NHRA MIDWEST NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
SUNDAY NOTEBOOK -
UNFORGETTABLE, KINDA SORTA – No one could forget the hot streak Hot Rod Fuller was on this time last year. This season
In fact, the pre-race emcee forgot him during the traditional pre-race introductions Sunday morning. Fuller ensured the announcer wouldn’t forget him in the winner’s circle.
“It was weird,” Fuller said of the experience. “I was about to go through the door and they stopped me and pulled me back. They told me he forgot me. It was an honest mistake, so I figured the best way to make them remember me was to win.”
Make no mistake, Fuller still has a chip on his shoulder after winning five races during the first phase of the Countdown to the Championship and then losing the points from them when the totals reset at Indianapolis. He lost a substantial lead and despite battling back into the lead during the final portion of the Chase, he lost the title during the final run of the season.
“There’s a high level of gratification when you can beat him,” Fuller said of his ongoing rivalry with Tony Schumacher, the beneficiary of those rules.
So heated is the rivalry becoming between himself and Schumacher that he referred to the final round match as the Dark Side versus the Good Side.
“I’ll let you figure out which is which,” Fuller said with a laugh. “I watched the NASCAR race last night and the fans want to see rivalries like that. People want to see some roughing up. We can’t bump fenders, but at least I can ruffle his feathers a little.”
Fuller’s final round represented the third consecutive final round for David Powers Motorsports. Rookie teammate Antron Brown won the previous two races.
Fuller pointed out seeing Brown’s success has made him happy.
“I take a lot of pride in his success and we are a lot closer than people think,” Fuller said. “He gives me a lot of compliments in letting me know things I’ve helped him with. I have helped him and it’s almost like we are brothers. It’s like watching my little brother [sportsman racer] Tony race. If I can’t win, I want him to.
“A lot of people always ask me if I get upset when he wins and I don’t, and I always tell them that this sport is like a merry-go-round in that you just have to wait for your turn to get on. Today happened to be my day to get on that merry-go-round. Nothing is wrong with out team and drag racing is a lot of luck.
“We also learned that it doesn’t mean as much to lead the points all year long. At the end it all goes away and it’s a big letdown to get all those points taken away like we did last year. I told my guys I did care if I was in the two, three, four or five spot this year.”
EMOTIONAL WEEKEND – The triumphant weekend had special meaning for two reasons as far as Fuller was concerned.
A lesser known fact is Fuller’s opportunity to drive came after Darrell Russell lost his life during a racing accident during the 2004 NHRA Midwest Nationals.
The Russell Family had planned to join forces with David Powers to field a Top Fuel program.
“Darrell had dreamed of having his own Top Fuel team one day,” Fuller said. “They hired me and they probably did that because Darrell was a sportsman racer and they wanted to stay within the sportsman ranks. This was an honor to get the call and be able to represent them.”
Fuller pointed out he believes that a lot of people have forgotten that story. He cannot.
“This trophy is going to Chris Russell,” Fuller added. “What an honor to do that on a weekend where Darrell was remembered. I had to fight back the tears because it meant a lot to me.”
Fuller said extra motivation came with his mom [Cathy] being in attendance. He added that she’s been in bad health recently.
“She’s been battling health issues and she’s never seen me win Top Fuel before,” Fuller said. “She was at the finish line when I got out of the car. It’s not about the money and it’s not about the feeling when I got out of the car and she had tears in her eyes. I just had to hug her.
“If it wasn’t for my mom and dad and their sacrifices, I couldn’t be out here racing. Those other wins were great, but to win with her and dad here means more. I feel blessed all the way around.”
The victory marked his first since signing Caterpillar as the major sponsor for the team.
HOMEBOY DELIVERS – There was a day when Tim Wilkerson couldn’t win a coin toss. Sunday in St. Louis wasn’t it and for
Wilkerson has discovered a well of performance and good fortunes and he’s drawing from the reservoir on a regular basis.
“You lose your handle on what's going on with those cars and it's really hard to get it back,” Wilkerson said. “Just through tenacity and a lot of help from a lot of people out here, I don't think there's one crew chief in Top Fuel or Funny Car that hasn't helped me one time or another with some stupid question I had, they're all probably upset about that now.”
Wilkerson is the kind of person his peers can’t help but like. His proverbial hard luck to good luck story is the kind that warms the heart.
“We have never been in the points lead in anything in my life,” Wilkerson said. “I’m really surprised to be able to tell you at this point that we be doing this well and hopefully when the new cars come out in the Denver area when we have to start with our new car, that won't put a damper on my performance.”
As for his competition, he’s sure they may be upset at his success but he can still count on them for help.
“I think some of them are still proud of me,” Wilkerson said. ‘Tell you what, the Force gang and I are pretty tight . I mean we had a lot of the gang from Ashley's crew come over and tell me good luck before the run and I wished Zippy good luck. There's nothing personal out there between most of us, we're just trying to get our job done and if you get the guy to stage his car, it's just you racing the race track anyway.”
Wilkerson even joked that a fellow racer during his ramp-up to the winner’s circle in Las Vegas threatened harm.
“Jim Head told me that if I went a 4.80 in the middle of the day at Las Vegas that he was going to burn my trailer to the ground, so thankfully for me I didn't do that,” Wilkerson said, pausing to laugh. “Jerry Toliver told me earlier that they had a bounty on my head, ‘I said, what does it take to beat me?'"
Wilkerson delivered a consistent performance all day long while starting from the No. 1 position. En route to the final round he posted three consecutive 4.82 elapsed times. In the final round, he fell off the pace with a 4.874, 317.27. Fortunately for him, Mike Neff did too.
“We hurt our good blower in the semis; that threw a bunch of strips out of it and then unfortunately we only had an hour between rounds there that we didn't have time to fix it so I had to put my worst supercharger on there for the finals and that's why it slowed down,” Wilkerson said. “I put a whole lot out there in the middle of the race track. I knew it had a whole lot in the middle because it was vibrating a lot. But it was enough to make the win.
“I was just waiting for Neff to drive around me because I could hear him out of the corner of my ear.”
NO DOUBT – Kurt Johnson left no doubt he belonged in the winner’s circle by posting the quickest time in each round to
Knowing he would need an almost flawless performance to capture his third win at Gateway International Raceway, Johnson took control from the start, leaving the starting line ahead of his opponent and never looked back, using a 6.631-second, 209.30 mph pass to easily outdistance his rival’s 6.651-second, 208.78 mph effort and score his first national event win since February 2007. It was the 37th national event win of Johnson’s career, first of the 2008 season and third at Gateway International Raceway.
“It was a great day at Gateway for the ACDelco Cobalt Racing team,” said Johnson. “You never know what to expect at one of these races. Everybody in Pro Stock is hungry, and everyone we faced today ran pretty well, so if we had made one little slip-up, someone else might have won.
“Going into the final, we knew David (Connolly) is a good driver with a good team and that we would have to be on our game to get by him. Fortunately, the crew did an outstanding job, we made the right calls on the tune-up, and I did my job behind the wheel. It just feels good to win for everyone on this team, our great sponsors including ACDelco and Chevrolet as well as all the people who support us.”
After setting career bests in elapsed time and top speed in qualifying fifth, Johnson quickly established himself as a contender on Sunday, with his 6.581-second, 209.36 mph pass in the first round against rookie Todd Hoerner lowering his personal best by another hundredth of second and setting the standard for the Pro Stock class in eliminations.
However, Johnson’s next opponent would prove to be his toughest of the day, as he took on defending Pro Stock champion Jeg Coughlin. In the closest race of the day of any of the professional categories, KJ combined a stout .014 reaction time with a 6.620, 209.33 mph pass to edge Coughlin by one ten-thousandth of a second, as he posted a 6.623-second, 208.01 mph in the losing effort.
