Remembering the only REAL Nationals...


Years ago highly respected automotive writer Rick Voegelin titled a story on the U.S. Nationals “Indy Nation” in the pages of Car Craft Magazine.  It was true then, and just as true now.  Then Indianapolis and now O’Reilly Raceway Park becomes almost a country unto itself during the marathon that is the U.S. Nationals.  It’s “citizens” are like no other.  They wear “uniforms” of brightly colored shirts that declare their loyalty to competitors as diverse as Del Worsham and Dan Fletcher.  They whoop and holler after their favorite Top Fuel driver warms his engine, or stick their fingers deep into their ears as Steve Johnson does the same with his Suzuki motorcycle.  They stand in silent worship in the Hemi Challenge pit area, ogling quarter million dollar cars from the 60s, before many of them were born.  They hold their faces to the skies so that rubber particles from a Tony Schumacher burnout peppers their skin.  They beg for a discarded spark plug from an unknown Super Gas roadster owner.  Looking furtively around they’ll tear a sponsor’s banner from the fences.  They’ll collect hero cards from drivers they detest just to have them.  They come from Indiana and almost every other state in the Union.  They arrive in Muscle Cars, vans, motorhomes and on the back of choppers.  They fly in from Australia and Europe.  The empty the airport car rental lots and fill the hotels and campgrounds.

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Trying to absorb the sites, smells and sounds of it all is impossible.  For every interesting scene in the Funny Car pits there’s an equally compelling vision taking place on the other side of the track in the 150-plus strong Super Comp area.  For every ecstatic Top Fuel qualifier exploding with emotions at the finish line after qualifying there’s an equally overwhelmed Stock driver grinning like an idiot as he crosses the scales with a class victory.  Here are just a few of the things we saw at Indy.

John Force being booed by the fans?  Say it ain’t so!  Force’s stunning Silver Anniversary Castrol Mustang came to the starting line Friday evening amidst a modicum of hype, but then Bob Frey made an unfortunate reference to the silver stars on the front of the car, suggesting they represented the Dallas Cowboys.  In a town of Colts maniacs, that didn’t go down very well, and despite the fact that’s there’s absolutely no affiliation with the NFL team, the crowd thought otherwise, and voiced their feelings.  Force had last been booed probably 20 years ago.

Tommy Johnson, Jr. at the finish line after the semifinal round of the Skoal Showdown, and before the TV camera was turned on:  “That was ugly,” he said in reference to his tire-smoking victory as the crew arrived.  “She’s probably nicked ‘cause I legged ‘er through.”

Craig Treble slowly and methodically removing and tossing aside his helmet, gloves and leather jacket after failing to qualify the Lartigue & Treble Pro Stock Motorcycle.

Mark Pawuk’s daughter waiting for her dad on the other side of the chain link fence at the finish line as she played with a girlfriend, then breaking into tears when he didn’t qualify.  It was the sixth time Pawuk has ended up 17th this season, missing the cut by a thousandth of a second.

An endlessly repeated scene:  Youngsters wildly turning the spinner caps on the huge polished wheels of Bob Gilbertson’s transporter in the pits.  Ideally parked in a walkway, no one under the age of 15 could resist stopping to give them a spin.  Had Gilbertson been charging for the privilege he could have made hundreds, maybe thousands.

NHRA executives quietly smiling in the knowledge that the Indy crowd approached the record-setting level of the 50th Anniversary U.S. Nationals a few years back.

VIPS from Peyton Manning to unknown yet critically important corporate executives visiting the races, many for the first time.  And some of them will be back, wielding sponsorship support for racers desperately in need. 

It’s a major team sponsor quietly, and without fanfare, making two five figure contributions to a pair of worthy causes.

It’s fans crowding Nitro Alley on the pro side of the track and the Manufacturers Midway on the other.  Desirous men ogling polished performance parts while their ever-patient wives rolled their eyes and sighed in the background.  He’s thinking “polished manifold” and she’s thinking “new furniture.”  How do we know?  We just do.

Crowds jamming the Harley-Davidson and POWERade drag racing simulators on the east side of the track, some even ignoring the stunning action taking place behind them on the track.

Drivers being called back to their pits from their souvenir trailers on cell phones to warm their engines before the next session.  How did we live before cell phones?

