Someone failed to tell Cruz’s muse, Clio, the goddess of history, he shouldn’t be winning playoff events in the Funny Car class.
Playoff events are for those who are in the running to win the championship. The others in the field are there to provide fodder for those leaders, feeding them round wins so those points can stack up like piles of sponsor placards. Clio had other thoughts for Cruz and his Snap-On Tools Toyota, yielding surprising results at the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Nationals.
Cruz’s win in his Snap-On Solara was a deeply emotional experience for the 47-year-old champion. Choking up in the top-end interview after having bested Jack Beckman’s Valvoline/MTS Charger in the finals, he said, "It’s surreal right now." Earlier, after the semifinals, he talked of his challenges, "A lot of people didn’t believe in me."
He had to beat brother Tony with his new sponsor, Komatsu, on the way. As if almost preordained, he tuned his own car to first in qualifying and this long-time-coming victory, the first since he won the championship and race at the 2008 Automobile Club of Southern California Finals.
Now there is a real race for the Funny Car championship as Beckman took advantage of Team Force failures to end up in a virtual tie for the points lead with regular season dominator John Force. Beckman is getting hot at the right time. Besides always saying the right thing, and with his exciting way, Beckman's in the mix to win the championship -- along with more than half of the playoff field. That kind of nitro excitement makes for intriguing television.
Real stories were everywhere in the Funny Car class. In a shocker, all of the John Force entries were unceremoniously trailered in the early stages of eliminations. That is not in the drag racing script.
The new nemesis of John Force Racing, Jim Dunn and the Canidae/Lucas Oil Impala, sent father John home in a trail of tire smoke. Driver Paul Lee, one of the highest educated people at any track has now completed the Force Trifecta. He sent each of the stars home in three consecutive races: Besides Force the elder Sunday, there was Robert Hight at Indianapolis, and then the early shocker when he left Ashley spinning at Brainerd. Mike Neff may be glad he is crewing, not driving, otherwise, his time would be up at Dallas.
Thanks to ESPN catching each Team Force failure on camera, each were recipients of the now famous finger gun where Dunn uses his finger to pull an air trigger after the victorious lap.
Listening to a Fox radio race show early Sunday morning, I was surprised to hear the host talk of four-wide racing at zMax Raceway this weekend. Besides the fact this was a two-by weekend, it occurred to me the enormity of the four-wide spring race just does not go away. Maybe Charlotte and four-wide racing go together.
Even ESPN television showed us Cory McClenathan’s tough win in the finals from that spring weekend -- 32,000 horsepower growling down four lanes simultaneously and yet a narrow eight-inch victory over Doug Kalitta. It was Monday morning in the spring, a green track, and a cool 63 degrees -- just the opposite of Sunday in Charlotte’s September with late afternoon shadows and a blazing sun.
The Kalitta Rocky Boots dragster, perhaps the best-looking rig in the class now, played runner-up for this race, too. This time against Mr. Double One, as in 11 wins in 11 finals, Larry Dixon, who is supported with the brain trust of Al-Anabi racing, Alan Johnson.
McClenathan came close to getting to the final round again, but lost to Dixon in the semifinals even after a reaction time lead.
Another driver winning Sunday was Greg Anderson. Racing red-hot Greg Stanfield, Anderson charged into a position where the Summit Racing Equipment Pontiac can contend for the championship title, only a round and a half behind Mike Edwards. Edwards was a first round casualty of Jeg Coughlin Jr., a title contender, too, who then lost in round two to Stanfield. There are a handful of teams seriously competing for the Pro Stock Championship.
Stanfield said his Nitrofish GXP team "runs on money but also a lot of hard work."
That formula covers a lot of ground including the ESPN broadcast team. At this Charlotte event, we viewed new camera angles like the low shot looking back to the dragster’s rear of a crewman gloving the slicks just prior to a launch. A pairing of two brackets was placed on the lower left of the screen so one fully understands the implications of the current pair in their next round.
In the end, Cruz held his Wally at the top end, cradling it as if it were his Proclaimer, a book Clio the muse was known to hold. "Proclaimer" loosely means "to make famous." If Cruz earns more points in the 2010 Funny Car playoffs than the other Countdown entrants, he will truly achieve a new, historic notoriety. And his muse will be pleased.
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In stark contrast to 2009, hugs and kisses ruled Indy’s 56th version of The Big Go.
Remember the tempers and tantrums of 2009? Do you know why they are likely to return in 2011? The NHRA schedules changed in 2010 where the Countdown spots were all filled at the end of Brainerd and the Playoff races began at Indy. In 2009, those last spots -- and all of the bickering -- occurred at Indy as that was the last race before the Playoffs began. The flip-flop occurs in 2011 where the schedule reverts to the timing of 2009.
The thinking on the part of the schedulers has to be that the last Countdown qualifying race is too big to occur at a track like Brainerd, way up in the woods. Bring it back to Indianapolis. The first Playoff race is exciting, but the stakes are far more intriguing on that last Countdown race day. Don’t believe it? Look at the heat of the competition in 2009 at Indy when combining the pressure of the Countdown and winning the race that every driver wants more than any other created a maelstrom of television excitement.
The real question is, will we be able to wait that long?
When John Force puckered up and gave Tony Pedregon a big wet buss on the left cheek, drag racing aficionados knew this year’s Indy, with the world’s most desired drag racing trophy, was going to be more love and less hostility -- though televised hostility is the more dramatic of the two.
“I’ll show you I love Tony,” giving his kiss to Tony. Referencing the penalty box he found himself in after the 2009 brouhaha, Force uttered an old truck driver’s line, “I paid the fine, I did the time.”
Pedregon deserved an award for not drying off the kiss seen ‘round the world. Rather, he maintained his cool perhaps because he announced he has a major sponsorship to unveil at Charlotte’s zMax Dragway, the next playoff event on the calendar. There was nothing Pedregon was going to do to jeopardize that.
Mr. Cool Breeze sweated some as the days of qualifying still found him still outside the show come Sunday afternoon’s last chance. It was déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra's famous line goes, for Tony was experiencing nearly the same predicament when barely making the Countdown two weeks ago at Brainerd. One can be sure those new sponsors were lurking nearby, paying attention.
Tony commented, “The pressure will get to you if you let it. We’ve been here a hundred times” as he referred to handling the last chance to make the field. His pass got him in at No. 15 “for now,” Summit FastNews' round-by-round summaries, knocking Jeff Diehl in the other lane off the hump-spot and out of the show. Del Worsham in the next pair and now on the bump ran a lap earning him a No. 11, moving Tony down one click to the bump. That only lasted momentarily because in the other lane, Justin Schriefer completed a career best ET but didn’t improve from last place, No. 20. From that point on the qualifying field was now set, with Tony earning a first round appearance with No. 1 qualifier, Matt Hagan and his seemingly invincible Dodge Charger.
Hagan scorched a pass Saturday night to snatch the top qualifying spot away from Robert Hight even though, as Dunn exclaimed, “He shut off early!” With his best ranch jargon, Hagan said he ran tough because “I knew Ron Capps (in the next pair) was hunting me like a coon dog.”
Gary Gerould interviewing Tony at the top end got him to admit this was “a little too much drama. It’s tough to run a 4.15 if you’re scared,” implying they weren’t, because “all you have to do is tell me we have a chance, then we’re ready to fight.”
“(Tony) rose to the moment, which is what champions do,” pronounced Mike Dunn.
Hagan dispatched Tony in the first round, no surprise there. Ashley Force Hood running a new track speed record, foretelling her victorious day, had stepped up once again to be the first pair of Funny Cars down the track; it didn’t work at Brainerd, but at Indy the tactic sure did as she eliminated Del Worsham.
John Force, asked by John Kiernan if he could win today, vented, “If I didn’t I wouldn’t drag the old (hot rod) up to the start,” and promptly eliminated the Bob Bode “Let’s repeat Brainerd” bandwagon.
Who could have forecast the mysterious power the brackets would have in creating such a meaningful ending to this day. Besides winning their rounds to make the finals, Ashley and “the elder Force,” as the NHRA refers to father John, were in different sides of the ladder with John fifth and Force Hood sixth. The possibility loomed, though not seemingly likely when glancing at the pairings, they could meet in the finals. Of course, they would have to take out some mighty good teams before that could occur, and in a heart-warming surprise they did.
Force sent Cruz Pedregon home without even a kiss afterwards. He then dispatched the class qualifying dominator, Matt Hagan, back to shoveling the barn.
Ashley paid back Paul Lee for winning their first Brainerd round over her up-in-smoke pass, then sent her drag racing tutor, Jack Beckman, to the teacher’s lounge. As easy as that is to write, all can understand the emotion, tension, and anxiety the winners and losers went through on that Labor Day Monday, producing this wonder matchup of father-daughter in the final Indy round. Father Force, absolutely elated, exclaimed, “I get to race my kid in the finals of the biggest drag race in the country!”
ESPN produced a feature titled “Ice in Veins” that included interviews with Robert Hight, Greg Anderson and Jason Line. Essentially, the three promoted the view a driver has to be tough as nails on the line to win, not caring a tinker’s dam about who is in the opposing lane or what they may or may not do. Robert Hight was very intense; “I’d say there is ice in my veins; I don’t care what they think about me after I put them on the trailer.”
The theme was emphasized several times over the weekend like when Cruz Pedregon blew the escape hatch off the roof of the Snap-On Solara Funny Car during Saturday qualifying. The metal piece sailed high into the air early in the run, but Cruz didn’t hesitate at all, nailing a No. 4 spot that lasted the weekend. That lead Mike Dunn to note, “He has ice in his veins.” Paul Page chimed in about the Solara’s new hole, “Look, it’s a convertible.”
Contrast Ashley’s approach, commenting in warm tones when asked about her historic win last year: “I was the most comfortable in the (Indy) finals at 2009 because it was my teammate. I thought, this can’t go bad.”
Now with dad in the finals with her at the 2010 Indy finals, she expresses the same sentiment, stating, “Whatever happens in the final, this has been a great day.” She made no comments about toughness. She didn’t even seem stern, just happy JFR was going to win Indy this year.
In the trophy lap, the 14-time World Champion breaks early, and Ashley Force Hood zooms to recapture the queen’s role of drag racing. At the top end, her crown looks suspiciously like a cap, tarnished over the last 12 months with no-victories rust. All that disappears as she sparkles with her joyous crew, celebrating the glorious win. John Force picks up his daughter in a hug, and all is right in the drag racing world as far as this convoy was concerned.
Memories of Robert Hight’s first round exit at the hands of pesky Paul Lee, now making a two-races-in-a-row habit of parking JFR hot rods, had faded. That victory, incidentally, was celebrated by “Big” Jim Dunn televised pointing a finger and pulling an air trigger like he had just shot the 2009 Champion’s chances at winning the day -- exactly what they had accomplished.
This is one of the many reasons Lewis Bloom exclaimed, “I love this race.”
ESPN came prepared for this multi-day ordeal. The focus is on the teams preparing all of the hotrods in sportsman and pro classes for their qualifying and elimination runs, of course, but remember, there are hosts of people serving food, keeping the grounds and gates clean and secure, officials, media, and many more handling this annual epic including a full contingent in the broadcast team.
