Picturing opponents in their underwear, not dressing up like peasants, and Ford Funny Car drivers trying to wear brave smiles . . . It all happened in California Wine Country at this past weekend's Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma Raceway. Crashes and controversies, a bombshell announcement, and even a little bit of silliness marked the middle weekend of the Western Swing. Read for yourself . . .






Picturing opponents in their underwear, not dressing up like peasants, and Ford Funny Car drivers trying to wear brave smiles . . . It all happened in California Wine Country at this past weekend's Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma Raceway. Crashes and controversies, a bombshell announcement, and even a little bit of silliness marked the middle weekend of the Western Swing. Read for yourself . . .
CHILDREN! - Funny Car winner Ron Capps said racing John Force, the 15-time series champion, in the final round Sunday at Sonoma made his third victory there in four years extra-special. "If you can't get up for that old man . . . I knew they could step up, which they did. If Force can get into a final, he's lethal, because he knows how to win and how to motivate his people," Capps said. "If he's in the final, they're going to find a way. Sure enough, they went quicker and faster. I knew how to get up on the wheel. You have to be a big boy. You're paid to do this."
The NAPA Dodge driver said he's only quasi-intimidated by seeing Force in the other lane. "I picture him in his underwear, so I'm not nervous," Capps wisecracked. Then he said, "Unfortunately, I've seen him in his underwear . . . That's not a good thought."
Announcer Alan Reinhart quickly said, "Let's talk about racing Courtney in the semifinals. Did you picture her in her underwear?"
Said Capps, "I knew you were going there."
"You started it," Reinhart said.
ADVOCATE CAPPS - Funny Car's Ron Capps spoke cautiously after Don Schumacher Racing colleague Johnny Gray escaped injury following a thunderous engine concussion that broke the body of his Pitch Energy Dodge in two and flipped the firewall in front of his windshield so he couldn't see where he was driving.
But Capps was firm about his concern regarding the dual latch and tethering system that NHRA mandated. Gray had been openly critical of both the product and the process. And he got no argument from Capps -- just an advocate in Capps.
A clearly disturbed Capps, who ran two pairs after Gray in that eventful quarterfinal round Sunday, expressed concern about the system that failed. He said of Gray, "That guy's riding off into the sunset. He's going to have a great life. We almost lost him here because of it.  If they had talked to some of the drivers about it, guys who have made a lot of laps in cars, we could have gladly given them our opinion. We could've worked together."
Capps said, "I've got to be careful. I don't want to say anything bad, but the sanctioning body should've talked to some of us drivers. There's a lot of us with a lot of experience [who have] been through that. I tried to explain to my [team] owner about how that tethering would not be a good thing if exactly what happened to Johnny would happen."
Gray mentioned fellow Funny Car racer Bob Tasca's qualifying incident in which Tasca's Motorcraft/Quick Lane Mustang caught fire and first one, then two Safety Safari crew members struggled to release the dual latches that protrude from the lower front of the body.
"Tasca got on fire, and they couldn’t open his body to put his fire out," Gray said.
Rob Wendland, Gray's crew chief, said, "I see every one of the drivers out here in jeopardy when you can't see to drive a car. We need side panels on these cars to relieve the pressure. We kept the body on the car, yeah. That's what they wanted to do. We can also do that with side panels that blow open. You still have the same amount of explosion, but when you continually contain it down to the bottom, it makes things worse for the driver. It does. Hopefully we'll learn a lot from this and we'll get with the NHRA and we'll get some other things going besides this mess."
NEW KIND OF SWEEP - Denver Pro Stock winner Allen Johnson, who lost to teammate and Sonoma runner-up Jeg Coughlin in their semifinal pairing, said, "I'm a little disappointed I won't get a shot at the [three-race] Western sweep, but we're going for a different kind of sweep. This year our team is going for the HEMI sweep." Their other Mopar teammate, Vincent Nobile, won for the second time this season -- and the second time in California. "Anytime we can have three out of the four Mopar cars in the semis, it's a good weekend," Johnson said.
FROM VIDEO TO FOR-REAL - Shawn Langdon, Sunday's Top Fuel winner, said of his familiar final-round opponent, Morgan Lucas, "Thirteen years ago, Morgan and I were playing the 'NHRA Main Event' video game. Now we're racing here in the finals." With four victories in hand, Langdon said, "This is really a dream season. To get four wins on the season is pretty strong in this day and age. We really haven't seen anybody dominate in the fuel classes in the last couple of years. So to be able to get four wins at this point of the season is a testament to the hard work from the crew chiefs, all the crew guys, and the brain trust we have at Al-Anabi Racing."
PEASANTS NO MORE - Hector Arana Jr. was needling the Harley-Davidson Eddie Krawiec-Andrew Hines team at Sonoma last July, and his Lucas Oil Buell crew members were running around Sonoma Raceway dressed like peasants, wearing bedsheets they bought at a nearby Wal-Mart. Arana Jr. was making the point that the Harley riders were living it up with the best equipment and gobbling up all the spoils of battle with gluttonous gusto -- while he and his dad and their teams slaved away for table scraps.
But thanks to new NHRA rules implemented in the offseason that have stymied the Harley team and thrown the class wide open -- and to his own team's hard work, all his dad Hector's worrying about details, and his own adjusted approach to the race -- Arana Jr. was lord of the manor this time.
