Rumor Mill

2016 NHRA AAA FINALS - SPORTSMAN NOTEBOOK

 

 

       

 

SATURDAY NOTEBOOK -

HERE’S YOUR SIGN – Late 1974 Funny Car champion Shirl Greer’s Tension ’65 Dodge Coronet never made it to California when a flip of the coin determined its fate in 1965. 51 years later, a coin flip similarly sealed the decision for son Van to leave his replica car home and accept a ride in Eric George’s ‘72 Maverick to compete for the NHRA Summit Racing Series National Championship in the Pro category.

In another chapter of the tight and geographically widespread racing community coming together to help a racer out, well-connected West Coast racer and K&N Spring Fling bracket event promoter Kyle Seipel facilitated the deal between Van and George when a series of issues and a coin flip prevented him from making the tow across the country from his native Tennessee.

“Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between a sign and a test,” said Van. “If I’m holding the trophy at the end of the day tomorrow, it was a sign. If I go out first round then it might have been a test.

“I won the [Division 2 Summit Finals] in a ’65 Dodge, a replica of what dad had back in 1965. It looks like his car; I painted it black and everything. He and my mom got divorced in 1965, and he was going to California to race; that was their plan. They got to about Knoxville, where [Interstate] 40 splits to go south, and there was a race over in Warner Robins [Ga.]. They flipped a coin to decide if they ran that race. The coin said ‘go.’ He ran that race and met his second wife, and the car never made it to California.”

History repeated itself when Van’s master plan of getting the tribute car to California was presented with a dilemma.

“I was going to try to bring it the old replica that I won with,” said Van. “It broke an axle a couple of weeks ago, had carburetor trouble, just stuff going on and on. My wife got real sick. We weren’t sure we were going to be able to make the trip. My buddy Kyle tried to find me a ride. It wasn’t working out, and it was getting close to time to go, so I packed everything up just in case I had to bring it. Even if I got a ride, I was going to bring it anyway. I flipped another coin and lost again, so I’m out here in somebody else’s car. [The ’65 Dodge] still ain’t going to make it. Maybe I can try to win it again and bring it out here.”

Seipel cites Greer being an authentic, hardcore racer as the reason they became fast friends. It doesn’t take a long conversation with Greer to see what Seipel does.

“I’ll race anything pretty much,” said Greer. “Anything that’s got wheels on it. I ran a motorcycle some last year. Just to do it, just to have fun. Won a few races in it. I’ll race anything. I run my Dodge Dually, everything I’ve got.”

 

CALL HIM MR. CLUTCH - Saturday racing action kicked off with a third-round matchup in Stock eliminator that decided the world title. Jeff Strickland, far lane, orchestrated a .020-second package in his GMPartsNow.com COPO Camaro to run down two-time world champ Brad Burton at the stripe and secure the No. 1 ranking. Strickland, who clinched the RacingRVs.com Top Dragster championship under similar circumstances last weekend, becomes the only driver besides his good friend Scotty Richardson to win two NHRA titles in the same season.
 

SILENT ASSASSIN – Two-time Top Alcohol Dragster world champion and defending event winner Joey Severance had a strong outing today. He moved up to the No. 2 qualifying position with a 5.232 and improved slightly more with a 5.230 in his first round victory over Winternationals winner Shawn Cowie. Outside of A/Fuel racer Don St. Arnaud, Severance has had the car to beat.

Of course, Severance has been dominant all season. The soft-spoken driver and co-owner of Woodburn Dragstrip has let his driving do the talking. He was the first driver to clinch an NHRA championship in 2016, and he has a near-perfect record.

“It’s a mixture of hard work and luck, I guess,” said Severance. “We’ve just had one of them years that everything was falling our way. 

“It kind of goes by quick. You keep pinching yourself. We’re going racing whether we lose first round or not anyways. When you win a few more, it’s easier to travel a long ways away. Just everything fell our way for the first half, three-quarters of the year.”

Part of the winning formula for Severance and father Joey Sr. is their daring approach to try anything they think will make the car better regardless of circumstances. One day after winning the spring Las Vegas event, they installed a complete motor by Australian manufacturers Noonan Race Engineering, who now have an operation in Utah, and have kept it in their car ever since.

“We always liking to test stuff,” said Severance. “It ran good enough to keep it in the car, so Jim [Whiteley] and Jamie and Renee Noonan said we can keep running it. We’re always trying to go faster, so it’s always a test every time you start the car.”

