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Phoenix Day Two: Get Ready, Get Set…

By Phil R. Elliott

My morning started early again, with a quick stop at McMex (they don't speak much English here) for semi-congealed chicken embryos on a bun, and through the gate at PIR by 7:20am.

I spoke to NHRA starter Rick Stewart about the track surface and we discussed the several-hour session of scraping and sweeping "under the lights" last night. I suggested that the teams had been trying way too hard and that there was nothing wrong with the track anyway. He nodded and was in complete agreement, then said with a hopeful tone, "We'll see today."

Not too much later, I walked through the Pro pits and talked to everyone I could about their race strategy, and without typing in a very long list of names of crew chiefs and drivers, to a man, the generic quote would be, "As soon as we get a handle on these tires…"

For 2002, Goodyear released a new fuel drive tire, the D1430. To refresh your memory, the tire was designed and constructed to rid drag racing of the high-speed blowouts that were becoming all-too prevalent. Indeed, though several teams have still experienced minor "chunking," the new tire has been tested beyond 375mph without failure. This is good news for the guys sitting in the seats of these land-based missiles that are totally reliant on their rear tires for traction and safety. Keep in mind that we're talking about the unbelievable task of putting nearly 7,000hp to the ground.

But, in typical good news-bad news fashion, the D1430 is different enough that it has a thrown a nearly unhittable curveball at everyone. These teams have had to pretty well throw out their old notebooks and start fresh.

One major difference is that the tread is wider than the previous D1230 tire, while the rim has remained the same. What this causes is a more crown in the tire. Remember the term "up on the tire?" As the car moves from static to speed, centrifugal force slings the tire taller and narrower, and this new tire/rim combo has exacerbated this – the tire moves to its taller, narrower shape earlier.

Add in that the D1430 has a different compound, and it is of a new construction on both sidewall and tread than anything tried before, and you can start to see why folk are somewhat troubled.

Not too many years ago, Goodyear and NASCAR switched the Winston Cup from bias ply to radial tires. Teams scrambled for two years to find the combination. I'd guess the switch still confuses an old crew chief that wishes he could still make minor changes the way he once did.

This switch in nitro tires was made for one reason – to make drag racing safer. These Professional teams will find the proper combination. And, Goodyear will continue to evolve the tire to make things better for everyone.

When the Pro Stocks headed down the black strip in the Valley of the Sun for their third attempt, ambient temperature was about 84 degrees, less than the local meteorologists had predicted.

Bob Glidden was the first to try the surface and he experienced hard shake again, this time before the 60-foot timers. It would be eight or so pairs before Troy Coughlin would bump Tom Martino, his 6.932 good for 15th. This started wholesale changes that saw virtually everyone in the bottom half improve while those previously in the top half slowed down. Greg Anderson ended with the 6.933 bump, while up top, Ron "the Krusher" Krisher squeezed another hundredth out of his combo, hitting 6.866/201.43 for yet another track ET record. Bruce Allen picked up a like amount (6.877/200) for 2nd.

Still outside biting their nails were many superb automobiles with capable drivers and hard working teams – all with just one chance remaining.

Top Fuel came next and the first pair proved exciting. John Smith pulled the Fram machine into stage and waited not-so-patiently for Arley Langlo, making his first attempt of the race. What didn't wait was the CompuLink AutoStart, which sent John on basically a single, while the TitanXpress sat blubbering. The extra time may have caused a problem because Smith experienced tire smoke before 200 feet. Langlo finally staged and left – on somewhere between 3 and 5 cylinders. There was an immediate and very animated "discussion" between Virgil Hartman and Rick Stewart, but there was nothing either could do at that moment.

Yuichi Oyama came next and his 4.718/309 drew a major crowd response and gained him a few spots. His opponent was supposed to have been Wyatt Radke, but for the second time in a row, the sponsorless yellow and red machine had problems after the burnout.

Paul Romine Car Quest hit a necessary 4.800/296 to make the field. Doug Herbert smoked his Goodyears next while Rob Passey leveled the top of the MSP Motorsports entry. Parts whizzed right past my head and ended up hurting a spectator about threes rows up. A few minutes were spent in track cleanup and taking care of the slightly injured man.

