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Pomona Day 3: Unbelievable Reality

By Phil R. Elliott

The word "awesome" is much overused in this world today. It is a descriptive word to help us understand those things that are totally un-understandable – far beyond comprehension. To be awestruck by something is to be standing face to face with the woman (or man) of your wildest dreams, or the power of a nuclear weapon, or winning $88,000,000 in the lottery.

When one experiences close-up the power and fury of a nitrofied dragster or funny car, the synonyms for awesome are just not enough. Overwhelming? Grand? Breathtaking? Tremendous? Nope. It just doesn't work.

When you watch Larry Dixon ride the Miller Lite dragster on two wheels for more than 400 feet, ease ‘em down and zip on to a 4.509 at 326.87mph, it is tremendous; you are overwhelmed and it does take your breath away. But, there can only be one word to describe it. Awesome.

But I'm getting way ahead of myself.

So went Day 3 of the 42nd annual NHRA Winternationals.

As you know, I got up early this morning to complete my Friday write-up. So now, as the clock comes upon 11pm, my fatigue level is increasing. I may have to finish this one in the morning, too.

Whatever happens to me, the bumps are all set and a great many Sportsman races have been completed.

When I walked to the starting line, Competition Eliminator was headed my way. As usual, the raceday crowd seemed very knowledgeable about ontrack happenings

The largest response came when Dennis Radford's nitrous Viper A/PM drove around Mike Nathan's E/D.

I was dismayed to see at least two cars pull out of line. After all the work it takes to get to a national event and qualify, to have it all go wrong before staging seems emotionally devastating. When I looked at the down-turned faces, I felt a real pull on my heart.

I'm always interested in Comp reactions, and in round one, David Beckley was best (.503) in a gorgeous A/A 63 Corvette, just slightly better than Mike Cook's (.505) A/D. Several winners took CIC "hits," both minor and major under the latest handicap rules, including Bo Butner following Cook's tree chopper.

Pro Stock began on time – actually at 11:04 a.m. – and conditions were still lovely, warmer than the first two days but nice nonetheless. I sorta halfway hoped to see my '70, but of course, that was not to be.

Immediately, in watching the first few cars, I noticed a problem with the track. The starting line was good, maybe too good. Then, maybe 100-120 feet out, just at the 2-3 shift point, a slight sashay began – a sign to me of tire spin. Some cars went into hard shake; others were driven through. But virtually everyone experienced it.

Facing a tough 6.872 bump AND a slightly greasy surface, those drivers outside the top 16 were in trouble. I felt better when I saw John Nobile miss with a 6.873 – knowing that if he could improve from the earlier sessions, the field could be shuffled. Soon, Darrell Alderman actually got in with a 6.870 – on the bump.

A whole lot of 6.80s and low 6.90s went by, with racers and pieces straining for those extra thousandths. Then, Tom Hammonds' 6.829/202 woke up everyone to the fact that there was still a chance for big numbers. The impressive run vaulted him to #3Q and dropped the bump to J.R. Carr's .860.

Later, a great match of the two great aftermarket suppliers, Summit and Jeg's, saw Mark Pawuk pull a 6.855 to bump opponent Jeg Coughlin, who garnered only a 6.892. Crowd reaction really showed their enthusiasm for this colossal battle.

Following that pairing there were still some tremendous numbers turned in but due to NHRA's system of pairing cars by previous performances, the bump was secure.

In fact, of the top 16, ONLY Larry Morgan made a minuscule move – .006 – that gained him one spot.

In the much hotter afternoon session, the PS drivers rolled up facing a nearly insurmountable situation.

After a long build-up from the announcing staff, Bob Glidden, driving for Steve Schmidt Racing, in a Dodge loaned to them by Larry Morgan (that's truly a mouthful), the Avenger shook and got loose for its third time in a row. There was a collective groan from the crowd. Bob admitted that he never got comfortable with this car. And who can blame a guy that just spun and crashed a basically borrowed racecar for not wanting to damage another. I'd be gun-shy too.

The session was pretty good, with again a bunch of serious tries. Mike Thomas (6.89/201), Troy Coughlin (6.88/200), Kenny Koretsky (6.89/200), John Geyer (6.86/202), and others made weekend bests, only to miss.

In the sixth pair, my favorites faced each other. Ex-Comp standout Vinnie Barone, in an all-white 2002 Neon with "Hot Rod Shop" on its flanks, was in the right lane, and Robert Patrick sat in the Purvis Ford Mustang in the left.

I met Barone years ago during an Englishtown event – the late Steve Collison introduced us during my "Up In Smoke" days with SS&DI. He was and I'm sure still is a crafty racer, and I enjoyed his technical asides.

Patrick I spent much time with during my tenure with IHRA, and really enjoyed his folks and the family-run feeling of their race team. Mike Bell is the crewchief, a driver that won the IHRA PS world championship while I was there. Being the only Ford on the property, with a 6.888/199 best, I thought it a long shot they'd make the field, but I had fingers crossed.

