2018 BAKERSFIELD MARCH MEET - EVENT NOTEBOOK
They can't say he didn't give them advance warning of his intentions..
A little under five months ago, Bobby Cottrell, driver of Bucky Austin's AA/FC, stood in the winner's circle and answered questions about his dominating California Hot Rod Reunion victory at the Auto Club Famoso Raceway in Bakersfield, Ca.
"We’re just going to start off strong and go from there," Cottrell said of the 2018 season.
Starting off strong was epitomized with a No. 1 qualifying effort and the Funny Car title at the Good Vibrations 60th Bakersfield March Meet.
Cottrell defeated defending series champion Ryan Hodgson to capture the event title.
"It worked out for the best," Cottrell said. "It got real cold real quick, so we backed the car off, and our main goal was to get from A to B. I’ll tell you what man, Bucky had this thing, it was like a bracket car. I couldn’t have asked for a better car. He made my job look a lot easier."
Cottrell stopped Brad Thompson, Shane Bowen and Steven Densham to reach the final. With elapsed times ranging from a 5.58 to a 5.62 on a track which lost temperature as the day went along. Running on the ragged edge can be tricky, but Cottrell and Austin made it look like no big deal at all.
"Coming into the final obviously we were kind of worried about [the track temperature]," Cottrell explained. "I tried not to worry about it at all because my main goal is to drive the car to the best of my ability, and if I was worried about stuff, I couldn’t do that. I had all the faith in the world in Bucky. He did the absolutely right calls for the conditions, and it worked out for the best. I’m so happy for him, the team, just all of us. It’s like a dream come true."
Cotrell pulled double duty last season driving not only the Funny Car but also running 7.0 Pro where he clinched the 2017 series championship. He's chosen to focus solely on the Funny car this season. He's very much capable of doing both, but he's making a statement with his actions.
"I was doing both cars last year, and I actually work on the car, so it’s a little bit hard to kind of go back and forth," Cottrell explained. "So I’m going to stick with Bucky this year and see what happens."
"I did both last year because we, I started mid-year, so I didn’t want to leave my other crew hanging. You know, I don’t like sitting around. I would much rather drive two cars, but I want Bucky to know I’m in this thing one hundred percent."
Cottrell is no different than many of his peers whose ultimate dream is to one day to play on the big stage of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.
"My ultimate goal is to drive big show and be a paid driver," Cottrell said. "But you’ve got to bring a bunch of money, and that’s the one thing I don’t have. I’m just having a really good time with Bucky and Mike and everybody in this crew. So I’m just trying to enjoy the moment."
The best part of the team, Cottrell is those surrounding him.
"I’m around Mike O’Brien and Bucky [Austin] and, [Steve] Plueger’s here, just I have a great crew," Cottrell said. "I wanted to drive for this team for a long time. Obviously, I’m here, and I just try to sit back sometimes and enjoy the moment."
Cottrell understands there was a large contingent of drivers seeking his ride, but he feels he brings a value to the team.
"I work on cars, and I build cars for a living, so I think the one thing that I bring is feedback," Cotrell said. "I think I do a pretty good job of giving them feedback and in turn, we can turn the car around and put a better tune up on it every pass. Thank God last year every round we actually improved
"I do the right cylinder head so me and Mike O’Brien, we work really good together and I enjoy that. I’m just trying to do the best job I can and not get fired."
Cottrell might be a bit of a Cole Trickle, the fictional natural NASCAR driver in the movie "Days of Thunder."
Trickle's most memorable line, "They told me to get in the car, and drive, and I drove."
Cottrell has the ability to be that kind of seat of the pants driver.
"I think that’s what attracted me to Bucky so much is he knew I could kind of hold my own when it comes to that," Cottrell revealed. "I’m just trying to do the best job I can for him every round and see what happens."
In the end, the plan came together.
"That was our main goal is to start off where we ended and hopefully continue this deal all year round and get the championship at the end of the year," Cottrell said. "We’re just going to take it race by race and round by round just like we always do. So, just not trying to get ahead of ourselves."
Pleasant surprises have become the norm for Nostalgia Top Fuel driver Pete Wittenberg.
Wittenberg, of Anaheim, Ca., scored his first career Nostalgia Top Fuel crown Sunday evening at the Good Vibrations 60th Bakersfield March Meet in Bakersfield, Ca.
