Fortunes turned on a dime whether driving through tire smoke thick as an old casino’s air: all earning only gut-wrenching losses in Vegas.
When Cory McClenathan's dragster literally set Firebird's racetrack on fire Friday night, it set the perfect scene for the burning hot action that took place.
Reading was blustery and crews dug under the hood tuning for records, while drivers went smoking fast -- and smoked a Goodyear blimp full of tires.
Explosions often make great drag racing television, like when Alexis De Joria debuted her Tequila Patron Toyota Funny Car at the AAA of Texas Fall Nationals. Tempers can, too, such as Matt Smith steaming over a stuck throttle cable on his Buell.
Then there is the genuine emotional pain of failure sadly represented by the televised image of Karen Stouffer slumped over her GEICO Suzuki, raising her hands in despair, after an odd circumstance on the start led to her loss.
Heat also dominated interviews, like Cruz Pedregon explaining, "It's hotter than love out there," which won the "best description" award for the steamy conditions.
But then there are scenes that could not have been scripted for television any better, because they occur naturally. That was the outburst of pure joy as Bob Vandergriff — after finally conquering a Texas-sized streak of final-round losses in his C&J Energy Services dragster — ran back to the start line, still in his helmet and firesuit as temperatures soared near 100 degrees.
Why would anyone run back on a drag strip looking like a space alien in full race regalia when the air is so hot a sauna would be a relief? Vandergriff's draw to be with his crew and family — in the momentous moment following his smoking victory over favored Spencer Massey — overpowered any good sense or post-race protocol.
Protocol like, you park over here, you interview there, and this is the way to do it.
Vandergriff rewrote those rules in his foot-powered rendition of the Alan Kulwicki's "Polish Victory Lap" custom of circling a NASCAR track in reverse direction to celebrate a win. One could see and experience the emotion develop step-by-step as the initial shock of, "What's going on?" was replaced with a lump in the throat.
It was ESPN drag racing coverage at its best.
First, the two finalists spoke, as Massey related later, and he congratulated Vandergriff. His comment to the new winner was along the lines of "I wanted to win, but it is gratifying to see (Vandergriff) win."
The broadcast booth carried on, too, as Paul Page exclaimed, "This is a moment." His "This is cool" was a double entendre, also referencing their privileged quarters filled with air conditioning. Even their standard dress shirts and ties were gone, replaced with snazzy black short-sleeve shirts accented with white undershirts.
Any question of Vandergriff's physical conditioning needed to complete the return "run" was laid to rest when analyst Mike Dunn noted, "He's built like a brick building."
Finally, a cart drives up alongside and Vandergriff hops in. A viewer could see right on the screen the driver was about to turn around to the finish line, but Vandergriff was having nothing of that, and quickly the cart pointed to the start line.
They never made it.
By this time a crowd joining the team had moved en masse to about the 300-foot mark like a human tidal wave sweeping up Vandergriff as he crashed to shore. "I didn't want to be all the way down there by myself," he said. "I'm just so excited."
This scene of a lone drag racer wearing his full uniform, running back on a blistering hot race track, will forever be recognized infamously as the defining moment of the 2011 AAA of Texas Nationals.
The quarterfinal rounds in the second race in the Countdown to the Championship provided some of the most exciting, topsy-turvy drag racing yet this year. However, the single biggest race occurred in the opening pairing of Funny Car as Matt Hagan's Diehard Charger and Mike Neff's Castrol GTX Mustang met in the opening round.
Page made clear the result "could be the championships right here." With a lap featuring side-by-side power to the finish, the two teams did not disappoint as Hagan's holeshot win elicited this quip on television from the losing Neff: "I would have hit the gas about six-thousandths of a second earlier," when asked what he would have done differently.
Then in the quarterfinals, Hagan lost the opportunity to take over the Funny Car championship points lead as Melanie Troxel's In-N-Out Toyota surprised the cameras with her easy win. One wonders if Hagan's team might look back on the season and see this round as shades of the 2010 season-ending Pomona race when he also came up a few points short.
