Monday, September 01, 2008

Some not-so-well-known Indy traditions

With more than 50 years of history, there are plenty of traditions at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, and we on the National DRAGSTER staff have some of our own. Though none of those are 50 years old, they are things we make sure we do each year nonetheless.

Food is at the center of many of our traditions. For example, Phil Burgess has established a menu to follow at the track each year, starting with his favorite of corndogs and a lemon shakeup, followed by a pork sandwich from the world’s fastest barbecue on day two. After that, it’s a free-for-all with everyone going with what sounds best the remaining days. Away from the track, there is a mandatory Steak ‘N’ Shake night, and on Monday, the ND staff gets together with former writer Rob Geiger for a trip to PF Chang’s in downtown Indy, where we always order Chang’s Spicy Chicken, Mongolian Beef, Crispy Honey Shrimp, and Orange Chicken.

A couple of “traditions” are fairly new, and I can say they are my fault as I started both of them. First, a couple of years ago, the Department of Transportation here replaced one of the lights on Raceway Road with a roundabout, and I just can’t come to a roundabout and not go fully around it at least once. So each year when we approach the roundabout, we continue round it at least one full revolution before exiting to our route (I say at least one because this morning’s adventure included two full circles as my colleague Kelly Wade attempted to capture a photo of our roundy-roundy trip).

I also recently got everyone playing what we affectionately call the song game. Nicole Cintron, who works in the ND production department, created the game, which is now catching on like wildfire among the traveling staff. I introduced Phil Burgess and Brad Littlefield to it in Norwalk, and when they arrived with Kelly Wade on Thursday, I discovered they pulled her into the madness. The rules of the song game are simple: when a song comes on the radio, everyone tries to guess the name of the artist that sings the song. Much like the drag racers we cover each week, we are a competitive bunch, and before you know it, the passenger in the front seat is rapidly flipping through the channels as everyone is shouting names and the word, ‘dang,’ (or worse sometimes) is uttered by those who are too slow or can’t quite figure it out. This is the first year the song game has made an appearance in Indy, but I have a feeling it won’t be the last.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Snake's special guest

After running 500 miles in California last night, Kurt Busch, a past champion in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, joined in the quarter-mile fun today at O’Reilly Raceway Park at Indianapolis, coming to the event as a guest of Don “the Snake” Prudhomme, whom Busch met through sponsor Miller Lite. Busch stood on the starting line when Prudhomme’s driver, Larry Dixon, squared off with Troy Buff in round one of Top Fuel, and he was impressed by what he took in.

“NASCAR has four hours of adrenaline that might be at a level of four. This has four seconds that will take you to a level of 10 with the intensity and the excitement and the whole thrill package,” said Busch. “There’s no other comparison in the world. I couldn’t believe that someone could go down the track that quick in that short amount of time.

“I’ve been a car guy from the word go. I was just looking at the schedule trying to match up a date [for an NHRA race]. Since we race all the time, I could never make it to a date, so when I saw this on a Monday, I thought, ‘Monday’s an open date.’ I just didn’t realize how tough it would be to get from L.A. to here. I’m on four hours of sleep. I flew all night, and my head hit the pillow at 6 a.m. for a quick nap.

“I’m intrigued by all types of motorsports. This is the U.S. Nationals, the most prestigious event. You can feel the intensity with the drivers and the owners. That’s why the race fans are here. I had to do this. I had to stop by and see the NHRA at its finest.”

Busch isn’t leaving his NASCAR ride any time soon, but watching in Indy has peaked his interest, and he wouldn’t be opposed to trying the straight line stuff out one day.

“Snake said he’d put me [in the car] for what they call a squirt. I’d love to take a squirt. It would be a thrill,” he said.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Oh the drama!

After an intense Reading event that featured a lot of drama in Funny Car with qualifying setting the U.S. Smokeless Showdown field and the entire 10-car Countdown to 1 field set during eliminations, I knew Indy would be even more dramatic than usual, but I honestly never expected what has already transpired and what is ahead for us tomorrow.

