NHRA’s DECISION TO FOLD RAIN-RUINED EPPING RACE INTO BRISTOL QUALIFYING POPULAR WITH DRIVERS
Between giving rain-soaked New England Dragway and its remarkably steadfast fans every effort to present the New England Nationals at Epping, N.H., and keeping its Camping World Drag Racing Series on schedule, NHRA officials performed a delicate balancing act Monday.
The result is a rare doubleheader in one three-day event, starting this Friday at Tennessee’s Bristol Dragway.
The notion of combining Epping eliminations with Bristol qualifying Friday and Saturday, then running the Thunder Valley Nationals eliminations Sunday as scheduled at first sounded like interstate insanity, like mass confusion that would make four-wide racing look simple. Add to all that the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge races that award prized Countdown points and as much as $10,000 to the winners, and it seems crew chiefs, racers, and fans would find the action-packed agenda downright dizzying.
Curiously enough, though, the consensus among the racers appears to be an appetite for the madness of it all. They love the NHRA’s daring solution and applauded the sanctioning body for finding a creative resolution to a tricky problem.
And Top Fuel’s Leah Pruett spoke for many, saying, “My blood inside me gets excited, thinking how almost every lap we make there has the chance to be a competition round. It’s going to be one of the most ultimate race events Bristol has ever had, which in turn is going to be thrilling for fans every single day.”
For a variety of reasons, most – from FOX Sports’ Brian Lohnes to most recent winning Top Fuel tuner Jim Oberhofer to team owner-Funny Car driver Ron Capps – rejected the option to stage the Epping race in its entirety Thursday at Bristol.
Oberhofer, whose fraternity of crew chiefs just might be the most affected in this situation, said, “There's a couple of ways to look at the scenario we now have at Bristol. I don't think running on Thursday at Bristol to finish the Epping race would have been a good idea, simply because of track prep.
“In a perfect world,” Oberhofer said, we really need a full day of cars running on the track along with PJ1 Traction Compound sprays and tire drags by the NHRA Safety Safari to get the track surface to the level that we need for the Top Fuel and Funny Car teams to perform the way we all want. Ideally, if you wanted to finish the Epping event separate from the Bristol event, running on the Monday after Bristol would have worked best, as far as the track having the best traction available.”
Finances definitely played a role in the decision-making.
Oberhofer said, “The other way to look at this is cost savings. Not having to make an extra one-to-four runs on Thursday or Monday would save the teams money. The only negative I see about running the Epping race within Bristol qualifying is that normally during qualifying, if you drop a cylinder or smoke or shake the tires, you would abort the run. Now that we are ‘racing’ during qualifying, you will see the drivers do what they need to do to win that round. We had a similar situation up at Epping on Saturday when Clay [his driver, Millican] raced Brittany [Force] in the Mission Foods race. Both drivers tried to get the win, but in the process, I think Brittany hurt a motor, and Clay went on a wild ride trying to get the win.
“It's a tough situation that we all will get through, but it's also exciting, as well, because of the potential of leaving Bristol with two Wallys,” he said.
Capps wasn’t keen on the suggestion to cut everyone’s losses Sunday and travel to Bristol, for a Thursday completion of the New England Nationals.
“No, because we would've robbed our Epping fans of not trying. You got to show 'em at least that you're trying,” he said. “I think our fans at New England Dragway deserved us giving it every possible chance. I don't think I've ever seen anybody with it raining and 100-percent chance it was going to rain, walk through the gates [like] we saw at New England Driveway on Sunday and Monday. Holy smokes – to come in the gate like that . . . hardcore fans. And so you got to give it a whirl.”
He said, “NHRA did everything possible. So did the teams. It was a joint effort. We all worked well together trying to figure out a plan. There's great communication right now with NHRA and PRO and all the drivers. When Mother Nature comes in and it's, everybody's got to work together the best we can,” Capps said. “So it's not that we didn't want to go back there [to Epping], but we don't have a lot of latitude in the schedule and travel and all that to be able to do it. And we almost pulled it off on Monday. It looked like we were going to get a shot to at least get a couple rounds in if we could and then run the other two in Bristol. So there was a lot going on, and it was great. NHRA was keeping us abreast of what was happening.
“I don't think the Thursday in Bristol would've been a good thing. I think it's perfect what's going on now,” he said.
Top Fuel racer Justin Ashley agreed: “I would've loved to race in Epping. Credit to NHRA. They did everything in their power to get the race off. Think all things considered, it's being handled correctly.”
Ashley said, “I prefer to finish it during qualifying in Bristol. There's no reason to add an extra day to the schedule. It gives the fans more meaningful races Friday-Sunday now. Also, the format is good, because we can run Q1 Friday first and get our baseline, then go into the race-day part of it.”
Lohnes had yet another perspective. He said, “The other logistical problem with trying to run the event on Thursday was the fact that the television trucks need to get there and get set up, which is at least one full day's work, if not more than that. So if we were to run the race on Thursday, it would be done not only in front of no people, it would be done with absolutely no media coverage. I don't necessarily feel as though the teams would be all that happy about that.”