It certainly wasn't the kind of monumental victory he'd envisioned for such a prestigious race, stopping the timers at 14.224 seconds, when his opponent Mendy Fry crossed the centerline to surrender a sure victory.
For the sophomore driver of the Circuit Breaker Top Fuel car, he'll take them as he can get them; absurd or conventional.
"It feels pretty amazing," Wittenburg said. "You know, the amount of effort that my crew put in and everything we’ve gone through to get to the winner’s circle is, I’m elated, you know."
Not only is this Wittenburg's first Bakersfield, but it's also his first win, period.
"I got licensed one year ago at this race and I got to the semi-finals," Wittenburg revealed. "So I won first round and I lost second round. That was the only round win I’ve ever had before this."
Wittenburg left the starting line slightly behind Fry, but then his car struck the tires just past the tree. He never officially threw in the towel. The odds were clearly not in his favor as Fry reached half-track.
"I got back in the throttle," Wittenburg explained. "I saw her way out on me, so I lifted and I was coasting down there thinking, ‘Awe, man."
"Then I saw her come over and it took me a moment to realize what had happened, and that I won it."
For Fry, who had dominated every facet of the event as the defending race champion, heartbreak was so inadequate of a word.
"It left good, and I had no idea that he had smoked the tires," said Fry, who entered eliminations as the No. 1 qualifier. "It started shaking and moving around, I couldn’t see where I was, and I just didn’t want to yank on the wheel too hard. So, you know, I wish I had it back to do over again."
Fry understands there will be other races.
"At least it’s not wadded up," she added.
On the other end of the emotional spectrum, Wittenburg was just happy fate shined favorably under the lights at Auto Club Famoso Raceway.
"I got to stand on the tire, wait for my crew, arms up in the air," Wittenburg said. "Always wanted to do that. They came and picked me up, hooting and hollering, crying. It’s just a big family thing. So it feels good."
THAT GIRL'S ON FIRE - Winning breeds confidence, just ask Mendy Fry.
The defending Good Vibrations Bakersfield March Meet champion captured her first career Nostalgia Top Fuel event title last at the historic track in Bakersfield, Ca., stopping multi-time champion Jim Murphy.
"We came into the weekend with a lot of confidence because we tested a couple weeks ago and it went really well," Fry said. "There’s a lot of high hopes for this season. We just want to get from A to B better than anybody else. I have a lot more confidence than I did last year after sitting in the car for the first time at this event, blowing the clutch up."
Fry went to the top of Friday's lone qualifying session with a 5.736, 219.51.
Last season Fry experienced the full spectrum of emotions.
"It was a big confidence builder, but also it was very humbling," Fry admitted. "I had some pretty critical screw-ups. I bulbed it really bad in Boise, and I lost on a holeshot at the Reunion. It wasn’t a bad one, but still, a holeshot’s a holeshot loss. So, it’s not so bad when the team loses because of mechanical failure.
"When you lose as a driver after everybody else put in all that work. But still, we won two races out of five, and for our first season out as a team with me driving, that’s pretty great. It helps a lot."
Fry's 2017 championship hopes came down to the semis when Murphy clinched the title, and she lost a tough match to eventual winner Jimi Young.
Nobody needed to criticize her shortcomings. Fry admits she's her own worst critic.
"I understand that that can be unproductive," Fry said. "This year I’m not going to be hard on myself, I’m not going to overthink it. I know what I’ve got, and I’m just going to have to deal with it. So in terms of my reaction times, they’re not as good as they could be. I’m just going to work with what I’ve got as opposed to trying to overthink what I’ve got. I feel like I’m in a much better place as a driver."
ROMINE CLIMBING THE MOUNTAIN - Past IHRA Top Fuel champion Paul Romine has found his kind of home in Nostalgia Funny Car. Romine fields the Man 'O War '79 Mustang Funny Car, and qualified No. 14 for the Good Vibration 60th Bakersfield March Meet.
"Big show, I’m over that," Romine said without hesitation. "This is almost affordable, and we have a lot of fun, a lot of buds. We don’t have the pressure. There’s pressure because we want to do good, we want to whoop on on these California guys. But you know, it’s cool, it’s a lot of fun and driving a Funny Car’s a lot of fun."
Romine might say he's over the NHRA's Mello Yello Drag Racing Series but given the opportunity to drive a modern day Funny Car he'd certainly give it a try since he hasn't driven a big show flopper since 1978.