The "Do-or-Dunn" line displays his call on teams who still have a shot of winning it. Currently the line remains tucked behind No. 2 on the list in Pro Stock, Greg Anderson's Summit Pontiac — even after he was shockingly eliminated in the first round on a holeshot. Lewis Bloom, ESPN's "Statman," discovered the last time Anderson was eliminated with back-to-back holeshots was 2003.
When reporter Gary Gerould asked in the post-race interview what he needed to do to overcome these back-to-back losses, Anderson said only half-jokingly, "Prayer." He added that losing "just sucks."
Greg Stanfield made this suggestion for winning against the Summit Pontiac team before eventual race winner Jason Line beat Kurt Johnson in the finals: "Those Summit cars, they should have to take off a spark plug wire."
Pro Stock was a disaster field for Countdown entrants as seven were out in the first round - and another, Shane Gray, failed to qualify.
Nerves were a discussion topic of the day. Al-Anabi star Del Worsham answered the question, "Did butterflies accompany this pressure?" when describing his upcoming round against Massey: "No. These are Condors."
The Pro Stock Motorcycles have quickly become the most colorful of the four pro classes in the ESPN broadcasts. The pressure of riding one of these two-wheeled bullets at speeds of Pro Stock cars a few years ago continues to boil over like lava in a volcano.
In the quarterfinals, Michael Phillips' The Edge Suzuki "drilled Eddie (Krawiec) on the tree," stunning the Screamin' Eagle Harley rider. Dunn and Page agreed there is no love lost between these two teams.
Bloom later described Phillips' "Wally" as the 50th win for Suzuki since the comparisons began in 2004.
Next was a lap that should be a cinch for winning the closet finish of the season. Hector Arana Jr.'s Lucas Oil Buell was left on by Full Throttle Champion LE Tonglet astride his Suzuki, but Arana Jr. ran him down for the rousing one-inch victory.
Then the alligator hunter, Gerald Savoie, surprised Andrew Hines on his Screamin' Eagle Harley, and took the holeshot win on his 1985 Suzuki. Referencing back to the Charlotte race and words exchanged between these teams there, Page pointed out, "All that alligator stuff is still here."
Then came the weirdest laps of the day.
Smith's Buell was having throttle problems while Stoffer waited patiently on her GEICO Suzuki. Smith decides to stage and launch anyway; the quickness of what occurred caught Stoffer unaware. As a viewer, it appeared the light launched them the moment he pulled up. Dunn shouted, "What was that?"
The next round, now pairing against Arana Jr., Smith's bike has the same trouble, but this time the bike will not start. Arana Jr., though, was very alert to the situation and when given the direction to go, he left with Smith fuming on the line, his Buell still quiet.
Pro Stock saw monkeys removed from the shoulders of the two finalists. Kurt Johnson, resurrected with a new Mark Christopher Pontiac, gained his first back-to-back final rounds in years. Line's win removed the scowl from his jaws as he was celebrating with a "Yeah, baby!" before he ever made it out of the cockpit.
John Force Racing, suffering losses in early rounds and knocked out of contention for the day's win, could not be blamed for being down, except that's not the boss's way. He came out supercharged with, "I like a good fight."
Asked about the day's results, as the question to him implied "lousy," he barked, "You walk out of that trailer just like you've won," espousing the theory that you never let 'em see you sweat. He laid out how and why they could win the championship, right on the spot, giving clues to why he has 15 championships on the mantle.
The Funny Car class provided a satisfying win for Pedregon after qualifying strongly at a number of events. This weekend, as Dunn explained, "He went down the track in every session."
And Dunn should know, as he pays close attention to the numbers and then explains them back to the television audience in features such as the "Anatomy of a Sub-4 Second Run." In this feature, he explained every key marker of Hagen's record-breaking ET of 3.995 from the Charlotte race, including the insight that the car was setting a speed record at the 1/8th mile marker and finished with only seven cylinders.
Page noted the hectic nature of this race, the upsets and the surprising wins to Dunn several times during the day in various forms, but all were versions of, "I can't believe this day, Mike." He could have added, "And all of the iconic scenes that we're left with."