A few broken blower belts, lots of tire smoke, and some respectable runs without ladder improvement led to the final pairing of the session, Larry Dixon and Kenny Bernstein. They put on a great race that Miller won over Budweiser, 4.577/321 to 4.639/319.

Utah's Garth Widdison, driving Mike, Jeff, Lindsay and Aaron Strasburg's Parts Plus Auto Parts machine, sat on the 4.955 bump spot. The Strasburg family now owns B&J Transmission.

For the FC teams, most felt that calming things down to get in the field was a better idea than blowing the tires off yet again. Dale Creasy Jr. started things off with a 4.999/276 in the Craftsman Firebird, a wall-hugging run that made his dad and Jimbo Ermalovich smile. In his tracks was Ron Capps, who took some of the worry lines out of Ed McCulloch and Don Prudhomme's foreheads with a very soft 4.980/302. In the other lane was Stephen Neese, who grabbed his first "five", at 5.950/258.

The next car in the left lane was Bob Gilbertson's Fram-backed Firebird, and Paul and Mike Smith gave him a fine 4.903/311 ride. It was "Burnin' Bob's" first 1320-footer of the season and one that ended in the sand off the end of track. Dean Skuza struggled to get the Dodge Stratus down the other lane but made it in with a 5.079/292. Al Hoffman's 5.071/252 gained him a spot, and so did Terry Haddock's 5.251/271. Whit Bazemore smoked tires and pistons on a 5.011/293 that looked double ugly.

Next came the Toyota, which Gary Scelzi rode to a 4.979/309 into the top half, and the last four pairs all ran strong "fours." There was Cruz Pedregon (4.967), Johnny Gray (4.952/312), Scotty Cannon (4.930/309), and Phil Burkart (4.868).

Wait, yesterday Burkart was second at 5.167 and a career best 312.50 mph speed, and now he's run an incredible 4.868, at a seemingly off-pace 292mph?! I spent about half an hour with crewchief Donnie Couch this morning and he said everyone was pretty happy with the way things were going. I guess so! Congrats to all concerned, including overseer Bill Schultz. This team is coming.

Gary Densham took some of Burkart's thunder with a 4.849/318.69, a new track speed record, in a pairing with Tommy Johnson (4.971). And Densham's boss, Mr. Force, finished things with a 4.838/316 over Tony Pedregon.

With all the shuffling, the new Mopar of Skuza sat on the bubble with it's 5.079.

After some great Sportsman action and a thorough scraping and sweeping of the racing surface, the Pros were back, and the whole place seemed to be asking questions.

Would Bob Glidden finally jump up and make the PS field? Which of the other 17 PS non-qualifiers would earn spots? How about Doug Herbert? Would his usually potent Snap-On machine tool itself into the program. And maybe the most asked question, would race sponsor Checker-Shucks-Kragen's favorite son, Del Worsham, who happened to be featured on the race poster seen everywhere, be a part of the show?

The first question can be answered simply. No. Once again, the Schmidt Pontiac shook, but this time Bob drove through it and tried to manhandle it a bit. When the tailwiggles began at about 200 feet, Glidden gave up the attempt.

Had this been a Chicago-style match-race, the barrage of 6.94s and 6.95s would have kept even partisan PS fans happy. But this was an NHRA national event after all, and with a 6.933 bubble, there were some unhappy folk following the last-ditch effort.

Jeg Coughlin was first to make a move; a 6.925 finally placed him in 15th, at least for the moment. In the next pair, Greg Anderson's 6.922 moved him to 15th and Jeg to the bump, and that's the way things stayed, with minor shuffling among the inner sanctum. Improving in the heat were Alderman (6.909) and Yates (6.879), and WJ stayed consistent (6.890), while the rest of the hitters stayed relatively close to their Q numbers. This field is pretty amazing, and I actually look for the winner to come from outside the normal group. No hints though.