To televise all that we want -- and need -- to see, ESPN brought 28 cameras to catch all that was happening. A new shot, directly above a dragster’s engine during its teardown and rebuild, was used throughout the telecasts. It was particularly interesting watching crews pick up the pace as they make it further into the eliminations, becoming more excited about their work the closer to the goal of a win they got. A clock and one’s eyes proved it.
Then the broadcast crew began identifying those who were pictured on the screen with a graphics box. For instance, as Allen Johnson brought his Mopar to the start, his dad, Roy, was helping him stage. A visual explained “Roy Johnson, father and team member.” Sometimes there isn’t enough time to do this, but when there is, it makes the broadcast more satisfying.
This television team also gets up for eliminations, just like the race teams. Dave Rieff said on the “RaceDay” show, “The butterflies are in my stomach,” and Mike Dunn seconded that. He reminisced, explaining the pressures of this race, “That final round in 1986 (he won) was the most nervous I ever was in a round of racing.”
They added a super camera to the show, the Ultra SloMo, filming 1,000 frames per second. This camera showed fantastic images all weekend. One example clearly picked up Larry Morgan’s sideways qualifying spin coming off the line in round four qualifying. One could see his big slicks looking like a round Baby Ruth chocolate bar -- lots of contorted bumps.
The on-air crew had quite an adjustment to make on Monday as lead broadcaster Paul Page shockingly fell ill before the day ever began. Dave Rieff and Mike Dunn were superb in their work, but Paul wasn’t far from their minds. Afterwards, Paul told me this is the first show he has missed -- ever -- in his career. That’s more than 30 years. With the problems and unexpected nuances of travel, family, besides health over the decades, that’s one of those records that will last. And for the Charlotte race? “I’ll be there for the second Playoff with Mike Dunn and the team. It will be another 30 years before I miss another. It really hurt to miss (Indy).”
There were highlights galore throughout the weekend, like one featured on the Sunday morning “RaceDay” show. Chris Karamesines ran a 310 mph qualifying pass and didn’t have his chute blossom. As Mike Dunn explained, the strip is a long straightaway, so there’s plenty of room, but “the Greek is driving like a 28 year-old (the obverse of his age); he don’t need no stinkin’ parachute.”
The cameramen on the start line keep the viewer right on top of the action. As Morgan Lucas was disappointingly pulled from a qualifying launch, viewers knew what the problem was as one of them cut in and reported, “Lucas leaking fuel really, really bad.”
Plenty of coverage was provided to past stars of drag racing, but none more than one who has now become an active star: Bob Glidden. Paul Page exclaimed during a qualifying round, “He’s forgotten more than most have ever known.” Given a rousing welcome on the return lanes during qualifying, a later announcement came that he is having so much fun, he’s going to finish out the year in the Cunningham Mustang.
Disappointments galore stunned viewers throughout the race day like Brandon Bernstein breaking in his quarterfinals run. Then, V. Gaines putting Jeg Coughlin on the trailer later red-lighted a win away, Melanie Troxel broke loose in the preferred left lane, and Matt Smith went barely red in only the second round causing bride, Angie, to grasp her head with both hands. Lastly, the biggest one of the day perhaps was Ron Krisher going “way red,” as FastNews called it, in a lap where he outran Allen Johnson. If Bob Frey were to have commented here, he might have said something like, “We have this crazy rule where the winner can’t leave before the start light blinks.”
What better King of drag racing than a family man, Larry Dixon, who has redefined what a “10” really means. It is beauty, of course, but personified with a team and crew chief who are extraordinary in reaching and winning finals without a loss, including the biggest one in the sport. ESPN gave us the best celebration possible, following Dixon and his family to the fences as the kids scampered up the wire, their reward for the victory.
Trophies, money … none of that mattered to the youngsters. For his children, it was the pure happiness of being with dad, celebrating a moment of extraordinary elation over a win. ESPN gave us that moment, an image that will last far longer than the check the team pocketed.
I sat on these same concrete walls about two-feet tall, painted white, back when the quarter-mile was the distance for all drag races, and fans camped on the north side of the Brainerd track up close and intimate. Sportsman racers, especially SuperComp, dominated this stretch with travel homes towing their race trailers. All that is gone parked elsewhere on the grounds. Things change, new ownership sets up a new layout, and now the space is unoccupied except for a half dozen white tractor-trailers parked in a way creating a mini-fortress. This is the ESPN travelling caravan. This is drag racing television.
It is about 10 a.m., and I am waiting to ride to the top end of the track and experience live the absolute finish of a drag race -- when the drivers climb out of those ever-so-small cockpits. It must be impossible that a drag racer suffers claustrophobia; otherwise, they would never sit in those tiny protective cages and, in the case of Funny Cars, have someone shut the lid on them. This thought has me stretching reflexively as Trevor Towle now back from the Sunday morning show offers to guide me around the central production trailer, the gee-whiz one with a kind of a dark NASA look inside: lots of screens, work stations, people pressing buttons lit a rainbow of colors.
Trevor’s job as pit producer is coordinating with reporters, Dave Rieff, Gary Gerould and John Kiernan, stories, he says, “they see on the fly.” He sketches out his own ideas by conversely running those possibilities by the reporters. Between this give-and-take, themes bubble to the top. He presents them, “sells” them, to the producer Eric Swaringen on the ideas one at a time. “We’re trying to find the hook of the story and condense it,” he explains.
Entering this confined area is like finding an entire office stuffed in one cubicle -- every spot of space is utilized. The entire crew is busy, and here I am interrupting, but everyone is happy and friendly. Find that in your tower offices on a typical morning.
Trevor tells me about Melissa Armstrong’s duties, an assistant director whose job is to fix everything. I need to meet someone who can do that, but first talk with Dave Dobson who is the tape producer. This function occupies the middle of this control room. Dave explains he edits using an EVS System one of three available to this ESPN team. He manages time, “A kind of air traffic controller but for video.” The tape department consists of four to six technicians -- half editing and half gathering the replays from all of the cameras.
EVS means -- actually, nothing. EVS is the name of the company making the machine. They describe the system as “integrating live editing, instant replay, highlight editing, slow and super motion control, as well as sophisticated non-linear editing functions.” In the world of broadcast television, I discover EVS is referred to as “The Elvis.” For that piece of information I say, “Thank you, thank you very much.”
Against a back wall, I meet Rich Schepler who explains his trio “coordinates graphics and fonts, essentially producing all things graphic.” Ideas are created, filtered, and built with his two seatmates, graphic operators Nicole Trimner and Ben Pyle. Nicole was filling in for Pete Smith who was not available for the Brainerd date. Rich graded her as “a great super-sub.”
He explained more of their duties: “We build the graphics for the show together, figure out the best wording, the best templates and shells to use, and what will help make the show look better.” Shells are those dramatic, colorful preformed designs used to surround words and pictures and are supplied by an arm of ESPN. “When we are putting shows together, it is my job to inform my operators what is coming up next.” He demonstrated his numbering system on all of his graphics, a specific number representing each team. The system makes no sense to anyone looking over his shoulder, but with constant use, he said the designations come easy. Selecting numbers, he instructs the system to provide specific graphics to put into the show.
“It is also my job to sell graphic ideas to the producer. Eric is the brains behind the entire production, and I help him with the graphics that we use in the show.” Just like reporters are filtering ideas through Trevor for Eric to consider, these ideas flow through Rich to Eric. Eric receives a head full of information each broadcast requiring him to be on the top of his game at all times. He is in the instant decision business, like those seen in commodity exchange pits except he doesn’t wildly wave hands and fingers, but calmly and urgently vocalizes his decisions.
Sitting to his right in this small capsule of space, Nichole develops and controls the start line graphics. She deals in lower thirds, sounding every bit like a musical chord out of “Dark Side of the Moon,” but her work is in the bottom of the screen, not notes. Rich explained, “This seat really is in charge of identifying all drivers, crew chiefs, owners, and crew members. She is also in charge of launch fonts, the visual popping on the screen just before the cars race down the track.”
Ben Pyle in the left seat does all points and race ladders, brackets and big picture graphics. Rich walked me through that process: “When we are in the middle of a show, I will tell him what numbers to call up within our graphics database, and he will animate the graphics on the screen and therefore in the show. An example of a big picture graphic would be a comparison of what Robert Hight did through the first 17 races of 2009 vs. the first 16 races of 2010. Ben and I will locate the best graphics template, and we will build a numbers comparison.” This idea, once thought up, is built in the time a hungry fan can order pork chop sandwiches at the popular Hansen Food outlets.
From this compact effective group emerges all of the information exploding on a television screen as intended and on time, keeping a fan fully informed on the races and the progress made -- or lost -- by the dragsters.
The last graphics team member is Jay Bruneau, the bug operator. Jay sits just across from the trio and deals with crawl, the results and points scrolling across the top of the screen. “When two cars cross the finish line,” Rich illustrated to me, “it is his graphics that fly on the screen over the two cars that show their reaction times, speeds, and ETs. All of his information flows to him through the CompuLink system that the NHRA uses. Instantaneously, all race times, reaction times and speeds appear.”
My experience with these motivated talented creators is they are a very focused and happy crew. They ply their craft in 10-hour days for a three-hour broadcast. This means 500 or so work-hours are invested for that ESPN drag race you casually watch. Think about that as they broadcast 11 hours over three days in Indianapolis.
I step outside and catch the ride in Gary Gerould’s golf cart to the top end a few minutes before the first pair. He confirms the view of this cooperative group saying, “The team concept permeates this ESPN camp.” Carl Smith following us in another cart pulls alongside and tells the G-man one of the tires are low, and he already has a fix coming. Gary explains that Carl, from Gainesville, Fla., “always has my back, just like noticing the tire. He watches over innumerable details.”
The finish of the top end is an imaginary line where the dragsters finally stop. Depending on the team and to a degree, the team’s funding, I observed up to 13 officials, crew, and safety safari members instantly swarming over the spent driver and hot rod. At Brainerd, this activity is close, as these lanes don’t resemble parking lots.
I talked with long time official Kurt Johnson who is departing the organization after Brainerd to assume duties as the Operations Director for Indianapolis Raceway Park, just in time for the sport’s “Big Go.” He described for me the activities of this group on the dragster.
Two are on either side wrapping the ejected chutes and limp cords around both ends of the wing. The crew “pulls plug wires, grounds and then disengages the mag so it can’t light, takes the remote fuel rails, backs fuel out of the motor by a counter clockwise turn of the flywheel, and then removes the blower belt to remove its tension.”
He explains fuel sampling occurs at least once from every dragster in qualifying, and there can be impromptu sampling. “On race day, every winner is checked.” That’s why race officials have tubes not unlike those used in blood tests and fill them as soon as the nitro machines stop.
He further clarified Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycles weigh-in on race day mornings since the teams cut the weight tolerance so closely. That is why you see the drivers going with the tow vehicle to the scales -- so there are no surprises later. After a pass, the weight and fuel once again are checked for the winners. “Nitro doesn’t have to do that because with their horsepower a couple of pounds isn’t a factor.”
Chuck Becker, tech inspector at the top end, pointed out when Pro Stock Motorcycles stage, inspectors also make random checks on fuel.
