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Las Vegas 2002: Gambling in the Desert

By Phil R. Elliott

Since Pomona, there have been complaints.

It has been quite popular to blame the new Goodyear drive tires for whatever ails whomever. When a team sees their mount spin and smoke its tires, there is only one cause – them damned new tires.

I disagree with that synopsis and have said so on these pages pretty much every race. Had Goodyear engineers come up with a tire ten feet in diameter and six feet wide, with steel studs to dig into the pavement, the crews would have been forced to take a look at the new data. Since the tires dealt have a spec similar to what they were familiar with, many teams have chosen to believe their old logbooks still apply.

I cannot understand why, after four races on four very different tracks, each in very different weather and atmospheric conditions, they don't get it. In looking back at previous seasons, these same teams have actually smoked their tires at these tracks before… Old tires, new tires, it hasn't mattered in the past.

Let's face facts. When you produce as much horsepower as half of a NASCAR field, you have the ability to turn tires back into puddles of oil.

Las Vegas, and the NHRA SummitRacing.com Nationals, was no different. Some teams negotiated the 1320 feet with ease, others couldn't get 600 feet and others had trouble at 200 feet – just like they always have!

I personally hate the old days of one-lane racetracks, where situations like constant oildowns literally made one or the other lane superior. Today, with far better equipment and methods by a totally dedicated Safety Safari, NHRA national event tracks are as good as they can be made.

Please trust me, nobody loves good close racing more than I do – without distinction to class or eliminator. When I see car after car lose runs in qualifying or eliminations to spinning tires, I'm disappointed – I feel short changed. I want good clean competition, of course. But, I feel far more upset for the teams that work long hours and try hard to hit a nearly impossible combination.

It was only 77 degrees when round one of Top Fuel commenced with a meeting of Australians and a heavy display of tire smoke – veteran David Grubnic did a better pedal pump than sophomore Andrew Cowin. The Gwynn/Yankee machine was on a wild slider that started inside then headed outside before being checked.

The next pair was an instant replay, except both cars were red instead of white, and pretty Melanie Troxel rode out the hanging curve, arresting it before it went inside the boundaries twice then tiptoeing around Doug Herbert.

The third pair showed how the sport should be played, with Rhonda Hartman-Smith not respecting her elder, Chris Karamesines, 4.787/286 to 4.799/302 in a terrific battle. Yuichi Oyama redlit next, while Darrell Russell gave Joe Amato the first good things all weekend – a much improved 4.730/311 and a winlite. Kenny Bernstein showed 4.707/318 strength while Gary Clapshaw lost adhesion. The same scenario gave Tony Schumacher a 4.750/313 win over Ken Zeal, then Cory McClenathan drove around Doug Kalitta in a super race, 4.732/318 to 4.791/311.

Larry Dixon finished the round with a 4.733/320 over a tire spinning Scott Weis.

So, if you made your count, seven TF cars smoked their tires in round one, nine, including the one that fouled, did not.

The Funny Car clan had a similar round one. First in line came Frank Pedregon who quickly showed Gary Densham why Jim Dunn had chosen him to drive his K&N Firebird – a .409RT! After that, both cars came loose, and both drivers pedaled frantically with the Mustang gaining ground and taking the win. Bob Gilbertson also grabbed a great light (.427RT) to lead Tim Wilkerson all the way to near the stripe. Neither car spun its tires, and the Levi, Ray & Shoup Firebird just nipped the Stewart & Stevenson Firebird, 5.015/301 to 5.120/302.

Dean Skuza spun the tires on his Mopar Stratus and watched John Force speed on to a 4.919/318, then a very big upset gave Force something more to smile about. Tommy Johnson jumped first (RTs .477 to .511) then improved to a 4.969/303 to trailer Whit Bazemore and the Matco Firebird. Crewchief Lee Beard had obviously called an audible that was just too conservative. Bazemore's time was a decent 4.984/304, but a losing one nonetheless. For the third race of the still young season, the team many pick as the one most capable of running head to head with the Force juggernaut was out very early.

