2019 GOOD VIBRATIONS BAKERSFIELD MARCH MEET - EVENT NOTEBOOK
RACEDAY NOTEBOOK -
ROLLING LIKE A CHAMP - The carnage of the 61st annual Good Vibrations March Meet was not lost on Bobby Cottrell. He understood when other drivers exploded engines or launched bodies into the air, they were trying to adjust to peculiar weather conditions in an attempt to come after his hard-fought title from last year.
Even a first-time Funny Car driver wanted a piece of the action.
This represents the new normal for the defending series champion Cottrell.
“This feels great and it is a great start to the season, obviously,” Cottrell said. “I can’t thank Bucky (Austin) and Mike and all the team enough. It’s just a cliché, but this is a dream come true and we’re happy.”
Cottrell claimed the coveted crown by defeating newcomer Jerry Espeseth in the finals. He clocked a 5.718-second elapsed time at 249.03 mph top zip past Espeseth, who slowed to 8.959 seconds.
Cottrell’s victory parade consisted of wins over Tim Boychuck, Steven Densham, and Kris Krabill before he ousted Espeseth in the final round.
“It actually was really tough (Sunday),” Cottrell said. “The air was a lot better than I think people thought and thank God Bucky made the right calls and I just tried to drive the car to the best of my ability.”
Up until Monday, in the days leading up to Bakersfield, Espeseth had never sat in a Funny Car. It was then when he felt the car under power for the first time.
Rupert's tutelage enabled the novice to look like a seasoned veteran by the time eliminations began late Saturday.
"These guys got a reputation out here and if it wasn’t them, it’d probably be a little bit less [pressure], but I knew that coming into this," Espeseth said. "I’ve had months to think about it and calm myself down. In my head I’ve driven this car 200-300 times. You just change one little procedure that you’re doing or staging and game over."
Even Espeseth couldn't have prepared himself for his most monumental victory by taking out No. 1 qualifier and the fastest AA/FC driver in the class Dan Horan in the semifinals.
Cottrell didn't take the Cinderella story lightly, and was prepared for the rookie.
“Every time we go up against that Rupert car, they are a great team,” Cottrell said. “They have a great Hot Rod, so just because he (Espeseth) was a rookie, I didn’t take that car lightly. Congratulations to him on making his first final at the March Meet, but we are just all happy.”
Cottrell understands its not the way you start a race but how you finish which counts.
“It started off kind of rough (Sunday), but after the second run in eliminations, we all put our heads together and we all got back in our motions and it is like we never left.”
MAGICAL, JUST MAGICAL - On paper, Adam Sorokin didn't stand much of a chance in the Good Vibrations March Meet Nostalgia Top Fuel final.
The second-generation AA/Fuel Dragster driver had held his own, qualifying fourth in a field paced by Rick White's 5.74. However, once Sunday's final eliminations began Mendy Fry became the new and seemingly unattainable benchmark with a 5.518 and a 5.490 to reach the finals.
Well, Sorokin had a 5.83.
In what could be considered one of the greatest March Meet upsets in history, Sorokin stopped Fry dead in her tracks in the final round. Actually, a 50-cent part stopped her; but nonetheless, Sorokin was all too happy to be the benefactor.
Sorokin clocked a 5.844-second elapsed time at 212.16 mph solo shot to pick up his second career Bakersfield title.
“It started out pretty tough, actually,” Sorokin said. “We went through a bunch of adversity and the guys kept putting the car back together and it kept getting a little better each time. I kind of knew by the way Bobby (McLennan) was helping in that he had a tune-up in it. He tends to belt me in a little tighter every time it is a little bit more hopped-up. Two March Meet (wins) is unbelievable. One was a dream come true and to win another is some special. This one is for Jim McLennan and Mike Sorokin, my dad.”
Sorokin won the March Meet for the first time in 2010 when he defeated Howard Haight in the final round. His dad, the late Mike Sorokin, won the prestigious event in 1966 before getting killed while racing in 1967.