The tow vehicle immediately backs up to attach a link to the stopped dragster. The winning crew doesn’t have time to celebrate, though their smiles tell the tale. Three members of Cory McClenathan’s team are out on his Fram dragster already in the tear down mode, getting post race chores done prior to arriving back in their pits for the big work. I am told some teams like Jim Dunn and Luigi Novelli elect more old school attitudes and don’t do a lot here except hook and go.
Next to the digital monitor covered by a small open tent, winning drivers congregate. They wait for their interview but are anxious to watch their race replays. I overhear Antron Brown comment that conditions today are “totally different from yesterday.”
Gary Gerould’s cameraman, Tim Glass, has been with him decades in the NBA and is in his sixth year in the NHRA. They effortlessly work in this buzz of activity and prepare to interview as quickly as the driver has his helmet and HANS device removed, a scene one watches on these broadcasts every race. New and better fasteners, snaps, and latches that can protect drivers yet be easier to remove are an opportunity open to an ingenious solution.
Funny Cars come to the line. It is Ashley Force Hood’s team, the heavy favorite over Paul Lee, making the call to go as the first pair, a surprise move creating a buzz around this experienced crowd watching the monitor. I am watching them. An even bigger gasp turns into an exclamation of “Wow” as winner Paul Lee barely stops before he is out of Jim Dunn's Canidae Impala. Paul Lee, Wharton graduate with more degrees than most everyone at the track today, has things to say but it is the loser, the Queen of Funny Car drag racing, who captures the attention.
Ashley Force Hood’s best response may not have been aired. She gloomily uttered to Gary, “This round sucks.” No better explanation of a bad race -- losing first round after dominating qualifications, expecting a confirmation high after recent disappointments, repeating 2009’s disappointing Brainerd results -- can be made than this short verdict: “This round sucks.” Little girls and plenty of older ones, too, lined up in droves outside her hospitality area, adoringly asking for autographs, welcomed with a broad smile and open arms by Force Hood. They had to be as shocked and dumfounded as Ashley.
I overheard Mike Dunn in the multiple replays of the lap explaining, “She dropped a cylinder and that created tire shake.” Paul Page joked, “They’re checking to see if John Kiernan (who crawled inside the raised shell before the start to get a word with Ashley) didn’t touch anything.” Kiernan’s escape from his contorted position while interviewing her took some doing while crawling backwards, ducking, and untangling his surprising height.
Bob Tasca’s Motorcraft Mustang continued the surprise day by winning over John Force’s Castrol Mustang by a foot. Crawling out of the red Funny Car shell, I hear Tasca yell, “Wowee!” inside his helmet. He tells the G-man, “I love John Force! Wowee!” Force was particularly animated and perplexed as he explained, “I thought I won.” In a moment he’s asking, “Where were you, Tasca? Gosh darn it, I didn’t see you.”
Next, though only the third pair of Funny Cars, a track record ET comes as Beckman’s Freightliner Charger wins over Del Worsham’s Al-Anabi Camry, which dropped cylinders starting very early in the lap. Jack’s first comment was, “Man that was a long light (at the Christmas tree) up there.” A tech guy standing nearby cracked, “You run low ET, it doesn’t matter.”
Tony Pedregon, losing his key round to make the Countdown, to Robert Hight places his emotions on the shelf. He flatly says, “We can hang our heads high.” A couple of pairs later, Tim Wilkerson wins by inches over Jeff Arend, eliminating him from playoff contention and giving Tony the tenth and last Funny Car slot. Wilkerson’s humanity surfaced in his interview saying, “I feel bad for Arend; it’s a heartbreaker. But we hit the nuts in round one,” meaning they found the right combination for the track.
While Jim Head’s Ray Charles adorned Solara -- a reference to a season earlier comment by Pro Stock legend, Warren Johnson -- sent the No. 2 qualifier, cowboy Matt Hagan and his Charger back to the barn, Bob Frey quipped, “The wackiness continues . . . .”
The roar on the television in the Funny Car finals as Bob Bode’s Alard Machine Products Impala shocked the racing world by winning over Jack Beckman was a whisper compared to the cheers of the race crowd. Loving an underdog, the fans were ecstatic in a lap heard ‘round the world. Riding with Bob Wilber, team manager, while he was heading to the Wilkerson pits for their earlier semifinals preparation against the Bode machine, he told me, “You can’t take them lightly at all. They are always a factor when they unload even though they race a partial schedule. They come prepared.” The Wilkerson Levi, Ray and Shoup Mustang lifted the front end in a losing pass, setting up Bode for this incredible upset.
Sitting in the broadcast booth for these finals, I heard Paul Page exclaim on Bode’s Wally win, “That’s the biggest upset in Funny Car history.” Jack Beckman made a cool remark prior to the lap, noting the sentimental favorite of the Bode crew, “I’m torn in this final, but I’m rooting for me.”
The ESPN team seemed to enjoy their Brainerd stay, and it showed in the telecast. More snazzy lines made the program like Paul Page scolding the son, Shane Gray, for trailering Jim in the semi-finals, “He has no respect for his dad!” Mike Dunn quipped, “I never would have done that to my dad.” Statman noted off camera, “Dad was dead late” off the start.
There were other major finals. A viewer did not see them if not tuned to the Brainerd Sportsman broadcast on Sunday, August 22. Dave Rieff and Bob Frey bring a family approach to this drag racing series along with many quips and factoids stewing from the brain of Bob Frey. You can learn geography, too, as Dave Rieff pointed out, “Minnesota has 10,000 lakes but only one BIR,” and important minutiae like the process for “chilling the fuel for Alcohol hot rods.”
In the Alcohol Funny Car finals, oral surgeon Dr. Thomas Carter in his cleverly named “Jaw Breaker” Mustang led Frank Manzo’s Al-Anabi Monte Carlo at every post in the quarter-mile . . . except the final one at the lights. Recognizing the crowd’s excitement over the big underdog’s near miracle, Bob Frey quipped, “We have this crazy rule you have to finish first in the final to take the trophy.” Statman updates the record for his all-time favorite driver Frank Manzo: “His 29th consecutive final win and 90th career win.” If the race had been to a 1,000 feet, Doc would have won the clock.
As a prelude to the Bode upset in this crazy race day, Top Alcohol dragster finals also captured the crowd emotions. Duane Shields, clearly the class of the field and with a bye into the finals round, has Chris Demke’s number, never having lost to him in a race. Shields leaves first, but Demke catches and passes only to have Sheilds surge into the lights . . . but too late. Demke won with a margin of .0117 seconds, which led to one of the most excited victors ever. Chris said he was wearing his Mark Niver wristband, a tribute to the highly respected driver lost in an earlier race this year. He gave credit for the victory to the most deserving member of his team today -- “My land rocket.”
I only found one problem this weekend -- lack of time because of too much excitement at BIR. I missed this opportunity to interview ESPN assistant director, Melissa Armstrong, but running out of time as a dragster runs out of track trying to catch the other lane. I can’t wait to make up for that because, where else can one meet a professional whose job is to fix everything.
Experiencing Brainerd’s wild race weekend with the ESPN team yielded fresh insights on televising drag racing’s volatile story.
Nothing prepares a drag race fan for the solitude and quiet that dominates the top end. With an ear-splitting blast, a couple of nitro dragsters launch at the start. Crossing the finish line, determining winners and losers, we view these scenes on a screen or live in the stands with lap after lap familiarity. A finish line photo cam captures images of just how tight many of those races really are.
From the driver’s perspective, there is a lot left to do after tripping the final clock. They click off those 8,000 horsepower monsters and trigger their chutes. By the time they roll to the turnoff, the last pop pop pops of the massive nitro power are gone as they burn off any remaining nitro.
Then comes the eerie quiet, made even stranger after watching the race start on the digital monitor at the top end. The dragsters seem to be halfway down track before the sound ever reaches the top end. It is like the sound was muted on the screen for a fraction of time, surprising how unnatural it seems after years of an instant roar! Then, is unnaturally quiet as these drivers coast off the track often at speed and flip a U-turn as if they were driving an Indy car.
Lance LaLonde (part of the Sacramento trio of senior ESPN reporter, Gary Gerould, and his veteran camera man, Tim Glass, with him for years) captures those images from his perch on the hydraulic lift as the hot rods coast along. He caught Larry Dixon, whose Al-Anabi dragster blew in the lights after an easy win over Steve Torrence, sliding in his own oil making the turn, raising the big right-rear slick off the ground. The only sound is from track officials who yell “fire” to alert everyone to the remaining flames on Dixon’s dragster, an alert heard several times in today’s first round. Longtime NHRA reporter, Alan Reinhart, joked, “They’ve blown up more stuff in the first round than they have in the last five races!”
Drivers have to make a big choice, one more thing to do: drive in the appropriate lane for the winner or the one for the loser. Side-by-side, it is that final stop, the knowledge of which the driver has been celebrating or dreading since the six g’s of gravity squeezed their bodies in the whole “let’s slow this thing down really, really fast” process. Because, at this point, the lap is over.
The excitement of the replays on television, the analysis of the round just completed keeps us glued to the action whether on the screen or in the stands, readying for the next pair. On the other end, the ultimate theater in human emotions continues -- coping with winning or losing -- magnified this last Countdown qualifying weekend. At the end of this day all Countdown To One slots will be filled. All others will suffer what can best be described as Brainerd banishment -- they are officially out of the championship race for 2010.
I witnessed live the ceremony of pride as drivers marched back to the nearly full Countdown board. The 40 spaces filled with names representing the four pro classes with only a few remaining empty slots are all neatly lined in vertical order. That board by itself -- sitting among the green trees and azure sky, buffeted by a windy race day in Brainerd -- does little to reflect the human effort, luck, and agony to earn the right to pin your name to its face.
David Grubnic, finally sealing his deal in Top Fuel by pedaling a win in his first round pairing against a game Terry Haddock, seemed to grasp the significance of his placement as he bent over from his 6-foot, 4-inch frame, and finally hung his plaque on the very bottom Top Fuel rung. He gestured with his hand in his smiling, bright-eyed way, how far it is to the top slot, claimed races ago by Larry Dixon and his Al-Anabi team.
The ESPN coverage over the weekend focused on those last remaining Countdown slots and winning the event, but the real tension in the pits was earning a top ten spot. Saturday, between pro qualifying sessions, I hopped in reporter and ESPN "RaceDay" host Dave Rieff’s cart and zoomed around from team to team, watching and listening as he nailed interviews we saw on the qualifying broadcast. Like an Outlaw dirt track racer, one of his favorite sports racing its big Knoxville, Iowa, feature Saturday night, he managed to zip right to where he wanted to go quickly (and safely) with lots of courtesy to fans. There are no straight lines in the racers midway area.
We were happily delayed many times as enthusiasts of the Sunday morning show shouted their hellos and sought autographs as he tooled through the human traffic. "Remember me?" was a common refrain, and more times than not he did. Plenty of the Brainerd track campers located in the affectionately known Zoo, bizarre costumes and all, seemed to know Dave very well, leading to denials about his times there.
He talked to a strolling Antron Brown who looked like a million dollars as he made his way wearing the Matco Tools colors offset with a red belt. Antron exudes confidence reflecting he is very, very comfortable with his lot in life. Good looking and younger men and women are taking over the sport, creating an entirely fresh dynamic, and definition of the new normal.
