NHRA TORCO NATIONALS - Event Notebook
Host of an NHRA national event from 1995 to 2000, Virginia Motorsports Park was the site of the first 200-mph Pro
Stock pass. Keep up with this weekend's action through our behind-the-scenes notebook.
Need this one - Cory McClenathan needed this victory to break a slump for the Carrier Boyz team.
“It has been so long since we’ve won,” said McClenathan, of Lake Havasu City, Ariz., who last won in May 2004 at Atlanta. It was the 29th victory in 49 final rounds for the veteran competitor.“We did not have the best car out there, but we had the smartest guys working on it,” he continued. “Wes (Cerny, team crew chief), Tony (Shortall, assistant crew chief) and all the guys did a great job today. Wes made sure the car got down the race track, especially in the final round. We knew Fuller had a good car and we didn’t want to make any mistakes.
McClenathan said he felt a comfort zone at VMP “because I’ve done well here and I felt my confidence build after each round win.” He ousted David Baca in the quarterfinals (4.723 at 300.33 to 11.993 at 76.15) and marched into the finale with a perfectly-executed throttle-pedaling, tire-smoking decision over series point leader Doug Kalitta in the semifinals (6.984 at 227.80 to 8.336 at 111.89).
The victory also put McClenathan back in the top 10 at No. 9. He has 970 points and is just nine points behind eighth-place Morgan Lucas with two more races remaining – at Las Vegas, Oct. 27-29, and Pomona, Calif., Nov. 9-12.
Despicable – Nothing makes for a sicker feeling within the drag racing community than the theft of equipment. Kenny Koretsky’s Werner Enterprises team was hit on Saturday following qualifying. One of the team’s $15,000 clutch units was stolen.
Koretsky is amazed by the theft because the unit is only compatible with a fuel dragster or funny car.
“I don’t even think they knew what they were getting,” Koretsky said. “If they did know what they were getting, they still have to get it certified and everything is traceable back to us.”
Koretsky filed a police report on Sunday.
Down Goes Schumacher – Tony Schumacher hasn’t lost in the first round since the Chicago race in June. David Baca got the best of him today.
“We’re not quitting by any means,” said Schumacher. “We’re going to go out and try to win these last two races. And, you never know what can happen in terms of the world championship. If we take care of our own business and get a little help along the way we just might end up at the top?”
Three times a Force - Eric Medlen became the second Team Castrol driver in three races to win wire-to-wire, negotiating a tricky racing surface at Virginia Motorsports Park to drive the Castrol SYNTEC Ford Mustang past the Chevrolet of Cruz Pedregon in the final round of the inaugural Torco Race Fuels Nationals.
Oh No – Not My MANHOOD – There was a scary moment in the semifinals when 13-time champion John Force exited his burning car and fell limp onto the racing surface. After a few tense moments, he rose to his feet with an obvious injury to his leg.
“I have the greatest firesuit in the world from Simpson…but my old stuff that I laundered was half the weight,” Force said. “My crew guy kept telling me that if I had a fire I was going to get burned. When you’re old…you think you’re Superman. The old heap lit on fire. I thought I had it covered with the fire bottles. It went up my leg.
“The fire usually goes out when you hit the bottles. I jumped out of the car because it was burning me. My body is almost perfect at 57.”
Force began counting points with his leg still ailing.
“I messed it up against Capps,” Force continued. “You and Robert are still on my tail. Good ole Coil and I won a lot of championships on fire,” Force said. “I think God is giving us an omen how it is going to be down to the wire.”
Guess what race fans? Force will have a new firesuit in Las Vegas and he’s still a man.
“I’m going to have to get a new firesuit,” Force added. “They cut up the leg of my firesuit. They kept cutting. I thought they were going to cut my family jewels.”
Report Card - Following his first-ever round victory behind the wheel of a Funny Car, drag racing school instructor Jack Beckman was asked to give himself a grade. He responded with a C.
“I think I’m average and with enough lap time I will be good eventually,” Beckman said. “The only thing that happened right for me in the first round is the win light came on. When my light flashed green – my brain said to go. My boot just didn’t get the word.
“Fortunately for us Del had some problems but we got down the track, which is easier said than done. It’s really tricky out there and I don’t have a lot of experience to base this on. These cars are spinning the tires on the top end.
“We had a fire last night and the crew worked late into the night. We had some glitches on the warm-up but no one lost their cool. We just worked hard to get it fixed. We took a bad hot rod to the line today.”
Top end PA reporter Alan Reinhart graded Beckman a “C” on the interview.
Alligator Tears – Scott Kalitta was the giant slayer on Sunday when he took out Ron Capps in the first round. He sounded almost remorseful until his competitive Kalitta spirit came out.
“That Ron Capps is a good guy and he’s having a tough time in this points chase. I know…I feel sorry for him and what he’s going through right now. But…oh well.”
Kalitta was reminded that he was also in those battles before as a Top Fuel champion.
“Yeah, but I’m too old to remember those.”
Another Blow – Ron Capps took another shot in the first round by losing to Scott Kalitta. With two events remaining in the 2006 season, Capps is still in second, 46 points behind leader Force. Capps was saved from falling any further when third-in-points Robert Hight was eliminated in the second round. Hight is now eight points in back of Capps.
"They just stepped up and whooped us," said Capps, who also receives support from Knoll Gas-Torco Race Fuels. "The right lane has been kind of a lane that everybody was worried about at times, but then all of a sudden guys were throwing shots in the right lane.
"We thought the lane was fine. But Scott Kalitta, boy, about half-track he just pulled out in front of me. The Brut Revolution Dodge made a pretty good move (out of the groove) at the end. I'm not saying that we would have beat him, but had I been able to maybe keep it in the middle it would have made a better race out of it.
"The right lane has been really bumping people around down there. But, we really did it to ourselves qualifying where we did. You hear everybody talk about having lane choice and how important it is, but it's all hindsight now. We have to put it behind us and go to Vegas where we've done very well in the past and we can hope for the best from here on out.
"We really didn't do much wrong other than not get the win light. Our Brut guys put a great effort into this. It's a cliché, but 'bottom line' – as Force would say - is we should have qualified a little bit better. We were on a couple of good runs yesterday, and the car just jumped out of the groove. I'm taking a lot of responsibility for not qualifying better
yesterday. It's part of it."
The Straight Line - Jason Line is one step closer to the NHRA POWERade Pro Stock championship, after winning this weekend.
It was a dominant performance from the Wright, Minn.-born driver, who now calls Terrell, N.C. home. He ran the drag racer’s table: Winning the race after qualifying No. 1 and setting low elapsed time and top speed of the event, both of which are national records and track records.
"Obviously, it was an unbelievable weekend," said Line. "I was told a fact that is probably the coolest thing to ever happen to me in racing, the fact that the only other guys who have (had a perfect 138-point weekend) are Warren Johnson, Greg Anderson and Bob Glidden. That's pretty good company for a knucklehead like me to be in, that's for sure. But this is a Pro Stock track if there ever was one. The air was phenomenal. This record's going to stand for a long time. We're going to have to make a lot more power and see some killer conditions for us to go this fast again."
Today’s win was the fourth in seven final rounds for Line in 2006 and his 12th career win in 22 final rounds.
The quickest field in NHRA Pro Stock history took to the Virginia Motorsports Park quarter-mile for eliminations. In the opening round, Line made it even quicker. His pass of 6.556 seconds at 209.75 mph not only defeated Erica Enders but reset, once again, the NHRA national records for elapsed time and speed. At race end, the E.T. national record also earned 20 bonus points for Line for the second time is as many races.
Unhappy Campers – The track conditions drew the ire of at least three of the four Pro Stock drivers in the left lane during the quarterfinals. The fourth has admittedly had so many problems during weekend that he couldn’t say if track prep had anything thing to do with his run.
Jim Yates was the first driver down behind the fuel cars and recorded the only victory with an off-and-on-the-throttle 7.685, 189.63 to defeat Jeg Coughlin, Jr., who shook the tires in the right lane and lifted.
Three almost-identical runs resulted in the cars of Larry Morgan, Mike Edwards, and Dave Connolly each shaking the tires and making abrupt right turns.