“We knew we really had to dig down for the run against Jeg,” stated Johnson. “He is always so tough on the starting line, and looking at the numbers from the first round, we ran a 6.58, while he ran a 6.61, so he knew if he had a good light, he would be there, and it ended up being really close. It was probably the race of the day, and fortunately we were able to come out on top, which was a big lift for the entire team. However, at that point we had to remind ourselves that we were only halfway home.”
Johnson’s performance continued in the semifinals. Even though V. Gaines’ red-light awarded him the automatic win, Johnson put himself in good shape for the final round by posting a 6.619-second, 208.78 mph pass to earn lane choice against Connolly, in what proved to be the first step towards ending his 28-race winless streak.
“We made some big changes coming in to today, and our ACDelco Cobalt went down the track on every run, which is what you have to do in this category,” said Johnson. “Everyone on both my ACDelco and Dad’s (six-time champion Warren Johnson) GM Performance Parts crew have been working extremely hard, doing what they can to help, and it makes a big difference all the way around when one of our cars makes it to the winner’s circle.
“This was a big win for us, because once you know you can do it, it makes it a little easier to do it again. But I’ve been around long enough to realize how hard these are to get and to appreciate every win. After all, it starts all over again in two weeks when we get to Bristol, and we’re going to do our very best to do this all over again.”
SWEET SIXTEEN – Andrew Hines has made sixteen consecutive runs in the six-second zone. Such actions speak volumes
Hines won his fifteenth national event title in St. Louis in repelling a determined effort from the defending NHRA Midwest Nationals champion Matt Smith.
“We are just going straight and making good runs,” Hines said. “This is the same engine we ran in Atlanta and we tried a new one on Friday and it just didn’t have enough ponies. We put the Atlanta engine back in because we wanted to qualifying No. 1 and just couldn’t find the combination. We were just making too much horsepower. Our runs on Saturday just ripped through the clutch. We were loaded for bear and it got kind of ugly.”
Hines estimated he could have gone to number one qualifier if the bike had run better in the first sixty-feet. If Hines had pulled off the No. 1 qualifier, he would have been the fourth consecutive top qualifier to win an event in 2008.
Instead, he won from the third spot.
“To be the first to win from something other than the top is special,” Hines admitted. “Four races, three finals and two wins provide a tribute to how good my team is. They like being on top and they’ve put a motorcycle under me capable of doing it.”
Hines attributes his success to the hard work being put in back at their Vance & Hones shop in Brownsburg, Indiana.
“They are trying to dig and scrap and get anything they can to help us out,” Hines said. “We have a month off, so this is the perfect time to head into that swing. It’s going to be fun once we get to Chicago.”
Chances are when Hines gets there he will be racing under a different set of specifications. The NHRA technical department has made frequent changes to the different combinations in an effort to maintain parity.
The unspoken 6.90 “break-out” was breached by both the Harley-Davidson and Buell teams over the course of the St. Louis weekend.
Suzuki came within .003 in qualifying.
“We weren’t expecting the 6.87 although the atmospheric conditions were there for it,” Hines said. “When I came around the corner after the run, no one would tell me what I ran. The conditions were there for us to go fast. If everyone is going fast, it just makes the class look good.”
NOTHING LIKE A GOOD CELEBRATION
TWO-FER - Tony Schumacher advanced to his second straight final and his fourth of 2008.
“It was yet another close one, that’s for sure,” said Schumacher. “I got out on him at the start and was ahead to about 100 feet, but then he motored on past and that was it.”
Schumacher beat Morgan Lucas, Alan Bradshaw and Hillary Will on the way to his meeting with Fuller.
“Despite not getting the win, it was still a great day for the U.S. Army team,” he offered. “We worked real hard, just like our Soldiers do every day, and that’s all you can ask of anyone.”
With two wins and two other final round appearances to his credit thus far in ’08, Schumacher has managed to hold the Top Fuel point lead since the season opener. The Chicago-area resident now leads Antron Brown, his former U.S. Army Racing teammate, by 68 points.
“That’s really awesome,” he added. “Last year at this time, we were clearly struggling and already had five first round losses. What a difference a year makes, right? I can guarantee you that Alan Johnson (his crew chief) and the guys will be looking for ways to improve even more.”
The U.S. Army team will conduct a two-day test this week in preparation for round eight of the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series.
“You have to keep doing research and development if you want to compete for a world title, “related Schumacher. “You can’t rest on your laurels in this series.”
With three more elimination round wins in his pocket, Schumacher will now head for the O’Reilly Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol (Tenn.) Dragway in two weeks focused on the 400 round win mark.
“I understand that I need three more to reach 400,” he said. “Of course, the goal will be to get those three and an additional one which will enable us to win the race down there.”
This season is off to a much better start than 2007, when Schumacher had five first round losses by the team he reached St. Louis.
SPONSOR PLUG HALL OF FAME – There cannot be any doubt John Force Racing has been trained by John Force on the fine art of working in sponsor plugs.
Hight nearly took out a cone at the finish line in his first round of competition.
“We didn’t want to take the nose off the Auto Club Ford or we would have had to get AAA to tow us back to the pits,” Hight exclaimed.
TAKING THE RIDE
THE GRANDER - One week after his daughter made Funny Car history with a breakthrough victory in Atlanta, Ga., John Force c
Force’s first round win was considered to be finest accomplishment in a storied drag racing career.
NHRA officials suspended first round competition to bring Force back to the starting line area where he was congratulated by NHRA president Tom Compton and presented a crystal trophy commemorating his accomplishment.
“You can’t win without a good crew, sponsors like Castrol, Ford, the Auto Club and Old Spice and crew chiefs like Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly,” Force said. “Five hundred races (a milestone he achieved at Atlanta) just means you showed up a lot. But winning a thousand rounds, that means that at a point in time, we were pretty good.”
APOLOGETIC DEEPSTAGER – The race fans sang Happy Birthday to John Force on his 59th birthday for what he said must have been ten times. Still, the 14-time champion was a bit bummed since beating Ron Capps in the first round to obtain his 1,000th round win.
Force was troubled that he believed his accidental deep-stage was a tactic aimed to shake Capps’ concentration. Adding to the regret for Force was those who congratulated him on winning via a hole shot.
“I didn’t even mean to go in that deep, so Capps probably left on me,” Force said. “They were yelling on the top end that I put a hole shot on him and the truth is that I didn’t. Just look at the 60-foot times. They tell the story.”
“I just don’t want credit for something I didn’t do. Ron Capps is important to me.”
HONORARY CREW MEMBER
CAPPS ON DEEP-STAGING – Capps said the process of deep-staging can be hard to explain to novice drag racing fans. When Force threw out his apology, many race fans were confused.
"What's so hard to explain to the fans is there is so much room when you stage a car that you can roll in farther and deeper," he said. "And it just makes the driver's reaction time look better. And a lot of owner/drivers are able to do that because they really don't have to answer to anybody.
"If Ace and I are looking for lane choice - and every team will tell you the same thing - we'll win a lot of those and lose a lot of those by reaction times. And the deeper you are the worse the elapsed time is, and vice versa.
"It's still one of those things in our sport that maybe someday they'll fix. John was very diplomatic about it because he got out an apologized to me. For one thing, it would be nice down the road - and I've heard other drivers talk about it - if NHRA would do something to take that confusion away from the fans and have a straight-up E.T. and a straight-up reaction time. But it's been that way for years and it's part of the adjustment a driver makes and part of the mind games, if you will, when a driver goes up to the starting line. I grew up in this sport so I understand it, but it's very confusing to a lot of people
"But, you know what, you're either going to be part of history or you're going to make history. And obviously today we were part of history.