Landing first at Amalie Oil dragster pit, Terry McMillen proudly displayed a very big monkey – "It’s on our backs," he quipped. This piece of theater recalled earlier in the season when they won their first round of racing. The team celebrated by stomping a monkey, signifying that one was off their backs. Now, the monkey has been replaced by the gorilla-sized mission of making the Countdown to One this weekend.
Joining us there was 27-year camera veteran, Matt Ilas, Michigan, with Tim Helms and Jeff Feulner. Both are from Minneapolis, with Helms handling cords; Feulner acted as the "point man," the guy who holds the transmitter pole that ensures the images and sounds get to the ESPN compound. At the races, do you notice a very tall crane extended in the sky with a cage at the top? No, that’s not Bob Frey’s lookout. The point men aim at that extension housing the antenna.
Matt is an artist with a camera as his brush. As Dave explained, "He knows these teams, and they know him and feel comfortable with him wandering around their pits." Many of the intriguing "Sounds of the Track" images used during the race broadcast come from his work. He doesn’t miss anything. As we next arrived at Tony Pedregon’s hospitality tent, we waited for Tony to become available. Mike Beauvais who was with us pointed out a Minnesota Vikings emblem on the purple-painted Charter Communications Impala to me. Tapping Matt on the shoulder and not wanting him to miss it, I begin explaining that might be interesting for the football fans. "Phillip, I’ve already got it." Oh.
The technology exists in his camera so anything Matt tapes is available to the ESPN producers for their use. Talking about these driver interviews, as he camps his camera right on Dave’s shoulder for those up-close images you watch, he noted, "I like my video to be a little movie."
Tony Pedregon tells me, as we now wait for the program to be ready for his interview, "We race one another (referring to brother, Cruz). How could I tell him to lay down? They have a mathematical chance to make the playoffs. That little hope is what gives them the motivation to go all out which helps to grow this sport for the fans. We want to do that." Here is a team owner with enough financial stress and countdown anxiety to pucker even a bankrupt banker; still, he calmly describes his situation. He lays out his beliefs just like an expert poker player assesses the odds with the cards he holds -- with a flat, even appraisal. Dave completes his interview and tells me, "He’s very well spoken."
After a taping with Grubnic, we caravan to the John Force Racing compound for Dave to check with No. 1 Funny Car qualifier at the end of two rounds (and about an hour later, three rounds), Ashley Force Hood. Here is where I discover a real insight. If you think all tapings are gathered and later cobbled together to make the qualifying show, you will be surprised to know the filming is 'live to tape.' This means the interview doesn’t occur until the show is ready for it. Even though it is taped, it is recorded at the point it will play in the program as if it were live television.
This means, in Ashley's case, we wait. She starts her pre-qualifying routine -- we wait. The Castrol GTX Mustang is pushed out of the pits -- we wait. The whole entourage makes its way to the starting line for the last round of qualifying. There, we wait again for the Saturday night qualifying show to need her interview.
Already parked is Ashley’s qualifying opponent Matt Hagen with his DieHard Charger, one of the best combo names going for a sponsor and auto brand. I talk with him a few moments realizing in the process this cowboy is stout and broad shouldered. He might not have appreciated it so much when I named him a "buckaroo" in a recent article. I explained that reference came from the movie "The Hunt for Red October" and was really a compliment since Sean Connery, playing a Russian submarine captain, was the actor who uttered it. It made perfectly good sense to me, and he seemed way too good-natured to hammer me like a rail nail.
Interview done, Dave puts away his notes and comments, "The toughest part is to get an interview and then make them wait." For all the circus surrounding these teams, every one of them took the fits and starts in stride. They understand the value of the coverage to their team and sponsors. Returning now to the ESPN studio on the Northeast side of the track, near the finish line, we watch Ashley run the quickest lap of the last qualifying Funny Car session. Hagen’s team tried to capture her No. 1 qualifying spot like when they successfully took away John’s top qualifying spot in Denver’s last round. Conditions weren’t as favorable as the day’s earlier run; he stayed No. 2 in an up in smoke, all-out attempt.
Rain overnight Saturday cleared out the final moisture in the air as a cool front overtook Brainerd. Sunday morning for the "RaceDay" show found temperatures in the low 60’s and a breeze with big clouds billowing past. Saturday’s qualifying conditions had disappeared in the darkness of overnight.
Trevor Towle who now works as the ESPN pit producer retained his position directing the show. And, why not? That program is so much fun to be around, particularly since race fans at each event gather in ever-growing numbers to watch -- and participate -- in person. Signs are a staple in the crowds with gems like this classic, "I’m not cocky, I’m just faster than you" showing up this weekend. ESPN or the NHRA makes every show as someone comes up with a new use of those acronyms like this example: "Every South Dakotan Prefers Nitrous." Then, a refuge escaping the Brainerd campgrounds, the largest party on the NHRA tour, held this claim: "I survived the Zoo."
Show guests, Morgan Lucas and Hector Arana, were staged behind the crowd with the Countdown to One signs reflecting the yet-to-be-filled blanks. Hector announced he red-lighted his computer by failing to back up his data, so he was collecting new information starting at this race. After absorbing the good-natured ribbing about that gaffe -- relax, Hector, it happens to many who would never admit it -- Morgan Lucas discussed his emotional win in 2009 with his mother, Charlotte, sitting in the cart in his sight line. I thought some were tearing up on that one. Mrs. Lucas raced Super Comp this weekend, making two rounds before trailering the Lucas Oil entry.
Jeg Coughlin Jr. chose to focus solely on his Pro Stock duties at Brainerd. Remember at Denver Jeg was shown no respect in the Sportsman class. He was unceremoniously knocked out of SuperComps in the first wave. So sweetheart, Samantha Kenny, taught him some Sportsman technique by making Brainerd’s second round in his SuperComp. Mike Dunn’s selection as the No. 1 active drag racer of all time raced the Bandimere Pro Stock finals against winner Allen Johnson, not a bad weekend. He is poised to rival Mike Edwards, along with Allen Johnson, as the odds-on favorites to win the Pro Stock Championship.
No. 1 qualifier, Mike Edwards, no surprise there, interviewed with Gary Gerould during a live pit report midway through the show.
Edwards commented about the Countdown to One structure stating, "It’s actually two seasons in one." After today’s first round, he will be happy to get the second season underway. His run, the quickest lap of the entire weekend including the remaining Pro Stock laps, won him ... a first round exit. The good news out of the lap came for the Roger Brogdon Kent Trucking GXP locking in the last Countdown slot with the hole shot win.
For the first round, both Pro Stock classes exited the track on the North return lane. The tally board for the Countdown To One parked on the South return lane of the drag strip didn’t allow Brogdon the ceremonial hanging of his name, but he did have the pleasure of winning over the guy at the top spot. This north exit doesn’t have a monitor, either. That’s too bad as winning or losing, those Pro Stock or Pro Stock Motorcycle drivers want to see their replay as badly and as quickly as the nitro drivers. A stoic Kurt Johnson, not making the top 10 this year for the first time since drivers like his father dominated here, hiked back to talk about his losing lap (eight little inches at 207 mph) with Jason Line.
Summit FastNews’ Rick Green, occupying his traditional west corner front row seat in Brainerd’s media center, noted Kurt was piloting a Pontiac for the first time since 1997. He won Brainerd that year over Jim Yates with a 7.007. Kurt lost with a 6.65. In a way, Yates got his dish of revenge, though served cold, as he works with the Brogdon team, the ones who snatched that last spot in Pro Stock for themselves.
At this rate of ET gains for Kurt in Pro Stock -- 1997’s 7.007 compared to 2010’s 6.650 -- BIR won’t see a Pro Stock race in the fives until circa 2030. Make a room reservation now for that date; resorts here might give you a discount, the only time you’ll find one in Brainerd.
Small touches continue to make this ESPN broadcast team endearing to fans. For example, where else would you find Santa Claus at a summer "RaceDay" show crowd but Brainerd? Viewing him on the pre-show cameras operated every year by Houston’s Dana Sherman and Nelly Jones from the Canadian contingent, the ESPN compound quickly piped in “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” to the amusement of the waiting, singing crowd.
In addition, I got an education from these veteran camera men, filling me in on the key to successful camerawork at the start line: "You learn to learn where the wind is blowing," Nelly instructed. Dana chimed in, "You’ve got to know if that nitro fuel is in your face or not." Warren Johnson would gladly tell them his favorite class, Pro Stock, spews no such acrid fumes.
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A woman owns a coveted piece of history at Bandimere: Spicy Lori Johns, once named "Female Fireball" by a national publication, was the first racer to break the track’s four-second mark with her Top Fuel dragster in a 1991 qualifying run. The odds a male would most likely accomplish the feat just by their sheer numbers were pretty overwhelming, but this tigress stuck it in their face. Some still cannot get over it.
In a throwback to its historic past, Bandimere presented a racing lineup for its 2010 event that included women in three of the four Pro classes -- Ashley Force Hood in Funny Car, Karen Stoffer, Angie Smith, and Katie Sullivan in Pro Stock Motorcycle, and for just the third time this year, Erica Enders in Pro Stock.
Ender’s accomplishment at this challenging environment -- even for the best teams with the most experience -- wasn’t an effort resulting from a short field. Her last qualifying pass of 7.042 placed the PiranaZ Mustang in the 15th spot, plus she outran some big names in the not qualified list. Just like the movie about her racing life, she seems to be "Right On Track" to be a factor in this ultracompetitive class at some point in the future.
Her reward for this effort by a team on the comeback trail? Winning a chance to dethrone "King Kong" Coughlin, winner of last weekend’s Sonoma event and 50 other national contests. Is a first-round loss possible with the JEGS.com Cobalt? It’s about as likely as a flatlander breathing normally while climbing the steps to Bandimere’s upper deck.
Competing in two classes this weekend, Jeg lost in the first round of Super Comp Saturday to El Paso’s Mike Hunt and his ‘Vette. Hunt advanced no further, perhaps rationalizing a win over Jeg is as good as a Wally. Besides, he recently participated in a $6,000 purse at the El Paso Motorplex with his son, Ryan, when both made it to the finals. They split the money and raced home instead of another round. (On a side note, the Southwest drags website is entertaining.)
In a short television feature, Jeg taught viewers benefits of his newly installed Simpson Air Boss parachute system in his affable way. In addition to the physical improvements of the system, the three pounds saved gives the team flexibility on where to redistribute that weight, a key he slyly noted without getting too specific.
Jeg almost imitated Mike Edward’s earlier second round red light but nicked a too-close-for-comfort .003 advantage, easily outdistancing Vinnie Deceglie’s appropriately named Mountain View Tire Avenger.
In a later pit interview, Allen Johnson seemed on a Mopar mission with a focus that allowed him the quickest run of the Pro Stock class to that point. The Grays, Shane and Johnny, were stopped respectively with stout laps by Jeg and Johnson in the semifinals as if it were preordained these two would race for the Bandimere championship. In the finals, Johnson nearly gave it away with his .004 light, but Jeg had a problem, slowed, and that was that. All Erica could be thinking was why couldn’t that have been in round one?
