ASHER'S FINALS INSIDER - FINAL EDITION
SUNDAY EDITION: FORCE-FULL!
This was one of those races where the events themselves seemed far more important than elapsed times and speeds. Sure, those things still determined the outcomes, although leaving first still counts for, well, everything, but after what took place at Pomona Raceway on Sunday, those mundane things like numbers took a back seat. At least to some extent.
The scenarios were numerous. Some were obvious, others not so much. In Top Fuel it was simple. Steve Torrence held a 20-point lead over Brittany Force when it all started, but with 30 points being awarded for each round win, he had to keep winning to take the Mello Yello title. In Funny Car Robert Hight was 15 markers up on Ron Capps, so he, too, had to keep winning or Capps would motor to his second championship. In Pro Stock Greg Anderson had to, in his words, “beat his ass” when he faced Bo Butner in the semis in order to win. It all sounds oh so simple now, but during the race it was anything but.
Spectacular is the word that comes to mind in trying to describe this race. Witnessing the action from the top end of the track was nothing short of amazing. Drag racing can, and often is, spectacular from either end of the track, but this time around the top end gets our vote. Cars going into the sand trap at high speed, others careening off the retaining walls and still others making the turnoff with smoldering, flat front tires – this race had it all. And thank goodness for both modern safety gear and a forward-thinking rules structure that allows backup cars to be brought into competition, because if this had been 10 or 20 years ago there might not have even been a final round in Funny Car, because, well, just keep reading.
In a millisecond the Funny Car title was lost by Ron Capps and won by Robert Hight. As we said earlier, the elapsed times didn’t count as much as the results. Against Del Worsham in the first round Capps had to pedal the car about 100 feet out as the chassis came unstuck (see photo for how unstuck it was), and that was that. Hight had already won his first rounder, so stood at the top end to be declared champion. Tom Hanks may have said “There’s no crying in baseball,” but no one’s ever said that about drag racing. Yes, Hight shed tears, but he wouldn’t be the only one to do so by day’s end.
Meanwhile, Tommy Johnson, Jr. drove past Bob Bode in round one and then retired Alexis DeJoria in the second stanza – and couldn’t stop his colorful blue Make A Wish Dodge. Not helping his situation was a partial parachute failure and rapidly fading brakes. He drove the car well into the sand trap, but emerged unscathed. The car, however, was a mess. “We put new brakes on this morning, but they weren’t any better than the old ones. I was doin’ all I could do. I was pullin’ on the handle with both hands.”
An hour or so later Johnson was back up there with his spare car to defeat Number 1 qualifier Jack Beckman in the semifinal round. A few moments later the new champ, Hight, came up against Courtney Force and all hell broke loose. Courtney’s car stumbled, and Robert blasted towards the finish line where his engine blasted into smithereens, sending him careening into the retaining wall and then off the end of the track, deep into the sand trap. Deep into it. And as the Safety Safari raced towards him, Hight emerged from the dust cloud, stumbling through the sand. If T.J.’s car had been a mess, Hight’s was even worse.
Thirty years ago both Johnson and Hight would have been finished for the day because back-up cars weren’t allowed, and Jack Beckman would have singled for the trophy. But with backups allowed, Johnson and High survived to race for it, with T.J. winning when Hight’s car simply couldn’t make a decent run.
Show us someone who didn’t like the Funny Car show and we’ll show you someone who doesn’t really understand and appreciate outrageous drag racing.
Meanwhile, back at the Top Fuel ranch, Torrence and Force thundered through Round 1, but now we have to start talking about elapsed times, because Brittany’s car was nothing short of stunningly quick all day. She ran a 3.688 in the first round and then a 3.679 in the second. Torrence was no chump, with a 3.708 inn the first round and a sixty-nine-five in the second – but it wasn’t quick enough. Antron Brown got the better of his good friend, and that made Brittany a deserving champion.
Ms. Force then ran a brutal 3.674 to stop Brown’s 3.677 in the semifinals (yeah, this was some race!) while Shawn Langdon was keeping pace with low three-seventies. Uh, not nearly enough. In the finale Force blistered the cooling track with a 3.668 after Langdon went up in smoke.
