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Tucson and Other Winter Happenings

By Phil R. Elliott

The King nails puts his foot into 7,000 Clydesdales. Photo by Pete Gemar
The King nails puts his foot into 7,000 Clydesdales. Photo by Pete Gemar

In my eyes, the sponsorship by Sears' Craftsman Tools of Creasy Family Racing for 2002 and beyond is the biggest news of the week. There were other things too, but they'll have to wait!

Indeed, after a lackluster 2001 season that saw Dale Creasy Jr. in NHRA fields on race day far fewer times than he would have liked, Craftsman has stepped up and given the necessary resources for the last bastion of match-racing to compete on an even keel with the fleet. Not since Elwood and Jake uttered the immortal words, “We're putting the band back together,” has there been a sweeter song sung.

If you already know me, you won't need to read this next graph. If you don't, I must introduce myself to you as one of the last of the true lovers of independent racers. That is not to say I don't enjoy the deeply funded super teams and the numbers they can ring up on the scoreboards. But, there is nothing like a team that strolls through an NHRA gate with a dream, two spare pistons and a goal of just qualifying. I love the underdog.

In fact, every time I read the name Creasy, my imagination conjures a Mustang with the name Tyrant on its somewhat beat up, slightly flambéed flanks, falling out of a high mileage trailer, at Milan or Gary, to match-race the Chi-Town Hustler or the Hawaiian.

But that was then, and now is now, and I'm excited that the Creasys, after paying dues for two generations and over three decades, will start Pomona with fresh philosophy and parts. And besides new pieces, the team will head west with Jimbo Ermalovich in a co-crewchief role with Dale Creasy Sr. This could be like a sophomore NFL team that shows razzle-dazzle on every down - very entertaining. These folk know what it takes and they‘ve just been dealt into a high stakes game with a significant backer.

Craftsman could not have made a wiser choice. They've been providing superb hand tools to sportsman and professional racers for nearly as long as NHRA has been sanctioning those races. But this marks the first time they've jumped on board as a primary sponsor of a drag racing vehicle.

Next on my list of importance (hey, it's my column, after all!), is the fact that during the trailers of a movie I saw Sunday came a rather action-packed commercial for POWERade, the new NHRA series sponsor. It wasn't filled with tire smoke from fuel car burnouts (yet) but gave me the perception that these folk mean business about taking over the sports drink market in a big way. Welcome to the high-ups that made this perfect match of power and POWERade possible.

Before I get to Tucson action, there is still some clean up from Phoenix left. The Don Schumacher-owned teams remained there the whole week and recorded some consistent numbers, including a string of 4.50s for Tony Schumacher, and solid 4.80s for Witt Bazemore and Scotty Cannon. I talked about them all last week but look for way more out of these three cars.

Dean Skuza's new Dodge proves that fuel coupes again deserve to be called Funny Cars. Photo by Pete Gemar
Dean Skuza's new Dodge proves that fuel coupes again
deserve to be called Funny Cars. Photo by Pete Gemar

I didn't know whom, but it's Rick Cassel on tune-up duty for Yuichi Oyama's Tokyo operation, which saw consistent 4.8s throughout his licensing routine.

After some discussion among racers and in the media that NHRA Pro Stock would get a 50-pound weight reduction, the NHRA Competition Committee has announced that for at least 2002, PS'ers will remain 2,350 pounds. The whole snafu revolved around several teams proving their cars would go across the scales a wee bit lighter than the rules allowed. The committee has promised to evaluate the weight situation further. Meaning? I suggest that all PS teams get ready to unload all your lead not if but when asked to do so. They'll be checking I'm sure. If tech discovers an overabundance across the board, there'll be a change. I'll talk to a few builders about it to see what their thoughts are.

According to my spy (artist/photographer Tom West), who went to both Phoenix (this past Friday) and Tucson, the John Force team has been trying all kinds of new external pieces. On the engine is an in vogue “reversion” intake manifold that sets the supercharger far back on the engine in attempt to screw the fuel mix into the forward cylinders. It was tried to good success on the Gary Densham-driven AAA Mustang during 2001, and showed up on John's car at Tucson. Tom said too that contrary to reports on another website, Jimmy Prock is still tuning for Densham and John Medlin for Tony Pedregon. The new manifold sports two big “pop-offs” instead of one.

One thing that TWest passed on was that unlike previous seasons, where many of the testers dazzled everyone with their shiny new livery, most of this group sported unkempt and unpainted bodywork. He was present working on future die cast projects, including Dean Skuza's new Dodge Stratus, one of the few that looked ready for shows.

