2002 National Time Trials
by Phil R. Elliott
Photos by Chris Stinson
The Oakley Mad Science Division was in force as Scotty Cannon tuned up for the season.
Photo by Chris Stinson
The new year is still less than three weeks old and already, there has been a serious drain on Angus Fuel's nitromethane supply.
I thought about heading to Chandler, Arizona, and Firebird International Raceway to partake of my favorite auditory and odortory vices. But, I stayed close to LA and excitedly read Dave Gerard's reports on the Summit Racing website. In fact, much of the info I'll pass on here came directly from those reports so a big tip of the hat goes to Dave.
Many, though far from all, Professional teams headed toward Charlie Allen's beautiful facility in the shadow of the Estrella mountains in hopes of building some good computer data toward successful 23-event race seasons.
All present smiled at the expected conditions - temperatures in the 60s, low humidity, and a slight overcast. What they got was possibly too good, as you'll quickly see.
In fact, spectators present to see stellar performances from the assembled Pros were treated to dozens of aborted runs, early tire smoke, broken blower belts, and sporadic full runs. But the Pros weren't at Firebird to please spectators, though I seriously doubt that too many fans headed home displeased.
No, the teams were all there with agendas and plans to test myriad combos of clutch settings, new components, and especially new tires. Goodyear was there in force with their new "spec" tire and everybody had to see what curves those threw their way.
Seen on the Firebird grounds was the unique Lethal Injection rear engine nostalgia FC.
Photo by Chris Stinson
Yes, Gary Scelzi was strapped in a funny car instead of a dragster, but you knew that, right? But the Alan Johnson-led team was running a primered Firebird instead of the long-rumored Toyota. According to the best guessers, crossing the "t's" and dotting the "i's" on the contract hasn't been completed. Rumors have the Celicas everywhere from final designs to many wind-tunnel hours. I have seen computer enhanced artwork replete with a variety of sponsor logos and the Toyota makes a handsome racecar.
If this Toyota deal is legit, which I think it is, Johnson and his group will belong to one of the raciest factories ever. These folk were tireless with their wind-tunnel work on the IMSA GTP program and I'd have to believe that mentality will fit in perfectly in FC.
Johnny West, last years with Kenny Bernstein's effort, moved to Doug Herbert's shop one week after the world championship season ended. "He brings commitment and experience we need to be a race contender week in and week out," Doug said of Johnny. From my own experience, Mr. West is a single-minded perfectionist, 110% devoted to the tasks at hand. Herbert has been associated with several top-notch crew chiefs over his career and has shown brilliance many times. He would be the first to admit that those moments have been inconsistent. I wish this marriage the best and look for Doug to improve on his 7th in NHRA points from 2001.
Over in Don Prudhomme's multi-car camp, Mike Green has moved up to car chief on the Tommy Johnson Jr. driven Skoal blue car, while Ed McCulloch will continue to call the shots for the Ron Capps green machine.
Joe Amato showed with new sponsorship from a German company, Bilstein Engine Flush. It's a product that goes into the oil before an oil change to rid engines of sludge and other bad stuff. It extends engine life considerably, according to the press reports. Sophomore driver Darrell Russell is of course back on board.
I'll cover other changes as we brush over the runs.
The only visible signs of Cannon's new partnership with Schumacher Motorsports
the Matco Tools decals and the huge Bazemore-esque wing! Photo by Chris Stinson
The first session of fuelers Friday saw a whole lot of 100-300 footers, either by design or error. In comparisons at the 60-foot timers, TJ Jr. (.891), Gary Densham (.898), and Whit Bazemore (.892) were best in the coupes, Darrell Russell (.849) had the best numbers for dragsters. Other FCs checking in were Tony Pedregon, Ron Capps, John Force, Gary Scelzi, and Del Worsham. TFs making the session included Ken Zeal (in Bill Miller's familiar car), Steve Chrisman (Jack's son driving Gary Taylor's new machine), Yuichi
Oyama (from Tokyo driving an ex-Robert Reehl car), and Bob Hallock. All four were licensing at Chandler.
Later in the day, there was a lot more tire smoke and a number of centerline foam "cones" destroyed. Several reports I read/heard used bowling lingo describing how many "pins" were left standing after some runs.
