|Monday, September 01, 2008
Sportsman action on the final day of Indy
Once pro qualifying ended yesterday and the fields in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock, and Pro Stock Motorcycle were set, the sportsman racers took over O’Reilly Raceway Park with several rounds of eliminations that ran late into the night. In case you missed it, here are some of the highlights.
Racing at night, conditions improved dramatically leading to some Comp drivers to take big index hits in order to turn on the win light. It is not unheard of for a Comp racer to lift early and let his opponent win a round if it preserves the index, cut that philosophy pretty much goes out the window at Indy because no rational person would willingly give up a chance to win the sport’s marquee event.
Heading into the quarterfinals today, Frank Cervelli, Dan Fletcher, Craig Bourgeois, Doug Engles, Adam Hickey, David Eaton, Bo Butner, and Bill Riemenapp are still in the running in Comp. The most interesting quarterfinal match involves Fletcher and Bourgeois, who are currently ranked first and second in the Lucas Oil points standings. Both drivers can still claim points at Indy so this match might well decide the championship. Fletcher had the quicker car in qualifying but he was forced to take a big index hit in his round two match against David Rampy.
Fletcher and Rampy are two of the many former national champions that are still in the running for a Mac Tools U.S. Nationals title. The others are Steve Cohen (Super Comp), Sherman Adcock Jr. (Super Comp), Ron Erks (Super Gas), Anthony Bertozzi (Stock), Al Corda (Stock) and Edmond Richardson (Stock).
Richardson, who proudly wears his special edition “hard card” for being named as one of NHRA’s top 50 racers in 2001, has accomplished just about everything possible in drag racing but he has surprisingly never won a Mac Tools U.S. Nationals title.
“I keep coming back year after year and someday I’m going to get it done,” said the 40-time national event winner. “My daughter, Ashley is going to have a baby in a few months which means that I’m going to be a grandfather soon so I really want to get it done sooner rather than later.”
Heading into Sunday’s final eliminations, there is one racer who can still pull off an unprecedented feat by doubling up at Indy. Division 5 ace Jeff Cheney is still alive in Super Comp and Super Gas. Cheney has been especially tough in Super Comp with four-straight 8.90 passes in his dragster. This morning, Cheney relocated his entire pit area closer to the starting line in anticipation of a long day of racing.
|Sunday, August 31, 2008
Pay to the order of Frank HawleyI was down at the top end of the track this morning for the first round of Pro qualifying and had a chance for a brief chat with Frank Hawley as he climbed out from underneath the body of Roger Burgess’ Rite Aid Dodge Funny Car. Frank looked genuinely excited to be racing again at Indy, especially after posting a 4.17 that placed him solidly into the quick field.
Most people are already well aware that Hawley is a Hall of Fame driver with a pair of NHRA championships on his résumé and that he is also the founder of the drag racing school that bears his name. As a teacher, Hawley has literally helped launch the careers of hundreds if not thousands of aspiring drag racers. What some might not realize is that Hawley is also a world class storyteller with a seemingly endless repertoire of fascinating tales from his 30-plus years in the sport. One of my personal favorites is the story of how he won the inaugural Big Bud Shootout (currently the NHRA U.S. Smokeless Showdown) in 1982. I’ve probably heard Frank recall the story a half-dozen times over the years, and it never fails to get a laugh, so I asked him if he’d mind if I repeated it in my blog. He just grinned at me and said, “Sure, I think its common knowledge by now anyway.”
In 1982, Hawley was a brash confident 20-something Canadian who was chasing his first championship behind the wheel of the legendary Farkonas, Coil, and Minick Chi-Town Hustler. Under funded but not lacking for talent or motivation, the Chi-Town Hustler team entered Indy on a roll after winning Gainesville, Columbus, and the most recent event in Brainerd. Hawley’s early-season success also allowed the team to qualify for the inaugural Big Bud Shootout at Indy.
As Hawley tells it, he was working in the pit area alongside crew chief Austin Coil when he was approached by a couple of men dressed in suits. One of them asked, “Are you Frank Hawley?”
