NHRA AUTO CLUB FINALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
SUNDAY NOTEBOOK - DÉJÀ VU ALL OVER AGAIN, HIGHT WINS BIG, A COUGHLIN DAY AND SMITH CLAIMS BIKE TITLE ON FINAL RUN
GOOSEBUMP MOMENTS – Four-dozen classic and modern era race cars fired up in unison in honor of Wally Parks. Among those in attendance to honor Parks, were Don Garlits, Don Prudhomme and his 1978 crew and other legends of the sport.
Dave McClelland emceed the ceremonies.
CAN LIGHTNING STRIKE TWICE? – Stop us if you’ve heard this scenario before. Tony Schumacher enters the final race of the season trailing in the points and has to win the event to claim the championship.
Blame it on Schumacher for making it look easy last season by not only winning the event but in also setting the new elapsed time record.
Standing in his way this time was Bob Vandergriff, a 12-time runner-up in final round matches.
Schumacher certainly had the pressure on his shoulders considering he’d lost two out of three matches in 2007 to Vandergriff. The one bright spot is the final round in Sonoma where Schumacher beat him.
That, and a championship on the line, was all Schumacher needed. He clinched the title with the convincing victory over Vandergriff and edged Hot Rod Fuller by 19 points.
“After second round, ‘I said this was déjà vu because my knees were shaking,” Schumacher said. “My guys are so good at crunch time when they absolutely have to do it.”
Schumacher credited the new championship format for allowing him to test for certain conditions, specifically today’s championship run.
“We tested motors and we tested parts,” Schumacher said. “The stuff that went on those cars we felt was perfect. Parts and pieces break and that testing time will enable you to eliminate those parts. It’s a blessing for us.”
Making his fourth consecutive triumph even sweeter was that he did it on his dad, drag racing legend Don Schumacher’s birthday.
“That was huge,” Schumacher said. “I hope in 15 years or so that my kids feel the same way about me. He gives us the best.”
Saturday evening Mr. Schumacher asked his son out to dinner. He declined because he wanted to retreat to his bus and relax for Sunday’s challenge.
“I went back to my bus and had six Del tacos and … that was a bad idea.”
Schumacher entered the event trailing by 67 points.
YOU GOT THAT LOOK – Announcer Bob Frey pointed out after Tony Schumacher’s semi-final win over Brandon Bernstein saying, “Alan Johnson has that smirk on his face, almost like the cat that ate the canary.”
BRING IT ON – Schumacher looked almost disappointed when Bob Vandergriff, Jr eliminated Rod Fuller in the first round. Then Larry Dixon lost in the second round establishing a scenario of Schumacher and Bernstein.
If Bernstein reached the finals, he was the champion. If Schumacher won the final round, he was the champion.
“You don’t want them to go out in the first round,” Schumacher said. “You want to battle them. There are a lot of great teams out here. It’s the best out here. I want to win four in a row and no one else has done that before.”
THE WAY HE WANTED IT – Larry Dixon lost in the second round to a surging J.R. Todd. The loss ended Dixon’s season and relegated him to the fourth spot in the final standings, thirty-two points out of first.
“This is how you wanted the competition to be – down to the wire,” Dixon said. “With the new points format, we wouldn’t have even had a shot at the title. I applaud the NHRA for stepping up with this program. The championship was there for the taking and we didn’t get it done.”
THE LAST TIME – Sunday’s eliminations at the NHRA Auto Club Finals in Pomona, Ca., is the last time that Melanie Troxel will strap into a Top Fuel dragster, at least for now. She’s departing the Top Fuel category to drive Evan Knoll’s forthcoming Vietnam Veterans/POW-MIA Dodge Charger Funny Car under the Gotham City Racing umbrella.
Last Monday, during a post-race Las Vegas test session, Troxel completed the cross-over licensing requirements to make the move.
“We had planned on going out and doing some testing most of the year and just the way that the season has gone we haven’t had a lot of opportunities to do that,” Troxel said. “I was really happy and getting my license was important. Just making a couple of passes to the finish line was important to me as a driver and I know what to expect for next year and at the same time I was having a lot of fun.”
Troxel expected a bit of the learning curve considering the differences in the two breeds of race vehicle.
“They’re like night and day in difference but its kind of what I expected,” said Troxel. “You know when you talk to funny car drivers and they describe the differences to me that’s basically what it is. You have to be more aggressive with a funny car and you can’t see near as much with a funny car. Being inside there and you have a small windshield to be able to see through and everything so it’s going to take a while to get used to all of that but it was fun at the same time.
“I had a really good time and the strange thing about it is that no matter how many times you go up there and tell yourself that you’re going to be more aggressive with the steering wheel, your instincts and driving a dragster sort of take over. That’s probably the biggest thing that I found about it is that it’s going to take a few more passes to break habits that I’ve made over many years in a dragster but it went well and the guys gave me an incredibly easy car to drive. It just went right on down the track and I think we all just had a good time.”
One might think the physical demands of driving a Funny Car would send Troxel into the gym for an extensive strength-training program. She said she might not need it.
“You know what’s funny is that I haven’t noticed the steering being so difficult that I feel like strength is a big deal,” Troxel said. “I’ve always weight trained and done stuff like that so I think I’m in pretty good shape but the clutch pedal is what’s been the biggest difference. The guys even made some changes to it from the first time that I tested in the car, which isn’t anything that’s different from a funny car to a dragster. It’s just the way the team has set up their cars. Yeah I might have to start doing some squats or something to get my legs in shape from holding that clutch down.”
Troxel is already getting her image ready for the volatile Funny Car. Gone is the short hairdo she debuted back in February at Pomona. In is her long hair once again.
VETERANS PROGRAM CONTINUES - Troxel was concerned after her switch over to the Funny Car division that she wouldn’t be able to continue her work with the veterans and the families of those servicemen POW-MIA.
Knoll confirmed recently with Troxel that she would continue her association with the veterans. In essence, he signed up for a second tour of duty.
“It’s actually been a great experience this year and we did kind of think that it was going to be a one-year deal so it was great to find out that we’re going to get to continue that on,” Troxel said. “It’s been exciting for me as a driver but also to get to tell the veterans that we’ve seen at the last couple of races that we are continuing on and to see how excited and how appreciative they are of it definitely makes it all worth it.”
STRANGE FEELINGS - It would be an understatement to say that Troxel is excited about 2008.
“It’s going to be strange for me making that switch because I’ve been around the dragsters for so long that they’ll always be a part of me that is loyal to the dragsters,” Troxel said. “I’m actually looking forward to being somebody that’s been able to drive both classes and has been able to experience both classes.”
UPPER DECK SHOT – J.R. Todd made the first phase of the Countdown to the championship, but faltered with various problems during the second tier of the playoff format.
That didn’t stop Todd from flexing his potential championship prowess in the first round of elimination by establishing low elapsed time of the event with a 4.496, 334.24 mph, victory over last year’s potential champion Doug Kalitta.
The former rookie of the year backed up that stellar performance with a 4.508 elapsed time at 330.88 miles per hour in the second round.
THE AGONY OF DEFEAT – Rod Fuller had the ball in his court and fumbled it in the first round.
“It was a tough day, but I guess it just wasn’t meant to be,” Fuller said. “Yes, we’re disappointed, but we had a great season. We won three races, had four poles and won the Technicoat Shootout and the Las Vegas race at my home track. It really was a dream season for everything that we had to endure along with signing CAT, which probably was our highlight of the year. We’ll come back strong next year and be a major player in the CAT car.”
Fuller smoked the tires losing to Bob Vandergriff, Jr. in the first round, leaving him with no choice but to sit back and watch his 52-point lead dwindle away with each round.
LARSEN’S DESTINY – Lance Larsen has tuned for some of the top teams in nitro racing. Some of his more memorable years were in working with Clay Millican and the Werner Enterprises Top Fuel team. Next year he’ll be reunited with Millican as a tuner for the second dragster on Evan Knoll’s expanding Top Fuel operation.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” Larsen said. “Clay and I are good personal friends and I get along well with the guys that work there and live in the area. It’s really just a no-brainer and working on an Evan Knoll-owned car is another exciting thing too. He’s quite the philanthropist and is really great guy.”
Whether he will be the crew chief or an assistant crew chief remains to be seen. Millican’s entry will be tuned by Johnny West and assisted by Wes Cerney. Rumor has it that another well-known tuner could be joining Larsen.
“I’m really not into the labels or whatever,” said Larsen. “Jon Stewart and I worked together as partners in different aspects of the Vietnam Veterans/POW-MIA car. I’m going to be the boss but we’re going to find some people and we’re going to be a team. It’s not going to be a two-car race team. It’s going to be a team with two cars.”
IT’S BEEN FUN – David Baca did an admirable job of filling the Whit Bazemore vacancy at David Powers Motorsports [DPM] for two races and if he has his way, he’ll be back to drive the third car for them possibly in 2008.
Baca said the experience greatly differed from the days when he ran his own independent team.
"I’ve been out here doing this for quite a few years and I finally made it to the elite class,” Baca said. “Did it a little on my own, finally got a corporate sponsor for a year or two and then finally had to pull the plug on it because things didn’t work out in the 2006 season as we had hoped.”
Baca said he was at his Brentwood, Ca. home when he got the call from Powers asking if he’d be interested in filling the seat.
“I’m not out here to keep my name on the list per se,” Baca said. “I’m not that kind of guy. I’m at home doing my thing. I can drive these things whether it’s a short car or a long car and I’m available but I’m not going to solicit, it’s just not my style. I got the call and got to come out here and run for two races and I’m having fun.
“What a bad hot rod,” Baca said. “I mean finally working with Lee Beard. Lee and I go back and being part of this David Powers Motorsports racing is just awesome.”
Despite wanting that ride badly, Baca is congratulatory towards Antron Brown, recently named the driver of the Matco Tools Iron Eagle dragster.
“I wish him well,” Baca said. “I hope he does well but if they ever just need a driver. Maybe I’ll be the back up or the coordinator. I’ll be the driving instructor or whatever. I’m just having the time of my life and just being here is awesome for me. Their even talking about a third set of pipes so maybe they’ll keep this old guy around for a while.”
Does Baca really want the demands of a 24-race schedule?
“It is getting tougher I’ll tell you that,” Baca said. “I love it while I’m here but a 24-race season provides some mixed emotions about it no doubt. Being a fly-in driver would probably be different than being an owner but as far as that goes my options are available. If someone walked into my operation I’d be ready to run 450s all year, so it is on the block to be had. I’m pretty much over that.
“There’s a side of me that says yes and there’s a side of me that says no. It’s getting more grueling and now I hear that their talking about going back to 26 a year in a few years after that so we’ll see what happens with the HD Partners. We’ll see what happens if they make this thing more lucrative to where it makes sense to get more sponsors in here. Bottom line is if we don’t get the points up, if we don’t make this thing attractive TV isn’t going to do what we need to have done.”
SOME THINGS NEVER CHANGE – Baca’s been in the sport long enough to know that politics will always remain; no matter how long you stay away. Baca’s second round loss in Las Vegas to teammate Hot Rod Fuller, put Fuller into the point lead.
“I’ve been getting a lot of tongue and cheek about that with the guys but bottom line is they went low with a 4.54 and we went a 4.59. We’ve had to hop it up and bottom line is you’ve got to be a little bit more aggressive, you know. I was going for the world record on that run.”
But, Baca’s heard the talk and the murmurings as he passes through the pits.
“The bottom line is that we’re in that position to get that murmuring conversation,” Baca said. “I mean I’ve watched it for many years in other teams and this time to be right in the middle of it is different for me. I’m sorry we’re not going to get political right here but I don’t know if I agree with the point system and how it’s structured right now. The final four is quite a challenge and there are a lot of things that I don’t agree with.
“Rod had five oildowns credits that he lost and I don’t think that’s fair. He made 100 and some odd runs to earn those credits and those things shouldn’t apply. He had one oildown at Pomona and he’s at zero. I don’t think that’s right for being one of the cleanest cars all year. Both of these cars have been clean all year.”
But would he take a dive?