FIRST ROUND DEPARTURE
YEAH, HE’S GOT THE LOOK – Many questioned John Force’s motives last season when he proposed training former Don Schumacher Racing crew chief Mike Neff to become a driver for John Force Racing. Force simply said, “The kid’s got the look.”
Neff made Force look like a genius by reaching the final round and taking out such notables as fellow Funny Car rookie Melanie Troxel, Mike Ashley and teammate Robert Hight to earn a berth in the final round against Wilkerson.
“We didn’t back our way into the final,” Neff said. “We made four good runs and we lost on a squeaker. It was a good drag race we just came up a little short,” said the former crew chief turned driver. “We aren’t greedy it was a great day for us in the Old Spice Ford Mustang camp.”
Force was beyond pleased with his newest driver’s performance.
“At the end of the day what makes it special win or lose is that it will always be Eric Medlen’s car,” Force said. “I just felt Eric was riding with him,” said the winningest driver in Funny Car history. “(Tim) Wilkerson is a great racer. It was his day and he got the win. It was some great racing for the fans. I thought we won that final it was side by side and both drivers left on time with 70 lights and both cars ran good. The fans in St. Louis got what they wanted. They got great side by side racing.”
JUST 997 MORE – If Mike Neff averages 50 round wins for the next two decades, he’ll reach 1,000 wins like his boss John
“It took a little longer than we had wanted,” Neff said. “This was the first round win for Old Spice and the Ford Boss 500. We’re just going to take them one at a time.”
KALITTA'S FLYING HORSES – Ever seen a horse fly? No, we’re not talking about the insect. A real life, thoroughbred horse – the four-legged can.
Top Fuel driver Doug Kalitta has. In fact, the 30-time national event winner facilitated the transportation for 14 horses to Louisville, Ky., for this weekend’s Kentucky Derby.
“I’ve got a contract with a gentleman who does all the race horse movements,” Kalitta said. “We were kidding around, you know I think with the horses if you end up not doing well you end up not getting the jet ride home and ride home on the trailer instead.”
The winner “Big Brown” flew aboard the Kalitta Flying Services jet.
“It’s a pretty cool deal for our company to be able to do that for those guys,” said Kalitta. “We fly about 120 hours a month, constantly moving horses, either race horses or show horses and it's a good piece of business for us.”
Kalitta’s plane is a specially adapted 727 devoted to transporting only horses. The plane is complete with walk-up ramps and stalls. This plane can carry as many as 21 horses comfortably.
“We try to make nice fragile turns when flying the horses, and nice gradual descents and climbs,” Kalitta added. “Don't have many problems with it really.”
Kalitta says no air-show stunts with the horses aboard because quite simply, as he puts it, half of the horses are worth ten times the aircraft. That led us to ask one important questions. Does Kalitta clean the stalls?
“We're contracted with someone that takes care of that,” Kalitta said. “We keep the plane in that configuration where we don't have to pull all this stuff out each time, about 6 days a week, we fly that, thing month in and month out.”
HERNANDEZ WINS AGAIN - Reigning JEGS ProMod Challenge champion Josh Hernandez had a strong return to St. Louis,
In a repeat of last year's final, Hernandez's AMS Staff Leasing Camaro blew the doors off Tony Pontieri's Quality Plus Compressors '57 Chevy to win with a 5.934 at 242.36 mph to Pontieri's 6.318 at 193.88 mph.
"It was exactly the same because those poor guys were over there swapping motors again before the final round, just like last year," Hernandez said. "This time they managed to get up there and give us a race and I was happy to see that. I told them we'd wait as long as we could because we all know what an engine swap is like when you're under the gun. Last year I had a single run, which is never as much fun.
"We had a little conflict last week and didn't get to race in Atlanta so we really felt a lot of pressure to come in here and earn as many points as possible. We did everything but set a national record and we managed to move back to where we were before Atlanta so we're very happy."
Hernandez got quicker in each elimination round, opening with a 6.006 against Brad Personett Saturday night before dismissing Jay Payne with a 5.994 and Danny Rowe with a 5.980 before crushing Pontieri in the final.
"The guys worked their tails off today," Hernandez said. "You have to push it to run those kinds of numbers and it was hard work to get to this winner's circle.
"We've got a great car here and we look at the computer after each round and see how we can tweak it. We never make big moves but we always try for more. Most teams have to back it down when the sun comes up but this car reacts well even in the heat. To run a 5.93 in the final pretty much says it all."
Pontieri's second runner-up finish of the year helped him move into first place in the JEGS ProMod Challenge standings. He is now 26 points ahead of Joe Baker, whom he defeated in Round 2. Eddie Ware is one back of Baker, while Hernandez jumped from 11th to fifth place on the day and now trails Pontieri by 81 markers.
Semifinalist Danny Rowe stole away the New York Motorsports Top Speed Award of the event with a 242.52-mph clocking. He'll pocket $500 for the achievement.
AN OPTICAL ILLUSION?
UGLY, UGLY – The first round of Pro Stock eliminations had a balance of the good, the bad and the ugly.
The good was a 6.581 elapsed time by Kurt Johnson in stopping Todd Hoerner in the first round. Greg Anderson (6.616), Jeg Coughlin (6.619), and Allen Johnson (6.624) all recorded impressive and quick victories.
The bad came when both Jason Line had a mechanical failure which resulted in his Summit Racing Equipment Pontiac G6 bursting in flames after leaving the starting line with a .007 reaction. Opponent John Nobile had shook the tires and aborted the run. He got back on the throttle after Line’s plight and won his first round of competition since returning from a tour of duty in IHRA Pro Stock.
Also falling under the bad category, through no fault of his, was when Rickie Jones scored his first NHRA Pro Stock round win after a bout with tire shake. He won with a 6.812 elapsed time at 205.85 miles per hour while recent Atlanta winner Mike Edwards shook the tires and lifted immediately.
The ugly came in the very first pair of Pro Stockers. V. Gaines and Greg Stanfield launched within .02 of one another and simultaneously encountered breakage which rendered the cars nothing more than coasters. Gaines won with a 9.327, 127.01 to beat out Stanfield’s 10.155, 117.80.
The interesting scenario was that Gaines earned lane choice over Nobile in the second round.
Some teams blamed the woes on an inconsistent application of traction compound for the Pro Stock cars.
“I think they just put too much VHT on the starting line,” said Terry Adams, crew chief for Edwards. “They did it to Greg [Anderson] in the semis and to us in the finals at Atlanta. The first three pairs of Pro Stockers are going to shake when you do that.
“Even when we go and test and there’s two or three of us, you expect to shake your first time until you get the VHT burned in. Then it’s fine. We need to do something about spraying so much in front of these Pro Stockers.”
Adams estimated the starting line crew put down VHT for the first 15 feet.
“There was just too much of it,” Adams said. “If there are bald spots and you put a bit of VHT and some rosin on it, that’s fine. When you put as much down as they did, it takes two or three to work it in.”
NO RUST HERE - Layoff? What layoff?
Dave Connolly didn’t drive Sunday like he gave the rest of NHRA’s Pro Stock category a five-race head start. His drive to a runner-up finish in his second 2008 outing did, however, remind all his rivals that he is back.
After qualifying third for the O’Reilly Midwest Nationals before a lot of visitors from his new sponsor, St. Louis-based Charter Communications, Connolly showed why he won eight times last year, including this race, and is one of the category’s top competitors.