He was a benevolent lord of the manor, though, saying of Hines, who is struggling to make the Countdown, and Krawiec, "Those guys are competitors, and we want to see them do well just as much as they do. We want good competition. Those are good guys. I can't say anything bad about them, and even last year I couldn't say anything bad about them, because that wasn't their fault. If we were in their shoes we would have done the same thing."
With only one more bike race before the Countdown to the Championship begins, Arana Jr. extended his lead in the standings to 149 over Matt Smith, whom he beat in Sunday's final round. The Pro Stock Motorcycle class will skip the Seattle and Brainerd, Minn., events and return Labor Day at the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis.
Arana Jr.'s seventh overall victory gave him one more than his 2009 champion father's career total. It was his fourth of the season, and it ended a slump for the rider who opened the schedule with three straight victories.
"I wanted to get back really bad," Arana Jr. said. "I think . . . what happened to me in my little slump: I was trying to win them all. I was thinking about winning the race before I even won the first round."
He was especially happy to share the winners circle with close buddy Vincent Nobile, brother of his girlfriend, Nicole Nobile.
SURPRISE - Auto Club Mustang Funny Car driver Robert Hight, president of John Force Racing, said in the wake of the Ford Motor Company's announcement it would end its financial support of the NHRA pro teams at the close of the 2014 season that the statement came as a surprise.
"We didn't see this coming," Hight said. "But we still have a year and a half. A year and a half is a long time. And we still have a job to do for them. We're going to try to get two more championships for Ford before they go out. And we've got a lot of other great sponsors on board, too."
John Force took the hard-hitting news with a respect and resilience.
"It's been a great run, and our goal over the next 18 months is to continue to represent Ford as we always have," he said. "We're proud of what we've done on the track, But I'm more proud of what we did off the track. With Ford’s help, we completely redesigned a Funny Car chassis that hadn't changed in 25 years. And we helped make the sport better for everyone, not just the Ford teams."
He said, "Ford made a decision, and I respect that decision. They're a lot smarter than me."
John Force has earned 72 of his NHRA-record 135 victories in Mustangs since switching to Ford bodies in 1997. His organization has accounted for 11 of the last 16 NHRA Funny Car series titles and nearly 75 percent of Ford's victories in the class (156 of 219), as well as almost half (49.3 percent) of all Ford pro triumphs (156 of 316 in Funny Car, Pro Stock and Top Fuel).  In their 17 years with Ford, JFR cars have won 42 percent of their NHRA national event races (156 of the 372).
Force is nothing if not adaptable and someone who can re-invent himself. But he gave a sentimental nod to Ford, as well.
"I don't know if we could have come back from the [2007] loss of Eric Medlen without the support of Ford and the Ford Racing engineers, and for that we will always be grateful," he said.
Ford also supported him when he sustained devastating injuries in September 2007.  And the automaker always will be associated with the pro racing debuts of Force's three youngest daughters.
WELL, NOT EVERYBODY CAN SAY THAT - After Jack Beckman clocked his fourth three-second elapsed time -- best in the NHRA -- in the Valvoline MaxLife/MTS Mail for Wounded Warriors Dodge, he ended up losing Sunday at Sonoma in the second round to Courtney Force. "We laid down a good lap," Beckman said. "Courtney did everything perfect in the other lane, and she got ahead of us. We've got a good runnin' hot rod. It's disappointing. My god, we've got the world's greatest-running second-round race car right now."
READY TO REPEAT - Owner-driver Steve Torrence was last year's Top Fuel winner at Seattle but was a bit lost in the winners circle celebration. But he didn't mind that most were paying attention to Funny Car's Courtney Force and Pro Stock's Erica Enders[-Stevens], who also won, along with Super Street's Megan Ellingson. "I sat there in the staging lanes, and I watched Erica win. Then I watched Courtney win," Torrence said. "Then I said, I have to beat Shawn Langdon so I can stand on the platform between those two pretty girls."
Riding back from the top end of the track in the tow vehicle with Enders and Force, and Force's niece, Autumn Hight, the now-30-year-old Torrence said, "I looked around and it occurred to me that I'm the oldest person in that van!"
But Torrence will need to feel young and invigorated this weekend as he fights to stay in the top 10. He'll have his hands full with challenges from 11th place David Grubnic (who has fared well at Seattle with pair of runner-up finishes and is 125 point out of Countdown consideration) and 12th place Brandon Bernstein (who needs three points to catch Grubnic and has won at Seattle once in three final rounds at Pacific Raceways).    

"It's getting so difficult. You don't have any slackers out here, and everybody is on their game on the tree," Torrence said. "The competition is the toughest I've seen in my racing career. These cars are so closely matched. These teams are doing anything they can to get that advantage to go quicker and faster. There are several two-car teams and we are a one-car team. And we've made a little bit of a splash, and we're trying to keep our head above water this year. The competition is unreal, and it makes winning one of these races and winning a round more gratifying just because of how hard it is to get that win light."
Torrence won at Bristol last month.

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