Monday, September 01, 2008

Race day happenings

There is nothing like race day at Indy. It’s nonstop with storylines in every class and championship pictures unfolding in the Sportsman categories. Marquee matchups are a dime a dozen. At the U.S. Nationals, even the losers stick around and become fans until the race draws to a conclusion.

It’s difficult to pin down any one race as the most memorable thus far. The fourth round Comp matchup between championship frontrunners Craig Bourgeois and Dan Fletcher certainly ranks up there. The Top Alcohol Dragster semifinal duel between Bill Reichert and Marty Thacker was built up with anticipation. Thacker would have taken the points lead with a win. However, Reichert triumphed and will sit on top if he can derail the Duane Shields freight train in the final.

Top Alcohol Funny Car featured upsets galore. None were bigger than Roger Bateman’s defeat of nine-time Indy winner Frank Manzo in the semifinals. Manzo shook hard, and that was all Bateman needed as he streaked down to a 5.62. Bateman, who has raced everywhere from Canada to Puerto Rico in his long career, is at his first Big Go. Fellow competitor Jeff Wilson ribbed him by claiming that this race was on his bucket list.

  
I was in the U.S. Smokeless pit between the second round and semifinals in Pro eliminations, where crew chiefs Donnie Bender and Todd Smith refer to me as "Bad News Brad" due to the fact that they don't seem to have their best races when I cover Top Fuel. They brought up an interesting point when I was asking them about track conditions.

“We don’t really see track conditions like this anywhere else because no other race has as many cars go down it in the same week,” said Smith. “It’s an uphill battle to keep it prepared by the time Monday comes around, and the NHRA track people do a great job. Bruton Smith’s four-lane deal would be ideal at a race this big if you could run the Sportsman cars on one track all weekend and the Pros on the other.”

The track people really do deserve kudos for a tough job that they don’t often get enough credit for. The fans have been treated to some great side by side racing today.



Sunday, August 31, 2008

Ten years gone

The more things change, the more things stay the same. In 1998, Pat Dakin made his best run of the weekend in the final qualifying session to secure a spot in the Top Fuel field, which was the quickest in history at the time with a 4.73 bump. Larry Dixon was No. 1 qualifier. Cory Mac qualified in the top half, while Bruce Litton and Luigi Novelli missed the cut. Hmm, sounds kind of like this year’s race.

 
In Dakin’s 10-year absence from his last Big Go, I guess things haven’t changed as much as I thought. Dakin and racing partner G.L. Rupp were heavy hitters in their days of following the tour, finishing runner-up to Shirley Muldowney during her first championship season, and he continued to terrorize the touring teams when he raced part time later in his career.

Dakin’s attendance at this race started as an opportunity to have fun. The veteran driver renewed his license earlier this season in Mitch King’s dragster, and they made a ride-for-rent arrangement that worked to Dakin’s liking.

“This is a close race for me, and I thought it would be fun to compete out here,” said Dakin, a resident of Dayton, Ohio. “It’s nice to come out here and see everybody. I have to give credit to the team; they do all the work, and I just drive the thing.”

Dakin stepped up with a 3.94 in the final qualifying session to bump T.J. Zizzo out of a strong field. His performance shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise since his car is tuned by Paul and John “Bodie” Smith, who also tuned former Pro Mod racer Matt Hagan to his first starting field.

Dakin races Cory McClenathan in the opening round. Dakin upset Eddie Hill in the first round the last time that he suited up on Monday, so if past history is any indication, Cory Mac will be in for a helluva fight.



Sunday, August 31, 2008

Quick hit thoughts from the tower

There was a bit of downtime to clear out some notebook items about Mike Lewis, Kimmelyn Buff-Pesz, Jim Whiteley, and Fred Hagen, as Bobby Mirizio had what appeared to be a spectacular drivetrain failure during the final Top Alcohol Dragster qualifying session. His car shook the tires hard and something — it appears on the replay to be the rear section of the transmission — jumped completely out of the car. Bobby safely got the dragster off the track, and safety officials worked to quickly to clean up the parts and pieces.