The intensity level is extremely high in Indy right now, especially when you are around the drivers, crews, and other members of the teams fighting for a spot in the playoffs. When Top Fuel pulled up for the final qualifying session, I was sitting with Team Kalitta’s Todd Myers, and you could see the stress in his face as he waited for Morgan Lucas, the driver battling with Kalitta racers David Grubnic and Doug Kalitta for a spot in the playoffs, to pull to the line. Lucas came to the line not qualified, which would eliminate him from the Countdown to 1, and Myers shifted back and forth and took deep breaths as he watched T.J. Zizzo bump into the field with a 3.980 directly in front of Lucas. Then, it was show time for Lucas, and when he smoked the tires thus eliminating any chance of qualifying, Myers let out a sigh of relief and pumped his fist, knowing he could go into tomorrow without Countdown stress to deal with. I even got a smile out of him.

While the Kalitta team’s Countdown drama may be over, the Pro Stock classes will have plenty tomorrow with Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle both determining the final spot in the playoffs. The motorcycle class will take center stage with Hector Arana and Karen Stoffer squaring off in round one in a one-run, winner-take-all battle for the 10th spot. Both racers ventured up to the pressroom once qualifying was over and seemed somewhat relaxed, but I’m sure the drama will be up when they pull up for that match.

When Greg Stanfield failed to qualify in Pro Stock, that opened the door for Warren Johnson to slip by, but it will be a tough feat; “the Professor” has to go to the final round to do it. Even though there are a number of other drivers running more consistently than W.J. right now, I wouldn’t write him off just yet. Crazier things have happened in this sport — remember John Force getting into the Showdown even though most people had pretty much counted him out? If Johnson is going to do it, however, he’s going to have to get past Dave Connolly in round one. The interesting part of that is that Connolly was the driver who bumped W.J. out of the top 10 in the first place. He can now keep him out permanently.

With the high stakes and incredible desire of every driver to win, drama in Indy has always been high, but this year, that has been intensified tremendously by the Countdown, and though I know it means more stress for the drivers fighting for their playoff lives, it’s upped the fun factor for those of us who have the pleasure to watch it live and in person.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Line's shiny new coat

Jason Line’s weekend got off to a cool start when the folks from General Motors gave him a really nice-looking black jacket that he happily modeled for me earlier today. For the last few years, GM has worked with a handful of GM racers on a USO-sponsored tour in Germany to visit U.S. troops at military installments there, and Line has signed on to join this year’s group as they travel oversees. The jacket was presented to Line to officially welcome him as part of the tour, which also includes fellow Pro Stock racers Warren Johnson and Jim Yates and Top Fuel driver Cory McClenathan.

The addition of Line to this year’s tour isn’t the only change to it; the group will also be adding a stop in Kuwait to their itinerary. The quartet of drivers will head to the Middle East country first before their regular stop of Germany.

Though Line admits it will be tough to leave his family for the journey but said there was no way he could possibly turn down this opportunity.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Hey, where's the pink body?

I hadn’t had a chance to check out Ashley Force’s pink rookie of the year body up close yet this weekend, so during one of the breaks in the final Top Fuel qualifying session of today, I ventured out to the staging lanes to check it out. Much to my surprise, though, the pink body was gone and Force’s trusty Castrol GTX one was back on. It turns out the pink body was damaged when Force banged the blower on her run earlier in the day, and though the team worked hard to repair it in time for the second pass today, they came up just short. They will continue the work between now and tomorrow’s first run, and the pink body will return for the rest of the weekend.

But Force wasn’t alone in sporting a different look in the final session; her father, John, also switched bodies, reverting back to the black one he had been running the past couple of events. The team decided to try that one for the final qualifying session alone to check out whether it may help in his quest to bump into the top 12. Unfortunately for John, the new body didn’t improve his fortunes; he ended up 18th.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

A prime viewing spot

My ordinary viewing spot at the racetrack is outside near the starting line or in the press room in the tower, but for today’s first qualifying session, I decided to venture down to National DRAGSTER’s trackside terrace spot, and I’m really glad that I did. This proved to be a great place to watch the action both on and off the track for several reasons. First, with the shortened distance in Top Fuel and Funny Car, those of us in the terrace got an amazing view; the trackside terrace is located right at the 1,000-foot mark, giving us prime viewing for the streaking cars as they completed their runs. It was also an interesting spot to watch Bob Bode’s wild ride, in which a broken fuel line caused his car to catch fire, shoot across track, and hit the wall in the opposite lane, come to a conclusion. Watching his car roll by with flames still emerging from underneath was an interesting thing to see, and one I probably wouldn’t have seen from the starting line.

