NHRA READING NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
SUNDAY FINAL -
DOMINATION MEANS DOMINATION - The National Football League had the New England Patriots in 2007.
In 2008, drag racing has Tony Schumacher.
The Chicago-based driver, who drives the U.S. Army Top Fuel dragster, thundered to his 51st career victory by defeating Larry Dixon in the final round at Maple Grove this past weekend. His NHRA Toyo Tires Nationals triumph marked his fifth in a row and tenth of the season.
“This is incredible,” said the five-time world champion. “I could try to explain [the experience] all day long but this has been a gift of a season. You wake up every day and realize … we’ve been together for five years and we’ve already won nine races in a season and now ten. We’ve come back from ten races. Of all the season’s, this has been the most dominant.”
Schumacher is absolutely correct. The son of famed Funny Car icon and mega team owner Don Schumacher hasn’t lost in the first round since Richmond of 2007.
After beating Dixon in the Reading finals with a 3.845-second pass at 313.88 mph, Schumacher tied a couple of NHRA records that he had set previously in 2004 and 2005, respectively – most Top Fuel wins in a single season (10) and most consecutive Top Fuel victories (5).
Schumacher has some bad news for the competition.
“It’s not going away,” Schumacher said. “We seldom smoke the tires. We have an awesome car and it hasn’t been one of those cars that runs a tenth faster than everybody. Because it’s tight racing the driver has to do his job. I think it’s made me a better driver. We’re in constant suck-it-up moments.”
For Schumacher those moments came after his second consecutive first round bye run, when he was faced with the challenges of hard-hitters such as Brandon Bernstein and an upset-minded Clay Millican. Then he drew Dixon in the final round.
“At the beginning of the season, and I can’t remember who did the interview, I told the reporter it was going to be a good season because I was running Doug Kalitta first round,” Schumacher added. “Those kinds of races make you stand up and take notice all year long. In hindsight, we have done that.”
Schumacher admitted the one opponent that gets him the most nervous is the invisible man.
“The single runs make me nervous – when you’re out there by yourself,” Schumacher said. “All you can do is screw it up yourself. When you have to run a good car, it sets the tone for the whole day and the whole season. We have proven that to be a fact.”
SUBTLE JABS - Schumacher spoke directly to someone without mentioning their name. Those in the know immediately drew the conclusion he was speaking to Hot Rod Fuller because of his criticism of the championship format in 2007 after leading the majority of the season.
During the post-race press conference, emcee Bob Frey suggested that Schumacher was a fan of the Countdown to the Championship in 2007 because the format worked to his favor. He also suggested this season could generate the opposite feelings since Schumacher has to surrender a tremendous lead.
“I’m a man,” Schumacher said. “We’re going to show up at the race when they take all the points away and try to win the last six. If someone else wins the championship, I’m going to walk over and shake their hand. I don’t think there’s enough people out there like that.
“I get disappointed watching these ballplayers throw their gloves and get angry. We know the rules. I read the rulebook. I knew going into here that if we won every race to this point that they were still going to take every point away from us.
“This is no secret and we’ve been through this for a year now. I’m not going to be a hypocrite and say it was only good last year because it helped us. As good as we’ve been running if we can’t seal the deal, someone else is going to be the POWERade champion. I’m going to be there when they put their jacket on and I’m going to be there when they put their ring on. I’ll call them champ because that’s what they will be.
“No matter what, if we didn’t show for the last six races – I’ve still had an outstanding season.”
THE NEXT BIG THING - Schumacher and his U.S. Army team will take a week off before turning their attention to the NHRA’s most prestigious race – the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals over Labor Day weekend at O’Reilly Raceway Park in Indianapolis.
The Chicago-area resident is a six-time Indy winner. Only Don Garlits has more U.S. Nationals Top Fuel wins – eight.
“We’ve had some good times out in Indy, for sure,” said Schumacher. “We’ll show up there looking to qualify and then we can think about the first round. That will be our only focus.”
At O’Reilly Raceway Park, Schumacher will also have an eye on another prominent NHRA record. With a win, he could tie Joe Amato for the most career victories in Top Fuel (52).
“I guess it’s one more to go,” he said. “It seems like the more success we’re having, it’s getting more pressure-packed. But, I believe it’s been proven that if there’s a team that can handle pressure it’s my U.S. Army team.”
A RARE OPPORTUNITY - Rarely does a student get to match skill against their teacher.
During the Funny Car final round, Frank Hawley learned just how good of an instructor he is. Beyond that, he found out just how good of an instructor he’s got on staff at his Frank Hawley Drag Racing School.
Jack Beckman was merely basking in the glow of the opportunity to race his mentor.
"Imagine being a Little League player and you get to pitch against Mickey Mantle,” Beckman said. “Frank Hawley has been all of that to the sport. To have him come back in adds a whole other dimension to this...and, hell no, I wasn't going to cut him any slack.”
Beckman didn’t for a variety of reasons. He wanted to win in order to secure a Countdown to the Championship seeding and importantly to redeem himself from a red-light loss from the previous event in Brainerd, Minn.
"It's nice to be able to redeem yourself in a seven-day period." said Beckman, who debuted for Don Schumacher Racing here in Reading in 2006.
"Obviously, I let the team down (in Brainerd). We did have the best car last week. I screwed up. We had a great car this weekend and it was nice to get a chance to get back in the final, wait for the green light before I stepped on the throttle and get that win.”
Adding to the elation was the fact Beckman qualified for the championship battle scheduled to begin in Charlotte in less than a month and last for six races. He clinched a spot in the top ten with this monumental victory.
The Reading final round represented the ninth of his career and the fifth victory of his short pro NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series career.
En route to the final round, the No. 13 qualifier defeated Funny Car points leader Tim Wilkerson (4.219/296.31), 14-time Funny Car champion John Force (4.185/290.51) and Cruz Pedregon (4.183/291.57).
TEACHING THE TEACHER – Beckman will quickly tell anyone who will listen just how tough the Funny Car competition has been in 2008. Adding a seasoned veteran such as Hawley to the mix only compounds the complexity.
"Like the last thing we needed was another tough Funny Car,” said Beckman. “I was so happy for him when he won his rounds and he was happy for me all the way up to the final round, so that was cool. It was just a fairy tale weekend, it really was."
