With a national event victory, four final-round appearances in regional competition, and his first regional/divisional championship in 20 years, Rich McPhillips had the best season of his career in 2012.
"I don't even want to think how many times I came in second – a half-dozen, at least," said McPhillips, who won the East Region Top Alcohol Dragster title over Dan Mercier, Duane Shields, Richard Bourke, and John Finke after a yearlong battle in which each driver won just once. McPhillips was runner-up at three of his first four regionals – Gainesville, Richmond, and Lebanon Valley – and pulled ahead with a win in his final regional start of the season, in Bowling Green, Ky., where he hadn't raced since 1991.
"We were pretty confident that if we rolled out of there with a win, we could close the door on a lot of people," he said. "The semifinals against the Canadian (Mercier) was crucial. He had us covered early, and that was probably the whole championship right there."
McPhillips prevailed when Mercier's chute popped out before half-track, then stopped Bill Reichert, who had won the event four years in a row, in a close final, 5.53 to 5.54. When Finke, who bypassed Bowling Green to compete in Topeka, missed the final there and again the following weekend in Earlville, the title was McPhillips'. It's his first since he won the Division 1 Top Alcohol Dragster championship way back in 1992.
"It almost would have taken a miracle for someone to come around us after Bowling Green," McPhillips said, "but I didn't want to jinx it or even talk about it until it was mathematically impossible to lose because in this game you never know. I just about had the division championship wrapped up in 1991 – until Bowling Green. I think all I had to do was qualify. I was No. 6 a week later at Indy, but I DNQed at Bowling Green and Ron Still came around me. That's the last time I ran there, so it crossed my mind when we pulled in there this year."
McPhillips also won the Summer Nationals in Topeka and has a great shot at a top five finish in the national standings. He's currently fourth.
"The last time I had a year like this, we were still running a Funny Car," said McPhillips, who with his partner at the time, current AA/FC star Peter Gallen, driving, was a fixture in the Alcohol Funny Car Top 10 in the late 1980s. "This is even more rewarding. To drive the car and be a part of the tune-up is really satisfying. We tune this thing by committee. I'm not one of those guys who shuts the computer off when people walk in the trailer."
McPhillips has been among the top drivers in the country for years, but this tops everything – even 1992, when he won the division championship and finished sixth in the national standings, and 2005, when he won his first national event.
"I bought a new car a couple years ago, and it's really made a difference," he said. "The original chassis I started with was front-halved a couple times and back-halved a couple times, but it was my same blown-alcohol car from way back in 1990. Now, I have a chassis purpose-built for this class, the Hadman car Bucky Austin bought before he decided not to go A/Fuel racing. I always had good motor pieces and did fairly well at divisionals, but I'd struggle to step up at national events, and I just got a lot more aggressive this year, right from the beginning. This championship is a real accomplishment, and I take my hat off to guys who've won a bunch of them, because I know how hard this was to do."