Could there have been a more perfect weekend for Ms. Force and the John Force Racing operation? The only thing that might have topped it was if she had the winning Powerball ticket in her pocket. Money counts, for as her father said, surveying the wreckage, “Well, we gave it all back, but we won.”
The Pro Stock title race came down to the semi and final rounds. All three contenders made it that far, where Bo Butner defeated Greg Anderson, 6.551 to 6.564. Both had lights in the forties, which was kind of a surprise, with Anderson, in particular, usually quicker than that. In the other semi Tanner Gray pushed Jason Line into a redlight. Yeah, the Gray kid is very quick on the lights, and Line knew it, and simply tried too hard. Gray had a fourteen light.
Anderson still had a shot at the title, but Tanner had to win for that to happen. He didn’t. Butner’s 6.554 was enough, and just forget about Gray’s 6.653 because by the time he neared the finish line the right front tire on his Camaro had blown and he was fighting for control. No one seemed more stunned by his championship and event victory than Butner.
As predicted, the Harley-Davidsons of Eddie Krawiec and Andrew Hines faced off in the motorcycle finale. Krawiec had earlier said that he really wanted to win because in his previous championship outings he’d never won both the title and the event at the same time. Wait ‘til next year, Mr. K., cause his bike stumbled and Hines won going away.
As has happened for the last few years, the Southern California Auto Club Finals proved to be an excellent culmination of the Countdown to the Championship. The tension at Pomona was evident. Some dealt with it, others didn’t. Mechanical ills ended some drivers hopes, while others simply didn’t perform as well as they had all year. Luck played a role in everything, as it always does. Two very good and very popular drivers called it a day at Pomona. Allen Johnson and Alexis DeJoria will be missed. What drag racing needs are more young talents like Tanner Gray to take their place. They’re out there. We just have to hope they can find the backing to become major league players.
Right now it seems like the Winternationals are somewhere off in the far distant future, but in reality, they’re right around the corner. It’s not even three months away. So here’s our advice for your personal “off season.” Think about what you love about drag racing, savor the memories from this season, and start planning your 2018 outings right this very moment. Okay, read the photo captions first, but then start making your plans. Heck, we’re making ours right after we put this story to bed!
SATURDAY EDITION - THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY
Yeah, we stole that one from a movie, so sue us! But that’s the way it happened on Parker Avenue in Pomona on Saturday. There were some very good runs. There was some bad stuff and, oh yeah, there was some ugly stuff, too.
After Friday’s aborted first run Steve Torrence straightened things out and got into the show, but first thing Saturday morning who was inside his rig discussing how to go about things for the championship? Antron Brown and Tony Schumacher, who provided some sage advice and encouragement. They’ve been there, so they know what Sunday will bring, so they cautioned Torrence not to get too far ahead of things, and he listened.
But here comes the ugly – and this does not bode well for tomorrow. Torrence’s car glitched on the starting line and was shut off, so he missed the fourth qualifying session. Under normal circumstances this might not mean that much, but when so much is on the line, missing a single run can be crucial. Almost more importantly, not getting to the starting line could get inside Torrence’s head, and that’s not good. Hopefully, he’ll be able to put this behind him and move forward in eliminations.
Here’s the other emotional roadblock: Brittany Force ran a super-solid 3.698 in that session, and that’s also not good – for Torrence. When your rival runs hard like that, and you don’t, it just has to get inside your head, no matter how you try to ignore it.
Ms. Force remains on top, Clay Millican is second, Leah Pritchett (reportedly to be backed in just 10 races by Papa John’s next season) is third with a sixty-seven-four, with Antron Brown fourth with a sixty-nine-six. Terry Haddock is on the bump with a 3.874, so this is obviously a very good field. Whoever wins the title and/or the race will have earned it. There will be no free rides tomorrow.
You want more good, bad and ugly? How about Robert Hight’s day. After participating in Nitro University with Alan Reinhart Saturday morning Hight ran back to his pits to fire the car, then told us he wasn’t worried about not yet being in the show. “Of course, that’s now,” he said. “If we’re not in and have to make it in the last session, that’ll be tough.” It was, but he got in, this after temporarily getting in on the first run, and then getting bumped back out. It was the ultimate kind of pressure cooker for both Hight and tuner Jimmy Prock.