“No way I wouldn’t even let that thing smoke the tires,” Baca said.
NO WAY I’M LOSING – Robert Hight knew winning the championship was going to be a tough proposition. He had to not only win the event; he also needed to establish a world record back up run in the heat of the day.
Even Hight knew that was an unlikely scenario. He ran a 4.87 when he knew a 4.705 was what it would take to at least keep him in the running. The driver for John Force racing led the Funny Car division with round wins at 34 and that netted him with the highest winning percentage.
“We needed to win and even if we had won the championship, that wouldn’t have made 2007 a great year,” Hight said. “Winning this race didn’t make it a great year either. We lost a teammate this year. There’s not much that would have made this a great year – nothing. We’ll never have Eric back and he was in the final round a few years ago.
“I miss him like you can’t believe and this winter is going to be tough because we have worked a lot together over the winter months in past years in getting cars ready. We’d go out to eat together.”
Hight paused when he recalled an important Medlen memory.
“He always asked me if I was bringing my daughter to work with me,” Hight said. “He loved the little kids and my daughter loved him. I’m going to take a page out of his book, and even though we didn’t win the championship but won this race, there’s nothing to hang our heads about. I am going to go home and eat some ice cream. That always makes you happy.”
Hight finished runner-up for the championship for the second consecutive season.
UNDER THE OLD FORMAT – Hight would have won the championship by 15 points over Capps.
A DAY FOR A CHAMPION – Tony Pedregon made the slow celebratory lap towards the starting line after Robert Hight failed to gain a back-up run in his semi-final victory. The only way Pedregon could have lost the championship was for Hight to establish a new world record and win the event.
Pedregon had a lot on his mind, although it should have been cleared.
“The money isn’t the reason I started doing this,” Pedregon said, as he stood on the championship stage. “I wanted to do what my dad did and I wanted to go fast. But, it’s become a lot more about that.
“This has been an emotional day for me and I know we didn’t win anything this weekend. This championship means that we did this better than any other team out there. We have had a lot of great companies behind us. When we left John Force Racing there weren’t many teams who thought we could do this. There were a couple of times that I woke up and I wasn’t sure either.
“I see people like John Medlen out here and God bless him and his family. I told him a million times that my 2-year old son is going to know who Eric Medlen is.”
Medlen was Pedregon’s crew chief in 2003 when he won his first title.
The parade of big names at the starting line waiting on him as he made that ride was overwhelming. It made him realize just how far he’d come.
“I came down the return road and I saw guys like Don Prudhomme, Dale Armstrong and my good friend and partner Larry Minor,” Pedregon said. “I’m a second-generation racer, born and raised in Southern California. I came from a pretty modest upbringing. There were five of us and our parents used to have to tie us up to the driveshaft of the car with a rope to keep us from running all over the place.”
JUST NO LUCK AT ALL - Ron Capps lost a tough match to eventual runner-up Phil Burkart in the first round.
"As a driver, I just flat out made a rookie mistake," said a disappointed Capps, who has yet to win a Funny Car championship. "He was in deep, my stage light had come on, and out of the corner of my eye I saw his top light blink. When we left the starting line I kind of said to myself, Good try, Phil. He's got to do what he's got to do in that car. Apparently it did bug me, because my light was a .110 and that's pretty sub-par for me. It's a little better than I was in qualifying. I was pretty consistent qualifying at .120s. Race day is a different deal for all the drivers. And everybody knows the game up there. I never let those things get to me. I've really worked hard on never letting them get to me, but obviously it happened and it's just something you can't do.
"It's terrible to end the year this way. We really were fighting to finish with a No. 2 on the car and, to be honest with you, Ace (crew chief Ed McCulloch) worked so hard overnight on what plagued us on Saturday. The car was just shaking the tires loose and it barely made it on Friday. He then kind of went in both directions in the tune-up to fix it and on Saturday neither of them helped. So he was a little bit baffled. And I tell you, as usual, and I've said it time and time again, he did his homework and fixed what was plaguing us. We had a great car Sunday morning, and the driver just didn't do his job.”
Capps wants to win a championship not only for himself, but also especially for McCulloch.
"Ace is a great leader. I hate to let him and the Brut Dodge crew guys down with a holeshot loss. The good part is I have great guys around me and we're a great team. We work great together and we're real excited about next year. I just really wanted to give Brut Revolution a win on their way out as a major sponsor and it just didn't happen this time."
BAD MEMORIES FOR CAPPS - Capps led much of the season in the first phase of the Countdown to the Championship, but barely made it past the second and inevitably was the first eliminated from championship contention.
“I love the Countdown and even though it looked like I wasn’t going to be in it before Richmond -- I was still praising it and I still do,” Capps said. “I think it’s a great system but it needs some tweaks. I think even the people that were in it before everybody -- didn’t like the last part of it, you just can’t and you saw what happened, especially in the funny car class.”
Capps can’t seem to shake the memory of the shut-off in Reading, Pa., last year because of a phantom oil leak.
“We lost by eight points that year and I always look back to the Reading, Pa., event when they shut me off on the burnout,” Capps said. “It pissed me off so much that they sent a guy back there to our pit area, to make sure my guys didn’t touch the car because I got back there and there was no oil. What pissed me off the most was I did the burnout, backed up but the spray of oil was out past where I even stopped burning out let alone where I stopped the throttle.”
That’s why Capps shakes his head when thinking back to the first round in Vegas. Three of the four championship contestants lost in the first round after smoking the tires down track.
“Why they wouldn’t go out there and look at that blew my mind and so when it comes down to something like I love NHRA but the track prep wasn’t the same. You can ask the guys and most of the crew chiefs -- that first round in Vegas -- the track prep wasn’t the same. Guys ran 70s all week and all of a sudden the spray that they put down was not the same percentage. They can tell you all they want but when you have the smartest mind as a crew chief in the business all of a sudden you can’t get down the track and on top of that the pro stock guys were out there shaking and blowing the tires off right behind the funny cars.”
That kind of inconsistency, Capps said, makes it unproductive to have a championship decided on just two races like this season’s title was.
“That part just gave away the ending of a great season that you can’t have a Countdown to One and have it come down to 2 races, it’s just not going to work,” Capps said.
A LEARNING EXPERIENCE – Capps said he isn’t the only driver that has taken notes on the championship format for next year.
"This season was a learning experience,” Capps said. “I know you learn every year, but being the first year of the Countdown to the Championship points system, I felt like we really, really showed a lot of brilliance in the beginning of the year. Obviously, we learned that we're not going to back off and try to test. We had such a great points lead (by as much as 154) that we decided to test, and I think that affected our mindset in a lot of ways.
"I think there are going to be a lot of teams that are going to sit back and really approach the Countdown differently next year. We really thought we had a great game plan. We didn't want do the last-minute effort to make it into the Countdown to One like we did in Richmond. We don't want to have to do that next year.
"I think NHRA is going to make some adjustments to the Countdown format and we're going to have to adjust our mindset to it. But, overall, I think more than anything it was a learning experience. I think it was a learning experience for everyone, the NHRA and the teams. I think it's just going to get better and better every year. I think the fans really got more excitement, and with HD Partners coming in, it's a great time to be in NHRA right now. I'm really proud to be involved with the sport right now."
For those interested in how this championship season would have turned out for Capps under the previous points format, Capps would have ended up second to Robert Hight, winner today, by 15 points, but ahead of newly-crowned champion Tony Pedregon by 20 points.
ONE OF THOSE WEEKENDS – Del Worsham used to get all of the breaks at Pomona, but the last two times haven’t been kind to the hometown favorite from nearby Chino Hills.
The first day of qualifying at the NHRA Auto Club Finals was indicative of the season he’s experienced. When Worsham’s car failed to fire for the first qualifying session and nearly failed in the second, it seemed like a continuation of the fate he experienced last year when a parachute failure sent him careening into the shutdown area.
“It’s been a crazy season,” Worsham said. “You know when I look back on the season at all the runs and all the races, from June on we had a pretty good running car. We didn’t win any of the races but we made some nice runs and got dropped from those races. We get to the Pomona and it’s a home race and all the problems are back.”
This kind of fate is what had Worsham puzzled, because he’s had usually good fortunes at Pomona. At least the plusses have outnumbered the minuses.
“I’ve won this track twice,” Worsham said. “I’ve got 2nd place a lot of times. I’ve crashed here horribly. Not qualified many times and lost in a holeshot to John Force in the final round when I was 23 years old. I’ve pretty much done everything to do here but it’s a great place to race, a lot of family, a lot of friends, sponsors and a lot of pressure. I’m glad we start and end here.”
When Worsham’s car started for the third session and he gained a place in the field, he felt a lot like he did in Sonoma when he reached the final round after six first round losses and a quarter-final finish.
“It was a monster relief to get in the field, but even then it wasn’t a clean run,” Worsham said. “We broke the main stud on the engine and that caused all kinds of fun but at least we got in the show. I still felt better because I had all of my sponsors there clapping and cheering me on, even when things were tough.”
Worsham will be downsizing to one car next year and this is painful for him considering the contribution the blue car made to the two car team. Driver Jeff Arend qualified on the pole in Pomona.
“I feel bad because that car has come a long way in the ten years that we’ve been running it,” Worsham said. “It’s had some success and failures just like myself but it really feels like they’re starting to put it together right now. It’s unfortunate but you know I understand with them having to pull back now and across the country. It’s kind of a cutback to the whole program. Luckily they only cut one car I’m sure they’re not going to cut myself. If I could put something together for those guys you know I would. I’m looking around and if anyone ever wants to sponsor a great funny car then we have one.”
The 2007 season was the option year for the Checker, Schuck’s & Kragen sponsorship and up until late in the year, Worsham wasn’t sure what path they were going to take. He wanted to remain with CSK but that didn’t stop him for preparing for a worst-case scenario.
“I was looking at all kinds of things,” said Worsham. “I spoke to other sponsors and I spoke to other owners about possibly driving for them if I had to. I have a family, a wife, kids, building, a house and stuff that I have to pay for so I weighed all of my options and I definitely considered driving another car if I had to for somebody.”
DOUBLE CENTURY – Tim Wilkerson made his 200th start on Sunday and celebrated in fine fashion by running a 4.76 elapsed time for the low elapsed time of the first round of eliminations. Wilkerson defeated Tony Bartone and Ashley Force before losing to Phil Burkart in the semi-finals.
HE TOLD YOU SO – Jerry Toliver said he’s got the team to watch out for in 2008.
“I’ve said all along that we started late and it took us a long time to catch the group,” said Toliver. “These are all professional teams. Imagine the New York Yankees not going to spring training with any players and then pick from the players that are left in the league and come out and fight with the other teams. You are way behind, even if you had the players, you still aren’t in shape or ready to go.
“I’m proud of this team. The car performed like a bracket car this weekend. We made it down the track on five of our six laps within three-hundredths of a second. We have a good program going into next year and we have a crew that works together and can accomplish the goals we need to. It gives us a big boost. We can start with everyone else . . . we can practice and we can test and come out fighting.”
NOTHING LIKE A POWER NAP – Jeg Coughlin, Jr. took a season off and came back with only three races to go last year. That’s all the rest he needed to win a fourth world title and third in Pro Stock. That, and a second-round win over Richie Stevens combined with Greg Anderson and Dave Connolly's first-round exits.
"What a feeling!" Coughlin said. "To win another championship for JEGS.com and all of our employees and fans is special. It's such a cool deal to win the first championship under the NHRA's new Countdown playoff system. It was a tough battle against the best racers in the world but we got it done as a team and I couldn't be prouder of the entire Victor Cagnazzi Racing organization."
Coughlin opened the final day of the season trailing Anderson by 36 points. With each elimination round worth 20 points, Coughlin had to advance two rounds further than his rival. With Anderson on the opposite side of the ladder, Coughlin needed some help and he got it when newcomer Justin Humphreys left on Anderson by a whopping .053 seconds, which translated to a stunning 6.669 to 6.658-second holeshot win at the top end.
