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Phoenix 2002: Race Day

By Phil R. Elliott

The NHRA Checker-Schuck's-Kragen Nationals was a superb race – for me.

Oh sure, there were some moments, especially when some of my favorites went down to some of my not so favorites. But, being a reporter of the news, I bore up under the strain, kept a stiff upper lip, and kept taking notes.

One thing I haven't touched on is the fact that this race marks a new era, one that will include alcohol dragsters and funny cars less and less, according to rumors. They weren't invited here. What it meant to pit space and scheduling I cannot say because it was my first time at PIR and I have no true feeling of the available legroom. There was more room to fill, and some felt that Sportsman fields were short in spite of there being a Lucas Oil Drag Race Series event next weekend.

One interesting theory came to light, that the missing TADs contributed to lack of traction for Top Fuel throughout the weekend. Not only do the alky cars lay down a lot of rubber but they are the only cars of similar wheelbase to the fuelers. The instant launch "pad" was inadequate, according to many, though on race day, it seemed to come around.

The NHRA Safety Safari worked doubly hard. Under the watchful eye of Graham Light, they scraped, swept, and vacuumed every night and between every round, keeping the track as tight as possible. Their efforts were most appreciated by racer and fan alike.

Actually, round one was as carnage filled as any race in recent memory. There were also career bests, upsets, and other craziness throughout all three professional eliminators.

I already spoke of the new Goodyear fuel tires and their possible ramifications on this event. There was much finger pointing, but bottom line, fuelers both long and short came to the starting line on new shoes every round. I only saw one set of "scuffs" and that car went into instant smoke. One outspoken crewchief told me the tires cannot be used twice because after going through their heat ranges, they act square – out of round and balance. New tires every run fixes that. At about $850 a pair (plus tax), a car that reaches the final can now count on a nearly $8,000 tire bill for every event.

I was again impressed with the Clay Millican-driven, Mike Kloeber-tuned, Werner Enterprises machine. No, they didn't win at Phoenix, but for the second race in a row, the car ran 4.5s, one time at 322.73mph, and reached the semis. The car features a unique blower drive system, made up of a much wider – about 4-1/2 inches – industrial belt and custom pulleys. I have no idea where the belt comes from but this car hasn't had a failure all year. They are on to something and currently sit third in points.

I was even more impressed with the Dick LaHaie-led, Larry Dixon Jr. –driven, Miller Lite/Diamond Back entry. Their barrage of 4.5s and over 320mph performances in light of the conditions should have been the winner. They received their necessary "luck" in eliminations when after Rhonda Hartman had trouble after the burnout and motored through, the tires came loose on the Miller car at 300 feet. In the final, another similar fate befell Dixon, but this time, he lost the pedaling duel. With a win and a runner-up, the team leads in POWERade points.

Speaking of Rhonda, her dad Virgil Hartman put both Fram Filters team cars into the field, Rhonda at 4.644 and son-in-law John Smith on the bump at 4.855, even though both cars were troubled with tire smoke and broken blower belts on virtually every run. Both cars are tuned beyond normal aggression and continue to record some of the quickest short times of their class. In the drag race world of coulda-woulda-shoulda and "what ifs," I predict that when they get to a super track (maybe as soon as Gainesville), if they can keep tires under and blower belts on them, these two cars will run up front.

And, Kenny Bernstein? He spent a week of pain following the loss of his mother to a heart attack and after qualifying 2nd, his Budweiser King boomed a blower a split second after it launched. If there is anything I know for sure about this man, he felt a sort of relief to be able to walk away from the stress off the event. I offer my condolences to Kenny and his family.

Winner Tony Schumacher once again showed superiority. The Schumacher Army produces arguably the most horsepower in Top Fuel, noted by their constant top speeds near or over 330mph. At Phoenix, a 3rd in Q'ing kept 4.5 pace, and a race day 4.6 tune-up proved adequate. Their only miscue was in the semis when the car wisped the tires and needed to be pedaled slightly, which "Sarge" did to perfection for a 4.715/310 result. Luckily, opponent Millican dropped cylinders and fell to a 4.801/310. That little bit of practice went to good result in the final, when Tony's fireproof combat boot got a real workout. He sits second in points.

Possibly the biggest news coming in to Phoenix was the replacement by Don Prudhomme of Mike Green with Larry Meyer as crewchief on the Tommy Johnson, Jr. Skoal blue Camaro. According to Snake Racing PR guru, Joe Sherk, the decision was made due to the car's poor performances during pre-season testing and Pomona. Prudhomme figured a change should be made before getting any further down the road. The result? A 4th spot on the ladder with a 4.867 and a semi-final finish.

The other Skoal Firebird, with Ed McCulloch and Ron Capps in the premiere spots, was disappointing in Q'ing with a 4.908 for 9th. After a come-from-behind win over a shaking and pedaling Bob Gilbertson in R1, Capps lost to John Force in the second round, 4.850/314 to 4.891/295, a run that saw many of Skoal green's innards on the ground from 1000-feet on.

There is never even a tiny hint of disbelief when the three-car John Force juggernaut dominates qualifying and races year around. One cannot help but shake their head in mock disbelief when one of the many Mustang bodied racers literally thunders down the 1320 to track records time-and-time again. When Force himself went right down the right lane during a session that only one other car driver did, it was one of those moments. Another came when he ran a 4.797 that ended up as #1Q, and another when Gary Densham hit 4.833 at 321.19 for #2Q and a new track speed record. The only minor divots in a perfect green came in the fourth qualifying run and the final round, when the Austin Coil/Bernie Fedderly combination overpowered the racetrack.