“It was real simple,” Morgan said. “The track wasn’t prepared good enough to handle the horsepower of these cars. They [NHRA] just doesn’t understand what the Pro Stock cars need nor do they give a f***.
“What they need is Lynwood [Dupuy] or just someone out of the stands to come out there and prepare the track.”
Morgan then pointed to his engine graph. “Look at that. It goes straight up. The driveshaft goes straight up. I can bitch all I want and badmouth everybody but they’re just not intelligent enough to do it. What they should do is hire someone to take over.
“They just don’t care. It’s crazy. It’s a total shame that they do this. They need someone who specifically knows what our cars need in track prep. It’s a shame. This is not the first time this has happened. It is pathetic that they have to run their organization the way they do in regards to track prep. It is pathetic to the point that we all had to shut off.
“We all looked like [Ron] Krisher out there and lucky we are didn’t end up like him. I can’t believe I did what I did. Until all of this changes up there…none of this is going to change.”
Reportedly the Pro Stock finals in Reading were delayed due to concerns about track prep just two weeks ago.
“Graham [Light] can bitch about the wing but short of putting [John] Force’s wing on it’s not going to help us,” Morgan said. “The wing isn’t the problem. Don’t fix the wings. Don’t fix the cars. Fix the track…that’s the problem.
“I can’t tell you how many fans have walked up to us and asked what is wrong with the track. I’m going to send them up to talk to Graham and have them ask him what is wrong with the track. He sure as hell won’t listen to us. Maybe he will listen to someone who pays money to watch. Me bitching about it isn’t going to fix a thing. The ears are closed. They don’t care…period.”
Mike Edwards, a 6.5-second performer, wasn’t as vocal as Morgan, but added, “There were four pretty good teams that went up there and did the same exact thing. I don’t think there was something wrong with all four of our cars. That’s all I have to say.”
Dave Connolly thinks the real losers were the fans.
“It was BS for us and the fans,” Connolly said. “They don’t pay to see those things. During the problems they never once walked up there and looked. It wasn’t fair to us or to the fans. It made for bad racing. These cars take different preparation than the fuel cars.”
Just Outran - Greg Anderson was stuck in the testy left lane for the semis against Line and ran the quickest run of the last three rounds with a 6.62.
"I can blame it on lane choice all I want," said Anderson, "but the bottom line
is we both had the same lane in the second round and the first round and (Jason)
flat outran me. He deserved to have lane choice because he earned it. He was
head and shoulders above the pack. Now we just have to figure out why we had
one car so much faster than the other. He had a rocket ship and he did a great
job of driving, and he deserved this win. He deserved that trophy and my hat's
off to him.
"You only get a magical weekend like this in who knows how long, and he made the most of it. It's a proud moment for him, I'm proud of him and the whole team's proud of him. We've got a great 1-2 punch, without a doubt."
History – The Pro Stock history books will show V. Gaines as the first driver in the class to run a 6.5-second run and lose. Gaines nailed down a 6.594, 208.49. Unfortunately for him, Greg Anderson reeled off a 6.588, 208.81 in the opposite lane.
That same history book will also show that Mike Edwards is the first driver to run a 6.58 and lose lane choice. He surrendered that by .001 to Anderson.
He Does Have A Point – Jason Line ran a 6.558, 209.75 and immediately announcer Alan Reinhart attempted to discourage any Pro Stock wannabes.
“Anyone out there thinking about running a Pro Stocker – come over here and I will just go ahead and kick you in the head.
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SATURDAY NOTEBOOK -
An Even Dozen – Tony Schumacher had a dozen reasons to smile following Saturday’s final qualifying session. The defending Top Fuel champion recorded his 12th top qualifier of the season. In doing that, he established a new record in the class for Top Fuel pole positions in a single season.
Schumacher admits the accolades are fine but he’s more interested in counting points.
“Did you know that I lead Brandon, but he’s actually won two more rounds than me?” Schumacher asked.
“Because of qualifying, we are ahead of him. It’s unfortunate that we are down to two races because we need every point to win.”
That’s when Schumacher made mention of Sunday’s eliminations ladder. Four of the top five ranked cars are on the same side of the ladder. The top three could meet in the quarterfinals and then the semis.
“Everyone knows what they have to do,” Schumacher said. “We can help ourselves. This is a huge opportunity that could make it or break it. I think it’s cool and a true suck-it-up moment.”
Worth Mentioning – Schumacher has yet to lose in any of his semifinal appearances in 2006.
“We have to make it there first,” Schumacher said. “Let me get this straight – if we get to the semis then we go to the finals. If we don’t get J.R. Todd – then we win.
“If we get him then we’ll have the Army draft him. That’s the way it goes.”
Fuller Streaking – For eight consecutive races “Hot Rod” Fuller has qualified his Valvoline/David Powers Homes Top Fuel dragster in the elite top-five of the 16-car field. The upbeat driver from Las Vegas continued that streak Saturday at Virginia Motorsports Park, earning the No. 3 position at the inaugural Torco Racing Fuels NHRA Nationals with a 4.543-second pass at 317.79-mph.
“Ever since the Seattle race this summer, the car has been on rails,” Fuller said. "This David Powers team is awesome and it’s a real pleasure to come to work every weekend knowing that these guys are gonna give me a car that is capable of winning the race.
“Coming this far north this late in the season can be touch and go, as we found out last weekend with the rain out. But a morning frost on the pumpkin, like we had today, can work in our favor once the sun comes out and puts a little heat on the track. As we all saw, everyone is flying down this track this weekend. It's a lot of fun.
“These cars react like a jogger does during cool weather; it puts a little extra spring in your step and we’re looking for even better conditions Sunday when it really counts, in eliminations.”
Fuller will face Doug Herbert in the first round of eliminations. Herbert qualified 14th with a 4.642-second run at 305.70-mph.
The Boundaries – Larry Dixon will tell you that Saturday was all about finding the boundaries of performance. The two-time NHRA Top Fuel champion knows that Sundays are too valuable a day to test the limits of what the race track will give each nitro-burning entry.
Dixon drove his Miller Lite Top Fueler to the No. 6 qualifying position at the Torco Racing Fuels NHRA Nationals at Virginia Motorsports Park. His best time of the four-session qualifying was a 4.557-second pass at 314.75 mph. Dixon said the team learned some important lessons that could translate into round wins on Sunday.
"Saturday was all about figuring out what you could get away with down track," Dixon said. "You can tell that the speeds are down about 10-15 mph from what they should be with the type of conditions we have. This race track surface is giving all of the teams trouble because it's new and it just doesn't have enough rubber on the top end yet.
"Basically we've been working on our back half setups and seeing what we can and can't get away with. We've had trouble getting hooked up down track and we spun the tires both runs. The car really spun the tires during the first run, but not as bad on the second pass. That shows that we're going in the right direction."
For the team's consistent efforts throughout the four sessions, they were given the Full Throttle Award for the first time. Teams compete each weekend for the honor and the team with the most consistent ET's gets a $3,000 prize. Dixon will face Steve Torrence in the first round of eliminations on Sunday – a driver who has a professional license featuring Dixon's signature.
"I met Steve a couple of years ago through Snake (team owner Don Prudhomme) and he's been racing in Super Comp and in the alcohol classes the past couple of year," Dixon said. "He won the Top Alcohol Dragster championship last year but wanted to make the move up to Top Fuel. He's been working with Dexter Tuttle and Dexter asked me to hang out in St. Louis this year and watch Steve's licensing runs. He made the runs and I signed his license."
Taking Inventory - Being a spectator today helped Eric Medlen to be top qualifier. He took inventory of the cars ahead of him during the final session. Whether that was a major assistance remains to be seen, but it didn’t hurt.
“I try to hang back and watch as much as I can so I can see what the lanes are doing,” Medlen said. “There were a few cars running good but nothing stellar. I didn’t really try to flicker the bulb. I staged as shallow as I could.”
Then he ran and did it rapidly. Medlin put nearly .03 between himself and teammate Robert Hight. They led the Team Force barrage of top three qualifiers. This marks the eleventh time they’ve pulled off the feat.
“My Dad got on the radio and said that we ran a 4.72,” Medlen said. “I thought for a moment and said, ‘There must be some static because I think you said a 4.72.’