"It's incredible how it all fell into place," Coughlin said. "The pressure was enormous for all of us and I think my previous experience might have really helped me there. Last year I only ran three Pro Stock events at the end of the season. The rest of the time I was running a bunch of those high-dollar bracket races and those things are so intense. That's kind of what it felt like these past two races.
"This is such a charge. To be able to give Victor and Brita (Cagnazzi) their first championship means a lot to me. They had a plan to put together a race team capable of winning a championship and through a lot of perseverance and hard work they got it done.
"Like any racer that wins a championship, I have a fantastic team behind me. Roy Simmons, my crew chief, my father Jeg Sr., the crew guys, the boys building the motors back at the shop, the chassis department, they all share in this moment. This is for all of us."
THAT’S IT – Greg Anderson had all the odds stacked in his favor heading into the final day of the championship conquest. He led second place Jeg Coughlin, Jr. by thirty-six points and with no opportunity to meet his adversaries within eliminations, all he had to do was outlast Coughlin and Connolly.
He survived the latter, but the former got him by winning the second round.
“We need to go home and we need to go back to work,” Anderson said. “We need to make our program stronger. It’s a great program now, but obviously we need to find a way to make it stronger. We’re a little disappointed with the way our season turned out without a doubt. We could’ve earned us a fourth POWERade championship but to be honest we’ve been a little down for the last couple of months.
“We haven’t been running the way we need to be running. So we need to go home and figure out why that is and come back stronger than ever next year and then try to win that fourth POWERade championship. That’s all I can say right now. The season is over. We’ve done all we can do for now. We came in second place: now we’re going back, work harder, and try get back to first place next year.”
SHOULD’VE BEEN BETTER - Dave Connolly had visions of a better outcome after sweeping the second phase of the Countdown to the Championship with five victories. But an uncharacteristic first round red light against Mike Edwards ended his championship hopes.
“It shouldn’t have been red,” said Connolly. “It is my fault. I totally messed up. I was just trying to get up. I really didn’t want to leave anything on the table (at the starting line) because you can’t. Edwards is so competitive.”
This loss couldn’t erase the memories of a good season for Connolly.
“It has been a good season altogether. We’ve accomplished a lot,” continued Connolly, driver of Evan Knoll’s Torco Racing Fuels Chevy Cobalt for Victor Cagnazzi Racing. “It just wasn’t meant to be, or things would’ve been a little different.”
As the sun set at Pomona, Connolly was third in points (3126) for the third time in his four-year Pro Stock career. It was, however, his finest season in terms of victories. He became the fourth driver in his category to win five straight races – joining Ronnie Sox, Bob Glidden and Greg Anderson. And he had eight wins in nine final rounds. Included were triumphs at his home track in Norwalk, Ohio, and the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis. He also was the No. 1 qualifier three times, including Sunday.
“We had a great season,” Connolly said. “I want to thank Evan and Victor Cagnazzi and all the people at the shop. It won’t be long before we start working on the 2008 season.”
Jeg Coughlin, also running out of Cagnazzi Racing, won the championship and Greg Anderson was second with 3173 points.
HAMMONDS FASTBREAKING IT – Never has breaking a tie for the 18th spot in the championship point standings meant so much.
Former NBA superstar Tom Hammonds defeated Greg Stanfield to reach the semis for the first time in his return season. In earning that win, he stepped ahead of Erica Enders. Hammonds duplicated his first round 6.693.
Hammonds’ day ended in the semis against Justin Humpreys.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
TOUGH ROAD, GREAT REWARD – Matt Smith has understandably experienced easier days in the office. He replaced a teammate early in the weekend and had to battle his way past three other championship-hungry riders.
For Smith, it was just another day in the office. He wasn’t thinking about the bad stuff because this was his “happy time.”
“I don’t know if words can describe this feeling,” Smith said. “I’ve had some big races before but nothing like this. My goodness, it was all or nothing there. This is pretty special, especially with my dad (Rickie) here helping us. We felt like we had such a great bike all year and we had times where we just couldn’t punch it through when we probably should have won some races, but we never gave up and just kept fighting.”
Smith, from King, N.C raced to his sixth career win and fourth this season by defeating Chip Ellis in the final round with a time of 6.944 seconds at 191.08 mph on his Torco Race Fuels Buell. It is Smith’s first victory at Pomona.
WELL THAT’S ONE WAY TO LOOK AT IT – Chip Ellis knocked off Eddie Krawiec to reach the semi-finals. Then, in the pair following him, point leader Andrew Hines fouled – opening an opportunity for Ellis to make a solid championship run.“I’m shaking like a leaf on a tree,” Ellis said. “The ball is in my court. I have to run my lil’ sis Angelle in the next round and she’s been running strong. The good Lord willing – we might be able to pull this thing off.”
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SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - SCHUMACHER PREPARES FOR SHOWDOWN, PEDREGON'S POTENTIAL CHAMPIONSHIP AND CONNOLLY'S PREDICAMENT
HONORING AUTO CLUB – For his ongoing dedication and commitment to NHRA Drag
Racing and the historic Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Auto Club CEO Tom McKernan
was honored at a track-side presentation held prior to the professional
qualifying sessions at the 43rd annual Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club
Raceway at Pomona. NHRA president Tom Compton led the on-track presentation,
and a permanent plaque was unveiled near the elevator for the skybox suites atop
the east grandstand.
“The Automobile Club of Southern California, under the leadership of Tom McKernan, has evolved into one of NHRA’s most important sponsors,” said Compton. “Tom and his team at Auto Club have a sincere passion for the sport of NHRA Drag Racing and share the values that NHRA stands for and, as a result, are involved in nearly all aspects of the business.”
Besides title rights to the Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals and naming rights of historic Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Automobile Club of Southern California is the presenting sponsor of the famed NHRA Safety Safari and NHRA Street Legal Drags. In addition, the company sponsors the annual Auto Club Road to the Future Award, recognizing the sport’s professional rookie of the year, as well as the presenting sponsor of the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum and title sponsor of the Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Hot Rod Reunion in Bakersfield, Calif.
“The Auto Club is proud of its association with the National Hot Rod Association,” said McKernan. “Founded more than 100 years ago, our organization has been intertwined with the history and growth of the automobile in Southern California – including hot rodding. Since Wally Parks founded the NHRA more than 50 years ago, it has played a key role in providing a safe and organized environment for enthusiasts to pursue their passion, in addition to fostering the growth of career opportunities in automotive technology.
“That is a commitment shared by the Automobile Club of Southern California and I am pleased to accept this award on behalf of our 8,500 employees and six million members whose dedication to safety and community service will continue honor Wally’s vision and nurture our partnership.”
THIS BUD IS FOR YOU - Budweiser and the NHRA have renewed their decades-long partnership that will keep the brewer front and center in the NHRA.
As part of the multi-year agreement, Budweiser will maintain its high visibility at all NHRA POWERade Series venues and markets, including point-of-sale materials and consumer ticket promotions, autograph signings and appearances, trackside promotions, advertising on the at-track jumbotron, and print advertising in a variety of NHRA publications. Budweiser also will continue its popular "Race The King" radio promotion in race markets, which offers adult fans the opportunity to race down the quarter-mile against Brandon Bernstein, pilot of the Bud King Top Fuel dragster.
"Drag racing really is one of America's first 'extreme' sports, and Budweiser is proud to have been a part of the sport's growth over the past 25 years," said Tony Ponturo, vice president, global media and sports marketing, Anheuser-Busch, Inc. "Budweiser and its family of wholesalers are great fans of the sport, and our marketing programs around each race will continue to drive awareness for Budweiser's sponsorship of the NHRA and for the sport as a whole."
Budweiser's "Official Beer" status with the NHRA will now extend to more than three decades, making it one of the longest running league sponsorships in sports.
"We are very pleased that Budweiser has extended its official status with the NHRA," said Gary Darcy, senior vice president of sales and marketing, NHRA. "Budweiser is one of our longest-standing corporate partners and is an integral part of the success of the NHRA. We look forward to continuing that successful partnership and helping Budweiser achieve its strategic marketing objectives."
Budweiser entered drag racing in 1980 with the sponsorship of Kenny Bernstein's Funny Car, which became known as the Budweiser King Funny Car. Anheuser-Busch then further capitalized on the growing popularity of drag racing by signing on with the NHRA. Kenny passed the Budweiser/Lucas Oil dragster keys to Brandon in 2003, and two years later, Budweiser extended its contract with Bernstein and the Budweiser King Racing team through 2009. The 30-year partnership with the Bernstein family will eclipse Richard Petty's 29-year sponsorship by Scientifically Treated Petroleum (STP) to become the longest consecutive major team sponsorship in autosports history. Brandon Bernstein is enjoying a career season in 2007, with five wins in seven finals appearances.
THE SHOWDOWN IS SET – Tony Schumacher has developed an uncanny knack of bringing out the best in the competition. In fact, he said that he’s been responsible for many of the No. 16 qualifiers running their personal bests against him.
It’s showdown time for Schumacher and the three other Countdown to the Championship contenders. The ladder presents the opportunity for two to meet in the final and the four to meet in the semis.
Today’s top qualifying effort was Schumacher’s 12th at Pomona and the 47th of his career. If qualifying had remained the same after the third session, Schumacher would have met Hot Rod Fuller in the first round.
Schumacher seemed disappointed their first round match never materialized.
“Hot Rod spent much of the season asking for that match-up,” Schumacher said. “Sometimes you get what you ask for. But, when it started cooling off we knew a lot of teams were going to run better. You saw that coming a mile away.”
Schumacher pointed out that crew chief Alan Johnson was going for a 4.47 elapsed time but his car hit the rev-limiter and shut off early with a 4.508, 323.04.
“It would have been great to run that,” Schumacher said. “I said before this hasn’t been a very fulfilling year. I’ve tried to calm down myself and face the fact that the run from last year isn’t going to happen this year.
“I think it would have been fun to race first round. I thought it would have been cool. If we would have won it, we would have won it by beating him and not avoiding him. Last year we never got to run Doug Kalitta.
“This is crazy because in this sport you can run the race all day long and never see the person you are battling with. It’s more gratifying to race the person you are battling with. If you get beat by them, you just accept you got beat. You move on.”
FOUND A RIDE – Longtime Pro Stock bike racer Antron Brown has found out that when one door closes another opens. That was the case as he will be a Top Fuel driver in 2008 after losing his U.S. Army Pro Stock Motorcycle backing at Don Schumacher Racing recently.
Brown was named the new driver of the Matco Tools Iron Eagle dragster this afternoon.
“I’m very excited to have this opportunity to be part of the David Powers Motorsports team with Lee Beard and Rob Flynn,” Brown said. “Also, to be teammates with Hot Rod Fuller is awesome. It makes me speechless, which is a first for me, to have this opportunity to represent Matco Tools, their distributors, and all of DPM. I’ve been associated with Matco for the past few years while at DSR (Don Schumacher Racing) and attending the annual Matco Tools Expo and I’m looking forward to expanding that relationship. Everyone in their organization has a passion for the business and winning, from President Tom Willis to the 1500 franchisees selling the Matco product. I couldn’t think of a better organization to make this transition with and for them to believe in me and give me this shot as a rookie driver is awesome.”
A two-time NHRA championship runner-up (2001, ’06), Brown raced to 16 wins in 145 career Pro Stock Motorcycle events. A native of Chesterfield, N.J., Brown also earned 11 career pole awards in the two-wheel category and has not missed the cut for an NHRA race since his rookie season in 1998.
“We learned with the Iron Eagle Club hospitality how to improve the business-to-business relationship for Matco and its distributors and guests,” Powers said. “During the past year, we’ve expanded the motorsports opportunity for Matco and have learned new ways that we could expand in the future.”
“It is obvious that he also has to have the capabilities and to that point you can look at his skillful execution in the Pro Stock Motorcycle. Antron has the commitment and dedication to be one of the best. Frank Hawley, the master of teaching drivers, would tell you that Antron is one of the most focused and committed pros he’s had the pleasure of working with. We also know that Antron will fit in well with all the other David Powers Motorsports professionals and will become, in a short period of time, a very successful Top Fuel driver in the Matco Tools dragster.”