It was also a great viewing spot because of the company. When I arrived at the trackside terrace, I discovered a number of familiar faces there checking out the action. I had the pleasure of watching the Funny Car qualifying session with Jon Capps, brother of NAPA driver Ron. Jon was part of the Funny Car field here last year, but unfortunately for him, he is on the sidelines for this year’s event. Jon is still pounding the pavement and looking for funding to get back behind the wheel, but with the tough economic times, he, like many others, is finding that to be a little on the tough side. His insights into the Bob Bode run were very interested and much appreciated.

I also ran into Mike Kloeber, who has been sitting on the sidelines for several months since parting ways with Bob Tasca III earlier this season. This is Kloeber’s first trip to the drags since Las Vegas in April. He was upbeat as he talked about pounding the pavement, shaking hands, and talking to several people in hopes of finding something new. Kloeber told me he is trying to enjoy his time off at home, but that he really misses being out here tuning a car. “I’m a lifer,” he told me. Kloeber also pointed out that he had a big advantage in that he can tune either a dragster or Funny Car and be competitive in either, and he is open to tuning either one. He said he’s been talking to several people and is hopeful to return next year or sooner.

I also ran into former Super Comp national champ Jim Hughes, who livened things up a bit (of course, anyone who knows Jim knows that’s pretty much always the case for the jovial owner of Hughes Performance). I was even able to capture his funny fish face before he headed off to get ready for the next round of Super Comp.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Quotes and quips from the NHRA U.S. Smokeless Showdown press conference

There are always announcements and press conferences aplenty at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, including the annual introduction of and chat with the eight qualifiers in both the NHRA U.S. Smokeless Showdown and Ringers Gloves Pro Bike Battle. My fellow ND staffer Brad Littlefield attended the Bike Battle press conference and is offering his take on the happenings there. To counter that, I’m offering my probably not quite as humorous take on the Showdown one.

All eight qualifiers — Ashley Force, Robert Hight, Tony Pedregon, Tim Wilkerson, Ron Capps, Cruz Pedregon, Del Worsham, and John Force — were introduced, and with some very interesting first-round pairings among them, there were, of course, some good quips and funny quotes. Following are some of the comments from the press conference.

Ron Capps on first-round opponent Tim Wilkerson: “He’s one of those guys you always secretly cheered for because he’s such a nice guy. Of course, now that he’s running well, he’s not such a good guy. No, he’s still a nice guy.”

Tony Pedregon on racing brother Cruz first round: “Cruz beat me a lot when we were younger, so hopefully I can pay him back on Sunday.”

Cruz Pedregon in response to brother Tony: “I think he’s probably worn out that beat me up as a kid routine.”

Robert Hight: “It’s tough to get into this [field], and just to be in the top eight is an honor. There are no guarantees in this thing.”

Del Worsham on racing Robert Hight: “I heard Tony and Cruz [Pedregon] talking about racing family, and I have to say that Robert Hight feels like a brother to me.”

Ashley Force, No. 1 qualifier who faces off with dad John in round one: “I’m definitely thrilled to be a part of this. I grew up watching Dad run in this. Running one race a weekend is fun, but running two in one weekend is even better. Dad is one of the toughest out here, and I’m ready to take him.”

John Force on racing his daughter: “I know I have to race the girl, but I didn’t teach her everything.”

