Championship Drag Racing

O'Reilly NHRA Spring Nationals
Houston, TX
(April 8-10)

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OReilly NHRA Spring Nationals
Hight’s first, Stoffer's second, Shoe’s 335-mph pass highlight Houston

By Rob Geiger,

Funny Car rookie Robert Hight scored his first career victory in just his fourth start, following Karen Stoffer's lead from one year ago by making Houston his first win, and she was able to join him in the winner’s circle at the 18th annual O'Reilly NHRA Spring Nationals presented by Pennzoil with her second straight Pro Stock Motorcycle win at Houston Raceway Park.

No less spectacular was Tony Schumacher, who set a national speed record of 335.32 mph in the Top Fuel final round en route to his second win of the season. The U.S. Army racer dismissed Cory McClenathan by a 4.505- to 4.511-second margin, which helped him open a 52-point lead in the POWERade standings. Schumacher had already backed his speed mark up in the semifinals with a 334.15-mph clocking, automatically making his last blast official. Warren Johnson, in his final season behind the wheel in Pro Stock, took over the class points lead with his 93rd career win.

Tony Schumacher

It took a couple of glances at the scoreboard to fully comprehend Schumacher's NASA-like numbers, especially after the breath-taking side-by-side race he had just completed against a very game Cory McClenathan. But his 335.32-mph pass was true and, although Doug Kalitta has run faster with a 335.57 mph blast last year in Las Vegas, Schumacher gets the record because Kalitta never managed to back his mark up with another run within one percent of the speed.

The record didn't completely overshadow the race with Cory Mac, as the two veterans fought hard from end to end. However, Schumacher crossed the finish line first with a 4.505 at 335.32 mph ahead of McClenathan's 4.511 at 327.74 mph.

"When we were warming up for the final something started leaking and the entire clutch got soaked," Schumacher said. "The guys had to take the clutch all apart and clean it and I was watching and thinking we weren't going to make it up there in time. I mean, the bikes were running when I was getting dressed. We made it with like one minute to spare. What an effort. This might be the best Top Fuel team ever assembled.

"[That final] is how it's supposed to be; the No. 1 guy running the No. 2 guy. We'd both been running great numbers all day and the final came down to a 4.50 beating a 4.51. He had great lights all day and I was worried. I had those [U.S. Army Apache] attack helicopters waiting down there just in case he was ahead at 1,000 feet."

Low qualifier Schumacher was in control all day en route to his 46th final-round appearance. The U.S. Army racer took out Scott Palmer, "Hot Rod" Fuller, and Doug Kalitta along the way with a string of low 4.5-second passes.

This was also the 46th final of McClenathan's lengthy career, although his win total of 28 is slightly better than Schumacher's 23. On this day, McClenathan drove his Fram AirHog dragster past Scott Weis, Scott Kalitta, and sentimental favorite Morgan Lucas to reach the money round. Lucas had pledged to give this trophy to the late Darrell Russell's wife Julie, who lives in nearby Hockley, if he had won.

Schumacher's win helped him open up a little space at the top of the POWERade standings. He now leads Lucas by 52 points. McClenathan moved from ninth to fourth this weekend.

Robert Hight

They say you never forget your first NHRA victory so Funny Car victor Hight will always have a special place in his heart for Houston Raceway Park as the newest member of John Force Racing broke through for his initial victory in just his fourth Pro start. After nearly identical starts in the Funny Car final, Hight slowly crept ahead of opponent Cruz Pedregon and beat him to the other end by a 4.786- to 4.818-second margin.

"I thought I'd really made it when I got a job working on John's car a few years ago," Hight said. "To be standing here with this trophy is unbelievable. This whole day has been a blur. I tried to stay busy so I wouldn't get nervous or even think about where I was, but don't get me wrong, I was still plenty nervous. John did tell me how many finals he'd been to before he won [nine] and he told me he'd worry himself sick for no reason. He told me to just relax and race like it was any other round.

"The semifinal against John was actually the most relaxed I was all day. There was nothing to lose because we knew one of the team cars would be in the final. Before the race John came to me and said, 'I want you to try your best to kick my butt. Come after me.' So that's what I did. I didn't even realize he didn't get down the track until later."

