NHRA SONOMA NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
SUNDAY NOTEBOOK - SCHUMACHER SWEEPS, HIGHT BEATS THE TEACHER AND CONNOLLY LEAPS INTO THE TOP TEN
CREWMEMBER CHILD AILING - Tim Kulungian is in the midst of crisis he feels no parent should ever experience. The General Manager for Steve Johnson’s Pro Stock Motorcycle has a sick child suffering from a rare disease called Osteopetrosis.
Kulungian and his wife Christal are fighting as hard as parents can for their youngest child’s life. However, in this battle the odds stacked against them.
“The disease attacks your bone marrow and requires a bone marrow transplant to fix,” Kulungian said. “Luckily we have a match, our four year old daughter, we have five children in all, but our four year old is a match for the four month old baby. The disease, in short, doesn’t allow your bones to shed and closes up the canal where your bone marrow lives. So once the bone marrow is gone your body can no longer make the red or white blood cells and then you die.”
Lilly was diagnosed with the disease a month and a half ago.
“It’s a hard diagnosis to make,” Kulungian said. “We live in Birmingham and the children’s hospital there was terrified to diagnose her with it because of the politics that come behind it so there was a lot of lag time. Christal has been proactive in her efforts, sending her daughter's entire chart up to Dr. Orchard in Minnesota. Dr. Orchard viewed it and saw it as a textbook case of Osteopetrosis and we got her up there as quick as possible.”
Kulungian explained Dr. Orchard writes the protocol for this disease.
“We are very fortunate to be under his care,“ Kulungian said. “Lilly has a 30% chance of making it through chemotherapy and then if she makes it through chemo and the bone marrow and graphs, which means it starts making the right cells then your body starts acting like it should, she has a good chance of living. She’ll probably be blind and maybe be deaf but alive is what sounds promising to us right now.”
If your heart is touched by this story, the Kulungians could use the help of the racing community.
“We’ve had to close down my wife’s business, she owns a daycare center and she’s moved up to Minneapolis,” Kulungian admitted. “Our family is very separated and apart right now. But in short it’s pretty expensive to put a child through bone marrow transplant and we went from a dual income to a single income family; any little bit of help is appreciated.”
Kulungian pointed out that whatever funds are left over from the medical bills will be donated to Osteopetrosis research.
“It’s an extremely rare bone disease. Dr. Orchard has been doing this for 30 years and this is his 22nd case in 30 years and he’s the leading doctor for Osteopetrosis in the world,” said Kulungian.
Race fans that wish to make a donation can go to CaringBridge.com and type in Lilly Kulungian. Once you’re there, a page will come up with a video about her. There’s also a blog providing updates on her condition.
A secondary webpage is also available at LillyKulungian.GooglePages.com . This page provides information for those interested in making donations. You can make checks out to the Lilly Kulungian Fund; all of those funds go directly to Lilly and her care.
SCHUMACHER SWEEP – Tony Schumacher could take the entire month of August off if he wanted to. But, then again, he couldn’t let the competition off that easy.
Schumacher completed his sweep of the Western Swing by defeating Hillary Will in the Top Fuel final round. The victory marked his tenth final round appearance of the season.
As far as Schumacher’s concerned, there’s no cause to let up.
“We got a lot of races left to win and people are saying ‘You’ve clinched it … you’ve locked up number one … you really don’t need to show up until after Indy,” Schumacher explained. “The fact is we don’t show up for that, we show up because we want to win every race. I do hope someone else wins some of the races. We show up for a reason and we have an outstanding drive, outstanding commitment and we put extra energy and effort into every run.”
While Schumacher’s 2008 success might appear an isolated incident, he’s quick to point out his U.S. Army team isn’t the only one working hard in the class.
“We’re not the only team doing it,” Schumacher said. “There are a lot of teams out there that are doing everything they can to win but we are just on. We’re catching breaks when we need them or we’re running strong when we have to but I’ll tell you we’re not a tenth of a second ahead of the field like we used to be; we’re just winning a lot of races. It’s more fun this way.”
When it comes to Schumacher’s tuner, Alan Johnson, the Army driver is quick to point out there’s no hype to Johnson – it’s all fact.
“You hear an awful lot about Alan Johnson but let me tell you it’s true,” Schumacher said. “I like when it’s tight and it’s crunch time and there are tight margins. As a driver, you need to be able to do that; you need to feel like you’re a part of it sometimes. Not just being consistent, but consistently good and pulling off some of those close wins. It’s been a lot of fun; last couple of races have been exciting.”
Schumacher’s latest victory marked the 112th national event victory for Don Schumacher Racing. He becomes only the sixth driver to sweep the famed Western Swing.
EARNING HIS KEEP – Schumacher might have very well faced his toughest battle in the semi-finals when he hole shot upset-minded Steve Torrence, a former Top Alcohol Dragster world champion now driving for Dexter Tuttle.
As you might recall, one of Tuttle’s former drivers J.R. Todd provided a significant challenge on more than one occasion for Schumacher. The race with Torrence got the champion’s attention.
“It makes you feel like a champ,” Schumacher admitted. “We know we’re going to go down the track and we know we’re going to have the faster car. I think the people lose a little bit of sight on how much pressure that puts on a driver. If every run you have the faster car then all you can do as a driver is screw it up. You’re expected to win, so if you win it’s like ‘Hey man you only had a great car.’ If you get beat it’s like what were you waiting for. I just have to perform.