Pedregon's crew chief, Danny Degennaro in the post-winner's interview, provided the weekend's take-away, telling reporter Dave Reiff that as troubles came up, and heat was a problem, they tried to look at them in a different light.
"You always try to turn a negative to a positive."
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There was no time for relaxing as pressure was the feeling of the weekend with the performances at zMax Dragway never more exciting in the cooler weather.
Indy intensity transferred with no hesitation to the Countdown to the Championship’s first event at Charlotte’s O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Nationals.
Teams not qualified for the Countdown are cutting no slack to those who are. That was proven as No. 4 qualifier Del Worsham’s Al-Anabi Top Fuel Dragster unceremoniously was dumped in the first round by the C&J Energy Services entry of Bob Vandergriff.
Vandergriff just may be exorcizing the chip on his shoulder from lingering Indy failures.
Worsham’s fairytale season and championship hopes may have been squashed in this one round of racing, a point made about teams throughout the broadcast as Mike Dunn’s “you’re done” line moved up and down the pro lists like a yo-yo.
Happily for the affable Worsham, he still ranks above Dunn’s marker, which for Top Fuel is the top five teams. In other words, after the first of six Countdown events, half the Top Fuel field is judged by Dunn out of the hunt.
Drivers, though, were in a philosophical mood.
“The mood in our pit was different than it’s been all year, by a lot,” Tim Wilkerson said.
In pre-recorded interviews with top players, comments such as Robert Hight’s “You gotta rip the heart out of the other guy” were more dominant.
Unfortunately that sentiment often goes on both sides of the track. In this case, Hight’s AAA of Southern California Ford had its heart smoked-out by tires while Cruz Pedregon took advantage in his Snap-On Solara.
Ron Krisher’s Valvoline Pontiac struck out in qualifying and did not make the field. He was one of the first of the Countdown drivers in any pro class to fail this weekend, describing to ESPN, “Not qualifying is a nightmare.”
Points leader and No. 2 qualifier in Pro Stock, Greg Anderson, looked like an early favorite to win the day. Dunn even had his line below Anderson, meaning Jason Line and Anderson were two early contenders to dominate and win the title with their Pontiacs.
Nevertheless, Shane Gray put his Service Central GXP out front in his first-round matchup with Anderson and hung on to bench the Anderson-half of the Summit team.
Dunn exclaimed, “What an upset!” Anderson didn’t panic, though, as he absorbed the blow while noting, “We’re not giving up, we’re coming back.”
Though Line lost his second finals appearance in a row – to a heartfelt fan favorite, Kurt Johnson – he inherited the points lead.
Yet ... Line was not happy. The cameras captured his contorted grimace, confirming there was no question about that.
Johnson had already told reporter Gary Gerould that entering the finals “I’m about ready to jump out of my skin.” After the win, he rated the victory “unbelievable,” and it has “been a sour note” for some time.
Line seemed to hurt even more after his Charlotte defeat than after his loss at Indy. Why shouldn’t he? He lost with an ever-so-slight red light of .003 seconds, and his run down the track indicated he could have won.
Or, as he said, “We had the best car. It is what it is.”
Warren Johnson delivered one of the best comments of the day after his son's win. Pointing out, “We’ve got a small team comparatively,” he went on to explain an undisputable truism: You can “never have too much money, too much horsepower, or too much loving.” That’s about max for the “Professor’s” risqué scale.
Dunn pointed out in qualifying “Someone has to do something early on or Anderson or Line will run away with it.” Leave it to the Pro Stock Johnsons of Sugar Hill, Ga., to be that someone.
A boiling keg of emotion left over from Indy spilled out in the Pro Stock Motorcycle pits. ESPN broadcasters and reporters explained – condensed from several entertaining interviews – the Savoie camp feels Indy winner, Hector Arana Jr. and his crew chief, were messing with the start-line bulbs, flicking them on and off to distract the Cut Off, La. racer. This was, of course, denied.
A better answer, even if untrue, could have been, “Yeah, and so what?” Perhaps teams caught a glimpse of the ESPN film documenting the Savoie alligator farm crawling with reptiles and thought better of going too far lest they end up as a meal for a handbag.