"I’d like to try that once," Romine said with a smile. "But this is good. I just wish we had more races back in the midwest. If we had more real races, we got a bunch of match races, but if we had some real, real races. I’ve been trying to get the West Coast guys to come back and race with us, but the problem is we’re just having trouble getting purse money."
Living in Indiana, and racing an AA/FC, can leave a man feeling like he's on an island by himself.
"If we want to race and we want to race the hitters, we’ve got to come here, and it’s 2,500 miles from Indy," Romine said.
THE CHAMPION'S LIMITED RETURN - The last time Jim Murphy raced Bakersfield, he captured his sixth Nostalgia Top Fuel series championship. He was also very certain his 2018 campaign wouldn't be the same as it was in season's prior.
For Murphy, life happened.
The California fires affecting his hometown of Santa Rosa, Ca., hit close to home for the successful house builder. He'd seen the devastation of those close to him.
"It had just happened a week before that, and so I just had no idea really," Murphy explained. "I didn’t know what was going to go on. As it kind of played it’s way out, I had kind of a really neat thing happen.
"I usually sleep really well, always have. I go to bed pretty early, 9:30 or 10 and I get up at 3:30 or 4. That’s my world. And so I get a lot done in the morning. And I wasn’t sleeping, I was tossing and turning. Usually, my head hits the pillow; I’m gone until I wake up. And during that two weeks after, it was very difficult on me."
Once again, Murphy was reminded of the story by Loren Eiseley, where an elderly man happens upon a young man on the beach partaking in what appeared to be a futile act. The kid was surrounded by thousands of starfish, which had washed ashore and were in imminent danger of drying out in the sun before high tide could rescue them. One at a time, the kid was tossing them in the ocean.
After the man realized what he was doing, he attempted to counsel the kind-hearted lad, offering, "There must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.”
The boy never missed a beat, bending over to pick up another and throw it as far as he could. He smiled, "It made a difference to that one.”
Murphy made as much of a difference as he could.
"We probably had 25 homes and several wineries burn that we’d built, and probably another 50 people were calling me, wanting us to do their homes," Murphy explained. "I just couldn’t do it all. I had a really good customer; we’d built for years before, I said, ’I just can’t do it."
"He broke down crying on the phone and everything. So after the story, I felt I could do my part. So we took on six more projects. And you have to realize; our projects are usually two to two and a half years long. They’re big estate homes or winery buildings and stuff. And so I took on six homes to do, three of which will be done probably in a year, year and a half when we get all the plans, and that work is done, and the balance we’ve already factored in some of those.
"I really had planned to start maybe working four days a week this year, and I probably won’t do that through the year, at least get through this. It’s what happens. And it’s kind of neat in some ways because the city and people have really come together. It’s amazing actually. Almost everyone you talk to said it was the best Christmas they ever had.
"You know, your priorities of what’s important in life changes a little bit when you go through something like this. And so it’s good that in all the bad stuff, some good stuff comes of it."
NOTHING LIKE A GOOD FIRST IMPRESSION - Jeff Arend didn't take long to make a first impression on team owner Don Nelson. Arend jumped out to the early lead in Nostalgia Funny Car qualifying on Friday at the Good Vibrations 60th March Meet.
"We knew the car would run good," Arend said. "Obviously we made a bunch of test runs, some early shutoff stuff and knew it’d have some pretty good numbers. But that run, definitely knew it was better. These cars have shift lights in them, so when I shifted it, the light comes back on before the finish line, well it came on a little earlier, and you could tell the motor was zinging pretty good. So, I knew we ran a .60 something for sure.
"You’ve got Ronnie [Swearingen]. Obviously a really good crew chief, runs a good operation, good crew guys here. Don Nelson, the owner, is great. It’s just a fun operation, fun racing, they’re fun to drive. You know, lots of fun."
Nelson's California Hustler was the right fit, Arend confirmed.
"They had called me about driving it, and so we probably talked for about a month before then," Arend said. "I’ve driven only a few nostalgia cars, and if people ask, I don’t say yes all the time. I want there to be a good crew chief and a good crew. This car here, in all honesty, probably has the best chance, it’s probably the best car I’ve driven as far as having a chance to win races and won a championship. This car I expect to be like a top three car and that’s kind of fun for me."
Having a ride of this caliber, Arend agrees, takes a bit of the sting out of not having a full-time NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series ride.
