Emotions Will Be Riding High In Reading
The powder keg of emotion building up to this weekend’s Auto-Plus NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway puts the stress level of many of the competitors at a tempest.
When you scope the entire NHRA Countdown to the Championship, you’ll find two of the tightest battles in the nitro classes of Top Fuel and Funny Car.
Going into the Countdown, Funny Car leader Mike Neff of John Force Racing ran rampant for most of the season in the Fuel Coupe ranks and now, after two of the six Championship races down, he’s fighting for everything he can to gain any distance over the resurgent Matt Hagan and former two-time Funny Car champion Cruz Pedregon.
Neff leads by only four points over a very strong Hagan and is only seven points ahead of Cruz Pedregon. What else can we say other than tensions will be high at Maple Grove Raceway?
Looking further down the grouping, we know what the top three need to do, but what about the rest of the field? The spread is 160 points from the top to the bottom and is the closest of the four professional NHRA categories.
Not far behind are two other Don Schumacher Racing drivers who are right in the hunt in the fourth and fifth positions. Jack Beckman and Ron Capps, respectively, are 32 and 67 points behind the lead and, reaching the halfway mark in the NHRA Full Throttle Countdown to Championship, the pressure is building.
“There are 16 rounds of racing left in the season,” explained the California native, Beckman. “I think we need nine (round wins) for the championship and we need to get four of them – which would mean a trophy – here at Reading.
“We’ve had some good weekends recently, but we need a great one – with a win – now.”
Beckman has already collected two “Pewter Wallys” in four final-round appearances this season. Since the Countdown began two races ago in Charlotte, he has reached the semifinals and quarterfinals.
Capps, just 67 points out of the lead, has the leadership from Tim and Kim Richards in his pits and this duo has there before. Kim led her father, Dick to the Top Fuel title in 1987 and Richards spearheaded Joe Amato to his five Top Fuel championships.
Last week the DSR driver shaved 50 points off his deficit to Countdown leader Neff by reaching the final round of the Dallas race. He comes to Maple Grove Raceway less than four rounds behind Neff.
“It was great reaching the finals in Dallas,” said Capps. “But I think you’ll have to win one (of the six) Countdown races to win the championship. The NAPA car is certainly capable of that, as we showed in Sonoma and in reaching the finals in Dallas.
“We learned a lot of things about the NAPA car last week and we should be in very good shape for this weekend’s race, one which could be quite exciting. If we get the cool weather predicted, you could see some amazing runs, maybe comparable to Charlotte (where DSR teammate Hagan set the elapsed-time record and recorded the fastest speed for a Funny Car at 1,000 feet). So, we’ll have to pull our belts a bit tighter and hang on!
“The potential is there for another E.T. record and that 20-point carrot is out there for everyone. A lot of these cars can do it.”
After those two is the Ford family of Robert Hight and Bob Tasca, who hold down the No. 6 and 7 positions in the FTS standings.
Hight has the most unusual Countdown tale to tell. As amazing as it may sound, the 2009 Funny Car champion hasn’t won a round of competition in the NHRA Countdown since 2009 in a span of eight races. The last time he won a round in the Countdown was at the season ending ‘09 NHRA Auto Club Finals against Jerry Toliver at Pomona. He’s 107 points out of the lead and will his Countdown collapse continue?
Fellow Ford driver Tasca is 138 points in arrears, but last weekend, he moved up two spots in the Countdown in a very close second-round race against Dallas winner Cruz Pedregon.
After that, there’s a tie for eighth between Jeff Arend and defending Funny Car champion John Force. Both are 149 points away from the top and rounding out the Top 10 is Seattle winner Tim Wilkerson, 160 out of the lead.
From the Floppers to the streamline Dragster division you now have a first-time leader.
Top Fuel driver Spencer Massey was looking for a ride a year ago and now with only four races remaining in the Countdown, the Ft. Worth, Tex., native finds himself in the lead in the Top Fuel class. Although by a slim margin of only seven points over DSR
Massey was able to slow down teammate Antron Brown’s string of wins at three in a row with his semi-final win in Dallas. Brown is riding a crest of momentum with four wins out of the last six races and is only seven points away from the vanguard.
It looks like the battle will go all the way to Pomona between these two if these other two contenders don’t start winning rounds.
Not far behind are the Al-Anabi teams of Del Worsham and three-time Top Fuel champion Larry Dixon. This duo is 66 and 68 points away from the summit or less than three rounds of racing with 16 rounds remaining.