Then, verbal shots were taken at the Screamin’ Eagle Harley teams with the “chicken” word tossed around like so many raw eggs, insulting Eagles nesting everywhere along North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. As only the Gods of Brackets could arrange, Andrew Hines lined up against Savoie in the first round of eliminations, creating keen excitement in the class nice and early.
Hines finally drove around the 1985 Suzuki for the win, and promptly quipped: “This Screamin’ Eagle got to eat some alligator, and it tasted like chicken.”
Broadcaster Paul Page put it in perspective with, “They’re talking smack everywhere now.”
At the day’s conclusion Dunn noted, “We saw emotion, and it’s only the first race of the Countdown!”
Certainly that was the case with Matt Hagan’s DieHard Charger. Hagan set the national ET record and won the race to reinstate his swagger for the first time since his crushing championship defeat at the 2010 Pomona finals.
That championship slipped away there like a helium balloon soaring away from the hand of a kid. But instead of John Force at Pomona, Hagan is now chasing Mike Neff and is in a position to capture the lead at the next event.
He gave Neff his due – “Neff is Superman” – while answering that the team’s view is “pressure is what you put in tires.”
In his post-win interview Hagan was understandably emotional: “I’m a big ole country boy, and I’m about to cry.”
Force may have suffered in this event by running the Honoring Our Heroes Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang, a body he told me “wasn’t working in Indy.”
While at the Castrol Advance Auto Parts 2011 Mustang Sweepstakes, Force talked about the personal impact of meeting the heroes of the 9-11 attack – firemen, policemen, others – convincing him to honor them no matter the consequences. “I’m not pulling the 9/11 body.” That’s a courageous decision.
He qualified poorly with the heavier shell on his car, the gingerly named “Baby Cakes,” and lost a controversial, at least in his view, first-round pairing against Johnny Gray’s Service Central Charger.
ESPN replayed the run multiple times to confirm race officials’ view that Gray did not touch the wall as his Funny Car slapped a warning cone down track.
Force’s eyes saw something else indeed: “(Our) cars are struggling ... I’m aggravated. Johnny lit both bulbs (on the start), and he hit that wall ... I’ve got to get my (stuff) together.” His goal: “I’m going after 16.”
A disappointing race day like the Charlotte event can be just the trigger to laser Force’s focus. “I can turn it on, switch it on” and this aggravation may just do that. “(Our) focus is not to fail.”
Dunn’s line of demarcation has him out of contention, but that is not set in concrete. The champion has a way of surprising. “I gotta dig deep, but I wanna win for the sponsors, and win for me. ... I love my job,” like handing out free Mustangs to sweepstakes winners.
Tommy Ivo, opening the race as the legend-of-the-day, commanded the drivers to “Rip the asphalt off the ground,” which they promptly took to heart. Rieff displayed chunks of it in his hand as the track had broken in patches before the race’s conclusion.
Ivo was the most animated of the legends this year, but with his television and movie experiences, he is a natural performer (see Media Matters reviewing the book documenting his life: “TV” Tommy Ivo - Drag Racing’s Master Showman” bit.ly/qfnq2j).
Early in the broadcast, Gary Gerould identified the Aaron’s Don Schumacher Racing dragster driven by Antron Brown as “the man with momentum. His challenge is to maintain momentum.” Brown, in capturing his third Top Fuel dragster race in a row, handled that challenge with aplomb.
He now is closer to his objective: winning the Full Throttle Championship “so you can bring that big Wally home, you know, the one with the glass case on the bottom.”
Brown’s comments in the winner’s circle were a cool blending of excitement and sponsors: “I’m blessed to be on this team. I have the Aaron’s Dream Machine, and this is a dream.”
His crew chief, Mark Oswald, told Rieff how they coped with computer problems all day: “We did it old school and with a little luck.” Brown ensured expectations remained in check, perhaps a lesson in managing emotions when he commented in closing, “There’s five more (races) to go.”
Drag racing is one tough sport. How can teams handle the emotional ups and downs with dramatic losses such as Worsham and others experienced?
Perhaps an example is with the calmness and cool of Al-Anabi team manager Alan Johnson. His response was “Sometimes things don’t go as you planned,” an insight that transcends a moment of frustration and perhaps the sport itself.