I must admit that I don't know what happened inside the Mopar "hemi" – I'd guess a broken rod – but at about two hundred feet, the Neon nose dropped, and smoke billowed out of the front wheel wells – never a good sign in a Pro Stocker. It also filled the interior of the little car, rendering Barone a hapless passenger in a vehicle trying its best to swap ends in its own oil.

When it crossed the centerline, I thought the worst, but Patrick was well aware of his peer's plight and was hard on the brakes. Barone did a have spin and actually bumped the rail but I'm certain damage was slight. The incident could easily have become a serious accident had these guys allowed it. Now, other than a few pictures in National Dragster, and some highlight reels, it'll be relegated to a pair of DNQs in a history book.

The clean up was lengthy, but soon action resumed. Action like Alderman jumping back into the field with a 6.844/201 that ended in the sand trap! I went by his pit and minor plastic repair was underway, as well as a thorough de-beaching of the entire vehicle.

This run brought the bump down to Marnell's 6.859, a number that would remain. There were slight movements and consistency, as teams used every opportunity to make their vehicles right for raceday.

There was action throughout, right to the last pairing. Ron Krisher hit 6.861/202.45 – his worst of the weekend – while in the other lane Bruce Allen was experiencing the worst shake I saw all weekend. He gave up the run, then pitched parts out that landed and shattered directly in front of my position. (You can see me in a bright orange shirt on TV coverage.) At first, I thought it was cast aluminum, maybe pieces of transmission case. But, chassis builder Rick Jones, who wandered out to look, hollered "headlight" when I inquired from the sidelines.

BTW, Krisher's 6.815 and 202.94 numbers are Pomona records.

Unlike the normally aspirated gasoline burners, the blown fuelers didn't mind a little weather change.

The first pair saw Doug Kalitta look strong early only to have the engine eat itself up for a 4.692/300 clocking. Next up, Rhonda Hartman drew crowd support for a 4.648/305 that also damaged her engine.

The bump after Rhonda's run was Bob Hallock's 4.96 turned in day one. And if you think back to what I said about the track during PS session three, there was a very finicky checkpoint that refused to let many cars past.

One that did was David Grubnic. His mount, John Mitchell's Montana Express, now with backing from R.F. Chapman Complete Metal Fabrications, blasted off the line well, but by midtrack the engine's major chord turned sour. Just before the lights, there was a flash of flame and "Aussie Dave" hit the all stop button, slowing him to a 4.777/296.

When Tony Schumacher barked orders, his mount improved to a great 4.596/329.75 to move up to #4Q. Almost lost in the Army maneuvers was Yuichi Oyama, who ran a career best 4.718 at 285mph in the other lane to move to #10Q.

Cory McClenathan's 4.693/316 remained consistent with his previous efforts, then Larry Dixon reeled in a 4.573/325 to poke his way into #2Q. His beerwagon match-up with Kenny Bernstein was anticlimactic as "Big Red" wisped the Goodyears.

The final pairing was less than the crowd wanted too, as both Clay Millican (4.774/287) and Andrew Cowin (4.602/277) fell off earlier numbers.

The final session began with that same 4.962 bump, with just four drivers outside. Well five, because Don Sosenka brought the TF version of Mr. Magoo out of the box for its one run and ran a 5.294/265.

Scott Weis came next, and his RaceGirl-backed machine picked up a full second to a 4.730/313.88 to drop the bump to Don Lampus' 4.912.

Hallock tried to get back in but first had trouble finding reverse for the second time of the event. The delay possibly lent itself to troubles as the Nitronic Research and Outriders Car Club machine dropped a cylinder at the hit of the throttle and things grew progressively worse.

Lampus and John Smith battled for ladder spots next, with the Texan stepping all the way up to #7Q with a great 4.604/307. Meanwhile, the Fram driver fought for control as two cylinders on one bank went out, driving him to but not over the centerline. His 4.842/252 earned him the new bump.

There were several tire-smokers in a row, then came a side-by-side 4.688/307 to 4.639/322.73 pairing which improved the positioning of Yuichi Oyama and Cory Mac, respectively.

I spoke to Mike Kloeber about the track, new Goodyear tires, and clutch discs before the final session (I'll talk about that conversation at another time) and wasn't surprised to see his boss, Clay Millican, go right down the right lane with a 4.594/319.29. That shuffled things again.

Doug Kalitta's 4.608/322.58 didn't improve him, but did return the Matco team to their earlier 4.593 number. Amazingly, the car was down at least two cylinders from halftrack on.

With four TF cars remaining, the crowd anticipated the best and they almost got their wish.

Kenny Bernstein faced Tony Schumacher first, and his always-flawless Budweiser King, wasn't. It shook its rear tires loose, and when the engine unloaded, fuel poured from the pipes, and it went silent.

In the right lane, Sergeant Schumacher scorched the track with a 4.533/330.88, and the crowd responded boisterously as the team's Hum-Vee towcar headed down to get Tony.

Lastly, the Yankees took on the Miller Lite team. Young Andrew Cowin had already shown himself capable of pushing the right buttons and pulling the right levers and handles, but this time the gray w/blue stripes fueler put two plumes of white smoke into the air before it reached the power alley.