He defeated Ron Krisher, Allen Johnson and Greg Anderson in workmanlike fashion to reach his 30th career title round, but a clutch problem at the starting line against Kurt Johnson foiled his chances of winning his 18th race.
The result was an uncharacteristically slow reaction time of .144 seconds, leaving Johnson with an advantage that couldn’t be overcome. It did, however, produce Connolly’s quickest and fastest run of the weekend in the Charter Communications Chevy Cobalt from Victor Cagnazzi Racing.
Johnson’s 6.631-second elapsed time at 208.79 beat Connolly’s 6.651 at 208.78.
Connolly called it an “interesting weekend; and it was fun,” he said, “but basically it was a test session for us each round. We were putting a new clutch in the car every round. It was the weirdest day I’ve ever seen in Pro Stock, that’s for sure.”
The fifth-year pro took full blame for the slow start, although not one of his teammates agreed. “I screwed it up. I just let the car go through the (starting) beams and as soon as I went to stop it, the tree was on and I was just dead late. We could’ve run with Kurt . . . it was a win we should’ve had.”
Connolly’s quick reaction time (.039 to .088) led to a hole-shot win over Krisher, 6.668 to 6.641, and he followed with a .034 reaction en route to decision over Allen Johnson.
His best reaction of the day came against Greg Anderson (.004 to .052). A clutch problem affected Connolly’s run and he slowed to 8.851 at 151.22 while Anderson aborted his attempt.
“All-in-all we were happy to take the three round wins and the runner-up for the second weekend out. We have to test before we go to Bristol (Tenn., May 16-18).”
Connolly now has 130 points and is 18th. Points will become important as he attempts to catch the pack over the next 11 races. The top 10 drivers will continue to the Countdown to the Championship following the U.S. Nationals, August 29-Sept. 1.
CLOSE CALL - A few years ago, NHRA officials expanded the timing system to a fourth decimal point so that races decided by less than one thousandth of a second would have a definitive winner. On Sunday afternoon at Gateway International Raceway, reigning series champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. and veteran Kurt Johnson almost needed another digit to decide who won their head-to-head race as their quarter-mile contest came down to one-10 thousandths of a second (.0001 seconds).
The almost imperceptible amount of time made the quarterfinal race, which favored Johnson, the closest drag race of the entire season in all four professional classes. In fact, Johnson's winning 6.620 at 209.33 mph shows up dead-even on video footage against Coughlin's 6.623 at 208.01 mph because Coughlin had a slight .011- to .014-second advantage at the starting line. It was a statistical tie.
"We were welded together out there and I thought I'd edged him right at the stripe," Coughlin said. "Then I glanced over and my win light wasn't on so I realized he'd taken the win. Holy mackerel that was close. That was a thrill no matter who won.
"Naturally, we wish we'd have gotten the win but I just don't know how you can be upset with the effort of this JEGS.com Chevrolet Cobalt or my race team. We've got a great car right now and we came as close as you can get to taking the win that round. It just wasn't our day. I'd imagine that race will be the closest of the year, even 17 events from now when it's all said and done."
A 52-time national event winner, Coughlin opened with a steady win over two-time champion Jim Yates. Coughlin left first -- .032 to .041 -- and never trailed, winning with a 6.619 at 208.01 mph to Yates' 6.623 at 206.57 mph.
"You have to go rounds every weekend to keep pace so at least we got another round win under our belts," Coughlin said. "We've got a weekend off now for Mother's Day so we'll use it to perform some maintenance on the racecar and get ready for Bristol. That's one of my favorite racetracks in the world so I'm already excited about the event."
STARTING THE DAY
DEPARTMENT OF RETURNS – Returning Funny Car racer Mike Ashley recapped his return weekend in five words: “It was a
He refused to give up after his Lend America/Gotham City Racing Dodge Charger R/T lost traction early in his opening round against Scott Kalitta. Kalitta’s car stumbled a bit, too, and Ashley mashed the throttle pedal down again. The tires hooked up and Ashley’s pursuit began.
Ashley got the win when he passed Kalitta at the finish line. His winning margin was 16-thousandths of a second; thanks to a 252.90 mph effort at 6.579 seconds to Kalitta’s coasting 6.622 at 138.12.
“I was just trying to stay with it, trying not to get on (the throttle) too much because I wanted to make it to the finish line. My team has done a great job with this car and I didn’t want to screw it up. But you know what the moral of the story is, you never quit. You just never, never, ever quit.”
8,000-HORSE DIRT TRACKING - The dirt track racing that Top Fuel driver Alan Bradshaw did earlier in the week at Tri-City
Bradshaw's best qualifying effort of a 4.550 at 318.24 resulted in a touch of drama.
"Something on the track cut the tire down yesterday," Bradshaw said. "The car got very loose and unstable as the tire deflated, but I still managed to get it to the finish line under power.
"Then in our last session we burned a piston going down the track and the increased pressure in the oil pan caused oil to get under my tires and got the car very loose. I'm just glad I got to drive the 'dirt cars' last Thursday because today felt a lot like driving a dirt car at 300 mph."
The wild run was just one chapter in a weekend chock full of excitement.
"This weekend has been pretty special already with the Russell family here," Bradshaw said. "But taking Darrell's image with us on a winning lap would be even more special. We also have both my firesuit, and helmet on eBay right now to bid on.”
Bradshaw went on to win the first round of competition with a holeshot victory over J.R. Todd before losing a tough battle opposite of Tony Schumacher.
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SATURDAY NOTEBOOK – COOLER CONDITIONS LEAD TO HEATED QUALIFYING
MIXED EMOTIONS FOR GRUBNIC – If someone was going to take the Gateway International Raceway track record away from
“He was a great friend and a great racer,” Grubnic said after setting a new record.
“I can’t say enough about how great my team is,” said Grubnic, a 45-year old resident of Ennis, Mont. “Connie (Kalitta, crew chief and team owner) and James (Riola, co-crew chief) and all my guys have been working so hard, and our No. 1 in St. Louis is a testament to that. We’ve got all the great people from the St. Louis Carpenters’ Unions out here supporting us this weekend, and this a fantastic way of showing them how much we appreciate what they are doing for us and everything they’ve done for the St. Louis area.”
Conditions were close to perfect for Grubnic to pull off the feat. In fact, before Grubnic made his pace-setting 4.467, 319.90 run, the track record fell twice in consecutive pairs preceding him.
Hillary Will [4.502] and Tony Schumacher [4.495] preceded Grubnic’s momentous run. This is the first time Grubnic has paced the field since Gainesville in 2005.
“We knew what we could get away with today, but tomorrow we have to do it four times,” Grubnic said. “I was surprised there wasn’t some 4.47s out there. I thought for sure we would have seen a few more 4.49s.”
Grubnic races Luigi Novelli in the first round.
NOT QUITE UPPER DECK – Greg Anderson made a profound statement Friday evening. The three-time world champion said
Fellow KB Racing driver Jason Line made Anderson’s words prophetic as he drove his way to the top of the field with a 6.571 elapsed time at 209.23 miles per hour. Anderson settled for the second spot with a 6.590, 208.49.
The accomplishment is fitting for Line who is having the time of his life drag racing again.
“Someone in our shop said attitude affects everything and I really try to enjoy everything I’m doing,” Line said. “The hardest thing for me is being away from my family. If I have to be away from them, I might as well be good at what I’m doing.”
“I can honestly say that I’m having more fun that I’ve ever had now,” Line added. “That really makes a big difference.”
Line admitted he left something on the table today but won’t do the same in Sunday’s final eliminations.