“The car started to spin the tires and I had the break from about 1,000 feet on. I was just trying to keep it where it would stick. It ran good. It was nice and smooth and pretty straight. We made good runs in both lanes so lane choice might not be that big of a factor.”
Medlen said the track was still a bit green since being repaved earlier in the season.
“I think the end of the track is,” Medlen said. “I don’t think you saw many runs over 318. Usually you are seeing a lot of 329s and 330s. I think it a bit green and that may be a factor. The real key will be who can get to half-track quicker.”
The Experience Factor – Medlen was part of Force’s crew when he won the event at VMP during the 2000 season.
Familiar Stranger - One of the higher profile spectators in attendance this weekend was Jerry Toliver. He can’t say whether or not he’ll race next year but there is a likely possibility.
“We’re really close to having a deal to go back racing,” Toliver said. “I don’t want to say anything for certain until everything is signed on the dotted line – but we’re awful close.
“Do I want to come back? Absolutely. Are we going to come back – most likely.”
Toliver has spent a good deal of time this weekend in the Kalitta Motorsports pit area. He declined to elaborate on the details of any potential deal but did add he will have an association with Kalitta Motorsports because of their Toyota involvement.
“We will work with them – sure,” Toliver said. “They are a Toyota team. When I come back it will be with a Toyota and we will work together on a team basis.”
Toliver has gotten over the sting of losing out on the Monster Energy drinks sponsorship in the 11th hour to Kenny Bernstein.
“We were really close,” Toliver added. “I thought we had the deal. Unfortunately it didn’t go our way, but Bernstein got it and he’s a great ambassador. He’ll do them a great job.
“You work long and hard on deals and when you finally think you have something… [pause]. It was a good money deal and a multi-year deal. It went as far as the contract phase and then we found out about the Bernstein deal. That’s the way it goes but it is disappointing.”
What Toliver finds most encouraging is the gains made with the Toyota Solara body through the efforts of Toyota Research & Development and his partner Alan Johnson.
”We just got back from the wind-tunnel and we had some great results,” Toliver said. “Toyota has been a great partner with us and hopefully we can bring in some sponsorship dollars. We have the tools, people and some associate sponsorship, all we need is the primary.”
“It has more downforce and less drag which makes it a really good body. We are pleased with what we have thus far and there is still more development work to do.”
Toliver’s personal opinion is the body is just as good if not better than the present fraternity of Monte Carlos and Chargers.
“We think we have a little more down force on the front and the rear. It has less drag. More downforce and less drag makes for a good car.”
Toliver said that the NHRA has been supportive of Toyota’s involvement in Funny Car. That was ground initially broken by Johnson in 2002.
“The NHRA wants more manufacturers in here,” Toliver said. “GM has pulled back its sponsorship reins and their support of teams so it’s good for everyone. If we can get them out here in a big way it will be good for everyone.
“They have their rules and regulations…and I will tell you building a body is no easy thing to make it as good as you can get it and stay within the parameters of the rules.”
That’s the part where Toliver heaped praise on John Force for his efforts in developing the Ford program in the class.
“I have to tip my hat to John. John was the first to break that ground with the Mustang. We saw the advantages that he gained there. In today’s Funny car racing, you had better grab every advantage you can to make it better.”
It all comes down to sponsorship for him. He has no timetable for an announcement. He merely says, “We are close.”
Toliver did say that such an announcement would more than likely come during the off-season or possibly during pre-season testing.
Bold Proclamation – “We’re going to shove NASCAR right out of here.” – John Force said after his final qualifying attempt.
Now He’s Been On Fire – Jack Beckman can officially say he’s joined the Jon Asher Club for driving a Funny Car on fire.
"The reality is that this is just part of nitro racing. Some of the best drivers in the nation have had their cars blow up. I feel bad because sometimes it's a chicken and egg thing. You're not sure if it's a tune-up issue that made the car get out of the groove or driver error that let the car get out and cause the tune-up issue. The reality of it is that you have a bunch of blown-up pieces. I guess the upside is that this is the first time I've blown anything up in the car and hopefully it won't happen for a bunch more runs."
Beckman faces Del Worsham in the first round of eliminations on Sunday.
Dragging the Line – A pole position, a world record and a leg up on teammate/points adversary is exactly what Jason Line needed to make his day a profound success.
Line, who has led the Pro Stock point standings since Denver, ran the quickest and fastest run in NHRA history when he made a 6.571-second blast down the Virginia Motorsports Park quarter-mile at 209.49.
The field is the quickest in NHRA Pro Stock history, from Line’s record setting 6.571-second pass to No. 16, held by Erica Enders at 6.630 seconds. In earning the No. 1 spot, Line, who drives the KB Racing LLC / Summit Racing Equipment Pontiac GTO, gathered the ninth top spot of his career and his fifth of 2006.
Both the elapsed time (6.571 seconds) and the speed (209.26 mph) set national records as Line’s run in the opening qualifying session yesterday (6.602/209.26) back up today’s run within one percent as required by the NHRA rule book. In fact, his 209.26 mph speed of yesterday made drag racing history when Line recorded the NHRA’s first 209 mph Pro Stock pass.
"It'll be interesting to see if (the record) stands through the weekend," said Line. "On that run, not to downplay it, we could've gone faster. If we would've made a perfect run we could've run a low .56, but that would've been it. That would've been a perfect run. So I definitely think Greg (Anderson) can go faster tomorrow. Unless the weather changes drastically, he can go that fast.
"For now, it's fun. It's fun for everybody. We all get to go faster than we've ever gone before, and that makes it fun for us and the fans. We try to go as fast as we can every run. Obviously we've sort of swung for the fences more so this weekend than normal, and I think it actually hurt us probably. I don't know, we'll see. We'll try to make good, steady runs and see if we can go four rounds tomorrow."
The national elapsed time record could go a long way in Line, who hails from Wright, Minn. and now lives in Terrell, N.C., capturing his first NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series Pro Stock championship. If Line continues to hold onto the elapsed time record throughout the event, he would gain an additional 20 bonus points that is awarded to the driver that sets and leaves the event with a national elapsed time record.
With only three races remaining on the 2006 NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series schedule, including this event, and points added for making at least qualifying pass and qualifying position, Line continues to lead the NHRA POWERade Pro Stock point standings entering eliminations tomorrow for the Torco Racing Fuels Nationals with 1471 points. Anderson, who qualified No. 4, is second with 1412 points, 59 behind his teammate, and Dave Connolly, who qualified No. 8, continues to hold onto third with 1283 points, 188 points behind Line and 129 behind Anderson.
It Takes Perfection – Greg Anderson was the first to admit that Line nailed the perfect run during the third session.
"The car's definitely consistent, we just haven't quite hit the bull’s-eye yet," said Anderson. "We know we've missed it and still made four consistent runs, so if we get it right then it's going to make four consistent runs faster and that's obviously what it's going to take to win.
"Jason made that run, he made that perfect run. I have yet to make that perfect run, and if you don't you probably won't have the record. We've just got a lot of great cars out here, and whoever hits the bull’s-eye they're going to get the record. Jason did it this week and he did it last week (Reading), so my hat's off to him. He's done a better job, he's done great and he deserves it. We'll just see if we can go four rounds and get 80 to 100 points tomorrow."
So that’s what happened - “The only guy that is not chasing Kenny Koretsky is Jason Line. The world must be spinning backwards.” – Bob Frey said after Koretsky’s 6.59.
Koretsky was bumped to third after Greg Stanfield posted a 6.58.
He Was Confused – Koretsky will be the first to admit that he was caught off guard with the 6.59.
“[crewchief] Eddie [Guarnccia] came on the radio and said what I thought was a 6.659. He said, ‘No, you idiot…I said a 6.594. I was excited and I knew we had to have run fast because all of the cameras came over to speak with me.”
Koretsky said he was fooled because the GM cars have a different feel than my Mopar.
“I think this car has a little more in it,” Koretsky admitted. “The car still goes to the left, so I am trying to drive it to the right. The crew is working hard. When the day is over, I think we have another hundredth in it. We left soft with a .980 and most everyone was in the .970s for 60-foot.”
Koretsky believes the team left at least .02 on the table and could have gone a low 6.57.