TAD points leader Jim Whiteley has been sweating it out from outside the field all day. Compounding matters was the uncertainty of getting a final qualifying session when things were put behind schedule. I talked to him when he was in the front of the staging lanes. He said he was nervous, but he did so with a one-liner, a smile, and relaxed body language. His crew chief Norm Grimes has talked about how much fun it is to work for Whiteley, and I can see why. By the way, Whiteley unloaded a 5.33 in the heat of the day to firmly entrench himself in the show.

I snapped a quick picture of Mike Lewis and Kimmelyn Buff-Pesz in the staging lanes. Both have driven Tom Conway’s A/Fuel dragster this season, Buff-Pesz currently and Lewis at the Reading event. Lewis has a rich history in the sport as a former racer who got into the management side of drag racing as a part of the Maple Grove Raceway family and now as the executive vice president of Don Schumacher Racing. Lewis, who earns an A-plus for coolest way to handle a midlife crisis, satisfied his longing for a five-second time slip by getting his TAD license at Frank Hawley’s NHRA Drag Racing School earlier this year.

Lewis put his competition license to good use, occasionally wheeling Justin Grant’s Wonder Wagon Nostalgia Funny Car and renting out Conway’s ride in Reading, which resulted in a runner-up finish to much fanfare. He is making exhibition passes in the N/FC this weekend against fuel altered pilot Lisa Coil (Austin’s wife). Lewis is a class guy who is always so professional and composed that it is cool to see him show his excitement when he talks about getting behind the wheel.

Buff-Pesz always wanted to drive the TAD that her younger brother, current BME Top Fuel driver Troy Buff, drove to three national event wins. She didn’t get the seat when father Willard hung up his helmet, in no small part because she had left to tour the Funny Car match racing circuit that summer with then-boyfriend Mike Dunn. The blonde Texan got to live her dream this season by getting her license in longtime friend Conway’s dragster at Houston Raceway Park and now attending her first U.S. Nationals as a competitor.

I’d like to note that the final qualifying session in Top Alcohol Funny Car was incredible this morning. Six drivers made 5.5-second runs, including a 5.56 by 66-year-old sensation Fred Hagen, who uses Fred Mandoline horsepower to make the most of his limited appearances. Hagen wheeled his aptly-named Dark Horse entry to a career best to claim the top spot until Frank Manzo snaked it away in the final pair by two-thousandths. In an interesting bit of trivia, Hagen beat Manzo in the second round at this race for two years in a row in 1981 and ’82.



Sunday, August 31, 2008

Thoughts on A.J., caption contest

Good morning. We are prepared for a busy Sunday as the early action has been filled with Super Gas and Super Comp re-runs from yesterday as well as the second round of Comp and the final alcohol qualifying session before we get back into the Pros at 11 a.m. The NHRA U.S. Smokeless Showdown is looming, and Sportsman action is heating up at the start of eliminations. It’s been a typical Indy, and by typical I mean earthshaking announcements having been dropping like CIC indexes.

The A.J. bombshell is on the minds and tongues of seemingly everyone in the pits. There is a great deal of speculation as to who the drivers and crew chiefs will be and how both Alan Johnson’s and Don Schumacher’s teams will be organized/re-organized. The U.S. Army team insists they are focused on the now, which means winning their fifth straight NHRA POWERade world championship. I love Larry Dixon’s quote and accompanying devilish smirk in the pressroom when asked if a situation like that could be a distraction: “I hope so.”

I’m most interested to see whether or not the remainder of the U.S. Army team stays intact after this season. There are endless possibilities in personnel shifts that could be made at DSR, but I think the best bet for continued success would be to promote Assistant Crew Chief Jason McCulloch — who has been second in command during A.J.’s entire tenure at DSR — and keep things rolling. Of course, many of the crewmembers will be tempted to follow A.J. to his new venture and continue learning from “the Man.” Purely speculating, I don’t think Jason will be one of them due to his position at DSR, in which he is able to work and communicate with famous father Ed “the Ace” on a daily basis. Their offices are right next door to each other, as are their pit areas. Again, these are the pure speculations of an outsider.

  
As Top Alcohol Funny Cars are pulling into the waterbox, I leave you with a photo of Funny Car drivers Frank Hawley and Mike Neff that I took at the top end yesterday. If you can think of a better caption than the three I listed below, shoot me an e-mail at blittlefield@nhra.com.

