Topeka, prerace: The city is Topeka, the event is this weekend's O'Reilly Summer Nationals, and the geographic location is about as central as you can get. Situated right in the middle of North America, if a map of the United States was used as a dart board, Topeka would be the bull's eye. Besides their location, Topeka and the state of Kansas are known for many things, not the least of which are Dorothy and Toto, although no one really knows what fictional part of the state they hailed from. There's also the state capital building in the middle of town, but every state has one of those. And finally, there's HeartlandPark which, with all due respect to the other Kansas institutions, may be the best known attraction in this friendly Midwestern town.
For Del Worsham, who will be driving his red Checker, Schuck's, Kragen Monte Carlo at Heartland Park Topeka this weekend, the opportunity presents itself to do something he has never done before. With a solid qualifying effort and four fast laps on Sunday, the 21-time NHRA Funny Car winner could capture a race at HeartlandPark for the first time. If he does, he will finally pare the list of tracks he has never conquered down to just five, with Las Vegas, Brainerd, Memphis, Reading, and now Richmond on the roster.
"We got Indy off the list last year, but other than that it's been a while since we scratched anything else out," Worsham said. "Any driver would be proud to have won at every track on the tour, so it's a valid enough goal for us to have. We were actually closer at the end of last year, before they added Richmond back onto the schedule, but now, including Topeka, we have six tracks we've never tamed.
"HeartlandPark has always been a tough place for us, and it's often been a tough place for everybody. The weather in this part of the country can do crazy things in a split second, the wind is usually blowing, and over the years the track has gone through some issues that I know the new ownership is trying hard to overcome. We've had more than a few 'one-lane races' here, with either bald spots or bumps making it really hard to win out of one lane or the other. All I ask for is a fair track, and we'll take our chances. Like I said, I know the new owners are really working hard on the place, so I'm anxious to get started."
Most racers and fans will be startled by all of the changes taking place at venerable HeartlandPark. When constructed, the "super track" was considered ahead of its time and state of the art, but more than a decade of minimal improvements allowed the proud facility to backslide its way onto the "less than impressive" list. Now, with aggressive new ownership in place, a transformation is taking place and the racers are looking forward to laying their eyes on HeartlandPark.
"We've been hearing about all the new buildings, the road course, and all of the other stuff they're doing," Worsham said. "Honestly, the place was getting a little rough around the edges in the last few years, so we're all very pumped up to see it first hand. It's a great place, and it deserves this sort of attention and modernization. On top of that, the Topeka fans are just awesome. They're friendly, supportive, and they love their drag racing. I've got my fingers crossed that the weather will be good."
Fingers crossed or not, favorable forecast or not, this is Kansas and the vagaries of heartland meteorology are legendary. In the past decade, NHRA racers have witnessed vicious storms, evacuated their motorhomes in the middle of the night to escape tornadoes, seen the temperature plummet from the 70s on Friday into the upper 20s on Sunday, and stood by as day-long rains pushed the final round of eliminations back until after . There's a reason storm chasers call this part of the country home.
"You can hope the forecast is good, but you can also wad that forecast up and throw it away," Worsham said. "This is the part of the country where all the fronts collide, and weird things happen right in front of your eyes. The tornado deal is always a bit scary, and we've stood in our pit before watching black wall clouds swirl right over our heads. That year it got really cold, they finally had to call the day off because it was just too frozen to do anything. For a California boy like me, where you can copy the weather forecast and post if for weeks at a time, it's always exciting to be in Kansas. I'm hoping for mid-70s and blue skies, and I'm also hoping for a race victory, and maybe to win the lottery. We'll see, and we'll just do our best no matter what we're faced with."