Round one holeshot win sends Burkart to quarterfinal finish
Indianapolis, Monday: There are a number of brutally cold truths about the sport of drag racing, not the least of which is the sudden nature of each loss. One moment, all of the world's potential lays before you, and the next second (literally) it's all over, done, finished, and the action grinds to a halt. Another cruelty inherent in this sport is the competitor's inability to pick his opponent. The match-ups are created by the tournament nature of eliminations and the unfeeling ladder, and not everyone has to run a dominating car. Phil Burkart can clearly attest to all aspects of this vicious endeavor, on both the good side and the bad.
Burkart, making his final appearance in the bright yellow and red colors of the Murray's Discount Auto "Madman Murray" car, had to carry the ball for Team CSK, as his teammate, Del Worsham suffered through yet another of those dastardly drag racing rules. You see, no matter your standing in this sport, or even your popularity, if you don't run in the top 16 during qualifying, you can't be in the race. There are no promoter's options, no sponsor exemptions, and no "back of the pack" provisional starting spots. Worsham ran a sterling 4.806 on his final qualifying pass, one of the most impressive runs during that session, but the record bump spot here was 4.801, and the defending Indy champion could only watch and commentate on television when the race was run on Labor Day.
Burkart suffered no such fate, thanks to a string of solid qualifying runs. His 4.788 on Friday night got the Murray's team started, and his 4.760 on Saturday evening locked him in. A final pass, in the daylight at 4.803, gave Burkart and his team the confidence they needed heading into race day, from the No. 10 position.
"The guys have this car running better and better, and we've seen that coming for a few races now," Burkart said. "Once we got here, the tune-up just evolved with the conditions and we just kept running well. The best part is that the car reacts like it's supposed to when my co-crew chiefs Chris (Cunningham) and Marc (Denner) make changes. We've all gone through spells where the car just acts like a brat and nothing you do fixes it, but right now we have a very good race car."
Heading into Monday's race, from that 10th spot, Burkart had the unenviable task of racing defending POWERade Funny Car champion Gary Scelzi in round one. There's that part about not being able to pick your opponent.
"Well, first of all, this was the quickest Funny Car field in the history of drag racing, so there's no one on the ladder that you want to face," Burkart said. "Everyone is fast, and everyone is amped up to win the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, but getting Gary in round one was one of those 'good news, bad news' things. The good news was that we were in the field, and running well, but the cold reality was that you earned the right to run the champ in round one."
Burkart knew his car could run with Scelzi's, or certainly very close to it. Scelzi's qualifying time of 4.735 was only a blink better than Burkart's 4.760, but both cars had shown consistency throughout the weekend, so any little edge might turn the tide in this one.
As the first pair of Funny Cars to run, Burkart and Scelzi completed their burn-outs and got ready go. Top bulbs, bottom bulbs, and the flash of amber announced the arrival of this race, and Burkart jumped out to a big early lead. He stayed ahead through 330 and 660, pounding down the Indy track while leading Scelzi the whole way. Scelzi was charging hard throughout the back half of this one, though, and it appeared he might just have enough to catch and pass the "Madman" car. At the stripe, the scoreboards showed the facts, and the win lights flashed on Burkart's side of the track.
That big starting line advantage (Burkart reacted to the tree in .054, compared to Scelzi's .116) was the difference, allowing Burkart's very quick 4.789 to take the win over Scelzi's even quicker 4.731. The margin of victory was 4-thousandths of a second; nearly a dead heat.
"I think we earned that one," Burkart said. "Both Del and I have been losing by thousandths all year, and Del missed the field here by 5 thousandths. I was pretty zoned in up there, cut a good light, pointed it straight, and held on. I never saw him, but I've lost at two of the last three or four races when I never saw the other guy, so it sure was cool to see the win light.
At this point, that same "can't pick your competitor" issue reared its ugly mug once again, as Burkart's big hole-shot over Scelzi only earned him a second round date with Robert Hight. As the lone representative from the Force camp to make it out of the first round, Hight had the resources and brain power of the entire John Force conglomerate behind him, while he had also posted low ET of the first round with a huge 4.715 in his win over Bob Gilbertson. As any good host or emcee would say, "The good news, Mr. Burkart, is that your big hole-shot got you into the quarterfinals here at Indy, so congratulations. Now, meet Mr. Robert Hight."
As half of the final pair in round two, Burkart got to watch Jim Head win with a 4.901. He also saw Whit Bazemore move on to the semi-finals with a 5.072, and finally he saw Ron Capps take out Scott Kalitta with 4.865.
This time, Burkart did not get the edge at the line, as Hight jumped out to an early lead and both cars tore down the track. Burkart clicked through the beams at 4.843, while Hight took the win with a 4.808. Sure enough, Burkart's run was quicker than all three of the other second-round winners, but that pesky part about having to beat Robert Hight, rather than any of those other guys, settled the issue.
"You never know how the ladder is going to look until you finish qualifying," Burkart said. "And it doesn't necessarily matter where you end up, because all 16 spots are up for grabs and great cars land all over the grid. We qualified well here, but the ladder threw Gary Scelzi and then Robert Hight at us. There's nothing you can do about it, so you just have to beat the guy they line you up against, and today we went 1-for-2 against two great cars and two great drivers. As badly as we all wanted to keep advancing, I think we all have plenty to be happy about.
"I know this doesn't take even half the sting out of Del's DNQ, which hurt everybody on this team and knocked us all for a loss. But, to deliver that win in the first round for him and Chuck, and to see them both smiling and patting me on the back, well that meant a lot to me. They're going to be fine, and nobody should be surprised if they bounce right back and win the race in Reading in two weeks. The red car is that fast, and you just can't keep Del down for long. Over here, we say goodbye to the Madman car and we get our our reliable blue CSK Monte Carlo back in Reading. As well as Marc and Chris have this car running, Del's biggest hurdle in Reading might be getting by us in the final. Of course, the ladder has to line up so that can happen."
Of course it does. The cold cruel truth about drag racing is that the sport has no feelings. All you can do is run your hot rod, go as fast as you can, and hope for the best. Sometimes you spank the other guy, but the next time you just might get spanked yourself.
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