Sorokin was one year old when his dad passed away.
“This is the race you want to win,” Adam said. “I wanted to win this race before I was driving anything. I knew the significance of the March Meet when I was a little boy. You don’t ever know you’re going to be in a Top Fuel car when you’re a kid, but you get an opportunity to do it and actually drive in this historic race, which is more than 60 years old, to win and put your name along with the other people who are legendary who have won this race is humbling. I could not be happier. If my dad were here, I would just hug him.”
Sorokin's memorable victory came at the expense of Rick McGee, Rick White, and Fry.
As gratifying as the victory was for Sorokin, it was yet another gut-punch for the resilient champion Fry. A year ago, she had the race won before she hit a cone near the finish line and was disqualified.
“A bolt came out of the throttle linkage,” a disappointed Fry said. “When I hit the gas, there was no gas. This race makes us earn it. In 2017, we sheared the input shock on my second run down on the car and we came back and won it on a Monday. The last two have been trying to say the least, but you know we ran a 5.51 and backed it up with 5.49 and that’s no fluke. We have something for the rest of the races. We will be back. I can’t say enough about my guys, they stayed until 3 in the morning to fix this thing and to go lay down those numbers (Sunday), incredible. My guys are the best. We will get over this.”
DOGGED BY DAY AFTERNOON - He's no Rickie Smith, but for James Day he doesn't need to be when it comes to slaying the giants in nitro racing.
Sunday in Bakersfield, Day put on a clinic of how to parlay the underdog role into a trip to the winner's circle. He used a well-crafted routine of starting line prowess to chalk up another win at the Good Vibrations March Meet behind the wheel of the Hertzig Motorsports AA/Fuel Altered entry. This time Dan Hix, a multi-time winner, was his victim.
“There’s always a strategy involved, man,” Day said. “With this (6.0-second index in the Fuel Altered class), I’ve never done index racing before so I was asking questions on what to do and this and that and that car is fast. I knew he was going to come around me, so I did everything I could to not break out and get there first and it worked out.”
Just five years earlier, he pulled off a similar feat while driving Gary Turner's Pedaler Funny Car, strapping a .15 holeshot on No. 1 qualifier Dan Horan.
It's the super secret, knee-knocker technique that Day is quickly making famous. Just like he did to Horan and threw him off the game years back, Day pulled off the same feat - he deep-staged.
This time Day was almost .08 off of the line before Hix responded.
Day clocked a 6.227-second elapsed time at 228.85 mph to defeat a quicker Hix, who came in at 6.165-second at 206.92 mph. He reached the final round by beating Mark Whynaught, and Anthony Lee Whitfield.
Day now has pulled off an enviable feat of winning March Meet titles in two different classes.
“Those were my two favorite classes as a kid, Funny Car and Fuel Altered,” Day said. “It really has not quite sunk in quite yet that I did when this again, but for Bryan Hall and (Hertzig Motorsports) and all the guys, they believed in me and gave me a great race car and it is just completely incredible, I can’t believe we did it.”
WHAT THE WHEEL? - Wheels we are accustomed to at a drag strip, but a Ferris wheel, this takes drag racing entertainment to a whole new level.
"Not sure if we are the first to have a Ferris Wheel at a drag strip, but we hope so, we like being the first when it comes to thinking outside of the box in entertainment features," said Blake Bowser, General Manager of Auto Club Famoso Raceway.
"It's just one of those little features we want to be part of the experience when people leave the track they think, 'Now that was fun, let's go back next time to see what they will add next."
While a drag race can sometimes provide a carnival experience, Bowser said he's all for bringing back the wheel and isn't opposed to adding a rollercoaster in the future.
"One thing we never need to lose sight of in the future is that we are in the entertainment business, whether it's on the track or in the pits and Midway area," Bowser said. "We are here to experience more than just drag racing. The Good Vibrations Motorsports is about socializing, meeting old friends and having a good time. There's a lot more out here at the March Meet than just drag racing."
