Doug Herbert has lost longtime sponsor Snap-on Tools, which has backed him in whole or part for the last 16 seasons. The news is the latest in a disturbing trend of downsizing that’s happening across the board in drag racing. Let's face it, NHRA had a tough time filling 16 cars fields this year, failing to do so on three occasions. Other races were filled out with teams that basically just showed up to collect qualifying money, with low-buck racers making just one qualifying attempt and idling down the track on Sunday if they bothered to show up at all.
Like it or not, a race program is often the first to feel the budget ax when times are tough, and as our president-elect Barack Obama said Friday, "We're in the worst economic crisis of our generation." Even if a race sponsorship makes perfect sense and has been delivering a high return on investment, it's an easy item to scratch off the ledger, just ask Doug Herbert.
I think it's worth pointing out that crew chief Lee Beard had his team's publicist, Ted Yerzyk, send out a press release in which Beard apologizes to his fellow crew chiefs, the racers, and the fans for oiling down the track two times last weekend in Las Vegas. One oildown took more than an hour to clean up and the other wasn't much better. They were two of the worst oildowns of the year and certainly the longest since the racing has been shortened to 1,000 feet.
I've been covering this sport for 12 years and I can never remember a crew chief publicly taking responsibility for his mistake. It takes a real pro to do so and my level of admiration for Beard has increased dramatically.
Usually, we see the exact opposite happen whenever something bad happens. The driver or the tuner will blame the other person for the miscue; maybe not in front of the media but loud enough that other people see what's happening. Sometimes, it even leads to someone getting fired because ego got in the way.
This is a great life lesson: We're all human and we all make mistakes. Own up to them when they happen and move on. Antron sure can't win without Beard tuning his car and Beard could tune the space shuttle but without the astronaut it'll never get into orbit.
Nice job Lee.
Josh Hernandez won three of eight ADRL events this season. No one else had more than one. He came into the season-ending Battle of the Belts event a whopping 482 points ahead of his nearest rival. Yet, despite his clear dominance of the Pro Extreme class, he finished the year fifth thanks to one of the oddest championship scenarios in racing.
According to a recent ADRL press release, the one-day Battle for the Belts that decides season champions in each of its four professional categories was initially introduced to keep racers from skipping the final race in Dallas, which requires competitors to travel farther west than any other event.
Eventually, after his first two opponents red-lighted, Jason Scruggs claimed Hernandez's championship with a tire-spinning 4.15 down the eighth mile of the Texas Motorplex.
Scruggs entered the weekend 1,018 points behind Hernandez in the points, yet president Kenny Nowling insists his Battle for the Belts format is a "stroke of competitive genius."
Ummm, okay, if you say so.
Point leaders Billy Harper in Pro Nitrous and Billy Glidden in Extreme 10.5 did convert their No. 1 qualifying spots into Battle for the Belt wins and season titles, but Pro Extreme Motorcycle leader Ron Procopio, the only multi event winner in his class, undoubtedly feels as forgotten as Hernandez does this morning after failing to win it all.
Last year a final qualifier in one of the classes won the race and ended up as the ADRL champion.
From everything I've heard about the ADRL, their events are a lot of fun and well attended. Too bad they cheapen it all with this regrettable "playoff." A press release saying this is a "stroke of competitive genius" doesn't convince anyone. This system needs to be fixed.
To that end, Leah told me that she just completed the licensing requirements to drive a Funny Car, taking Jerry Toliver's Rockstar hot rod down South Georgia Motorsports Park in 5.01 seconds at 309 mph.
It's easy to gaze at Leah and think of her as another pretty face looking for fame and glory but I think what struck me the most about her was this certain look in her eye that I don't always see in budding racers.
When I mentioned the dangers involved in going 300 mph, she turned the conversation immediately to the excitement of driving an 8,000 horsepower car. When I said she could die doing this, she countered that you really haven't lived until you've taken on this challenge. For every objection I had, she had a passionate answer, speaking at length of her love for racing, the unique experience of being a part of a race team, and the elation of winning.
She's definitely got the sickness.
We can only hope she gets a ride and joins the tour soon. A sponsor would be lucky to have her as a spokesperson. And she's only 20, so she should be around for many years to come.
They're not ready to discuss details yet but it appears Morgan Lucas and J.R. Todd will remain teammates next year at Morgan Lucas Racing. I spoke with Morgan and they have a new sponsor in place for J.R.'s dragster but all the contracts aren't signed yet so he was understandably shy about saying too much.
This was great to hear for a number of reasons. First of all, we haven't had much good news to talk about in regards to sponsors coming into the sport in these rough economic times and I'm still struggling to see how we're going to have 16 full-time dragsters in 2009. Hopefully, more things are in the works.
It's also cool to see two young guys that are obviously very good friends being able to live the dream together. Morgan and J.R. are both good kids and good drivers and I'd imagine their best days are still in front of them.
All the underground talk about Top Fuel driver "Hot Rod" Fuller and crew chief Rob Flynn leaving David Powers Motorsports and hijacking the Caterpillar sponsorship over to Bob Vandergriff's camp are completely unfounded and untrue.