Capps did say that he was “a little surprised NHRA didn't just start the Epping Round 1 with Q1 [Friday] because when you rolled into Sunday or to Saturday you would've already known who in the semi-finals would've been in the #2Fast2Tasty. So that was a little shocker. I think a lot of the crew chiefs were talking about how Q2, the Friday-night hero session, is going to actually be Round 1 of Epping. So really, the fans are obviously going to win, no matter what. It's going to be a pretty epic two days, and then you roll into Sunday and it's the finals for Bristol. So yeah, a lot going on.”
Shawn Langdon concluded, “The situation in Epping was tough. There’s really no right or wrong answer to it, because any way you do it, some people will agree, and some people won’t. In my opinion, they made the best possible decision. Epping has one of the best fan bases on tour, but logistically, it would be very difficult to get back up there to put on a great show for them. There are minimal options moving forward, so when I heard what the plan was, I liked it and knew I could get behind it. It raises the stakes for everything, and I think it was the right decision.
“I like it,” he said. “It’s going to put a lot more at stake. Every qualifying run will matter, and every eliminations run will matter. How they intertwined the #2Fast2Tasty Challenge, which will also be intertwined with the Epping race and the Bristol race qualifying . . . I think it’s awesome, and I’m excited to be a part of it.
“You’re racing to win the round,” the 2013 Top Fuel champion said. “The qualifying run will be a residual effect of you trying to win the round. Anytime I sit in a race car, whether its testing, qualifying, eliminations, or racing in the finals for a championship, I have the same mentality. Nothing changes on my end, and I don’t think much changes as far as the tune-up goes. You go up there to make the best run possible, and I go up there to cut the best light possible. I don’t think that much changes.”
Funny Car racer Matt Hagan said the same: “I treat every round as I do in race day every round. So it really doesn't affect me. The crew chiefs, it really falls in their laps. They're going to have to make those decisions, as far as how hard to press something and not smoke the tires or what they need to do to navigate those lanes. But my job pretty much stays the same. It's a race as far as getting up on the tree and reaction time and drivability and stuff like that. So pretty much it's just business is normal for me.” He said knowing each pass has extra meaning won’t mess up his mindset. “I don't think so. I mean, I don't think a whole lot up there, anyway,” he quipped. He said all he’s adding to his goals is having “a real opportunity to have two trophies in one weekend.”
J.R. Todd has been planning his Funny Car strategy: “It makes Q1 super-important to get down the track and get yourself qualified well. Other than that, you have to kind of go into race mode. A lot will depend on whether you’re in or out of the field after that first qualifying attempt, as far as how you approach the second qualifying round that’ll also be the first round of Epping eliminations.
“You have to try to win the [Epping] round, but you also have to make the [Bristol] race so that first qualifying round will be really important. It’s definitely a bonus for the fans, but you have to be aware if lane choice matters for the next round, for example. Bristol is one of my favorite tracks, but the surface is one of the hardest tracks we compete on each season. It is definitely tricky, especially when it gets warm there. It’s bumpy, and you kind of have to tip-toe your way down there to make it to the finish line under power. It’s definitely going to be interesting racing there during qualifying, that’s for sure.”
This is a unique circumstance, although a couple of times a race has been finished at another track. “The closest thing was when they moved the 2014 Charlotte 2 race to Dallas to finish from the quarterfinals on or the semifinals on because the track surface at Charlotte was falling apart,” Oberhofer said. “I just can't remember when that happened, but I do know it was after first round.” And the 2012 Reading, Pa., event finished at Las Vegas.
One other race with similar circumstances comes to mind: the 2021 Gatornationals, when three Top Fuel racers failed to qualify for the race because they were trying to advance in the Pep Boys All-Star Call-Out. To be fair, rain washed out their remaining chances to qualify. And Langdon – one of the three – experienced a mechanical failure.
The dual-purpose pass in qualifying “wasn’t a factor,” Langdon said, “because we had a rear-end failure. Whether it was a qualifier or for the Pep Boys All-Star Callout, the same thing would have happened. The reason we missed the race was because there were no more qualifying runs because of the weather. We were limited to one qualifying round, which turned into the first round of the shootout. We had a rear-end failure and weren’t able to get off the starting line, so it was a double-impact result of our mechanical malfunction.”
All in all, Hagan said, “I think everybody's just trying to do the best they can with what they got and nobody wanted to be there [at Epping] Monday and not get it in. And they were even talking about being there Tuesday and man, it's just, it's like ‘Well, eventually we got to make some decisions here,’ and I think they made the best call is to pack it up and move on. It's just an unfortunate situation. But if we could control Mother Nature, it would be scary.”
Capps’ corollary to that was that “it took something [like] a bummer with Mother Nature [to] to turn this into something pretty cool in Bristol, the best we could make of it.”
Let the chaos commence.