Of course the teacher in Hawley inspired him to discuss the previous weekend’s experience before the final round.
"It's funny. Hawley comes up to me before the final and says, 'Jack I want you to completely get out of your mind what happened last weekend. Don't even think about that.'
“The final with Jack was a lot of fun,” added Hawley. “Over the years we have developed a personal, aside from a business, relationship. I said in the semifinals I don’t like to lose to anybody, but if I lose to anybody, I wouldn’t mind losing to Jack.
“But I told Jack after the final that I really didn’t mean that,” Hawley said with a chuckle.
“I said, Frank, we don't teach mind games at the school. We're not supposed to be doing that.”
GO WEST YOUNG MAN – Johnny West has had a calming effect on the Valvoline/MTS Dodge Funny Car that Jack Beckman has driven to back-to-back final rounds.
"A couple of times it wanted to move over toward the centerline, but it was a pretty smooth car all weekend long,” explained Beckman of his Reading win. “Didn’t throw us any curve balls out there.
"(Crew chief) Johnny West is a very conservative-by-nature type of guy, so he and (assistant crew chief) Tommy Delago balance each other well and I think now that we've been consistent for a few races we're starting to get quick and I think if we can take that to cold-weather tracks we will be contending for the championship."
West admits the victory was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time.
"There's a lot of mixed emotions,” admitted West. “The Valvoline/MTS Dodge has been running really good. It's like Austin Coil (John Force's crew chief) told me a long time ago, everybody tells you you've done a real good job (when you win). We've been doing the same job; we just finally had good results. The biggest part is the entire Schumacher group and all the people at the shop and the guys who build the chassis - that's the nucleus of the whole operation. I just came in and brought a little continuity and that's what probably helped make this thing turn the corner. Outside of that, I really haven't done anything different than what I've normally done my whole life."
LORDY, LORDY, IT’S A 40 - Usually 40 will represent an over-the-hill number, but for 38-year old Jeg Coughlin Jr. the number stood for so much more.
Coughlin secured his 40th national event victory by defeating teammate Dave Connolly in the Pro Stock final round. The win put Coughlin all alone in fourth place in the all-time list for Pro Stock victories, a remarkable accomplishment for a 38-year-old racer.
"We've been flirting with a win for awhile now and it feels wonderful to get it done," Coughlin said. "The main thing is we want to carry momentum into Indy and then the playoffs and there's no better way to build up momentum than to go out there and turn the win light on. Great work by the entire JEGS.com Chevrolet Cobalt team."
Combined with his 13 national event victories in the Sportsman ranks, Coughlin now has 53 Wally trophies, the 10th most in the 57-year history of NHRA drag racing.
This win took some work as Coughlin started the day as the No. 11 qualifier and was never quick enough to have the advantage of lane choice until the final round when, as it turned out, he didn't need it. Nevertheless, he beat veteran Vieri Gaines, two-time champion Jim Yates, and POWERade title contender Kurt Johnson to reach his 65th career Pro Stock final.
"I started the day thinking we had a top-five car but the race against V., I'll tell ya, he gave us all we could handle," Coughlin said. "We were like the 14th quickest of the round and we only beat V. by two-thousandths of a second, but to get a break like that really lifted us up. It set the tone for the day."
Coughlin won when Connolly left the starting line too early.
The red-light start by Connolly, who joined Coughlin and others in the playoff field with his runner-up finish, was Coughlin's second gift-wrapped win of the day. Semifinal foe Kurt Johnson also fouled out by -.004 seconds.
"I don't know if my rep had much to do with it," Coughlin said, when asked by the media if his reputation on the starting line may have spooked his rivals into red-lighting. "I haven't exactly been sawing the tree down lately. It's more likely that we won because we did the best job, as a team, of adapting to the racetrack throughout the day.
"We want to win our fifth championship this year and the closer we are to the No. 1 spot when the playoffs start, the better it will be. We moved up to third today and we could mathematically get as high as second in Indy, so that's what we'll try to do. We've been talking about getting that look back in our eye and I think we did that a little bit today."
ONE-TWO-THREE PUNCH – Sunday provided a win-win situation for Team Cagnazzi, who started the season with only one team car and now has three since Connolly returned and adopted Ron Krisher earlier in the season.
"We knew we couldn't go wrong with Dave (Connolly) and me in the finals for Cagnazzi Racing, but it felt good to get the win light there against my teammate," Coughlin said. "Congratulations to Victor (Cagnazzi, team owner) and the entire team back in Mooresville (N.C.); they've done a fantastic job. We're hoping this is a sign of things to come when we start the Countdown in Charlotte. We've had a pretty slow summer, but the last couple of races we've gone to the finals (Sonoma) and the semis (Brainerd), and to pull off a win here is huge."
Despite missing the season's first five races because of sponsorship issues, Connolly advanced to his sixth final round of the season, clinching a spot in the Countdown and moving all the way up to the sixth position in points.
"It was an awesome weekend for us," Connolly said. "It was good we were able to pull farther ahead of Ron Krisher and Greg Stanfield in the standings and as long as we can go as many rounds at (the next race in) Indianapolis as (seventh-place Mike) Edwards and (eighth-place) V Gaines we should stay in sixth place. We've exceeded my expectations this year. I didn't think we'd be able to get this high in the countdown after starting the season five races after everyone else."
NO STOPPING HIM – First he lost a sponsor.
Then he had his new and innovative bike rejected after initially claiming approval by the tech department.
Just last week he claimed a victory in the midst of the worst kidney stone attack he’s faced in his life.
Did you really think a ten-point deficit was really going to be enough to slow down defending world champion Matt Smith’s charge to the top of the point standings?
A straw house in a windstorm would have stood a better chance.
When Andrew Hines fell in the first round, Smith reeled in the lead with victories over Paul Gast, Steve Johnson, Craig Treble and for the second week in a row, Angelle Sampey in the final round.
Smith’s Reading victory represented the tenth of his career.
“This is just so cool,” said Smith. “We had the fastest bike every round today and I did my job on the tree, so it all worked out for us. I want the top spot going into the Countdown, because it is 30 extra points, which I think is huge. Hopefully we can keep this momentum keep and keep the No. 1 spot.”
Smith sits atop the point standings with a 73 point lead over Hines.