“As soon as I saw them, my first thought was, ‘Hey these guys must be sponsors,’ ” Hawley recalled. “So I got up, wiped the grease off my hands, and said, ‘Yes, I’m Frank Hawley. What can I do for you?’ ”
As it turns out the men were not corporate executives looking to back the low buck Chi-Town team nor were they well-dressed autograph seekers. They were actually Federal Immigration agents who immediately took Hawley into custody. When qualifying began at Indy, Hawley remained in the Indianapolis police station while immigration officials reviewed the status of his work visa. Instead of continuing his pursuit of the NHRA Funny Car title at the sport’s biggest event, he faced the very real possibility of being deported to his native Canada.
“I was told that I didn’t have the correct visa to be earning a living in the United States,” said Hawley. “The whole thing was a big mess, and NHRA’s lawyer came in and helped us get it straightened out. We told the Feds that I made my living with a small welding shop at home in Ontario, and that I only drove the race car on weekends, and that I drove it for free. Finally, they let me go, and I was allowed to go back to the track and race.
“As most people know we went on to beat Don Prudhomme in the final to win the first Big Bud Shootout,” Hawley said. “The real kicker was that after convincing these Federal Agents that I drove the race car for free, the next day’s Indianapolis Star newspaper ran a big picture of me on the front page holding up a big check for $25,000 that said, 'Pay to the order of Frank Hawley.' I can only imagine the looks on those agents' faces when they saw that.”
|Sunday, August 31, 2008
Wait till next year...I’m pretty certain that Angelle Sampey is not a Chicago Cubs fan, but I do believe that she can relate to generations of eternal optimists (like myself) who have waited a century for the beloved North Siders to end their lengthy World Series drought. The Cubs haven’t won a championship since 1908, the same year that Henry Ford revolutionized the transportation industry by introducing the Model T Ford, but they’ve currently got one of the best records in baseball, leading millions to believe that this might actually be their year.
Entering Indy, Sampey also had reason to believe this was going to be the year that she finally overcame a decade of frustration and bad luck and claimed her first win in the Ringers Gloves Pro Bike Battle. While Cub fans will have to wait until the playoffs start in another month to learn their fate, Sampey is already singing the familiar refrain “wait till next year” after losing in the opening round of yesterday’s special bonus event. For those keeping score, she is now 0-12 in Battle events despite a résumé that includes three POWERade world championships and 41 wins.
Sampey entered Saturday's event as the No. 5 seed, and after reaching back to back final rounds in Brainerd and Reading, she appeared more than capable of defeating opening-round opponent Eddie Krawiec. Unfortunately for Sampey, she never got the chance as a clutch bearing in heir S&S-powered Buell came apart on the starting line, and she was unable to make the run against Krawiec.
“I guess I was never meant to win this race,” said an obviously dejected Sampey. “The clutch bearing just exploded, and the parts got jammed in the clutch. It was just one of those freak things that happens, and there was nothing that I could do about it. At some point, you just have to laugh and wonder if you’re ever going to win this thing. You wonder how many different way you can find to lose it. I’ve broke on the starting line. I’ve red-lighted. I’ve been beat on holeshots. Basically, I’ve been beat just about every way you can think of.”
As if losing the Pro Bike Battle isn’t enough, Sampey also has other more important matters on her mind. Her home in Mathews, La., is in the projected path of Hurricane Gustav, and her boyfriend, Seth Dragoo, had to miss the U.S. Nationals after he was activated by his National Guard unit.
“If we take another direct hit from this hurricane, that’s it; I’m all done,” said Sampey. “I’ll sell my house and move someplace else. I’ll never leave Louisiana because that’s my home, but I’d certainly consider moving to the northern part of the state. The area where I live is still recovering from Hurricane Katrina three years ago, and I just don’t know if we can go through that again.”
If Sampey never wins the Ringers Pro Bike Battle she shouldn’t lose sleep over it because she is in good company. The late Dave Schultz, who currently holds the NHRA records for most wins (45) and most championships (five) by a Pro Stock Motorcycle racer, also never won the Ringers Battle and neither did two-wheel pioneer Terry Vance, who retired in 1988, three years before the annual bonus event made its debut at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals.
“Of course, I want to win it,” she said. “The money is great, and our team is still looking for additional sponsorship, so it would really be useful to us. The only positive is that if I was going to break on the starting line, it didn’t happen on Monday. Hopefully, I will win it someday, and hopefully, I’ll double up on Monday and win Indy as well.”
|Saturday, August 30, 2008
Not just a drag race, also a great car show
There are nearly 1,000 race cars competing in this year’s Mac Tools U.S. Nationals and many of them would be equally as competitive on the show car circuit as they are on a drag strip.
