2020 LIGHTS OUT 11 - EVENT NOTEBOOK
NO NEW CAR BLUES FOR COX AND AYERS - Just one week ago in Orlando, Shawn Ayers made his first few test passes in a brand-new, screw-blown '67 Mustang. He left the track feeling impressed and confident as he and his Fletcher Cox Racing teammates promptly headed north, destined for Lights Out 11 at South Georgia Motorsports Park.
Actually completed in summer 2018, the Racecraft-built ride originally carried a roots-blown Hemi up front, but remained on the sidelines throughout last year as Ayers and Cox continued to rack up accolades with "Gold Dust," the ProCharger-equipped, Fox-bodied Mustang in which they won the 2018 NMCA Street Outlaw championship.
"The car has been done for a while, but it was my choice to not run it at the time. I was having a bunch of really good times with the gold car, we were winning a bunch of races with it, and I just honestly didn't want to deal with the frustrations of a new car and trying to run two cars at the same time," explained team owner Cox.
"I decided last year to switch from the roots to the screw blower just because of the direction the (RVW) class was going. It was kind of what we needed because I don't think it was going to be competitive in this class with the roots. RVW is getting faster all the time, so I wanted to be ready."
The wait paid off for Ayers in qualifying for LO11 with a 3.654 at 208.49-mph pass, good enough for a fourth-place start in the 32-car RVW field.
Once eliminations began, Ayers opened with an off-the pace, but fortunate 4.41 win over a redlighting Craig Sullivan, but rebounded in round two with a 3.76 at 200.89-mph win over Canadian Enzo Pecchini. He then faced another Canuck in the quarter finals and returned to form with a 3.66 at 206.10 to beat Paolo Giust's 3.69 effort.
The semis saw Ayers face off against number-one qualifier Stevie Jackson, with Jackson leaving with a slim two-thousandths advantage over Ayers' excellent .019 light, but a fading 3.89 at just 155.27 mph was no match for Jackson's 3.56 at 213.81 combo.
"I'd never driven a screw-blown combination before, so it's been a learning curve for me. But so far I think I've adapted to it pretty good and we're just inching down on the E.T. every single round. I'm just trying to not overstep her boundaries," the Corinth, MS-based driver said.
He also agreed with Cox, who called the car "a work of art," adding it features the best fit, finish and attention to detail in any race car he's ever driven.
And understanding the need for good team chemistry and execution, Cox assembled an "A" list of companies and talent to build and work on his new entry. In addition to Racecraft, among others he cited DiSomma Racing Engines, engine tuner Mark Savage, Mark Menscer for setting up the shocks and chassis, Shannon Davis of Davis Technologies, and longtime crew chief Nick Bruder along with his brother Rick at Bruder Brothers Racing.
"It's a big team effort," said Cox, also a defensive superstar and Super Bowl champion with the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles. "I think communication is the biggest thing when it comes to any race team. And everyone has to get along, you know, even when things are not going so good. Communication, driver talking to crew, crew talking to driver; it's crucial. Just that back-and-forth to make sure everyone's thinking, everything's taken care of."
As a hands-on team owner, too, often seen with a headset on to communicate with Ayers while staging, Cox appreciates the opportunity of sharing the experience of witnessing another great pass or hard-fought-for victory.
"Even the driver, he usually has to wait for us to tell him the results. So I think you have more fun celebrating with the guys at the starting line," he said. "When the win light comes on it just makes you feel proud because it's been such a big team effort for everybody involved: me, Shawn, all the guys, all the sponsors. You know, everybody."
'STEVIE FAST' WINS RVW AT LIGHTS OUT 11 - Following up on his No Mercy 10 victory last fall, "Stevie Fast" Jackson recorded his 10th straight round win at South Georgia Motorsports Park with a final-round triumph over David Reese for the Radials vs. The World title at Lights Out 11. It also represented his fifth Duck X Productions win at the all-concrete track near Valdosta.
"I love this place. This is Georgia," declared Jackson, who hails from tiny Evans, GA, about 260 miles northeast of the track, near Augusta. "This is Bulldog country! Nobody's going to come around here and stomp around South Georgia Motor Sports Park. My territory!"
After qualifying number one with a dominating 3.55-seconds pass at a similarly distant 215.31 mph, Jackson made it to the final round by going through Tim Slavens, Brad Edwards, a redlighting Tom Blincoe and class newcomer Shawn Ayers in the semis.
Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the ladder, fellow Georgian David Reese started from the number-two slot with a 3.61 at 204.45 before handily beating B.C. Cantor, Canada's Louie Ouimette and Bryan Markiewicz, who both lit the dreaded red bulb.
Number-three qualifier Melanie Salemi was waiting for Reese in the semis after tying Jackson's 3.546 RVW class E.T record in a first-round solo pass. However, her screw-blown '19 Camaro shut off at the end of its burnout, forcing her crew, led by husband and crew chief Jon Salemi, to rush out, push the car back to the starting line and allow Reese a free pass to the final.
Salemi later explained after repairs were made to the car's transmission following her third-round win over a redlighting Kevin Rivenbark, an errant leftover nut had fallen on the engine coil during the burnout, shorting out the coil and overall electrical system to prevent the engine from restarting.
"What a freak thing to happen," she marveled. "You would think the nut would've just fallen out with all the vibrations and stuff, but there it was, perfectly balanced on the coil just enough to short everything out."
With Salemi out, Jackson immediately realized a major threat to a potential second-straight SGMP win had been eliminated.
"She was gunning for me," he said. "They've got a badass hot rod over there and I hated to see it have a mechanical problem because it's really fun racing that team. They're a no-excuses type of team, and they run good.
"But yeah, she was coming out swinging for me for sure. You'll see me and her race more often than not. Every race they've brought that car to, it's been deep in the show, a car that can take everybody or anybody out."
With a unique screw-blown, small-block powerplant under the hood, Reese made his presence felt by going rounds and officially lowering the RVW small-block E.T. record to 3.580 in his semi-final solo pass.
"Then I just kind of laid back for the final," Reese said after leaving on Jackson with a sizable .043 holeshot. He fell short of the win an eighth mile later, however, by just 3-thousandths of a second after posting 3.594 at 205.88 to Jackson's 3.548 at 213.81-mph winning pass.
"I figured the air would come to me and going out first on a freshly prepped track most of the time that's the best thing to do. But with a small block, if it ever pulled the motor down, it takes a little bit to recover," Reese continued.
"So they did a real good job prepping the track and it just snuffed it down when I left. What I lost at the 60 foot, you know, my front splits every time, it was just like on a .58 pass, but it just slowed a little bit early."
With so many cars and classes competing at Lights Out 11, Jackson said the toughest part of the day for him and crew chief Billy Stocklin was managing long waits between rounds and maintaining focus until the final for RVW went off well after midnight.
"At one point Billy had been staring at numbers on the computer so long he said he just had to go outside and see some real life again," Jackson quipped.
"And it really was hard for me to stay up and ready to go. Over in NHRA we usually run every couple of hours or so, but I think it was four hours just between round one and round two. By the time I was strapped in and waiting in the lanes for the final I was almost falling asleep in the car! Maybe that's why I was so late on the tree.
"I'm normally the tree assassin; my team bailed me out on that one," he continued. "I seen that red car get out on me from the start. When I let go I thought, 'Oh no, come on Billy Stocklin, bail me out here!' At 330, he's still out there. At 600 feet, we're starting to make a move that ended with three thou in our favor. It was a close one."
Despite the oh-so-tight finish, Reese said he wasn't aware of Jackson as they raced downtrack.
"I try not to get too caught up in looking over; it makes a car drive naturally one way or the other. I did see him when I pulled the chutes, but I actually thought I got him. It was that close."
Jackson stressed the quality of the competition at Lights Out 11, pointing out that not so long ago 3.50s were a rarity, but starting late last year and as this race proved running .50s is no longer optional for any teams with aspirations to win.
"Used to be you'd qualify good, make a couple of runs, and then have to turn it up in the final. It's not like that anymore. Everybody can take you out because there's a heap of cars that are capable of running .50s.
"I think we blew the motor, the drivetrain, and my driveshaft out on that final run," he added. "But you know what? I don't care. Phil (Shuler) told me before the run, 'You have full authorization to burn this bitch up.' So I told Billy. Next thing I know he's taking the front end back off, and putting bigger jets in."
Jackson then wrapped up his day with a prediction for Duck X's Sweet 16 event next month when the radial racing world will again focus its attention on the SGMP eighth mile.
"Sweet Sixteen, we are going to set the overall door car record, and I'm going to do it on a street tire. How about that?"