FEELING SAFER – Schumacher is one of the drivers expressing gratitude for the changes implemented into the dragster chassis. He says the safer chassis eases his mind considerably.
He was not always at ease.
Schumacher tends to recall the 2005 Seattle incident when his chassis nearly flexed the in half. He miraculously saved the car.
“I feel more comfortable right now,” Schumacher said. “I said it at the beginning of this year, this new chassis we have makes me feel more comfortable. I don’t feel like it’s going to break in half every time I put the pedal down, it’s not trying to move around. You push the pedal down in the old cars and the dragster was moving around and you were just ready to break them in half.
“I just feel better in these cars. With that, that immediate thought, I hope when I hit this pedal it doesn’t break in half doesn’t come into play, I feel more natural in the car, I feel like I’m bolted in the car, I feel like I’m doing a better job.”
CHANCES DWINDLING - If the competition had a minimum chance of beating Schumacher in a quarter-mile, the introduction of 1,000 foot drag racing dropped those odds significantly. Schumacher admits the rev-limiter doesn’t come into play any more.
“NHRA didn’t put a rev limiter on just to slow my car down but it did,” Schumacher said. “We ran 337 in Brainerd a few years back. NHRA mandated a rev limiter, and we’ve been one of the only ones hitting it. I mean everyone taps it now and then … we level it. So people come forward ‘it’s not fair’ … wait a minute it wasn’t fair that I was getting penalized for having the fastest car. We did it for safety, to keep the car from going 340 on tracks that we know we shouldn’t be doing that on. We know that’s what we did it for.”
The rev-limiter might have had designs on slowing down the dragsters, but for Schumacher, he said the rev-limiter was more of a performance equalizer than anything.
“I don’t think anyone likes any team to win everything,” Schumacher admitted. “We know people pull for the underdog. I also don’t think you can take a team and say ‘Okay, we’re going to make you run to a quarter-mile and you go to the 1000 foot. That ought to make it fair.’ That’s what we’re doing by putting the rev limiter on.”
“I got passed a lot at the end. It would be a close race that I’d get beat, I’m dropping three cylinders, Where we’re just murdering parts. Take all of that away. Before we ever won a race at 1000 foot, I said ‘If we lose every race because of it. It’s still the right thing to do.’ I say this because there are few oil downs, we’re still in the entertainment business. If we can go live TV this is what we’ve been waiting for, for sixty years.”
“I just don’t think anyone should get penalized and Alan felt that way. We felt that way, we felt like we got the short end of having a rev limiter. It was put on there for safety but it was slowing us down. I don’t know how many people know but there weren’t many cars down there. We were murdering it; we come back with three cylinders blown out. That cannot be healthy. When you drop three cylinders at 1000 foot that’s a bad feeling. You’re hauling butt and bust three holes out. You’re expecting it to blow up.”
HIGHT WINS – Robert Hight wasn’t required to win Sonoma for John Force Racing and for good reason; he was inspired to win for someone else.
Dan Davis, Ford Motorsports director for the past eleven years, will retire on August 1. Davis had been with the company for 32 years. This weekend’s race was his last and instead of spending the final weekend at the NASCAR event, Davis spent the weekend in Sonoma.
As Hight burned out in the final round, Davis gave him the thumbs-up as he passed.
Hight wanted to win for Davis.
“It’s huge and I dedicated this trophy to him,” said Hight. “He really does love NHRA drag racing. He always wanted to come to the Drag Races. I think if he had a choice drag racing is where he’d be. He had a lot of fun and he’s a very smart guy.”
Davis was more than just a marketing person, Hight said.
“Ford hires people that aren’t just marketing guys; they’re engineers,” Hight continued. “Honestly, if you put Dan Davis around one of these cars for long enough he could tune one. He’s a very smart individual and he loves this stuff. He’s part of the reason we are where we are today, not only in performance but in safety. All of the new stuff Ford has been behind that but he was a big help behind that. So this is for him, and we are looking forward to working with the new gentleman Brian Wolfe. He’s also a drag racer and an engineer so Ford has some great people.”
This victory marked the second win of 2008 for Hight, and the tenth of his career.
A KID WITH A DREAM - Eric Medlen started the trend, Force kept it going last season. Hight ensured his teammates would have an opportunity to extend the routine.
John Force Racing has won the NHRA Fram Autolite Nationals consecutively since 2006.
This season it was the one driver with huge long shot odds a decade ago that shone the most on Sunday. Hight was once a race fan with a dream.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to win at this race track, since I’ve been driving,” Hight explained. “I actually have been at every national event and tested here back when it was Sears Point. I would come to the races as a spectator before I ever got a job working on a crew and I dreamed of the day that would get to drive, well not drive, I didn’t dream that big … just to get to work on a car and it didn’t matter whose car it was. I wanted to work on somebody’s Nitro car.”
Hight said his favorites were always Kenny Bernstein and John Force and would hang out at their trailers all day watching the crews work.
“I knew that I could do that job,” Hight admitted. “To finally get a chance to do the job for John, working on his car for a lot of years and now be driving one of the best Funny Cars in the nation is a dream come true.”
ON THE ROAD AGAIN - Hight spent the three weeks of the NHRA’s famed Western Swing on the road with his crew.
“I stayed on the road with my guys in Seattle and drove the truck down here with them and just wanted to be a part of it like I used to be because sometimes it’s not much fun to get on an airplane … go through security lines … and fly back to the shop,“ Hight said. “I do a lot of work there but it’s still not as fun as being out there with your guys and enjoying the Western swing. We always look forward to this. Three great races, we love the western part of the country. Nice drives. So I got to drive with my guys here and we had a lot of fun. We went out to dinner, we just did a lot of cool things.”