TEACHER’S REPORT - Frank Hawley has been around drag racing long enough to know an incredible upset when he sees one. He almost had a front row seat for one in Reading when he came close to winning the Toyo Tires Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway.
His final round against Beckman marked his fourth race of the season and first race in two months and their first with Rite Aid. It wasn’t a fluke. Hawley qualified second with a 4.128-second time.
A two-time Funny Car series champion (1982-83), Hawley began eliminations by defeating his teammate, Melanie Troxel (4.355 seconds, 247.57 mph to 4.670 at 214.66), reigning Funny Car champion Tony Pedregon (4.211, 289.76 to 4.223 at 288.95) and Mike Neff (4.237 at 284.39 to 4.294 at 276.75) before squaring off against Beckman.
Hawley had not been to a final Funny Car round since 1984 but he showed no rust against Beckman, who has worked for Hawley’s school for 12 years. Hawley’s car spun the tires and slowed to 6.697 at 95.08 mph and Beckman won with a 4.183 at 291.57.
“Team owner Roger Burgess owns two race car teams and between them they have some of the most-talented people in the sport,” Hawley commented. “We have a lot of them. The idea of us coming out and running really well wasn’t unthinkable. We certainly have the equipment and the people to run really well. The fact they were sitting around for a while and they were able to do that, I think, is impressive.”
Crew chief Aaron Brooks made the tuning calls and Rod Centorbi is the assistant crew chief.
NO DRAMA - John Force Racing took much of the drama out of the chase to get into the Countdown to One as Ashley Force clinched a position in the Countdown to One with her solid qualifying effort on Friday and Saturday. The sophomore driver was followed into the Countdown to One today by her father and 14-time champion John Force, by virtue of his first round win over Ron Capps. Rookie driver and favorite for Rookie of the Year Mike Neff raced to the semi-finals and a clinched at least the 10th and final position in the Countdown to One ending the championship bids of fellow rookie and Ford driver Bob Tasca III and veteran Del Worsham, his closest two competitors.
HE DID IT – Less than a year ago, a battered John Force was holed up in a hospital bed with a plethora of injuries related to an accident during the NHRA Fallnationals in Dallas, Texas. Force had made his way into the Countdown to Four points with the round victory which ended his season.
An emotional Force plotted every which way he could return to competition, even though he couldn’t walk, push the gas pedal or much less grip the steering wheel.
He never gave up hope of racing for another championship. In an obvious pain-medicine-aided suggestion, Force suggested, “Maybe their trucks won’t make it to the race.”
Then the medicine wore off and reality hit him.
The reality hit him on Sunday in Reading but in a more positive nature. This time he qualified for the showdown without having to hope for the impossible.
“I worked really hard and I had great doctors and physical therapists. (JFR marketing representative) Chad Light worked with me through this whole thing. I want to thank him for all his work and Robert Ortmeyer, my physical therapist,” said Force. “I am going to be 100% by Indy and that was my goal. I have a few weeks left and I’ll get back in the gym. It is showing in my driving.”
GIVING PROPS – When you can get props from John Force, you have accomplished something.
While Force is happy to have four Ford Mustangs in the Countdown to One he feels that one driver on his team stands out above the rest. Since the beginning of the season Force has said that son-in-law Robert Hight had the driving skills and his Jimmy Prock tuned Auto Club of Southern California Ford Mustang was the car to beat for the championship. His opinion hasn’t changed as the Countdown looms on the horizon.
“What really matters is putting four cars in the championship. Robert has the best car to win a championship for us. I’d like to see Ashley or Robert win the championship and even Neff has a chance,” said the most prolific winner in NHRA history.
Hight shares his boss’ confidence. He knows he has a team that is capable of great things if they can get some luck and figure out a few stumbling blocks. They battled this weekend and came up short in a first round match-up with Mike Neff.
“We got behind the eight ball when we came in the gate and we never caught up to it. We had dumb things happen that weren’t mistakes from the team guys just dumb stuff. One Friday night thing killed us. We still don’t know exactly what happened and that is what I hate because it could happen again. You live with it but we aren’t getting any better unless we figure this problem out. I have all the confidence in the world in my team and (crew chief) Jimmy Prock to figure this Mustang out,” said the two-time championship runner-up.
“I know what it takes to be a champion from working on John’s Mustang (as a crew member). We have a team that can win a championship. I’ve had the number two on my car for the last two seasons. I am focusing on lowering that number and the way to do that is to win a championship. We are going to work around the clock to get that job done,” added a determined Hight.
THE DECIDING FACTOR – Sunday might have very well guaranteed Mike Neff Rookie of the Year accolades.
Mike Neff made a big move this week by clinching the final spot in the Countdown to One and racing into the semi-finals before he dropped a close race to professional drag racing instructor Frank Hawley. R.O.T.Y. candidates Bob Tasca III and Rickie Jones fell early in competition.
“It felt good to go some rounds. We couldn’t get the set-up right going down track. We spun the tires the first two rounds and on the last run we thought we were going to fix that but we put a cylinder out,” said Neff. “That is what cost us that race. I really thought we were going to get him and go to another final.”
As the only rookie to make the Countdown Neff knows he’ll have his work cut-out for himself. He can still move up from the 10th position with a solid performance at the US Nationals but the former off-road racer is happy to have a chance at his first Funny Car championship as a driver.
“Getting in the Countdown was definitely one of our goals at the beginning of the year. We really wanted to get in there this weekend solid so we didn’t have to worry about that going into Indy,” said Neff. “Indy is just such a high pressure race. It feels good to get that monkey off our back.”
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GOING FOR TEN - Tony Schumacher claimed his sixth pole of the year, his 3.816-second pass from Friday night good enough to earn him a second straight bye in the first round of eliminations on race day.
Schumacher will race the winner of the Hillary Will-Brandon Bernstein first round match up in the quarterfinals.
“Like last weekend, it’s nice that we were able to get the bye run,” offered the five-time world champion. “But, just like we did in Brainerd (Minn.), we’ll still have to go out and put up a good number even though we’re not racing anyone. You always want lane choice in the next round.”
This was Schumacher’s 53rd career pole and his sixth at Maple Grove Raceway. On Sunday, he’ll be seeking his fifth consecutive victory, which would tie his own record from 2005.