“It was just a good run but not an upper deck shot,” Line admitted. “I think the difference is that everyone else didn’t make as good of a run. There are teams out there capable of running that quick. They just missed it a little and we were fortunate to make it in there.”
ANDERSON’S VERSION OF THE FORCE STORY – Recently, Funny Car icon John Force described his encounter with Pro Stock
Force said Anderson intimidated him so badly that he left the gym after seeing 300 pounds loaded on the bench press.
“No one can ever accuse John Force of ever exaggerating much, he probably built the exaggeration factor quite a bit, but he tells a good story no doubt about it,” Anderson said, pausing to laugh.
Anderson said there was no reason for Force to be embarrassed because the 14-time champion has plenty to be proud of.
“I was shocked to see him in the gym,” Anderson said. “Force was giving all he's got; I'll give him that. That's why he's back. He's giving one-hundred percent, there's no question his age is probably showing a bit, so is mine and so is a lot of peoples but he's giving 100% trying to get to the top of his game.
“I kind of thought myself maybe there wouldn't be much fire left in the guy, I was wrong, when I saw him in the gym that day I realized the fire is still there. He's going to come back 100% and he’ll be as good, even better than he ever was. Hey my hat's off to the kid.”
Force called a kid?
“The bottom line is we were both in the gym, both doing what we have to do and that's why we're there because we both want to win so bad. We want to prove it. We want to work at it harder than any other guy, that's why we're in the gym,” Anderson said. “He's older than I am and he was working every bit as hard; if not harder than I was. He's amazing.”
But, can Anderson really press 300?
“It was definitely under, definitely take the under on that one,” Anderson answered.
THE MISSING MAN – Pro Stock racer V. Gaines is racing this weekend a crew chief short of a full team. His longtime wrench
Gaines said he’s genuinely missing West this weekend, but he and the team have bonded together to run the car in his absence.
“Clyde is in the hospital and he’s gonna be out of commission for a little while,” Gaines said. “We’ve all banded together and we’ve tried to fill in his job as well as ours. Hopefully we won’t screw up anything he’s done.”
This is the first time in a long time he’s raced without West.
‘It’s been so long I can’t remember when the last time was,” Gaines admitted. “We can’t replace him but we can certainly get through the weekend.”
Gaines said he’s keeping West in the loop as much as he feels appropriate.
“This is his life,” Gaines said. “We’re keeping him up to date, but he’s a sick puppy right now.”
Gaines is still celebrating his win from Phoenix earlier this season. He won the race largely on quicker starting line reactions.
“You have to win a round or two every weekend,” Gaines said. “You have to be consistent. In the past, the racers overlooked us because the lights maybe weren’t that great. Phoenix changed that. They are on to us now.”
Gaines said the car is still reacting quickly and he’s got West and the crew to thank for that.
“This car is so lightning quick, I believe Helen Keller could cut a light in it.”
LET THE FISH EAT – NHRA Pro Stock Bike rider Matt Smith tied his Gateway International Track record during the second day
Thus far this season, every rider who has qualified on the pole has won the race. Smith won his event in Houston.
As much as Smith enjoys riding quick and winning, he’s getting more gratification in winning for sponsor Kenny Koretsky and his NitroFish brand.
Koretsky stepped in and sponsored Smith when sponsor Torco Race Fuels suspended their sponsorship programs in 2008. A longtime friendship between his dad Rickie Smith and Koretsky went a long way in making the program happen.
“If it hadn’t been for Kenny, I would have been done after one race,” said Koretsky. “I want to really step up and win a championship for Kenny.”
SCHOOL'S OUT ON SUNDAY
CHECKING HIS LIST – Funny Car racer Mike Neff has a list of things he expects to experience in his driving career, but last
“A little sooner in my career than I wanted to,” Neff said of the experience. “That was an experience that opened my eyes as to what can happen and how to deal with that.
Neff was scared, however he didn’t panic. He did get a little perturbed though. The aggravation stems from his running into former Don Schumacher Racing associate Gary Scelzi.
Getting over into Gary’s lane bothered me the most,” Neff admitted. “The oil and fire extinguisher solution got under the tires and made the car feel like I was driving on an ice skating rink.”
Neff has proven to be a quick study under the tutelage of Funny Car legend John Force and talented tuner John Medlen.
“I’ll definitely get on the brakes less than I did and just try to keep everything as straight as I can,” Neff said. “I couldn’t see anything and the situation could have been a lot worse.”
Now that he’s experienced fire, how does Neff explain the experience to another rookie who has yet to catch on fire?
“When you’re on the inside, you just want to get the car stopped and get out of there,” Neff explained. “You’re directly in the middle of ten seconds of panic. You start to get hot sitting in there. You don’t know how much hotter you’re going to get. It gets real scary in a hurry.”
Neff is taking notes, and the pages are continually updated.
“Every time I make a run, I learn something new,” Neff said. “You don’t get a chance to train for a fire; it’s like getting thrown in a lake when you can’t swim. You learn how to swim. The same thing with driving a car, you just learn how to deal with the tires smoking at a certain point in the track. The same holds true for tire shake and putting a cylinder out. You just learn this stuff with more runs. You never know how you’re going to react until you experience it. After that happens, I always go back and wonder what I could have done to make things better.”
He’s also conscious of his quickly growing fan base. Neff is also getting up to speed on working with them, although the learning curve isn’t nearly as complex.
“It just takes time to get into a groove with the fans,” Neff said. “That makes it easy and you get to meet some interesting people. You meet those first time people who are just happy to be here at the races. It’s nice to be able to sign something for a kid. If it helps somebody’s day, it always leaves you with a good feeling.”
Neff is experiencing those good feelings every time he suits up to drive the Old Spice Funny Car. He’s still wondering how he’s managed the good fortunes that have come his way.
“Not in a million years,” Neff said, when discussing whether or not he saw this scenario while tuning for DSR. “It was one of those things you’d never envision because it seems so far fetched. It’s kind of like going to the moon, that’d be cool too. But that would never happen.”
Then again, he works for John Force where anything is possible.
HE SAID IT, NOT US – Bob Vandergriff, Jr. loves to tell it like it is. The UPS-sponsored driver stepped up his performance greatly in Saturday’s first session and his run greatly overshadowed Friday’s effort. His post-run interview said it all.
“You try to sugarcoat things down here, but yesterday we just sucked. Vandergriff said.
STILL REVELING THE GLORY – Gary Scelzi was still celebrating his Dirt Modified victory from Thursday on Saturday. The
“I thought I was pretty hot stuff in practice and in the heat race, because I did a really good job, but in the main I was like Ray Charles out there,” Scelzi said. “I went in the first turn so hard I spun that thing around and there were cars going everywhere. All I can tell you was there was a lot of mayhem at the end. There were four cars that finished and somehow I went all the way to the back and worked my way all the way back to the front by either demolition or luck or whatever, but I won it, it's the first one I ever won of any of these things I do.
“I'm going to cherish it.”
CARNAGE ON THE STRIP – Scelzi saw carnage at Atlanta Dragway last week when his former crew chief turned driver caught fire and cross into his lane. He’s no stranger to catching on fire and immediately becomes concerned when he sees another driver in trouble.
“Your heart stops; your heart stops even if you don't know the guy,” Scelzi said. “Some people make jokes about fires or they make jokes about crashes. When you've been around this as long as I have and you've seen people not come back it's not a joke. I find humor in a lot of things, but I find no humor even when they get out okay. It's not funny. And I have a hard time joking about that in an interview or when someone else does it kinda makes my blood boil.”
Scelzi performed a masterful job of avoiding Neff who slid in front of him. He got on the brakes and slide around his lane, barely grazing the wall.