ESPN2's broadcast of the 57th Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway were full of images: dragsters, people, weather and explosions.
To escape Countdown prison, a driver wins sufficient points to attain the Top 10 standings for their class, a demarcation line separating them from those remaining in solitary confinement. ESPN’s coverage focused on teams whose Countdown future is captive to the points.
ESPN reporter Dave Rieff contrasted Funny Car racer Tim Wilkerson’s predicament six weeks ago, locked out of the Countdown thus living “in Countdown prison.” Entering Brainerd after Seattle’s win jumped the Levi, Ray and Shoup Mustang to eighth in points, escaping that detention.
ESPN’s Gary Gerould called Wilkerson “the hottest Funny Car driver on the circuit.”
But a funny thing happened on the way through Brainerd’s upset-jail that affected Funny Car drivers hanging around the point’s bubble: Johnny Gray shocked the event by winning with his Service Central Dodge Charger just like Bob Bode and his Alard Machine Products Chevy Impala did in the 2010 race.
That stunning surprise came on the heels of color commentator Mike Dunn’s prevailing assessment that it was “next to impossible for Gray to make the Countdown.” Although a long shot, the win widens possibilities.
Gray told Gerould the win was “a long time coming.” The seventh-best qualifier drove around Ron Capp’s NAPA Charger with 32 previous wins for his first professional Wally.
What won’t be a long time coming will be the final resolution of those who lock-in a top-10 spot in the coveted Countdown at the circuit’s next race, the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals.
Jeff Arend’s DHL Toyota, Robert Tasca’s Motorcraft Ford Mustang and possibly Wilkerson, though remotely so, could be bumped out of their slots if Gray stuns the class again.
The Brainerd broadcast opened with the more apparent troubles of the Top Fuel dragsters scrambling to get in the Countdown door while Morgan Lucas’ ninth-placed GEICO dragster and David Grubnic’s Kalitta Air entry battled to remain inside the list.
How comfortable is ninth place? Lucas told Gerould the “spot sucks.” Grubnic quipped on his bump-spot 10th place, “I’m freaking out!”
Like the B-52’s sang in their rockin’ hit “Love Shack,” Terry McMillen’s Amalie Oil machine and Bob Vandergriff’s C&J Energy Services dragster, are outside looking in, going “bang-bang” on the Countdown door, needing to “knock a little louder, baby,” at Indy as they both lost their opening rounds.
Eerily, McMillen trails Grubnic by the same 19 points at this same point in the 2010 Countdown and with the same ranking, too.
Vandergriff stormed into his van afterward with ESPN’s John Kernan trailing him, microphone in hand. In Vandergriff’s defense, he was expecting his chute to deploy four seconds or so after the launch, not immediately on the hit of the throttle.
This oddity was like a shiv to his heart, momentarily killing his spirit. The culprit causing the problem? His crew called it a “freak occurrence.” Those things happen in Countdown prison.
The Castrol GTX High Mileage One to Watch, top qualifier Matt Hagan in his DieHard Dodge Charger, was a worthwhile selection as his Funny Car blew the supercharger in the quarterfinals, creating a big “Kaboom!,” noted Dunn.
Larry Morgan focused his Pro Stock Countdown on his 11th place Lucas Oil Ford. He gave this answer on winning rounds─“Keep my head out of my rear-end” ─ yet failed to heed his own advice in Round 1.
He nailed his fastest lap of the weekend, but the Countdown shackles didn’t loosen their grip on him because he clocked the second worst light of the day for the class; it was lights-out for his day.
An even worse launch was tallied by 12th place Ronnie Humphrey’s Genuine Hot Rod Hardware Pontiac GXP earlier in the round.
Morgan and Humphrey with long shot, No. 13 V. Gaines’ Kendall Dodge Avenger, will combine with the ninth and t10th in points, Shane Gray’s Service Central Pontiac GXP and Ron Krisher’s Valvoline Pontiac respectively, to sort out the Pro Stock Countdown bubble at Indy.
None of them won a round Sunday, so no one earned visiting privileges until after Indy; those are the rules of Countdown prison.