PETTY PREDICTS BETTER TIMES ON THE WAY - Noted tuner Steve Petty out of the vaunted Proline Racing stable has won just about everything in fast doorslammer racing, including last year's exclusive Duck X Productions' Sweet 16 event at South Georgia Motorsports Park with driver Kevin Rivenbark in the twin-turboed GALOT Racing '69 Camaro.
So it was a bit surprising to see the GALOT team struggle in early Radials vs. The World testing and qualifying for this weekend's Lights Out 11 at SGMP.
"We fought it most of the day, trying some things out that just didn't work like we wanted," the veteran crew chief revealed. "We're pretty good on it now, but yeah, it's been a trying week." In the third-and-final qualifying session, though, Petty and Rivenbark put together a 3.687 effort at 205.76 mph; good enough to secure a 6th-place start in the 32-car RVW field.
"It just wasn't happy and we actually kind of got lost, so we went back to our normal set up yesterday and got it in the window to where it went that .68 last night. So I think we've got a car capable right now of going to the semis and maybe it'll get a little better as we go today," Petty said prior to the start of first-round eliminations. "But maybe it'll get a little better as we go today. Maybe we'll have something a little better than that, but yeah, it always takes some luck, too."
NEW SBC POWERPLANTS FOR RADIAL RACERS - After two years-plus in development, Reher-Morrison Racing Engines and chassis builder David Reese debuted a new supercharged small-block Chevy (SBC) platform last month during the U.S. Street Nationals at Bradenton, FL, where Reese promptly set a small-block-powered , eighth-mile record of 3.64 seconds with his new Radials vs. The World '17 Camaro.
Friday night in qualifying for Lights Out 11, Reese lowered that mark to 3.610 seconds at 204.45 mph, slotting in behind only Stevie Jackson at 3.55 in his own blown big-block '15 Camaro. R-M engineer Brad Morgan, who designed much of the new SBC powerplant, including all valve placement geometry, said it is the result of a collaborative effort involving Reher-Morrison, Jesel, Comp Cams and Dart Heads, among others. He also singled out his brother Darrin (Morgan) for designing the cylinder heads.
"It took a little longer than expected to get the parts, everything had to be manufactured. Pretty much everything was built from scratch," Morgan said. "But can build them now; not a problem. It still takes time to get billet parts, as everybody knows, but it'll be a little faster now.
"We've all had lot of fun with it. We were actually going to build it as a turbo platform and then halfway through they switched and wanted to put a screw blower on instead. so we changed a few things around to accommodate that so it did start out a little slow," he added. "But David (Reese) did an incredible job with the car and we definitely have to thank Rick Thornton, too. I mean you can't do any of this without somebody funding his vision."
Thornton also is racing with the new blown SBC combination in his '63 Corvette at Lights Out 11, but mustered only a 6.80 to miss the 32-car cut in Pro X275.
Still, Morgan remained enthusiastic about the promise shown by the new engines.
"We've actually got quite a few runs on them already, probably about a hundred runs, with both motors having no issues whatsoever," he stressed. "I mean, you're learning as you go, too. We started out where we thought was pretty conservative, so we're really, really pleased with the performance where it sits so far. Of course, there's some stuff we already are going to change or work some more on, but like I said, we started out conservative and there's still a lot more to learn."
STEVIE IS FAST! - On Wednesday evening, after he finished the day as the third quickest driver of the opening Radial vs. The world qualifying at the Lights Out 11 drag radial event, Stevie "Fast" Jackson warned the competition Friday was the day he was going to lay it all out.
Let the record reflect, running nearly .06 quicker than his closest competition represents "laying it all out" in Jackson's fastpaced world.
Jackson, at the end of a day marred by oildowns, delays and cold weather, blistered the Radial vs. The World field with a 3.552 second elapsed time, at a whopping 215.31 miles per hour to secure the top spot headed into the $50,000-to-win eliminations.
Because of incoming inclement weather forecast to bring four consecutive rain starting Sunday, race promoter Donald "Duck" Long moved final eliminations up to Saturday.
Jackson had a sense of urgency in Friday's lone session.
"I told y'all I was coming here to qualify number one, set the record and win the race," Jackson said. "We got one of them done; two left to go."
Jackson's celebration of Friday's run was short-lived; however, as he quickly took notice of the emergency crews rolling with lights on and sirens blaring.
"We went up there to drop the bomb, go out there and absolutely haul ass with the Shadow, and the next car behind me, I'm getting out of the car, taking my fire stuff off, jumping up and down, and I see the ambulance going down the track the other way," Jackson recalled.