BUBBLE BOY – An outstanding final qualifying session in the Top Alcohol Funny Car category concluded with the quickest 16-car field in the history of the class. Nick Januik (pictured) bumped his Plan B Motorsports Camaro into the anchor position at 5.591 seconds on his final attempt and upset No. 1 qualifier Jonnie Lindberg in the first round. Mike Doushgounian holds the dubious honor of being the class’ quickest nonqualifier ever with a 5.598.


LEGACY CHILD – Krista Baldwin is making her own history on a race track that legendary grandfather Chris “the Greek” Karamesines and late father Bobby Baldwin have made their marks. Driving Anthony Dicero’s McLeod Clutches/Nitro University A/Fuel dragster, she qualified No. 16 in a tough Top Alcohol Dragster field with a 5.453 at 267.75 mph.

“I live 10 miles from here, so I grew up at this racetrack,” said Baldwin. “This is such a significant track for me and my family, as well as my dad. He used to come out here and work at the Fairplex, and he lived right on the other side of that hill. I can feel his spirit in me, and I’m excited to drive this nitro car where he used to drive a nitro car.”

Baldwin began and is concluding her rookie season in the category at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, and she beams when she discusses the journey.

“I’m still in the point of my career where every time I go down the racetrack, it’s a learning curve,” said Baldwin. “Something’s different every time on a run, so I’m still learning leaps and bounds every time I take this car down the racetrack. My rookie year’s been insane. I mean, I qualified at every race except for one, I’ve had two top half qualifying positions, and I’ve had semifinal finishes. Coming from someone who went from a 7-second NE-1 front engine dragster to an injected nitro car, that’s a huge leap. Anthony Dicero gave me the option to do this, and I’m forever grateful for what he’s done for me.”

Under the Nitro University banner, Dicero has given several drivers their start. Tripp Tatum, who is qualified in Top Fuel with the Lagana family’s entry, started with Dicero last season. More recently, he helped Pro Stock racer Alex Laughlin get his feet wet in nitro racing. Baldwin shows her appreciation in an ambassador role for the program.

“Nitro University is awesome,” said Baldwin. “I mean, we’ve had multiple Pro drivers come down, ask us questions as students, give us tips, and help us down the racetrack. It’s awesome to watch Alex Laughlin, Richie McPhillips, and all those guys get their license. I’ve given some of them advice, and I’m still learning myself.

“Of course, the number one advice I got was from Grandpa. He says, “If it doesn’t feel right, just lift.’” 

WEEKEND FOR BERNIE – Top Alcohol Funny Car racer Bernie Harrington’s passing was unexpected when he had a heart attack in September, and racers in the category feel the void of his absence at this event. Remembered as colorful, competitive, and generous, his memory is displayed on English driver Rob Turner’s entry with several other drivers having signed their names on it. 

“It’s a great loss to us,” said Turner. “Bernie was a great help when we first brought the car over. We base ourselves at Bernie’s workshop in Apple Valley [Calif.]. We had quite a good outing making a bit of progress in the spring race, and we tuned the car up with Bernie’s suggestions. And then to lose him in September was real sad and very emotional for the first runs after that. 

“We decided to make it a tribute to Bernie these three races. So, got people to sign the car and leave their thoughts.”

DYED IN THE WOOL – Bobby Dye Jr., who scored his long-awaited first national event victory at this event three years ago, is down to four cars in Super Comp. He will have a shot at earning his third win in the American Race Cars-built Specialty Fasteners dragster on Sunday.

BROTHER ACT – Two-time Top Alcohol Funny Car champion Jonnie Lindberg leads the quickest field in Top Alcohol Funny Car history with the 5.440 that he recorded yesterday, and older brother Johan made big strides today to vault to the No. 3 spot with a career-best 5.478 in Steve and Jenelle Harker’s Rovalin AB Monte Carlo. The run prompted an eruption of cheers in the raucous section 24 of the grandstands from the many Swedish fans in attendance.

Johan, a champion in the FIA European Drag Racing Series, had played a large supporting role in his younger brother’s pursuit of glory in the United States before finally getting his shot to drive at an NHRA event. He made his debut at the NHRA Toyota Nationals in his old car that he sold to Steve Harker to replace the car that was destroyed in a nasty crash at the Norwalk event.