The adjusted altitude difference for Denver over Sonoma for the Pro Stock finals was 7,200 feet. That is exactly why ending the Western Swing at Bandimere is the right move. Having this wildcard atmosphere finishing drag racing’s "Triple Crown" makes an exciting race even without any teams having the possibility of sweeping in 2010.
In recent years, winning a Thoroughbred Triple Crown has become a rare achievement; winning the Western Swing is not so common either. Thoroughbreds race their third leg at Belmont Park, the longest (and toughest) dirt track in their sport. Bandimere matches in difficulty with its Rocky Mountain elevation, nothing else like it at all. As Mike Dunn said, "Besides, this is one of the best facilities to watch a drag race."
Jeg Coughlin Jr.'s new parachute system.
Ashley Force Hood’s crew chief, Dean "Guido" Antonelli, emphasized tune-up challenges as the ESPN cameras interviewed top tuners for their opinions of Denver’s rarefied air. He said, "Nothing on the other 22 races prepares you for Denver." In Ashley’s opening lap against Jack Beckman, the crew chief did his job with an ET of 4.203, the second quickest of the day for the class, but the driver lost on a sleepy .104 launch. Beckman, by contrast, won with a .068.
Mike Dunn had anticipated a poor light, commenting during the burnout, "After her two-step in the last qualifying sometimes that can make a driver hesitant." Afterwards, Jack went over to Ashley at the top end and gave some comfort: "Don’t let it get to you. You are doing fine." Timely words from her original drag racing coach.
Force Hood clinched her Countdown spot, but that really was not in question. What seems to be an issue going into the Countdown is her drive and intensity, particularly in comparison with brother-in-law Robert Hight.
In the Funny Car finals, Hight kindly spotted John Force a lead at the tree, but won with a distance resembling a Castrol tractor-trailer. "I am just an old sourpuss; a guy that just got spanked. I’ll get over it," Force said, as he mentally began packing for Brainerd.
I recall John Force talking of desire and intensity in an interview by saying, and I need to paraphrase here, even when in the bathroom one will be thinking of the championship and how to win it. The impression one sees on the screen is Ashley wants to win -- well, who doesn’t? -- but one wonders if she carries it as far as her teammates. She must, as she was upset after the round knowing, "a million people are going to get on me about my lights." Now it’s a million and one.
Karen Stoffer and her GEICO Powersports Suzuki started the day against Angie Smith’s Coffman Tank Trucks Buell. These two had a major point’s battle for the 10th and final Countdown spot at stake. Angie seemed to try to imitate husband Matt’s perfect .000 he used to dispatch Hector Arana, but missing by a tiny fraction meant Karen was on her way -- all the way to the finals, too. Alas, the best female performer of the day lost to Andrew Hines and his Screamin’ Eagle Harley, notching his 21st victory.
There is another historic mark continuing at Bandimere needing special attention. In the era of sponsorships for teams and tracks coming and going, what about this: the relationship between Bandimere and Mopar is the longest running national event sponsorship in the history of the NHRA -- 31 years for those scoring at home, a dedication worthy of annual celebration. With that commitment, it is almost as if Mopar deserved having even more than two teams qualifying No. 1 for their race.
Paul Page reminded us, "Denver has its moments of surprises." One of the biggest was a Top Fuel final without Larry Dixon or Tony Schumacher. Dixon gave the class notice his team is the one to beat for the championship by cementing the No. 1 spot for the Countdown in the exact round he bested Schumacher. Next lap, though, surging Copart Top Fuel driver Brandon Bernstein cut a great light to sit Dixon down.
After the first round, Rod Fuller needed to race two Kalitta Air dragsters if he was to earn the finals. The first, with David Grubnic desperately needing a win to give his 10th place Countdown position a cushion over the never-say-quit Amalie team, yielded one of the best lines of the day. Grubnic and Fuller both went up in tire smoke with off-and-on pedals yielding an exciting, jerky path to the 1,000-foot finish. Grubnic’s dragster catching Fuller, passing him after they just crossed the finish, prompted Paul Page to quip, "He would have won if we raced the quarter mile."
Fuller then raced Doug Kalitta with virtually an even launch. Rick Green described at FastNews, "Kalitta starts mixing up cylinders right in the lights, but holds on for the win earning a final round with Bernstein."
This final had all the marks of a classic -- a long and big name drag racing heritage with a son and a nephew driving -- and the two teams did not disappoint. Leaving the crowd on a high at this altitude can take one’s breath away, but it was worth it. Brandon did his dad proud by grabbing a .053 light. Kalitta crew chief and ballroom dancer Jim Oberhofer tuned Doug’s rail well enough that it Cha Cha’d past Bernstein for the win, Kalitta's first of the year. Paul Page has been predicting it might be Kalitta’s year; he may be right. The team is definitely in the mix with Schumacher, Cory McClenathan, and Antron Brown. It is just that the Al-Anabi team with Dixon and master tuner, Alan Johnson, are likely to lead the big dance.
As with 2009, the fight for the No. 10 spot to qualify for the Countdown -- we know with Robert Hight’s example a team can win the championship from that spot -- remains open heading to Brainerd. In Top Fuel, the real fight is Grubnic and Terry McMillen. In Funny Car, Tony Pedregon and Jeff Arend are the battle. If the brackets gods are good to the fans, the opening round in Brainerd will be the Pedregon brothers with the 10th spot testing their mettle once again to race heads-up. Déjà Vu all over again?
In the Formula 1 race Sunday, the leader pulled over and waved his teammate by. The announcers said something along the order that, well, it’s a team championship, and they have to do what’s good for the team. I immediately thought of the Pedregons and their attitude of "we race one another" -- it lifts drag racing to a higher standard. Mike Dunn gave them kudos for that in the critical 2009 second Brainerd round. Cruz led off the start and the whole way, but Tony snuck by for the win, killing the Cruzer’s season.
So, what happens if David Grubnic and Doug Kalitta meet in Round 1 in Brainerd, with David needing rounds to stay in the Countdown chase? This Countdown business has made the fight for No. 10 as entertaining, if not more so, than the race to the top.
The upcoming hullaballoo at Brainerd should be equally as much fun this year as last. The attention is going to be, increasing Warren Johnson’s chagrin, on those nitro blasters.
Sonoma State University offers wine business diplomas. Infineon Raceway offers drag racing classes with advanced studies in frustration, ecstasy and mayhem.
In the ‘be careful what you say in class’ category, Tony Pedregon answered this question: who is his favorite driver to race. A no-brainer for anyone familiar with the sport, viewers responded right along with Pedregon as he named John Force. The invisible spirits of the race brackets busily went to work and -- presto -- a first round Funny Car pairing for these two.
John Force’s history at Sonoma is a dominating seven poles and seven wins. He lamented his DQ in Seattle during an interview, admitted that was his most disappointing event all season, which provided more motivation coming into the Sonoma vineyards. Having Pedregon in the parallel lane had to add incentive. “I love him,” Force said, not about to take the dangling bait ESPN reporters offered him to amp the match. To their credit, Gary Gerould and Dave Rieff also tried to entangle him in the Warren Johnson brouhaha resulting from the professor’s comments disparaging nitro drivers. A viewer got the impression Force could have spent the remaining broadcast answering, but wisely disappeared into the confines of the truck while mumbling something about “not going there.”
To put the result of this round another way, Tony also answered, “Who would you choose to play you in a movie.” He quipped, “Tom Cruise … with a tan.” Attempting to best Force in their drag race qualified as Tony’s “Mission Impossible.”
That round would be John Force’s only highlight of the day as a cowboy imitating a Funny Car driver, Matt Hagan, promptly sent him out to pasture in Round 2. Family drivers, Robert Hight and Ashley Force Hood, met in a highly anticipated first round, first-pair race that Hight won going away. Ashley blanked for the third time this year against her teammate, extending the winless streak. Her queen of drag racing crown is showing smudges of loss tarnish.
By the end of the quarterfinals, the entire JFR class was on the hotrod trailer for Denver. Force was succinct in his race day analysis: “Sonoma wasn’t good for us.”
The No. 1 Funny Car qualifier at Sonoma, Jack Beckman, added to his two previous top qualifying starts. Asked by Dave Rieff if this indicated a big step for his team, his answer, “It’s a game of chance out here,” was a good insight to the difficulty of racing this sport. If one doesn’t believe the chance element, check out the No. 2 qualifier, the effervescent Gary Densham who is on a money-induced partial schedule.
First, the lap earning him this high qualifying position, outdoing teams whose food budgets would exceed his total cash on hand, was an outstanding effort. It was his explosion completing that great lap Friday night capturing the cameras -- and fans -- attention. Turning a Funny Car shell into confetti isn’t easy, demonstrating the magnitude of the blast. Recall he is travelling at 300 mph when this incident unfolds yet slows to a safe stop and hops out. Paul Page exclaimed “Huge explosion!” followed by Mike Dunn, “This is about as big as they come.”Page gave Densham his due, saying, “He seems none the worse for wear. He’s tough.”
That is exactly correct, he is tough. Saturday morning Gerould interviews the smiling Densham who showed no visible effects from the detonation. He recalled, “It was a perfect run, just trucking, it dropped a valve … and the body evaporates.” An old skin brought out of the home garage and shipped overnight to the race on his son’s flatbed allowed the team to make the race with Melanie Troxel. With Densham’s Chevy Impala rebuild going up in smoke almost at the get-go, Troxel’s In-N-Out Burger Charger had this win faster than you could say, “Can I get this Animal Style?”
Gerould reported the most inspiring story of the weekend coming out of this shock-and-awe blast. He recounted a fan coming by the pits with a fistful of cash and handing it to Densham.
ESPN cameras caught the action, and replays were broadcast multiple times. These images aided our understanding how the shell cracked in two like thumbing an egg open. Jeff Arend in the other lane wins special driving kudos for dodging the rain of pieces as if he was driving a go-kart. The best still frame photo of the weekend also came from this incident, a shot of the car streaking by as it disintegrated.
Always a great match, Greg Anderson paired against Warren Johnson -- a former employee, now a star, meeting the grand master in an old tale told once again. Greg’s ability at the line, a weakness for Johnson, should win it, and does, but one can never count out the cagey Georgian with smarts honed in the tough Iron Range of Minnesota.
There is “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” the movie, the same name of the first couple of Pro Stock Motorcycles, Matt and Angie. Their pairing in the first round was like the movie in a way, where Ms. Angie Smith must have been thinking of (Angelina Jolie) Jane Smith’s line to Brad Pitt, “There's nowhere I'd rather be than here with you.” She was thinking of something other than racing as Matt streaked down the lane for an easy win. She was (suspiciously) late after making a big deal of cutting a quick light on the ESPN’s “RaceDay” show.
Jeg Coughlin changed his team’s grade with his first win here (as ESPN statistician Lewis Bloom reported) since 2003. How? Coughlin took a lesson from Pro Stock upstart, Shane Gray, who raced in one of those family pairings today. Facing dad in the first round, Shane promptly put him on the trailer with a holeshot victory. He continues to teach dad, Johnny, how to win with reaction times.
Mike Edwards uncharacteristically found his Penhall GXP out of the show early, shockingly handing Shane a freebie. Page exclaimed, “What’s this! A surprise and an upset.”
Finding himself in the semi-final round, Gray tattooed Jeg at the light, a .010 to a .037, but the JEGS.com Cobalt overcame the Tire Kingdom GXP for the win. That light must have been on Jeg’s mind as he pulled to the line in the final with Jason Line’s Summit GXP.
