Three Texans shared the Top Fuel spotlight with their own personal drama -  in spectacularly strong, spectacularly calamitous, and spectacularly inspirational fashion – at last weekend’s NHRA Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis.
Steve Torrence was the mighty one, ultimately, commandeering the $100,000 winner’s share of the Traxxas Shootout purse Saturday, winning the race Monday, and reclaiming the points lead for the start of the Countdown to the Championship.
Tony Schumacher, the Indianapolis dominator, reached the Traxxas final round but closed qualifying with a startling engine explosion that left him unhurt but saying his team would have to replace every part and piece on the dragster. He returned race day morning and powered his way to the semifinal round.
That’s when Texan No. 3 – Kebin Kinsley – really captured everyone’s attention. The 16th- and last-place qualifier used a .013 reaction time (by far the best of eliminations) to score a holeshot victory in the first round against Clay Millican, the top qualifier, who himself has risen from NHRA-hopeful status to consistently stout. Then Kinsley beat 2103 U.S. Nationals and series champion Shawn Langdon in the quarterfinals.
Kinsley defeated Langdon with his career-best elapsed time and speed, 3.757 seconds at 322.96 mph – coincidentally the exact E.T. and speed Torrence used to beat Kinsley in the final round that day.
Kinsley outran Schumacher in the semifinals, entangling his own U.S. Nationals history with the 10-time winner’s. It was a slice of déjà-vu, this match-up. Schumacher made his U.S. Nationals debut (and, unlike Kinsley, his first Top Fuel start) in 1996, also reaching the final round in a series of unforeseen circumstances.
But the intrigue has yet another ironic twist – or two. During the past decade or so, Schumacher has had a rivalry with Doug Kalitta. And this car that Kinsley drove was Kalitta’s backup car from last season. Kalitta Motorsports front-halved it for Kinsley during the winter and mounted the current Road Rage body on it for him. That’s one of the reasons Kinsley’s rear wing bears the label “Kalitta Project.” Oddly enough, Doug Kalitta was the one who had spoiled Kinsley’s first trip to Indianapolis in September 2015. In an uncharacteristically rough qualifying patch that year, Kalitta aced Kinsley out of the final spot on the grid with a 3.995-second pass to Kinsley’s 4.035. That was the last time Kalitta started from the No. 16 slot in the order.
Ah, but the story has even more context. Helping tune the car was Donnie Bender, who splits his time between the Roger Hennen-owned operation of Kinsely’s and the Global Electronic Technology Dragster that Langdon drives for Kalitta Motorsports. Bender was the Dick La Haie protégé who guided Larry Dixon to two of his three Top Fuel championships and helped build that Schumacher-Dixon rivalry, especially at the U.S. Nationals.
From 2000-2010, no one but Schumacher and Dixon won in Top Fuel at Indianapolis. Only Antron Brown (2011), Langdon (2013), Richie Crampton (2104), and Morgan Lucas (2015) have broken the Schumacher-Dixon lock in the previous 16 years.
Little did Kinsley know his weekend would be woven into the fabric of U.S. Nationals lore with so many representative threads.
What he did know is that his “Kalitta Project” was well-stocked.
“We’re very well prepared. We’ve got plenty of cylinder heads, short blocks, and cranks, so we’ve got good, good parts,” Kinsley said.
His plan as qualifying opened on a cool-air Friday evening, he said, was “just go A to B and just kind of get a baseline . . . then we’ll go for the jugular vein tomorrow. We just want to go A to B and kind of get it scienced out. We ran really well in Bristol. It ran, the first full pass at that car in Topeka, it went a [3].79, so we know the car is capable.”
He showed just how capable. But although he shocked many observers because he had only one elimination round-win to his Top Fuel credit, he didn’t surprise himself.
Even early Friday at Indianapolis, he said making the field would be “way cool.” But he was anticipating doing better than that: “I’m telling you, we’ve got the right stuff, and my guys are doing a really good job preparing the car. I’m excited. We’re excited to be here. The cars that are here are very quality cars, so it’s going to be a good weekend.”
Rolling up his sleeves in the Road Rage Dragster pit also was a fellow Texan who isn’t well-known to most NHRA fans . . . unless they’re into drag-boat racing, as well. He’s David Kirkland, a veteran of nearly 30 years in drag racing on the water, has served on the
Southern Drag Boat Association board and been inducted into its Hall of Fame. He owns the “Spirit of Texas” entry that for years was the world’s fastest drag boat and won races and championships.
Kinsley called Kirkland “one of those thinker guys” and said having him as part of the team makes him even more confident he’s surrounding himself with competent individuals.
“He’s been over here helping us with our deal. He tunes my Funny Car, my Nostalgia car when we run it. We’ve been good friends for a long time,” Kinsley said. “Very knowledgeable guy. He’s very smart. He’s one of those thinker guys. He’s thinking all the time. So he and Donnie have really gelled well together, and I’m really excited about the rest of the season for us.”
Although Kinsley officially hasn’t entered any of the Countdown events, he said he’s going to race at Dallas, near his home at Kennedale, Texas. He said he’s considering competing at St. Louis, too.
Maybe even more amazing, Kinsley raced at the sport’s biggest event in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, knowing his brother and many friends were dealing with property loss and devastation. But that “Spirit of Texas” vibe was with him and his team all last weekend. And maybe when he hits the track again, he’ll be more than a third Texan.