“It’s like a dream,” said Johan. “Everything has fallen into place, and the stars aligned. When we first shipped Jonnie’s car over here, I wanted to drive here also, but it would have been too much for us to run two cars out here. I had to support him 100-percent. I thought about it for a long time, and now it’s a dream come true to race.”

Harker originally planned to return behind the wheel at the end of the season but looked to Johan when he scrapped those plans due to lingering injuries to his ribs.

“I was hoping to finish out the season myself, but the car was a bit late getting here to do Dallas, plus I wasn’t fit enough to get my license back with my damaged ribs,” said Harker. “With the time frame that we were working in, I suggested that he might like to drive the car if he could talk to his sponsor and work something out. It’s been good for him, good for his sponsor, and great for us. I’m getting to test and sort that combination out.”

 

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FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - TO GO OR NOT TO GO, RAMPY PONDERS THE QUESTION

RAMPY PONDERS RACING FUTURE – David Rampy has had a career worthy of a spot on the Mount Rushmore of NHRA Sportsman racers.  The four-time world champion has 92 national event wins across five different categories plus a final round appearance from a brief Pro Stock endeavor.

However, the driver of the Ray Skillman Chevrolet-sponsored A/EA Bantam roadster and GT/HA ’87 Camaro in Comp and Super Stock is contemplating his future in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series. Concerns about the current state of affairs have the usually positive and softspoken 61-year-old wondering how long he should prolong his outstanding career.

“First of all, I love this sport,” said Rampy. “It’s been good to me. I’m very thankful for what I’ve done. The people that I’ve been associated with has extremely been good. But I just worry about the way where this sport’s going. It’s hard to see positives. All you see is negatives, and that’s disappointing to me. 

“I’m still pondering it. I’m not making any decisions right now. All I’m doing is trying to weigh some options and just figure it out. As far as I know, sponsorship-wise, we’re good for next year. I have had years where I didn’t know if I had a sponsor for the next year, and so that was all up in the air. Barring anything major happening, I probably will race at least one more year. I don’t like to etch anything in stone because, you know, I’m just that kind of person. When I do quit, I feel like I’m just going to kind of ride off in the sunset and not really make no kind of deal out of it.

“I don’t want to quit, but sometimes you feel like they kind of don’t want you here. I’ve never had one of them tell me to my face that they didn’t want me here, but the things that they do sometimes makes you feel like that, you know.”

Some of the issues that have left Rampy frustrated include rising costs, national event quotas, plans for tech – or lack thereof – in 2017, insurance costs, and the contingency program. He stresses that the basis of the concerns regarding the many of those items can only be considered rumors, they nonetheless demonstrate a disconnect between a racing organization and one of its most prominent Sportsman racers.

“I’ve raced in the best of times; I truly have,” said Rampy. “I think I’ve lived in the best of times, too. It’s like every time we turn around they’ve got someone different parking you and working some of the events. It’s, ‘He got let go,’ or, ‘We don’t need that many people.’ The whole thing is kind of a little bit upside down. 

“The TV package, I guess it’s better for the Pros, I can’t say that it’s any better for the Sportsman racer. Although they did do a little feature on me, and that was good, and I appreciate that, but I still just don’t feel that it’s as good as it could be. I don’t see growth. I don’t see a lot of young people coming in.”

For the time being, Rampy will continue racing toward the 100 career win landmark.

“As far as retiring, I don’t know,” said Rampy. “I’m closer than I was – we all are. Every day you’re a little bit closer to something, I know. I’m 61. So far, I’m still able to win occasionally. I know as you get older that, I don’t know if you’re not as sharp or you just don’t have that drive when you’re younger. I see Pro players that maybe stay a little bit too long. 

“We’re going to finish in the top 10 with both cars this year, and I don’t want to give up that free entry to all the national events next year. And it’s like, ‘Golly; that’s stupid to quit.’ So, odds are I’m probably at least going to go a little longer maybe, but I may not. Just depends on how I think. I’m trying to survey things and just make a good decision about it. I’m a Christian, I believe in God, and I pray about things like that. He ain’t given me an answer on that yet. I hope he gives me the wisdom to know when enough’s enough.”

