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