“Let’s just say it was lucky,” Scelzi said in avoiding Neff. “You know it's just one of those things where I did everything right, Mike did everything right and we missed. Sometimes you do everything right and you don't miss. I’ve learned you can drive pretty good scared.”
Scelzi is quick to point out that if Neff would have been on fire and stopped next to him, he’d have been out of his own car in record time.
“I would have dove in after him in a heartbeat,” Scelzi said. “Fortunately for NHRA, the Safety Safari are second to none. They were on us so fast, I've crashed so many times I got my own decade of thrills tape, and they've been on me before I stopped sliding.”
WHAT FRIENDS ARE FOR – Pro Modified driver Danny Rowe used to drive as a teammate with Mike Ashley under the Gotham
On Friday evening when Rowe crashed his 1968 Camaro, Ashley stepped up with a replacement ride. Rowe was able to qualify second using Ashley’s car and went on to win Saturday’s first round of eliminations.
“Mike came by and offered us a car, and we really had to think about it but we're very fortunate being in the Pro Mod community here is amazing,” Rowe said. “You know I was probably offered five or six cars after the crash which is really nice; there are a lot of good people racing at the JEG Pro Mod series. We're excited to be involved in it.
“The car Mike's got right now is the sister to the car I crashed last night so we figured it would be the closest to what we already had and what we knew and give us an opportunity to go up there and try to qualify and make this race.”
Ashley didn’t hesitate to offer the car to Rowe.
“Danny Rowe is an old friend of mine,” Ashley said. “I care for Danny and I love his family, and I would do anything for him, and I think he would do the same for me. He needed a car. I had a car. There was no reason why he shouldn't have been driving it.”
Rowe was one of two drivers who crashed during the Friday evening session. He’s still at a loss determining what caused the accident.
“I really don't know what happened,” Rowe admitted. “The car left pretty good and it was a little bit soft. We were going along, I stuck it in second gear, hit the tire pretty hard, spun a little bit moved me a bit toward the guard rail but I thought it was okay. As we're going up to the top of second gear, it just started bouncing real hard. I thought if I drive through and break the clutch loose it would be okay, but as soon as I pulled the next gear the thing went crazy and it made a hard left on me and picked up the wall.”
MR. GENEROSITY – Ashley has been in a generous mood this week. He gave away $250,000 to Amanda and Wesley Michno
One has to wonder what giving away a quarter-million dollars feel like.
“It feels better than you can ever imagine,” Ashley said. “It's a fantastic feeling to be able to help a family. Thank God he blessed me with the ability to help a beautiful family like the Michnos. They are a family that can use help and they are a family that deserves help. I just want to thank God for being able to be in that position, and that's what it feels like, it feels great.”
A year ago, Ashley kicked off the program using drag racing as a primary marketing avenue.
“We wanted to go out and tell people we thought it was a good idea to refinance your house and pay off your credit card debt, consolidate your debt and pay it off,” Ashley explained. “Most people were resistant because they felt like they didn't want to pay with their credit cards on there house and pay them over 30 years but we showed them that with minimum payments you're going to owe on them for 30 years anyway.
“Besides that they would average interest rate at 16%, and if they refinanced they could get lets say a 5 and 1/2 or 6% interest rate and instead the opposite was true. They could take the savings and instead of making the banks and credit card companies rich they could take that savings and make a monthly prepayment on there mortgage and pay their mortgage off ten to fifteen years earlier. We named the program Home Free and in order to generate interest we said we were so sure we could help plenty of people across America for one year we're going to have a program where anybody who calls in and lets us just give you the information, you don't even have to do a loan with us, we'll enter you into a contest to win $250.000.00, and over the year 30,000 people called into that.
“It's interesting that we gave out $250,000.00 and to a great family I might add, but was more interesting was we helped thousands of families actually refinance their house which was even more gratifying and rewarding.”
WHAT CAN BIG BROWN DO FOR YOU? - Similar to Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown, Antron Brown’s Matco Tools dragster
Brown qualified the Matco Tools dragster fourth with a performance of 4.517-seconds.
A two-time winner this season, including last Sunday in Commerce, Ga., Brown qualified the Matco Tools/iLocate GPS dragster in the top half of the field for the fifth time this season.
He entered the day sitting second in the 16-car order after racing the bright blue Matco-backed dragster to a run of 4.521 at 328.86 on Friday evening. On his only attempt on Saturday afternoon, Brown erased the two-year-old track speed mark (330.55 mph – Doug Kalitta) by using Lee Beard horsepower to clock a pass of 4.517 at 331.94 in the Matco Tools/Go Fast dragster. Brown earned top speed of the meet honors last Sunday at Atlanta Dragway (330.47 mph).
“Lee (Beard) had her hopped up; that was a strong run,” Brown said. “I felt like Big Brown cruising down the backstretch at Churchill Downs running that 331 mph on that last pass. This Matco Tools team continues to give me a great race car. That run was second quick of the session and we continue to put some big speeds on the board. Brandon (Bernstein) will be tough, but they’re all tough out here in Top Fuel.”
ALMOST A RECORD - Former series champion Jay Payne shattered the Gateway International Raceway elapsed time record
Payne's pass was the quickest of his career and is second only to Josh Hernandez's 5.914, which was posted last year in Gainesville, Fla.
Should Payne better Hernandez's year-old mark during Sunday's action, he'll pick up a valuable 20 bonus points in the JEGS standings, which have tightened considerably in the last seven days. Hernandez himself will have the first chance to slow Payne and his Valvoline Camaro down as the two champs tangle in Round 2.
Season-long leader Joe Baker is still on top after beating Taylor Lastor in round one, but Payne, Tony Pontieri, and Eddie Ware could all pass him Sunday if the wins go their way.
The most interesting match-up of the quarterfinals will pit Pontieri against Baker with the No. 1 ranking on the line. Pontieri was second quickest of the first round with a 5.980 so Baker, who got by Taylor Lastor with a 6.324, will need to rise to the challenge.
Ware, meanwhile, faces Scott Ray, who he out-paced by three hundredths of a second in the first session.
The other quarterfinal races will have comeback kid Danny Rowe racing Kirk Kuhns.
HADMAN CHASSIS RESPONDING – Gary Scelzi is getting the performance from his Brad Hadman chassis he’d hoped for
"Well, it's the quickest we've been in the Hadman car," said Scelzi. "It's the quickest we've been all year long. The Mopar/Oakley Dodge is handling great. It's staying in the middle of the groove, even with the wind and all the rest of the stuff. And Todd (Okuhara, crew chief) is just kind of playing with it.
"What a field. Man, besides Wilkerson's (No. 1) 4.744, everybody is jammed in there between a .79 and an. 81," added Scelzi of the 16-car field that is separated by a mere .08 of a second. "It's going to be interesting tomorrow. It's anybody's game. It's almost like racing Pro Stock. So, I like our chances. I feel good. I've had good luck here before; I hope we have go luck tomorrow."
Scelzi faces Cruz Pedregon in the opening round of eliminations on Sunday.
CAPPS VERSUS FORCE WITH 1,000 ON THE LINE – John Force has denied Ron Capps a championship many times. In
Force will have to beat Capps if he wants to win his 1,000th round win.
"The NAPA team did all that hard work to post four good runs in a row that all went down the track, and we're rewarded by getting 'the Champ' in the first round," smiled Capps. "You've got to race him eventually, so I think we're ready.”
Capps' career record against Force is 17-38 in round wins. He's won nine of the last 11 meetings against Force, and has won the last four first-round match-ups over Force. This is their fourth meeting at Gateway, with Force leading 2-1 in those match-ups. The only other time the pair raced in the first round at Gateway was in 2005, and Capps won.