“We’re not looking that far ahead, I can tell you,” he added. “First and foremost, we’re going to have to deal with a tough customer in either Hillary or Brandon. We better have our game faces on.”
Should Schumacher grab his 10th win of the season it would tie a personal record from the 2004 campaign.
“Again, we’re talking about numbers that will fall into place as long as we take care of business,” he said. “As always, it will be a round at a time proposition for the U.S. Army team.”
Schumacher entered the 17th event of the season holding a commanding lead in the standings. But, he knows that gap will close dramatically in just a few short weeks upon the start of the Countdown to One.
“We’re definitely gearing up for the playoffs,” he said. “However, we’ve got a couple of races to go before it all begins. Our goal is to go out and perform well here in Reading as well as in Indianapolis over Labor Day weekend.”
ANDERSON PLEADS THE FIFTH - Greg Anderson made it two in a row for Pro Stock No. 1 qualifiers after driving the Summit Racing Pontiac GXP to the top spot for tomorrow's eliminations. The current points leader matched his qualifying effort last weekend at Brainerd with an elapsed time of 6.611 seconds at 208.84 mph to claim his fifth No. 1 qualifier of the season. Kurt Johnson held on to the No. 2 qualifying position in his ACDelco Chevy Cobalt, and Jason Line, who had yesterday's provisional Pro Stock pole, dropped down to the No. 3 qualifying position.
"Ideally, the goal is to qualify Jason (Line, teammate) and me first and second," Anderson said, "but that's a lot easier said than done. It's been very, very difficult to do this year because of the competition level. The competition level in this Pro Stock class right now is absolutely the best it's ever been. I know I sound like I say that all the time, but it's never been more true. There are six to eight guys on any given weekend that can qualify No. 1 or win the race.
"If you can pull that off and qualify No. 1 and No. 2, or No. 1 and No. 3 like we are here, then you've had a good run in qualifying. That gets the whole team pumped up. What you don't want is to go through qualifying and end up in the bottom half and then go into Sunday having to make wholesale changes to your car. The good news for us is we don't have to make those changes tomorrow. We'll just have to try and keep up with the sunshine and the amount of sun and heat we get on the racetrack. We've set ourselves up well for the first time in as long as I can remember. This is probably the best I've felt going into race day about both team cars. We've got a good 1-2 punch. We've got both Summit Pontiacs on opposite sides of the ladder which is our other goal. If we do our job, things go right and we have a perfect race, the chance is there that we can meet in the finals. That's the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow."
Anderson has used a class-leading five victories to build a 56-point lead over second-place Johnson with two races remaining before the Countdown to 1 six-race playoff, but the three-time POWERade champ knows he still has a lot of work to do if he wants to claim his fourth title. He tied Dave Connolly for a class-leading eight wins last year but finished second to Jeg Coughlin Jr. once the Countdown began.
"You want to peak when the start of the Countdown comes," Anderson. "I learned last year that it's impossible to go through the regular season and then as soon as the Countdown starts, just turn it on. You can't do that. You better be operating at full tilt when you get to it. Now's the time to peak. For the last month we've been on an uphill grade, getting better, getting better, and getting better. I feel real good about that, but one problem I have is there are other cars doing the same doggone thing. There are other cars that are really, really hitting their stride right now, so it's just going to be a fantastic Countdown. It's going to be an absolute knock-down, drag-out brawl for six races, but I'm looking forward to it."
NOT HIS DAY - Gary Scelzi failed to qualify, despite a valiant effort in the final qualifying session.
In the first pairing in his last attempt to plant the Mopar/Oakley Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car into the 16-car field, Scelzi pulled out a 4.240-second pass at 289.01 mph, which moved him from No. 20 into No. 15. Only two cars in the ensuing pairs could bump him out: Gary Densham and/or Melanie Troxel. Densham laid down a solid run, bumping Scelzi to No. 16, then Troxel did her job by posting a quicker pass, relegating four-time NHRA champion Scelzi to the sidelines for the second time this season.
"It's been a tough weekend, without a doubt," said a disappointed Scelzi. "Our crew chief Todd Okuhara is still recuperating from his inner-ear infection and our clutch guy Michael Knudsen is still in the hospital after suffering burns in that freak accident here at Maple Grove on Thursday. Everyone on the Don Schumacher Racing team wishes him a quick recovery.
"Phil Shuler (regular crew chief on the Rockstar Energy Drink Dodge) did as good a job as he could tuning both cars with the help of Alan Johnson from the Army team, but the challenge was just too much, and we didn't get it done.
"Our chances, obviously, of making it into the top 10 for the Countdown to 1 playoffs are over. We'll just finish off the year by causing havoc for everyone else in the playoffs."
DÉJÀ VU ALL OVER AGAIN - Last weekend in Brainerd, Minn., Bob Tasca III raced Del Worsham in the first round of eliminations.
On Friday, they ran in both qualifying sessions. Saturday was a repeat of Friday.
What do they get for their efforts? Tasca and Worsham will meet up in the first round of Sunday’s eliminations.
“It’s been déjà vu all weekend,” said Tasca. “We’ve run Del Worsham every run this weekend the way things matched up, and then we raced him last week in the first round."
Last weekend Tasca won in that match
The meeting between Tasca and Worsham will be the third of the season, and the second in as many weeks. Tasca’s record against Worsham is 1-1, and Worsham sits right behind Tasca in the points, 12th place by 18 points.
“Del has got a great team over there, and they are very competitive,” said the Rookie-of-the-Year contender. “Certainly they weren’t happy about losing to us last week on a holeshot, so they're going to come to the line ready, but we’re up for the fight and we’re looking forward to going rounds on Sunday.”
Worsham was more than consumed with other challenges during qualifying which put the ongoing match race with Tasca on the backburner. He earned his way into the U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Showdown final seeded field, a race-within-a-race which awards points based on qualifying.
"Other than winning in Houston, we really haven't had any big exciting drama this year, so the whole Showdown thing was pretty cool, and the guys are excited about what they accomplished," Worsham said. "We're in it now, so all we're worried about is racing Bob Tasca tomorrow. We're in a huge hole on the POWERade side of things, but it all has to start with the first round, and if we can pick up a win there we can still make a move. That would be a double comeback story for the ages, and we're not only going to have to be pretty flawless ourselves, we're also going to need some help to stop the guys we're chasing, but it's still possible and we're focused on it."