The pressure on bubble groups in these three Pro Classes will be intense at Indy not only for the normal competitive pressures of surviving eliminations but also since each qualifying round can add key points. Paul Page, lead broadcaster, forecasted, “Qualifying at the U.S. Nationals is going to be great.”
Only the Pro Stock Motorcycles’ Countdown is set. No. 11 David Hope, straddling the Vroom Racing Buell, has no hope of finding over 150 points at Indy. Yet he and three others in the class raced like there was no tomorrow; their red-light starts in the opening stanza affected results for half the class, an observation Dunn highlighted.
The qualifying and elimination broadcasts, which were packed with relevant features interestingly produced, developed as the weekend progressed.
BIR’s “Zoo,” the nickname for the track’s rabble-rousing campground, earned plenty of attention including an early introduction from Page. The young Lucas described Brainerd as having “the most intense drag racing fans and partiers in the world,” whereas Aarons/Valvoline Dodge Funny Car driver, Jack Beckman, said there were definitely some loonies having fun there.
During qualifying, Gerould walked up to Morgan who was sitting on the pavement at the track’s top end and commented to him that the area looked relaxed, somewhat like the “Zoo.” Morgan quipped, “How do you know it’s not?”
A laugh-out-loud visit to Spencer Massey’s Fram Top Fuel pit had the crew poking fun at him, reflecting the camaraderie existing within the team. Massey spends lots of time with the crew, which yields results such as setting the track’s speed record (323.04). Yet they have no problem poking fun, such as “Massey’s a dork.”
The startline ESPN cameramen get up-close and personal with the dragsters so the viewer can read the graphics, small writings, names, and other touches that individualize these hot rods. They scan them for television as closely as airport security while looking for little unseen nuances.
Additionally these guys keep the startline info real-time such as when Nelson Jones called out in qualifying that John Force’s Castrol Mustang “can’t find fourth gear.”
Chris Karamesines received more coverage in this broadcast than his total for the year 2010 and probably years prior to that. First, a highlight was the announcement regarding his new Lucas Oil sponsorship and corresponding snazzy paint job in an interview by Gerould. Karamesines revealed, “This is the first time I’ve had a sponsor after 50 years.”
Then, there is a marker on the front of his car reading “First at 200,” meaning the first dragster to break that speed barrier. The problem arose when Don Garlits thinks he was the first to that mark. Then Connie Kalitta said something along the lines that real clocks were in use when he was the first to break 200 when at Indy. ESPN expects to have more to say on this at the Indianapolis event or like “Cool Hand Luke,” they’ll have to spend a night in the box.
Did you know Pro Stock is the only pro class using shock absorbers? A feature demonstrated breaking them down while making small and large adjustments.
The preciseness of sparkplug placements and fittings was explained in a revealing mini-feature. Using a Sharpie marker allows the correct plug to fit the correct hole and face the correct way, all in the name of a slight, but critical improvement in power.
A new team in Pro Stock entered the race this weekend, Bloomington, Minn.’s Paul Pittman. A long-time Competition Eliminator racer, he built this new hot rod himself.
In Pittman’s first qualifying run, Rick Green of Summit FastNews noted the chutes did not blossom. With the drag strip incorporated within the track’s road course, there is plenty of shutdown area for drag racers.
In a class that has no mercy, he did not qualify for Sunday’s eliminations.
He will be able to watch his drag racing friends in the Sportsman’s broadcast of Brainerd’s Lucas Oil Drag Racing, along with the rest of us, at the popular 11 p.m.-midnight time slot, Sunday.
Statman, Lewis Bloom, reported 25 years has passed since the No. 1 qualifier in Pro Stock, Bob Glidden, won from the pole position at Brainerd. Erica Enders’ ZaZa Energy Chevrolet ended that possibility for 2011 by edging No. 1 qualifier, Jason Line’s Summit Pontiac, by just 3 inches.