OH NO! - Norwegian Top Alcohol Dragster driver Fred Hanssen suffered a nasty crash during the second qualifying session. After the dragster initially lost traction and headed toward the left wall, the car veered to the right and sent him to the opposite wall. The impact turned the car upside-down until it slid safely to a stop. He walked away from the incident with no apparent injuries. (Mike Burghardt Photo)
(Lyle Greenburg Photo)

cut here RISING FROM THE ASHES – Top Alcohol Dragster pilot Garrett Bateman experienced dizzying highs and terrifying lows at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. His triumphant victory behind the wheel of Rick and Linda Henkelman’s HipLink A/Fueler at the NHRA Toyota Nationals was following by an enormous explosion at the regional event one week later.

In a display of what nitromethane can do when compressed, a failure in the valve train led to a cylinder being filled with nitro where it would hydraulic and leave a gaping hole in the cylinder head and engine block. Damage from the concussion and the fire left Bateman and Tyson Parker, son of Top Alcohol Funny Car driver Russ, scrambling to make repairs in time for the first round of qualifying. The 5.24 that Bateman recorded was one of the most gratifying runs of the versatile driver’s career considering the monumental effort that went into it.

“We had to replumb it, rewire it, replace the frame rail,” said Bateman. “Tyson Parker did the upper frame rail – he worked for his uncle Randy Parker, the chassis builder – at Shane Westerfield’s shop on Monday night. Then we had to build the motor. The injector was ripped off of it, so we had to rebuild the injector because that’s a specific one that we like to run. 

“At 600 or 700 feet down the race track, I saw the mags go skipping by. It burned the coils off and melted the boxes off, so we basically had to rebuild the car from behind the driver. And we were thrashing until 10 minutes before we had to get up there. I mean, the chutes cables weren’t ready yet. It’s just Tyson and I. Brandon [Henkelman] is our crew chief, and he couldn’t get here today. I’m just really proud of Rick and Tyson. Rick didn’t want to quit. Tyson volunteered to stay with me instead of going home and working. We just busted butt every day and fixed it. And it had three holes out on that run. 

“What a story. The panels are burnt on the side. It’s got new panels Tyson had to build. The bucket was blown off of it, we repaired it. So it kind of looks like a junkyard dog, but it runs like a striped-ass ape. That’s crazy to me, but I’m happy.”

Henkelman added, “All the grace goes to these two guys [Bateman and Parker]. Every single aspect of the car was affected. And the trick is finding every single one of those things and fixing them. It’ll hide from you in plain sight, but we found every single one of them. And that run I just did, we dropped one hole at 3.8, one at 4.1, and one at 5.2. This is a whole different motor, and it’s just an adjustment to fix that.  

“All it did [on the explosion] was it broke a tip off a push rod. That’s all it takes. That exhaust valve no longer opens and shuts, so it just keeps filling with nitro and pretty soon you’ve got a hydraulic. It does two things: it explodes the nitro out of pressure and tries to expand liquid; you can’t do that. Whatever is in its way is going to leave, and it did. I’ve been doing this A/Fuel thing for 20 years. I’ve never had anything like that happen to me.”

THE SEVEN-TENTHS CLUB - Alan Ellis jumped up to the second spot, also running seven-tenths under his index, running 6.502, -0.728 against the A/Econo Altered standard. 


ONE ROUND FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE – The matchup everyone who follows the Stock Eliminator class wanted to see is scheduled for the third round to kick off racing action on Saturday morning. Championship contenders Jeff Strickland and Brad Burton will be taking matters into their own hands when they compete against one another. If Strickland wins, he is the champion in both Stock and Top Dragster. For Burton to overtake him and claim his third Stock crown, he needs to defeat both Strickland and his opponent in the following round.

Either way, neither driver will be getting a good night’s sleep before their matchup. For Strickland, it’s par for the course. The Alabama multiclass racer recently wrapped up the RacingRVs.com Top Dragster crown at the Las Vegas regional event by defeated incoming leader Matt Driskell and winning the following round. Though Strickland doesn’t necessarily embrace the pressure, his racing efforts seem to thrive in it.

“I haven’t slept in two months anyway,” said Strickland. “It’s just one more round, and it means a lot. It’s just like I was telling Nick [Folk, 2016 Super Comp champion]: it’s one round for the rest of your life. I feel like I have to make a statement and do what we do, and hopefully that all works out.”