Next up, Beard's other charge, Scotty Cannon had the Oakley machine go silent at about 500 feet – John Lawson rode right down the right lane to a 4.945/302 win. Then, with the crowd pretty sure that Force's 4.91 was about as good as they could expect, Gary Scelzi rolled a 4.891/313 number with the White Cap Toyota to take out Todd Paton and the Nitrofish Camaro, which ran a decent 5.080/279.

Ron Capps received a lucky win when WWF's Jerry Toliver attempted to smack down the right side guardwall. An oil line broke, putting a puddle under the tires. When Jerry pounded the pedal, the black machine made an immediate right turn and clobbered the concrete. The impact point was just about six feet from where I was standing and scattered the rest of the photographers – all were OK except for a minor cut or two from falling on the sharp rocks placed between the wall and the fence. Meanwhile, Tolliver crawled out and laid on the track surface, looking like he'd been thrown from the ring after a battle royal. After a short recovery, he was well enough to be interviewed. Track clean up took longer.

The race between Tony Pedregon and Del Worsham closed the round, and it was a wild one. Reactions were similar, but the C-S-K Firebird moved away from the start rather slowly. Pedregon then experienced traction problems and Worsham slowly waddled around for the win, 5.239/294 to 5.459/214. It was later discovered Worsham's engine to have a defective magneto.

Would you believe that the first Pro Stock race of round one of the Summit-backed race was between two Jeg's cars? And, following nearly duplicate reactions, Jeg Coughlin defeated his brother Troy, 7.009 to 7.036. Mike Edwards took out V. Gaines, the latter whose prerogative and decision it was to swap lanes before their match, 7.008 to 7.029. A .003-second holeshot stretched into a .013 win for Warren Johnson over Bruce Allen, and Tom Hammonds took out the hopes of the race sponsor by defeating Mark Pawuk, 7.040 to 7.079.

Jim Yates put Greg Anderson on the trailer, 7.013 to 7.041, Darrell Alderman holeshot Tom Martino and won, 7.021 to 7.026, George Marnell outran John Geyer, 7.024 to 7.050, and Ron Krisher drove around JR Carr, 6.990 to 7.013.

Just 81 minutes after the first round began, and in a warmer 82 degrees, Larry Dixon rolled the Miller Lite machine through the water to start round two. He faced John Mitchell's Oh Boy Oberto and R.F. Chapman Complete Metal Fabrications-backed Montana Express with David Grubnic up and for the second time of the weekend the LaHaie lasso didn't attach properly. Grubnic's tires came loose pretty quickly, but he back-pedaled and went on. Dixon moved well to halftrack where the tires spun hard, he pedaled, had the blower belt snap and looked vulnerable, 4.887/293 to 5.230/265.

Likewise Kenny Bernstein. Opponent Rhonda Hartman lost traction early, the Bud King moved on to halftrack before its tires went into scattered clouds. Luckily for "big red" its 4.918/289 was enough because the Fram Special was far back and coasting.

Tony "combat boots" Schumacher was next and his .473RT/4.758/312 Army package was deadly consistent while Darrell Russell's rear tires – yup, you guessed it – spun frantically.

The same thing happened in the fourth pairing, where Cory McClenathan won with a consistent 4.769/303 over Melanie Troxel's tire-spinning Western Stabilization mount that had weekend help from Horseshoe Casino.

Tim Wilkerson started the Funnies with another decent 4.982/300 while Ron Capps turned the sky gray, and the track wet, the Skoal green Camaro losing an engine on the big end.

Right behind his teammate, Tommy Johnson moved first against Gary Scelzi and made it to the finish line first despite an off pace 5.209/248 when the Toyota spun its tires. The right lane was slimed once again.

Following the second clean up in as many pairings, Del Worsham grabbed an early lead over John Force (RTs .491 to .507) then held him off – 4.984/307 to 4.977/308 – by just .009 second! The Castrol Elvis Mustang had left the building and John himself will have to wait until at least Houston for his historic 100th win.

Gary Densham evened things up for his boss with a holeshot (RTs .518 to .594) and a win over John Lawson's Mark Oswald/John Stewart wrenched Lucas Oil Products Firebird, 5.018/308 to 5.009/296

By the way, three TF winners were in the left lane, one was in the right, while the FC races were even at two each. There was not a problem with the surface.

