King Demon Crown
Burkart on a mission heading to Joliet
Chicago, prerace: At the most recent stop on the NHRA tour, at Heartland Park in Topeka, Phil Burkart had what he and his team could only describe as "a lousy race." The only thing that made their first-round defeat look even half-way appetizing was the fact their teammate, Del Worsham, failed to make the show at all. It was a weekend the entire Team CSK contingent would like to soon forget, and Burkart will have his chance to provide that sort of convenient amnesia when he takes to the track this weekend at Route 66 Raceway, just south of Chicago in Joliet, once again driving his bright yellow "Madman Murray" Monte Carlo.
As one of the crown jewels on the NHRA POWERade tour, Route 66 is a palace of a race track, known to be the ultimate fan experience. The football-style stadium features all the amenities of any modern arena, the sight lines are perfect, and the echo effect created by the huge superstructure plays in both directions, giving the fans a full dose of nitro thunder while it also allows the race teams the rare opportunity to actually hear the crowd. To get the most out of his Route 66 weekend, Burkart would like nothing better than to hear that crowd first-hand, preferably after a string of successful round wins.
"I've been going to drag races my whole life, and this place pretty much sets the standard," Burkart said. "We have some fantastic venues on the tour, places you'd be proud to take any sponsor, friend, or another professional athlete. Tracks like Las Vegas, Bristol, Sonoma, Pomona, Dallas or Gainesville are all 'big league' and very impressive, but when you walk down to the starting line at Route 66, you get a unique experience. The stadium is huge, it's like being in the end zone at Penn State or Notre Dame, and we can actually hear the crowd. That probably sounds odd to other sports fans, but for us it's pretty rare.
"Most of our tracks have the stands set back, and usually they only have the big grandstand on one side of the track. The crowd noise just kind of drifts away, and a lot of it never gets to us at the starting line. The first time I was standing down there, waiting to run at Route 66, and I heard the crowd roar, it about gave me goosebumps. I was thinking 'So this is what it's like to play baseball or football.' You can actually hear them cheering, and that's very cool. I can't think of anything cooler than standing down there after the final, with a trophy in my hand, listening to the roar."
One good reason for all the audible cheering in Joliet is the track itself, which has a history of providing terrific, if not historic, racing. Throughout the years, monster runs and record passes have become so common at Route 66 they almost become expected. Burkart knows that expectation is a matter of conditions, but he's excited to put his Murray's Discount Auto Monte Carlo to the test.
"This time of year at Joliet, there's no telling if we're going to get those 60-degree sessions where the track is a mine shaft," he said. "It might be hot and sunny, but it could easily be cool and overcast. If that's the case, everyone will be bringing out the big sticks to take their shots at really low numbers. Either way, we're confident we have the Murray's car dialed in well enough to be right there with them.
"Right now, after the disappointment in Topeka and a few rough outings before that, everyone on our team is focused on getting back into the thick of the points chase and winning some rounds. We need to assert ourselves again, and Joliet is just the place to do that. I went to the final round there right after I joined the CSK team in 2003, so the place likes me as much as I like it. With the 'Madman Murray' car this weekend, we aim to make sure the big Route 66 crowd remembers who we are."
A bright yellow car with a Madman on the hood is one way to grab the fans' attention. Putting the Madman into what is sure to be a stout race field will be mission No. 1, followed by a win light in the first round on Sunday. Taking the Madman the rest of the way will be the overriding mission in Joliet. As Phil Burkart might say, in his best Dan Aykroyd/Elwood Blues voice, "We're on a mission from Murray's."
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