Then his heart sunk as he noticed emergency crews were rolling for his unofficial teammate, Marcus Birt, a nitrous car he tunes. Birt pulled a wheelstand in his Corvette, which went airborne and came crashing down to the racing surface.
"No matter who is racing, that's never a good feeling," Jackson admitted. "All the celebration quits. Knowing that it was my nitrous car is even scarier. I went up and hugged Marcus. The cliche thing to say is that we don't care about the cars, but I really don't care about the cars. I want to make sure he's all right. He's good. He's been to the gym this morning. We'll get the car fixed."
Jackson is ready to add another Duck X Productions trophy to his mantle. He is the most recent winner having scored the No Mercy 10 title back in October.
"We got us a rocket ship," Jackson said. "This is screw blower weather. The air was negative 400 feet when we ran last night. Track is on kill, Wade is doing an awesome job with the race track. We had a pile of rain come in here on Thursday and had the track yesterday where we could run nearly world record speeds. So Saturday, the track should be better, the air is better, and you're going to see some awesome racing today."
HOUSE OF THE FLYING CARS - Imagine you're in a car, one with over 2,500 horsepower, and you suddenly find yourself floating about 20-feet in the air above the racing surface.
There's no telling what might go through a driver's head as they realize what goes up, eventually must come down.
Radial vs. The World racer Marcus Birt remembered exactly what was on his mind, as his Corvette pulled a wheelstand, eventually floating in the air during Radial vs. The World qualifying at the Lights Out 11 drag radial event outside of Valdosta, Ga.
"I knew this is going to be expensive," Birt admitted, smiling. "I kind of feathered the throttle one time and when I got back in, and I knew once it got straight up, I was hoping it wasn't going over the walls. I was trying to look up, trying to stay inside the track."
Birt admits when you're in the cockpit of a car which isn't intended to fly, the experience is one of helplessness.
"I was just looking out the side," Birt explained. "When I was in there, and it got sideways with me, it was like I just didn't want it to start barrel rolling. That's the main thing I was worried about, and just thinking, 'This is going to be mighty expensive, and I'm going to need more sponsorship."
When Birt's Corvette landed, it did so on all four tires, cushioning the impact and possibly saving him from sustaining a broken back.
Birt considers himself fortunate to walk away, and at the end of the day, he feels honored just to participate in this grand stage for radial tire racing.
"We do this stuff, man, for these fans and these things are dangerous," Birt said. "We love it, and it is what it is, but I just glad. It could have been a lot worse, for sure, but still hurts. You got the big race in a month and, I guess, expensive to fix this thing. So I got to figure out to fix it. That's the main concern now, just got to try to get it fixed."
PROVISIONAL HISTORY - It's a good thing the weatherman doesn't tune a race car. If he did, he'd be about good enough for the No. 10 spot.
Despite a forecast which suggested no cars would run at day two of the Lights Out 11, not only did race officials at South Georgia complete three classes of competition leftover from Wednesday's suspended qualifications but also got in a second session of the popular Radial vs. The World division, and X275.
Because of the weatherman's snafu, Melanie Salemi was able to secure a piece of drag racing history as she overtook Marcus Birt atop the Radial vs. The World qualifying list. Even provisionally, no female has ever led qualifying in one of the most volatile doorslammer divisions ever.
Salemi has won a Radial vs. The World event though, the Orlando World Street Nationals last Fall in Orlando, Fla. It was the first time she'd raced on radial tires.
Salemi's 3.621-second elapsed time at 208.81 miles per hour in Thursday's lone session vaulted her past Wednesday's leader Marcus Birt, who shook the tires and shut-off early today in his second attempt. Yesterday he ran a 3.625.
"We know that obviously, the car didn't go that fast, it could go faster," Salemi explained. "But for the conditions, and the amount of runs that we actually only have on this car, to be in the number one spot after the second qualifier here at our first time racing Lights Out. It's pretty cool. It's a testament to everybody that had a hand in this, a testament to their hard work and dedication to what we do."
Up until last season, Salemi's doorslammer experience had been in racing Pro Modified. Adjusting to racing a Pro Modified on a much narrower tire has had its challenges.
"All the functions are the same in the car, but the way that you need to react, I think, maybe a little bit sooner with the small tire, so you don't get yourself into trouble," Salemi explained. "But I have not yet felt uncomfortable in the small tire car versus the Pro Mod. There hasn't really been a huge learning curve. I just listen to what [husband] John and Jim [Salemi] tell me I need to be aware of, and that's that."