Jason tried to avenge teammate Greg Anderson’s earlier loss to Jeg who unceremoniously trashed his shot at a Western Swing sweep. Anderson reacted with a sleepy .077 start, perhaps distracted by Jeg’s bright banana yellow paint scheme vividly contrasting with the baked brown Sonoma countryside.
Jason wasn’t in the cards to be the KB team salvation. Jeg executed a Shane-like .010 RT and collected his second bottle of Wally wine from Infineon Raceway. He celebrated by performing an impromptu jig sitting in his Chevy and then did his patented stand-on-the-roof pose.
More Pro Stock racers found their day failing, notably Allen Johnson. Johnson’s Mopar Avenger set qualifying records at Sonoma and led Kurt Johnson’s Cobalt in the second round until a late transmission quirk slowed him. Memo: Allen would have won the round if the race ended at the nitro 1,000 foot mark, a modification under consideration. It would be interesting if ESPN noted the change in race outcomes for Pro Stock racing the quarter mile as if the lap ended at the nitro distance.
Larry Dixon revealed an added incentive for winning for his Al-Anabi team at Sonoma: “Everyone except Cory McClenathan is trying to work on their own setups to try and keep him from sweeping.” The brackets worked their particular magic and allowed these two to meet in the third stanza. Dixon’s setup wasn’t the deciding factor… Cory’s Fram dragster popped the blower like a champagne cork, bubbling away his fantasy to be the first driver to repeat a Western Swing trifecta.
Race fortunes can change as a result of tiny increments in an event. A key example occurred in the semi-final round of Funny Cars when the most exciting race of this day occurred. Jack Beckman and Bob Tasca raced 1,000 feet only to have the win decided by 2 inches on the back of Beckman’s .001 advantage at the tree. Rick Green reported on his Summit FastNews, “What a fantastic side by side race from start to finish.” And that’s from a reporter who has watched 10,000 laps.
Ron Capps won the Funny Car class, overcoming Beckman’s record ET and speed marks set this weekend. Capps ran the exact ET of 4.169 against Beckman that he used to send Hagan back to the ranch in the semifinal round. Michael Phillips in Pro Stock Motorcycle surpassed Capps’ joy in winning this event. Phillips’ victory dance can only be described as otherworldly, giving new meaning to the inspiration “reach for the stars.”
Capps had the good fortune to not only win Sonoma, and satisfyingly so for new chief, John Medlen and Ace, too, but also avenged his failing grade at Seattle last week. In the first round today, he met Seattle victor, Tim Wilkerson, and promptly stomped on his Western Swing sweet-sweep dream. This sport’s Triple Crown of racing, sweeping the Western Swing, is over for 2010 as all three contenders were abruptly bounced.
Wilkerson team manager, Bob Wilber, lamenting on the loss said, “If signs and omens were the only determining factors in this sport, getting good results would be a lot simpler than it is, and fortune tellers would be a part of every crew.” The overwhelming qualities of drag racing teams are the capacity to pack up, move on, and enter the next challenging event with the full intention of winning, irrespective of what just happened. Drag racers and their teams are sturdy, tough, and able to rebound. How do they do that? They have strong thoughts and constitutions. Einstein said it best, “Weakness of attitude becomes weakness of character.”
BOUNTY FOR BIG NOISE II: Hunting for Don Miller’s Hot Rod. Updates made at blog starting, July 21 http://harmonizingkeys.blogspot.com/
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An unlikely set of circumstances gathered like the early raceday fog from Mt. Rainier, vaporizing into a weekend of firsts at the Northwest Nationals.
Where else but Seattle can you go to a drag race and find volcano evacuation routes interspersed with routine traffic signs. By one measure, the massive Mt. Rainier mountain range exceeds the infamous K2. For the first time since the last century (22 years), the Western Swing starts in its shadow, changing conditions normal for this venue. The result? Unique, historic -- and tragic -- outcomes.
Teams throughout the country gather at this faraway corner of the country site where they plan to summit one special Rainier peak: Point Success. Success is measured many ways in life and in racing.
The heartwarming success story of this weekend had to be a 73-year-old driver attempting 66 times over a quarter of a century to qualify just once at a NHRA Pro Stock event. Jim Cunningham nailed it on this attempt at Pacific Raceways by qualifying his dazzling red Cunningham Motorsports Mustang while a long way from his Maryland home. Paul Page commented, “He finally has done it. What a great story.” Gary Gerould in a live interview asked if spending millions for this moment was worth it. Jim humbly responded, “I’m enjoying it.” The visual of him embracing the moment was far more poignant than those three words. The single biggest upset story of the season, maybe the decade, would be Cunningham overcoming Mike Edwards’ Penhall GXP in Round 1. Edwards is a driver who has likely qualified the last 67 times he tried with many of those as No. 1. A red light ended any suspense, so Jim will have to wait until next time to win his first round. However, this story dominated the heart-warming class of racing over the weekend.
Doug Kalitta, as statman Lewis Bloom reported, went 84 events between No. 1 qualifying honors in Top Fuel. The last time he notched the pole position was the 2006 Pomona Finals.
Sporting a striking black paint scheme, Brian Thiel’s Case Agriculture III Impala lined up in the Funny Car ranks for the first time this year, only to catch a first round match with a top funded team, Al-Anabi Racing and veteran Del Worsham piloting his Solara. Mike Dunn noted, “It’s been cooler every day since we’ve been here,” meaning records were predictable; Tim Wilkerson boldly took it to a new level on ESPN's "NHRA RaceDay” show saying, “I expect both ends of the records to be broke in all three pro classes.” Del Worsham parked Thiel’s Impala for the remainder of the day by setting a speed record, one of several drivers who broke records just as Wilkerson predicted. Additionally, Tim Wilkerson won the day, which was the first time he has ever been to three straight finals. The LRS team’s 11 wins over the past three years is the most of any in the ultra-competitive Funny Car class.
Washington Top Fuel racer, Ron Smith, had such a monumental task on Sunday that if offered to climb Mt. Rainier instead, his odds would have been better lacing up his hiking boots. Qualifying for the race, a first for this racer, was a major step in his racing resume. Having to meet Tony Schumacher racing the Army rail in the first round, a daunting task, ended his day. Schumacher managed to add credibility to Wilk’s forecast by setting the track ET record.
When was the last time you remember an entire pro class backing off the start line, in effect calling a mini-strike during eliminations? This piece of theater one could never script was triggered by the anger of Warren Johnson, palpable to the cameras as he shouted-out the NHRA.
“This race track is flat-out dangerous.” His beef was the “track being prepped for nitro cars, that’s all the NHRA wants. They didn’t prep the track correctly for our class.”
Reporting from pits and cars scattered about, Dave Rieff and Gary Gerould came up with the story for the viewer: Was this just a tirade by the peppery Professor of Pro Stock racing or something else indeed? Greg Anderson confirmed Warren’s view by boldly pronouncing, “It’s a miracle we didn’t crash in the first two rounds. It’s a simple, simple fix” of adding track glue to the surface for the entire quarter mile, not just stopping at the nitro distance of 1,000 feet. In other words, add another 320 feet of track prep, which seemingly is an easy fix. The issue evidently had been bubbling below the surface for some time like a Mt. Rainier volcano. That has now changed and at this race. The issue has now officially erupted with a lava of words succinctly summarized by Mopar’s Allen Johnson: “They didn’t prep the track correctly.”
Sounding very much like a racing version of the IRS, the NHRA “invited” the class back to the line after the nitro class ran their next rounds. Television reported the winners of the first two pair would race for the Wally “final” if the field did not come back. That message from those in charge said, in effect, to the Pro Stock teams, “There, crybabies, take that!”
There did not appear to be an overflow of empathy for the racer’s predicament by the governing body, a racing situation given credibility by the fact all of the remaining competitors up and left the line. One driver complaining might make a situation suspect, but the entire class? The day ended safely as the clouds cleared, and the slicker early conditions evaporated.
Unexplained is why the remaining piece of track is so difficult to treat. Perhaps the answer lies in the famous book (and movie) by Joseph Heller, “Catch- 22,” which explains bureaucratic absurdity by explaining, “Oh, that’s done because of Catch-22.” The net result here, though, was the governing body stained its own safety initiatives by coming off like an authoritarian Mt. Rainier glacier -- not very smart but with lots of power.
Say it isn’t so! “I choked,” admitted John Force, nearly creating a tsunami in Puget Sound from the shock of this pronouncement. He was taking blame for blowing a round win by pedaling his Castrol Mustang across the center line, losing in the process to Jack Beckman’s coasting finish of 82 mph. Adding insult to the round was that all three JFR entries packed up their trailers by the end of the second stanza. Their highlight of the weekend was daughter Courtney’s safety after her savvy driving of the crippled Top Alcohol Dragster in Saturday eliminations.
Continuing to add to our vocabulary, here are a few gems from the Northwest:
The penalty box: this is the term John Force used to describe the ESPN broadcast booth. He enjoys it, but as racers would confirm, they prefer winning thus not having the time to broadcast during the competition from the penalty box. Force said, “They told me to get over here.” A smart piece of broadcast thinking by “they.”
On Saturday afternoon, Rick Green made this Summit FastNews entry:
“Looks like I have lost the TV feed, so it’s back to reading the numbers and listening to the track announcers in the Bat Cave.” That’s the answer we’ve all been waiting for! Many have always thought Bob Frey was secretly Batman.
Continuing our drag racing education, viewers discovered auto parts have ears. Here’s how: Jeff Arend continues pressing to get in the top 10 of The Countdown and bump Tony Pedregon out. Pedregon, after qualifying his Herzog Impala, indicated improvements involving changes in the car’s makeup were made in order to keep ahead of Arend, explaining the improvements this way: “It’s parts, and people telling the parts what to do.”
Aussie-born David Grubnic asked about his favorite food in an interview with Gary Gerould, recommended vegemite, a concoction consisting of left over yeast from beer manufacturing one smears on toast. There is always a first time for everything. “Vegemite tastes great,” he tells us. Its flavor reputation is well below David’s view. Paul Page concurs, “I’ve had it. It’s not that cool.” Do you remember the song making vegemite a popular word in the USA? Here’s a clue: it was before Jim Cunningham began his qualifying quest!
In 1982 the Australian group, Men at Work, recorded a bar song, “Land Down Under,” with the lyrics, “Do you speak-a my language? He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich.” Brandon Bernstein, now sporting the bright blue of the Copart dragster, once drove for a beer manufacturer who, no doubt, had plenty of yeast remaining from their brewing process. Yet, a bet is the Bernstein camp never had this spread in their luxury tents. Brandon and David met in the first round with big points implications. Grubnic’s Kalitta Dragster surprisingly ousted the Copart Blue machine.
The Northwest represents one of the strongest technology areas of the country, so it is fitting a new media was added to the menu of broadcasting options for today’s race: Channel ESPN3. This online network received favorable comments, like this fan from Knoxville, Tenn., who e-mailed, “This is like watching television, only better.” He had no problem clicking on the site and watching live racing, “just like I was at the track.” He particularly enjoyed watching real time sportsman racing, too, “a genuine treat.” Another added, “It was exceptionally clear.”