NOTHING BUT SMILES – There’s a part of Bob Vandergriff that hears the song by Timbuk3 playing in the back of his mind. Now that band might not be a household name, but their song “The Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades” is commonly known.
Vandergriff’s optimism is fueled by the progress his team has made with a new engine combination comprised mainly of internal components fabricated in his Alpharetta, Georgia-based racing shop.
Today’s 333 mile per hour top speed during Saturday qualifying only confirms that he’s on to something.
“We just felt they would be better,” Vandergriff said. “We started testing them the last five races and of the [initial phase] Countdown deal and that kind of put us in a bad spot. I mean we knew that we had better parts but we didn’t have enough information to race it so we kind of threw them in there once in a while trying to get data on it but we didn’t feel comfortable enough racing it.
“Once we got knocked out of the Countdown deal we decided to go ahead and put all of that stuff on there and it showed a lot of promise in Vegas so we’re excited about this weekend.
Vandergriff has run several times in the 330-mph range already. He said they have had help on the parts but when pressed to specify, he only said that it’s the stuff between the oil pan and the injector.
Vandergriff did say these are the parts they usually buy in bulk from manufacturers. With that said, are these special components providing longer engine life?
“No, actually they’ve been a little bit more destructive so far,” Vandergriff said. “It’s only because we don’t have enough information on it and we don’t know what to tune up. A couple of the runs ended with us blowing up at the finish line but we’re fixing it and we’re adding more oil to it. We’re fixing the trouble spots and I’m excited. I think that if the weather cools off it’ll run in the 4.40’s.”
Vandergriff wouldn’t consider himself a trend-setter in this arena, but he did say that his project will be common among the top teams in the future.
“I think you see a lot of that starting to happen more in the future because the C&C equipment is rarely available to us and if you do have something better you want to keep it internal,” Vandergriff said. “You don’t want to have somebody make it and then it go to the whole pit area. I think you’re going to see that more and more as time goes by. We’re actually working on a joint program with the people at Richard Childress Racing to help us with the engineering side of it and their engineers to be able to build a lot more stuff internally.”
PLAN ON THE TABLE - FUTURE PLANS – Cory McClenathan has made it clear that he would like to be more than a leaser at Don Schumacher Racing. The veteran Top Fuel driver said he’s got a two year contract on the table to drive for DSR with the blessings and monetary support from Fram and its related companies.
“Basically, what's going to happen is we're going to move the Fram deal all the way into their deal and have two dragsters,” said McClenathan. “Our sponsors have been great and understanding considering all of the problems that we’ve had with different owners and changing teams. It’s nice to have control of your destiny and I still want to make that control good.
“I want the car to be more consistent and run better but there are only a few ways to do that and that's to get in good with other people and make sure you have the same part so we're trying to do that in branches of this car.”
McClenathan said this plan would make him an official teammate to Tony Schumacher.
“I think more or less I'd be more like a teammate,” McClenathan said. “If you have a teammate you gather more information on every single run you make and that's the thing that you see with Kalitta and Schumacher, those guys can all feed off of each other. There are a bunch of great drivers over there at DSR and I'm friends with every one of them. I'm looking forward to 2008 and driving with them.”
If this deal comes to fruition, the sharing of information will be the largest asset for McClenathan and his team. He’s been largely a lone wolf since leaving the Scott Griffin umbrella in July to lease an operation from DSR.
“It's funny because at almost every event we've at least gone by first round which nowadays is tough to do,” McClenathan said. “It’s just as tough to make the field. I think sharing information is what I'm looking at more so than anything else. Let's get to where we can share information and we can make more runs, better qualifying runs, more top qualifying efforts in the field so that you don't have to go up against Schumacher or Larry Dixon right away.”
Nearly three months have passed since McClenathan’s non-amicable departure from Scott Griffin Motorsports, who purchased the operation from the Carrier brothers, Mark and Andy. He’s spent much of the time putting the fires out.
“Everything seems to be quiet,” McClenathan said. “I don't hear from anybody over there. I'm still friends with Mark and Andy Carrier and there are no problems there whatsoever. Don't really care about Scott Griffin anyway to be honest with you.”
VALIDATED – Tony Pedregon refuses to concede that he’s the Funny Car champion yet, but clinching the title would provide a huge validation for his champion status. He’s honored to be the 2003 champion but winning this title as a team owner would be the ultimate prize.
“To be able to do it is what you aspire to accomplish,” Pedregon said. “At the time I was a driver and that's the ultimate goal. As we all know people change and things evolve and grow. When I went out on my own -- against the views of a lot of critics -- I mean they probably couldn't understand because they didn't walk in my shoes for eight years but I really felt it was a good opportunity to do it and the short term financially I knew there was a big risk involved, that was the scariest part.”
Pedregon said the 2007 championship pursuit was much different of a challenge than he encountered during his title run in 2003 under the John Force Racing program.
“You have to take into account who do I compete against?” Pedregon said. “I compete against the John Force Racing team and they throw 4 cars at us. Then you have Don Schumacher’s team which throws three cars at you and that's a pretty tough company.
“It goes without saying for us to be able to slide into that company and win a championship makes a statement. For me, the most important thing was to surround myself with good people and good partners and I think we've done that. Once you have that it's up to myself, Dickie Venables and these guys, we do the rest of the work. This, if we can pull it off, is more gratifying than when I won the championship in 2003.”
Branching off on his own, Pedregon said, was a frightening experience.
“I believe sometimes you have to take a chance and I was willing to do that,” Pedregon said. “I think the scary part was the financial part of it. I mean these cars they'll consume everything the companies give you and then some. If you allow it to consume your own personal then it will, it'll take all you've got. That's one thing that I've learned about business.
“For me there was a balance, I mean I don't have the blank check to work with. We've got a pretty strict budget to work with and I would say we've done a lot for what we've had to work with because it may appear that we have the kind of budget but I can tell you right now that I'm certain we don't have the budget that Schumacher does. I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that we don't have anything close to what Force has. That's okay because they've been here for many years, 30 years or so and I've been here on my own for four years so it's been a challenge.”
Pedregon’s rise to the top of the class is something he said was achieved by the help of family, friends and those close to the team.
“There’s no doubt that I’ve had to rely on people like [brother] Cruz who have helped me,” Pedregon said. “[Crewchief] Dickie Venables assumes a lot of responsibility that I put on him. We have great partners like Larry Minor and the Maloof Brothers. Those are the guys right there that have come through and made it a little easier for us to compete with these guys financially.”
PLAYING THE RIGHT CARDS – Even Pedregon has to admit the final two-race phase fell into his lap.
“I knew that just one team was going to benefit more than any,” Pedregon said. “For things to have shaken out the way they did in Vegas -- I mean it was a little unexpected for all of us, us included. The key for us is that we did capitalize on the opportunity that was there. Call it a break, call it luck, sometimes there the same. Sometimes luck is when opportunity meets preparation and it was out there and we made the best of it.”
Part of that luck, some say, was in meeting Cruz in the semis at Vegas. That led to suggestions of a planned outcome.
“Without a doubt I knew that going in,” Pedregon said. “Cruz and I had a very brief conversation in his pit area right near the CEO and VPs of Advance Auto Parts and that was the extent of our conversation. For any of the critics that are going to question, this team isn't structured like maybe some other teams are. I don't have the luxury of going to Cruz and saying, ‘Hey I want you to do this because I don't own that team.’
“He would love to renew his contract and extend his contract out and when you've got that kind of person there,” he continued. “For anyone who says, ‘oh that looks suspicious.”
“Then we can say that Jeff Arend's red-light looked kind of suspicious and Jerry Toliver's first round looked suspicious too. That's just the way it went that day. Call it Vegas luck. Call it what you like, but things worked out well for us. I don't know if we could have asked for a better situation but against Cruz our car went down the track as it did the first two rounds.
“We were pleased with that and we were pleased that we crossed the finish line ahead of Ashley so I know mentally yeah it's taken some of the pressure off but not all of it. For me as long as some of that pressure's on I know I'm going to get in this car and do the best that I can.”
If the situations were reversed and he was in the trio that lost first round, would he still be a fan of the Countdown.
“Unfortunately I still would be,” said Pedregon. “I think there are some improvements that could be made. I've had two races work out great for me but honestly I'd love to see three or four races determine a champion. It's because of things like what happened in Vegas that I've said that I think it's a great concept but I think it needs a little bit of tweaking. I believe in ten cars not eight.
“Why are they asking 10 drivers to stand up there if their not paying for them? I think that's very unfair. We had a meeting and I hope that some of those things are addressed because I mean we are the ones that put the show on, we're the ones that put it on the line and I hope this relationship is how a partnership should be. We should meet somewhere in the middle so I should hope that there'll be a compromise and in time I would hope to see a slightly better system. In terms of what it's done for the sport and the excitement, I think it's a great concept, I just think it needs a little refining.”
SWIMMING UPSTREAM - Usually in qualifying a driver tries to go as quick as they can. For Dave Connolly, he and his crew were trying to find a way to slow down the Torco Race Fuels Chevrolet Cobalt enough to get on the same side of the eliminations ladder with Greg Anderson. He tried a lot of things including adding weight and even contemplated bypassing the scales.
In the end, Connolly conceded that he would have to accept the No. 1 spot.
“Trying to slow a car down goes against everything I’ve ever learned,” Connolly said. “We wanted to put our destiny in our hands and meet Greg early in eliminations.”
Unfortunately for Connolly, the only time he could meet Anderson in eliminations would be in the finals. By that time, Anderson could have already clinched the title.
“We want our destiny in our hands,” said “Hopefully next year they will wise up and fix the points the way it should be and let the racers race. I’ll give credit where credit is due; this final phase of the Countdown is like going right into the playoff with sudden death.”
Connolly does have a ray of hope as fellow Torco-sponsored driver Justin Humphreys meets Anderson in the first round.
IT’S GOING TO BE A BATTLE – Anderson may have the edge in his corner heading into tomorrow’s final eliminations.
“It’s going to take a runner-up finish, if not a win,” said Anderson. “If we go out before that before I can pretty much guarantee that we will not be POWERade champions.
“We can’t worry about who we race or when we race. We just gotta go out and try and win for sure the first three rounds, and then we’ll be POWERade champions. But anything before that, any exit earlier than that, we’re not going to be POWERade champions.
“I know my job. I got to go in full bore. I got to drive as hard as I can no matter who’s in the other lane. It doesn’t matter if it’s a yellow car or a blue car. Anyone can beat you that qualifies. I certainly won’t let my guard down, or I’ll go home early.”
At the season-closing event at the Auto Club Raceway of Pomona, Anderson has won three times previously – in 2003 (over Kurt Johnson), 2004 (over teammate Jason Line), and 2006 (again over Jason Line). He also has won the season-opening Winternationals three-times. At this year’s season-opener he won over Greg Stanfield. In 2004, he turned back Warren Johnson, and, in 2006, he won over Mike Edwards. Overall, that’s six wins in six final rounds since 2003 at the historic Pomona quarter-mile.
STILL IN THE RUNNING – Jeg Coughlin Jr. trails Anderson by 34 points.
To win the title, Coughlin will need to advance two rounds further than Anderson and at least equal what Connolly does in eliminations.
"We have to just race and see where the chips fall," Coughlin said. "Pro Stock is a game of inches and thousandths of a second and there is only so much you can do as far as how the ladder falls or who you're going to race and when you're going to race them. All I can do is race as hard as I can and hope it works out for this JEGS.com race team.
"We've made a marvelous run this year and to have two cars in the final four was very exciting and something everyone at Victor Cagnazzi Racing should be proud of when all is said and done. Hopefully, we can finish this deal off."
DON’T BELIEVE THE RUMOR – Victor Cagnazzi quickly dismissed a rumor circulating the Pro Stock pits in Pomona. He is not going to put one of his motors in the car that races Anderson first round.
“You can’t slap an engine in a car that you’ve never tested before,” Cagnazzi said. “The combinations are so different with the horsepower and torque curve. You just couldn’t do it. It’s believable, just not practical.”