Hight remembered the many Western Swing tours he traveled with Eric Medlen.
“We rode the bus together at times,” recalled Hight. “He actually got me to sing one time going down the road, I must have been delirious. It wasn’t the same this week. He was always good for making a long trip go buy very fast. He always got lost, he would take wrong turns, he actually drove 300 miles the wrong direction one time. He always had to get off and eat. That kid could eat anything, and he had to eat three or four hours. So he was always getting off and he would go the wrong direction. He made those trips go by real fast and we had a lot of fun. We really miss him.”
Medlen won this event in 2006 and was the first of the last three John Force Racing winners at the NHRA Fram-Autolite Nationals.
TEACHER VERSUS STUDENT - The final round represented a battle between the teacher and former JFR driver Gary Densham and the student and successor Hight. As iconic as his father-in-law John Force is, Hight pointed out one significant shortcoming.
“Gary’s the guy that helped me a lot in the beginning because John Force, as great as he is, is not a good teacher,” Hight admitted. “It’s hard to learn from him. He’s the best in what he does but he can’t teach it.”
Hight replaced Densham for the 2005 season and went on to win rookie of the year accolades.
“Gary, honestly, helped me a ton. He would explain things to where I would understand it. He was excited when we would do good and I was taking his job so that shows what kind of guy he was. Helping me when he knew that I was going to be jumping into that seat of his. You have to give that guy a lot of credit, he’s been running out here for a lot of years. We had to make a good run in the final, we had to make a real good run or he was going to beat us. It’s tough to beat him.”
In the end, Hight said it took the whole team to secure a win.
“I had Austin Coil, Bernie Fedderly, this whole team,” Hight said. “Austin never goes to the starting line unless John is racing and he was up there every round with me today, gives me the thumbs up. That’s what motivates me to do well for these guys because I have a great team around me and we’re supposed to win.”
Hight’s victory extended his record of round wins over Densham to ten.
HE’S BACK - Despite missing the season's first five races because of sponsorship challenges, Chevy driver Dave Connolly has muscled his way into the top 10 of the Pro Stock standings on the strength of his second victory of the season.
In an all-Chevy Pro Stock final round, Connolly drove his Charter Communications Chevy Cobalt to a narrow hole shot win over his teammate, Jeg Coughlin Jr., in the JEGS.com Chevy Cobalt with a winning elapsed time of 6.628 seconds at 207.69 mph to Coughlin's slightly quicker 6.627 e.t. at 207.24 mph.
"I definitely had my doubts about this weekend (coming off the disappointing loss at Seattle), but you can only beat this team down so much before we're going to bounce back," Connolly said. "I hadn't drove that well and today I told myself it's time to remove my head from my rear."
Amazingly, Connolly has advanced to four final rounds in his 10 races this season with victories at Bristol and now Sonoma, and runner-up finishes at St. Louis and Englishtown. This impressive surge has pushed him into the top 10 that qualify for the Countdown to 1, and today's 19th career win leaves him with a 52-point cushion over 11th-place Warren Johnson with just three races remaining before the Countdown cutoff after the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis.
TIMID TO TOUGH - Note to the competition, Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Matt Guidera will no longer race timidly.
The two-time national event rider says he’s going to be aggressive and even more so if he qualifies for the Countdown to the Championship.
“I tried to ride timid earlier the last couple of races and just really not go red,” Guidera said. “That’s the main thing I just didn’t want to go red because I thought I had a faster bike than I did. Then it’s like bad on bad. You got a bad light and you run slow. So you just can’t win any rounds. I did that for a couple of races and I’ve been really concentrating on the tune-up. It’s like Dave Connolly, he’s really good at the lights so he wins a lot. That’s how you win.
“You have to be really good at the lights. I’ve been really good at the lights, too and I have to be otherwise I’m just not going to win. That’s just the bottom line.”
Guidera defeated Mike Berry, Chris Rivas and Chip Ellis before upending Andrew Hines in the final round. The quality of competition now mandates a different style of riding for Guidera.
“You cannot be timid out there,” Guidera said. “You have to cut a .00 light or a .01 light or better than a .02 light or you’re going to get left on. And if you’re bike isn’t fast you’re not going to win. Bottom line. You might not even get out of the first round.”
Guidera took the Pro Stock Motorcycle class by surprise earlier in the season when he won the NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., from the No. 1 qualifying position. He admitted the victory was a hard-fought one.
“We showed good at Gainesville but the rest of the season it’s just going to be brutal,” Guidera said. “If we don’t find a way to go really fast, we’re not going to have a chance at winning the championship. So right now, we’re taking these races leading up to the Championship and trying to find a way to beat people or a way to just make really fast laps.”
On Sunday in Sonoma, Guidera had another tough day of racing.
“We had to work for the performance this weekend,” Guidera said. “It didn’t come in qualifying and that was tough. This place has proven to be a little difficult to race at, for us at times. I’ve seen a lot of really fast times here when we didn’t have any horsepower, I’ve seen mediocre times when we do have horsepower. I don’t know what the deal is with the track here, the track gets hot and it gets greasy and it’s hard to get a hold of it. We have a really good aggressive set up for the clutch and we don’t have a really good soft set up. The track was a little bit greasy in qualifying and we were just spinning the tire halfway down the track. We qualified okay but I think we had a fast bike because our back halves never showed up.”