Class calls filling the empty lakes of cracked asphalt that are the staging lanes with highly polished race cars representing every decade from the 20s – that would be the 1920s – to once showroom fresh 2006 models, but those ‘06ers bear as much resemblance to a real car as does Ron Capps’ Charger Funny Car to the real thing.

It’s wide-eyed youngsters clutching the hands of moms thinking “not my kid” as they watch daredevil motorcycle stunt riders do insane flips 30 feet above their heads.  It’s a plastic bag full of product catalogs, hero cards and souvenir T-shirts being carefully held against his chest as its owner jumps up yet again to cheer for Warren Johnson from the top row of the grandstands.  It’s a harried and weary aftermarket rep answering the same question about his company’s new valve covers for the two thousandth time.  It’s a six year old, tongue in the corner of his mouth in concentration as he tries to toss a rubber ball into a tire target during an oildown so he can earn a T-shirt prize too big to even fit his father.

It’s alcohol and nitro-fueled dragsters and Funny Cars considered sportsman racers in the rulebook, but appearing – and running – so darn hard that they’ve earned professional status from the fans, many with colorful monikers rather than sanitized corporate affiliations.

It’s a pressroom jammed to overflowing with writers representing a wide spectrum of the media, from newspapers and magazines to web sites like this one.  And off in the distance an equally crowded ORP round track pressroom filled with tirelessly working team PR people, men and women who produce a significant amount of publicity for drag racing.  You wouldn’t know them if you saw them, assuming the uniform shirts many wear to have been purchased from the souvenir trailers, but you could tell they were there by the crowded balcony of the round track’s back “porch” whenever the pros ran.

The daily “jump-in” by the skydiver who carries the American flag under his POWERade parachute canopy to rousing applause.  It’s a sight to behold.  He drops like a stone, flairs out and lands like a feather, never losing his feet.  Try as one might, it’s impossible not to cheer at his arrival.

It’s dirt encrusted men and women in blue shirts constantly scraping and cleaning the racing surface so the drivers can put on a great show for an appreciative crowd.  It’s the smell of nitro mixed with the equally intoxicating flavors of fried sausage sandwiches and corndogs.

It’s an over-the-top John Force showing the crowd his hundred grand for winning the Skoal Showdown.  It’s NHRA president Tom Compton welcoming executives from the sport’s sponsors as their special events commence.  It’s those Harley guys celebrating yet another Ringers Gloves Pro Bike Battle victory.  It’s fans hushing themselves so Dave Reiff can do a pitside interview for ESPN.  It’s Alan Reinhart saying into the radio clipped to his collar at the finish line, “I’ve got Anderson, I’ve got Anderson” so they can cut the PA to him for a quickie interview.  It’s Garry Gerould consulting a page full of notes before the next driver arrives so he can ask the “right” questions.  It’s photographers jockeying for position as J.R. Todd climbs out of his car, ecstatic at having qualified in a last-gasp effort.

It’s a first round of eliminations so filled with stunning upsets and outrageous numbers that had pari-mutual wagering been taking place an investigation would have been called for.

It’s David Grubnic’s Top Fuel fire and oil spill covering both lanes of the track, and then it’s Ron Krisher’s Cobalt spinning, diving and flipping like a thrill ride gone bad.  It’s the constant whoop-whoop-whoop of the Copter Cam as it records the action from above.  It’s an incensed crowd booing the decision that Jim Head’s colorful Funny Car has indeed crossed the centerline in the semifinal round and then wildly cheering him as he slowly tows down the return road.

It’s Angelle Sampey’s mascara beginning to run with her tears as she tries to describe the feeling of losing the motorcycle finale to Matt Smith, the winner for the second straight year, but this time for real.  It’s Brandon Bernstein climbing out after the last Top Fuel race, glancing back at his oil-encrusted engine and stating the obvious: “It blew up,” as Tony Schumacher is mobbed in the background, and it’s a depressed Whit Bazemore taking a deep breath before mouthing the politically correct responses after losing to Robert Hight.  It’s Greg Anderson pounding the roof of his GTO after a fourth straight Indy win.

It is all of this and so very much more.  It is the Mac Tools NHRA U.S. Nationals.  It is the greatest, biggest most exciting drag race of any year.  It is nothing more, and nothing less than a one word extravaganza.  It is Indy.


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