beckman and the Don Schumacher Racing team tested in Indy earlier this week.
"We're out here testing our brand-new chassis right now," said Beckman on Monday. "And, although the one I have been driving has served us well, we think it's getting a little bit long in the tooth for a slip-tube car. We knew that we were going into the part of the season where we've got 16 rounds to perform, and we don't want to have any issues with a possibly over-used chassis. We just ran a 5.07 (-second elapsed time) shutting off early, so it looks pretty good."
SUPPORTING THE TROOPS – Beckman and the Mail Terminal Services team will feature Camp Kaisu this weekend in Memphis, in its "Mail from Home" program. Postcards will be available to send to this war-zone camp at the Don Schumacher Racing hospitality area as well as at a kiosk in the U.S. Army "Racing Zone," the U.S. Army Interactive area located in Nitro Alley.
STILL LOVING IT – Ron Capps has a reason to dislike the NHRA’s new playoff format but doesn’t.
After leading the Funny Car class by as much as 154 points from the fourth event of the 2007 NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series, Ron Capps now finds himself fourth in the standings in the Countdown to Four playoffs following his first-round loss at Indy.
"I still love the concept of the Countdown," said Capps, who drove the Brut Revolution Dodge Charger R/T to three season victories in six final rounds. "Granted, we went from first to fourth. We knew the points system going in. To be honest with you, it was a tough loss on Monday morning in Indy. But the first thing when I got back in the pits were all the guys saying don't worry about it, we'll get them the next time. This is a great team.
"This one-weekend break between Indy and Memphis has been tough because I've wanted to get right back in the car. The word resiliency comes up because I flew Sunday night to Indy and we tested a new car all day Monday that Murf McKinney put together. The MTS team and the Brut teams were the only two teams to test. We had a great test and we're going to take the car to Memphis and run it the rest of the year. It's a new wide-cage car with more padding around the cage. It was nice to get in the car on Monday and test.
"I'm looking forward to these next three races because I love the format and the pressure of the Countdown. You have to have a level of confidence without being cocky in this sport, because you can be humbled so quickly. I expected us to lead the first part of the season, I expect us to be leading the second part of this Countdown. I really don't look for this team to be down, and hopefully we're going to be leading the third and final part in Pomona.
"Right now it's a pivotal time for everybody, because with three races left to get into the top four, pressure is the word of the day. And every run is going to be very important. I think it's going to bring the best out in everybody and I really look forward to getting further up in that top four."
Capps' record in Memphis includes a 2000 victory and a 2005 runner-up.
Tony Pedregon, following a semifinal appearance at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, moved into third place in the Countdown to the Championship. He is 21 points from second and only 42 points, or slightly more than two round wins from the No. 1 position.
“Memphis is an important race for us in the Countdown,” said Pedregon, the 2003 Funny Car champion. “Although we moved into third after Indy, we didn’t feel like we ran to our full potential. We are looking forward to running at Memphis and hope it is a better event for us.”
CHANGE OF WEATHER - The O’Reilly Mid-South Nationals moved from its muggy mid-August date to September which could improve the performance potential of a racetrack. Pedregon and his veteran tuner, Dickie Venables are looking forward to the new September date.
“The weather in Memphis could play a factor,” said Pedregon. “When it’s hot, this track can get tricky. We may be lucky and be provided with favorable conditions that will help our consistency. With our Q Horsepower oil, the hotter it gets, the more it protects while providing the horsepower we need to win. Going into another important Countdown to the Championship race, we will be pushing hard during qualifying and on race day and need that extra level of protection.”
Pedregon and Venables know how to get down the Memphis Motorsports Park strip. In the Venables-tuned Funny Car, he visited the Winner’s Circle in 2002 and was the quickest car in both the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds, posting solid 4.9’s in every round including a 4.909 in a final round showdown against Del Worsham.
“This year is no different,” said Pedregon. “We approach this race as we do all of them. We have a lot of respect for the competition, but we never want to lose focus on our goal of qualifying for the show. We just need to pay attention to the conditions, play our cards right and qualify.
“The O’Reilly group knows how to put on a good show. We always look forward to racing at one of their events. They definitely add to the excitement.”
ON THE ‘A’ GAME - Greg Anderson knows that you must be at your very best at each of the four races that comprise the second segment of the Countdown to the Championship.
“This class is too good, too competitive, so we’ve got to be on top of our game at Memphis,” said Anderson. “We didn’t perform the way we would have liked at Indy, but Memphis is a whole other race. We always feel we can win and that hasn’t changed. We’ve been working hard since Indy and feel that if the driver does his part that my Summit Pontiac can run with the best of them. Nobody is going to hand us a win; we’ve got to earn it.”