In Top Fuel, John Smith powered to a 1000-foot 4.85/230 – victim of another blower belt. Behind him, Zeal improved (4.790/299) and Herbert finally made the field in 15th (4.804/302), bumping Widdison. The Utah driver was next, and he shook loose and shut-off. Russell, in the left lane, zinged a motor at 1000-feet, but luckily the flames went out before doing much damage. While expensive, his 4.735/302 moved him to 11th. A few minutes later, just-bumped Weis failed to get back in. He was running against Romine, who burned both head gaskets on an entertaining 4.900/273 pass. Millican improved (4.695/312) a few minutes later, as did both Rhonda Hartman (4.683/269) and David Grubnic (4.644/314.90). Andrew Cowin's 4.705/318 drew a decent crowd response but failed to improve his spot, but Tony "Shoe" did gain two spots with an impressive 4.588/326 performance.

That brought up the final pair, Messrs. Bernstein and Dixon, and the pre-match hype that it deserved. Though the crowd wanted more, the big red Budweiser King lifted it's blower at the 60-foot timers, while the Miller Lite and D-backs machine pounded out a 4.565/320.97.

According to my notes, the Dick LaHaie tune-up was quickest in three of the four Q sessions, 4.555, 4.577 and 4.565, all at 320 or 321mph. I'm gonna go way out on a limb here and go with Larry Dixon Jr. to win here. Duh.

Louis Sweet and Jerry Toliver started the final FC session with a bang, literally. Both boomed burst panels before 1000 feet, and both coasted to DNQs even though their numbers – 5.278 and 5.136, respectively – were bests of the weekend for both teams. Bode and Haddock tried next, and though Bode looked to be on a decent pass, his 5.148/292 was deceptive due to Haddock's even softer set-up. By the way, the Negley Electronics car was helped here by Sun Energy, Inc., a Phoenix residential cooling and heating installer.

Neese smoked instantly while opponent Bazemore got to about 500 feet before disappearing into a self-created fog bank, and he'd have to be happy with his earlier 5.011, 14th at the moment.

Next came Del Worsham, with a smoky 5.864/245 best to his credit. He singled to a 4.929/314.53, and dad Chuck walked away shaking his head with relief. The C-S-K machine will start its namesake event.

Del bumped Skuza's 5.079, and his Mopar came next. A calmed-down 5.095/292 was disappointing, and the Stratus was pushed into its trailer. In the other lane, the Lucas Oil Special, John Lawson up, smoked his tires at halftrack.

With the field set, Hoffman and Capps came next, and Skoal green thundered to an improving 4.908/312, while the K&N Filters earned a respectable 4.972/304 to get off a 5.071 bubble.

The pairing did several things. The announcing staff talked heavily about the fact that the ladder changes got the two C-S-K drivers away from each other in the first round. They failed initially to notice that should things stay as they were, #1Q Force would face #16Q Bazemore. That is exactly how things remain.

Next up, Scelzi put the Toyota into 5th with its best run to date, a 4.886/312.35 that finally gave Allen Johnson something to smile about.

Gray, in the other C-S-K car, hit 4.999 against a tire smoking Gilbertson, and then it was down to three pairs.

TJ and Scotty came first, and they stunned the sun-baked crowd with a 4.867/302 to 4.848/317 (respectively) race, that saw the Oakley Firebird get the win light and both improve.

Teammates Tony P and Densham were next, and AAA beat Castrol Syntex, 4.833/321.19 to 4.946/289. Pedregon knocked down the 1000-foot cone, and the ex-school teacher gave Jimmy Prock another track speed record.

The final pairing was exciting, but for all the wrong reasons. Burkart matched wheels with Force to half track where the Castrol Mustang smoked its tires for the first time all weekend and the Geronimo Nitro Fish boomed a blower.

The first round between Force and Bazemore – Austin Coil vs. Lee Beard, Ford vs. GM – will be worth the price of admission. I'll be there (I'm actually going on raceday!), and I have no overall pick to win this thing. After Friday, virtually anything can and probably will happen.

Phil Elliott

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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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