1. Frank: Alan Johnson is doing what?

2. Mike: We spent five minutes making up a new firewall at our Indy shop on the CNC band saw.

Frank: You have a CNC band saw?

Mike: Yep. You don’t? So anyways, Medlen made up this new program on the CNC tube bender…

3. Mike: I remember when you and Austin won the 1982 Funny Car title. That was a good year for me, too. That’s when I got my driver’s license.



Saturday, August 30, 2008

The end (of the racetrack) is only the beginning

Though I don’t usually take photos at the races, I occasionally like to grab my digital point-and-shoot and join Jerry Foss — a real-life photographer and a good one at that — at the top end. I did so during the first Pro qualifying session this morning. I was a little hesitant since the last time I stayed at the top end during a session of the Pros was at the fateful final qualifying session in Englishtown this season, so doing so today was my way of getting back on that horse.

  
  
It’s a great deal of fun down there. You get to catch the drivers at their most candid moments. Drivers who are polite and composed in the pits can become swearing madmen after the adrenaline worked up during a run brings them to the height of emotion. It’s refreshing to see a more candid side of all the drivers.

I’m endlessly amazed by the crews who, to aid in the 75-minute turnaround, begin tearing down the cars at the top end before they get towed back to the pits. As crewmembers are hooking up the tow straps to the cars, others are unfastening valve covers, tin, and fuel lines in a frantic hurry.

Many of the Pro Stock drivers congregate after their runs as they wait for their respective tow vehicles. Their lingo is interesting. The many Southern-born drivers implore about each other’s runs by asking, “What it go?” Jerry Foss pointed out the use of the word “small” in place of “some oil” (as in: “It’s slippery out there. I think there’s small on the track.)

Racers are always happy to qualify on top, but I don’t think many can match the enthusiasm of Hector Arana. The likable Pro Stock Motorcycle veteran hung around after running a strong 6.95, and his competitors were quick to congratulate him with hugs (female riders) or fist-pounds (male riders). Arana was happy to see Redell Harris step up to a 7.15. He had helped Harris get his bike straightened out the night before, and Harris stayed up working until 3 a.m. Shawn Gann seemed pretty happy, too, as he showed off his wedding band after getting married last Friday.

Jerry and I went back to the starting line for the Ringers Gloves Pro Bike Battle opening ceremonies. I got a cool picture of Vance & Hines/Screamin’ Eagle/Harley-Davidson riders Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec posing in crouching positions. I thought they looked like ninjas.

During the fuel sessions, John Force once again proved that you never know what to expect when there is a microphone in front of him. He began his top-end interview with rapid-fire, incomplete sentences that involved the mention of his plethora of sponsors. He closed with a tangent on the new safety net at the end of the track that ended with him saying, “It’s almost enough to make a man want to crash.” Um, what?! There’s only one John Force.



Friday, August 29, 2008

Live bloggin' the Ringers press conference

The press conference for the Ringers Gloves Pro Bike Battle was, like a drag race, short and sweet. Bob Frey emceed and introduced the eight Pro Stock Motorcycle combatants who are going to battle for the $25,000 bonus tomorrow. Kelly Wade and I joined the media crowd at the Top Eliminator Club for the event at 3:00 p.m., and I jotted down some notes.

3:03: It’s hot, it’s humid, but nobody is swayed from attending. Bob Frey tells us why we’re there and delivers his monologue.

3:07: The males in the crowd momentarily lose focus as Ringers Gloves representative Mindy Stephens (a former Indianapolis Colts cheerleader) steps up to the podium to deliver a statement on behalf of the company.

3:09: The first pair of drivers are introduced with a video montage of bikes under power accompanied by a “da dun da dun” guitar riff worthy of a Beavis and Butt-head imitation. It ends with an image of a boxing ring and a loud “Ding! Ding! Ding!” Frey closes it with, “Your No. 4 qualifier, Eddie Krawiec!” A door opens up, pre-race style, and Eddie walks out and waves. Angelle Sampey is introduced behind him, and Bob points out how she has accomplished almost every feat in Pro Stock Motorcycle except a win at this special event. Said Sampey, “We just didn’t feel like winning it yet.”