Racing for a championship has never been Strickland’s particular focus, but the talented driver is not one to let an opportunity to do so slip by. He now has the chance to join 1994 Super Comp and Super Gas champion Scotty Richardson as the only drivers in NHRA history to win two in the same season.

“Well, actually a world championship wasn’t really on my bucket list when I started racing,” said Strickland. “I want to have a lot of trophies, I want to have a good name when I get done, and then whatever happens in between is fine. So, the world championship, it’s just one of those things that when you get the opportunity, then you go after it, but there’s a certain point when you say, ‘Alright, now it’s time to go.’ And we got to that point.

“[Richardson] is a very good friend of mine, and I’ve learned a lot from him over the years. I mean, he texts me daily during this whole deal, trying to give me confidence and saying, ‘Just do what you do.’ Even if it happens, I still don’t put myself in his club. I think he’s one of the greatest racers that’s ever driven a race car. It would be nice if we get it. If we don’t, we’ve got one, it’s hard to be mad. I probably won’t ever get a chance to get two at one time ever again though. Those are once in a lifetime deals.”

Strickland was eliminated from competition in Super Comp today which he believes might be a blessing in disguise with the focus dedicated to his GMPartsNow.com COPO Camaro.

“I think with the rounds getting closer back to back, tomorrow all I need to worry about is that car, which it’s not really that hard to worry about,” said Strickland. “The car’s good. Basically, if you leave the starting line on time, hope for the best. 

“I was in [Burton’s] position last week, and it’s just a mental game at this point. You know, who can do what they’re supposed to do at the time they’re supposed to do it. I mean, Brad and his family are great people. If I can’t win it, I’ll be glad to see him win. I really like their family. They’re very good people.”

SEND IN THE CLOWNS – Three generations of Bartons are each making trips down the Auto Club Raceway at Pomona quarter-mile for the first time. Family patriarch Don Barton competed in a Super Comp dragster while son Todd, an in-demand painter, and graphic artist, wheeled his eye-catching Clownin’ Around ’55 Chevy. New to the equation is Todd and Martha Barton’s son, Troy, who will take part in the Jr. dragster exhibition tomorrow.


 

 

FUNNY BUSINESS - Newly crowned NHRA Lucas Oil champion Jonnie Lindberg provided an object lesson why he is the 2016 NHRA Top Alcohol Funny Car champion during second-day qualifying for the NHRA AAA Finals at Pomona Raceway.

Lindberg stepped up in the Q-2 session with a 5.440 elapsed time at 269.73 to go from No. 15 to the top spot. Thursday's leader Shane Westerfield dropped to second with a    5.500 elapsed time at 253.37 miles per hour. 

John Lombardo Jr. jumped from fifth up to third with a 5.507, 270.16  while DJ Cox, who was on Thursday bubble, leaped to fourth with a 5.515,  265.80.

Cody Perkins is on the bubble as one session remains with a 5.726.

DOUBLE DUTY – Utah native Cody “Flash” Perkins is a busy man this weekend. He is competing in both Top Alcohol Dragster and Top Alcohol Funny Car. That could be hectic for an individual whose only responsibility lies behind the steering wheel, and Perkins upped the ante for a challenging endeavor with heavy involvement in both entries. He does the clutch and assists with the tuning calls in the dragster owned by Kevin Cantrell, and he does it all on father Bob’s JH Precision Pontiac, a car they purchased from Frank Manzo more than 10 years ago.

“The idea sounds so much better like at home or in the garage or when you’re lying in bed dreaming, and then reality hits and you’re like, ‘Man, that was so dumb,’” Perkins wisecracked while assembling a B&J three-speed in his trailer. “I’m usually working on a transmission that should have been done a week ago. Little stuff that should have been done a week ago. You know, we just run out of time. Especially when you try to double up and you’ve got to surface clutches for the dragster until midnight, then drive all night, and put a Funny Car trans together, because for some reason we’re doubling up the work load. And for some reason we don’t have 48-hour days. Man, I wish I did.”

The invitation to drive Cantrell’s dragster got Perkins and right-hand man John Ingold off the sidelines and back into regular competition this season. The urging of JH Precision’s Mike and Betty Kresser inspired Perkins to finish his father’s flopper and get it on the racetrack.