“Obviously, I had to get in (the show) for my 59th birthday tomorrow,” Force said. “If I’d have missed out, that would have been a bummer (but) the race car doesn’t know it’s your birthday. You just have to make it run.”
Either way, Capps expects to make history on Sunday.
"The one thing about racing John," Capps said, "there's always a chance you'll be a footnote in history. He's broken so many records and done so many things in the sport."
COMING INTO HIS OWN
ONE FOR THE SUZUKI - Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Chip Ellis showcased a performance improvement for the Suzuki brand as
Under overcast, cold and windy conditions, Ellis recorded his quickest pass of the weekend, a 6.907-second run at 191.62 mph, in Saturday's first session, which was followed by a nearly identical 6.907/191.27 in the final round. The No. 1 position he earned Friday night was surpassed, however, by Matt Smith, who claimed the pole with a 6.901/190.32.
Ellis began the weekend with an elapsed time of 7.048-seconds at 185.66 mph, good for No. 7 at the time, then improved by almost a tenth of a second in his second pass, recording an outstanding 6.957/190.22 to propel him into the provisional No. 1 spot on Friday night.
In a rematch of the opening round in Atlanta last Sunday, Ellis will meet Junior Pippen in round one on Sunday .
"It's a comforting feeling to know that the Schumacher Electric Suzuki is running really strong," said Ellis. "We actually lost probably a hundredth of a second on that last run. There's a little bump out there and I hit that and the bike wiggled a little bit.
"I think the way the NHRA has the weight structured right now there's a lot of parity. The fastest Harley, the fastest Suzuki and the fastest Buell are all within a hundredth or two (of a second) of each other every race. It's going to be up to the other Suzukis to get to work like (crew chief) Steve Tartaglia has. He works on these motors like nobody I've ever seen. He's a hard-working guy.
"I have to take my hat off to Steve and the guys working on this bike because they're the ones who are making it really easy for me. Thanks to Schumacher Electric, Matco Tools, NAPA and all the people who are making this happen. It's a real team effort and I'm the one who gets all the glory, but my team deserves it just as much as me."
The windy conditions during Saturday's qualifying rounds didn't faze Ellis.
"The wind didn't affect us at all today," he explained. "There are a lot of motor homes lining the track at the top end and the bikes are so low that they're not really sticking up above the wall like the cars. We've made four very straight runs this weekend and I'm just looking forward to tomorrow. I'm really pleased with our performance. On each run we left a little bit out there and in a perfect world we probably could have run a 6.88. The air is supposed to be pretty close to what it is today on Sunday so we'll go out there and tune it up and I'll tune myself up and we'll see what happens."
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FRIDAY NOTEBOOK – FEMALE DRIVERS DOMINATE FUNNY CAR, MINESHAFT CONDITIONS EXPECTED FOR SATURDAY
IT’S A WOMAN’S WORLD, DEAL WITH IT – One race after placing the first female Funny Car driver into the winner’s circle, the
Melanie Troxel drove the Gotham City Racing Funny Car to the provisional No. 1 qualifying position with a 4.802 elapsed time at 327.59 miles per hour.
Friday’s positive experience follows consecutive DNQ efforts for Troxel.
“We knew we had way too good of a team to be performing the way we were performing,” said Troxel. “We knew it was just a matter of time before things came through for us and it came at a track that’s been good to me personally.”
This is Troxel's seventh Funny Car race after switching from Top Fuel. She won the Top Fuel title at Gateway a year ago. She started the season by qualifying third at Pomona, Calif., with a 4.810-second time, but the team has struggled since.
“It makes it all the more sweet to get this turned around,” Troxel said. “We came out in Pomona and looked like we were going to run strong and then we fell off the pace, a good portion of that was my inexperience as a driver. We struggled with the car for a little bit, but through it all we never wavered in our belief.
“We stuck together as a team and it was that positive energy that led me to want to become a part of this team. I think we’ve rounded the corner now.”
LESS THAN PERFECT RUN – Troxel knew her provisional top effort was an exciting ride but didn’t figure the run would be as
”I would never have guessed that run would become a No. 1 qualifier,” Troxel admitted. “The car left the starting line and then made a hard left. I made a couple of corrections to get it straightened out.”
Troxel almost lifted on the run because of the movement in the lane.
“I almost did,” Troxel confirmed. “If it would have gone a little bit more over, I was going to. Luckily, it just straightened out and I just thought that the run was a crazy one. I never would have guessed a No. 1. “
NEW SCENERY, POSITIVE RESULT - Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Chip Ellis rode the Schumacher Electric Suzuki to the provisional
Ellis started the weekend with an elapsed time of 7.048-seconds at 185.66 mph to finish the windy first session in the No. 7 position. He returned for his second qualifying attempt and roared to a 6.957/190.22, improving by almost a tenth of a second to move into the No. 1 qualifying spot after two of four qualifying rounds.
"What a great day for Don Schumacher Racing," said a pleased Ellis following the second session. "As tough as the competition is anymore it doesn't matter if you're No. 1 or 16; you can still win. I am just really pleased with that run. On the first run we knew we left a lot in it. The track looked a lot better than we thought it was. For the second round we got it tuned up and it's running great.
A SUZUKI? NO WAY – Maybe there is parity after all in Pro Stock Motorcycle. For the first time in 2008, a Suzuki leads the provisional qualifying for Pro Stock Motorcycle.
Ellis joined the Don Schumacher racing Suzuki team after many successful seasons aboard a V-twin Buell.
“It means a lot and with the way the NHRA has the weight structure, there’s a lot of parity,” Ellis said. “If you look at the fastest Harley, the fastest Suzuki and the fastest Buell, they are all within a hundredth or two. It’s gonna have to be up to the rest of the other Suzuki teams to get to work like Steve Tartaglia has.”
“We worked well beyond midnight on Wednesday night still running the dyno and back at 8 am the next morning trying to find that extra bit of horsepower. That’s how he is, he works non-stop.”
LARGEST FACTOR TO HIS SUCCESS – Ellis admitted a good portion of his success in 2008 can be attributed to more focus on the task at hand.
“I’ve had a lot of work taken off of my shoulders,” Ellis said. “Used to, I’d have to drive the truck and then I’d have to take care of customers and then I’d have to work on the bike. For the first time in my life and for that matter, my career, I’ve been able to focus on my riding. It’s paying off big dividends. My lights have been really good. I work hard at the shop but when I come to the race track, if someone needs help, they’ll ask me, but otherwise they just leave me alone.”
WASTED MOTIONS – Greg Anderson went through the motions of Friday qualifying although his efforts are likely for naught.
The impressive runs were a positive byproduct of a day many never expected to happen.
“We didn’t even think we were going to get to run, so Friday just became a bonus day,” Anderson said. “No matter what we would have run today, it likely won’t hold up on Saturday. Friday was a good tuning day and the pressure was off. You just go up there and throw whatever you wanted at the car.”
“We gained a lot from the first to the second run today. The weather changed major league from first to second round today.”
Anderson said most teams picked up from .06 to .07 just because the air dried out during the intermission.
“You’re going to see more of that tomorrow as it gets drier and cooler,” Anderson added. “It’ll probably be 15 degrees cooler. They’re going to pick up a lot and we are licking our chops waiting for it to happen.
“It’s been a while since I’ve been able to jump to the top of the pack,” Anderson said. “I feel pretty good and I am somewhat disappointed the weather is going to change.”
THREE OF FOUR FOR FORCE – Three of John Force’s four teams are in the provisional fields.