RENEWED ENTHUSIASM – One month ago Worsham had no interest in looking at the points list for the 2008 U.S. Smokeless Showdown. The glimpse of how far down on the list of point-earners was just a reminder of the tough season he’s encountered.
Two DNQs in starting the season and then two more in early June left Worsham with the understanding that his chances of making the show were remote.
Then he started to catch his stride and by mid-July, he braved a glance at the U.S. Smokeless Showdown championship standings. He’d been so focused at playing catch-up that he didn’t notice he was a legitimate contender.
"In Sonoma, when they brought the sheet up to the lounge in the transporter, with all the new numbers on it, I thought they were kidding me," Worsham said. "Seriously, up to that point I had not spent a second even thinking about it, and figured we were dead and gone on the Showdown scene no matter what. But there it was, and we were suddenly about 55 or so points out of the 8th spot. That kind of opened my eyes."
Worsham then moved on to Brainerd, where he qualified 4th, and he was again shocked to see the Showdown points tally.
"We thought we were chasing Jerry Toliver, who was in 8th going into Brainerd," Worsham said. "We hadn't even bothered to look to see who was ahead of him or by how much. Turns out, it was Gary Scelzi in front of Toliver, and only by five points. We picked up a boatload of points on him, and came out of Brainerd only five points out of the Showdown. I really can't believe we got that close, but we came here with a pretty simple assignment. We just needed to out-qualify a few guys and we would make it."
Worsham needed to out-qualify Jack Beckman and Scelzi, while he also had to hope that John Force would not out-qualify him by 35 Showdown points. Jerry Toliver also had to qualify for the Reading field to hold onto his Showdown spot.
He couldn’t have written a better script by outqualifying Beckman while Scelzi and Toliver both failed to make the race field here. As for Force, he outpaced Worsham, but not by enough to get around him. The final math equation resulted in Worsham not only making the Showdown, but doing so in the 7th spot, while Force completed his own unlikely comeback by moving into the 8th position.
IMPROBABLE REALITY - On a day when the improbable became possible John Force raced his way into his 24th consecutive US Smokeless Showdown (25th overall) slated to be contested at the 54th Mac Tools US Nationals in two weeks. It was an amazing turn of events and another magical achievement for Force who at the end of 2007 had serious doubts about his racing future.
“After last year and that crash in Dallas I really didn’t think that I’d be able to put this thing back in coming from behind like I had to do. We missed races but you just keep the faith and you keep going down the road. You keep doing what you do and believing in your crew chiefs and your team. It was a long shot and I remember last year Herbert screaming on the starting line when he got into the Countdown,” said a jubilant Force. “(NHRA announcer) Bob Frey had me so screwed up I didn’t know if we were in or out. Finally I went up to the tower and got an answer. To be in for Castrol, Ford, Old Spice, AAA of Southern Cal, Brand Source, and Sanyo we’ve done our job and it is just really cool.”
Force entered the Toyo Tires Nationals trailing Jack Beckman, Gary Scelzi, and Jerry Toliver in the US Smokeless Showdown standings but he moved around the three veteran drivers by virtue of DNQs from Scelzi and Toliver and by out qualifying Beckman. Force will be joined in the Showdown field by daughter Ashley Force and son-in-law Robert High the No.1 and No. 2 qualifiers respectively.
NOT EXACTLY WHAT HE HAD IN MIND - For his efforts Force will square off against No. 1 qualifier US Smokeless Showdown rookie and daughter Ashley Force.
“I’m racing Ashley first round and that is really what I wanted to do most. I didn’t want her to go to the Showdown for her first time and me not be in it with her. I made it by the hair on my chiney, chin, chin and we’ll see what we can do in Indy,” said Force.
Force can clinch the third spot for John Force Racing in the Countdown to One with at least a semi-final finish tomorrow. He will start his quest towards solidifying his position with a first round race versus long-time nemesis Ron Capps.
HE’S A RINGER - Chris Rivas’ elapsed time of 6.941 seconds at 191.59 mph from Friday night put him third on the final Pro Stock Motorcycle ladder going into Sunday.
Rivas, riding the G2 Motorsports Drag Specialties S&S Cycle V-Twin Pro Stock Motorcycle, squares off against Angie McBride (14th, 7.062 at 185.09 mph) in the opening round.
This is the third time in three races Rivas has qualified in the top three. He was second at Sonoma, Calif., and Brainerd, Minn. The excellent qualifying runs helped secure the No. 7 starting position for the Ringers Gloves Pro Bike Battle that pays $15,000 to the winner. The event will be held August 30 at Indianapolis.
“That was big for us,” he said. “Because we had that good run Friday, we were able to try some different things Saturday. The team is becoming more and more confident and we are having fun.”
SHAKING, BREAKING, ROLLING - Warren Johnson shook a lot in qualifying and then his memory went away.
Well not exactly. Johnson’s GM Performance Parts Pontiac GXP suffered a transmission problem which led to severe tire shake and if that wasn’t enough, the on-board data collection system failed.
The seasoned veteran and his relentless crew fought their way back into the show on Saturday by landing in the sixth position.
“We lost the first run because we dead-headed a slider in the transmission, which caused us to shake the tires and put us behind in the tune-up. As if that was not enough, on our second run, the computer decided to fail, so we had no data to tune from other than the seat of our pants.
“As a result, we were a little off in this morning’s session, but we made some adjustments for this afternoon and got our GM Performance Parts GXP a little closer, running the sixth quickest time in that last session. We still have some work to do before the first round tomorrow, and we’ll have to be on our game from the very start, but I’d say we’re in pretty good shape.”
GOOD DAY TO BE CHOATIC - It has been a good weekend so far for Kenny Kerensky’s Nitro Fish-sponsored drivers competing in the Toyo Tire Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway.
Richie Stevens starts 12th in the Nitro Fish/Idiom Electric Pro Stock Pontiac GXP; defending Pro Stock Motorcycle champion Matt Smith was No. 1 and teammate Angie McBride was 14th; and Clay Millikan starts 13th in Top Fuel, driving the Nitro Fish/Hope4Sudan dragster.
“Team Nitro Fish made history," said a smiling Koretsky. "I'm happy for all of them and am looking forward to Sunday's eliminations."