The negatives were few, but included not getting the round-by-round live feed from Paul Page and Mike Dunn (along with Statman, Gary Gerould and Dave Rieff) which adds so much to the broadcasts. Additionally the sound from the public address system didn’t carry into his pretty powerful speakers. One other note: when there is no action (as during the investigation and aftermath of the crash by Mark Niver), rather than having a static picture of trees, have a crowd shot that at least has activity and a change in the mix. No motor sport event, except for the Indianapolis 500, beats a live drag race for television viewing. ESPN3 allows real time, live enjoyment and is a wonderful arrow in the quiver of televised choices for fans.
From the best auto racing book of the summer -- Miller's Time, A Lifetime at Speed -- comes a challenge: find Don Miller’s long lost drag car, Big Noise II, a 1962 Chevy II Nova. The search begins now, and the finder earns fame and a growing prize package.
What does a man who has every conceivable toy, experienced unbelievable thrills, and seen both the ugly and good of life still yearn for? What pumps his adrenaline and transports him to a time before a horrifying race accident nearly severed him in half?
Order book by clicking here
Simply, that he might possess Big Noise II once again, his beloved hot rod 1962 Chevy II Nova. That car alone can whisk author Miller to a period before he struck success and a long, bountiful business friendship with racing marvel Roger Penske.
It’s only an old racecar, some might say. However, racing fans know how a car can be so much more. To Miller, this is a treasure of his youth, sold long ago as hot rods are, to buy a newer one. It is the thing from his past still tugging at his core. Everyone reading this can recognize a place in our personal lives where we long to go back and revive a time when the world was possible, when we were new and expectations were all in front of us.
The bounty includes a ticket package with goodies to your favorite NHRA Full Throttle Drag Race and an inside, weekend invitation to the Lucas Hospitality Center featuring Top Fuel stars Morgan Lucas and Shawn Langdon. A larger prize, the bigger trophy, is becoming a part of this great man’s history, bringing him the last piece of a puzzle, completing the racing masterpiece.
"Phillip," Miller told me, "I heard Big Noise II is in Minnesota; I want to find it."
He wants to lay his hands on the prize of his past, customized with a 1965 grill "to make it look more current," shod with Keystone chrome wheels, and originally raced with a 509ci Carolina Mountain Motor. The motor, sold out of the car, later powered a dragster when "Mr. Chevrolet," Dickie Harrell, perished in a racing incident.
Miller’s plea hit with more energy than a nitro dragster’s G-force: get this legend his car. For all Miller has accomplished, the world of racing can do this. Read of his life painstakingly chronicled in his riveting book. The heavily photographed, 300 pages read quickly, flowing like the most exciting summer novel you’ll ever find.
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The seasonal peak in drag racing in the Midwest culminates with the 29th annual Lucas Oil Nationals, August 12-15, in Brainerd, Minn. The plan is to have Big Noise II located by then, re-purchased by Mr. Miller or his representatives, and displayed at the race. The Minnesota link to Big Noise II is more than 25 years old, so the car may be anywhere. Pay attention, adventurers, look in your state, you may find Big Noise II. Just by trying, the detective in you becomes part of this once-in-a-lifetime drag racing treasure hunt.
This car is a part of the history of drag racing, one of the early runners in the United Drag Racers Association (UDRA), the Chicago-based pioneer in the unthinkable notion in the 1960s of paying cash to drag racers. That was "a notion that caused a lot of people to laugh back then," Miller explained. His earliest business partner, Ed Rachanski, organized the idea, astutely adding Miller as a circuit director. Rachanski writes, "UDRA was very successful, and a porcupine under Wally Parks’ butt at NHRA. We ran nitro Funny Cars…when the NHRA wasn’t even running nitro in Funny Cars."
Look around at national drag events today. Notice what resulted from the UDRA with its uncertain start -- you enjoy those 300 mph passes at the races. Drivers now are doing what they want, scratching an adrenaline itch for sure, but they are paid and handsomely so, supporting their families and racing organization because of this original spark of brilliant inspiration from the UDRA.
Penske discovered Miller as a rising self-starter and initiated him as a business partner for his early empire -- not bad for a guy who almost missed his own church wedding because he was drag racing. Miller led the Penske racing organization through its major growth including Penske Performance Products, Penske Racing South, engines, tires, drivers, even pioneering the whole idea of modern day souvenir trailers. He participated at every level of success and tragedy. The life had its rewards: "I’m comfortable financially. I was able to raise a terrific family and provide for all their needs."
He uses a bridge as a metaphor for the connection from a blue-collar upbringing to the pinnacle of racing championships with partner Penske: "Like a lot of bridges, before you can get across that one, you’ve got to pay a toll. I went to a race one time and when I got home from it, I was missing a leg. I very nearly bled to death right in front of Roger. That bridge collected its toll from me."
Miller and longtime partner Penske talk racing.
In every life that embraces passions, there are tragedies entangling success, squeezing it, trying to kill it like a mongoose hungrily after an ambitious snake -- the real life kind, not drag racing legends. Auto racing often calls its debts in body parts or human life. One cannot read "Miller’s Time" without encountering the black-cloaked demon collecting souls like a slot machine sucking tokens. This is one reason the history of motorsports remains fascinating.
It is not a lurid allure with suffering and death but rather the desire to learn from those who live on the edge of ultimate risk. Applying lessons learned from their extreme situations and happenstances to the circumstances we find in the crossroads of ordinary life, perhaps we can uncover clues that will assist us in growing, creating, living, surviving; looking to a life forward, not in reverse.
Those beliefs are reasons the history and emblems of racing representing those days are vital and hopeful. Racecars of every type have a story to tell. They become an important parable in the continuing biblical account of racing. Big Noise II is one of those. Who can really know where every entry ranks, where Big Noise II fits in the scheme of things, how its early existence affected the course of drag racing history? Who is to know for sure the thread of development emanating from just one dragster and the following course of events?
What we do recognize is one of the gentlemen of racing, a founder of the modern sport, is Miller. Penske credits him as "an innovator and clever thinker. I think it is a result of his drag racing background where you had to be creative to win." Further, Penske notes, "He was in the forefront of the change to a more engineering orientation in racing. Don, like all good racers, is always looking for the edge."
You will discover this legend’s resourcefulness in a tale of an ambitious Chicago paperboy flying to the stars of success in a yellow Penske rocket ship, all the while developing the best in others, giving of himself in a spiritual and tragic physical way. For his life efforts, his recognition came with the 2007 NASCAR Humanitarian of the Year award. Now in 2010, it is the sport of drag racing’s opportunity to commemorate him through a prize he covets, the return of Big Noise II to its creator.
If you enjoy racing on television, radio, and the internet or better still, in the stands at an event, you can contest the tracks of life with the passion of Miller from his book acting as your crew chief. Buying his book, "I wanted it to read like a novel," he explained, "(it) will inspire you in ways you won’t recognize beforehand."
You don’t have to buy the book to join the bounty hunters searching for Big Noise II. However, you may just uncover, buried in those pages, fresh clues left unturned, and win the honor of presenting him Big Noise II.
Buy the book now at: http://www.coastal181.com/ or toll free at 877-907-8181.
A memorable scene above the Summit Racing Equipment Nationals Friday night dressed the qualifying stage: a mega full moon offered the proverbial moon shot to those able to capture the lure of its orb. Often thought that magical and spiritual phenomena emanates from its power, this moon certainly oversaw mysterious if not downright strange effects at the Norwalk weekend. Some even thought they had come up against a blue moon.
What about a daylight moon? That was no moon -- that was the Goodyear blimp! Just its presence confirms Norwalk is a happening event. ESPN announcer, Paul Page, characterized it as a big deal when this airship shows up. As a broadcaster who has been at the biggest of racing venues, he would know.
Sparkles lit the stands when Ashley Force Hood made her qualifying run under the moonshine, an entirely different take on the word from the lore of mountains surrounding the Bristol track of last week. Cameras flashed with fanatical intensity just as her headers did, too. Ashley clocked past every aisle popping flash bulbs on her way to a popular No. 1 atop the Funny Car field once again. Her ET record humbled Poppa John as he squeezed in the field, just barely, in the rain shortened fourth session just to race her.
His Friday night session went up in smoke, but ESPN’s Mike Dunn suspected the Castrol team just overshot the mark in going for top qualifier glory, that the Ford was very strong. Ashley was a happy recipient of that data, though, when she ran her scorching lap two pair later.
That combo again, father versus daughter, meeting in the first round of eliminations created enough anticipation to keep all fans stuck in their seats perhaps aided by the stifling humidity. The upcoming Force Hood-Force duo was enough to delay more runs to the track’s ice cream store selling those one-pound-in-a-cup treats for a single dollar. Is there a better buy at any venue? Here’s betting someone asked for five dollars worth with nitro sprinkles.
John Force, erroneously thinking he was the royalty of drag racing, discovered the underlying adoration of Queen Ashley when he tried to dis her -- but in a fatherly way. As was described by the interviewers, he was only trash talking, though fans must have thought he went over the line. John found himself in a vat of trouble.
When he said conditions were brutal on Sunday morning’s ESPN “RaceDay” show, little did he know the description was his own circumstance. At every turn, Force tried explaining himself, digging himself deeper in cow pies, and finally apologizing. Down on his knees, he begged forgiveness -- makes you wonder when was the last time he had to do THAT -- of Ashley in front of the expectant crowd at driver introductions. ESPN replayed this theater for the television audience, pure vaudeville, an entertaining piece of showmanship.
The broadcast caringly spares viewers the tedium of watching all of that prerace stuff. Give this ESPN crew credit -- the race broadcast comes on, the racing begins. We don’t need the prerace prayer. Why? We’re going to get that anyway from Reverend Force. He said he prayed behind the trailer, “You know, I’m screwed up … but please let me stay in The Countdown.” All of those teams bouncing around either side of the No. 10 cutoff in the points are invited to use their own version of this message. It is working for him, Mr. No. 1-in-Points, so why the need to be original? Go ahead, and recite it. This prayer is like a pre-tested engine … weathered, ready to glow.
If you lost in eliminations, or in the finals as John Force did, you are about to learn why. Competitors can now understand with more clarity what really is happening on the track. It has nothing to do with engineering, oil, or anything racing related. Here is how Force described Mike Edwards losing once-in-a-blue-moon like today: “The only time Edwards loses is when God says move that money over here” to Greg Anderson. And we thought it was about staging, lights, crews, racecars, and all of those things.
This stuff is so real at these drag races, entertainment with the cast and circumstances always changing, it puts so-called reality programming to shame. That’s made-up life -- this is authentic. Gary Gerould, Dave Rieff, and John Kernan were out there grabbing these players, bringing the heat, which needed no help. They nailed some delightfully entertaining quips and downright great gibberish. Kardashians, pay attention; even you can learn something. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why they were on the line earlier this year.
Did you note during “RaceDay,” one driver mingled in the audience, watching the entire program standing there, signing autographs, interacting until his spot came on at the end. This is the one who really doesn’t ‘need’ to do that to have more glow on his moon … yes, it was John Force. For teams who wonder how one becomes a star, implement this great idea -- even if you’re not scheduled for the show’s dais. There are no BP little people in John Force’s world.