The key for Koretsky is comfort and he feels comfortable in the Rick Jones-built car.
“That has made a big difference in the transition to this car,” Koretsky said. “We went to Atco, New Jersey, and made three starting line burnouts and three half-track burnouts and never put the car in third gear. To come here and run as quick as we did is a tribute to Steve Schmidt, Rick Jones, Greg Hill, Tommy Lane and Eddie Guarnccia. It’s a collective effort.”
Koretsky added that another major factor has been his success in dieting which enabled him to trim down from 262 pounds to 248. He’s hoping to get down to 225 pounds.
Much Ado About Nothing – Rickie Smith’s name has probably spun a few yarns in the rumor mill during the 2006 season and he’s ready for the attention to move elsewhere.
Smith made a last minute decision to drive the Humphrey Motorsports Pro Stocker this weekend and that only lasted a day. Rumors suggested that the locked trailer all day Saturday was the result of a confrontation with an NHRA official. The scuttlebutt was exactly that – scuttlebutt.
“We ran our best run and we were still over .05 off the rest of the field,” Smith said. “We just didn’t see any reason to keep beating the stuff up. I told Humphrey it was fine because I could go run a Pro Modified Quick Eight and that’s what I did.”
Smith did admit there was an interaction between himself and the NHRA officials over a suspected oil leak on the car. The NHRA confirmed that Smith was approached regarding a suspected oil leak.
Smith had his front-end pulled on the top-end following a run and an official event paid a visit to the pit area and conducted a thorough inspection underneath the car. He passed on all counts.
“Well at least they’re talking about us,” Smith said with a laugh.
Mr. Irrelevant – For the second consecutive event, Mark Pawuk has posted a career best elapsed time only to end up the 17th qualifier – first alternate.
“I can’t explain it,” Pawuk said after qualifying ended, “and I don’t have a solution for it either. No matter what we do, things just aren’t clicking for us.
“There’s no doubt about the fact that I’m facing some very hard decisions here,” he added.
“I’m seriously debating whether or not we’ll compete in the year’s last two races. We’re obviously not involved in the points race, nor are we competitive right now. Add into that some serious problems I’m having outside of racing and, in all candor, right now I just don’t have a lot of enthusiasm.
“I haven’t made any firm decisions as to what I’m going to do about the rest of the year, but it’s obvious I’ll have to work things out within the next few days.”
After notching a career-best elapsed time of 6.671 seconds at the Toyo Tires Nationals two weeks ago Pawuk improved on that with 6.663 second effort in Virginia -- .003 seconds short of the bump spot.
“Ya know, everyone’s been talking about how many times we’ve been seventeenth this year,” Pawuk said. “After we ran that sixty-three-three one of the other drivers came up to me and said, Well, now we know the bump’s going to be sixty-three-zero, and he was right. The thing is, I think we suspected it would be, too.”
A Revived Season – For the first time since leaving the Victor Cagnazzi team earlier this year, Erica Enders has qualified in Pro Stock.
"Ever since we bought this team early last month we've literally been working around the clock to get things set up the way we want them to be," said Enders, who turned 23 last Sunday. "This is a great first step for us and I'm so proud of my guys. They definitely earned this one.
"We knew from the start that team ownership was going to be a lot of work but we're loving it, even though we're exhausted at the end of the day. The goal is to get this race team to a championship level and any time you run your career-best and make the quickest field ever, you've taken a big step in that direction."
Enders posted a 6.630 at 207.75 mph Friday and backed it up with a 6.631 at 208.20 mph in Saturday's first round. She wrapped up qualifying with a 6.638 at 207.78 mph.
"David (Nickens, crew chief and engine builder) has finally had time to build a motor his way and it's obvious he's made some serious gains," said Enders, who will open eliminations against points leader Jason Line. "No one"s more determined to have success out here than David and I'm really happy for him right now.
"We've accomplished our first goal of making the field. Now we need to get ready for race day and try to win some rounds."
He’s A Contender – Jeg Coughlin’s return to NHRA competition keeps getting better and better as the three-time series champ managed to improve on his career-best pass from Friday night with a stellar 6.604-second run at 208.28 mph Saturday at Virginia Motorsports Park. The run earned the 47-time national event winner the 7th position in the quickest Pro Stock field ever assembled.
"It feels great to run career-best numbers right out of the trailer on our first race back in the Slammers Ultimate Milk car," Coughlin said. "It’s a real testament to the whole team Victor [Cagnazzi] has put together here. I’m honored that he selected me to be one of his team drivers.
"We only have 17 runs on this car and just a few on this motor but the whole package has already shown so much promise. I don’t know if this is the best car I’ve ever driven but it’s certainly right up there at the top. The competition in this class is phenomenal and to come back from an extended break and be right back in the mix takes a total team effort."
Coughlin, who took a break from professional-level racing since his victory at the 2005 season-ending Auto Club NHRA Finals in California, has instantly regained his status as one of the top drivers on the POWERade tour. After earning a top-half berth in this weekend’s inaugural Torco Racing Fuels NHRA Nationals, Coughlin and his Slammers Ultimate Milk/Jegs.com Chevrolet Cobalt crew are considered favorites to win it all.
Although the NHRA tour hasn’t visited Richmond since 2000, Coughlin is the defending Pro Stock champion here. He beat Virginia native Jim Yates for the trophy that year with a run of 6861 seconds at 199.73 mph.
"The evolution of the sport has been incredible," Coughlin said. "The technology and aerodynamics of the car designs these days is second to none. The advancements they’ve made with the internal components of the motor are almost hard to comprehend when you compare it to what we had just six years ago when I won this race.
"It's exciting to drive these racecars nowadays. I know I'm having fun and from what I hear the fans are really excited when we run elapsed times and top speeds like this. I'm really looking forward to Sunday's eliminations. I'm sure the blood will be pumping in the morning."
Coughlin will have lane choice in the opening round when he faces off against Allen Johnson. The match up will put a Chevy and Mopar head-to-head.
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FRIDAY NOTEBOOK -
Safety Minded? – Tony Schumacher was hesitant to mention safety – or a perceived lack thereof, when he referred to 45-degree temperatures that greeted the Friday evening Top Fuel qualifying session.
“Running down a drag strip when you can’t see past your visor is probably not the safest thing for a sanctioning body that was designed for safety,” Schumacher said. “Whatever…some cars made it down the track so I can’t complain.
“I couldn’t be nervous…I couldn’t see past my windshield,” Schumacher said. “I held my breath as long as I could before I staged. I had the girl from Impact doing my visor.”
Schumacher was pressed into action earlier than expected when several teams pulled out of the lanes, including teammate Melanie Troxel.
“I had my helmet heated so it wouldn’t fog up,” Schumacher said. “I threw it on and they ran two singles. I’m back there and I’ve already fogged up. The track is lit well. It’s just 45 degrees. When it is that cold you are going to fog up. I can’t drive blindfolded. My car is too fast and too nasty to do that.
Schumacher said that tuner Alan Johnson was going for a 2.99 eighth-mile incremental time.
“Beyond that, he wasn’t sure what it was going to do,” Schumacher said. “We are trying to prepare for those tracks like Pomona where you have the tendency to shake the tires early.”
Schumacher admittedly was not familiar with the track as much as he would have liked to have been.
“I honestly don’t remember racing here,” Schumacher said. “I think it was five years ago. You come out here and run…they paved the track and it went down there with a 4.51 with the first run.”
Be Spectacular – J.R. Todd may be bucking for rookie of the year honors, but he passed on a valuable bit of information to new teammate Steve Torrence, who was making his Top Fuel debut here at VMP. “If you want to be on television, you have to do something spectacular.”
Torrence took his advice. On the heels of a 4.656 elapsed time, the defending Top Alcohol Dragster champion pulled the parachute release lever only to have the ‘chutes blossom and then fly away from the car, sail over the retaining wall and land in the grass beyond.
Torrence stood on the brakes to slow the car, and it came to a stop just short of the sand. The interesting part of the scenario is that Torrance had no idea what had transpired behind him.
“I don’t know who to attribute that one to,” Torrence said. “I think all the crew guys got a kick out of that. I got the car stopped and I’m so much of a rookie that I didn’t know that anything had happened. I got on the radio with [crewchief] Jimmy [Walsh] and I told him that thing didn’t stop worth a darn. The crew was saying something about the parachutes and I told them…yeah - they didn’t work too good.