REALLY DAD? - If a dad can't throw calamity on his son, then who can?
Steven Densham had quite the ride into Sunday's competition and had his father, Funny Car legend Gary Densham, to thank for the experience.
Friday was your typical qualifying experience at the Good Vibrations March Meet for the Densham Family racing operation until the moment the second-generation driver prepared to roll into the beams for the Q-1 session, turning on his fresh-air system in preparation for the first run.
"It was not pleasant, it was not pleasant at all," Densham explained.
Apparently, father didn't know best, after all.
"He accidentally filled the air bottle with CO2, so I went to stage, pre-stage, I usually don’t turn on the air until I go to run because we don’t want to fill the bottle very often," Densham said with a grimace on his face. "So I went in, staged, as soon as the other car stages, I flip my visor and turn it on and go in to stage. When I did that and I stepped on the gas, I went to breathe, I couldn’t breathe."
The experience made for quite a run.
"It was just all over the place because I was trying, I couldn’t breathe," Densham said. "I was actually hyperventilating in the car. I was trying to get oxygen. So I was going UH UH UH… like that. And so I’m like way back into the seat because I’m hyperventilating so hard and I didn’t want to abort the run. I’m looking, I like can’t reach the shift because I’m way back.
"Finally I grab the shift and I realize what was happening, so now I’m looking for the visor trying to flip the visor up so I can get air. You know what I mean? So I’m all over the track, darting all over the track. So yeah, it was not fun at all, that’s all I got to say."
Densham had to double check with his dad.
"I came out of the car and I’m like, ‘What did we fill the air tank with? Because I couldn’t breathe," Densham asked. "He was like, ‘Nothing’ and I was like, ‘Who did you get it from?’ and he’s all like, ‘Clark’s’. I’m like, ‘Did they fill it?’ and he’s like, ‘No, I filled it."
"So we walked over there and he goes which one’s the air tank, and they pointed to the big one and he’s like, ‘Uh, I filled it with that one.’
Five seconds with pure CO2 was nothing like the elder Densham suffered through as a kid walking to school six miles one way, in the snow, uphill, barefoot and breathing only CO2.
"True," Densham said. "Very true."
In Saturday's first round, Densham had the right air in his helmet, but apparently had dynamite under the body as an engine failure made the team's Camaro peel back like a can of sardines, knocking them out of competition.
ZINGING IT - Last season at the Good Vibrations March Meet, and for the whole season in general, there was little wrong Mendy Fry could do en route to her first NHRA Heritage Series championship. In the first two days of her title defense season, it's been a different story.
Fry made the eight-car Nostalgia Top Fuel field as sixth quickest with a 6.25 elapsed time, far off of her usual torrid 5.6-second pace.
Starting from the first session, a massive smoke plume gave the impression she'd lifted the blower or kicked a rod out of her engine.
"Well, the motor became disconnected from the driveshaft at about 600 feet," Fry explained. "We were on a pass, too. You know, those are the best incrementals we’ve ever had. So yeah, zinged it to about 12,300 RPM and just blew the blower off. Right now. It blew it off right now."
Just another day in the office for Fry, a driver who has proven her championship mettle over the last decade or so.
"It’s not scary, it just takes you by surprise, you know what I mean?" Fry said. "Because it came up so fast, it’s different than when it smokes the tires, because like you can actually react to that. But like it was just, “Zing, bam.’
"Still try and process what actually happened by the time you get the chutes out and get her stopped, you’re just like, ‘What the hell? What?"
Friday's situation was not the first time she's had this kind of scenario present itself.
"It wasn’t like when we sheared the input shaft and the whole clutch exploded the car," Fry recalled. "That was this race in 2017. Now that was imminent danger. So this wasn’t bad."
LEARNING THE ROPES - There's something to be said for on-the-job training, especially when you're the trainee under Jason Rupert.