Line’s teammate, Greg Anderson, advanced his Summit GXP to the finals where he avenged that loss and once again kept Enders from becoming the first woman to win the Pro Stock class. “She’s going to win,” he explained while holding his Wally. “I don’t know how much longer I can hold her off.” Dunn noted, “(Enders) did a great job; just came up a little bit short” after edging Anderson on the launch and leading the majority of the lap.
Pro Stock Motorcycles served up showcase finals. LE Tonglet’s Nitrofish Suzuki left new points leader, Eddie Krawiec’s Screamin’ Eagle Harley, at the gate in the semifinals just as Dunn called it. Andrew Hines’ Screamin’ Eagle Harley was way out on Hector Arana Jr., but the Lucas Oil Buell went around him nearing the finish.
The result for the finals? “Two of the young new stars of the sport” will compete for the win, observed Gerould. The broadcast booth noted it was the pair’s first finals appearance together. With nearly identical reaction times, Tonglet’s experience seemingly won the Wally as they crossed the finish close to one another.
Reflecting the feeling for the races at Brainerd, with all of the Countdown twists and turns, Page said these two “gave it a show.” Turns out, the entire weekend was a great show.
From the throwback 1960’s look and feel of Pacific Raceways, now with modernizing expansion plans, came an entertaining and quick-paced weekend ending the 5,000-mile circuit of the Western Swing. If presenting an amazing race event assists the host facility with approvals of their big plans, the 2011 O’Reilly Northwest Nationals would be it.
As the ESPN broadcast demonstrated, using Indianapolis as a home base, there are mountains of travel to get to Seattle via Denver and Sonoma. Afterward there’s another 2,000 miles returning across the country.
For some, like Funny Car winner Tim Wilkerson taking his Levi Ray & Shoup Mustang to its first victory in a year, the journey home will seem short; adrenalin will do the driving.
Even as the top qualifier, Wilkerson still chose his favorite starting place in eliminations -- first up. Viewers were right with him as he correctly noted in his pairing with Brian Thiel’s William Rast Jeans Charger, “We can’t take them lightly.” Good call; he edged the No. 16 qualifier by only a few feet.
Statman, Lewis Bloom, uncovered a gem of info regarding Wilkerson’s quarterfinal opponent Tony Pedregon driving his Charter Communications Impala: “Pedregon has always finished in the Top 10 since 1995, but is struggling this year.” Coming off his 500th round win in the opening stanza he looked like the pass might be No. 501 but quickly went up in smoke. Wilkerson “stuck hard to the track,” as Rick Green of Summit FastNews reported, advancing to the semifinals.
The Saturday NHRA qualifying show, an abbreviated one-hour edition, opened with scenes and analysis of Robert Hight ripping off his Southern California Auto Club Mustang’s body in a cacophony of fiber looking every bit like a celebration ending the Western Swing … just two days too early.
In the broadcast booth, color commentator Mike Dunn analyzed the scene explaining, “(The) left rear tire explodes!” Hight retold the event on Saturday to told ESPN reporter, Gary Gerould, “Body parts (were) everywhere.”
Was Hight’s father-in-law, John Force, worried about it? Not a chance. “We have plenty of bodies,” he said, to replace the ripped-to-shreds shell.
“It’s easier for big teams,” as veteran ESPN anchor Paul Paige highlighted the advantages for the larger and well-funded teams to deal with Hight’s kind of problems on this winding western journey.
The only JFR entry in the semifinals, Hight couldn’t top Wilkerson’s third quickest run of the day for the class, though Hight had the best ET in the earlier -- and cooler -- first round.
Earning points was a top story all weekend. Reporter Dave Rieff was everywhere in the pits noting, “It’s tough for teams on the bubble.” Needing round wins to make the Countdown, and not getting them, led to comments like this to Gerould from a first round loser, Terry McMillen’s Amalie Oil Top Fuel dragster: “It bites. We’re gonna turn it around in Brainerd.”
Paige added, “Shows how much that hurt.”
Dunn noted in Pro Stock, “V. Gaines has a shot (to make the Countdown) but it is really slim.” In his first-round race with Warren Johnson’s K&N Filters GXP, Gaines’ Kendall Oil Dodge had the shakes, but he crossed first as Johnson was done after the launch. Added Dunn, “We talked about getting a lucky break at the beginning of the show,” and this was one.