“Then I looked back there and there was an empty space. It was pretty alarming after the fact.
“It was the quickest run I had ever made by a tenth. The car left kind of weak but got strong in the middle. It dropped a hole about 900 feet out and another a little further down.”
Did Todd have this scenario in mind when he made the “spectacular” suggestion to Torrence?
“It goes back to Denver when I asked Mike Dunn what I had to do to get television time,” Todd admitted “He told me that I either had to catch on fire or go in the sand. I went into the sand. I told Steve those were his options.
“He went out on his own with the parachutes.”
Make Mine a Double – Doug Herbert joined David Grubnic in the spread-the-crude club. Grubnic had a double-whammy at Indy and during the Friday evening session, Herbert left oil in both lanes.
An Experience Etched In Stone – Leave it to Alan Reinhart to bring out the historical part of drag racing and where drag racing Hall of Fame member Jim Dunn fit in.
Reinhart quipped, “I think Jim Dunn has been racing for so long that his first match race was with Moses.”
On the Conservative Side – Mike Ashley’s strength has always been the evening sessions. Tonight he proved just that.
“We had way too much for the track in the first session,” Ashley said. “We wanted to get from one end of the track to the other in the second session so we were more on the conservative. I think we had a 4.70-something in it.”
Ashley admitted the car started spinning the tires about 700 feet out.
“It got out of the groove and then I had to fight it back in,” Ashley said. “It hit the rev-limiter and put out cylinders. That knocked off a good bit of elapsed time and speed off of the run. I’m not going to complain about the run…we just had visions of being quicker. I am glad to be in the field now. We have a good baseline to work with.
“The track has a window and we wanted to be on the conservative side of it. This will keep us solidly in the field and the opportunity to start further back in the field on Saturday.”
Ashley was in the second pair out for the evening session.
“It affords us the opportunity to make modifications to the car based on the runs ahead of us,” Ashley said. “We didn’t have that opportunity tonight.”
Ashley wouldn’t divulge if the team will try to swing for the fences tomorrow.
“As far as I am concerned, I am the driver and that’s what I do,” Ashley said. “Brian Corradi handles that end of the operation. That’s his call. I will tell you that conservative is a nasty word around him.”
Still Green – Tommy Johnson Jr. drove his Funny Car to a 4.813-second run at 306.33 mph and has plans to make his way to a higher position on Saturday.
"We have great weather conditions but I think the track was still a
little green," Johnson said. "They had so much rain last week and it
just needs a little more rubber on the surface to let these Funny Cars
get the grip they really need. I think as the weekend progresses, the
track will turn around and we'll see those big numbers.
"We tiptoed our way down the track Friday just to get a handle on the
conditions. We made two good runs and we've got a good weekend going so far."
Johnson said he wants to do whatever it takes to stay in the top half
of the qualifying field, just in case.
"Lane choice may be key when Sunday comes around so what I'm most proud of is the way we got down both lanes of the track," Johnson said. "Early on the left lane has been superior to the right lane and we made a good run in the right lane to finish the day. We didn't earn the No. 1 qualifying spot but the weather will be cool again tomorrow, so we can go after it again. We went to the No. 1 spot in Reading (Pa.,) on Saturday, so we know it's possible."
The only thing that Johnson would have liked to do is take his crew on
the ride during the second pass of the day.
"That second pass was a wild run," Johnson said. "It was definitely a
challenge to keep it in the lane. The car was all over the place and I
told my guys that it would have been fun if I could have taken them
with me on that crazy run."
On the ragged edge – Greg Anderson pointed out that his 6.59 in the first session was all the conditions and track had to offer for the first session. His 6.598 was officially backed up with a 6.60 in the evening session.
“We have the best conditions that we’ve seen in many years,” Anderson said. “The race track is still a bit green but I expect that to improve as the weekend progresses. The better the track gets the better these cars are going to run.”
Anderson went on to speculate that he thinks the record could drop to a 6.57 and the speeds could easily top 209.
The record run didn’t feel spectacularly quicker than any other.
“That run felt pretty good,” Anderson said. “It didn’t feel great and it didn’t bad. It was as good as the track would yield. I knew it was going to be decent…I didn’t think it would be a .59. I was banking on a .61 or .62. I was surprised to see the number come up. We’re not done yet this weekend.”
Anderson says Saturday will be the day to watch as the quickest-ever Pro Stock field could climb a rung on the ladder.
Unheralded – Lost in the shuffle of the 6.59, point leader and Anderson teammate Jason Line established a provisional record with a 209.26.
Two weeks ago a 6.62 was the new world record, today it was only good enough for the 8th spot.
Not a quartet fan – Even though sources close to the team have indicated a desire from team owner Ken Black to field a four-car team, Anderson isn’t volunteering for the chore.
‘I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Anderson said. “That’s a little more work that I’m signing on for.”
Tough Start – The first session may have been a pace-setting affair, but the start was anything but pretty.
First there was a crash and then an oil down that could have been one of the worst in Pro Stock history. Former NFL Head Coach Buddy Ryan once said that it’s not how you start the race but how you finish that counts. That was certainly the case today.
With cold weather moving in, NHRA officials made the decision at mid-week to move the session ahead an hour. That was a wise decision, because they needed it.
Pity poor Pat Herold. The independent Pro Stock driver ran his career-best elapsed time (6.728, 205.51) and subsequently crashed the car in the traps. Herold said that he deployed the parachute and shortly after that the car made an abrupt turn right into the retaining wall. The impact then caused the car to flip over on its rood and slide to a stop. He was uninjured.
A few pairs later the albatross landed on the shoulder of Tony Rizzo. Rizzo, who was involved in a fiery starting line incident in Memphis, found himself on the delivery end of a slick situation. Rizzo lost an oil line during a burnout and totally drenched the groove in the right lane.
Rizzo admitted that he only lost a quart of oil, but as he quipped, “I never knew a quart of oil could go so far.”
The downtime on the incident was a little over an hour.
The Butterfly Effect – Jeg Coughlin Jr., says driving a Pro Stocker is like riding a bicycle – you just don’t forget how to do it. The former world champion returned after an 11-month layoff to gain a provisional berth in the quickest field in the history of the class. He nailed a personal best in the process with a 6.618, 208.49, that was good enough for seventh.
"I'll admit I was a little nervous before that first session," Coughlin said. "But when I did the burnout and the car went nice and straight and I felt that power under my seat, it was like I never left. Then we didn't go three feet and I went right back to feeling like, 'Oh no, did I do something wrong?' It turns out we were just a tad aggressive but the guys obviously made the proper adjustments for Q2."
Coughlin had previously listed a best of 6.685 and speed of 207.13.
"That run was screaming," Coughlin said. "What a ride! It was dead-solid perfect and I enjoyed it immensely. I'll tell you, a 6.61 is a lot quicker than a 6.68, and it had been two years since I ran that number up in Chicago.
"When you have a sea-level track like this and it gets cool, you know you're in for a ride. It was a mineshaft out there and I tip my hat to this Slammers Ultimate Milk team because they delivered."
As for the reception he's gotten in the pits after his 11-month sabbatical, Coughlin has been pleasantly pleased.
"The fans have been awesome," Coughlin said. "They're all telling me they missed us being out here and I tell them right back I missed them as well. The other drivers have been great also. We're rivals on the track but we're all family when it comes right down to it. It was heartwarming to hear from everyone and to see everyone again in the pits and the staging lanes."
Make Your Mind Up – Rickie Smith was on top of the world two weeks ago after winning his first IHRA mountain motor Pro Stock national event in Budd’s Creek, Md. This weekend he’s back in 500-inch racing. A candid conversation led to the weekend adventure.
“I was just talking to Ronnie Humphrey on the phone and we came up with the idea,” Smith said. “It’s close to his home and mine…Torco was sponsoring it, so I said…why not?”
How ironic it was that he was paired in the first session opposite of his former team – the Dick Maskin-owned Skull Gear GTO.
“Yeah, that was pretty strange,” Smith said. “I don’t usually pay attention to that stuff in qualifying…eliminations that might be another story.”