The professional door cars gave some minor surprises in round two. After a holeshot (RTs .437 to .470), Tom Hammonds' Winnebago Cavalier wiggled and he helplessly watched Jim Yates pull away to a 7.018 win. Mike Edwards was next with an early advantage but his Young Life Cavalier also crossed up and George Marnell went on alone to a 7.034 win.

Most expected a burndown next, but it didn't come. Warren Johnson did switch lanes before facing Darrell Alderman, but both drivers went right in to stage. The Dodge moved first (RTs .451 to .467) and it was enough to stay in front of the Performance Parts Grand Am by a minuscule .0028, 7.038 to 7.024! The tight win gave Alderman an extra $1,000 from Motel 6 for the 'Who Got the Light' award.

The fourth pair saw Ron Krisher match one of the best on the starting line (RTs .458 and .457), then drove away from Jeg Coughlin to another winning six, 6.998 to 7.052.

Before the semis, many wondered if the falter made by LaHaie/Dixon in the 2nd would show itself again. First, Kenny Bernstein holeshot Cory Mac (RTs .467 to .505) only to watch the early lead gobbled up by a far more aggressive Wes Cerny tune-up, 4.701/313 to 4.793/313. Then Larry Dixon zipped right down the same left lane to a similar 4.702/313 win over a tire smoking Tony Schumacher. Some considered Dick LaHaie's tune-up to be somewhat conservative, but a 70 in the heated atmosphere was more than that. What Dixon did lose was lane choice for the final.

The Funnies too showed once more just how tricky drag racing can be. Tim Wilkerson, who'd scarcely put a wheel wrong all weekend, finally showed that his Levi, Ray & Shoup team were humans after all. A loss of traction and a 5.504/262 was not enough to hold off the also subpart 5.137/282 by Tommy Johnson Jr., who had celebrated his birthday Saturday.

In similar fashion to the Pro Stockers, there were predictions of a holeshot victory against a better performance for the other FC semi-finalists. But, Gary Densham fooled everyone and jumped to a big lead (RTs .476 to .524) to held off the much younger Del Worsham, 5.040/290 to 5.068/304.

Some of the biggest cheers at Las Vegas went to hometown boy, and pre-race points leader, the now Matco-backed George Marnell. None of that hype bothered Darrell Alderman, who for the second round in a row pulled directly in to stage. Then the Neon driver jumped first (RTs .435 to .468) and had the power to take another tight victory, 7.030 to 7.028.

Then, one of the best drivers in the business came to the line to face what has been the strongest car of the season so far. And, when the Splitfire Pontiac moves into stage, 100% of those present expect it to be first off the line – Jim Yates is that good.

Nobody expected Ron Krisher to move right in to the stage beams, force Yates to quicken his routine, then pull off a miraculous gate job (RTs .447 to .526), and drive away to a monstrous win, 6.979 to 7.032. But that is the way it went.

With the top seven qualifiers between 5.492 and 5.543, TAD looked to be fairly wide open. Local driver Duane Shields grabbed most of the headlines with not only that best qualifying number but a 261.62 top speed as well. But after a 5.553/258 and a 5.516/258 in the first two rounds, Shields' BAE/Hadman shook and broke in the semis.

In the meantime, Mark Hentges (5.507/258 and 5.518/254), Darren Nicholson (5.527/256 and 5.510/255) and Brian Hough (5.540/258) looked at least as good.

This was not a race for the AF group for though several showed, none ran to their potential. Mark Niver was best, his hand hewn machine hitting a career best (I think) 5.523/250.92 to qualify 6th, but he was gone after round two.

Also gone after the 2nd was Hough, as the latest Mike Johnson Racing machine was rudely dumped by Nicholson. Steve Federlin was the only R2 winner not to run a 5.51, his 5.67 quite a ways off the pace. The Oregon driver was only able to muster a 5.659/255 in the semis, and Washington's Hentges grabbed the win with a 5.569/256. Nicholson's 5.635/254 was the recipient of the previously mentioned Shields breakage.

