Phoenix Turns Up The Heat In The NHRA Countdown
The Arizona Nationals at Firebird International Raceway had so many upsets it showed you can’t beat the heat in the Valley of the Sun.
The solar-fans tolerated three consecutive days of 100-degree heat with the newly paved FIR quarter-mile going up to 130 degrees.
It brought a completely new set of challenges to the Countdown and an outcome that produced new leaders in Top Fuel and Funny Car with only two races remaining in the playoffs, or eight rounds of racing.
It started on Friday when the NHRA Technical staff confronted all the Don Schumacher Top Fuel dragsters with a change to their bodywork.
The protective shroud around the backside of the cockpit was designed by DSR to prevent fire from entering into the driver’s area. After engineering data was given to the NHRA technical department, the protected canopy could be construed as an air-induction device.
After a video review of Antron Brown’s engine explosion from the quarterfinal round of the Maple Grove race two weeks earlier, it clearly shows fire surrounding and entering the cockpit of Brown’s dragster.
Schumacher disagreed completely.
“I’m disappointed enough in the NHRA’s management enough that if my teams weren’t in a position fighting for this Championship and we didn’t have major sponsorships, I would have packed them up and left,” said an upset Schumacher. “Undoubtedly, NHRA’s management hates me and DSR, and that’s the only way I can look at it.
“It’s a terrible distraction for all my teams right in the middle of the Countdown. After 19 races, for NHRA and Graham Light to come out with another DSR rule, I am livid about it. That’s the only thing I can say. I’m very, very disappointed in their timing and ruling and what’s the next thing they are going to disallow even though it was approved?”
The NHRA response was simple and to the point.
“It’s not doing what they intended it to do,” said Graham Light, Senior VP of Racing Operations of the NHRA. “It’s a piece that easily comes off the car. Their opinion is there is no performance gains whatsoever, so if you take it off, there should be no harm, no foul.
“They have told us many times it’s not a performance gain, that’s contrary to what the engineering data says and the fact what we saw with Antron Brown’s fire in Reading along with the data supports the facts that it does not do what’s intended.”
As the owner of three potent Top Fuel dragsters entering the race with No.1 Spencer Massey, No. 2 Brown, and No. 5 Tony Schumacher behind the wheel, you can understand Schumacher’s feelings. To add to his frustration, he effectively resigned from his position on the board of directors in the Professional Racer’s Organization (PRO).
To add to Schumacher’s anguish, his leading Top Fuel dragster driven by Spencer Massey, failed to qualify. After four attempts, his powerful Fram dragster couldn’t find any grip and smoked the tires four consecutive times finding their coveted No.1 spot in the standings in jeopardy and is now up for grabs with Brown, Larry Dixon, and Del Worsham ready to pounce.
“It seems like from the first run to the last run, the car was wanting to run like it was at Maple Grove Raceway,” said Massey. “Obviously it hurts us tremendously because if we would have qualified we could get more points, we could’ve gone some rounds and had a shot for winning the race which would have helped us out tremendously in the points.
“Now this is just going to bunch everybody back up. We’re not going to have a 60-point lead. We might lose our points lead and that’s just the name of the game. Sometimes it’s a drag and sometimes it’s a race and we got the drag end of the deal this time.”
Ron Capps had his Funny Car category-leading consecutive-qualifying streak end at 105 when he failed to drive NAPA Dodge into the field taking another DSR racer out of the event when his team just couldn’t negotiate the triple-digit track heat.
Dixon was able to keep his Al-Anabi Racing dragster at the top of the Top Fuel field with his Friday night run of 3.919-seconds at 303.84 mph. It was Dixon’s third No. 1 qualifier of the season and 51st of his career.
Dixon’s silver Al-Anabi’s Racing dragster rolled from the pole in Sunday’s eliminations to take his 62nd win of his career at Phoenix, the site of his very first win in 1995. Running a time of 3.955 seconds, he outdistanced final round opponent Brown in a close race after he ran a time of 3.967 seconds, jumping from fourth to second in the Full Throttle standings, only 20 points away from new Top Fuel leader Brown.
“It’s been a long time since we won, and you never know when you’re going to get the next one,” said a happy Dixon. “Antron does such a good job in the car, and their car was running really well.