Smith slipped into the 15th spot after the first session just .01 behind hi replacement Tom Martino.
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A steady soaking rain and chilling temperatures Saturday and a wet weather forecast for the remainder of the weekend have forced NHRA officials to postpone the Torco Racing Fuels NHRA Nationals at Virginia Motorsports Park until next weekend, Oct. 13-15.
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FRIDAY'S RAIN NOTEBOOK -
Rain Steals the Show - It started at 2 AM and it never stopped until NHRA officials called the first day of qualifying a wash some 12 hours later. The plan is to resume on Saturday morning and hopefully get two rounds of qualifying completed and run eliminations on Sunday. The forecast calls for more of the same on Saturday and clearing for Sunday.
Streaking Kalitta - Doug Kalitta has one streak that he would like to continue and another streak he would like to end this weekend. In the three events that he has competed in at Virginia Motorsports Park (1998, 1999 and 2000), Kalitta has qualified in the top-half of the eliminations field in each, but also in each year his quest for the winner’s circle has been squelched in the second round.
“Hopefully we can at least double our round-win total in Virginia this weekend,” Kalitta said. “With only three races left this year, every single point counts, so we certainly want to qualify well and hopefully go some rounds.
“We should see some great performances at VMP. The track is very close to sea level and the weather is supposed to be cool. I know our Mac Tools team will be trying to put up some big numbers for the fans.”
Kalitta and crew chief Rahn Tobler will be looking to improve on Kalitta’s VMP bests of 4.648 seconds (2000) and 308.11 mph (1998).
Kalitta holds a 52-point lead in POWERade Top Fuel championship points over second place with three events remaining on the 2006 NHRA national event schedule. Kalitta took over the points lead near the mid-season point in July in Denver and has held the top spot ever since.
The Next Chapter - J.R. Todd is the feel-good Top Fuel story of the year, and hopes to write the next chapter this weekend.
Todd has come from unknown to unbelievable in an NHRA POWERade Series season that began with him missing four of the first seven races – and not qualifying at a fifth – to his stunning first victory at Denver (July 16). It continued with a win two weeks later at Sonoma, Calif., and returned Sunday when he won at Reading, Pa.
Three victories in 16 races and now a position in the top 10, it’s something unthinkable three months ago.
“It’s always good to go to the next race coming off a win,” says Todd, a definite quick learner. “The way the car has been running in the last two races, I don’t see why it shouldn’t run like that in Virginia. As long as the track holds up, the air (atmospheric conditions) should be good. Hopefully we can pick up where we left off in Reading.
“We’d like to win one for Evan,” Todd continued. “When he stepped up his involvement with us (13 races ago) we went from planning to race 10-to-12 times to making all the races. We’d like to keep on winning rounds so we can stay in the top 10, and maybe go a few positions higher, in the last three races the year.
“If we could have three Skull Shine cars in the semifinals Sunday it would be a perfect weekend for Evan.”
The Next Battleground - Brandon Bernstein is ready to challenge point leader Doug Kalitta and the opportunity will come this weekend.
“This is going to be an interesting test,” said Bernstein, driver of the Budweiser/Lucas Oil Top Fuel dragster. “I have never driven at this track. Though Tim (Richards, crew chief) and several of the other crew chiefs have had experience tuning here, a lot has changed on the race cars since we last raced in Virgina from tire compounds to ignition systems and a lot of other parts and pieces. I think everyone will be starting from the ground floor and it’s going to depend on who can get a handle on the race track first. You can’t afford to get behind in qualifying so you have to hope you can get a good baseline run on the first qualifying pass and fine tune from there.
“This race throws an interesting component into the championship battle.
“Plus this is the fourth consecutive weekend the teams have been on the road and it wears on the stamina of the crew members as well as the inventory of parts and pieces on the trailer.
“We have a battle-tested crew chief and a focused team. I’m looking forward to a good showing in Richmond.”
Bernstein is third going into the Torco Racing Fuels Nationals, 10 points behind second place and 62 points out of the lead with 12 rounds of racing remaining until the final bell tolls. The Budweiser/Lucas Oil team has tallied four victories and three runner-up finishes so far this season.
Baca's Tuner - Rick Henkelman set world records and routinely challenged for national championships when he drove and tuned his own Top Alcohol Dragster (TAD). Since taking over the tuning duties on David Baca's 8,000-horsepower, nitromethane-burning Top Fuel car, Henkelman has been working towards the same successes at the highest level of drag racing.
So far, although operating with a sizable lack of on-track knowledge in comparison to the other crew chiefs in the class, Henkelman has held his own, methodically inching towards the perfect tune-up that will allow Baca to contend for the POWERade title.
As the 2006 season draws to a close with national events in Richmond, Va., Las Vegas, and Pomona, Calif., Henkelman takes comfort in the fact he's finally on even footing with his peers. For the first time, he'll have the same data in his log book as the others, simply because the series has already visited Las Vegas and Pomona earlier this year, and no one has visited Virginia Motorsports Park (VMP) near Richmond, the site of this weekend's inaugural Torco Racing Fuels NHRA Nationals, since 2000.
"We all have the same starting point here," Henkelman said. "Nothing left over from six years ago will be relevant at this point. That's not to say crew chiefs with hundreds of runs in their books won't still be able to make better guesses than others, but at least we're all taking guesses together to some degree.
"Part of the growth of this program is getting through each event and learning how to run the Mach 1 car under all the various circumstances one encounters during the year. Each track is different, each day is different, each run is different. The more experience you have, the better you'll be, and we're gaining a ton of experience each weekend."
The Defending Champ - Larry Dixon has been to the final round in Richmond, Va., twice. In fact, the two-time NHRA POWERade Top Fuel champion is the defending winner at Virginia Motorsports Park.
Sure, the last time the NHRA raced there was in 2000 and Dixon beat Kenny Bernstein in the final. But don't think Dixon doesn't have visions of a repeat appearance in Richmond. Dixon said the Miller Lite team is on the cusp of a win and he would be crazy not to have winning visions running around in his mind.
"I would like to see us win the final three races of the season," Dixon said. "People might think that sounds crazy, but if I didn't think we had a chance to win every race, I wouldn't be out here racing every weekend. We're going to the event, so why not go out and try and win it? Our team has shown some good performance numbers over the past few races and I think it's a matter of time before we break out and get into the win column."
Dixon – a 38-time NHRA event winner behind the wheel of the Don Prudhomme-owned Miller Lite dragster – earned his first career No. 1 qualifying award in Richmond during his rookie season in 1995. He also has a runner-up finish there from 1999.
"I'm excited we're going back to Richmond," Dixon said. "I was disappointed that race went off the schedule. It's a nice track with great race fans that are really supportive of drag racing. We haven't been there since 2000, which means there is going to be a lot of pressure on the crew chiefs to make their best educated guess possible to kick off the weekend. They are going to have to look at the track really well and I can imagine teams might take a cautious approach on Friday and then get more aggressive as the weekend goes on."
The Homeboy - Scott Weis will feel right at home this weekend at Virginia Motorsports Park. His family has deep roots, both in the Richmond area and in Virginia drag racing history. Joe Weis, Scott's Dad, and his two brothers Wayne and Daniel were into speed and hot rods right out of high school, in the Richmond, Va., suburb of Ashland. They shared their passion with their father and soon got Grandpa involved. They organized the first sanctioned drag racing events in Virginia in 1958 on local air strips. The Weis boys would have races run in one county on Friday, the next county on Saturday and a third county would run races on Sunday. This led them to open Richmond Dragway in 1964, and after more than 40 years, Daniel Weis still owns and operates the Virginia landmark.
Scott Weis followed in the family footsteps with a need for speed. He began his drag race career in 1982 at the tender age of 16, running a 1958 Corvette in super gas. With eight seasons under his belt, Weis progressed into the alcohol ranks and began running a Funny Car in 1990 locally on the National and Divisional level, before moving to the Fuel ranks in 2000, first in a Fuel Funny Car and currently in a 7,000 horsepower Top Fuel dragster.
"I can't explain how exciting it is to be running back here at home in Richmond," said Weis. "We are going to have plenty of help from all of our friends and family. Hopefully we can get the Bruce's Super Body Shops/Barrett Enterprises car into, what should be a very fast field in the cool Virginia air."