“They’re really good friends that said, ‘Hey, let’s go drag racing. This is fun,’” said Perkins. “Mike’s got a Porsche, a Lotus, a Nissan Z that he races on the road race tracks. I help him over there with those, and we’ve built fun parts for that at LYFE Motorsport in Salt Lake City. We decided to finish up the year by going drag racing.”

Perkins puts his engineering degree to use by always pondering ways to build his hot rod into a better mousetrap. The most obvious difference with his car is a blower drive that features three narrow blower belts working in stereo rather than the standard “rubber band” that connects the pulley driven by the crankshaft to the pulley the turns the supercharger. Less-obvious differences from the norm include rocker stands and pistons that Perkins designed himself.

“I can’t go borrow a piston or a cam, or a rocker arm, or a push rod,” said Perkins. “Nothing is off the shelf stuff that you can just order. Whether it’s better or worse, we’re going to try to do something different if we think we can make it better. Even if it takes a little extra effort, we’re going to do it. If it means designing something that ends up saving a couple grams worth of reciprocating mass, we’ll do it. If it means higher RPM, can we shift through that, that’s what we’re doing. 

“So, with the belts, that means no matter what, hopefully you’ve got at least one belt that holds on to the finish line. A lot of times you’ll see guys rotating out a perfectly good blower belt. I’m cheap, I don’t want to throw away a perfectly good blower belt. And so, with the triple belt, even if I’ve blown the blower off and if it didn’t snap, I’m going to put it back on because odds are, one of the three is still going to get me to the finish line.”

With one qualifying session remaining, Perkins is No. 13 in Top Alcohol Dragster with a 5.46 and No. 16 in Top Alcohol Funny Car with a 5.72.

 

 

 

THURSDAY NOTEBOOK - ST. ARNAUD DELIVERS HOLY GOODNESS PERFORMANCE TO HIGHLIGHT FIRST DAY

UNICORN STAMPEDE – Edmonton-based Top Alcohol Dragster racer Don St. Arnaud’s big-speed performances at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona have become the stuff of legend. He owns nine of the class’ top 10 fastest speeds of all-time (retired five-time champion Bill Reichert holds the other) and had set the national record at 285.35 mph at the 2015 season opener.

The scoreboard from the speed record run is included in the design on his t-shirts. That design will need to be changed for next year as he set the speed record once again in the opening qualifying session with a 5.200 at 285.83 mph. The Ty Brown- and Eddie Fischle-tuned injected nitro-burner set the pace on day one of qualifying once again like it did in the season opener during a runner-up performance.

“We have a pretty good tune-up for this place,” said St. Arnaud. “The track was good, and we were fortunate to repeat and set another record.”

The way the A&J Construction dragster runs from the eighth-mile mark to the finish line has others in the class awestruck. When asked for specifics, St. Arnaud is as bewildered as the others as to how his hot rod can pick up at the big end so significantly and consistently.

“We wish we knew the answer to that,” said St. Arnaud. “Our crew calls this car ‘the unicorn’ because it is so unique. Believe it or not, we hardly even change the tune-up form track to track. We don’t run a whole lot of places, but it runs about the same everywhere we go. It’s one of a kind. We hate to change anything on it.”

Part of the speed-record-setting equation was a four-year-old set of Goodyear slicks that the team only runs at this venue. St. Arnaud and team are going to use the next two sessions to try new tires with lighter rims and see if they can’t raise the speed mark even further.

“For some part-time racers to be able to do this, we’re blessed; we’re fortunate,” said St. Arnaud. “People strive their whole career to set national records. I couldn’t do it without Eddie, Ty, and my crew. Ty is so meticulous going through the car every time.”

BURN BABY BURN  - Top Alcohol Dragster sensation Ashley Sanford had quite the ride during the Q-1 session, and made for quite the photo op. Ace photog Will Lester made the most of the opportunity. 

"Unfortunately, our main fuel line wasn't tightened good enough," Sanford said. "We shook the tires, and I pedaled it, and we put on a bit of a fireworks show for everyone. There was raw fuel flying behind me, and it caused a giant smoke and fire show.
 
"Everything's OK with the car, but we just decided to put on a show for the fans. All is good, and we've got two more to go. The car was running really fast before that happened, and it would've been a great number. Those are things you're glad don't happen on race day, and we'll make sure we'll kill it for the rest of the year." (Will Lester/Daily Bulletin)

FROM TEST YEAR TO BEST YEAR – Top Alcohol Funny Car driver Shane Westerfield leads the pack on the first day of qualifying with a 5.500 at 253.57 mph. His strong performances this season come from having slowed down to speed up.