Rupert entrusted his championship-winning ride to Heritage Series Sportsman standout Jerry Espeseth, while he prepared for his graduation to the NHRA Mell Yello Drag Racing Series.
Espeseth has been a quick study at the Good Vibrations March Meet, not only qualifying for the 16-car field but also in winning the first round in a weekend which has provided personal bests with each trip down the Auto Club Famoso Raceway quarter-mile.
"If you’re going to do this and go out and try and qualify and be in a safe car and a proven car, I mean this is a total dream come true," Espeseth said. "There’s a lot of drivers not driving out here and to have this opportunity pretty much means everything."
While the intimidation factor could have been huge, Espeseth's goal was pretty simple - don't embarrass those around him as well as himself.
" I didn’t go into this deal thinking I had shoes to fill by sitting in Jason’s seat, it was just to not embarrass these guys and qualify the car and at least get through maybe a couple rounds with it," Espeseth said. "It’s a monster, that clutch man. If you just don’t pull it out a little too far, it pulls you through. Yesterday went really well. I just kind of got screwed up in my head today on the two qualifying passes, but I’ve just got to calm down."
The pressure to perform, Espeseth admits, is not coming from Rupert and Company.
"These guys got a reputation out here and if it wasn’t them, it’d probably be a little bit less, but I knew that coming into this. I’ve had months to think about it and calm myself down,' Espeseth said. "In my head I’ve driven this car 200-300 times. You just change one little procedure that you’re doing or staging and game over."
Rupert rates high as a driver, but as a teacher, the results thus far prove his worth in that capacity as well.
"He’s an excellent teacher," Espeseth said. "He’s got a lot of patience. After qualifying this morning, I rolled it through, I told him they’re being too nice to me. They maybe need to put me in a bag and start beating me with sticks or something. They’re very encouraging and that’s the whole thing. That’s the other part, you’re just getting a point that you’ve got these guys working their asses off and you can’t let them down."
Espeseth understands AA/FC and Nostalgia Eliminator 1 are worlds apart.
"You’ve just got to be on the wheel ahead of it and I understand all that, looking down the track and not getting behind the car," Espeseth said. "Hitting the parachutes and fuel shutoff, being aware of all that stuff. It goes back to I’m kind of hard on myself if I screw up at the tree then I’m in the middle of the track trying to figure out how to not do that next time."
FRIDAY'S FINEST - Nostalgia Funny Car racer Dan Horan Jr. established a new class record en route to grabbing the provisional No. 1 spot during first-day professional qualifying at the Good Vibrations Motorsports in Bakersfield, Ca.
Horan topped the leaderboard with his 5.665 elapsed time, but it was his 265.22 mile per hour speed which left many talking. It also left a good impression on his new sponsors, which debuted this weekend.
“My crew has just been busting their tails on this car for a, couple of years trying to get it to run back in the 260s, and today the conditions and everything were perfect, and we went for it, and it rewarded us with a nice 265 in the Strive Testing car,” Horan said. “I’m just excited for the new partners that I have. Choice Hotels has never been nostalgia racing before and StriveTesting.com, it’s just an awesome experience for me as a driver."
While Horan understands it's elapsed time which means the most in qualifying or eliminations, he's pretty thrilled with his speed which is nearly 10 miles per hour faster than the next recorded one. Despite the advantage, he's not ready to concede his speed will be the best throughout the event.
"It’s pretty special right now," Horan said. "Tomorrow it could be 265 is not good enough, 266 might be the number. You never can tell. But today, right now, it’s a high.
"We’re going to take a look at some things and see what we can do, and we’re definitely going to come back in the morning and see what we can to try to get some consistency out of this Camaro."
Horan by his own admission could have gone quicker and faster.
"We actually left a little bit in the first 60 feet, the first 330 feet, and from 330 feet to the finish line, it was all gone," Horan explained. "There was nothing left. But it went through the finish line, it didn’t burn up itself, and it was still on eight cylinders at the finish line. Anytime you get a fuel funny car to go on eight cylinders at the finish line; it’s a great thing."