KORETSKY ON HISTORY CHANNEL – The dramatic crash between Kenny Koretsky and Bruce Allen in 2005 at Dallas will be chronicled soon in a documentary on the History Channel, according to Koretsky.
“We just finished shooting and I have to tell you that I’m impressed with the set,” Koretsky said. “This is an exciting deal.”
Koretsky confirmed the show will be an hour long and will feature interviews with Bruce Allen as well as the chassis builders for both cars.
KJ CRASHES – Kurt Johnson had just run a 6.667 elapsed time at 207.66 mph when his parachutes failed, sending him at a high rate of speed into the sand-trap.
“I usually wait for the chutes to blossom before I get on the brakes but on this run they just stumbled behind the car,’ Johnson said. “I knew I was carrying a lot of speed, so I hit the brakes and tried the chutes again, but it just started bouncing. The next thing I knew, it was just like Maple Grove all over again.”
Johnson had a nearly identical incident with the same car in 2006 in Reading, Pa.
“At the point, I just let her go trying to go in the sand as straight as I could,” Johnson said. “It started to turn on me once I was there, but it finally came to a stop.”
Johnson still holds out hope that he will race tomorrow.
“It’s not as bad as it could be,” Johnson said. “We have some work to do before tomorrow. The first thing we’ll do is knock the motor out because it swallowed a lot of sand. There are other parts and pieces that need to be fixed and repaired. The biggest challenge will be mounting a new front end and we don’t have a spare nose. We are trying to try using one from the show car.”
What is not widely known is that Johnson was having a new car delivered last month from chassis builder Jerry Haas when a distracted driver on the interstate highway plowed into the rear of the trailer carrying the car. Haas was uninjured and the car was not harmed.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
ON THE LEAD BIKE – Andrew Hines has everything working in his favor this weekend. He qualified on the pole for the second times this season and the twenty-first time in his career.
If Hines passes the first round, the soonest he could meet a Countdown foe is in the semis. He has two of the three in the playoffs on his side of the ladder.
“I think the two points I gained for qualifying might just be the most important points I’ve ever gained in my career,” Hines said. “We knew we had to qualify No. 1 and luckily we were able to do that. We did the same thing last year. Somehow we figured out the magic formula and capitalized when others faltered. That’s what racing is all about. You have to capitalize.
“I was stressed out earlier, but I feel fine now.”
Some drag racers were hoping for a record to gain points in their championship runs. Hines said tomorrow won’t be their day.
“Nobody’s setting a record here tomorrow,” Hines said. “That is, unless we get a 60-mph tail wind.”
DISMISSED – Chris Rivas was dismissed today as the second rider for Matt Smith’s Buell. If qualifying had ended, the two were scheduled to race one another. The replacement rider, Angie McBride, made the show on her only run. As fate would have it, she landed in the 13th spot and will meet Matt Hines in the first round.
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FRIDAY NOTEBOOK -REMEMBERING A FRIEND, TODD TO LUCAS, AREND SHOWS OFF FOR MAMA
REMEMBERING A FRIEND – Last year’s NHRA Auto Club Finals marked the final national event that “Big” Mike Aiello ever attended. Yesterday a group of friends honored the spirit of his life.
Aiello was injured in 1999 while working as a deliveryman for Federal Express and eventually lost the feeling in his lower extremities becoming wheelchair bound. He was always a source of inspiration and because of that 1320tv.com created an award in his honor.
John Medlen was named the first-ever Mike Aiello Award winner for his positive outlook throughout the death of his son. Medlen, through John Force Racing, has labored tirelessly to bring safety to a new level for Funny Cars. He also served as a pillar of strength for the team and members of the racing community.
“Big” Mike would have been proud. His longtime friend and Funny Car racer Jack Beckman presented the award in a small ceremony.
“The shame about most people is you don’t know how people felt about you until you are gone,” Beckman said. “I hope Mike had an inkling what everyone’s opinion was of him before he left. He’s a guy that gave most of his life to the sport; the people involved in it and also helped Torco’s CompetitionPlus.com along the way since he wasn’t going to be able to drive a car in his condition. Here’s a guy that gave up his health because of an accident on the job.
“Mike knew he had medical issues and a lot of challenges and I didn’t know until the end that the likelihood of his survival wasn’t strong. He never showed it or complained about his health. He’s the guy you wanted to hang around if you wanted to feel good about your self.
“He didn’t want to talk about his condition. He always wanted to know how you were doing and all about your car. It is good to honor him with this.”
Susan Wade of 1320tv.com said the award was created to ensure Mike’s memory remained alive in drag racing.
“We didn’t want Mike to be forgotten and we came here in February and it just wasn’t the same without him,” Wade said. “We see a lot of people go through a lot and they remain positive. You always saw Mike and though he was going through a lot, he never complained.
“He was in a lot of pain and he didn’t get help the way he should have. The insurance pretty much basically let him die. He was encouraging and positive all the time. I always felt that we should have been the ones to encourage him and yet he always encouraged us. He was always doing something nice for someone.”
This year’s award was called The Mike Aiello Award. Wade said at the recommendation of Roger Richards, the award will be renamed The Mike Aiello Spirit of Drag Racing Award.
“Those who didn’t know Mike, will know what it stands for now,” Wade said. “This award is about those who persevere through hardships and remain positive. John Medlen was the perfect candidate.”
TODD TO LUCAS – J.R. Todd told the Pomona media that he will replace Melanie Troxel as the driver of the second Top Fueler at Morgan Lucas Racing.
“I’m really excited because Jon Stewart and those guys have that car thundering,” Todd said. “They have been one of the best teams since the Countdown began and I’m looking forward to driving next year and battling it out for a championship.
“It will be the same team and just a different paint scheme with one of Evan Knoll’s companies on the side. It’s exciting to know I will have a top-flight car out there. With Evan Knoll, Latrell Preston and Torco Race Fuels backing, I’m anxious to get over there and get started.”
This announcement ends speculation regarding Todd's direction for 2007.
"J.R. and I have been great friends," said Lucas. "I can't tell you how excited I am. You don't get a lot of chances to race with a really good friend, and this is one of those chances you gotta enjoy. J.R. has a great brand and carries a lot of fan base. Evan Knoll will be coming over to support him. John Stewart will be keeping everything going. The car has been consistent and he's got a handle on it. We're going to keep going and winning races next year."
STILL ON TOP – Todd didn’t have much luck today in improving on his Thursday effort, but lucky for him no one else did either. Todd remains the top seed followed by David Baca and Melanie Troxel.
“We went up there aggressive today and the track just couldn’t take it. We ran late in the day yesterday and I still can’t believe the 4.52 held up.”
IT’S COMING – Multiple sources have indicated the long-awaited driver announcement for the Matco Tools-sponsored dragster under the David Powers Motorsports umbrella will come tomorrow. Combine that with the continued P.A. announcements that Antron Brown will make an announcement regarding his move to Top Fuel and that should provide your answer.
HAPPY TO BE HERE – David Baca may only have the DPM ride temporarily however he’s not going to let that stand in his way of having fun this weekend.
“It’s just really good to get in the car and go down the track. To have a top-notch car like this one is a dream come true. I’m just thankful for the opportunity. It’s a fantasy weekend for me. I don’t know if this is the last hurrah or the chance for a new beginning, but I’m just going to enjoy the moment.”
IT WORKS FOR US – All it took was to miss the Countdown for the Melanie Troxel-driven Vietnam Veterans/POW-MIA dragster to get on the fast track.
“It’s an incredibly consistent car and I don’t even want to think of the last time it didn’t make it down the track,” said a delighted Troxel. “So far, we’re going down the track every time. Yesterday, we were a little bit soft with the tune up (4.579 seconds), but in reality that’s kind of the plan to go out there that first run out of the box and just get it from point A to point B and work from there. We’re definitely in the top half of the field pretty solidly, so now we have a great opportunity to go out tomorrow and play around with the tune up to see what we can get away with to get ready for Sunday.
NOT IN – After the first two days of qualifying, Rod Fuller is unqualified. There are 22 cars attempting to make the cut for this weekend’s race. The only time that Fuller wasn’t in the field after Friday was at the Sonoma, Calif. race in July. He moved from 18th to third on Saturday at Infineon Raceway.
Today Fuller’s car broke at 1,000 feet. He’s not making excuses about the team’s shortcomings in the first two sessions.
“Our car is a great car but if we can’t make it run good in four runs then we don’t need to be in there,” Fuller said. “If that costs us the championship then we don’t deserve it. I’m not going to let it get me down. I just slapped all of my guys on their butts and said, ‘Let’s go get them tomorrow.”
Fuller said the single-qualifying days aren’t to blame, but they don’t help his situation.
“You can’t get a grip on things and the conditions are always different,” Fuller said. “That’s no excuse. It is what it is. A lot of other teams are running good, so it looks like we are the only car not running good.”
“The track is perfect, and you saw the low 4.52 runs,” Fuller said. “Dropping cylinders had nothing to do with the track today.”
Fuller pointed out that he’s counting on his CAT-sponsored dragster to deliver because that is what it does time after time.
“These are mechanical machines, they don’t have a pulse or a heart beat,” Fuller said. “People think I have this in the bag and it’s a given. That bothers me because this is Top Fuel and anything can happen.
COUNTDOWN WATCH – Bernstein ranks the highest qualified car at fourth while Schumacher is next at seventh. Dixon is ninth and Fuller remains unqualified.
MAMA WAS HERE - Jeff Arend had no other choice; he had to remain on top because Mom was at the track. He was unable to improve on his Thursday top qualifying effort, but neither was anyone else.
"My mother came down here, from Toronto, and it's the first time she's seen me race since I was 16, so this is pretty cool," Arend said.
"She watches on TV when she can, but there's nothing like actually being here, and the whole thing has kind of blown her away. Today we might have been just a hair too aggressive, but not by much, and the truth was we have two runs tomorrow to work on running 4.85 if that's all the track will take. So we wanted to push this run a little to see where the boundary is. From what the forecast shows, Sunday will be a lot like tomorrow, so tomorrow we'll work on fine tuning the race-day set ups.
Being on top is something Arend said he could get used to.
"It's also pretty cool to be sitting on top, so far, as a guy who lives just around the corner in San Dimas, and who is racing in his last event for Checker, Schuck's, Kragen,” Arend said. “All of the CSK guys who are here are really supportive, and I know there's lots of people at the company who wish both cars were going forward but it's a business decision and that's out of our hands. They're here pulling for us to go out with a bang, and that's what we're trying to do."
CLASS IS IN SESSION – Jack Beckman is entertaining a group of U.C.L.A marketing students this weekend.
“Karen Comstock, Jenna (Beckman’s wife) and myself all took a marketing class a year and a half ago to get some insight on searching for a sponsor,” Beckman said. “Money is what keeps these cars going. We remained friends with the instructor Tom Lewis. He is an entrepreneur and not only does he know how to teach it – he knows how to do it.”
Lewis recommended they return and he also pointed out the class would be based on finding the team a sponsor.
“That’s going to be the project,” Beckman said. “I don’t know that we are going to find $2 million dollars anytime soon. I see this as a great thing. A hands on deal and they’ll find out what it like to be out there searching. It’s marketing in the real world. I’m hoping that we can work together for a long time because I want to stay out here racing.”
MOPAR TO YOU – GM-bodied cars may have dominated the Countdown battles and yesterday’s qualifying, but Friday a Mopar stole the show.
Richie Stevens pulled out a 6.665-second pass at 206.76 mph in today's session. His Thursday attempt produced a 6.694/206.51, No. 3 at that time.
If it holds through the next two qualifying rounds, Stevens will collect the fourth No. 1 of his career and his first at Pomona Raceway.
“This is best we’ve run in qualifying for quite some while,” Stevens said. “We’ve had a good past few races. This is the best we’ve run in qualifying for quite some while and we really have a great car. We finally have the car where we want it at. It seems like it is all falling together.”
Stevens is coming into his own as the Countdown is winding down.