The 29-year-old approached the 2016 season with the idea of slowing down on travel to focus on the family business – Coeste Design, which creates trade show booths – and get ready to welcome his and wife Kayleigh’s first child (daughter Corah, born in April). A lessened emphasis on counting points created an opportunity to test new parts and ideas before hitting the schedule hot and heavy again in 2017.

If the CP-Carrillo/Blake Bros. Racing Chevy Camaro Top Alcohol Funny Car felt neglected, it responded by taking Westerfield on career best performances en route to two national event victories in five final rounds including a double-up at the Chicago event and the JEGS Allstars special event.

“We kind of decided at the beginning of the year we’ll just run a limited schedule,” said Westerfield. “And wouldn’t you know it, as soon as we decided to do that, the car started running better. It’s like it got pissed off at us.

“It’s actually been a career year for us as far as speed and e.t. and round wins and beating a lot of new people that we never got to beat before. It’s been a lot of fun.”

A good as his season has been, the Auto Club NHRA Finals presents a special challenge to Westerfield. He has many friends and family in attendance, and the incentive for great on-track performances at his home track hasn’t panned out with favorable results in recent outings. He hopes to change that this weekend. 

“We want to do so well, but we’re horrible here,” said Westerfield. “I haven’t won a round here since the Finals in 2013. I think I have four round wins total here. It just has not been our place. But we’re coming into this year with a whole new approach, trying to not let anything distract us. We want to have fun here, but we’re here to race, we’re here to win, and we’re going to give it our all.”

THAT'S GONNA LEAVE A MARK - Comp Eliminator got in two sessions on Thursday and Josh Lee threw down the gauntlet in his H/Econo Altered '32 Bantam as his 8.818 elapsed time was a whopping -0.752. An index hit is coming for sure. 

LIKE DAUGHTER, LIKE FATHER – Going to the Division 7 Awards Banquet last winter to watch youngest daughter Macie collect her NHRA Summit Racing Jr. Drag Racing League trophy was a special treat to 20-year Top Alcohol Funny Car veteran Doug Gordon. That is, until he became a spectator when someone else from his category came onstage to accept the West Region crown.

Gordon’s other racing daughter, Madison, wrapped up the Division 7 title this year with plenty of racing left on the docket for the MB Cabinets Top Alcohol Funny Car team, giving Gordon ample incentive to stand on stage with his daughter at the end of the year. He stood and delivered with five regional wins, including a double-up at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a track he had previously been snake bitten at throughout his career. 

“We hadn’t been to a division banquet in a lot of years,” Gordon recalled. “We realized that Lucas Oil was putting a lot of money toward the regional series, and it was $10,000 to win. We told ourselves that we were going to push towards doing good at it this year. Then when Maddi did it, it really made me want to do a speech at the same place as her. That will be pretty cool.”

“The Vegas deal was really exciting,” Gordon added. “I’d have to look it up, but I think we’ve ran there 60 or 80 times and never won. To do the double-up was icing on the cake, and to do it with two holeshot victories was cool for a driver who has, for the most part, struggled. We’ve had a good car, but the driver has done mediocre. That was cool. Five wins in a season is astronomical for us.”

Gordon is attempting to score a national event win in 2016 in his last chance to do so. Whether or not he accomplishes the feat, he has become a certified championship contender. He was the last driver in the hunt two weeks ago before Jonnie Lindberg clinched the title, and he was in the mix until the final weekend of racing in 2015.

“Once we got the AJPE horsepower, that put us in a whole new realm,” said Gordon. “Because of that, Dad [Mike] has put an amazing amount of effort towards the whole racing program to get us way ahead of where we used to be. It makes it exciting to have a chance at the whole thing.”

FAMILY TRADITION - Only one driver dipped more than a second under their index, and for  Bill Skillman and his 2010 Mustang, an 8.957, -1.093 under the FSS/E index was enough to land the No. 1 qualifying position in the final qualifying list.

BEAST OF BURTON – Only one Lucas Oil championship is yet to be decided after last weekend’s NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series finale at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The Stock eliminator title is up for grabs with leader Jeff Strickland, the 2016 RacingRVs.com Top Dragster champion, trying to join 1994 Super Comp and Super Gas champion Scotty Richardson as the only drivers to collect two NHRA championship Wallys in the same season and 2010 and 2012 Stock champ Brad Burton trying to complete a trifecta of titles.