Among the many problems not predicted for week two of professional testing was a blowout at Southwestern International Raceway in Tucson, Arizona. But wind it was and the PRO National Warm-up at SIR was held up most of Friday by gusts of nearly 50mph that sent sand across the track and into every nook and cranny of everyone's trailer. Darryl Jackman was on the keyboard in the tower but there was nothing he could do but drink soda and wait.

One of the anxious wind watchers was John Smith, awaiting his first rides since the horrific August crash that put him on the sidelines. He and wife Rhonda Hartman had both Fram-backed fuelers in the pits for their pre-season checkouts.

This event was hosted by Professional Racers Owners Organization and all worried that track prep would be for naught - sand stuck to glue is for removing paint, not for holding 6,000 horsepower.

First to try were John Force and Tony Pedregon and neither reached 330 feet before showing telltale “wags” - both were forced to shut-off. Force returned later for a stout .872 60-footer but he got no farther.

The King's Farewell Tour -- Tucson Jan. 25 at the Cactus Moon. Photo by Pete Gemar
The King's Farewell Tour -- Tucson Jan. 25 at the Cactus Moon.
Photo by Pete Gemar

Grant Downing, with help and guidance from Chuck Worsham was about to give the surface a shot but after the burnout, his Paralax Race Cars Firebird was shut off with oil escaping from a number of orifices. A later attempt netted instant tire smoke.

After twice pulling the fuel shut-off, Dean Skuza got a scant 60 feet on his third fire-up, the rumored wind-tunnel numbers not getting a chance to show themselves.

Gary Densham and Johnny Gray also made attempts, but neither the Force #3 nor the CSK #2 received much for them.

Among the long cars that tried on day one were Doug Herbert, Clay Millican, Kenny Bernstein, and Rhonda Hartman-Smith, but like their bodied siblings, there was nothing for them.

Saturday was warmer - 60s and calm instead of the 50-degree blustery weather that moved through Friday. The track had been re-groomed and all present picked themselves up from their previous stumblings, dusted themselves off, and readied for a more serious onslaught.

Densham, Force, and Pedregon were first out. Gary shut off quickly, but John and Tony stayed with their mounts and powered to fairly soft halftrack times. Though their set-ups are quite different, they recorded similar 5.719/174 and 5.786/167 coasters. Skuza, Gray, and Del Worsham added their names to the list of attempters, with the Checkers-Shucks-Kragen #1 booming a burst panel just before the 330-foot timer.

Among the morning fueler attempts came Herbert, Smith, Ken Zeal, Bernstein, and Wyatt Radke, and none was too successful. Clay Millican rode to a .875, 2.250, 3.237/252, 4.834/285, decent taking into consideration what his peers were doing. Radke, in the machine formerly owned by the late Bobby Baldwin, lost a blower belt.

Things were only slightly better in the afternoon.

After a couple displays of cloud creation by Herbert and Hartman, Zeal earned his license with an .899, 2.289, 3.260/257, 4.091 4.863/267. Or did he?

An immediate debate began about the percentage-of-performance rule and whether Zeal needed to be within 10% of the NHRA record or within 10% of the best run under current conditions. After some discussion, it was ruled that the former IHBA standout, before stepping into the alcohol dragster ranks that is, would need to record at least 275mph.

Bernstein and Millican made more smoke on their attempts, followed by Herbert spitting all the blower-drive bolts off his machine. The Davis & Zook team gave Tucson a try next, but Gene Davis clicked it after everything proved to be unworkable.

Mr. Forever Red is almost lost against the similar color of his trailer. Photo by Pete Gemar
Mr. Forever Red is almost lost against the similar color of his trailer.
Photo by Pete Gemar

Near 5pm, the Tim & Kim Richards-maintained Budweiser King returned for another try and Kenny Bernstein nailed down an outstanding .852, 2.176, 3.117/267, 3.91, 4.603/319 run that everyone agreed was as good as things would get.

Johnny West spun all of the Snap-on Tools just right to send his new boss, Herbert, on a 1000-footer that netted respectable split times of .852, 2.176, 3.146/263, 3.961 and 4.677/299.

After those two runs, Zeal, Millican and Hartman all zinged their rear tires before the 330-cone.

For the FC teams, the 70-degree afternoon gave hope, but little else. Though many tried, there were but two that dared stay in the most important pedal past mid course, Force and Skuza, with the latter coaxing a 254mph number out of the new Dodge at that point.