“Obviously, Jason (crew chief Jason McCulloch) and Ronnie (assistant crew chief Ronnie Thompson) didn’t take them lightly and put our best setup in for our best run in the final round. We needed every bit of it, and it was nice to go some rounds today and get back in this points deal again. It’s nice to win, but to have a shot at this championship is a big deal, a real big deal.
“Before the weekend, I was 108 points out of first. I told Mike Dunn (color commentator on ESPN2’s drag racing coverage) on Friday that if we could come out of here 60-some points out of first; I’d be thrilled because you have a shot. We obviously made up a lot more ground than that.
“You never know when your opportunities are going to happen so it’s nice to be able to take advantage of them. You win the race; you get more points than everyone else so that’s a good way to do it. I’ve lost so many tight races this year, and it’s nice to be on the right side of one. This win got us back in the game. It’s great to win for the team, for Sheik Khalid (His Highness Sheik Khalid Al Thani), Al-Anabi and Qatar. We’ll enjoy this for a day or two and then we’ll go to Vegas.”
The points leader, Brown has 2,425, with Dixon only 20 points behind. Massey picks up his points pace at third, 25 points out after entering the race 65 points ahead. Dixon’s teammate, Del Worsham is fourth, 51 points in arrears.
“You’re always disappointed when you get to a final and don’t seal the deal,” said Brown. “You always want to win, but looking at the weekend in total – it was a success. We made up a lot of ground – 85 points in the standings.
“I’m not surprised about our results, because Mark and Brian (Oswald and Corradi, co-crew chiefs), as well as the entire Matco Tools/U.S. Army crew, have done a great job of giving me a great, competitive race car, regardless of the racing conditions, all year.
“It was hot all weekend and the track was tricky, but the guys got us down the track consistently well and quick.”
In the Fuel Flopper class, it was another successful effort from DSR, with Jack Beckman shaking up the Funny Car points.
Beckman drove the Aaron’s Dream Machine/Valvoline NextGen Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car into the Firebird Raceway winner’s circle – and to the top of the 2011 NHRA Full Throttle Countdown to the Championship standings – with his victory.
The 45-year-old Californian defeated DSR teammate Johnny Gray in the final round to gain his first-ever lead in the standings, as well as record his third win of the season (in five final rounds) and consecutive wins in this event. Beckman ran a 4.354-second lap at 278.29 miles per hour to top Gray’s tire-smoking 5.870 at 120.67.
“This was a great weekend because we won the race,” said Beckman. “This was a marathon today (discussing conditions which included air temperatures nearing triple digits and track temperatures well above that), which takes its toll. I wasn’t feeling so great and would get the chills; I’d feel like I hadn’t eaten anything for hours – but then we’d get a win light and I’d feel OK for the next hour or so.”
Beckman began the weekend in fifth place, 55 points behind Countdown leader and DSR teammate Matt Hagan. The victory, coupled with Hagan’s second-round loss (to Gray), accounted for Beckman’s five-point lead.
“I said before the race we were three rounds back with 12 rounds left – and we really needed to win this one to put us in a good position in the Countdown,” he explained. “Obviously, we did our part and our main competitors had their issues, so we did even better than just improving our position.
“I’ve always said I wanted to be able to control our destiny. I’m happy to be the points leader, it’s a testament to the excellence of my Aaron’s/Valvoline crew led by Rahn Tobler (crew chief) and John Collins (assistant crew chief), but the reality is with two races left and the points so tight we are definitely back in the hunt. My goal was to go into Pomona (last race of the season) within a round or two of the lead – we might be even better than that.”
Hagan, the leader going into the race, falls to second only five away, with Mike Neff in third, 22 points behind Beckman. Texas winner Cruz Pedregon is 48 out of the lead and is fourth. Rounding out the top five and 58 points or three rounds out is Robert Hight, who had to race and defeat his teammate Neff in the biggest matchup of the first round.
Rookie sensation Vincent Nobile, 19, claimed his third win of the 2011 season when he drove his NAPA/Mountain View Dodge Avenger to a win in the final round of the NHRA Arizona Nationals. Nobile, who has been lauded this year for his lightning-quick reaction times, gained an advantage off the starting line against his Mopar teammate Allen Johnson and won with a 6.678 elapsed time, beating Johnson’s quicker 6.655.
“This is amazing,” said Nobile. “We’ve struggled at the last couple of races and coming here we knew we needed to pull together and get ourselves back on track. I knew we could do it, and we proved it today. (The team) supplied me with a fast car, and I did my job. It just proves that if you keep your head up that you can win races.