The scenario is a simple one. With Strickland out of races to claim, Burton has to reach the semifinal round of competition to unseat him from the No. 1 position. For the Denver transplant who now resides near Seattle, that’s easier said than done.

“It’s a great weekend when you can get to the semifinals anyway, and the added pressure of racing for a championship makes it incredibly difficult,” Burton reasoned. “Towards the end of the year, all these drivers have a lot of laps and are usually a little bit better than they are at the beginning of the year. You really have to be on your game. You take it one round at a time. Hopefully, the win light will come on in the fourth round, and we’ll be celebrating.”

Burton is off to a good start with his trusty D/SA ’72 Firebird. He qualified No. 1 with a 10.448 (-1.102).

“I’m feeling pretty good,” said Burton. “The car is running great. We start here in February every year, and all I can ask for is a chance to win the championship. Now I can control my own destiny. I have to do what I know that I’m capable of doing, and good things will usually happen.

“It’s been a fantastic year either way. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.”

BITCHIN’ CAMAROS – Kyle Rizzoli is on a roll at the end of the season with a pair of ’69 Camaros in Super Stock and Stock. He won the NHRA Toyota Nationals in Las Vegas with the white Dennis Blackstone-built SS/CS Camaro that is owned by Jim Whiteley and went to the semifinals at the Division 7 race the following weekend with his ol’ reliable blue AA/SA Camaro.

Morphing the white Camaro’s Big Block and everything surrounding it into a bona fide Sunday contender was a year-and-a-half-long project for Rizzoli, parents Jim and Kay, and their supporters. The San Luis Obispo, Calif., resident is happy to finally get to taste the fruits of their labors.

“We’ve been working really hard on this new car,” said Rizzoli. “The Super Stocker has been a lot of work. It was a brand new ’69 Camaro a year and a half ago, so we’ve just been working out all the details, getting the suspension working, getting the motor reliable and consistent, and me learning how to drive it appropriately. It’s turned out to be just a really, really good car.”

Some of the issues along the way gave the Rizzoli family flashbacks to some of their most labor-intensive weekends in the Top Alcohol ranks.

“We had a couple of motor issues, which kind of postponed getting going,” said Rizzoli. “We went through three crankshafts in about 40 runs on the Super Stocker, so it felt more like a Top Fuel car than anything. Dad and I were getting really tired of pulling the motor out of this thing. But I think it is. When you’re dealing with the Super Stockers and Stockers, these cars are individual and one-off pieces. So it takes a while to work out the details.

“It’s a really, really good car, and my recent performance is showing that. It will be worth the payoff once we get it to that point.”

SECRET WEAPON – Circle K NHRA Winternationals Top Alcohol Dragster winner Shawn Cowie is trying to bookend his season with Pomona victories and move up to No. 2 in the Lucas Oil standings in the process. The driver of the blown Mundie’s Towing dragster has another weapon in his arsenal this time with multiple-championship-winning crew chief Norm Grimes in his corner. Following a split with former tuner Bill Moore and a couple races calling the shots on his own, the recently available Grimes was called upon to consult the team.

“Bill and I had a disagreement, and he kind of went his own way,” said Cowie. “We kind of tried to do our own thing in Indy and Charlotte. [Grimes] was let go from Jimmy [Whiteley]’s Pro Mod deal, and it kind of happened all at the same time. We asked him if he could do some consulting for us and ended up making a deal for him to come and help us out.

“It’s been really good. He’s a different character, different personalities. It’s pretty cool, a lot of fun.”

Cowie, who was leading the championship standings in 2011 when he nearly lost his life after his motorcycle was struck by an impaired driver, made his triumphant return in 2013 when he won the Seattle event. His performance has been on the upswing this year, and his excitement to compete this weekend is only tempered by his mild-mannered personality.

"It’s another race," he said with a shrug. "It’d be great to go to the final and win it. You know, it’d be nice to win it because then we’d be second place in the world, but there are a lot of good cars out here – a lot of fast cars.”

SHADOW DANCING - This is not your average Mopar Super Stocker and neither was Ken Etter as  he was third quickest in Super Stock with his Dodge Shadow.