“We had an up and down year,” Stevens said. “When I was up, the car was down. When I was down the car was up. We could never really get it together. It’s good to get that momentum going. It was tough missing the Countdown. But, at least we have a good car going into next season.”
NEXT SEASON – Despite concerns of longtime sponsor Valspar leaving at the conclusion of the season, Stevens confirmed that he will return as the driver of the Don Schumacher-owned Pro Stocker under the umbrella of Allen Johnson’s Johnson & Johnson Racing.
“The only change we should have is a paint job,” said Stevens.
24 HOURS – Twenty-four hours ago, Jeg Coughlin, Jr. was in the driver’s seat of the Pro Stock field, leading all Countdown finalists. Today he was at the bottom of that proverbial totem pole. He has two opportunities to climb out of the bottom.
"Tomorrow has become a crucial day," Coughlin said. "There's a lot of suspense. There're two championships on the line. One is the Full Throttle Pit Crew Challenge and the other is the POWERade championship. We're currently second in both standings so we need to step it up on both fronts.
"We were No. 1 yesterday but we weren't entirely pleased with the way the car was running. We tried some things today and took a tiny step back so we'll head in a different direction and get ready for Saturday. The morning round will be the best of the weekend so it'll be a big session for all of us."
Saturday's final two qualifying sessions are scheduled to begin at 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona.
"Most likely the morning session will be a little bit cooler so we're excited about that," Coughlin said. "The main thing we want out of this JEGS.com Cobalt is for it to go straight. As simple as it sounds, a straight line is the shortest way down the strip and when you launch sideways it definitely hampers you. We've gotten better but its still wanting to kick out on us.
"The team had its backs against the wall last Sunday in Las Vegas and they responded really well and we got to the final. We had to race all three guys in the Countdown, so it wasn't easy. We always seem to do best when the pressure is at it's highest so hopefully we can respond tomorrow."
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
ONE IS A LONELY NUMBER – Chip Ellis made the most of his single run during Friday’s qualifying. After all, he had plenty of time to think about it.
“Running one run in a day makes for a long day,” Ellis said. “The bike ran well today. Yesterday we ran the engine that we had in Vegas and we didn’t think it was our best engine but we kept winning with it, so we kept running it. We put a new engine in it and it went to number one.”
Qualifying better than point leader Andrew Hines is important for Ellis. Hines was 5th after today.
“I just want to go out there and cut good lights,” Ellis said. “But in reality, I need Andrew to be fourth and us to stay on top, so I can race him in the semis. We need to go two more rounds than him to have a chance at this.
Ellis said he’s more confident now than he’s ever been this season.
“I feel good and confident,” Ellis said. “I got my confidence back after last week and that’s something I haven’t had in a while. I’ve never felt more ready than I am now.”
Ellis also pointed out that he’s developed a new routine for riding and that is the largest factor in the turnaround.
“It’s so easy to red-light on these bikes and I’ve learned something that has made me more consistent over the last three weeks. I’m just ready to go. It’s all about what you’re thinking about and I’ve changed up my riding routine.”
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THURSDAY NOTEBOOK -
HONORING THE MTS EMPLOYEES - This weekend Mail Terminal Services, sponsor of the
Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car driven by Jack Beckman in the NHRA POWERade Drag
Racing series, will recognize two of its employees from the Newark, N.J.,
Military Mail Terminal (MMT), a division of Mail Terminal Services which sorts
and distributes up to 500,000 pounds of mail to war zones in Iraq, Afghanistan
and Kuwait. Monique Walters and Jorge Santos will enjoy a unique U.S. Army team
experience this weekend at the Auto Club NHRA Finals in Pomona, Calif., and
Racers for Christ will receive nearly $9000 from a charity auction held on
Ms. Walters and Mr. Santos will be flown to Pomona and treated to Don Schumacher Racing VIP hospitality tickets, full event passes for the weekend, and in one qualifying session four-time Top Fuel champion Schumacher will wear a specially-designed helmet which he will sign at the end of the run and present to them.
For the purpose of recognizing two of the top performing MMT employees and to support Tony Schumacher, the U.S. Army team and Racers for Christ, MTS, through President and CEO Rodger Comstock, last August purchased the helmet at an ebay.com auction to benefit Racers for Christ.
"It's important to recognize that Ms. Walters and Mr. Santos are just two of the top performing employees in the Military Mail Terminal," said Comstock. "There's another 130 who are out there putting out 500,000 pounds of mail a day into the war zones. These two people were selected by their supervisors and their peers as the two top performers and they represent the outstanding attitude and the focus that these people have. So, it's important for me and all of us at MTS to recognize their efforts as we continue to work towards the successful distribution of all the mail that goes into the war zones."
Said Larry Smiley who, along with wife Linda are chaplains for the NHRA through Racers for Christ: "Tony Schumacher has always supported Linda and me. We do a bible study every Saturday with Tony and he's donated money along the way and it's been very appreciated.
"A year ago at this race Tony gave me a helmet and he said, 'I think if you will auction this helmet on ebay.com you will get more money for it‘. We held on to it all through the year and I finally decided I'd better go ahead and get it on ebay.
"We did not know whether it would bring $500 or $5000, or whatever. And we were very pleasantly surprised with the activity that it showed and most of the activity was in the last few minutes. And I was surprised because we had it on for 10 days.
"We are very thankful to Rodger and Karen Comstock for winning this on ebay and giving it to their employees. It will help further the ministry of Racers for Christ and allow Linda and me to continue to minister out here, as we have for years.
"It sold for $8988. It was at $3550 and in the last four minutes it went from $3550 to $8988. I was really surprised when I found out that it was Rodger who got it. The gentleman who was in second place who really bid it up, called Roger the next day and he said, 'I've got to know, it's eating at me. Did I miss this helmet by $50?' 'Oh no,' Rodger told him, 'I would have gone to as much as it would take to get it.' So the guy's really thankful that he didn't bid it short.
"We're going to do this again," added Smiley, "and I'm sure this guy is going to play very close attention and hopefully he'll be able to win it next time."
BOOKENDING A SEASON – J.R. Todd is intent on finishing the season the same way he began it. Todd won the season-opening event in Pomona and after the first day of qualifying, he’s in the same position – on top.
And he’s not worried about 2008 either. Todd said that he’ll be racing a Top Fuel dragster with the backing of Evan Knoll.
“There’s a bunch of us that wouldn’t be racing if it wasn’t for him,” Todd said. “I can’t thank him enough and I can’t begin to tell you how fortunate I feel to have him on my side. There’s a lot of people out there looking for rides and I am glad I’m not one of them.”
That’s why he’s got nothing to lose this weekend.
“Hopefully we can play the spoiler and help out a few of my friends along the way,” Todd said. “When we don’t have any parts breakage, the car really thunders. I hope we can pick up tomorrow where we left off today and get down into the 4.40s. There are a few cars out here capable of running that.”
Todd’s 4.523 elapsed time was .003 quicker than second-quickest David Baca and .008 better than Brandon Bernstein.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” Todd said. “But, I think we’ll stay in the top half of the show.”
Todd said an announcement is forthcoming regarding his 2008 plans.
“I am concerned about finishing the season on a high note going into 2008,” Todd said.
HOPEFULLY NOT IN A DRAGSTER – Todd has big plans after this weekend and they don’t include a Top Fuel dragster. He plans to compete in the Baja 1000 in Mexico’s California Peninsula.
He will run in the Class 1 Truck division.
TODD AND POYNTER – This event will be the last hurrah for Todd and crew chief Kevin Poynter. Both driver and crew chief will go in different directions for 2008 since team owner Dexter Tuttle sold the Top Fuel operation to Evan Knoll.
“We have learned together at a fast pace,” Todd said. “This is our farewell race together. Hopefully we can leave out of here with a victory. Our relationship has been great and I wish him the best.”
ON THE COUNTDOWN – J.R. Todd qualified for the Countdown to Four but fell short in the Countdown to One.
“I’m not a big fan of the Countdown to One,” Todd said. “Maybe they should tweak it because finishing in the top ten has always been the big thing. I think they should lock in the top ten cars and let them go at it.”
The Countdown format has not been totally negative for Todd.
“Without a Countdown, we wouldn’t have had a remote chance of racing for the championship,” Todd said.
“We struggled for a little while, but it definitely gives teams like ours a shot.
“If they locked in ten cars at Indy and let them fight it out until the end of the season, it would be better.”
Todd was asked about the current Countdown situations in the nitro classes. The leaders in each professional class could secure championships early in Sunday’s eliminations. The Funny car division could be decided by the end of qualifying.
“Top Fuel – I think Schumacher will have to pull one out of his butt to win this one,” Todd said. “And Funny Car, I have no idea what happened there.”
THIS IS THE PLACE – Morgan Lucas is quickly amassing a resume of tracks that he’s competed at, but when it comes to Pomona, that facility stands out.
“Of all the races I’ve competed in, Pomona is the one place that stands out the most,” said Lucas. “I was 10-years old walking the pits with my father and I’ll never forget receiving the bent up front wheel of Darrell Russell’s Alcohol dragster and getting a ton of drivers to sign it. Memories like that just can’t be replaced and that’s just another reason that Pomona brings such a great fondness to me. Of course, it’s home for me and where I was raised. I will have a lot of family and friends there, so we certainly want to run well.”
For the past two seasons at the Finals, Lucas has lost in the second round to current teammate Melanie Troxel.
“My first year as a pro we went to the finals, but with Melanie on our team now, I hope I won’t have to race her until the end of the day,” Lucas said. “So maybe our luck will change and I have to say with the way we’re running, Sunday could be our day.”
LEAVING THEM BLUE – Jeff Arend nailed the top qualifying position with a 4.781 elapsed time at 324.90 miles per hour on a run that he said felt like it left soft.
Arend expects this weekend to be his last event as part of the CSK team. The driver of the blue car will be the odd-man out when Worsham Racing downscales to one car in 2008. Even if he does qualify on the pole and win the event, he’s not expecting that to change his fate next year.
"We're pursuing things for next year, but you know we're behind the 8-ball with the timing, trying to find a lot of money in a very short period of time, and the odds are pretty stacked that you're not going to find a company with that kind of 2008 budget just sitting around doing nothing.
If there was ever a good way to advertise our services, though, qualifying number one and winning the race would be it. All we can do is keep running hard, and maybe some good things will happen.
If not, it's still a heck of a way to go out."
“We’ve talked a little bit about next year, but it was late when we found out they weren’t going to field a second car,” Arend confirmed. “They are looking for a full-time primary sponsor, but right now it is a little late to be looking for a sponsor.”
Arend said his team’s misfortunes throughout 2007 are nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“I’ve just had some bad timing this year,” Arend said. “There will be a lot more Funny Car drivers on the sidelines than there will be rides, it looks like. I want to make up for last week and try to win this race. This team is one of the best out there, but we’ve just had bad timing.”
Even though it won’t provide a reprieve, Arend wouldn’t mind winning as an exit strategy.
"This is the last race for the blue Checker, Schuck's, Kragen car, so it's kind of melancholy around here, I guess," Arend said. "The guys are professional, and they all have a lot of pride, so they're obviously doing the work and doing it very well, but it's hard to jump up and down and get too excited when you know it's over in a few days. Still, it's always a thrill to go up to the Media Center and get interviewed at the end of the day. It's an honor, and a whole bunch of other cars had the same shot at it as we did, but we finished the day at the top of the list.”
DOWN TO THE WIRE – Judging on the first day of qualifying, the Pro Stock championship will go down to the wire. That’s why Jeg Coughlin, Jr. is doing everything he can to erase the 34 points that separate he and Greg Anderson.
Coughlin temporarily made up one point by posting the quickest run on Thursday with a 6.689 elapsed time 206.95 mph. Anderson was second with a 6.690, 207.18.
"Every point is critical at this juncture," Coughlin said. "The deficit we have to Greg can't be made up in qualifying. In fact, we can't even make up a round (worth 20 points each), but we can send a message that we've got the best car on the property and that we're doing all we can to win this championship.
"We can put Dave more than one round back, which would give us a little cushion behind us, but the bottom line is that race day is going to be where the big moves are made. We're excited with our start but we have a long way to go yet."