“I owe so much to (team owners) Nick and Irene Mitsos, to my parents, and the entire Mountain View team for all they’ve done for me this year. After I won, I got so excited that I forgot to thank my mom (Susan) on television. Obviously, her support means everything to me. I don’t get nervous in the race car but when I’m on TV, that’s a different story.”
With the win, Nobile has leapt from fifth to third in the Full Throttle standings and now trails second-place Greg Anderson by just five points with two races remaining this season.
Equally important, the win allowed Nobile to keep pace with his friend and rival, Pro Stock Motorcycle racer Hector Arana Jr., as they compete for the Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future award, which recognizes NHRA’s top rookie driver. Both Nobile and Arana have now appeared in five final rounds and have each posted three victories. Interestingly enough, Arana is currently dating Nobile’s sister, Nicole.
“Hector and I are great friends and we’ve also got a pretty good rivalry going over this whole rookie of the year award,” said Nobile. “At this point, it looks like one of us is probably going to get it. Obviously, I’d like to be the one who wins it but it’s not up to me to decide. All I can do is stay focused and try to keep the momentum we’ve got going at the last two races. Our next race is in Las Vegas and the last time I was there in April, I made it to my first final round so I’m pretty excited about going back.”
Summit Racing’s Jason Line, despite his first round loss, expanded his lead over KB Racing teammate Greg Anderson to 188 points, with Nobile now only five points behind Anderson.
Pro Stock Motorcycle
The pressure was definitely on in Sunday's Pro Stock Motorcycle finals, but Lucas Oil Buell rider Hector Arana Jr. is proving he's up to the task.
Arana Jr., the No. 1 qualifier, faced Pro Stock Motorcycle points leader Eddie Krawiec in the finals in what could be a pivotal moment in the 2011 championship. Krawiec came into the event with a 35-point lead and could have put some distance between him and Arana Jr.
However, Arana Jr. had a perfect reaction time and out-ran Krawiec with a pass of 6.884 seconds at 194.30 mph to win his third national event of the season and second in a row. Arana Jr. now trails Krawiec by 10 points with two races remaining.
"That was huge," Arana Jr. said. "You're talking about a 40-point swing in the points right there. If he had won, we would have been in trouble. Now we're 10 points apart. It's anybody's game at this point."
Arana Jr. has had a splendid rookie year, winning three races and qualifying No. 1 six times. He's also won three of the last five races and reached the finals in five of the last six.
"My dad, my brother Adam and Dan (Gonzales) worked their butts off for me and we're all clicking so well together," Arana Jr. said. "This Lucas Oil Buell is an absolute rocket and I couldn't be happier.
"I'm living a dream. This is amazing. I couldn't have imagined this."
In the finals against Krawiec, Arana Jr. had a perfect reaction time of .000 seconds, getting an instant advantage.
"That was cutting it close in the final but I knew I was just so amped up," Arana Jr. said. "I knew how big that single round was; definitely the biggest round of my rookie year. There's probably going to be a few more of those before we're done."
Hole Shots and Red Lights
An unusual amount of hole shots and red lights happened on Sunday. Out of the combined 60 races in the professional categories, 13 races were decided with either a red light (7) or a hole shot (6) in eliminations.
The biggest notable was John Force Racing’s Robert Hight double clutching it on the starting line giving the red light win to his DSR rival Beckman in the quarterfinals.
Strangest Event of the Weekend
Cory McClenathan had a hot time in the second round of Top Fuel qualifying when his fuel line broke spraying fuel in multitudes only to have it ignite, literally lighting up the first 300 feet in flames, an occurrence many veterans had never seen before.
Best Races of the Day
Of all the races on Sunday, three stand out. The first goes to Dixon who won in the finals, beating Brown by .008-thousandths of a second. The second goes to Nobile, using a hole shot in the final round over fellow Mopar teammate, Allen Johnson by a mere .002-thousandths of a second.
Finally, in Funny Car, Johnny Gray squeaked by Jim Head in the semi-finals to narrowly beat him by .0006-ten thousandths of a second or approximately three inches.
The finals were the best collection of races so far this year.
Up next is the Big O Tires Nationals on ‘The Strip’ at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on October 28 – 30, the penultimate race of the 22-race schedule.