The bottom line, Guidera admits, is the class gets tougher with each event.
“The bottom line is it’s tough,” Guidera said. “The people we’re racing with have got a lot of experience and this is only my fourth year. It’s just me, my brother and Rick tuning the motorcycle we’re all young guys so we’re all trying our best against these powerful teams like the Screaming Eagle team and the DSR team, Matt Smith. A lot of really fast guys out there, George Bryce, the G-Squared guys. Those guys have a lot of experience so it’s going to be tough.
COUGHLIN’S INTRAMURAL FINAL – Jeg Coughlin Jr. dislikes losing, but that pain is eased when the loss comes at the hands of his teammate Connolly.
"I hated to give one up on a hole shot but you have to look at the big picture and Dave's win helped him jump up in the top 10, which was the No. 1 goal for the team this weekend," Coughlin said. "He was actually in before we raced and we got after it against one another, trust me. He just had a better light this time and took the win. My congratulations go out to Dave and his crew.
"One thing we always try to accomplish at every race is keeping the JEGS.com Cobalt ranked in the top three or four of every session. We were able to do that throughout qualifying and eliminations so I couldn't be happier. We've got a great racecar here."
ANTRON'S UPSET – Top Fuel low qualifier Antron Brown did everything in his power to ensure a victory in the semi-finals against Hillary Will except for one thing – cross the finish line first.
Brown left the starting line first but near the finish line smoked the tires. That was the break Will needed to snatch away the victory.
“To be honest, I don’t know what happened on that pass,” Brown said. “We had a big lead and the car just started spinning the tires. It was going to run a low 3.90. There must have been something on the track that didn’t get cleaned up because our car and the Army car spun the tires in the same spot on the track.”
“We had a good Western Swing. We built on (Larry) Dixon and now lead those guys by 65 points. We want to maintain the No. 2 position for the Countdown (to the Championship). We would have liked to have won, but it didn’t happen. We’ll try our best at Brainerd.”
NO LUCK AT ALL - Luck is a four-letter word Justin Humphreys has been uttering quite a bit lately . . . as in “we just don’t have any (racing) luck.”
Last week, for example, Humphreys raced Kurt Johnson in the first Pro Stock round at Seattle. He left the line first and led Johnson briefly before Johnson not only got around him but ran the quickest run of eliminations.
Sunday in the FRAM Autolite Nationals at Infineon Raceway, Greg Anderson’s winning time of 6.619 seconds was fourth-best of the round while Humphreys’ RaceRedi Dodge came in at 6.642 at 208.49 mph.
“We can’t seem to get a break or a win light in our lane,” said the exasperated driver from Monrovia, Md. “The car isn’t bad, but it’s not where we need to be to get back into the top 10.”
Humphreys left California in 12th place in POWERade Series points with 559.
“It’s getting down to the nitty-gritty for us,” added Humphreys. “We need to win rounds in our next three races if we want to make the top 10.”
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SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - HOT DAY OF QUALIFYING [LITERALLY!]
THE HAVES AND HAVE NOTS – Gary Densham is quick to point out the line defining the “haves” and the “have nots” is
becoming clearer with each race and each increase in operating costs.
“Obviously guys like John Force will put big wads of money in their wallets because they can’t burn it in testing,” said Densham, speaking on how the latest increase in nitro pricing will affect the teams. “They’re going to forego 150 testing runs a year, that’s more than going to offset the cost of diesel. It’s not just myself complaining. There are plenty of teams out here last year who thought that they had a pretty good budget for 2008. They calculated the cost of what it would be to make their runs in 23 races and now you add one more race and the diesel increase and you’re looking at a quarter million dollar increase for these people to do more than they had to do last year.
“The NHRA didn’t give anyone a heads up on adding a race; it just would’ve been nice to know about it for those people who were setting budgets up last year. Could anybody visualize the increase in diesel fuel? Probably not. But when they can still buy 53 gallons of 100% nitromethane at an IHRA race for 1,000 dollars, I’m trying to figure out how we’re paying 2,000 dollars for 42 gallons of 90%.” [Editor’s note: A drum of 53-gallons of nitromethane lists for $1,300].
Densham doesn’t believe there’s a thing the racers can do to stop the continual increases in the cost of nitro other than just to park their cars. He’s afraid of the future if the sport continues to progress in the current direction.
“It scares me that this entire sport may end up being owned by three or four people,” Densham said. “It’s been going that way for the last couple of years with the multi-car teams. It scares me because the quality of the sport and the loyalty of the spectator. It also scares me for the integrity of the sport. What would happen if Force, Lucas, Don Schumacher and Kallita’s jets all collided in mid air? What would happen with the NHRA series?
STILL THE ONE – Friday night provided one set of conditions for Antron Brown who scored his third career Top Fuel pole. Saturday afternoon was another story.
“We went from one track to another today,” Brown said. “Last night was like Disneyland, in that you could throw everything at it. Our final run today brings the conditions we should see in the later rounds on Sunday.”
For Brown, backing down can be a difficult proposition.
“It’s easier to add power to a race car than take it away,” Brown admitted. “It’s like a double-edged sword. If you go out there and take too much power away, the car will shake the tires and then spin them loose. We have a specific window we have to hit.”
Brown earned his third Top Fuel pole of the season on the strength of Friday evening's run.