Cruising through the expansive pit area of O’Reilly Raceway Park earlier today, I couldn’t help but notice that there are also a large number of cool cars that aren’t in competition this weekend. Everything from vintage muscle cars, street rods, and customs are on display. Obviously the love of hot rodding that helped fuel drag racing’s early days is still alive and well this weekend. Here are a few of my favorites.
Can't afford a real SS/AH Hemi car? This street legal version of the popular '68 Hurst Hemi Barracuda has been on display all weekend in the sportsman pits. Needless to say, it has attracted a lot of attention.
The classic looks of the '55 Chevy Bel Air never go out of style. This exceptionally clean example has been sitting in the Sportsman pits all weekend and it has attracted it's fare share of curious onlookers.
Everyone who races in Top Alcohol Dragster needs a tow car but how many use a four-door Plymouth Valiant station wagon? This one, which I believe is a 1964 model, is used by Dave Hirata's injected nitro team.
This '68 Camaro might be the cleanest muscle cars I've ever seen. It reportedly belongs to Hemi Super Stock racer Larry Woo and it has to be seen to be belived. It's for sale but I was afraid to ask the price.
This gorgeous '68 Hemi Dart is the first offering from B2 Motorsports, a partnership between George Bryce and Ray Barton. It is street legal and has factory air conditioning but is also guaranteed to run in the nines.
Longtime engine builder Dave Koffel has owned and raced some of the coolest cars in the sport. He also travels in style on the streets, driving this vintage Dodge panel truck to Indy from his home in Michigan.
|Friday, August 29, 2008
It's Hemi timeNext to Monday’s final rounds, or possibly a tire smoking nostalgia run by one of “Big Daddy” Don Garlits’ Swamp Rat dragsters, one of my favorite sights each year in Indy is the “elephant parade” which takes place at the tail end of the first round of Super Stock class eliminations, just prior to the first round of the Mopar Hemi Challenge. It’s an amazing sight to see the entire field of vintage eight-second Dodge Dart and Plymouth Barracuda factory race cars rumble down the return road in front of the main grandstand. With 28 SS/AH entries in this year’s Hemi Challenge, the line stretched the entire length of the track as drivers headed to the staging lanes to be paired for the opening round of the Challenge.
Breakage usually takes a heavy toll on the SS/AH class but not this year as all 28 entries that are on the grounds at O’Reilly Raceway Park at Indianapolis answered the call. Once all of the Hemi cars made it to the back of the lanes, a lengthy debate ensued as no one wanted to go first. Division 4 coordinator and staging lane director finally solved the dilemma by randomly picking a number, and then sending the Dodge Dart’s of Jim Pancake and Jeff Kobylski to the front of the lanes.
The first round is now in the books, and there were only a few surprises. Don Bales, whose new Silver Bullet Barracuda is a contender for the Best Appearing and/or Engineered Car awards, pulled off a mild upset when he downed No. 8 qualifier Randy Warford. Chuck Comella also advanced from the bottom half of the ladder when he took out No. 3 qualifier Larry Woo.
At this point, the War Fish entries of Charlie Westcott Jr. (right), and his father, Charlie Sr., have the field covered. Charlie Sr. set low elapsed time of the day after driving his four-speed Plymouth to an 8.66 in his win over J. Allen Sherman. Before the round, Charlie Jr. stopped me in the staging lanes to tell me that his father was pretty steamed that I’d left him out of the Hemi Challenge Tricky Tipster in this week’s National DRAGSTER. I tried to explain to Charlie that I might have actually done his dad a favor. I told him how Bucky Hess has repeatedly asked me not to put him at the top of the Tipster because he thinks it’s a jinx, but he wasn’t hearing it.
“Dad wasn’t too happy when he opened the DRAGSTER this week and saw Tricky Tipster,” Westcott told me. “You got him fired up, and now he’s really motivated to win this thing. He’s going to take it out on the rest of us. Thanks a lot.”
Charlie Jr., whose car is equipped with an automatic, ran a few minutes after his father and put up an 8.679 against Al Smyth, who fouled. The Westcotts, who build their own engines, now have a tenth on the rest of the field as Jim Daniels is the only other driver in the 8.7s with an 8.75.