GETTING BETTER - There are three more qualifying sessions set for this weekend, including one Friday and two more Saturday, and Coughlin expects the track to improve.
"The track's pretty good already but it's going to get better and better as the weekend goes along," said Coughlin, a five-time Pomona winner. "The Top Fuel and Funny Car guys and girls help put down a lot of rubber when they run and they hadn't been down before us today so the track should be better tomorrow by all means. Then, if it cools off Saturday morning, we can try to rotate the earth. We'll be ready no matter what we encounter.
“The track conditions will greatly improve throughout the weekend,” Coughlin said. “The track is in great shape and it seems like after the first session of Top Fuel and Funny Car that the track improves in the first sixty-foot because of all the downforce they provide. That’s what I am looking forward to.”
LAST CALL – Sometimes winning and cheerleading sponsor promotions isn’t enough to keep a sponsor. That was the case for Max Naylor as he will part ways with Jagermeister at the end of the season.
The bottom line, according to the team, is that Jager wanted to restructure Naylor’s program to a half-season among other cost-cutting measures. Naylor said, “Thanks but no thanks.”
Naylor looks back on the positives of the 2007 experience.
"We've had a great relationship with Jager and wish them all the best,” Naylor said. “I appreciate the opportunity they gave me and the chance they took on my team two years ago. When they signed with us, we were unproven, and I can't say enough about how much we've enjoyed working together. Their company and my team truly wanted to continue the relationship, but we couldn't come to an agreement that would give us all the resources we would need for the 2008 season, so we amicably agreed to part ways," said Naylor.
"I want to keep this operation first-class and don't have any desire to cut back or take anything away from my team or the fans. We are actively searching for a new primary sponsor, and I know we have a lot to offer to the right company," he added.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
MAKING A GOOD IMPRESSION – Angelle Sampey figures the best way to get exposure is to be the best at the end of each day. She was the quickest and fastest amongst Pro Stock Motorcycle riders with a track record 6.973 elapsed time with a speed of 188.94 mph.
“It was a very smooth run and went straight and it was so smooth that it felt slow,” Sampey said. “We’ve been having some trouble with my bike this year with it kicking out and going crooked. We seem to have a good handle on it now.”
Sampey said her provisional run was made on a new tire.
“When you have a brand new tire and it goes straight like that, more than likely it will remain on there all weekend,” Sampey said. “I think there is more out there but of course this was only the first hit. I know the competition will step it up and hopefully we will as well.
“The track feels great and the weather conditions are awesome. There’s a little bit of a cross-wind but not enough to slow me down. For me personally, I hope I can hold on to it.”
STILL KICKING – Make no bones about it, Sampey is still motivated like she was before she lost the U.S. Army sponsorship and later eliminated from championship contention.
Sampey believes that a good performance this weekend will only improve her chances of securing a deal for 2008.
“Anything we can come out of here with that is positive would be good for me,” Sampey said. “The news hit us hard but I don’t think it took any of my desire away to win. If anything, it has made me want to win even more. I want to prove to some people, my current, past and future that we can still do this. This may be my own personal opinion but I think I share with others when I feel that we have the best team out there. I have a great team that works together.
“I think I have a great program for a sponsor to capitalize on. We have a new contract for the Hyabusa. I think we will give the Harleys and Buells a run for their money next year. I want to win and I want to show a potential sponsor what we can do.”
“Just because I am not going to finish on top this season, I don’t think it makes me look any worse or my team. We are a championship team that is capable of doing well. We want to get as much exposure as we can this weekend.”
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WEDNESDAY NOTEBOOK - CHAMPIONSHIPS DOWN TO THE WIRE
BIG WEEKEND - Hot Rod Fuller isn’t expecting a cruise control weekend.
“The tension is as high as
it gets this weekend. The pressure keeps building. All the pressure is on us.
Tony (Schumacher) and (Larry) Dixon have won multiple championships, Brandon
(Bernstein) and I haven’t, but his crew chief (Tim Richards) has. I think the
Kalitta cars and Lucas cars will help us win this championship. There are so
many cars running good right now. They’re running as good as any of the
Countdown cars. I won’t be nervous or have sleepless nights. Last weekend at
Vegas took a lot of pressure off. We’ll be focused and we’ll race like we did
at Vegas. We have our swagger back.”
Last weekend in Las Vegas, Fuller had a banner weekend as he won both the Technicoat Shootout bonus event ($100,000) on Saturday and the ACDelco Las Vegas Nationals on Sunday. He became just the fourth Top Fuel driver in NHRA history to double up, earning a $50,000 bonus and nearly $200,000 for the weekend.
Fuller regained the top spot in the NHRA standings with his victory at Las Vegas. It is the first time since the Reading, Pa. race in August that he has been atop the standings. He leads Larry Dixon by 52 points entering the final race on the 2007 NHRA schedule at Pomona. Under the previous NHRA points system, Fuller would have clinched the Top Fuel title at Las Vegas.
STILL HANGING ON – Tony Schumacher has previous experience when it comes to the last event of the season and trailing a seemingly unbeatable point leader.
“Sitting in fourth, we’ve got to jump over three guys (Rod Fuller, Larry Dixon, and Brandon Bernstein) to get the title,” said Schumacher. “While that’s a tough hill to climb, we can definitely do it. My team is terrific under pressure.”
For Schumacher to get another POWERade trophy, he will likely have to out-qualify his competition and win the race, while hoping Fuller, Dixon, and Bernstein suffer first round losses.
“That’s probably the way the cards have to line up for us,” he said. “Of course, there’s always the chance that we could get 20 bonus points for setting the national elapsed time record.”
Last year at the season finale, Schumacher won the race and set the E.T. record to win the crown by 14 points over Doug Kalitta.
“We’ll see how it all unfolds this weekend,” he said. “You never know what could happen. We’re going to be warriors right to the end, that’s for sure.”
DAD’S INSPIRATION – Brandon Bernstein doesn’t need to look far for an example to model his 2007 championship run after. His father Kenny is a multi-time champion.
Brandon has watched his dad long enough to have an idea of what to do.
“You have to be totally focused,” said Bernstein. “You can’t leave the starting line too late or too early. You have to remember there are good teams competing that aren’t in the countdown that want to win and take some of the glory. At this stage, there can’t be any hiccups and there’s no making it up if you make a mistake.
“It’s going to be a pressure-filled race. We faced similar pressure in the Richmond race in the first round of competition, which was a make or break round for us to get into the Countdown to 1. We got through that, and Dad counseled me to build on that experience for this final event.
“We feel very fortunate to have made it this far, but we really would like to win the championship for Budweiser, Lucas Oil, Mac Tools, all our sponsors and fans, but especially Dad. We were runner-up in Pomona at the season-opener and we’d like to end the season going one better with a victory.
“Our team has shown its competitive nature by winning five events this season, so we definitely have the talent. Tim (Richards, crew chief) and Kim (Richards) have won championships before so they know how to handle the pressure.
“Dad has won championships and he will be there to guide me. We’ll give it 120 percent and hope for the best.”
The Budweiser/Lucas Oil team celebrated national event victories in the spring in Las Vegas, Atlanta, Bristol, Tenn., Topeka, and Brainerd, Minn., setting a new career high for victories in a season for Bernstein.
NEW DIRECTION – Larry Dixon will have one less thing to worry about this weekend as his direction for 2008 has already been determined. Skytel will be replaced by the U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company.
Having first partnered with Don Prudhomme Racing in 1987, USSTC returns for its 21st season with Snake Racing in 2008. Next year will mark their first participation in the top fuel dragster category since Don Prudhomme's 1994 'Final Strike' retirement season driving the Skoal Bandit Dragster.
For Dixon, his relationship with USSTC has now come full circle. Dixon began working for Snake Racing in 1988 as a crewmember for Prudhomme's Skoal Bandit Funny Car operation. Now, 20 years later, it is Dixon who will be piloting the U.S. Smokeless car.
Dixon, currently no. 2 in the 2007 NHRA point standings, began his driving career in 1995 with the backing of Miller Brewing Company. That association lasted for 11 seasons and two championships (2002-2003) before this year's partnership with SkyTel.
Current crew chiefs Donnie Bender and Todd Smith, as well as most of Dixon’s crew will remain with the team for next season.
ANOTHER NEW DIRECTION - Melanie Troxel has traveled many roads during her Top Fuel driving career, but this weekend a phase of her career that began in 2000 and encompassed 82 starts with four victories out of 15 final rounds will come to an end. She’s headed to the Funny Car ranks in 2008 to drive for Mike Ashley.
That’s why Troxel would love to win this weekend.
“That would be the ultimate way to go out on top in my last race in Top Fuel,” said Troxel. “As a team, that is something we would really enjoy - to be able to finish our season and our time together. As many of you know, I’m moving over to Evan Knoll’s Funny Car team and our present team will be going on with a different driver. I’m excited for them because I know how incredible this car is running. This is a serious championship-contending team. I’m honored to be a part of the team and really enjoyed working with this group of guys.
Troxel said she has experienced so many career highlights in Top Fuel that listing all would take some time.
“I was 15 or 16 years old when I really decided to try and make a living at this, but that dream seemed so far away,” said the driver of the Forrest Lucas-owned dragster. “You work so hard to have those opportunities and then at some point you have to step back and go ‘wow.’ I try to remind myself every once in a while to stop and take a look back at the dream that I set for myself so many years ago. It’s been an unbelievable honor to race in Top Fuel as a profession and to work with some of the people and the teams that I have. Hopefully, I’ll be moving on to have a great career in Funny Car, but there will always be a soft spot in my heart for Top Fuel.”
GOING OUT ON A GOOD NOTE – J.R. Todd opened the 2007 with a victory at Pomona and the thought of collecting another “would definitely be a confidence boost going into the off-season,” he said. “Being the last winner gives you bragging rights for three months, too.”
Since his last Southern California appearance, Todd added one win and one runner-up to run his career mark to five victories in seven finals. He also worked with two different crew chiefs (winning at Houston with Johnny West, who took over at the third race, and placing second at Topeka, Kan., with current tuner Kevin Poynter).
Todd also is weighing his options for 2008.
“Right now, I am not totally certain where I will be driving next year but I will be driving a Top Fuel dragster under Evan Knoll’s sponsorship. I’m not sure what team but I am really excited about the opportunities I have in ’08.
“I can’t thank Evan enough for sticking by me because I could be like a few other drivers out here who are without rides. That makes the off-season brighter because I don’t have to worry about that. We have some deals working to answer the where we’ll be question and we should have those ready to announce soon.”
Todd, the 2006 NHRA rookie of the year, won three times in four finals last year, finishing eighth in points. With a good performance Sunday and early losses by Doug Herbert and Bob Vandergriff Jr. – the two ahead of him in points – he could climb from seventh to as high as fifth. Vandergriff has 2,264 points to Todd’s 2,196 and Herbert has 2,241.
GONNA TAKE A MIRACLE - Ron Capps needs a big time miracle if he wants to be the 2007 champion.
After he (No. 4 in points) and two of the other drivers in the top four made first-round exits at last weekend's Las Vegas event, No. 1 Tony Pedregon advanced to victory. That provided Pedregon with a nearly insurmountable 91-point lead over second place Gary Scelzi, and a 113-point margin over fourth place Ron Capps.
Capps must set a national record this weekend for 20 bonus points, as well as win the event to remain in contention. Pedregon must DNQ as well.
Capps, who led the Funny Car standings through 14 of the first 17 events this season by as much as 154 points and who would be the leader (unofficially) by 18 markers over Tony Pedregon under the old points system coming into this final event, is as determined as ever to become the bride instead of the bridesmaid.
"You saw what we did in Richmond," said Capps of scratching his way back into the top four to earn a spot in the Countdown to One in his last opportunity to do so. "When our backs were against the wall we came out swinging, and if there's a crack in the door, we're going to blast it open in Pomona.
"Pomona is Pomona. It's going to be an emotional week because of (NHRA founder who recently passed away) Wally Parks not being there. One of my last conversations with him was him telling me I was going to be a champion some day.”