FIRST TIME FOR EVERYTHING, PT. 1 - As Funny Car qualifying concluded, Ashley Force made a little more history in her young
“The conditions weren’t quite there (to improve). Friday night, that was the time to do it. But you never know in drag racing, anything can happen. I just wanted to finish the round and then celebrate and be happy about No. 1,” said the reigning Rookie of the Year.
The sophomore Funny Car driver made the quickest run on Friday night and backed up that performance advantage making the quickest run each qualifying session on Saturday. Her Castrol GTX team was rewarded with the Full Throttle Award, which is presented each race to one team per professional category that runs with the most consistency and highest performance during qualifying.
“I already knew I had a great team but it really shows that it’s not a fluke that you made it down the track one time in good conditions. I think most people would agree that they’d rather get four good runs down the track than one awesome run and three where you had problems,” said Force. “On race day, if you have a car that’s gone A to B every qualifying run, you know you’ve got a good chance. It gives you that much more confidence on Sunday.”
LONG TIME COMING - Mike Edwards now has a No. 1 qualifier to go along with his win earlier this season at Atlanta. Edwards
"We were fortunate to make a nice run last night; a couple of really, really good cars didn't make as good of runs, so we were able to hold today," Edwards said. "We made a great run, and I'm proud of my team. When I let go of the chutes at the other end (after last night's qualifying session), I thought 'Whatever that was, we can't go any faster.' That's how good it felt to me.
"We changed the car up this morning quite a bit just to see if that was the right direction to go, and we ran okay for what we thought it was going to do. If we can do that again, we should be okay for tomorrow. It's a great position to be in, but tomorrow's a different day; you pull up there, and it's like you're the No. 16 qualifier. I'm going to race like I always race and go up there like I'm the underdog. I feel like at the last two races I've let some points slip away from me. I had a mechanical failure in Denver and then driver error in Seattle, so I feel like we should be in a better position, points-wise. But it is what it is and tomorrow's another chance to get 118 points."
FIRST TIME FOR EVERYTHING, PT 2. – Spare the play on her sponsor’s ad campaigns, Geico-sponsored Pro Stock driver Karen Stoffer has already heard them.
It’s so easy a Caveman could do it. At least that’s how Karen Stoffer made the process look when she became the third Suzuki rider to score a pole position.
The third for Suzuki was the first for the Minden, Nev.-based rider, a five-time winner on the NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle tour. Somehow or another, Stoffer and her team believed their first major accolade would be a No. 1 qualifier, not qualifying on top after winning five events.
“I try not to think about either one; and just ride the bike as consistent as I can,” Stoffer explained. “I’m sure the team had all of the scenarios calculated for everything, but I’ve always looked at this as one round, one qualifying pass and one test session at a time. This is how I am able to maintain our performance that we enjoy today.
“But if you go ask my team, they’ll tell you they expected the No. 1 first.”
Then there’s the whole Suzuki versus V-twin issue.
“I’ve tried to steer away from that whole dialogue,” Stoffer said. “I was always one of the proponents of the Suzukis needing more horsepower. In true fashion, racing is tough and you have to have the right combination. Every one thought we [Suzuki riders] had a lock on that finals session because of the heat and the wind.
“I tell you anyone of the bikes out there could have pulled off a 6.96 because the Harleys and V-twins really run well in these conditions. I wasn’t going to accept any congratulations until the session was complete.”
The reality is that Stoffer had experience in testing with conditions such as she experienced on Saturday.
“We were able to get ahead of the curve early and got lucky on that first hit,” Stoffer admitted. “I think maybe the other teams struggled with that.”
Stoffer, a ten-time finalist on the tour, deflects credit for today’s feat.
“Everyone talks about me because I’m the rider, but this is really a true team effort,” Stoffer said. “The team members who operate behind the scenes and don’t get to speak on the microphone deserve the credit. They are the ones who got me down the track.”
BARTONE’S REALITY – One race after winning his first NHRA POWERade Funny Car national event, Tony Bartone learned you’re only as good as your last national event victory. He was the only non-qualifier this weekend in either nitro category.
That’s okay for Bartone, as he spent much of the week prior enjoying the spoils of his victory. He relaxed quite a bit, and admitted he’s grown fond of his first professionally-earned trophy.
The 2008 season, as evidenced by his Sonoma shortcoming has been one of feast or famine.
“Well you know anything could happen,” Bartone said. “I said to a good friend of mine after we won on Sunday night, I said ‘If I told you that I was going to go to Seattle and John Force wasn’t going to qualify and Tony Bartone was going to win. What would you say to me?’ I can’t say his answer, but you can imagine.”
Bartone knows the time is now to strike if the Jim Dunn team hopes to get into the top ten for the championship. While three of the four professional divisions hold drivers who could clinch playoff berths, the Funny Car division is still wide open.
“I’ve been an NHRA fan since I was very young. I’d have to wait until every February on Wide World of Sports the Winternationals when I was ten years old,” Bartone admitted. “I don’t think the Nitro Funny Car class has ever been more competitive.”
REMEMBERING G.O. – Next season will provide the 20th anniversary for the late Gary Ormsby’s hard-fought Top Fuel world championship. The popular driver from nearby Auburn, Ca. drove his Castrol GTX-sponsored dragster to a world championship after crashing two cars and relying on the show car to seal the deal.
Ormsby passed away two years later after a battle with cancer.
Guess who his crew chief was? Lee Beard, the famed tuner for Brown, this weekend’s low qualifier.
One of those crashes transpired in Sonoma.