I feel you’ll see this pair of dynamic drivers start making a move at Reading. With the cooler conditions in the low 60s at Reading, one of these two could walk out of Maple Grove with a National Record and maybe even the lead if all the blocks fall his way.
“We definitely didn’t get the result we wanted in Dallas,” said Worsham. “Our Al-Anabi car dropped a cylinder early, and we got outrun by the second-place guy that’s now the points leader. That might be the first time our car has had a problem like that since I started driving at Al-Anabi Racing.
“If that hadn’t happened, we would probably have run an 88 (3.88-second elapsed time) and might have won the round. We don’t have engine problems like that very often, but it definitely happened at a bad time.
“The points worked out about as well as they possibly could have considering the circumstances. I am definitely looking forward to getting to Reading this weekend to get back some of the points we’ve lost these last two weekends.
“I don’t feel any panic and we can still make a run at the Full Throttle championship. We’re three rounds out of the points lead with 16 rounds or racing left so we don’t need to do anything crazy.
“If we just go out there and run the way we’re capable of running, we’ll still be OK. If we race the way we’re capable of racing, this championship battle will still come down to the finals at Pomona to determine the Top Fuel champion. Like I said on Sunday, don’t count us out.”
His teammate Dixon has plenty of experience in this kind of situation. He understands the only way is to win. Nothing changes and they keep doing what got them there. As the defending Top Fuel champion, he knows what he’s talking about.
“We’ll take Reading no different than we have the last 18 races,” said Dixon. “We’ll go in there, do our best, and hopefully get a win. If our Al-Anabi team wins, we won’t be talking about how many points back we are, we’ll be talking about how much progress we made at Reading. I am hopeful that we’ll win this weekend.
“We’re still in this thing until someone tells us we’re out. It would have been great to win a Countdown race already, but there are nine other guys in the top 10 that feel the same way. What it comes down to is we’re only 68 points out of first place so we’re still in charge of our own destiny. If we go out there, race hard and win, everything will work out. It’s still up to us.”
Standing at full attention in fifth place is another major player, Tony ‘The Sarge’ Schumacher. The seven-time NHRA Full Throttle Top Fuel Champion and longtime driver of the U.S. Army Dragster realizes, just like Dixon, it’s all about winning rounds.
"We have to move forward and not get bogged down in the past," said Schumacher, still winless in 2011. "We have four races remaining in the season and anything can happen during that stretch. We can easily go out and run the table - we have that good of a car and team."
Brandon Bernstein and Doug Kalitta are sixth and seventh, respectively. Both are mathematically in the hunt being 107 points and 135 points out of the lead. Bernstein is so close with a few more rounds going his way; you can add his name as a contender for the Top Fuel title. Likewise for Kalitta. He has a veteran team and with the name of Kalitta, he’ll be there.
From that point on, Shawn Langdon (-184), David Grubnic (-203), and 10th place runner Morgan Lucas (-221) will be working on their 2012 season, as I don’t any of these three making any sort of resurgence, but as we know in drag racing, it could still happen – but it’s doubtful at best.
ESPN commentator Mike Dunn has his “Do or Dunn” line in shaping up the possible title contenders to show viewers who the real contenders are and in Pro Stock, he stops right after second place.
Summit Racing Pontiac driver and 2006 Pro Stock Champion Jason Line has an imposing lead of 112 points over his fellow KB Racing driver, Greg Anderson.
After that, second to seventh, Erica Enders (-132), Mike Edwards (-144), rookie candidate Vincent Nobile (-145), Greg Stanfield (-189) and Allen Johnson (-198) all would have to win the remaining four races to make any stand at taking the title away from either Line or Anderson. It’s definitely not over, but no one has stopped the KB Racing team train all year.
Pro Stock Motorcycle has Eddie Krawiec with a good-size margin over Karen Stoffer in the Full Throttle PSM standings with a 63-point lead.
In third, Hector Arana, Jr. moved up two positions after Dallas with his final-round appearance and North Carolinian Matt Smith, as Arana, moved up two spots and holds down fourth place in the standings. Arana needs to gain 90 points and Smith 97 to have a chance at the title.
Surprisingly, Andrew Hines is in fifth place and defending champion LE Tonglet is sixth. Hines trails by 119 points in the championship chase and Tonglet is 131 behind.