Hight carried lane choice into the final by a scant two-thousandths of a second after beating his boss and father-in-law John Force in the semifinals with a 4.790. Hight's Automobile Club of Southern California Ford Mustang also dispatched Bob Gilbertson and Tommy Johnson Jr.

Pedregon's 49th career final was a little unexpected as he started the day a distant 14th on the ladder. Nevertheless, his Advance Auto Parts Monte Carlo roared to life when he needed it and he was able to beat Ron Capps, Eric Medlen, and Del Worsham. Pedregon is now 22-27 with a trophy on the line. He has now posted seven straight runner-up finishes without a win. His last victory came in 1990 at Englishtown, N.J.

Force's semifinal run helped him assume his usual spot at the top of the rankings. He now leads Whit Bazemore by 14 points. Hight moved from ninth to third, while Pedregon powered to 11th to fifth place.

Warren Johnson

Johnson had his 93rd career victory gift-wrapped by Jason Line when the second-year Pro fouled at the start by leaving .008-second before the green light. Johnson might have had too much for Line any way as he posted a quicker 6.714 at 205.01 mph to Line's 6.735 at 204.29 mph. The win made Johnson the fourth different winner in four races this year.

"I started racing when they had wood-spoke wheels," the 61-year-old Johnson said when he found out he was the oldest driver to ever win a national event. "You all didn't listen, I said I wouldn't be driving the GM Performance Parts Pontiac Grand Am any more after this year. I didn't say anything about some other car. I might drive again next year. I'm still having fun. If I do it will be as part of a three-car team. We'll just have to see.

"We seem relatively competitive and I think we can up the pace in the next four or five races. I feel just as good about this car as my championship years. Last year was a bit of an anomaly for us but we started working hard midseason and now we've got the horsepower we need.

"We had one guy spending $4-5 million on two cars over the last few years who bought everything including the people and they kind of blindsided the rest of us. Now we've all caught up. There are several capable teams now."

Driving his bright yellow GM Performance Parts Pontiac, Johnson reached his 145th final round by defeating Richie Stevens, Greg Stanfield, and former points leader Dave Connolly. The win over Connolly allowed Johnson to pass Connolly for the POWERade lead, which he now holds by 26 points.

Like Hight in Funny Car, Line had to beat his employer to get at chance at the trophy and he did so in style, taking out back-to-back champ Greg Anderson on a .011- to .026-second holeshot. Line also got his KB Framers Pontiac by Jeg Coughlin and Erica Enders, who red-lighted. This was Line's 10th final-round showing. He's 5-5 overall.

Karen Stoffer

"I'm starting to look at real estate in the area," Stoffer said. "If we could just talk the NHRA into running all 15 bike races here I'd be happy. I'm not sure why we've had our best races here but this one was just great. We're on the exact same path as last year but in '04 we fell off later in the year. Now, with Geico Motorcycle behind us, we're planning on being a lot more consistent and the fact we'll be able to test a lot more should really help us.

"It's so satisfying to win one for Geico just two races into our deal with them. Everyone up there is thrilled. Normally, they have people at the races but they didn't this weekend so we were calling them to keep them up to date. At first, when we didn't qualify so well, it was a tough call to make. But we found the tune-up today on this brand-new motor and each round that phone call became a lot easier."

Stoffer has two wins to her credit and they both came at Houston Raceway Park. The defending O'Reilly Nationals champion was ready for this one, leaving the starting line against surprise first-time finalist Kurt Matte with a huge .025- to .099-second reaction time advantage and she never looked back, crossing several lengths ahead of her foe with a 7.173 at 188.12 mph to Matte's 7.209 at 179.94 mph.

Steve Johnson will remain the class points leader for at least another month as his semifinal showing earned him just enough to keep the crown until the next Pro Stock Motorcycle race in Atlanta. Stoffer is the closest to Johnson now, trailing him by just two points, while Matte moved up to seventh place, his first top-10 ranking.

Stoffer's fourth final-round showing came after victories over reigning series champion Andrew Hines, who had a forgettable .209-second reaction time in Round 1; Ryan Schnitz, who broke on the starting line; and GT Tonglet. The Geico Motorcycle rider stayed in the "teens" all day.

Matte had exactly one elimination-round win to his credit prior to this race. Now he has three more as he successfully reached the final round of an NHRA race for the first time in his career by beating Chris Rivas, Chip Ellis, and points leader Steve Johnson, who red-lighted.

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