On that last one the car began cannibalizing itself about 800 feet out, and from there to the finish line it was smokin’, chokin’, and gasping. When Hight stopped on the track the engine compartment cover, i.e., the body, was partially peeled back as if a super-large can opener had been taken to it –but he got in. That’s all that counted. And unlike the Torrence situation, this will probably not mentally impact Hight rf his team on the morrow.
The minute it was announced that Hight couldn’t be bumped because all of the non-qualifiers had already run, numerous low-buck runners who were in the show began pulling out of line to save the expense of another run. Just to give you a close idea of the costs involved, a veteran tuner told us a few races back that, not including salaries and travel costs, every run eats up more than four grand’s worth of fuel and parts – and that’s if nothing goes wrong. Add in salaries and travel costs and every run will quickly eat up about ten grand.
Beckman remains the quickest, championship contender Ron Capps is sixth, and 11 qualifiers are in the threes. On the outside looking in are Jonnie Lindberg, Cruz Pedregon and Tim Gibbons, who told friends he was going to do a super-burnout for the fans and ultimately failed to deliver more than a sputtering attempt.
We lied about Eddie Krawiec and LE Tonglet yesterday because, in truth, Tonglet had zero chance of overtaking the Harley rider. Krawiec clinched his championship when qualifying ended, and no one is disputing the fact that he earned it. He’s been on fire since Indy.
This is how good the Harley-Davidsons are right now. In the first session both Krawiec and Hines carded six-seventies, Krawiec coming home first with a seventy-eight-one and Hines tagging along in 6.799 seconds. Yeah, there’s no way around it. They’re impressive.
Fourteen of the qualifiers are in the sixes, but does it even matter? The three Harleys (Chip Ellis being the third aboard a Vance & Hines machine) are in a world of their own, and unless something truly dramatic takes place, one of them will end up in Sunday’s winners circle. Let’s put it this way. The domination of the Harley-Davidsons is reminiscent of the days when Don Prudhomme won every Funny Car race and Bob Glidden took every Pro Stock Wally.
The bump didn’t move in Pro Stock, with Dodge runner Alan Prusiensky hanging tough with a 6.665, and neither did the top spot, with Greg Anderson locked in with his earlier 6.541. There was a little movement here and there, with Summit teammate Jason Line running a fifty-four-six to step over Drew Skillman into second place. Shane Tucker came a very long way from Australia to be a DNQ in his Hot Wheels Camaro, but he feels no worse that Steve Graham, Val Smeland and Joey Grose, who will also be watching from the sidelines on Sunday.
We could close today’s report with wild predictions for Sunday, but that really would be ugly. Torrence might bounce back and humiliate Force in the final round – but we wouldn’t bet on it. Robert Hight could overcome his qualifying woes and make mincemeat out of Ron Capps – but we wouldn’t bet on it. And maybe Jason Line will jump over Bo Butner and Greg Anderson – but we wouldn’t bet on that either.
This may be the last race of a very long season, but it’s shaping up as one of the best. If you’re reading this you’re close enough to the track and come out and see it all for yourself. Heck, eliminations don’t start for, like, hours!
FRIDAY EDITION - AND THEY SAID THE COUNTDOWN WOULDN’T WORK!
When NHRA first announced the Countdown to the Championship program a lot of drag racing purists immediately voiced their displeasure. What was their anger based upon? Not much, really. Maybe they were simply opposed to change of any kind. Others believed the countdown would detract from the regular season. Still others feared their favorite driver might be ahead when the six-race Countdown bwegan, only to lose coming down the stretch.
All those concerns proved groundless, because the Countdown “works.” It’s resulted in the various professional championships coming down to this last race, it’s increased media coverage and it’s also helped sell a lot of tickets. If someone can see a flaw in that, you’ll have to show it to us because, coming in to the AAA Finals everything’s still up for grabs, the excitement is palpable, and everyone’s eyes are on the title contenders. Of course that means that many other competitive and popular drivers are going to be largely ignored this weekend as everyone concentrates on the top runners, but we have the solution for that: Run harder next year and be in that mix for the championship and you’ll get plenty of exposure. In other words, go out there and earn it, just as all of the title contenders have – all year long and through the Countdown.