Force's first round win over arch rival Whit Bazemore was certainly THE race of the young season. The Matco Tools team struggled throughout qualifying, their usually dominant performance lost somewhere between the motor plate and the track surface. After a lackluster 5.011/293 best, good only for the tough bump, Whit stated to the press that it might be just the silver lining to the dark cloud he'd been fighting all weekend – to take out his nemesis in the first round and go on to the win. He was just .012 seconds away from that goal. Only a slight .017-second reaction difference won this one for the cagey veteran Force (RTs .503 to .520), 4.843/318 to a quicker 4.838. In fact, Bazemore had low ET of race day, a time that would have qualified him 3rd and certainly would have changed drastically the outcome of this event.

Lee Beard's other charge, Scotty Cannon, had similar 4.8/317 times, Q'd 3rd and went to the semi-final, where he lost to eventual champ, Del Worsham. That race was even closer than the Force over Bazemore match, a .003-second beauty that had the place buzzing. The crazy Oakley team is just a few short steps from the podium.

There were many other stories among the floppers, but the biggest one leaving the race was that Chuck and Del Worsham, with a lot of help from Rob Flynn, reached the final again and this time won. Like many others, the Checker-Kragen-Kragen Firebird had a time of making it into the field, a last ditch 4.929/314 good for only 10th. Since CSK was also the race sponsor, it would have been unthinkable to miss the cut. On race day, a similar tune-up was good to go right down the track EVERY time, with scarcely a shake, wiggle or wisp of a problem – 4.89/311, 4.91/313, 4.88/313, and 4.94/312. A great day for this superb, but often underrated group.

There have been three drivers in Pro Stock history to win from 16th qualifying position – Mike Edwards, Jeg Coughlin, and George Marnell. So, there was a chance for history to be made when Jeg, one of the best on the starting line, faced low qualifier and fellow Ohioan Ron Krisher in round one. Marnell had become the third of this exclusive group just two weeks previous, and started his day with a holeshot over, yup, Krisher. Side bets seemed to be on Coughlin, who did his job pretty well, a .453 RT and a much-improved 6.887 (that would have been good for 4th Q). Nobody figured on "the Krusher" to work a left jab in on the ex-world champ, but a .445 RT and a 6.883 did just that.

A 6.88 seemed to be the right number of R1, with the slowest win and the only win outside the 80s coming, on a holeshot, of course, from Marnell, a 6.917 over Mark Osborne's 6.889. All the losers ran strong too, with the slowest of that category being V. Gaines' shaky 6.934. It again brings up the point that on any Sunday, any car in an NHRA PS field can win the event.

In R2, Kurt Johnson's 6.89 was enough when the Krisher top end charge never came. Edwards' otherworldly .406 RT smacked Jim Yates, Bruce Allen got to Marnell, and Warren Johnson denied Tom Hammonds' drive to the basket.

With the heat picking up considerably for the all GM semi-final – track temp was between 103 and 106 degrees – the PS wizards figured on a major slow down. Edwards' .463 RT was first off the line against the Reher & Morrison Grand Am, but his Cavalier was out powered, 6.900/199 to 6.923/199. In a similar Pontiac vs. Chevy match, dad WJ spanked son KJ on the starting line (RTs .492 to .517), then held him off, 6.910/200 to 6.918/199.

So, when the pair of Pontiacs headed for the line in the final, holding two of the favorites in the PS class, few knew which way to gamble. And, few would have been able to lay their bets down anyway, because Bruce Allen two-stepped to an almost perfect .410 reaction. Warren Johnson's .475 RT wasn't terrible, but he soon found himself in trouble, and whether it was tire shake or what, when he plugged the GM Performance Parts Grand Am in high gear, he lifted and had a ringside seat to the Texan's consistent 6.904/199 victory. Bruce also now leads the points battle.

I already intimated that I missed the alcohol cars at Phoenix. If any of the TAD and TAFC folk are reading this, I suggest you look long and hard at what you're doing. This isn't coming from me but in similar fashion to the movie Animal House, somebody already has you on "double secret probation." That's just a word to the wise.

I'm pretty impressed with Wayne Ramay who won Comp. At Pomona, his Bill Maropoulos-powered Jr. Fueler, er, A/ND, ran 7.18 and two 7.16s. Here, the Simi Valley, Calif. driver ran another 7.16 for #1Q, then managed to step hard on his CIC with an unprecedented 7.145 in the semis. He had a horrible .631 RT against Bob Lambeck's D/SMA Olds, forcing him to stay in the throttle. The A/ND index had been 7.87, but Ramay faced a 7.65 index in the final, one he almost didn't make. A bad battery connection on the umbilical to the starter nearly cost the team dearly, but Wayne's dad hit the battery post just right and the injected sbChevy came to life. Opponent Charlie Stewart's A/ED, a R&M-powered piece from Texas, was already bumping in the water, and Rick Stewart was timing the process. Both drivers were lousy on the tree (RTs .621 to .642), but both had stellar runs, 7.138/185 to 6.868/193 (7.34 index). By the way, welcome Jimmy DeFrank to Comp, he fouled in the semis.

Bo Butner III won Super Stock over Mark Faul, a final that saw the little SS/EM Olds hit a great .506 RT. Stock went to Eric Waldo, after his Runner Up finish in Pomona. He also won the 2001 US Nationals. Dad Jim, who hasn't yet come down off the high from having both of their CJ Mustangs in the Indy final, shook his head over his son's .501 RT in the final here. Did I mention that Eric drives a stick car? Did I mention that Al Corda was his final victim?

The Super classes went to Ed Olin, Michael Miller, and Chet Vandewater.

Congrats to everyone, and thanks for an outstanding race to Charlie Allen and the Phoenix staff.

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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