“We crashed a car here at Sonoma, the rear wing tree failed and put that car upside down and destroyed it,” Beard recalled. “We bought another car that was very close to it from Larry Minor. We ran it up at Seattle and did very well with it. We got to Brainerd, Minn., and Gary red-lighted, he double stepped it, and when he got back on it the second time it stood it straight up and ran it into the guard rail and ruined it. So in about a three week period we had ruined three race cars and it kind of put us down a little bit but we had a really young, aggressive team.”
The young crew which included Mike Green, now crew chief for Cory McClenathan set their sights on the team’s show car displayed at Ormsby’s auto dealership.
“That car is pretty much the race car you see today out here,” said Beard. “That was the last real major change to the chassis’. Again, it was a real exciting time for me as a crew chief because your hands weren’t tied with so many rules.”
GONNA BE WAR – It’s a good thing Tony Schumacher is sponsored by the U.S. Army because in the first round of Top Fuel eliminations, he races longtime rival Doug Kalitta.
“Man, we better prepare for a real war with Kalitta,” offered the Chicago-area resident. “They’ve been struggling of late, but we know they’re quite capable of turning things around in a hurry. We hope they don’t wake up against us.”
Schumacher is also well aware of Kalitta’s success rate at Infineon Raceway. He’s a five-time winner at the track located in the heart of Wine Country.
“He’s clearly owned this place over the years,” added Schumacher. “But, we were able to break through ourselves here last year. I’m confident it will be an intense match up.”
After two straight wins in Denver and Seattle, Schumacher will be going for the “Western Swing” sweep on Sunday. The only other drivers to previously accomplish that feat were Joe Amato, Cory McClenathan, John Force, Larry Dixon and Greg Anderson.
“We’re going to take our best shot, that’s for sure,” he said. “But, we’re not going to get caught looking ahead. Doug Kalitta and his team are tough customers. Round one is our only concern right now.”
A MATTER OF INCHES - Two-thousandths of a second is all that separated Chris Rivas from his third No. 1 starting position of the season Saturday as qualifying concluded for Sunday’s FRAM Autolite Nationals at Infineon Raceway.
Rivas, who held the provisional top spot Friday with an elapsed time of 6.987 seconds, came out and lowered his weekend best to 6.964 seconds at 190.62 mph on the G2 Motorsports Drag Specialties S&S Cycle V-Twin Pro Stock Motorcycle. He didn’t get another opportunity because an electrical ignition wire malfunctioned, shutting off the fuel pump and the motorcycle in the final session.
“I noticed the burnout wasn’t nice and clean like it normally is,” Rivas reported. “The motor shut off before we were one second into the run.” It took him 20.986 seconds to coast to the finish line.
Rivas races Angie McBride (15th, 7.240 seconds at 182.58) in the first round of eliminations.
Team crew chief George Smith said he believed they found the problem, one that apparently was responsible for Rivas having trouble starting the motorcycle Friday night. “I think we will be in good shape Sunday,” added Smith. “We are running well and I’m happy with the way things are going.”
MEMORIES – In facing McBride in the first round, race fans will recall that she was Rivas' replacement at the NHRA AAA Finals last November when he was unceremoniously dumped from the Matt Smith team mid-race.
SPOT ON - Reigning Pro Stock world champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. knew Saturday's early session of professional qualifying was going to be the best one of the weekend. He was right, and the four-time world champ took full advantage of the ideal conditions at Infineon Raceway to run the second quickest pass of the day, a 6.636 at 207.53 mph, that moved his JEGS.com Chevrolet Cobalt up to sixth place overall.
"I'm pumped up to run a number like that, especially considering where it ranked against everyone else in that session and I'm even happier that our Cobalt went nice and straight both times today," said Coughlin, who was third quickest of the final session in the heat of the day. "This is as fired up as I can remember being in several weeks. We've got our racecar back."
The 2003 winner of this event, Coughlin knows what he's up against in the opening round of Sunday's eliminations as he'll race Ron Krisher, who leases engines from Coughlin's car owner, Victor Cagnazzi. Krisher's best pass was a 6.656 at 207.27 mph, which placed him 11th on the grid. Coughlin and Krisher have raced four times this year with Coughlin holding a 3-1 record against the veteran racer.
"The good news is that Victor will have one of his cars in the second round," Coughlin said. "Of course, we'd prefer to meet later in the day but you really can't control that stuff. This is the way it came down so we have prepared ourselves to race Ron. We know what he's capable of so we'll do everything we can to beat him.
"It takes a team to run for race wins and championships and we've got an exceptional group over here. Our summer hasn't produced the results we've wanted so far but no ones gotten down or given up. In fact, it's quite the opposite; everyone is working that much harder. There is no lack of effort in this pit.
"There's always a lot going on and we've got three team cars that we need to have in the top 10 when the Countdown (playoffs) start in September."
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FRIDAY NOTEBOOK – TOUGH TIMES EARLY GIVE WAY TO GREAT RACING AT NIGHT
THE FANS BOOED - The fans booed. That’s what 50 minutes of downtime will do to race starved drag racing fans.
The NHRA’s Dan Olson has no idea what happened other than the chemicals in the compound aversely reacted to the track surface. The high-ranking official who heads up the track prep said he’s taken samples and will investigate when he returns to the office.
Multiple sources told CompetitionPlus.com that a solvent was mistakenly applied to the surface.
Ron Capps, like many of the racers and fans, had no clue what was going on.
