Hot rods, nitro, smoke and noise ... welcome to the party, pal, the Winternationals and drag racing with ESPN2. The network broadcast the 2012 season-opener with those ingredients in mind, but it is clear they focused on a single most valuable component: The personalities of the sport.
No driver commanded more visibility and interest than new Funny Car driver Courtney Force, whether on the track or on camera. Her first-round pairing with fellow Ford driver Bob Tasca III registered more anticipation than any other.
Showing the Force penchant for sponsor support, she reminded viewers, "We're both driving for the blue oval." The stands erupted as she won her first round of pro racing, causing her wide smile to broaden further. You believed her when she exclaimed, "I'm living my dream ... unreal! I'm shaking right now I'm so excited."
It is perhaps good she did not realize her Traxxas Ford won for the first time in a debut for the Force family, one of those stats the ESPN broadcast crew keeps discovering.
Force "will chase rookie of the year," noted the broadcast, against the Toyota of Alexis De Joria. Force gave her credit: "Alexia is a tough girl ... she's out here to kick some butt." By racing four events in 2011, De Joria surmised she drew "a head-start into this year."
The Tequila Patron driver awoke knowing she had the dubious honor of facing Funny Car legend John Force. Plus, they would race in the next pair after his daughter's shocking win, in a configuration only the brackets could finagle. The king left no doubt he was taking the win in his Castrol Ford, though De Joria ran a credible lap.
Force's performance showed off the results of his regrouped brain trust. Further, he caught Mike Neff's Castrol Mustang idling at the light in the finals and won the event.
Force won in the earlier semifinals over sentimental favorite Gary Densham. From the "Most Frightening Moment" of the race, Densham tapped Jack Beckman's Valvoline Charger in the quarterfinals when it veered into his lane.
Beckman was perplexed. "I don't know what happened. It turned right." Densham's view startled drag racing's elder statesman – ESPN reportedly cranked his first dragster 41 years ago. Commenting afterwards: "That was close, really, really close."
Larry Dixon, now out of a ride, joined the broadcast booth to advertise his availability but revealed himself to be a comic. As the booth discussed the Beckman/Densham incident, which resembled from above a typical freeway driver being cut off by the another – but at very high speed – Dixon said, "We're in LA ... there's traffic, right?"
Statman gave Dixon his due with this amazing discovery: "Only one driver has gone back-to-back at Winternationals: Larry Dixon."
Discussing the championship race with Paul Page and Mike Dunn, Dixon proffered this tip: "If you can be in the top five, you can win the championship."
Women made history last weekend as for the first time two women raced in Pro Stock. Erica Enders, returning with her GK Motorsports Chevrolet, was joined by Grace Howell's Cunningham Ford, whose debut contained a dose of reality racing. In the other lane staged 2011 Pro Stock champion Jason Line and his Summit GXP. Howell showed her fortitude with a strong light, actually edging Line at the start.
Enders' Cobalt caught the camera's eye as the most distinctive racecar of the broadcast. With the no-frills flat black paint scheme, the rosy-red GK logo lit up the start line.
The ESPN broadcast team had a lot of fun at Pomona. Take Clay Millican's final qualifying round on Saturday where he flashed flames crossing the finish. Page said, "A little fire." Dunn chimed in, "What do you call a big fire?" while reminding us the reason the teams are pushing so hard: "It's Pomona!"
The qualifying broadcast sported interviews with Top Fuel drivers on the topic, "How important are the Winternationals?" Tony Schumacher gave a confident, "We're 0-0; we're (all) tied." Spencer Massey, ultimately winning the race, said, "It's the start of a whole new season," while Antron Brown called it "the Big Bang" blasting out a universe of results.
The new guy in town in Top Fuel has be Khalid al-Balooshi, now with Shawn Langdon as the Al-Anabi Racing team stars. Dunn reviewed his background of winning the 2011 NHRA Get Screened America Pro Mod championship along with this advice: "He's a natural, (but) he'll need to step up his reaction times in the Top Fuel class vs. Pro Mods."
At the opening of eliminations in a reference to unknown challenges, the broadcast team confessed, "There is no more pressure than (team manager) Alan Johnson's with these changes."
Television celebrated the return of Jeg Coughlin Jr. in a JEGS/Mopar Dodge all weekend, including the final lap of the day when like old times he met Greg Anderson's Summit Pontiac for the Winternationals Wally. Coughlin in his typical low-key manner commented, "(We've) got a lot of work to do." Dunn revealed, "In eight months (this deal) came together."
A terrific feature on engines exploding explained every tick of Terry McMillen's Amalie Oil Top Fuel calamity in late 2011. Walking viewers through the blast utilizing super slo-mo, Dunn delivered this analysis proving the true value-equation of parts' cost: "Had (the team) used a billet instead of cast steel (estimated additional cost $290), they would have saved 50 grand and got into the Countdown." And stood on the awards stage as one of the top 10, too.
Every one of the entries at the Winternationals has the opportunity to stand on the stage at the 2012 NHRA Awards Banquet. The top 10 of each pro class will stand tall among their peers on that stage and will be recognized.
For some, only a championship will matter, though all have a shot at it, starting with this opening race. As Steve Torrence was overheard to say on his radio as the first pair cranked up for eliminations, "OK, boys, let's get this season started."
This long drive culminates in that one awards night, those honors, in a drive that can be bigger than the cash. The award money will be spent and used; the money will be gone.
What will survive, something that can never be taken away from all involved, is when that spotlight shines brightly on the driver, the room jam-packed, standing in that glowing beam on stage representing the team and all others involved in the process.
It's a moment of distinction like no other.
As these teams look down that drag strip, the importance of that moment is breathtaking in the possibilities that are promised with the coming of the tour.
Tim Wilkerson's Levi, Ray & Shoup Mustang busts a rod out of the block, agonizingly shown by the cameras while he comments, "Losing the war but winning the battle;" Funny Car champion Matt Hagan gives kudos to his first-round pairing and teammate Ron Capps with "He's a champion; just doesn't have the ring yet."
The big match of the second round featured former teammates Langdon and Morgan Lucas (who "has a bad-to-the-bone hot rod"). Brandon Bernstein, occupying Langdon's spot in the MAVTV dragster, quipped to reporter John Kernan, "Got my best friend as my boss here."
Cruz Pedregon bringing Lee Beard onboard the Snap-On Toyota team elicited Page's "Looks like a match made in heaven," as Dunn reminded, "But with egos, you never know."
Cory McClenathan turning 49 ("He's back!" exclaimed Page) recounting a "total loss" home fire; Tony Pedregon fought with his fire bottles blasting off twice during qualifying onboard his American Racing Wheels Impala.
On and on, an entire weekend of drag racing coverage filled with drivers stewing, teams scrambling, crowds sitting and standing, sitting and standing. But the best line came as the broadcast concluded a feature on the 15-time Funny Car champion Force "all-in" with his new racing daughter.
Page bemoaned, "We gave John Force an open microphone! Are we brave or what?"
The answer is, ESPN expertly did exactly what they needed to picture the people powering Pomona's Winternationals.