Millican races J.R. Todd, Smith meets Paul Gast and McBride faces Chris Rivas in their respective first rounds.
GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS - Frank Hawley will race at least once more this season in the Roger Burgess Funny Car sponsored by Rite-Aid Pharmacies.
The two-time Funny Car champion more than made a good impression by ascending as high as second in the qualifying order. His accolade came with one of the major drawbacks of having a two-car team.
Hawley will meet Gotham City Racing’s primary team car driven by Melanie Troxel in the first round of eliminations.
"I was joking with the guys after the run and said, 'just call the boss and say there's good news and there's bad news,” Troxel said. “We just look on the positive side. That means that one of us is going to the second round.”
Hawley added, "Clearly, I'd like to race Melanie in the finals, but that's not going to happen. I just hope one of us is in the finals."
TECHNOLOGY TRYOUT - Fans watching NHRA POWERade Championship Drag Racing on ESPN2 will have an even better view of the intense action inside the cockpit of a racecar with a new High Definition in-car camera developed by Broadcast Sports, who pioneered in-car camera technology.
The HD in-car system is currently being used in NASCAR that Broadcast Sports helped to develop. This weekend is being treated as a field test for the system in the NHRA. Ron Krisher's Valvoline Chevy Cobalt is assisting in the test at this weekend's 24th annual Toyo Tires NHRA Nationals.
"We're basically testing the camera out to see if it can withstand the punishment the equipment goes through," Woodruff said. "We're hoping for the best and if everything goes according to plans, ESPN2 will have footage they can use this weekend. We'll rotate it around to different cars and use every angle we can think of to bring the viewers inside the cockpit. It should be really cool."
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FRIDAY NOTEBOOK -
HERE'S A SHOCKER - Tony Schumacher is doing everything he can to ensure the longevity of his first round winning streak dating back to 2007. With his 3.816-second pass at 316.67 mph in the second session, Schumacher yet again placed himself in a position for an opening round bye on race day.
“You hate to see that we don’t have a full field (16 cars) for the second straight race, but when that happens you definitely want to be the number one guy,” said the defending NHRA POWERade world champion. “It makes it a bit easier to get up on Sunday knowing you are already through to the second round.”
Of course, Schumacher will have to survive two more rounds of qualifying tomorrow if he is to clinch the coveted bye round.
“Anything can happen,” he added. “The track here is real good and there are plenty of fast race cars. If we’re to stay on top, we’ll have to earn it.”
Schumacher will be shooting for his sixth pole of the season and the 53rd of his career. Additionally, he’s seeking his sixth pole at Maple Grove Raceway.
“This is another track that Alan Johnson (his crew chief) has a handle on,” he said. “We’re just on a roll right now and we’re going to enjoy it as long as it lasts.”
Schumacher has captured four consecutive races and six of the last seven. He’s led the points since the season opener in Pomona, Calif. back in February.
“It’s been said that all good things must come to end, but I certainly don’t want this run to end for quite a while,” he said. “In fact, if it continued right through the middle of November I’d be one happy camper.”
Schumacher has already clinched the top seed for the Countdown to One phase of the Countdown to the Championship, which starts in Charlotte, N.C. next month.
TOWING THE LINE - Jason Line lead the way for Pro Stock drivers with an elapsed time of 6.639 seconds at 207.40 mph to edge Team Chevy's Kurt Johnson. Last week's winner at Brainerd drove the ACDelco Chevy Cobalt to a 6.646 e.t. at 207.82 mph.
"I'm pretty happy with the run," Line said. "Obviously it's faster than everybody else, so no complaints. We had lots of room for improvement after that first run, that's for sure. We've been struggling the last few races with getting the car down the racetrack, but the guys did a good job. I kind of messed up a little bit there at the end. For some reason I lifted a little bit before the stripe, but not enough to hurt anything. I maybe lost a thousandth, that's about it. Sometimes I go brain dead, I guess. But hopefully that's a sign of things to come for the rest of the weekend.
"We'll see whether it stands up or not. I think the weather is going to be better tomorrow. I seriously doubt that will hold, but if it does, great. Ideally, Greg (Anderson, teammate) and I would like to be (Nos.) 1 and 2. That's pretty important to us."
WELCOME BACK -
PLOTTING HIS COURSE - Rod Fuller was second only to Schumacher in qualifying. He's pleased to be in the position Friday's run produced.
"I thought the team did a real good job. We had some new guys to go with the guys who have been with us for years and they worked well together. They have good chemistry so we are making progress."
“I didn’t think it would hold up,” Fuller said. “I really thought it would be fifth or sixth. We’re trying some things that we did last season. It ran what we felt it would and thought it would be in the top half, but not number two. It was a pleasant surprise. We’re running on all eight cylinders and she has a lot left in her. If it holds, it keeps us on the opposite side of that Army car. We don’t want to race them in the first or second round every week.”
MCBRIDE'S NEW MCRIDE -
FIGHTING FOR A SPOT - Del Worsham came into Reading looking to both improve his position in the POWERade points and his standing in the U.S. Smokeless Showdown rankings, with the Showdown situation taking precedence. Friday morning, as the Funny Car class began its first session, Worsham sat tied with Jack Beckman in the No. 9 spot, one slot out of the Showdown, and was only 5 points behind Gary Scelzi, who sat 8th. In addition, Jerry Toliver began the day 40 points ahead of Worsham, holding down the 7th Showdown spot, and John Force was clearly roaring up from behind, only 35 points behind both Worsham and Beckman.
When Friday's Funny Car qualifying was complete, Force was still roaring, but Worsham appeared to have provided himself a huge boost toward his improbable run for a Showdown berth. The Checker, Schuck's, Kragen driver piloted his CSK Impala to a 4.157-second lap during the second qualifying session, which landed him 9th on the provisional grid. Force, meanwhile, raced to an even bigger 4.139, which put him in 4th, but that edge only adds up to 25 Showdown points, not the 35 Force needs to catch Worsham. Meanwhile, all three of the other drivers in this scenario, Toliver, Scelzi, and Beckman, did not make the top 12 on this day, so they will head into Saturday as part of a field of eight drivers still trying to claim a spot in Sunday's race. Unless Scelzi or Beckman can better Worsham's 4.157 during either of the two afternoon sessions, Worsham will have the edge on them that he needs. Should Toliver surprisingly fail to qualify for the race here (there are 20 cars vying for the 16-car field), the CSK driver would pass him as well and move all the way into the 7th position for the special event which pays $100,000 to the winner.