Like Scott, Bruce’s does nothing halfway. “When we made the decision to sponsor Scott and the Weis Racing team it also meant creating a unique new look for the dragster” said Bruce’s owner, Bruce Hutchins.
New Kid on the Block - Steve Torrence has gone from Super Comp racing to NHRA Lucas Oil Sportsman Series Top Alcohol Dragster champion to aspiring Top Fuel driver.
And Friday Torrence will make his first professional start in a Dexter Tuttle-owned, Evan Knoll-sponsored Skull Shine/Torco Racing Fuels Top Fuel dragster. The occasion is the inaugural Torco Racing Fuels Nationals at Virginia Motorsports Park at Dinwiddie, near Richmond.
Torrence, who took one test ride in the new, Brad Hadman-built dragster Monday afternoon, is excited to open a new chapter in his racing career, one that has him teamed with rookie sensation J.R. Todd.
“This is a new team and a new car,” said Torrence. “We want to make sure everything works like it should. We want to make the necessary adjustments and make the car competitive. We’d certainly like to qualify here and maybe win a round, but our priorities in the next three races are to get the driver seat time and the crew working well together so we’ll be ready when the 2007 season begins.
“J.R.’s win at Reading (Pa.) Sunday gives us momentum as a team. What he accomplished will benefit us as two-car team. Jimmy (Walsh, Todd’s crew chief) had the car running fast.”
Torrence said Mark Oswald, his crew chief, asked him to shut it off at the 330-foot mark on the test run. “Things went well on that run,” added Torrence. “The computer numbers said it would’ve run 4.62 to 4.64 seconds if we had driven it to the finish line.”
Just One Point - Ron Capps is braced for another barn-burner of a Funny Car championship battle, as he and John Force head to Virginia Motorsports Park this weekend for the Torco Racing Fuels NHRA Nationals entrenched in a see-saw battle for the crown. Force holds a meager one-point lead over Capps following Sunday's race in Reading, Pa.
With just three events remaining in the 2006 NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series, Force teammate Robert Hight is also in the mix, following two wins and a runner-up finish in the last three events. He is just 35 points behind Force, 34 in back of Capps.
Last year, Capps' teammate Gary Scelzi, Capps and Force were in a scuffle for the title, which went down to the final race. Scelzi won his first championship by eight points over Capps. Force came in third. Capps is aiming for his first Funny Car title following three runner-up season finishes.
"I used to love coming here," said Capps, who was runner-up against Force at the last NHRA pro event held here in 2000. "I tell you, it couldn't be better for Knoll Gas and Torco Race Fuels because this event has been thrown right in the middle of a points race.
"It's a place we haven't been to in a long while, so it's kind of an unknown as far as the track surface is concerned. But it's the same for everyone.
Capps' goal is to regain the Funny Car points lead, which he relinquished in Reading on Sunday by losing first round. "I always feel very confident with (team consultant) Dan Olson and (crew chief) Ace (Ed McCulloch). What happened in Reading is just something you have to put behind you. It's like playing golf. If you dwell on how bad you played hole one, you're not going to play hole two very well. We just have to concentrate on making our next race the best we can do. It's exciting right now; it's going to be a lot of fun."
Novelty Worn Off - After 20 races, John Force and Ron Capps are separated by a single point in their battle for the $400,000 NHRA POWERade Funny Car Championship. But the hottest car is driven by 2005 NHRA Rookie-of-the-Year Robert "Top Gun" Hight. Although he was upset in the final round last week at Reading, Pa., Hight and crew chief Jimmy Prock have shaken off the effects of a mid-season malaise to emerge as the title contenders they expected to be when they won the season-opener last February in Pomona, Calif.
What followed that opening win was six months of unrealized potential. Broken supercharger driver belts, clutch malfunctions, driver and crew chief errors and just bad racing luck all combined to keep the Auto Club Mustang out of the winners' circle
However, after failing to advance past the second round in six consecutive races from June through mid-August, Hight has gone to the semifinals or beyond in each of the last four tour events, winning the biggest race in the series, the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis, as well as the O'Reilly Fall Nationals at Dallas.
As a result, after being 229 points off the lead after a first round loss at Brainerd, Minn., on Aug. 20, the 37-year-old Californian now is just 35 points behind Force. That's roughly the equivalent of two racing rounds.
Over the last four races, the former trapshooting champion has made up 195 points on Capps, 146 on Force. That performance has turned the category upside down and transformed what all season long has been a two-horse race into a virtual copy of last year's three-way duel that wasn't decided until the second round of the final race.
"We've got a car that can win this thing," Hight said. "(Last week's final round loss to Phil Burkart Jr.) was disappointing because our car ran so well all day. But the track changed a little and it just wouldn't hold (the 8,000 horsepower generated by the 500 cubic inch engine). It blew the tires off (lost traction) and I just couldn't get it calmed down. But that's the first time it hasn't gone down the track since Brainerd."
Indeed, Hight had made 14 consecutive full-power runs in competition before the Reading final.
Even before its stretch run, the Auto Club Ford was the most feared car in the category, starting a category-best eight times from the No. 1 position. The rap was that it could not sustain its qualifying performance in competition.
The suggestion that his car was all show and no go ate at Hight throughout the summer.
"I think people thought that we could only run quick on Friday night (in the most favorable track and weather conditions)," Hight said, "but that just wasn't true. We had a car that could run in the cool on Friday and in the heat on Sunday.
"The problem was that the class has gotten so competitive that to win you have to make four perfect' runs (during eliminations) and we weren't doing that. We just kept working and trying to get better and at Indy, we made four perfect runs, just like we did at Pomona (in the season-opening Carquest Winternationals).
"Now we have momentum and we control our own destiny," Hight said. "That's all we could ask for."
Priorities - Mike Ashley has developed into a bona fide contender for a national event title, having been the eighth highest point earner since Denver. The Knoll Gas - Torco Race Fuels-sponsored driver is focused on winning but even more than that - he's focused on being a good dad.
Ashley departed the Richmond area immediately after a press conference to head back to Long Island, NY.
Ashley's son Justin, a budding 12-year old athlete (and two-time NHRA POWERade Fan Nationals Champion) earned his first start at quarterback on the seventh grade football team. He'll be monitoring the weather on Friday and if it looks as if the weather will wash out qualifying, he'll stay longer for the 3:30 PM game. He has already chartered a private jet to return him to VMP in time for today's sessions.
Ashley threw down the gauntlet for next year during the press conference.
"If I'm going to be on the road for 23 races and away from my family and business, I'm winning this championship. That's all there is to it."
Nothing like the unknown - It's been five years since the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series has competed at Virginia Motorsports Park, south of Richmond, Va., and it's where the reigning Funny Car champion and three-time Top Fuel champion Gary Scelzi holds two ends of the track record in the Top Fuel class: 4.494-second elapsed time, 321.12-mph top speed - both set in 1999.
Since his last visit here, the driver of the Mopar/Oakley Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car captured his third Top Fuel crown in 2000, left the Top Fuel class at the end of 2001, entered the Funny Car ranks in 2002, joined Don Schumacher Racing in 2003, and won his first Funny Car championship in 2005.
It's been a tough road defending his title in 2006, but the popular Fresno, Calif., native is eyeing strong results here as the season winds down to the final three events, despite the challenge of not knowing what to expect in Dinwiddie.
"It's been a long time since we've been here," he says. "We've won here before (1997 in TF). I don't know what kind of improvements they have made to the race track; nobody seems to know, but we're ready for it. I'm sure my track records will be blown away, although that E.T. record is still pretty stout."
Scelzi is seventh in the Funny Car point standings, and is aiming to move up in the rankings before the season ends in Pomona, Calif., in November. He knows his chances of defending his crown are over, but he still has an opportunity to move into the top five. He is 61 points short of that spot. To finish in fourth, he would have to make up 133 points.
The Veteran's Edge - John Force's performance history at VMP far outshines his so-so record in the race that previously occupied the early October time slot, the now defunct Ameriquest Nationals at Joliet, Ill.
Although he drove his Castrol GTX Ford Mustang to national records of 4.665 seconds and 333.58 miles per hour in 2004, Force was winless in five starts in the Ameriquest Nationals.