Friday, August 29, 2008

A welcome yet bittersweet return

I’ll admit that I am an emotional person by nature. When Michael Phelps accomplished his goal of winning eight Gold medals at the Olympics in China, it brought a tear to my eye. So did watching Nastia Luikin and Shawn Johnson go 1-2 in the gymnastics overall competition there. And weddings? Well, forget about it, just pass the Kleenex. With that in mind, it is no surprise that one of the things that has struck a cord with me this weekend is the return of the DHL Funny Car team to competition with new driver Jeff Arend.

The return is a nice next step in the healing process for not just the team but everyone in the sport, but as my good friend, Todd Myers, who works with Team Kalitta, has so aptly stated, it is a bittersweet next step. It’s nice to see the yellow and red flopper back in the pit area and especially nice to have Arend, one of the truly nice guys in the sport, back behind the wheel. Though I’ll admit it still tugs at my heart to see the car because it does take me back to Englishtown and reminds me of the tremendous loss of Scott Kalitta.

I was in Norwalk when the Kalitta team returned to competition, and when the first Team K car came to the starting line that weekend, I teared up. I’m sure today when Arend, Connie, and the entire DHL crew pull up for the first pass, it will be no different. But there will also be a part of me smiling as well because I know how much running this car and making it competitive means to the team and especially Connie.

It also means a lot to Arend, and though I knew it before, that fact was reinforced yesterday when I had the pleasure of sharing my flights to Indy with Arend’s wife, Windy, and daughter, Jenna. The pair were excited to return to the track (even for the longest race of the year as Jenna pointed out that this is), but their enthusiasm was also a little tempered because as Windy stated so well, “Of course, no one wants to get a ride this way, but it is nice to be back.” I was thrilled when the Kalitta team announced Arend as their new driver because I think he is a class act, and I now can see that doesn’t end in his family with him. His wife and daughter are also pretty classy as well, and I’m thrilled to see them, the DHL Funny Car, and that entire team back out here.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Looking forward to my normal Labor Day

I’ll readily admit that there are occasions when the idea of having a “normal” Labor Day weekend — you know, the traditional type with barbecues, hanging out with friends and family, going to the beach, and so forth — does appeal to me somewhat, and I do imagine what it would be like to have a non-working close to the summer. However, as the days of summer wind down and Labor Day draws closer, I have come to realize that a non-working Labor Day weekend without a trip to the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals would actually be a little strange and really not normal for me, and I am energized and excited about what this year’s event holds in store.

Part of my excitement about this year’s event stems from the fact that I just returned from the Reading national event, which, with its gorgeous weather (who ever thought we’d say that about Reading?!?) and interesting story lines, provided the perfect primer for the Big Go. I can’t recall a more exciting qualifying day in recent history than the Saturday in Reading when the Ringers Gloves Pro Bike Battle and NHRA U.S. Smokeless Showdown fields were set. Though the Bike Battle field was pretty well set entering Reading, the final couple of spots in the Showdown were open. In what really was a stunning turn of events, a couple of contenders failed to qualify for the Reading field, and John Force, considered a long shot to make it, got into the Showdown in the eighth and final spot. What’s more, his daughter, Ashley, moved around brother-in-law and teammate Robert Hight to earn the No. 1 spot on the ladder, creating a Force versus Force first round. Add a Pedregon versus Pedregon match with brothers Tony and Cruz paired against each another, and the Showdown should be very interesting to watch.

Even bigger, of course, is the fact that Indy is the final regular-season event in NHRA’s season, with the Countdown to 1 fields being set in all four Pro classes by the event’s conclusion. Watching the Funny Car field filled in Reading got me amped to see what will happen in the other three classes. Top Fuel is by far the most intriguing of the three categories with spots still open. Three drivers are within 10 points of one another entering the event, so the battle for the final two spots will be well worth the price of admission alone. Add in Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle, which have two and three spots open, and Countdown fever will be intense throughout the weekend.

With these dramatic story lines and being able to watch the conclusion of the exciting Showdown and Countdown shows that began in Reading, it’s hard to imagine sitting at home and watching the action on TV. I guess Phil Burgess’ official U.S. Nationals lunch of corn dogs and lemon shake-ups with my second family here at ND will have to serve as my Labor Day barbecue, and I’m cool with that.