Luigi Novelli had his own sparklers spewing from the headers in the Friday night moonlight, providing an early Fourth of July look as they ignited a mega fireball trailing him. His sponsor, National Machine Repair -- Hey, that’s Mr. President Luigi, too -- was put to the test overnight readying the nitro railer for the third qualifying round on Saturday. And what a job the team did, providing a machine capable of running a career best for Luigi ... and under three seconds, too. This group, most with children and long stays with this operation -- Buzz Ols, crew chief, has been in the job since Day 1 -- showed their mettle with this run. Racing finalist Antron Brown in the first round ended their day prematurely. The team can be proud of the show they put on, and the work they did to run their best. In many camps, that is a win.
Now that was weird: One of the most bizarre rounds of racing in recent memory was Robert Hight seemingly asleep at the tree in his semi-final run. At least that was the way it seemed. In the other lane, John Force had wrapped up the lap before Hight got off the line. An exasperated Robert explained, “For some reason something was weird, and it was a quick flash. I don’t know what just took place.” Crew chief Jimmy Prock lost his normal cool, almost using his mythical Prock Rocket as a weapon while punctuating remarks with pointed fingers and a vociferous voice. Now watching from their comfy bus, after Tony had pointed out in Bristol the Pedregons race heads-up, here is betting you can fill in the blanks for what Tony and Cruz thought weird.
Later, Funny Car winner, Tim Wilkerson, helped confirm Hight’s confusion by noting the final round was one of the longest waits at the tree he could remember. Blame it on magical phenomena, compliments of a full moon.
Best Line in a Loss: “It was a big win for him and a bummer for us, but that's drag racing.” Jeg Coughlin lamented after being nipped by Greg Anderson by the distance of an ice cream toss at the finish. Force, losing the finals to Tim Wilkerson, gave his take on the same theme, exclaiming, “I don’t know what happened, and I don’t care. I know my guys fought all day, and that is just way it is.” Therefore, here is the takeaway, a new racing theme explaining everything with ultimate simplicity: That is just the way it is. Try it the next time something goes amiss.
Rainade?: “Skies opened up moments after the win; it was as if Mother Nature was giving Tim Wilkerson the world's biggest Gatorade bath at the end of a hard-fought game,” as team manager, Bob Wilber, described the aftermath of the victory in Funny Car. Reverend Force, trying to clarify again, explaining his loss to Wilk: “I said Edwards can’t be beat by anybody, (and) even though Greg Anderson is a great racer, the good Lord needs to move the money around. I think that the Lord is just moving the money over to Wilkerson.” Note the win secured a hold in the Countdown for the LSK team by spinning their Wild-Cherry like 777 points for the seventh spot.
In a race against the weather, the race management adjusted to the conditions by shuffling the final round order to a “first come, first served” for all classes. What a great deal! When a pair arrived in the lanes, they raced in that order rather than sticking to the traditional run order. That’s why Top Fuel was not in its established ‘last’ pairing. Great idea, it works.
LE: The Tonglet team has one of the easiest accessed sponsor proposals available online. It is colorful, exciting, and provides important data in a good packaged approach. The site importantly provides the answer to a question many have: just what the heck does “LE” stand for? How about something as simple as his name … Louis Earl.
Then what about GT? No, not ‘Gary Tom’ or anything like that. GT stands for plain old Gary Tonglet. Surprised? Team Manager Matthew Gross told me it was never a family tradition to use initials. The use was really just a matter of giving GT a nickname when he was young to eliminate the confusion of having two Garys (with Tonglet Sr.) living under the same roof. “He seemed to like GT better than calling him Junior.” The nickname happened to carry over for LE, “even though there is only one Louis in the house.”
John Force goes NASCAR-- what a Father’s Day gift this would be for the circle track circus! Stock car champion and race commentator, Rusty Wallace, referenced Mr. NHRA in the Saturday Nationwide event at Elkhart Lake, Wis. Their live broadcast preceded the Bristol qualifying program. During a for-the-win restart on this scenic road course, he said a driver had better execute it drag racing style. How did he characterize the move?
“He needs to restart like John Force,” meaning to come boiling off that flag. Give Rusty credit for pulling that one out of the air and in the process foretelling the Bristol Funny Car results.
John Force revived his season on Father’s Day, restarting it just as he did on the tree -- winning every light of every round including against young buckaroo, Matt Hagan. Was the advantage gained from stealing nips on a jug of good ole Tennessee ’shine? Not! Rather, his alertness -- “jacked up” he called it -- was a credit to chugging Full Throttle, proving again he is a master of crediting sponsors. If youthfulness is a state of mind, a healthy way of life for senior racers, then watch out Funny Car class because Force says, “I am a workout nut … I am going to try and stay young.”
The only light Tim Wilkerson lost all day was to Force. He bested Melanie Troxel (“Mel is a full-time quality driver”), No. 1 qualifier Ashley Force Hood, and in the semifinals, Del Worsham. Making it to the finals after fighting recently to just make second rounds was a big step for the Levi, Ray & Shoup team, the biggest since winning Gainesville. Racing the finals against the biggest name in motorsports, the crowd on their feet, Wilkerson suffered heartbreak as the electrical glitch in his safety system that emerged in his third qualifying pass reared up like a demented demon just off the line. What really hurt was that Force’s lap was beatable, too. In the prior round, Wilkerson ran what turned out what would have been winning ET.
During Friday night qualifying, Antron Brown’s red, flaming and blue dragster powered down the track with headers blazing, accenting the patriotic color scheme while easily nailing the No. 1 qualifying spot. He wasn’t around in the finals, though. Two young fathers played those roles -- Brandon Bernstein’s revived team raced opposite the stout Tony Schumacher. Back on the line, watching these two power to a thrilling final -- the victor decided when flames erupted out of the Copart dragster’s nitro power plant -- were their famous fathers, Kenny and Don. The emotional investment in winning this event on Father’s Day was etched with anguish in the face of Kenny Bernstein -- a near win as Brandon’s lead down track disappeared in a trailing inferno -- but his son was safe.
Morgan Lucas gave his dad, Forrest, an exciting first round surprise by outracing heavily favored Larry Dixon and Al-Anabi Racing. The elated Morgan exclaimed, “This was our biggest round win this year.” The viewer could sense his relief as he stated, “Win lights make this a lot more fun.” David Reiff told this story on Alan Johnson, “owner of two Al-Anabi race teams, a cylinder heads business and agriculture operations back in California. He was happy at the Lakers seventh game championship,” after shelling out $3,000 of his pocket change for the ducats.
Pro Stock Champion Jeg Coughlin loves the heat so much at Bristol he ran two classes. An ESPN feature broadcast him leaving the line in both cars in simultaneous clips. He uses a visor to block the Sportsman tree so it only shows the final bulb, resembling closer the Pro start. The camera shows him ripping the visor off the window and tossing it down just after he leaves the line. He raced Stock Eliminator, eventually meeting and losing to the Jeg of that class -- David Rampy. Then, Roy Johnson on his return to Sportsman racing (see below) took out Rampy in the next round, only to lose in the semifinals.
Jeg made an interesting observation on this race facility, one I had not seen before. “It's a cool setting, Thunder Valley, and when they pack the stands there it offers a very unique view from the cockpit of the racecar,” meaning there are no open views to the side out of the car … it’s all fans or mountains. His Pro laps earned him a shot in the semifinals against eventual class winner, Mike Edwards. Jeg won the R/T battle but had issues with the clutch, and that was that. Now he goes to Norwalk, closest track to the JEGs headquarters.
Shawn Langdon, Lucas Oil Top Fuel pilot, also raced two classes including Super Gas. “I really enjoy it,” making some good lights until the third round when red ended his day. Mike Ruff, in the other lane, went on to the semifinals. David Reiff commented that Shawn “was going back to his roots.” Maybe this is his secret to cutting those best of class lights.
Sounding every bit like a Tennessee Tourism spokesperson, Paul Page spoke the truth when he described East Tennessee as “some of the most beautiful country in the world with lakes, mountains, and forests.” Another southern element, however, affected the racing: heat -- heat lying on the racetrack, heat burning in the pits. Sweaty drivers, wrapped in firesuits sucking out what little comfort they had, performed admirably on camera, never complaining, giving credit to the Safety Safari for their job in prepping the racing surface.
Tennessee Pro Stock natives, Roy and Allen Johnson, best demonstrated how to stay cool -- enjoy cantaloupe and watermelon, a combo Allen called “mush melon,” in the shade of their tented pits. Did you spot Roy slicing seedless bites with his trusty pocketknife? Allen achieved something this weekend he never had done at his home track: win qualifying. Exciting television and racing as each of the four qualifying laps seesawed back-and-forth against Mike Edwards as they lined up along side of one another all weekend. Allen won session one with Mike taking the night. Coming back on Saturday, Allen leapt back on top in the morning. Mike did not retake the position in the heat of the afternoon, but did run the quickest lap of the session, a positive omen for his Sunday setup.
Remaining snake bit at Bristol, Allen clicked his Mopar off early in the semifinals, only to have young whiz, Rickie Jones, break at the finish. Edwards was beatable in the finals, too, sliding around down track, but young Rickie’s red light handed Edwards a freebie. Mike Edwards, through his close association with Young Life, offers fatherly guidance to a very big family, over a million young people in the United States alone.
Sons of ‘Flaming Frank’ Pedregon, Cruz and Tony, trailered all that equipment to Bristol just to race one another. Cruz surprised the field by qualifying second, just barely behind Ashley Force Hood. Inspired crew chief, Danny DeGennaro, gleefully razzed the bigger funded teams, “We’re going to take it to them tomorrow. The heat is the great equalizer.” Tony’s only qualifying run for the weekend came in round four where he initially missed having to face Cruz on race day. Jeff Arend, though, bumped up a notch in the next lap from his 15th spot, and the brotherly dual was set. Cruz could not get by Tony who moved on only to fall to Bob Tasca III in the second round. In a prerace interview, Tony snuck in a subtle reminder about the JFR team racing controversy of 2009: “We guarantee the Pedregons race when we go to the line.”
Father’s Day was everywhere at Bristol. Jeg Coughlin shared some time with his legendary father, Jeg Coughlin Sr., as part of the track's “Donuts with Dad” promotion.
“All the Bruton Smith-owned tracks do neat programs that bring the fans closer to the people in the sport,” Jeg noted. “With Father’s Day we'll get to have some coffee and donuts with fans and my pop. He’s been around the sport for 50 years. His passion has filled a business need, and now JEGs is celebrating its 50th year. Thank God for racing.”
Racers for Christ sponsored a big crafts project for the kids where they made self-styled Fathers Day cards. The tent was teeming with these budding artists.
Best thought of the day came after this John Force speech regarding Father’s Day:
“Call your dad! My kids have been calling me already. We don’t need a gift.” Paul Page, representing the sentiments of many, said something along the order of “We don’t?”
Kurt Johnson said the best advice from his dad was, “It’s all about preparation.” Voted in by fans for the eighth and final K&N Pro Stock Horsepower Challenge driver was Warren’s Father’s Day gift.
Finally, check this out … Troy Buff offered a gift list for some dads on the underside of the wing of his Bill Miller Racing/Okuma dragster: “You can never have enough horsepower or ammunition.”