That's in direct contrast to his record at VMP where, in six races contested from 1995-2000, he qualified No. 1 four times, won four times and never failed to reach the semifinals. He was 20-2 at VMP, a winning percentage of 90.9.
No wonder the 13-time series champion is chomping at the bit in anticipation of the Friday start of qualifying.
"We always ran real good there," Force said, "but that was a long time ago. I hear it's changed a lot since then, so it's like we're starting all over. Everybody's the same. The first couple runs are going to be critical. That's all the time the crew chiefs are going to have to get it right before we get serious."
Son-in-law - Much of the season for Force has been spent fighting against Ron Capps, but after Reading, he can add son-in-law Hight to the mix of potential adversaries.
"That's great," Force said of Hight's emergence as a late season contender. "Last year, it was me against the Dodges (of Capps and eventual champion Gary Scelzi). Maybe we can turn the tables this time with our two Fords against Cappsie). Do I care if Robert wins (the championship)? No. We're three cars but we're one team. As long as there's a Ford on top at the end, we've done our job for the sponsors."
That isn't to say that Force doesn't want to win a 14th title himself.
The 57-year-old veteran proved last week at Reading, Pa., that he has lost little of the skill that carried him to a record 121 tour victories and, in one stretch, to 10 consecutive series championships.
Uncharacteristically racing without the choice of lanes that goes to quicker car, Force won two rounds at Reading using his starting line skills to overcome a performance disadvantage. Although his day ended prematurely with a broken supercharger drive belt, Force did just enough to leapfrog Capps in a battle that began last February.
The two have been 1-2 since the second race of the season although Capps has owned the top spot after all but two events.
"It's gonna go right down to the end," Force predicted, "just like last year," when he lost a three-way duel with Capps and eventual winner Gary Scelzi.
Weather at 5 - Greg Anderson is hot on the trail of teammate and Pro Stock point leader Jason Line but his greatest enemy may be the weatherman.
The advance weather forecast calls for cool temperatures – 58 degrees on Friday, 62 on Saturday and 71 on Sunday. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that along with cool temperatures the advance forecast, as of Oct. 4, is calling for wet weather. Weather.com says there is a 90 percent chance of precipitation on Friday in the form of heavy rain, accompanied by wind. Saturday and Sunday the rain chance drops to 40 percent.
“The cool weather sounds good as that might make for record-setting times and speeds again this weekend, but we can’t do it if the track is wet,” said Anderson from his shop in Mooresville, N.C. “We’ll just have to wait and see.
“When racing does get underway, I have to have a perfect weekend if I’m going to catch up to Jason. No make that a perfect three races. And while most people think either Jason or me have it locked up, I can’t forget that there are still several other drivers with a chance at the championship. That’s why I’ve got to be at the top of my game. There’s no room for a bad race.”
Playing to his advantage - Jason Line has solid goals for the weekend. He wants to qualify well, preferably in the top four, go rounds (the final round and a win would suit him just right) and leave with the point lead.
“While no different than any other driver here, that a lot harder than it sounds, but it can be done,” said Line, who has been on the top of the NHRA Pro Stock POWERade point standings since Denver. “My Summit Racing Pontiac can get the job done. I must add to the equation a lot of focus. You can’t get the job done if you don’t focus.”
Line leads the NHRA POWERade Pro Stock point standing by 56 points over teammate Greg Anderson, who holds the second position, and by 183 points over third place Dave Connolly.
Entering the Torco Nationals, Line not only leads the points but he is the NHRA Pro Stock elapsed time national record holder. He blazed the Maple Grove Raceway last weekend in a previously unheard time of 6.609 seconds.
“I still can’t get over how cool it is to have that record,” reflected Line. “I definitely want to leave here with the record intact or better yet, if conditions are right, I would like to be the driver that lowers it again.”
New Cobalt - Dave Connolly and team owner Evan Knoll made the decision to go with a new Chevrolet Cobalt earlier this week. A recent test session at Rockingham Dragway provided promising results.
“I think this is going to be a very good race car,” said Connolly. “Todd built the car Tommy Lee is driving now and Tommy qualified higher than we did last week in Reading (Pa.). We want to do well at Richmond because Evan Knoll, our team owner, also owns Torco Racing Fuels. This is the first NHRA race he’s sponsoring and you definitely want to bring home the trophy for him.”
Connolly has four wins – the most by any driver in the category – and three runner-up finishes this year despite getting off to a slow start. He was 12th after six races before Tommy Utt became the crew chief. The success that followed helped fuel Connolly’s rise to third in POWERade Series points with three races to go in 2006.
“I think we’re pretty secure in third place, but we’re going to be trying to pick up momentum going into the winter months,” said Connolly, who has 1270 series points. “We’d like to get another win before the season ends. We have races left at Las Vegas (Oct. 27-29) and Pomona (Calif., Nov. 9-12). We’ve had success and won races at both tracks.”
Connolly, who was a finalist in the April race at Las Vegas, tested the new Cobalt before going to Richmond.
Welcome Back - It's been six years since Jeg Coughlin Jr. won at VMP, but the three-time series champion says it seems like only yesterday he blasted down this quarter-mile. And, there's a reason why.
Coughlin recently spent two days at VMP preparing his new Slammers Ultimate Milk/Jegs.com Chevrolet Cobalt for competition. While there, the 47-time national event winner posted the best quarter-mile pass of his illustrious career, lifting his confidence.
"I'll admit, there were some questions in my mind about how I'd feel in there," said Coughlin, who has stayed sharp this past year racing in numerous high-dollar bracket races. "I've made lots of runs in the past year, probably more than two years worth of Pro Stock racing, but this Cobalt is unlike any other vehicle. It felt good just to get in there and re-acclimate myself with making a run down the racetrack.
"The fact we went a 6.642 at 207.79 mph, easily my best pass ever, only made us feel that much better about what we're doing. Victor (Cagnazzi, team owner) and this group are ready to contend for the championship in 2007 and it all starts right now. The true test of our performance will be at the race itself, but when you match up what we did against the others that were testing there we're very pleased to say the least.
"The last time we were in Richmond, I left town with the Wally. That was a pretty good memory to have. I'd like to make some more positive memories this weekend."
Ready to go - Erica Enders was feeling under the weather for pre-VMP testing at Rockingham, but her car wasn't.
With co-crew chief Terry Adams filling in, the Revive-USA race team posted a slick 6.67-second pass right out of the trailer in Rockingham, N.C., which matched up well with the other top teams at the facility. Adams' time was second quickest of the day. He followed three-time champion Jeg Coughlin's 6.66 and was slightly quicker than Tommy Lee's 6.69 and Dave Connolly's 6.70.
"Testing numbers don't mean a bunch but it's still nice to see that we hung with the big boys," Enders said. "You're never sure what the other teams are trying out but usually when it gets close to a race you tend to think people are trying to do what they want to do at the race itself.
"For instance, we tested last week here in Houston but we were only working on getting the car to launch better. I never went past third gear. This time the guys wanted to run it out the back and obviously they've come across a tune-up the car likes. It's exciting and I can't wait to get in there Friday in Virginia. Hopefully, I'll feel better by then."
It's been a whirlwind for Enders and her father Gregg since they bought their own racing operation at the beginning of September. They've relocated all of their assets to their hometown of Houston and bagged a new major sponsor in Revive-USA, a Dallas-based food, nutrition, and beverage company.
In the power department, Enders has retained crew chief and engine builder David Nickens, another Houstonian, who has been working around the clock to find the group more horsepower.
"These last three races are a flat-out test session for us," Gregg said. "Don't misunderstand me; we still want to win and we feel we'll have a chance to do just that, but the primary goal at this point is to prepare our team and driver for a championship run next year."
Reaching as high as third place, Erica has been in the POWERade top 10 after 14 of 20 races this year. She continues to be the best female racer in class history and her runner-up finish earlier this season in Gainesville was the second of her career. She was also top qualifier in Topeka, Kan., another first for female Pro Stock drivers.
"The next step is to get a win and that's what all this hard work is all about," Erica said. "We're finally living a dream my dad and I have had for years. Now we need to get this car into the winner's circle."
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