Could the Auto-Plus Nationals have been one of the most unique NHRA races ever?
The weather was blustery and crews rushed to hurry up and wait in the pits. They dug under the hood, tuning for records, while drivers went smoking fast -- and smoked a Goodyear blimp full of tires.
The well-dressed fan over the extended weekend wore bundles of layered clothes to ward off chills, fight winds and endure a persistent mist, plus an old-fashion heavy rain. And for teams, they shivered with disappointment or rejoiced in victory. There was no in between.
If a drag race were a football game, one could say Jason Line made a beeline for the end zone, scoring every time he got the ball. His Summit Pontiac’s Pro Stock points total for the weekend was amazingly close to the max possible.
The ESPN broadcast booth followed his progress through qualifying rounds, Sunday's eliminations and what turned out to be Monday's finals. Color commentator Mike Dunn chastised the rest of the Pro Stock class early on with, "These guys better do something, or they’re done."
Line marked history with the "quickest run ever," as lead broadcaster Paul Page called it on a dreary Monday morning.
A viewer wants to hear the announcer’s reactions to these major events, as they help fashion the moment and put the lap in context. Page and Dunn do it to a tee. For example, Dunn chimed in, "Give him the trophy right now," and this was after just the quarterfinal round.
Reporter Dave Rieff really stunned Line with the news of his 6.477-second elapsed time. "It shook the doors off," Line said. "I’m shocked!"
These are the kind of moments where those ESPN cameramen tailing Reiff, Gary Gerould and John Kernan really shine, up-close-and personal. In a telling comment, Line let slip, "There’s more left" in performance, which was no consolation to Erica Enders losing a competitive lap in her ZaZa Energy Cobalt.
In Monday’s highly anticipated pairing of Summit Pontiac teammates – with fellow past champion Greg Anderson in the semifinals – Dunn foretold the result with, "Jason is on his game."
A win over Anderson, who had toasted him with a holeshot win at Indy that nixed any value from Line’s track ET in that round, had to be particularly satisfying, as it was Anderson’s best lap of the weekend.
Then Line completed a six-place setting of 2011 commemorative Wallys by a resounding win over Ronnie Humphrey’s Genuine Hotrod Hardware Pontiac. Page put the excitement in perspective in the championship race as Line crossed the finish, "(The) points leader, and he just expanded it." Dunn congratulated him, "This is a well-deserved win, and a new national record."
The cameras were at Line’s window as soon as he rolled to a stop, and the microphone was in close so a viewer could hear him exclaim his now-standard "Yeah, baby!" as he ripped off the helmet.
Gone was the "I lost Indy" grimace. He uncharacteristically let loose, "We can hammer a nail in the coffin. Get your tux ready," a comment he explained to a crew member who isn’t keen about sporting formal wear at the NHRA Awards Banquet or wearing a full tuxedo while parading across the stage even if it is for winning the championship.
With that victory, Page gave his partner credit for sticking his neck out early in the broadcast by ticking up the "Do-or-Dunn" line. For each pro class, Dunn delineates teams realistically still in the championship hunt from those who are chasing dreams. In Pro Stock, the mark was pointedly placed above the No. 2 in points, Anderson. "Mike Dunn, you’re a prophet!"
But this was not Line’s coup de grâce.
That came later with the pronouncement by Dunn at the broadcast’s conclusion Monday night that the "Do-or-Dunn" mark now solidly cuts the Countdown to the Championship class with nine below and only Line above it.
That means, in his judgment, the field is done for as far as the Full Throttle championship goes. Dunn called this "an 'all-Dunn' (mark)," because Line has left the field too big of a summit to ascend.
One famous champion didn’t need help with any lines. ESPN "Statman," Lewis Bloom, called out "A shocker!" when John Force’s Castrol GTX Mustang lost in the first round, just like in 2010, to Dale Creasy Jr.’s Tek Pak/Beaver Shredding Impala SS.
As Bloom would say, here’s the stat: "This was the fifth straight round-one loss by John Force."
Force stated the obvious as he grieved during an interview. "I basically need a miracle now" to have any chance to win the Funny Car Full Throttle championship in 2011. "As an owner, (Robert) Hight is doing damage with (Matt) Hagan. We need a car to win, and this is why we have multi-car teams."
Bloom had more opportunities to show his talent at this race, particularly with the records falling and the Monday extension thinning the broadcast crew. In my view, no other auto-racing format has such a historian with a flair for the dramatic, such as when he pointedly announced Tony Schumacher has a lousy record against his own team. Or since Kenny Bernstein in 2001, no other driver other than Larry Dixon or Schumacher has owned the national ET record, except now that Del Worsham has grabbed that banner.
It is a record now haunting the popular Al-Anabi driver. The record-breaking round for Top Fuel on Sunday was his in the first round with a 3.76 ET. Team manager Alan Johnson commented on the conditions with typical sly understatement: "It’s pretty touchy. That worked out pretty good."
While rain fell on Sunday, the ESPN reporters scattered for interviews and features. It was during this period that Rieff sat with both Worsham and his Al-Anabi teammate, the 2011 champion Dixon. Only in drag racing will you get a topic like this: "What’s the pucker factor in conditions like this?"
Dixon remarked that driving with the seat of your pants is something like a pucker factor. However, the comment by Worsham, now in hindsight, was devastatingly correct: "In drag racing, you’re only as good as your last round."
At Monday’s money round in Top Fuel, Bloom alerted viewers, "This is the seventh time (it has been) DSR vs. Al-Anabi in the finals." So when Spencer Massey won the event with his Fram dragster that wasn’t such a shock, as he had five wins before this one. That it was a holeshot win was a minor surprise, as this was the only race in Top Fuel on Sunday or Monday won in that fashion.
What floored viewers was the call as these two behemoth Top Fuel dragsters crossed the finish, both at 323 mph: "Del makes the quickest run ever ... and loses!"
Massey grabbed the Wally from Reiff and started his mantra, "That’s what I’m talking about." Jumping and hollering, he repeated and repeated, "That’s what I’m talking about," as his team drove to meet him.
Meanwhile, Worsham was painfully walking away as if age had suddenly subdued his gait, mentally absorbing the impact of setting a new ET record yet losing. Like HAL 9000, the computer in the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey," you could nearly read his lips, and they weren’t murmuring happy things.
Unlike a normal race, Top Fuel wasn’t the last pro class to run. That honor at Maple Grove Raceway was for the Pro Stock Motorcycles, with a face-off between the feuding Buells of Lucas Oil’s Hector Arana Jr. and privateer Matt Smith.
"What a show they put on," Dunn said. "Look at that time." Page filled in the blank with "side-by-side 70s!"
Rieff, talking with winner Arana Jr. summed up the thrilling dual as "the quickest drag race ever" for the class.
At the opening of the Sunday broadcast with the chilly conditions and threatening overcast, Page forecasted, "This is going to be an unusual day." He wrapped the broadcast on Monday as the remaining teams and support personnel were anxiously heading out the gates.
Meanwhile, Rieff softly announced he offered to talk with Worsham. In an understanding voice, he noted, "He declined."
Page said it again, "This is the most unusual event ever."
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