GONNA TAKE A MIRACLE, PT. 2 – Whatever it takes for Capps to win the 2007 championship, you can copy and paste the same game plan to Gary Scelzi’s agenda.
"We're going to Pomona to try to set the record and who knows?" said Scelzi. "Pomona is a great race track. Boy, you can haul ass. We're going to go there and try to haul ass. We're going to go there more aggressive than ever, because that's what we need to do.
"And I think this Mopar/Oakley Dodge will run as hard if not harder than anybody. Like I've said before, we'll take the gloves off, and we'll just go kicking and fighting and biting and screaming and see if we can't finish as high as we can, if not get the championship."
Scelzi's Pomona record includes three Top Fuel wins (Pomona 1 in 1997, Pomona 1 and 2 in 2000), and his first Funny Car win at this season's opening event. He's qualified No. 1 five times at Pomona Raceway: three times in Top Fuel, and twice in Funny Car (at the opener earlier this year and in last year's Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA finals).
NO PLACE LIKE HOME - A resident of Chino Hills, Del Worsham and his family live little more than 20 minutes from Pomona Raceway, and with the extended families of both he and his wife Connie attending in force, the Finals are always something akin to a family reunion for the popular driver. In addition to the relatives and life-long friends who flock to the event, Worsham also helps host more than 100 CSK associates and guests in his pit area each day, which only adds to the carnival-like atmosphere in the Team CSK camp.
"It's a bit crazy sometimes, but it's really pretty exciting and I always look forward to the Finals in Pomona," Worsham said. "We'd have to reserve the entire pro pit area to host everyone we know, because between my family and Connie's we have so many relatives, friends, and neighbors it's hard to even guess what the total number is. We don't have that much room, though, so we do the best we can and say hi to as many people as possible. Pomona is the only time I get to see some of these people, and I think it's great I get to do something for a living that other people like to watch. I'm lucky, and I know it.
HE’S GOT HISTORY - Whether driving a Funny Car or a Top Fuel dragster, Kenny Bernstein has a history of ending the NHRA season with a flare.
He has nine final round appearances at Auto Club Raceway through the years. In Funny Car in four final rounds, Bernstein took home two Funny Car trophies, as well as championships in 1985 and 1986. In Top Fuel, he has five final round showings with four victories, including 2003 when he substituted for his injured son, Brandon, who suffered back injuries earlier in the season.
The six-time NHRA world champion hopes to continue his tradition of making final round appearances at the Automobile Club of Southern California Finals Nov. 1-4 driving his Monster Energy/Lucas Oil Funny Car.
“When you win the final race of the season, you have a couple of months to enjoy the victory,” reflected Bernstein. “Plus it gives you a little mojo and momentum going into the next season.”
LOOKING FOR WORK – Tommy Johnson, Jr. has the option of sitting on the sidelines and getting paid or finding a new ride to keep him in racing during the 2008 season.
After this weekend's race, Don Prudhomme Racing’s Funny Car operation will begin reorganizing, with plans to return to competition once new sponsorship has been secured. Johnson remains under contract with Snake Racing in 2008 but he will have the option of exploring new driving opportunities.
"Tommy, (crew chief) Mike Green and the entire Skoal Racing crew have worked very hard for us for many years and I want to thank them for their efforts," said team owner Don Prudhomme. "They are a talented group of people who I am sure will find success in the future. I felt the best decision was to partner our strongest supporter, U.S. Smokeless, with our strongest race team. I want to thank U.S. Smokeless for the loyalty and support they have shown us, as well as their support of NHRA drag racing, all these years. I am confident that aligning them with Larry and our dragster team will provide them the success that they deserve.”
SEALING THE DEAL - After last weekend’s win at The Strip at Las Vegas Speedway, Greg Anderson regained possession of the NHRA POWERade Pro Stock point lead.
Anderson is at the front of the pack of four drivers still contending for the championship in the Countdown to 1. He has 3,136 points. Jeg Coughlin, Jr. is 34 points back in second. Dave Connolly, who held the lead until the ACDelco Las Vegas Nationals, is now third, behind by 48 points. And rounding out the four places is Allen Johnson, who is 103 points behind Anderson.Does Anderson feel he’s got a lock on the Countdown Championship as the Countdown to 1 unfolds it season-final this weekend?
“Certainly not,” he said emphatically. “As long as there are points on the table that enable one of the three other drivers to come around me, then there is no lock.
"I still think you must be near perfect at both races during the Countdown to 1 and there is still one race to go. We got the job done at Vegas but we must have the car, driver, and power in sync at Pomona to win it all. It’s not over until all the points are off the table. Hopefully, at that point, I’ll have my Summit Pontiac in front.”
At the season-closing event at the Auto Club Raceway of Pomona, he has won three times – in 2003 (over Kurt Johnson), 2004 (over teammate Jason Line), and 2006 (again over Jason Line).
COOL HAND JEG - Starting race day in Las Vegas as the lowest qualified Countdown to 1 participant, Jeg Coughlin, Jr. opened eliminations against Allen Johnson. With his title hopes on the line, Coughlin coolly responded with a huge upset win that set up a second-round tilt against teammate Dave Connolly, who had won the last five races in a row.
With pressure that would crush most people, Coughlin -- a 50-time national event winner -- pulled off the biggest single round win of the year, shocking the drag racing world with a titanic holeshot win over the POWERade points leader.
Another round win over Greg Stanfield placed Coughlin in the final against Greg Anderson, whom he left on (Coughlin's reaction time average on the day was a staggering .013 seconds) but ultimately lost to at the top end, taking runner-up honors to stay firmly in the championship chase.
The mentally draining day in the desert was worth the effort as Coughlin arrives at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona with a clear-cut goal -- go two more rounds than Anderson and clinch his fourth POWERade championship.
"It won't be easy but it's certainly not impossible," Coughlin said. "It's exciting just to have a chance. You fight all year long to put yourself in this position and here we are. It's a real tribute to this JEGS.com Chevrolet Cobalt race team to be here.
"We'll need to be perfect and hope Greg stumbles. The best-case scenario is to face him early in the day so we have that opportunity to control our own destiny. We also need to watch Dave because he's less than a round behind us. We're all bunched up. It's going to be very intense for all of us and whoever ultimately wins the championship will have earned it."
As for his cool demeanor, Coughlin, a five-time winner at Pomona, take sit all in stride.
"I love to drag race and when it gets intense, I love it even more," Coughlin said. "I like the pressure. It helps me concentrate. This will be a big weekend, by all means, but I'm looking forward to it with great anticipation. I'm having a ball."
NOT FINISHED YET – Dave Connolly found out a major drawback to the Countdown. You can win five races in a row, sweep the second round of the playoffs, and still lose it all with one loss.
“The championship race is not over,” he said. “We are three rounds down (48 points) from Greg (Anderson),” going into this weekend’s last of 23 races, the Auto Club Finals at Pomona, Thursday through Sunday.
“If we can get lucky enough in qualifying to where we can race him in the second round, beat him and go on and win the race, we could have a shot at overtaking him,” said Connolly, who, at 24, would become the youngest Pro Stock titleholder in history should he prevail.
“That’s a real tough task, especially when all these races are decided by thousandths (of seconds),” he said. “We are trying to align ourselves perfectly on the ladder. It would take a lot of luck to do that, but I guess that’s our only shot.”
This has already been a breakout season for Connolly and Evan Knoll’s Torco Racing Fuels Chevy Cobalt team managed by Victor Cagnazzi Racing. He has won eight times in nine final rounds, but it was a quarterfinal loss to teammate Jeg Coughlin Sunday that dropped Connolly behind in NHRA’s Countdown to One, a two-race format to decide the champion.
“There’s no use dwelling on last weekend because it’s not going to get us anywhere,” said Connolly. “It’s done and over with. We kind of failed as team and even though we didn’t get the job done at Vegas, I still wouldn’t trade this team for anything.
“If we don’t win, we can look back to the old points system, and after this past weekend Greg would be four and a half rounds ahead of us. He would’ve locked it up this week. So in my book, he deserves to be the champ, but we are going to be playing within the rules they gave us this year. We will give it our best shot. We aren’t finished yet.
“Obviously this is not the position we wanted to be in. We wanted to be in the final round at Vegas so we could just go to Pomona and run our race. We are going to race as hard as we can and try and close this already great season with a good final race.”
THE OTHER TEAM – Connolly’s team also is in contention for the Full Throttle Pit Crew Championship, awarded to the team compiling the most points for consistent qualifying performances. Cagnazzi Racing holds the top two spots, Connolly’s crew leading with 708 points, followed by Coughlin’s at 706 and Anderson at 702.
“That’s strictly a payday for the crew,” Connolly said. “It would provide them with a little extra holiday cash.”
The $200,000 Pro Stock title purse would be even more appreciated.
Pro Stock Motorcycle
DOWN TO THE WIRE AGAIN - It all comes down to this. Screamin' Eagle/Vance & Hines Motorsports rider Andrew Hines has a 39-point lead going into the final race of the season with three other riders anxious to knock him from his perch.
This one race will decide the championship.
The 24-year-old Southern California native has more than just a points advantage, however, going into the pressure-packed event. He's the three-time defending NHRA POWERade series champion, so he knows what it is like to battle for a title.
"Pomona is such a fun race track and the fans there are amazing," Hines said. "It's a huge venue and it's in my old stomping grounds of Southern California where I spent most of my young life. We have all of the employees of Vance & Hines Performance out at the track and there is always plenty of drama to keep everyone busy."
Hines was the runner-up at the Auto Club NHRA Finals in 2005 but has yet to earn a victory there. He's hoping he can take the first steps toward changing that when qualifying starts on Thursday.
"It seems like Pomona has never been boring for us," Hines said. "We had a chain come off the bike one year, we've had all kinds of things throw us for a loop there. But this season we're going in making sure we are 100 percent ready for anything. This is the one race that decides it all and we want to make sure we control our destiny. We don't want to leave it to anyone else."
Hines is tied with two other racers, older brother and current crew chief Matt Hines and Angelle Sampey, as the only riders in NHRA history to win three consecutive titles. If Hines can win the championship this year, he will be the first rider in NHRA history to win four consecutive crowns.
"It's nice knowing we have a little bit of a cushion in the point standings going into Pomona, but that won't change our goals of trying to win rounds and win the race," Hines said. "Almost any other time of year it's nice to have a week or two off after you win a race so you can savor the victory. But I'm very happy we race before the week is out. The team is focused and I'm excited about this Countdown to the Championship."
GO TIME FOR SMITH - Matt Smith stands in the third position, 51 points out of the POWERade Pro Stock Motorcycle lead, and he knows that he has one last shot to make it happen in 2007.
After Smith’s semifinal loss to points leader Andrew Hines last weekend, Smith stayed and tested Monday at Vegas in order to make sure that he was more than ready for this weekend’s finale in Pomona.
“We tested after the race on Monday,” said Smith. “We wanted to make sure that we had everything in order to be ready to make one last run at it in Pomona. We ran very good and hope to make our mark this weekend.”
Smith has already made his mark this season and everyone knows he is for real. Venturing out on his own in 2007, Smith has been strong right out of the box. Putting in more man-hours than possibly anyone in the motorcycle class, Smith knows what it takes to work his way to the top.
“I have worked for everything I have,” said Smith. “I wasn’t spoon fed. Even though my dad’s a racer, he didn’t give me any of this and some people don’t realize that. I had to prove to him I wanted it and that I could do it before he actually started helping me, which wasn’t even until a few years ago. I work in the shop, I drive the hauler, I tune the bike, and I ride the bike.
"You have to be a very determined and disciplined individual to do this and I learned how to be that way through my dad. I can’t thank him enough for instilling this in me. That’s the reason I am where I am today.”
Smith’s hard work has paid off and this year no matter where he finishes in the top-four, it will be his highest finish to date in the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series.
“Last year we finished fifth,” said Smith. “So this year we have bettered that mark. We will be happy wherever we finish, but you better bet that we are going into Pomona swinging and we will give it all we got to try and finish on top this weekend.”
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