In terms of the battle with Force for the Showdown, the iconic Castrol driver would have to either move up one more spot on the grid, or two other drivers would have to work their way into the field between Force and Worsham, to allow Force to pick up the 10 additional points he needs.
"It's not over yet, and keep in mind that the weather here can do anything, so it's not automatically going to be a slower Saturday," Worsham said. "It's not unusual for the clouds to roll in and the temperature to really cool off here, so I'm not thinking that Force can't still run quicker, and I'm not sure that the other guys can't catch us either. Ashley Force ran a 4.14 this afternoon, in the first session, so it's completely feasible that all this will get shaken up, but if you asked any of us if we'd like to enter Saturday in the 8th spot or the 9th for the Showdown, I'm pretty sure we'd all want to be defending a spot and not trying to bump our way in. As of right now, we managed to do that today, and that's pretty exciting.
"How a team with four DNQs on the season can bounce back like we have, and even be in this position to have a shot at the Showdown, is kind of amazing. We've just gotten on a qualifying hot streak at the right time, and somehow we've leapfrogged a few teams and passed some others, and we came in here tied with Jack and only five behind Gary. If it's hot and sunny tomorrow, it's going to be tough to run 4.15s or better, but like I said, you can't count on anything here at Maple Grove. We've seen everything here but a blizzard, over the years, and we know how crazy it can be. I think there's a lot of drama left in this deal, but I feel pretty good about the position we've put ourselves in.
THE RIGHT AID ...
BALANCING ACT - For Rickie Jones, jumping into the world of NHRA Pro Stock doesn't just mean learning to drive and become competitive in one of NHRA's toughest classes, it also means learning to balance the maintenance of a notable chassis shop along with mastering the ropes as a professional driver. Jones is the Assembly Manager at the notable RJ Race Cars. Spending so much time on the road makes for long days at the shop and little time off, especially between back-to-back events such as the Lucas Oil Nationals last weekend and this weekend's Toyo Tires Nationals.
"There's a lot that goes into being a competitive driver," says Jones. "I have to make sure my head is in the game and focused on each run, of course, but when I'm not in the seat I'm working on the car, talking with fans and sponsors, or reviewing my runs and working to improve my driving skills. Business has been really good in the [chassis] shop this year so when I get home I spend most of my time there playing catch up from time on the road and making sure customers are taken care of. I have to switch mental gears constantly and be focused on the task at hand. It's tough at times but I really enjoy it and I think it gives me an advantage as a driver. Because I've been involved in racing on so many levels I feel that I have a good grasp of everything that goes on with the car, which helps me to make good calls both on and off the track."
Rickie Jones and the Quarter-Max Mopar Dodge Stratus Team entered this weekend looking to take advantage of their consistent performance from Brainerd and capitalize on that by going rounds.
"Back-to-back races are great," Jones continues, "because it's good for me to be in the car as much as possible and it definitely keeps me on my toes. I love being at the track and everything that goes along with being a professional driver. I'm finding that perfect balance."
ARE WE THERE YET? - The trailer housing
the Schumacher Electric Suzuki Pro Stock Motorcycle ridden by Chip
Ellis encountered an axle problem on the east side of Indianapolis on
Thursday as the team began its journey from the Brownsburg, Ind.-based
Don Schumacher Racing shop to this weekend's 24th annual NHRA Nationals
at Maple Grove Raceway.
The repairs took nearly 12 hours and delayed the team's arrival in Mohnton, Pa., by 35 hours. The crew finally left Indianapolis at 11 p.m. Thursday night and arrived at Maple Grove at 9:30 a.m. Friday.
"The right rear trailer wheel bearing went out," said Ellis, who helped the team remove the wheel and was still able to catch his scheduled flight into Philadelphia Thursday night. "The damage was so severe it took the spindle out and in order to fix it we had to have the spindle cut off and a new one welded on. My teammates and crew, Tom Patsis and Jason Jones, hung right in there and made sure the people working on the trailer were following the proper procedures with the repair."
Ellis actually met the team where they had broken down and they took the tires off themselves. Then they chained the axle up and Patsis and Jones brought the truck to a nearby truck repair center on 16 of 18 tires.
"It's not something that happens that often, but the same thing happened on the same wheel to this truck last year," added Ellis. "I don't know if they just did a patch job last year just to get it to the track, but I think they've got it fixed right this time. They made it here with time to spare. The truck's a little dirty but we got everything here and everyone's safe and that's all that matters.
"That's commitment to this team and that's why I'm here," said Ellis. "Just getting here was an ordeal for them and my hat is off to them and I appreciate it."
Schumacher Electric Suzuki crew chief Steve Tartaglia said that the delay would not affect the team's preparation for qualifying today. "We're good," he said. "It's no problem. If would they would have arrived any later it would have been a problem. It was worrisome but everything seems like it worked out. The crew has probably been up for the last two days, so they get an A-plus for effort."
Ellis was the No. 3 qualifier in the first Pro Stock Motorcycle qualifying session today.
ONE, MAYBE TWO PUNCH - One has a good chance and the other a not-so-good, but mathematical chance to break into the
Top Fuel division’s Countdown to the
Championship field. Such odds only serve as motivation for the Lucas
Oil-sponsored one-two punch of Morgan Lucas and J.R. Todd.
Lucas needs only 13 points to get into the field, a mere blooper base hit in softball terms, could vault him past No. 10 Dave Grubnic.
Todd, on the other hand, needs a bona-fide upper deck shot to get in.
Headed into this weekend’s NHRA Toyo Tires Nationals in Reading, Pa., provides the perfect setting for Lucas. This will be the second event with newly acquired tuner Jimmy Walsh, a past national event winner with Todd on another team.
In their first race together, Lucas drove his way to a quarter-final finish, giving the race team a much needed morale boost.