Mark Hentges, who missed the 2001 world championship by just a few points, had lane choice in the final. He chose to place his BAE-powered 2002 Hadman in the left and had a good .482RT and 5.556/257 performance. Unfortunately, Darren Nicholson had a .451RT and a 5.544/256 for the win.

If you look at just numbers, Bucky Austin should have won TAFC at Las Vegas. He opened things with a 5.949/246, then stepped up to back-to-back runs of 5.742/248 and 5.743/251 to lead all others. Steve Gasparrelli (5.801) and Mert Littlefield (5.807) were next best.

Bucky's 5.823/251 were best again in the heat of R1, as were his 5.818/248 in R2. But the BAE in his Firebird was hurt severely in that win and a major rebuild was necessary. Littlefield (5.858/245), Ron August (5.862/242) and Larry Miner (5.839/243) were the other R2 winners, the latter in a close one over Gasparrelli.

Supercharger manufacturer Mert Littlefield jumped first in the semis (RTs .494 to .513) then had his Camaro go into severe shake. It was enough as the latest Miner Bros. machine rattled itself then went by for a 5.956/241 win.

The other pair never happened. August's Camaro waited silently in the water for its opponent, but the black Firebird never came. The rebuild had been completed but during a rapid tow to staging, the chute had tumbled out and by the time that problem was solved, the lanes were plugged with Super Comp dragsters and Bucky Austin was trapped. Ron August singled.

The final was anticlimactic. Larry Miner won easily – the brothers' rarely used Fontana (Arias) powerplant did grab low ET of raceday with a 5.809/246, but it came after Ron August fouled and coasted.

When Ron Krisher faced Darrell Alderman in the PS final, once again most fans were sure the scenario would include a short staging duel, a holeshot and win by Alderman although Ron Krisher would have a much better performance. What they received was far different.

Once again, Alderman put the Dodge in to both beams immediately, while Krisher timed himself perfectly, and again jumped to an advantage (RTs .479 to .509). The Eagle One Grand Am was slightly off its earlier pace, but managed to hold on to the lead for 1320 feet, 7.016 to 7.026. There have now been four different winners in four races.

Two interesting things: Krisher's odds in Las Vegas were 30-1, impressive for the baddest PS of 2002. Many I overheard placed bets. In interviews with the man who has been #1Q at all four events so far, Ron has put his driving down every chance he's gotten. He has said many times that he is the biggest drawback to his race team. After this performance, odds and opinions may change.

For the FC final, the only for sure item was that there would be a fourth new winner in 2002. The Force team vs. the Prudhomme team, Jimmy Prock vs. Larry Meyer, a man with arguably more runs under his Nomex than any other active driver vs. a very talented albeit younger driver, both with impeccable credentials.

Predictions be damned. Gary Densham jumped first (RTs .499 to .513) then pulled away to what looked to be an easy win when Tommy Johnson spun his tires. But wait, TJ pedaled and pursued, while Densham fought tirespin of his own further down the track, and an engine that let go too! The dramatic outcome was less than a car length, 5.409/205 to a fast-closing 5.447/272.

While there have indeed been four different winners in FC so far in 2002, making the points race look close, three have come out of the Force stable. There is no let up from this team.

The last pairing of the SummitRacing.com Nationals was extremely good on paper due to many things. There were the standard items, like the top two qualifying positions, and the almost duplicate semi-final clockings between the two finalists.

Cory McClenathan was in his first final since the end of 2000, his cobwebs obviously brushed aside and the whole team having made the switch from AF to TF with aplomb. A point few noted was that in both previous final encounters, Cory had defeated Larry. Plus, Cory's MBNA dollars have recently been stretched by monies from Centennial Batteries and Waterloo Tool Storage for the now blue and white car. One extremely important point is that it was the first professional final for team owners Rick Henkelman and David Baca.

There was one point that was well documented though – that Larry Dixon had been in all four final rounds of 2002. Did I mention that Friday had been car owner Don Prudhomme's birthday?

The race got underway just as tight as the stats indicated (RTs .472 to.473), but Cory's powerplant immediately dropped a cylinder and he began to fall behind. Nobody could say the word conservative to crewchief Dick LaHaie after the final, because Larry Dixon rode to a superb 4.639/319 victory, over a usually decent 4.728/313.

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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