Kris Krabill, the quickest runner of Q-1, was second with a 5.676, 250.83, just ahead of defending series champion Bobby Cottrell, third, recording a 5.677.
Matt Malendez anchors the 16-car field with one session left to go.
Bret Williamson was No. 1 in Nostalgia Top Fuel with a 5.736, 250 miles per hour. Defending series champion Mendy Fry is fourth with two sessions remaining.
Tom Padilla is No. 1 amongst the Fuel Altereds with a 6.009, 236.67. NHRA superstar Ron Capps is tenth after one session.
THE SHOTGUN BLAST - For the record, Jim Maroney has never taken a shotgun blast to the chest, nor does he ever want to.
However, if the misfortune presents itself, he'll know what to expect.
A shotgun blast to the chest is exactly how Maroney described Friday's Q-2 engine explosion which sent the Candies & Hughes tribute Funny Car into the sky in a fiery malfunction.
"When I say getting shot by a shotgun, it’s like somebody’s got a shotgun pointed at you, it just doesn’t have any pellets in it," Maroney explained. "It’s a hell of a concussion. And that’s why that’s why it lifts the body. All these little burst panels we have in the body isn’t enough to relieve the pressure that’s underneath it when they come apart like that."
Maroney said when this happens there's no pre-warning, you know when it arrives.
"It happens so quick," Maroney said. "It was truckin’ down through there, and just about the finish line, I put my arm up in the air to hit the parachutes and boom. Next thing I knew I was getting shot with a shotgun and off goes the body. I said if somebody saw the highlight reel, it probably looks like I’m waving to the crowd in the lights because I had my hand up in the air to go to the parachutes when it blew up."
Hours after the incident, Maroney and his team were still at a loss as to what created the whole mess.
"We’re going through the motor right now; we’re not quite sure what caused it," Maroney explained. "We burned a couple of pistons which is par for the course with these cars. It looks like we had some other kind of failure that blew the blower off of it and obviously just like the big show guys, it lifted the body when we did.
"One of my crew guys actually worked for Cruz Pedregon last year when they blew up all those bodies, so I’m blaming it on him right now."
Unlike Pedregon, there's no replacement body available signaling an end to Maroney's weekend.
"Most of these chassis are custom built for this class," Maroney said. "Unlike the big show where almost everybody runs the same type of chassis, if it’s a Force car, you go borrow a body from Force, and it will bolt right on. That doesn’t happen with the nostalgia cars. I’ve actually had a couple of the racers come over to me and have volunteered their body to me for the weekend to try to make it happen, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to work out that way."
OVER BEFORE IT BEGAN - Two of Nostalgia Funny Car's more popular entries were finished before the event began; the victims of pre-race testing catastrophes.
Matt Bynum crashed on Thursday on his first run of the season, significantly damaging the Matthews Family Racing Nitro Nick entry.
Bynum flipped the front-running AA/FC just before the finish line, and for the most part, emerged uninjured except for some soreness and a few bruises.
“Just went out there, first run of the year, haven’t made a run since October,” Bynum explained. “Went out and it shook the tires where it usually does and shifted it and tried driving through it, and it moved the car over to the right and got out of the groove. Started spinning the tires and the back end came around and shot it across the track into the wall.”
Bynum believes the car can be repaired, and will likely need a new rollcage.
“It doesn’t look too bad. It needs a roll cage,” Bynum explained. “We need to get it back home and look at it. We’ve got some other parts and some other pieces and we’re definitely planning on putting it back together.”
Rick Rogers, driver of the Fighting Irish Funny Car, didn't crash but sustained enough engine damage to effectively render the beautiful flopper incapacitated for the event.
"We suffered a catastrophic engine failure on Thursday test session," the team reported on its Facebook page. "Crank damaged, no way to continue with the Fighting Irish car."