On Sunday morning, as they had been the previous two days, Pedregon and Force were right up in the front row of the classroom. And, after another tire blazer from Tony P, John moved himself directly to the teacher's podium with a stout .876, 2.301, 3.312/253, 4.132, 4.824/321 single. The Castrol team seemed elated to finally master the previously elusive combination. With his example weighing heavily on the classroom, other crews, such as those of Gray, Densham, Worsham, and Tony P, failed to figure out the proper formula. They had to wait about two hours for the Force-driven Mustang to show them up again. When called upon again, it nabbed a grouping of .873, 2.310, 3.317/254.14, 4.138 to 1000 feet before gobbling itself in a different type of smoke show. The final 4.873/283 numbers showed a lot of internal damage.

In the afternoon, Skuza, Worsham, and Densham tried in vain again, before Pedregon had a decent ride before filling the far end with piston smoke. Tony coasted through at 5.021/278, following mediocre .892, 2.338, 3.379/241.71, and 4.255 splits.

Photographer Gemar won this invitation on a radio show on KIIM FM to attend Kenny Bernstein's shindig. Scan by Pete Gemar
Photographer Gemar won this invitation on a radio show on KIIM FM
to attend Kenny Bernstein's shindig. Scan by Pete Gemar

An hour or so later, the rotation began again, with Densham, Gray, and Worsham billowing their tires first before Dean Skuza literally willed his new Stratus to reach the 660 cone. It wasn't what the Lance Larsen-led Mopar team hopes eventually to accomplish, but it did reap a “four” - .886, 2.318, 3.338/247.66, 4.192, 4.994/256.21. Two hours later they returned for a similar .887, 2.321, 3.325/253.14, 4.217, 5.178/214.66.

The fuelers seemed to get a better handle than the funnies as the sun continued to shine on the track. Herbert experienced a good Sunday drive of .849, 2.164, 3.123/260.97, 3.944, 4.657/311 to set the stage.

A few minutes later, Radke's machine erupted just past halftrack on a run that might have produced pretty fair numbers. He got everything stopped OK after incrementals of .882, 2.254, 3.254/246, 4.136, and 4.917/281.

Another incident occurred that slowed things Sunday morning. Mike Savage, a standout with CIFCA, including the 2000 Championship and 2001 runner-up, had the misfortune of turning John Stanton's 1982 Corvette, a car he's driven many times, into so much scrap. He was cut of the remains and air-evac'd which made things look worse than they were. Mike spent the night in the hospital but was released Monday with only minor burns.

Ken Zeal tried hard but felt his new Bill Miller Engineering ride nose over past halftrack. He was gaining experience but would have to wait again.

Then Millican recorded good numbers - .840, 2.188, 3.169/256.60, 3.994, 4.708/308.43.

At around noon, Bernstein blasted to a strong .849 sixty, only to have the Goodyears bounce loose.

Doug Herbert followed with a good .859, 2.192, 3.152/260.06, 3.980, 4.706/302 volley.

When Kenny Bernstein again was strapped in Forever Red, its timers were set far different than on the previous attempt, showing quickly with a much softer .862 sixty. But, it fell silent before halftrack when the blower belt snapped.

Clay Millican next performed an .851, 2.205, 3.169/265, 3.961, 4.645/318 tightrope walk, far and away his best of the weekend. By the way, I'd like to offer his right hand man, Mike Kloeber, congrats on being named IHRA Wrench of the Year 2001.

The Bill Miller car hauling on a license pass with new driver Ken Zeal. He made it. Photo by Pete Gemar
The Bill Miller car hauling on a license pass with new
driver Ken Zeal. He made it. Photo by Pete Gemar

Just past 3pm, Ken Zeal indeed finished his TF initiation with a .892, 2.300, 3.293/254, 4.129, 4.865/298 ride. He missed having a 300mph time slip by just a few ticks of the timers but that will certainly come shortly. He was certainly the happiest person on the property after that run.

The Budweiser group was back for one last try and managed to send Mr. Bernstein on a good .859, 2.198, 3.162/259, 3.984, 4.693/312 clocking.

One Pro Stocker joined its nitro-burning fuel-racing counterparts - George Marnell and his Pontiac Grand Am. He made what seemed like a dozen runs over the three days, carding bests of 7.054/194 and 7.066/194, all with approximate 1.03 sixties.

It reminds me that during Super Bowl XXXVI, you'll see some very high dollar Anheuser-Busch/Bud ads. The 30-second spot features Dale Earnhardt Jr. as the designated driver using his #8 NASCAR Chevy to get a friend home after a party. As my good friend Buzz Baylis' Email asked, “Where's Bernstein?”

I'll leave you with this last thought. Until NHRA has a similar fan base to NASCAR's - more than 75,000,000 in 2001 according to press releases - it'll be Little E in those commercials.

Phil Elliott


Thanks for checking out the PhilZone portion of Draglist.com. If you have accolades, complaints, comments, questions, or if you want to share a story, please feel free to post it on the PhilZone Message Board. Phil

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