After the firsts session Force was in the No. 2 position and she slipped one spot in the second session when fellow female flopper driver Melanie Troxel out distanced her in a spectacular side by side match-up. Getting two good runs back to back on the heels of her first win has given the sophomore driver a big boost in confidence heading into Saturday.
“We are excited with both our runs today. Usually our pattern has seemed to be our first run on Friday isn’t that great and then we step it up. To get a great run in the first session today and wind up No. 2 and then to get another great run in the other lane gives us a lot of confidence. The guys were excited and I’m looking forward to tomorrow,” said the 2007 Rookie of the Year. “We are pretty secure in the field so that gives Guido and Ron (crew chiefs Dean Antonelli and Ron Douglas) the chance to be more daring if they want. If we smoke the tires we still have another shot and we should still be in good shape.”
Team leader John Force and his Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang team took a much more aggressive approach to the second session and unfortunately the gamble did not pay off as the 14-time champion smoked the tires to wrap up his first day of qualifying.
“We just amped up my Castrol Mustang for that second run and it wouldn’t go for us. The conditions were changing really fast and we just didn’t get it exactly right,” said the winningest driver in NHRA history.”
The Castrol GTX High Mileage team had made an impressive run in the first session and it was strong enough to keep the 1996 Driver of the Year in the critical Top 12 as he races for his 1,000th round win on Sunday.
“We are excited to be in the show and racing with AAA Missouri on our hot rod. Ashley is doing good and Mike Neff is in the show. Robert and Auto Club will be all right. We’ll go out and get them tomorrow,” added Force.
Rookie of the Year contender Mike Neff and his Old Spice Ford Mustang made a major move up the ladder jumping from 17th to 11th after two rounds of qualifying. Neff is trying to keep his qualifying streak - currently a team leading eight straight events – alive.
“The second session was better but not as good as we wanted. It was on a lot better run than that. I felt something down there and I lifted,” said the former world champion crew chief turned driver. “It felt like it quit pulling and it kind of started to nose over and I lifted. We brought it back and looked at the computer but it looked OK. It wasn’t perfect but I think I should have stayed with it.”
“With the conditions improving tomorrow I think we can step it up. Everything is running good and I think I might have been a little gun shy because of what happened in Atlanta. I’ll stay in it next time for sure.”
WELCOME BACK, DAVE – Pro Stock ace Dave Connolly returned to competition last weekend in Atlanta, Georgia after missing
“We’re just taking it once race at a time and we didn’t get off to the best of starts last weekend,” Connolly said. “Unfortunately we didn’t have time to test before we came in here.”
Connolly estimates he’ll need at least a minimum of a semi-final finish in the remaining eleven events to make up for the first five races he missed.
“If we do, that’s great – but if we don’t, that’s fine too because I’m having fun just being out here,” Connolly said.
Connolly admitted he’s been putting in time on the practice tree knowing the monumental challenge ahead of him.
“After last weekend, I saw quite a bit of rust I needed to shake off,” Connolly said. “The whole field has tightened up and you’re having to demand on reaction times more than ever now. There are too many good drivers out here and I can’t afford to be the weak link.
“I’ve gotten on the practice tree and I’ve been working my butt off to get back into the swing.”
Connolly did spend the off-weekends racing his Super Comp dragster.
“Yeah, but in that car I was leaving off of button,” Connolly admitted. “In reality, I have to work on the focus factor.”
STILL SOME HEADSHAKING – Pro Stock driver Mike Edwards is already studying what is required of him in order to become the first pro Stock driver to win back-to-back races in 2008.
“You just go in and hope you can stay in the mix from the last race,” Edwards described his outlook on the weekend’s event. “On Sunday, you just never know what’s going to happen. That’s why you just pull up there and do the best you can because anything can happen. I’m proof of that.”
So convinced the class is a crap shoot, Edwards didn’t have an inkling he was going to win Atlanta until the end. He did have an idea after the first round of elimination.
“I knew we were making good power, but I had no idea we were going to win the event. We were making good runs and that’s what you have to do if you want to win one of these races. When I went low for the round, I thought to myself if I could just get up on it and drive; I knew I had a chance to win.
“Fortunately we were able to do that and do something good for a change. We’ve struggled, yet run good. We just couldn’t ever get it together on Sunday. I was just happy for my team because those guys work really hard.”
SAVING SOME FOR TOMORROW – Rod Fuller paced the field on Friday’s opening qualifying effort. The six-time NHRA Top Fuel winner used a tune-up from crew chief Rob Flynn to cruise the Gateway quarter mile in 4.566 seconds at 323.04 mph to lead the order after the first qualifying session. Under the lights at the multi-purpose facility, Fuller drove his Flynn-tuned rail to the fourth quickest pass of the day. The Las Vegas racer clocked a pass of 4.541 at 321.50 to claim the provisional No. 4 qualifying spot.
Fuller now has made eight consecutive full passes including last weekend’s event at Atlanta Dragway in Commerce, Ga.
“We made two solid runs today and eight good runs in a row,” Fuller said. “After our inconsistency early in the year, Rob Flynn scaled the car back to try and get it more consistent thinking both Atlanta and St. Louis would be hot, but surprisingly it has been pretty cool and fast. I think we accomplished a lot. We weren’t swinging for the fences on the first run. It takes the pressure off when you make a good pass. Prior to Atlanta, we’ve been struggling making solid runs. We didn’t need to go for it tonight because we anticipate the conditions being better on Saturday.”
HOMETOWN HUMBLING - It was a troublesome day of qualifying for hometown favorite, Funny Car racer Tim Wilkerson. He
On both of Friday’s passes Wilkerson had a good run going early, but ran into troubles down the track. On the first pass, he dropped a cylinder around half track and posted a 4.883 at 301.27. On the night pass, Wilkerson hit a small bump and got pushed out of the groove. He had to pull his foot to avoid hitting the wall. Here he only ran 4.912 at 260.86 mph. At the end of the day’s activities, these runs put Wilkerson in the No. 12 qualifying spot.
“It was running pretty good early on both runs,” explained Wilkerson, “but on both runs we had a mishap and put a hole out. I just need to get that nailed down. I think if we put some new ignition coils on it, I think that should help us out. But it was running good early, good enough to be low E.T. of both rounds. On our last run, there’s a little bobble out there and when I went over it, it washed it out and spun the tire. It scooted me out of the groove and I got out of it so I wouldn’t hit the wall.
“But it’s showing good promise though, good enough to be one of the top two or three cars. We just need to get it down to the end on all eight holes. Hopefully, we’ll go out tomorrow and keep our heads on straight and not let all our St. Louis hoopla get in our way. Like I said it was running good early but sometimes you’re the bug and sometimes you’re the windshield. Today we were the bug.”
NIGHT OF COLD AND CRASHES - Canadian Pro Modified racer Tony Pontieri shook off some unseasonable cold weather Friday
JEGS ProMod Challenge newcomer Alex Hossler was the first to contact the retaining wall at the start of the second session. His accident was followed a few pairs later by Danny Rowe's top-end wreck, which caused a lengthy clean-up. As temperatures continued to drop, five cautious racers decided to pull out and head back to the pits without a second attempt.
The first to call it a day was current JEGS ProMod Challenge champion Josh Hernandez, who posted a class-leading 6.046 at 235.19 mph in Round 1. His time ended up as the second best of the day.
Kirk Kuhns, who also skipped Round 2, was third with a 6.050 at 234.78 mph. Roger Burgess, another defector, stayed fourth with a 6.101 at 236.92 mph in his ProCare Rx Corvette.
Shelly Payne represents the bump with a 8.411 in her Valvoline Stratus. She'll likely need to improve in Saturday afternoon's final qualifying session to stay in the race.
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