“We’ve got a big weekend ahead of us and Jimmy will have his family out there, so I know he will definitely want to perform in front of his hometown fans,” said Lucas. “We know what we have to do and we’re steadily improving and with Jimmy and Stew (John Stewart, J.R. Todd’s crew chief) working together, I feel we’re on the verge of something big and that should mark a major improvement for us. It’s getting down to nail-biting time and I want not only my car, but J.R.’s car in the championship (hunt) as well.”
Todd finished seventh in last season’s championship countdown phase while driving for Dexter Tuttle. He’s currently 108 points out of contention in this year's battle.
His scenario, mathematically will require a two-part race strategy. The maximum amount of points a driver may accumulate for an event is 118 points, minus 31, the minimum a qualified driver will earn, leaving Todd 87 as his greatest potential surge with a win and Low E.T. Top Qualifier with a first round loss for No. 10 place runner, David Grubnic along with 12th to 16th qualifying start for him. Every round is worth 20 points, with every participating driver attaining a base 10 points for just a qualifying attempt.
“Anything is possible,” said an optimistic Todd. “We all know it’s a major uphill climb and our attitude is focused on qualifying high and winning rounds. That’s the only sure way to make it up the ladder if we have any possibilities in getting us there. With the odds against us, it’s the ‘Underdog’ feeling that kind of creates fun in the challenge of making it perhaps happen. We want to help Morgan (Lucas, teammate) in his chances of making the Top 10. That’s what we’re shooting for and we’re not giving up at all.”
DEJA VU? - This season’s scenario bears a striking resemblance to 2007 when Lucas was out of contention and then teammate Melanie was within a miniscule amount of points of qualifying for the Countdown to Four. In a no-win situation ironically it was Lucas who scored the win thus eliminating Troxel from contention.
“I talked to everyone on both teams and no one wanted to make the decision,” Lucas told CompetitionPlus.com after the event. “We just raced it. They had the better car and lane choice. We raced and made it as legitimate as possible. I talked to Jon Stewart [then Troxel’s crew chief and currently Todd’s] and Melanie, too, and they wanted to race it out. I wanted the same thing. That was how they wanted to do it and that’s how did it.”
Lucas left on Troxel and beat her to the finish line, effectively ending her championship hopes.
As long as Todd doesn’t meet Lucas in the first round, he won’t have to worry about being on the other side of déjà vu.
NOT RETIRING - On Wednesday, John Force was introduced to an esteemed audience at the Fillmore Auditorium in Detroit as the newest drag racing member of the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America.
Afterward, the 59-year-old icon, who this season is back at the wheel of his Castrol GTX® High Mileage™ Ford Mustang after suffering career-threatening injuries, cautioned rivals against reading too much into the honor.
"I'm not retiring, if that's what they think," Force said as he prepared to compete in this week's 24th annual Toyo Tires Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway. "I always thought that when they put you in the Hall of Fame, you were either retired or worse. But, at the end of the day, I didn't go through all this therapy just so I could retire.
"I still want to win," he said, "and if (crew chiefs Austin) Coil and Bernie (Fedderly) can figure out this race car, I think we can. Hopefully, we can get in the Countdown and, if you get in, you've got a shot."
To get in, Force simply needs to do what he did last year when he earned runner-up honors in an event that, because of rain, wasn't completed until Wednesday. There are other scenarios that would achieve the same goal, but Force doesn't want to merely tip-toe into the playoffs. That simply is not his style.
"We need to start hurting someone's feelings besides our own," Force said. "We need the eye of the tiger."
OH MR. WILSON -
FACING THE GIANTS - Three years might not seem like a long time. However, in the past three
years drag racing instructor and former IHRA Rookie of the Year Doug
Foley has developed a reputation that goes well beyond his experience.
While he is still seeking his first NHRA national event win after only 25 events worth of experience, in IHRA competition, Foley has won six times.
On that side of the fence, he’s been heralded as a championship contender. Save for a season-ending crash, he could have very well claimed a title.
On the NHRA tour, he’s a giant killer for his tendency to knock off the larger, more well financed teams. Save for a devastating sponsor loss, he could have been a giant this year.
"When we run, I think we do a good job of representing ourselves," said Foley, who's entered just three events this year after unexpectedly losing his title sponsor in the days leading up to the season opener. "We try to stay within our capabilities and our approach is to do everything we can to land that major sponsor we need to race full time.
"Our goals at the start of the year, and I thought of them as realistic goals, were to earn a spot in the Countdown to 1, win some races along the way, and make a run at the title. If our success in 2007 taught us anything it was that we could compete with anyone. Unfortunately, our plans took a drastic turn but we're still hoping to be a part of the Countdown to 1, only this time as a spoiler."
THAT'S HIS NAME - Warren Johnson nicknamed Kenny Koretsy "Captain Chaos" for a reason. This weekend, race fans will witness a prime example.
Koretsy won't be driving, but he'll have four teams in competition this weekend.Koretsky, owner of Nitro Fish apparel and the Nitro Fish/Indicom Electric Pro Stock Pontiac GXP driven by Richie Stevens, also has sponsored entries in Top Fuel, Pro Stock Motorcycle and Super Comp for the Toyo Tires Nationals at his home track.
Popular driver Clay Millican returns to Top Fuel racing in the Nitro Fish/Hope4Sudan entry of MPE Motorsports, LLC, with new team owner Mark Pickens. Defending Pro Stock Motorcycle champion Matt Smith will be seeking his second consecutive victory on the Nitro Fish Wear Buell and perhaps regain the NHRA POWERade Series point lead.
Kyle Koretsky, Kenny’s youngest son, makes his second national event appearance at the controls of the Nitro Fish Super Comp Sportsman dragster.
“I’m excited about watching the Nitro Fish cars race at Maple Grove,” said Koretsky, who began his long racing career at the Mohnton, Pa., track more than 30 years ago. “And I’m excited about Matt’s win at Brainerd (Minn.) on Sunday. That was my third Wally (nickname for winner’s trophy) from Matt this year.”
Stevens, meanwhile, had a good weekend at Brainerd, turning in four consistent qualifying runs and qualifying ninth. He had a mechanical problem in the first round.
“We left Brainerd on a positive note,” said Stevens, of New Orleans. “We want to run well this weekend because it is Kenny’s home track. Eddie (Guarnaccia, Koretsky’s longtime friend and crew chief) knows the Reading track, probably better than anybody. It’s our goal to qualify in the top half of the field and go some rounds on Sunday.”
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