After that, Michael Phillips (-142), Jerry Savoie (-171), Hector Arana, Sr. (-189) and Jim Underdahl (-209) have pretty much ridden into the sunset. It’s Krawiec’s championship to lose.
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On Monday night, John Force was honored along with other sports Hall of Famers as a Great Sports Legend during the 26th annual Great Sports Legends Dinner at New York's Waldorf-Astoria hotel.
The event honored philanthropic heroes and sports legends while bringing together celebrities and corporate leaders to support the fundraising efforts of Nick and Marc Buoniconti, and numerous longtime Buoniconti Fund supporters who continue to stand up for those who can't, as part of the Miami Project.
The Buoniconti Fund to Cure Paralysis serves as the fundraising arm of The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, a Center of Excellence at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine founded by Dr. Barth Green whose mission is to help millions worldwide walk again.
Force joined Harry Carson, Ernie Els, Nancy Kerrigan, Chris Mullin, Andre Dawson, and Clark Gillies as the sports legends, and Miami Dolphins legendary head coach Don Shula and NFL Hall of Famer Jerry Rice were honored for their philanthropic endeavors.
“I have to tell you that was one of the most amazing nights of my career. I want to thank NHRA President Tom Compton and Jerry Archambeault for joining me, as well as Carolyn Eckert, Dave Duggan, and Lori Anne Gola from Castrol. There were so many celebrities and sports heroes around I wasn’t sure I was in the right place,” said an overwhelmed Force.
“The Buoniconti Fund does some really important work. They have worked with my friend Darrell Gwynn, and from what I saw on Monday night, they are making some amazing progress to find a cure for paralysis.
“I want to thank the Buonicontis for hosting this event and all the work they put into it. It was a career highlight for me to be honored, and I was very proud to represent NHRA, Full Throttle, and all my sponsors,” added Force.
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Five-time NHRA Full Throttle Series world champion Joe Amato, a hometown favorite of fans in Pennsylvania, will headline NHRA’s 2011 visit to Maple Grove Raceway for the 60th Anniversary season running of the Auto-Plus® NHRA Nationals.
Joining Amato (Exeter, Pa.) as the featured NHRA Legends at Maple Grove Raceway during the historic weekend will be fellow Pennsylvanians Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins (Malvern, Pa.), Bruce Larson (Dauphin, Pa.) and Larry Lombardo (Birdsboro, Pa.).
In addition to the homegrown NHRA Legends, fans attending the Sept. 29-Oct. 2nd race at Maple Grove Raceway will be treated to four more of the sport’s biggest stars – Don Garlits, Shirley Muldowney, Bob Glidden and Connie Kalitta - each of whom will be inducted into Maple Grove Raceway’s Walk of Fame on Sunday morning.
Local Legend Amato, who enjoyed a very successful NHRA career, is Top 10 all-time in three major NHRA Full Throttle Series categories – he ranks seventh in Series championships (5) and No. 1 qualifiers (56) and eighth in wins (52). The Pennsylvania native was also named the No. 9 driver on the NHRA Top 50 drivers list that was compiled in 2001.
Amato retired from driving abruptly in 2001 due to medical reasons but didn’t leave the sport entirely for another four years while he enjoyed success as a team owner before retiring from the sport for good. As a team owner, Amato started the professional driving careers of both Darrell Russell and Morgan Lucas, when he employed each of them as drivers for his team.
Iconic Pro Stock driver and tuner Grumpy Jenkins will also be joining Amato throughout the weekend. Jenkins is one of the most recognizable figures on the circuit, rarely if ever seen without his trademark stubby cigar.
Jenkins racked up 11 wins as a driver, but he famously made his bones as an engineer. He was ranked eighth on NHRA’s list of all-time greats in 2001 because “no other individual has contributed more to the advancement of normally aspirated engines for quarter-mile competition than the legendary “Grump.””
Larson was renowned for his match-racing acumen and he also won the 1989 NHRA Funny Car world championship. Lombardo, who won the 1976 Pro Stock title, was one of only three drivers (Don Nicholson and Lee Shepherd were the others) not named Bob Glidden to win a Pro Stock world championship during Glidden’s reign from 1974-1989.
The Auto Plus NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway will mark the 19th stop in a year-long celebration that will pay homage to the evolution of the hot rod, the impact of the sport’s legendary racers, and the lifeblood provided by the many millions of loyal and passionate NHRA fans.
And one helluva point chase on Sunday.
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