The other video qualifying highlight was Jack Beckman’s third round in the Aaron’s/Valvoline Charger, enveloped in smoke looking every bit like a foggy miniature of Mt. Rainier. Page observed, “(He) lights it up big time.”
Before the start of eliminations, Gerould asked if the fire hurt his chances; Beckman answered, “I think we can win today.” Later, Dunn noted a key truism of drag racing: “This is what I love about this sport. Beckman struggles in qualifying and comes out here and is in the finals.”
Wilkerson and Beckman were comical while standing with Gerould on the top end after their semifinal runs. Attempting to interview them, Beckman snatched Wilkerson’s fire boots as he peeled them off, offering them to the viewer’s for the highest offer. “Without it, NHRA won’t let him in. Any bidders?”
Wilkerson quipped, “We need someone who can control Beckman.” Gerould understood very well that these antics make good television, allowing the drivers to have their fun.
The conclusion of this grueling three race series-within-a-series along with the pressures of making the Countdown Top 10 were recurrent themes of the broadcast. However, there seemed to be a sense of relief by drivers, the broadcast crew, and likely everyone else traveling the circuit as this weekend etched closer to an end.
Page related a story from Matt Hagan who “told me he would trade any 10 wins for a championship” in the DieHard Charger. Headed to the quarterfinals, Hagan described how easy his job is driving a Funny Car … “Just pushing the pedal and making it sound loud.”
Ending his three-race broadcast stint on the tour, Whit Bazemore waxed poetic as he discussed “Seattle has character and soul, and bumps at the end,” revealing “I love this track,” maybe because “I won it three times.”
Relaxing in chairs or tables in the driver’s pits, a new motif for interviews now, Rieff talked with Ron Capps who won the Funny Car class at Sonoma with his NAPA Charger. Asked why he changed from racing Top Fuel dragsters after winning here in 1995, Capps smartly quipped, “A phone call from Don Prudhomme will do that.”
Page called Capps a “rock star” revealing he received a congratulatory call from James Hatfield, lead singer of the rock band “Metallica,” following the win. The hip anchor knew the significance of that call from a music icon like Hatfield. Page’s pick of their albums is the complex, Grammy-nominated “And Justice for All.”
Interviewing Del Worsham before he won the class in the Al-Anabi Top Fuel dragster, Bazemore coaxed him to admit he wants to lead the Countdown because “It’s those 30 points” that can determine a championship.
Famed movie director Stanley Kubrick fought for perfection, bluntly stating, “You either care, or you don’t care.” Worsham revealed to Rieff that Al-Anabi’s Alan Johnson’s motto is Kubrick-like: “If it’s not perfect it’s wrong.”
See if this foretells the future … Bazemore asked Antron Brown, pilot of the Matco Tools dragster who was on the line watching the Funny Car class, if he “ever wants to drive” one. Brown did not hesitate, “Yes, someday soon.”
Jeff Diehl’s wife, Leeza, was stunning in her red boots; so much so, he jokingly threatened to have her back Force to the line after his burnout in order to distract him in their first round race.
His Monte Carlo could have sent the Castrol GTX Mustang to the trailer except Diehl’s reaction time was the worst of the day for the class. Paige cooed, “I’m stuck on those red boots.” Evidently Diehl was, too.
But it was Wilk’s day, winning the Funny Car Class over Beckman, with a consistency that Green noted, “(He) runs 0.001 to his last round number at over 300 to take the decisive win.” Krista, his wife, commented, “It’s great. He’s never boring.” Wilkerson gave the credit to the crew: “The energy in our pit was on max all day.”
The best line of the weekend came from an interview by former Funny Car racer Bazemore milling around in the Castrol pits. Force says “I can’t get mad at anybody” while he is simultaneously looking back, talking to a fan decorated with a big floppy hat. This banter continues a while when Bazemore noted to the cameras that when racing he could always get Force upset: “I could do it in about two seconds.” Dunn did not hesitate with a wisecracking reference to others whose ire Bazemore raised:
“There were plenty in that camp.”
Any other favorite wisecracks in the broadcast?