From my vantage point, looking under and then through that cloud, I could see Larry Dixon Jr. power his front wheels up and then carry them nearly 500 feet, a prettier run I've never seen since the picturesque ‘60s. The wisps of smoke that came off the front tires as they landed told me the car was nearing 260mph then and if he could hang on, it was gonna be a good one.

When the boards flashed 4.509/326.87, the crowd bellowed and applauded their appreciation.

The Pomona track records now belong to Cowin (4.490) and Schumacher (330.88).

Then came the funny cars.

I haven't really gotten into lane choice throughout my coverage of the Winternationals. But most of the good numbers in the early sessions came in the left lane, until the final qualifying session. The way the sun crosses the San Gabriel Valley in February puts the sun behind the right-side grandstands by about 3pm and while the left lane remains in direct sunlight, the right begins to cool and lay down. So in session three, about noon, the lanes were equal Saturday, but later, the right lane seemed better. Certainly, this phenomenon is exacerbated by the rotating lane situation, and the potential of more "good" cars running in one lane or the other.

Starting session three was Scotty Cannon, whose 4.883/317 put him solidly in from a previous outside spot.

Moments later, Tommy Johnson made a similar move, though his 5.042/296 only got him onto the precarious bump.

Many wasted runs later, Gary Densham moved into #3Q with a fabulous 4.813/324.44.

Later, Cruz Pedregon had the chute tumble out as soon as he hit the throttle – on the burnout. Instead of a crewman or official shutting him off, he unknowingly backed over and became entangled with the parachute. This caused a major delay as the tangled shrouds and canopy had to be literally cut off the car.

In the other lane, the new Dodge Stratus sat silent, awaiting the go signal. Dean Skuza had made his burnout, then was shut-off behind the line. Crewchief Lance Larsen made the decision to make the run as soon as the track was ready, and the car went about 200 feet before spinning its Goodyears.

BTW, I was wrong about the body not returning. Except for a few scorch marks and severe blackening underneath, it was fine. There is a spare in place should the need arise, but I was told that unless delamination of the carbon fiber occurs, structural integrity will remain.

The last pairing was by far the best, with Ron Capps improving 4.825/307 actually taking the measure of John Force' 4.837/312.

A little aside. In three runs, Force had run three different bodies. This third run came in a brand new one, fresh from the autoclave and the Lockheed wind tunnel, somewhat lighter and much swoopier. And although the car looked like it went straight as the proverbial string, extreme downforce buckled the entire center of the spoiler.

Later, in the media center where he accepted accolades and questions for his 107th #1Q, John explained that the team had heard what Toyota was spending and went back to the tunnel to gain anything they could. This body was another evolution of that knowledge. He also said the body must be doing its job because the rear "wing" was a duplicate to the other bodies which have been tried innumerable times without such catastrophic failure.

So, with a bump of 5.042, the FC teams began their final attempt at about 4pm.

Louis Sweet and Phil Burkart tried out the hot and sticky, albeit tricky, surface first, and the Nitrofish got close with a 5.054/280. Next up, Bob Gilbertson drove through boiling tires from 700 feet on to record an expensive 5.265/270. Next to him, TJ's 5.157/226 failed to help him either. Terry Haddock's 5.508/229 stopped his hopes too. In the other lane, the much-heralded Toyota tried to become an airplane, ending up on its right rear and wheelie bar before Captain Scelzi pushed the stick forward and landed the errant machine.

Suddenly, with no outsiders remaining, the field was set, other than shuffling. There were many aborted runs remaining, mostly following tire smoke before 200 feet.

Jerry Toliver showed that he is back and ready to forget totally ALL of 2001 with a great 4.860/311.56 clocking in the right lane that gained him two spots. In his tracks, Scotty Cannon's 4.895 would have been way better had he not been forced to pull the plug early. Ron Capps' 4.814/314.68 was the next in the right lane, the time good for a two-spot jump.

Then, like TF, there were four cars left. Unlike TF, three out of four came out of one stable – Team Force. At that moment, they held the top three qualifying positions.

First up, Tony P faced Whit Bazemore, with the Matco Tools Firebird in the right hand lane. Both drivers drove through the quivers I mentioned yesterday, Pedregon the only driver able to get down the left lane all session. The Castrol Mustang became a torch at 1100 feet but still recorded an amazing 4.792/303 number. Bazemore too had a flash of fire, though much further down, and woke up the CompuLinks with a 4.762/324.05! Whit was #2Q.

The last pair were Mr. Force himself, back under a black shell, and the (Jimmy) "Prock Rocket" with Gary Densham at the controls.

In Pedregon's tracks, Force ran a sub-par 4.946/281 that was all over the place. In the right lane however, a guy that helped Force get started and keep going way back when, held on to the Triple A Mustang on a sterling 4.783/326.87 ride that, backed up by his earlier 324.44, gave him the national record as well as the fastest FC timeslip in history.

Did I mention that day three was AWESOME?

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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