"I’d probably still go to maybe four races this year in the big show, and then I’m going to help Chris Bennett out with his No Mercy car at probably four of those Nitro Outlaw races and two other NHRA’s," Arend explained. "I help tune the car and get it down the track. So that’s fun for me too. I kind of like that aspect of it, kind of want to learn a little bit more about that."
ONE IF BY SEA, TWO IF BY LAND - If you can run on water, then the land shouldn't be a challenge.
Eddie Knox never believed for one moment his transition from drag boat racing to AA/FC competition would be an easy one.
Knox, a four-time champion in the water drags, has embraced the more solid footing and is doing so with a championship driver in Billy Morris, a successful driver in the major leagues of sand drag racing.
Together, they have their hands full with a Problem Child, the name of their 1969 Camaro.
As Knox saw his opportunities dwindling over in the drag boat arena, he put his boat up for sale. At the same time, Mark Porter was looking for a boat to go racing, and one thing led to another, and they ended up swapping racing vehicles.
Now for Knox, Funny Cars have been a part of his life since childhood so the move to the NHRA Heritage Series, enabled him to fulfill a childhood dream.
"As a kid growing up in Southern California, Funny Cars were always the coolest thing, always loved them," Knox explained. "And a few years ago we were out here and came to this meet and saw 33 of them, 34 of them all lined up and I was smitten. These cars have names on them, you know, and murals, and it’s really fun."
For Morris, the one who climbs behind the wheel, the transition has had its challenges from racing on sand.
"The transition has been a little bit more difficult than I thought jumping into this," Morris admitted. "I think the length of the track has kind of been my biggest thing to get used to. My shift points, things along those lines. The power, all that, it wasn’t too big of a surprise for me. But just hitting my shift points right, a lot more going on here. Of course, the burnouts and getting reversed, back into forward. A lot more going on than the boats and also the sand dragsters."
Knox admits he gets by with a little help with his friends, at least when it comes to finding a baseline.
"Throughout the years I ended up with quite a few car friends as we’ve gone along," Knox said. "And then we’ve got my buddy Jon’s over here trying to help us get this clutch thing figured out. That’s the biggest thing. It’s a restricted class so you get one itty bitty fuel pump and that’s all you get."
There have been no visions of grandeur, Knox and Morris are content in accepting what has come their way.
"We’re extremely excited just to be involved in this field," Knox said. "It’s a great group of guys, they’ve been very welcoming to us, both the track owner and the racers. We’re a little behind. Some of these guys have 40 years’ experience on us.
"So we’re just getting a little more knowledge with each and every run, and we hoped to at least qualify for this event, that would have been a big coup for us. And then we’ll start looking at the rest of the season and see where we go next."
BACK IN THE GROOVE AGAIN - The drag racing community can be like a Merry-Go-Round at times when it comes to drivers and tuners. For Cory Lee, he started the ride with Gary Turner's Pedaler Funny Car and several destinations later; he's back where it all began.
Call it destiny.
"I had an opportunity to go back to the California Hustler with Ronnie [Swear and Don Nelson but my NHRA schedule could conflict with that, so I ended up, as fate would have it, Gary came over and visited with me and asked me if I wanted to come back and drive and tune his car," Lee explained. "I thought well here’s a great opportunity to get back with them and have a little fun, and so I’m back over here now.
Lee didn't need much time to realize what he missed about being part of the Pedaler team.
"The friendship, the camaraderie, I mean we jive," Lee admitted. "You don’t always work with everybody, there’s personalities and ideas and mindsets, and you’ve got to find a balance like in anything in life. Gary and I work really well together.
"We have our highs and lows like anybody, it’s a marriage. We work well together, and he respects me and vice versa, and he has a really nice hot rod, a cool looking car, some nice equipment and, you know, we’ll go out and have some fun with it together."
If there's one lesson Lee has learned, it's that you always want to keep your options open.
"You’ve got to find a home, and sometimes you think the grass is greener as they say," Lee said. "You’ve got to find your place in life. It doesn’t matter if it’s with your job or relationships or whatever the case is. This is a hobby; we’re supposed to have fun and, you know, he hasn’t had a lot of fun lately. When we were together for the four and a quarter years, we kind of dominated, us and the Bucky Austin team, and we had a lot of fun with it.
"So we’re going to try and restore that, rebuild that. It could be Gary’s last gig, and I certainly want to drive Funny Car, so it seemed to be a good matchup right now again."