Earlier this week, I made a friendly Hemi Challenge wager with NHRA announcer Bob Frey. I took Charlie Westcott Jr., and he has the other 27 drivers. Although I’m admittedly concerned about Charlie Sr., I still like my chances.
|Friday, August 29, 2008
Taking Stock of class eliminations
The piles of rapidly melting ice and empty plastic bags that littered the rear of the ORP staging lanes Thursday morning could only mean one thing: it was time for Stock Class Eliminations. Some of the most populous classes were A/SA, which featured 12 cars, and B/SA, which had a mammoth 16-car field, and C/SA, which boasts an equally robust 15-cars. In some eliminators, the eventual champ had to win four rounds in order to claim the title.
Former Stock national champion Randy Wilkes prevailed in the A/SA class after Thomas Arnett fouled in the final round. Another former national champ, Jimmy DeFrank, who debuted his new Stock Eliminator Camaro earlier this year, won in B/SA when he beat the previously unbeatable Shelby Mustang of Bill Hawk, 10.260 to 10.269. Finally, Jim Boudreau, the 1989 U.S. Nationals winner, won in C/SA by defeating former national champion Edmond Richardson in the final. Stock drivers will have a day off today with the exception of those lucky individuals who were flagged by the NHRA Tech Department for a teardown inspection.
Thursday’s Stock runs also yielded a milestone of sorts as John Shaul, the winner of the Summitracing.com NHRA Nationals in Las Vegas last April, drove his vintage AA/SA Plymouth to a 9.98, the first nine-second Stock Eliminator run at the U.S. Nationals.
With more than 160 drivers vying for just 128 spots there were bound to be some notable DNQs in Stock Eliminator, especially with the new qualifying format that does not seed class winners into the field. Among the drivers who did not make the cut are recent Reading winner and current championship contender Anthony Fetch, former Stock national champ Kevin Helms, and Troy Henderson, last year’s 10th-ranked Stock driver.
|Thursday, August 28, 2008
There will be bloodNearly 1,000 racers are on the grounds of O’Reilly Raceway Park at Indianapolis, and when the 54th annual Mac Tools U.S. Nationals is in the books, just about every one of them will have a unique story to tell about his or her adventures at NHRA’s oldest and most prestigious event. When it comes to attention-grabbing escapades, the early leader in the clubhouse would have to be Division 6 Super Stock racer Sean Cour.
Cour, who has made the long the trip from Washington to Indy for the last four years, entered the event as one of the pre-race favorites to claim the class win in the ultracompetitive GT/AA class. On his first run, Cour wounded his best engine in his colorful Chevy Cobalt, but after changing engines, the real adventure came during Wednesday’s second pass.
“As soon as the car launched, the steering wheel came off in my hands,” Cour explained. “It scared ... me. As soon as I realized what was happening, I locked up the brakes, but the car was headed straight for the wall, so I did the only thing I could think of and grabbed the [steering shaft] and twisted it as hard as I could.”
Cour stopped the car inches from the retaining wall, but he paid a painful price for it as the sharp splines on the steering shaft left him bloodied and bruised with numerous cuts on his left hand. After a brief visit to the O’Reilly Raceway Park Care Center, Cour was back in action Thursday.
“After I got the car stopped and my heart started beating again, I just popped the wheel back on, fired the car up, and drove it to the end of the track,” said Cour. “When the Safety Safari saw all the blood running down my arm, they made me go get checked out by the doctor, but thankfully I didn’t need any stitches. I’m a little sore, but I’ll be ready for class [eliminations] tomorrow.”
Cour is one of a dozen drivers battling for the win in GT/AA, a class that has become second only to the SSAH NHRA Mopar Hemi Challenge in terms of competitiveness. Several prominent GT/AA drivers and their supporters have been trading barbs on Internet message boards for the last several months, and the debate finally reached the “Put your money where your mouth is” stage. As a result, tomorrow’s GT/AA class champ can expect to pocket a substantial amount of money in addition to the NHRA contingency awards. Also, Bob Pagano, who is well-known for his charitable work with the Disabled Youth Awareness program, working in conjunction with BrandSource,will award the GT/AA class winner a Whirlpool side-by-side refrigerator valued at $1,400.
|Wednesday, August 27, 2008
Harry is here
Following a fairly uneventful five-hour flight, I've officially arrived in Indianapolis for what will be my 25th U.S. Nationals.