3:11: I’m tempted to laugh as Eddie Krawiec is interrupted during a pair of Top Alcohol Funny Car burnouts on the racetrack. He is impressive in his handling of media during the distractions with crisp stops and starts during the disruptions.

3:12: Ding! Ding! Ding! Frey directs the crowd, “Let’s give a nice round of applause for Andrew Hines!” The Vance & Hines team is usually a shoe-in at this event with seven wins (three by Drew). His opponent is introduced as “No. 6 qualifier [six-second pause for Top Alcohol Funny Car run] Karen Stoffer!”

3:14: Ding! Ding! Ding! An introduction is made for “your reigning POWERade champion,” Matt Smith, and another burnout is made on the racetrack. The noise interruptions reminded me of a wedding I went to one time at a church near the racetrack in Pomona that was held during Top Fuel qualifying at the NHRA Finals on a Saturday. I couldn’t refrain from giggling every time the ceremony was disrupted by a pair of fuelers shaking the earth. The bride had previously told me she should have researched the suspiciously open time slot a little more when planning the wedding. Ya think?

3:15: Matt Smith is lovably misspoken. He refers to his first round opposition, Chris Rivas and the Drag Specialties team, as “a tough component.”

3:16: Another Top Alcohol Funny Car side-by-side run is made. A chipper Chip Ellis is introduced, and he steps aside and points to the opening as Matt Guidera is being introduced. Guidera is stylish in shorts and sandals, prompting Frey to ask the audience, “Can you guess which one of these two is from California?” Chip’s onstage report with Frey is like that of a confident game show contestant. He begins answering Frey’s first question with, “I’ll tell you what, Bob…” He gets a laugh as he warns the Vance & Hines team that he has been “practicing karate.” Peace is restored to the press conference, making me wonder if there had been an oildown (there was).

3:19: Drivers were open for questions. Someone in the front was totally put up to asking Matt Smith if his new in-house chassis were available to other competitors for sale (they are). Bob Frey asked Angelle about her ability to concentrate while homes were being evacuated in Louisiana due to the hurricanes. She humorously had trouble recalling the word “evacuate” but was otherwise eloquent while expressing her concern for her family and pets and informing us that her boyfriend Seth was out of reach while being activated by the National Guard. She said to the audience, “I might not have a place to go home to, so is it okay if I stay with one of you after the race?”

3:22: The press conference was over and an autograph session began, but not before Chip Ellis could get one last word. Ellis got on the microphone and posed a question for Bob Frey: “Bob, how’d you become so good lookin’?” Chip is great. As much as I wanted to get a Chris Rivas autograph on my arm for a tattoo artist to trace later, I bolted to watch the remainder of alcohol qualifying. After all, tattoos are forever.



Friday, August 29, 2008

An even bigger 'Go' for young drivers

 
 
The Winternationals might be the ultimate race for seeing new faces in new places. However, the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals has no shortage of such as it kicks off silly season and hosts plenty of ambitious debuts.

Two of the new faces in the pits are Nick Morgan, the 19-year-old son of Pro Stock stalwart Larry Morgan, and Shane Gray, the heir apparent to father Johnny Gray’s Pro Stock seat, both of whom are racing in Comp Eliminator. From the looks of the two teams, it’s difficult to figure out who is having more fun between the parents and the kids.

Morgan (pictured above) is definitely his father’s son. He works in his dad’s shop and is just as passionate about racing and having fun. Aside from the go-fast gene, he flashes the same smile when he offers a one-liner. I noted how many of the issues he had faced with his B/AP ’06 Stratus during early qualifying must have made things exciting when he cracked, “I live with him [points at Larry]. Everyday’s an adventure.”

I remember Gray from the alcohol pits on the West Coast during the time that his father, Johnny, beat out John Weaver for the 1998 Division 7 Top Alcohol Funny Car championship. The elder Gray has raced in almost every class there is to offer, and he is well known for being the first Comp racer to go over 200 mph. Shane’s experience behind the wheel of his B/A ’06 Stratus is intended as a solid training ground for a career in Pro Stock.