Credit NHRA with the kind of forward thinking that’s resulted in the points-and-a-half system that’s in place for only two events, this one and the U.S. Nationals. What it really means is that a driver who might have been considered “safe” last year might not be so safe this time around. Thirty points per round instead of 20 can quickly turn things around, but as contender Ron Capps said today, “You can’t keep thinking about all of that. It’ll drive you crazy.” Capps was 15 points behind when the day began, but is now one point closer after picking up one slim marker in the second qualifying session – but Robert Hight’s California Highway Patrol-liveried Camaro is still at the top of the points list.
Hight may be at the top of the list – but he’s not qualified at this juncture, a very rare situation for one of the sport’s better car handlers. Capps isn’t setting the world on fire either, as he’s seventh with a Rahn Tobler-produced 3.956. Trust Jimmy Prock to turn Hight around on Saturday.
Jack Beckman is at the top with a terrific 3.835 – which might easily be eclipsed on Saturday. Make no mistake, it was an excellent run, but the conditions are very good, and the field is filled with quality machinery, but right now the bump is a pathetic 7.779. In fact, the bottom four cars are all in the sevens, but that won’t last, of that you can be sure. The slowest of the three second runners is soon-to-be Hall of Famer Gary Densham (he will be inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in March) with a 3.968. Densham wisely skipped the second session, and we certainly couldn’t fault him for that.
The contenders in Top Fuel are Brittany Force and Steve Torrence. They were paired up in the first session because of their points positions, and it shouldn’t have been a big deal, but it became one when Torrence double-stepped the throttle on the line and had to abort his run. Was it the result of the pressure of being up against his only rival? We’ll try to find out in the morning, but for whatever reason, he lost the run.
The second session proved to be dramatic as well. Torrence got it together for a very competitive 3.719 – but Brittany was a train-length quicker with a track record 3.667. Here’s where we should remind ourselves that Alan Johnson is the tuning consultant for both cars!
If you enjoy being humbled, nothing does it better than drag racing. Last week’s winner (okay, it was two weeks ago), Terry McMillen, is on the outside looking in, but trust Rob Wendland to overcome that minor setback.
Joining Ms. Force in the three-sixty club were Clay Millican and Antron Brown, with five more cars in the three-seventies, so the show on Sunday should be exceptional.
Pro Stock is all about the Summit gang, and deservedly so. Greg Anderson, Jason Line and their buddy, Bo Butner, have been exceptional all year. True, they haven’t won every race, but they’ve sure been competitive in every one. Anderson, who has come light years from his days as Warren Johnson’s grunt and Mark Pawuk’s driving partner, is at the top of the heap with a 6.541. Drew Skillman is right behind him, then comes Jeggie, the Tanner Gray kid (who, if ever there was one, deserves to be the Road to the Future award winner on Monday), then Erica. Right behind her are the other two championship contenders, Line and Butner, both solidly in with fifty-sixes.
Not so long ago, in a nearby galaxy, we suggested that when the Harley-Davidson guys got their new rides straightened out they’d be tough to beat. But, you know how that suggestion went. Rather than figuring out the new bikes, they just brought out the older versions with new bodywork and proceeded to kick ass. The guy with the biggest boot is Eddie Krawiec, who’s very close to winning another title. This is how good the Harleys are: They occupy positions one through three after one day of qualifying. Oh, did we forget to mention their “blocker,” Chip Ellis? He’s Number 1 with a 6.805, then comes Andrew Hines at 6.817 and then Krawiec’s eighty-three-six. They’re on fire!
The guy chasing Krawiec, LE Tonglet, is fourth, but even though it’s possible, he’s just too far back to make this a real contest. In order for him to win the title, Krawiec would have to sleep in on Sunday, and Tonglet would probably have to break every record there is – even in other classes! Uh, that seems unlikely, don’t you think?
Six bikes ran six-eighties, with the two behind the four already mentioned being Scotty Pollacheck and a surprising Steve Johnson. But the real surprise in Pro Stock Motorcycle? The number of entries, with just 17. It’s not often that the other three pro categories have more competitors than the motorcycles, but that’s the case here.
If the sun stays a little bit behind the clouds, and if the temperatures stay in the high 60s to low 70s, and if there’s no major earthquakes or fires, this could be one of the best-ever Countdown to the Championship Finals. That’s what we’re hoping for.