I know that Indy is a long event, and I probably could have taken the easy road and flown on Thursday with the rest of the ND, staff but that isn't my style. There's more than 800 Sportsman entries on the grounds, and tomorow will be a full day of qualifying and class eliminaitons for Stock, and I don't plan on missing any of it.
After picking up my rental car, I quickly made my way to O'Reilly Raceway Park at Indianapolis this afternoon, and I wasn't here 15 minutes before the first big pro story of the weekend began to unfold.
After initially announcing that he would not attend Indy after the sudden departure of former rider Craig Treble following last week’s race in Reading, team owner Harry Lartigue’s big purple rig rolled into O’Reilly Raceway Park this afternoon. Lartigue, who won the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals title last year with Treble, had a change of heart following a lengthy discussion with new rider Mac McAdams.
“I was done and was just about to take my rig back to Houston, and then Mac called me and asked me what it would take to ride my bike at Indy,” said Lartigue. “We talked for a while and finally came to an agreement, and now here we are. Obviously, we have our work cut out for us because he hasn’t ridden my bike, but I’m looking forward to seeing what we can do together.”
McAdams, of Edgewater, Md., races a nitrous oxide-equipped Pro Outlaw entry in the popular MiRock Series. He has made one prior appearance in Pro Stock Motorcycle on the NHRA tour, at the 2007 ACDelco Gatornationals.
|Monday, August 25, 2008
What do Matt Smith and I have in common?This year will mark my 25th consecutive trip to the Big Go, so some simple arithmetic dictates that I’ve spent about five months of my life in and around Clermont. I have millions of great memories from the last two and a half decades and unfortunately a few painful ones. Although I’m generally not the type person to dwell on the negative stuff, in light of recent events, I just can’t help myself.
The recent events I’m referring to are Matt Smith’s Pro Stock Motorcycle wins in Brainerd and Reading -- more specifically, Matt’s tough battle with kidney stones while he was winning those back-to-back races.
By now, pretty much everybody knows the story of how Smith fought through excruciating pain to claim his third win of the season in Brainerd and how he won again a week later in Reading despite passing just three of the 10 (yikes!) stones that he’d been diagnosed with. Because Matt is his own crew chief and generally works with a small team, he didn’t have the luxury of relaxing in the comfort of his trailer’s lounge between rounds. He had to tough it out each round, which makes his story that much more impressive.
If you’ve never had a kidney stone, consider yourself lucky. Actually, you should feel like a lottery winner because the little buggers hurt so much it’s difficult to describe the agony to someone who hasn’t had the experience. I’ve been told more than once that the pain of a kidney stone is equal to the pain a woman feels during childbirth. Obviously, I have no way of knowing if that is true, but if it is, I’m shocked that any woman would ever consider having more than one child. Suffice it to say, having a kidney stone is a miserable experience, and it’s even more difficult when you are at a racetrack many miles from home or in Matt’s case, trying to defend a POWERade world championship.
My own battle began not long after I arrived in Indianapolis for the 1993 Mac Tools U.S. Nationals. Shortly after checking into the palatial Clarion Waterfront, I began to get the feeling that something was amiss. I felt a dull pain in my backside. Nothing major, I thought. After all, I just spent the last two hours crammed into a middle seat on a crowded plane.
After relaxing for a couple of hours, the pain didn’t go away; in fact, it got worse. Much worse. Once the pain became unbearable, fellow Senior Editor Steve Waldron offered to drive me to the hospital. Steve’s offer was generous but costly as he reluctantly spent the next eight hours shuttling me to and from the hospital, waiting patiently while I lay on a cold emergency room table.
I’ll spare you all the horrid details, but after two shots of morphine, the pain was reduced to a tolerable level, and after about two hours of sleep, I managed to drag myself to the track the next day for the opening rounds of qualifying. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait a week for relief; the following afternoon, the kidney stone decided that I’d been tortured enough and passed without further incident. As quickly as the pain came, it was gone, and by comparison, the rest of the weekend was very smooth and uneventful.
Now that we’ve gotten the negative stuff out of the way, I’ll try to spend the rest of the week writing about all the good things that make Indy the greatest drag race in the world.