ROLLERCOASTER RIDING – For the vast majority of the 2007 season, three-time world champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. lingered near the top of the POWERade rankings. He entered the first phase of the Countdown to the Championship a solid third in the points and quickly found himself just 20 points, or one round of action, out of the lead.
But as quickly as the new playoff system rewarded him for his regular season work, it penalized him harshly for an unlikely first-round loss in Indianapolis during the opening race of the Countdown to Four. With one race down and three to go before the next cutoff in the chase for the championship, Coughlin finds himself outside the provisional field of qualified drivers for the first time since mid-March. Fortunately, he's just 11 points behind the fourth and final spot.
"The nature of the Countdown leaves very little room for error," Coughlin said. "But the fact we've run so well and consistently all year leaves me feeling very confident that we'll be able to rebound. We're all bunched up pretty tight in the standings and I don't see any need to panic just yet. This team is too experienced for that."
Memphis Motorsports Park should be a perfect spot for Coughlin to regain the upper hand in the championship chase. He's a two-time winner at the western Tennessee speedplant, having claimed titles there in each of two years he won the POWERade Pro Stock title, 2000 and 2002. Coughlin's third world title came in Super Gas in 1992.
"We love Memphis," he said. "It's always been a great track for us. I remember sharing the winner's circle there with my brother Mike in 2000 when I won Pro Stock and he won Pro Stock Truck. That remains a personal highlight for me.
"Bottom line, we need to get back in the top four and stay there for the next three races so we're there for the final championship push. It all starts this weekend and I guarantee you this team is driven and prepared to make a statement."
TESTING RESULTS – Allen Johnson earned his way into the playoffs with two races to spare.
With his spot in the Countdown locked up, Johnson and his father, J&J Racing co-owner and engine builder Roy Johnson, were able to experiment with modifications to the team’s primary engine. That extra preparation time is just now beginning to pay dividends.
“Everything we learned [Roy] has incorporated into a couple of engines, and changed them around and definitely picked them up,” said Johnson. “I feel very confident. I feel like we gave away two rounds at Indy. We should have got runner-up at worst. We made one boo-boo, and that was that we didn’t make a very good run in the first round and lost lane choice for the second round. I think we were right on our game plan. We just missed it by a couple of thousands of a second. We’ll go into Memphis with exactly the same game plan—qualify in the top half, win first round, and get lane choice for the second round.”
Johnson believes his J&J Racing team is beginning to fire on all cylinders. It couldn’t come at a better time, during Countdown to Four crunch time in the ultra-competitive NHRA POWERade Pro Stock division.
“We’ve always done pretty good in Memphis. Of course, it’s in our home state,” Johnson said. “We’re just now really getting in our stride, and Dad’s really getting in his stride on the engines. I feel like my driving has come around here a little bit in the last week. I just feel like we are in a really good position to do something good over the next three weeks. There is no room for error. We have to be perfect.”
THE TIME FACTOR – Justin Humphreys’ worst enemy is time.
And it’s easy to see why.
Humphreys registered one of his finest first-season performances at Indy, qualifying his RaceRedi Motorsports Knoll-Gas Energy Pontiac GTO sixth and advancing to the quarterfinals. That was two weeks ago.
“I don’t like being out of the car this long,” said Humphreys, of Monrovia, Md. “I’m ready to go right now. Bob (Glidden) and Richard (Maskin) have been working on our motors. We should have our best motors ready for this weekend. Those were good motors we ran at Indy, but they are getting the better stuff back together.”
FIXED IT – When you have a problem and can’t solve it – you’d better call Bob Glidden.
Glidden, a Pro Stock icon, solved a chassis problem that made the car move to the left just off the starting line, boosting Humphreys’ confidence, and it showed. He had impressive starting-line reactions in defeating Richie Stevens in the first round and in his quarterfinal match against Connolly.
“The car is working good,” he said. “Our game plan is to get to the finals, and hopefully we can do it at Memphis.”
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
ALREADY HAVING FUN – Matt Smith entered Indy as the point leader and nothing has changed headed into Memphis.
“We are having an incredible year,” said Smith. “We have been very consistent this year. Every now and then we have a problem, but for the most part things are going great over here. We have been working very hard on and off the track the last few months, and it is showing at the racetrack. I just hope to keep it that way these last four races.”
Smith has already won three times this year and has been runner-up five times. His determination and willpower to win races and go rounds has showed this year, and he sees no reason to stop now.
In 2004, Smith went to his first final ever at Memphis Motorsports Park. Resulting, however in a runner-up position that year due to an expired motor, Smith will be looking to win the race this time around at the O’Reilly Mid-South Nationals in Memphis, Tenn.
“I went to my first final ever here,” said Smith. “I will never forget how excited I was that year. Things have changed a lot since then, but I am still the same driven individual that I was in 2004. It would be great to win this weekend, but right now we are just focused on going rounds and staying in the top-four.”