"I don't know where people come up with this stuff," Fuller said. "That one was way out there. Man, we have a great team here with a great team owner. We have a lot of things we're going to accomplish together."
Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Shawn Gann was thrown out of this weekend's 21st annual O’Reilly Mid-South Nationals at Memphis Motorsports Park for having a synthetic ice bag wrapped around his gas tank in violation of NHRA rules. The bag was discovered during the third round of professional qualifying Saturday morning and Gann was immediately tossed. He pleaded his case to Senior Vice President of Racing Operations Graham Light to no avail.
"I think this is a little harsh for something that was just a mistake on my part," a flabbergasted Gann said. "It's not like I'm fighting for the championship. Plus, I've never crossed the rules before. I wasn't trying to cheat. I just forgot to take it off before my run."
Having cooler fuel in the tank increases performance, especially when the weather gets hot.
I had a nice conversation with Jason McCulloch in Dallas. The son of legend Ed "the Ace" McCulloch is a rising star in the world of crew chiefs and has served loyally as Alan Johnson's right-hand man for the U.S. Army team's incredible run over the last five years.
I brought up the fact that Tony Schumacher has floated his name in the media as a possible replacement crew chief when Johnson leaves to start his own team in 2009. Not interested, Jason said.
"That job is career suicide," he said with a laugh. "How do you follow what Alan has done?"
That's a good point, but someone will have to try, I suppose. As for Jason, he's remaining in his current role as A.J.'s right-hand man. Aside from the sponsor name on his jersey, not much will change.
If Alan is the brains of the operation, Jason is the muscle. He's the one that makes sure all of Alan's commands are executed properly and although he doesn't get much credit, I believe he should because it's not easy making sure everything is as close to perfect as possible, which obviously it has been for a long time now with that Army team.
After races and in the off-season, when Alan hops on his jet and heads back to his cylinder head business in California, Jason is the boss. Moving forward, he's the one scouting out locations for a new shop that Al-Anabi Racing will occupy in Indy and he's the one putting together the massive list of things the start-up team will need.
So remember, if AAR comes out of the gates in February and is running like a well-oiled machine, it was the long hours Jason put in that made it happen.
In the wake of the New Jersey State Police releasing their accident investigation report on the death of Scott Kalitta and the startling revelation therein that he had a blood alcohol content percentage of .02, or 25-percent of the legal limit for intoxication in the State of New Jersey, NHRA officials have been on a drug/alcohol testing spree at this weekend's race in Dallas.
Up and down pit row, just about every driver I've talked to has been summoned for an immediate test, causing more than a few to sweat out the results.
NHRA rules strictly prohibit any alcohol or illegal drug use of any kind for participants in all classes. I asked many of the drivers I talked to if any of them had every driven in competition after having an adult beverage -- one drink would put the average-sized adult at .02-percent BAC -- and a few brave drivers told me they had.
"There have been races when they say we're done for the day and then three hours later they come around and say, 'we're going to get a round in, get ready,'" one honest sportsman driver told me. "I might have had a cold beer thinking we were done and then gone up there to race. It's just the way it works out. It happens from time to time, and I promise you I'm not the only one."
I shiver at the potential consequences.
I was all set to go to Charlotte for last weekend's race when I realized that Hurricane Ike was bearing down on my hometown of Houston. Those of us on the Gulf Coast generally don't get too excited about hurricanes because they tend to happen a lot and most of the time they don't hit you. They end up being a lot of rain and not much else.
We're also a little fatigued by hurricane evacuations and preparations. It gets old and you start to get complacent, even after what happened to New Orleans a few years back with Katrina.
Well, I'm here to tell you, in my 25 years in Houston, nothing compares to Ike. The storm tracked directly over our house and, although we were extremely lucky and didn't sustain any damage to our David Powers-built home, this entire area is an utter mess. The wind blew at 100 mph for 12 hours straight. It never let up once. It was awe-inspiring and scary all at once.
We're all digging out now and it's going to be a long process. We still don't have power and we're low on supplies. The grocery stores have been gutted and there are no perishables to be had. Here's where my connection to drag racing really helps.
As we all called around to check on one another, engine builder and car owner David Nickens offered up whatever he had for us. He's in just as bad a shape as we are but he did have some extra gas over there so I took him up on the chance for a fill-up. It saved me a six-hour wait in line at the one station that has gas around here. Thanks David.
Chef Nicky from Team JEGS checked in and is now assembling several boxes of food for us that JEGS Mail Order is overnighting to us. Thanks to Nicky, Jeggie, Troy, and Woody.
Feeling a bit like a shipwrecked sailor, I'm more excited than ever to have the Dallas race on the horizon. I'm going up to work, but I'm also on a rescue mission of sorts as I plan on returning with as much stuff as I can.
Members of the racing community like Larry Dixon, Gary Scelzi, Nancy Matter, Doug Foley, Don Lampus, Phil Burgess, Kevin McKenna, Bob Benza, Erica and Courtney Enders, Judy Stropus, Bobby Bennett, Lisa Powers, Jay Wells, Fergus Gibson, Phil Smith, Brent Friar, Frank Bellini -- I'm sure I'm forgetting several more, my apologies -- all called to offer their support and encouragement. It means a lot.