“I kept asking what was going on and Lanny [Miglizzi, track specialist] said no one is telling us,” Capps explained. “A couple of crew chiefs came by and told us there was a problem when they put down the initial traction compound. We still don’t know what happened but every crew chief that came by told us to keep it in the groove and don’t get out.
“I sat in the car for 45 minutes and no one told us anything. That’s unacceptable to keep us in the car that long. I think they were trying their best to get it fixed.”
The NHRA’s crew used the downtime to re-prep the track. From that point on, the new surface appeared cohesive enough to yield competitive times.
Capps heard the fans boo while strapped inside the race car with his helmet on.
“It was loud and I could hear them in the helmet easily,” Capps confided.
Top Fuel driver Bob Vandergriff Jr., was standing on the starting line when the situation transpired.
“The fans had a right to boo but on the other hand, you have to applaud Dan Olson and the NHRA because I went up there and told him that myself and a few other drivers weren’t going to run because we didn’t feel it was safe. It took a while to fix it but at least they stopped everything and tried to make it better.
“You can complain about it and know it was a mistake, but they took the time to fix it. The end result was that it got better. They were willing to listen and fix the problem.”
Capps said he felt this was an isolated incident and the NHRA has made great strides since suffering track prep problems earlier in the season.
“If it happened all the time I’d be upset, but since Vegas they’ve really done well … the racing has been second to none,” Capps said. “I don’t see this becoming a trend again.”
MEMORY MAKER - Ashley Force will likely remember the first time she scored a provisional No. 1 qualifier in Sonoma.
Lengthy delays in the first round forced the NHRA to juggle the schedule and teams had a shortened timeframe to make it back for their second run. Force had 100% confidence in her team but also knew that some times haste makes waste.
“It was kind of a rush between rounds. My guys were working so hard and you never know, you get a little nervous thinking, ‘Did we put everything back together right?’ ‘Did we do everything we wanted to?’ They never let me down,” said Force. “They got it done exactly how they wanted it to be done. It showed when it went right down the track. It was easy for me the driver to get it from A to B.”
If Force’s time holds up she knows that starting from the number one spot will be an emotional experience. The southern California resident has a lifetime of fond memories from Infineon Raceway.
“This track is one of the closest to where I live. We always came here in the summer when we were kids. It just has a lot of special moments for us; Eric (Medlen in 2006) winning, the whole going to the spa episode (for A&E Driving Force reality television show) and dad (14-time champion John Force) winning last year. All the Oakdale (Medlen’s hometown) family is here at this race. It is just that much more meaningful for our team if we can get that win for Eric.”
As the session came to an end Force was looking for some extra help from a special friend to hold onto the No. 1 spot.
“I knew Tony Pedregon and Robert Hight were up so I thought it was nice while it lasted, the No. 1 spot, but I had a feeling it was going to be taken from me. I don’t know what happened to Robert’s car but it didn’t start,” said Force. “I though maybe Eric was helping me out a little bit in keeping that number one spot. We’ll take it anyway we can get it.”
THE WAIT – Ashley said waiting the 45 minutes was the most uncomfortable she’s ever been in a race car. Well maybe the second. Hearing here dad entertain the troops over the radio had equal effects.
“Well that down time, I don’t know how long it was but, that was about the most uncomfortable I have ever been getting ready to go up and make a run,” Ms. Force said. “You keep thinking it will be done and I didn’t want to get out because it is a big process to get all the all the way out of the car and then get suited back up. I didn’t want to do that to my guys. I probably should have because when I went up to run my whole body was aching from the fact that you can only go so long before claustrophobia sets in. You get antsy.
“You starting thinking that I can’t sit in the friggin’ car any longer. I don’t know how dad stayed in because he usually has a way shorter ability to stay in the car than me. I can usually sit in there a while. He was two pairs ahead of me and he stayed in his Mustang. I was miserable. There are not too many times in my life I have not been happy being in a race car but sitting back there was one of them.”
John was in rare form.
“I can’t say much of what he said, but I do know one time he said he thought he peed his pants,” Ms. Force said.
DAD’S AT IT AGAIN – John Force worked his way into the provisional top spot early in the second session before getting bumped by his daughter and the Pedregon brothers.
He’s running a Mustang carbon fiber body minus the traditional green and white paint, but sporting the traditional sponsor decals.
“The driver has been working out and got a little heavy, so we had to put the car on a diet and she’s still heavier than most,” Force admitted. “It almost looked like a hot rod today because last week we sucked.”
ANTRON THROWS DOWN – While many of the race fans and teams at Infineon Raceway waited for Tony Schumacher to beat
Antron Brown’s 3.805 elapsed time during the final qualifying session, “the run” never came. If Brown holds onto the top spot, he will have secured his third Top Fuel pole position this season.
“The longer we have to wait, the better the conditions get for us,” Brown admitted. “The sun goes down and it gets cooler and firms up. We get to put more power to the ground. Every time I see that, I start smiling.”
Brown’s previous Top Fuel No. 1 efforts came at the season-opener in Pomona and in Englishtown last month.
“We all want to go fast and when you get the chance to go fast, like it did on Friday night, you can wick it up a little more,” Brown added. “The track will take it. Once you get past the 150-foot ‘shake zone’ then you get catapulted towards the finish line. It just shoots you to the finish line and on that run, I knew I was on a stellar one.”
No Top Fuel driver has run a 3.7-second run since the NHRA shortened the racing surface to 1,000-feet.
“You’re always going for as quick of a run as you can get,” Brown said. “The car was weak in Seattle and we changed engines and all of a sudden this dragster has all of the crazy power. The only thing we changed was the engine and a new drum of nitro. It has power.”