During my pit side wanderings, I caught a glimpse of familiar faces in new places. Bobby Mirizio (pictured) is a solid bracket racer from Southern California who has been looking for an alcohol ride for some time, and he finally got his wish. Mirizio, 23, is taking over one of Steve and Patti Federlin’s Top Alcohol Dragsters with M&M Metals signage after Steve and former driver Tom Bayer had a falling out. Mirizio, a firefighter who resides in Riverside, Calif., worked with Bayer at the Frank Hawley NHRA Drag Racing School in Pomona. It is quite a challenge to make your competitive debut in a new class at the biggest race of the year, but Mirizio is happy to be thrown into the fire.

Zach Beard, Top Alcohol Dragster rookie and son of legendary crew chief Lee Beard, is also making his national event debut behind a proven race car, the A/Fuel dragster out of the Morgan Lucas Racing stable. Although Lucas’ team was released when the car was parked earlier this season, Scott Trimble came back and tuner Steve Boggs returned while dividing his efforts between Brandon Lewis’ A/Fueler and the Top Alcohol Funny Car driven by Von Smith. The rest of Beard’s team is filled out by ringers such as alcohol-class veteran Bobby Stilwell.

Be sure to check back in as I’ll report more news and notes throughout the weekend.



Monday, August 25, 2008

Here's to a magnificent seventh

It’s that time of year. I can hear the words of legendary announcer Dave McClelland ringing in my head as we are merely days away from "the granddaddy of them all,” the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals.

Two things happen to me every time Indy is set to begin. The first is the deep breath I have to take when thinking about the preparation for the event and all the aspects of life that need to be situated when one leaves home for that long. The second is the jolt I receive when setting foot on the hallowed grounds of O’Reilly Raceway Park at Indianapolis and basking in the electric atmosphere for the first time each year.

For National DRAGSTER’s annual U.S. Nationals Sportsman souvenir issue, I did a feature story on six-time Indy winner Peter Biondo’s experiences at the race. I thought his insight was well-put when he said, “I’m guilty of dreading being away for that long. Once you get there, you say, ‘What was I thinking? This is great.’ I’m not even talking about winning. I’m talking about just being there and seeing people who you don’t get to see all year long.”

Indeed, racers come from across the country in their bids to be a part of Indy folklore. It is an event of such magnitude that you also see many prominent racers from the sport's past as well as sponsors and manufacturers roaming the pits. This year will mark the seventh time I’ve been to Indy, and every one has been memorable.

My dad took me to Indy for the first time when I was 10, the 40th anniversary race in 1994. I went into sensory overload looking at all the cars (particularly alcohol cars) that I had only seen and read about in National DRAGSTER. I had never been farther from my native Southern California than Dallas for a race, so it was thrilling to watch a Top Alcohol Funny Car race being contested with guys like Bob Newberry, Frank Manzo, Tony Bartone, and Vern Moats along with the tough West Coast guys I was used to like Pat Austin and Randy Anderson.

 
Frank and Michele Manzo were kind enough that year to let my dad and me use their trailer as a kind of home base. I was even put to work one night cleaning tin. Despite having no Indy titles since 1986, Manzo was on his game and won the race, and Dad and I were in the winner’s circle with him (recognize the kid on the left?). That might be the closest I ever get to winning Indy, but I’ll take it.

I got to go back in 1995 and witness another piece of Indy history. I was keeping track of qualifying for both alcohol classes on my notepad and going around the pits after each run to show racers where they stacked up. That just happened to be the year that Michael Bartone was the second alternate in Top Alcohol Dragster. I think Bartone must have thought somebody had put me up to something when I told him that Bill Barney and Darryl Hitchman weren’t able to come back for eliminations, but as soon as he received confirmation, his team was thrashing to service the car. The possibility of the second alternate winning the event became less remote as each round went on until he defeated Tom Conway in the final.

The last Indy I went to before beginning this job in 2005 was an unplanned trip in 1997. My parents and I went to an event in Norwalk the week before Indy and planned to go home afterward. However, I had an invite from Robert Reehl to stay with him in Indy and ride home in his truck and trailer if I could find my way there. Gary Sumek from Lenco Transmissions was going from Norwalk to Indy and graciously offered to take me with him. My parents didn’t really know what to think of their 13-year-old son’s proposition of going cross-country without them, but the plan was laid out well and involved people they trusted, so off I went.

Indy is a great event with much more in store. As frantic as I am trying to get ready, come this weekend, there will be no place I’d rather be.