RATING THE ODDS - Andrew Hines is the two-time defending champion at the O'Reilly Mid-South NHRA Nationals and is aiming to make it three in a row when qualifying for the 13th of 16 Pro Stock Motorcycle events kicks off on Friday.
"Each year is a new season and just because we won last year doesn't mean we deserve to have anything handed to us this year," Hines said. "You need the right bike at the right time and we have had some success in Memphis so we have good data to start with. It gives you confidence knowing you won last year, but we have to work just as hard to even have a shot at winning it again."
With three wins in four final round appearances this season Hines is in the coveted fourth place position going into the O'Reilly Mid-South Nationals while his Screamin' Eagle teammate – Eddie Krawiec – is in seventh place.
BRINGING UP THE REAR - Krawiec has earned two final round appearances in his first full season of professional NHRA racing and is still searching for his first career victory.
"We're still in the hunt for one of the final four Countdown spots," Krawiec, a New Jersey native, said. "We didn't have a great weekend in Indianapolis, but that's the beauty of racing – we can move on to the next event and try again. I've been looking forward to going to Memphis because I think it's going to be a great place to rebound from our Indy performance. This Vance & Hines team has proven that they know how to win there and I'm anxious to get back on the bike and make some great passes down that track."
Krawiec agrees that the team can make anyone more confident.
"This will be the first time that I will race at Memphis and I have a team behind me that knows how to win in general and has great experience at Memphis specifically," Krawiec said. "We're going to Memphis with our focus and attention on winning rounds. I'm glad I have this group working on my bike."
LOOKING FOR FOUR – Angelle Sampey heads for Memphis holding fifth-place in the standings, 14 points removed from fourth-place, which is the last qualified spot for the Countdown to One.
While Sampey remains in contention for her fourth world championship, she suffered a disappointing first round exit at Indy, Sampey dropped from second in the points to fifth, which is just outside where she needs to be if she wants to challenge for her first world championship since 2002.
“We’ve pretty much forgotten about what happened in Indy and now we’re just looking ahead,” she offered. “We don’t have a lot of ground to make up to get into that top four, so I’m not overly concerned. We’re determined to go down to Memphis and win.”
Unlike Schumacher who has three races remaining in the Countdown to Four, Sampey only has two races left – Memphis and Dallas. The Pro Stock Motorcycles will not compete in Richmond.
“I guess that puts a little pressure on us, but I know this U.S. Army team can handle it,” she added. “My guys are just like our soldiers – they will not accept defeat.”
TRYING TO REGAIN COMPUSURE - Having not qualified for the Countdown to Four, Antron Brown is simply attempting to win some races as the season winds down, while also trying to finish in the top 10 for the 10th time in his career.
“Quite obviously, our agenda is far different than Angelle’s,” said Brown. “But, we are a like in the sense that we both want to get the trophy on Sunday afternoon. And, we’ll be looking to do just that down in Memphis.”
With just a handful of races left, Brown would also like to assist Sampey in her title hunt.
“If I can help her, I absolutely will,” he said. “If I can take out some of her competition, I’m sure she would be fine with that. That’s what teammates are all about. We both want to win a world championship for the U.S. Army.”
REACHING FOR PUBLICITY – One has to hand it to Steve Johnson; he’ll do or say what it takes to get in the media.
“Elvis may be gone but I believe what Tommy Lee Jones said in the movie Men In Black. He said Elvis wasn’t dead, that he’d just gone home to another planet. I can’t prove that, but the one thing I do know is that Elvis is a supernatural presence. And, he’s also been to the drags since he left. I know that because Funny Car driver John Force said he saw Elvis at the 1,000-foot mark on the track here in Memphis when his car was on fire. Elvis saved Force, and I’m thinking he can help us win this race!
“Our first stop in Memphis is going to be Graceland, where I plan on soaking up as much Elvis as I can. Then we’re going to take that magic to Memphis Motorsports Park and do some serious butt-kicking.”
THE SERIOUS SIDE - It’s all part of the game for Johnson.
“I know there are people out there who don’t think I take racing seriously enough, but the truth of the matter is that for the last 21 years Pro Stock Motorcycle racing has been my life,” Johnson said. “I joke around because it helps to ease the tension.
“If I thought for one second there was someone on our team who wasn’t as dedicated to winning as I am, well, you wouldn’t see that person around for very long. Pro Stock Motorcycle drag racing is a tough, demanding endeavor, but I’m lucky in that every member of our Snap-on Tools team has the same sense of determination that I do.
“We have something to prove in the remaining four races on the POWERade Series tour, and that’s that we’ve got an exceptionally talented group here, one that’s determined to win.
“The winning starts right here, right now.”
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