Brown doesn’t know what his quickest 1,000-foot run prior to the change was. He said the quickest could have been in pre-season testing, his fifth career run, when he lifted as a rookie should have.
“I went a 3.01 at 282.20 to half-track,” Brown admitted. “We were on pace for a 4.45 run. I shut off early and still ran a 4.48 at over 300.”
He got scared?
‘That was my fifth run and it started to sachet, so I shut it down,” Brown said. “I knew something wasn’t right. I’d never felt that before so I did the right thing. If I had it all to do over again, the outcome would be totally different. Trust me.”
Brown has qualified No. 1 fourteen times in his career.
IN-HOUSE RULES THE HOUSE – Mike Edwards has spent many years trying to score a No. 1 qualifying effort – seven to be exact. Seven years ago, he was buying motors. Now he’s building his own and that’s the difference maker.
“You can rent and have some success but if you want to take it to the next level and catch some of these teams … and we made a huge step today … and it’s all because of the guys back at the shop. We put this program together back in Indianapolis and we didn’t even have a 9/16 wrench. Now we have four engines and all four qualify in the top half of the field.
“It has been an unbelievable turnaround. It’s way better than I ever had.”
As for the 9/16 wrenches, Edwards added, “I’ve got a few more now.”
IT’S RIVAS TIME - Chris Rivas almost didn’t have an opportunity to make his second qualifying run Friday evening as qualifying began for Sunday’s FRAM Autolite Nationals at Infineon Raceway, but he rallied in impressive fashion and jumped to the top of the NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle line-up.
Rivas, competing at his home track, drove the G2 Motorsports Drag Specialties S&S Cycle V-Twin motorcycle to an elapsed time of 6.987 seconds at 188.65 mph. It was the category’s only run under seven seconds.
“We have a fast bike,” said Rivas, of Fresno, Calif. “I’m happy for our team. They’ve been working real hard. This is the first race we’ve run this motor and we knew it would be very, very fast.”
A calm demeanor enabled the G2 crew, George Smith and Ken Johnson, to provide Rivas the opportunity to make his run after the engine stalled at the starting line. It took several minutes before the engine re-fired and Rivas didn’t waste the opportunity.
He could solidify his third No. 1 starting spot of the season when qualifying concludes Saturday with two more runs. Cooler morning air is expected to make the first session the best of the weekend.
“I feel good about tomorrow,” added Rivas. “I don’t think our 6.98 is going to stand.” But he plans to run better, too.
Rivas was low qualifier at Chicago and Englishtown, N.J. earlier this season.
OKUHARA HOSPITALIZED – Gary Scelzi’s crew chief Todd Okuhara was taken to a local hospital after suffering from Vertigo. Okuhara left the track prior to the first session but returned in time for the second. He was administered medicine for his condition and plans to remain at the track throughout the weekend.
YOU DO THE DISHES – In their first head-to-head match, the husband and wife team of Melanie Troxel and Tommy Johnson Jr., she beat him to the finish line.
Troxel ran a 4.156 elapsed time that more than eclipsed TJ’s early-shutoff effort.
“I knew we were out of the top twelve when we came up to run,” Troxel admitted. “And if I get to be a little quicker and faster than my husband that’s just icing on the cake.”
CHAMPIONSHIP MATERIALIZES - Four races remain before the NHRA championship series whittles down to the ten championship contenders in each professional division. Only three drivers (Tony Schumacher, Tim Wilkerson, Greg Anderson) have clinched their positions, but as many as four could accrue secured playoff spots at the conclusion of this weekend’s NHRA Fram-Autolite Nationals. The final event for the first phase of the NHRA’s Countdown to the Championship takes place during the NHRA U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis over the Labor Day Weekend.
Both Top Fuel and Pro Stock can clinch two berths and the Pro Stock division has one driver who can secure his spot. Antron Brown, Larry Dixon Jr., Kurt Johnson, Jason Line and Andrew Hines are on pace to get in upon this weekend’s conclusion.
No Funny Car racers can clinch a spot this weekend.
“It used to be not that many years ago that you had one or two dominant cars,” said defending Funny Car champion Tony Pedregon. “Now you have a world class field of 12 – 15 (Funny Cars) with all the resources and talent. It’s going to be a dogfight.”
The closest driver to getting into the top ten this weekend is Top Fuel driver Morgan Lucas. He’s a mere 10 points behind Doug Kalitta while teammate J.R. Todd stands 103 markers b ehind.
“One of our biggest missions right now is to get mine and J.R.’s (teammate, Todd) car in the Top 10 and we want to go some rounds allowing us to get in and to race for the championship,” said Lucas. “We know time is quickly becoming a factor with only four races remaining until the Countdown starts.”
One driver fighting incredible odds to earn his spot is Pro Stock racer Dave Connolly.
Connolly missed the first five events of the season when longtime sponsor Torco Race Fuels suspended their racing sponsorships leaving him without funding to race.
Charter Communications stepped up with sponsorship and the hard-charging Connolly is just 22 points from the Pro Stock top ten.
He could get in the top ten if he qualifies better than 14th and No. 10 Warren Johnson fails to qualify. Connolly is not counting points, but knows the time is now to make a move.
“If we continue to qualify well at Sonoma, maybe we can make up a little more and only be one round out,” said Connolly, who has one win in three finals this year.
Johnson was 5th and Connolly was unqualified after the first day.
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