Al Hoffman debuted Jim Dunn's newest orange K&N Filter car and hit a nice .880/60-footer before spinning its tires excessively. Cruz Pedregon had similar trouble in his new Advanced Auto Parts FC, as did his brother Tony, Jerry Toliver (in WWF Smack Down), Johnson, and Johnny Gray (now in the Checker-Shucks-Kragen #2 Firebird).
Jimmy Prock hit close to the combo and sent Densham on a 3/4 pass that netted a promising 5.15/217 coaster. But it was post dusk and cold. There were few cars behind them.
Scotty Cannon, now Bazemore's teammate in the Don Schumacher stable but carrying the same Oakley sponsorship, sent clouds of smoke upwards as soon as he stepped down.
Behind him, Whit strapped in to face "daForce." Day one of the first test-n-tune of the new season and already, the scorecards were out. With nothing but bragging rights and a few hoisted beers later in the evening for the crews, the top two FCs in the world fired in unsettling darkness.
I don't know the reaction times but it was a great race to 60 feet with the Matco Tools Firebird slightly ahead of the Castrol Mustang. Before the 330 cones, John Force felt the seat of his pants elevate a foot as his tires churned loose, and he certainly uttered his favorite string of cusswords as Mr. Bazemore sped on to a stunning 4.810! The speed was a mere 288.70 because Whit lost his bearings in a combination of darkness and clutch dust. According to crew chief Lee Beard, the throttle was full just over 4.2 seconds, and the run would certainly have been in the 4.7s at over 320 mph!
Among the dragster pilots, Russell's .817 60-footer was the biggest note.
Gene Davis was also out to shake down his dragster. And Steve Kotten received a lot of notice due to his attempts to become first the first hand-controlled licensed nitro pilot.
Rear motor design is gonna put the driver's mug up AGAINST the
Photo by Chris Stinson
Saturday saw much more of the same, and again, the cars and teams ran whenever they readied themselves and moved to the line. Several FCs hit strong 60-foot .890s again, with Force earning a hard shaking .878 to turn a head or two. Then Capps slapped out an .855! All attempts, however, turned into shutoffs. Such are the reasons for testing early.
By 12:30 p.m., low ET was Larry Dixon's 5.09. Then things began to wake up. Oyama
san Reehl'd in (sorry) a fine 4.802/295. Though licensing here, Yuichi is no rookie, having previously run IHRA events in an ex-Bernstein chassis.
Shortly thereafter, the Budweiser King with its prominent dominant numeral clocked a 4.806 at just 221 mph, suggesting that Mr. and Mrs. Richards had things well in hand.
The afternoon temperature remained under 60 degrees, and the humidity had actually dropped below 20%! The conditions were absolutely amazing.
After a great many more aborted FC runs, Tommy Johnson's 4.985/266 looked pretty decent. Later, Force hit 4.907/273 side-by-side with teammate Tony P's better 4.850/281.
Among the dragsters, Tony Schumacher finally delivered about half a load, a 4.99/210 far off pace for the Army. Somewhat later, Dixon grabbed a 4.627/276 for the Miller Lite group. The best of the day came from the Bud team as KB held on to a 4.553/320.89.
On Sunday, Mr. Force picked up an early 4.842/314 time slip with strong incrementals. But a string of his peers left black tracks, blower belts, and blank scoreboards for their efforts. It was Johnson who finally hit a decent 4.906/277 to end the smokefest.
West had told the press that all of his new boss Herbert's first runs would be shorts one, at least for several days. In the late morning Doug found a 4.797, coasting to just 251 mph after recording 263.10 at half-track. Johnny's recipes will cook by Pomona time.
The newest driver from the land of the rising sun received his first 300 mph time slip. Yuichi
Oyama stayed in it long enough to record a 4.807/302.28. Actually, too long, as the engine fireballed.
Next up, Russell tested the Bilstein with an engine-leveling explosion while Dixon sped to a strong 4.596 at just 224 mph. To compare his run with that of Herbert, for example, Larry was cruising by the 660-foot timers at 269.67 mph! A couple hours later, Dixon recorded a better 4.526/305, hitting a front half number of 274.22! A still later 4.553/303, with a 272 mph number in the middle, showed that testing to some teams reaps strong dividends.
Darrell Russell returned with a new bullet for a 1,000-foot run that netted a 4.814/233. Kenny Bernstein's final Sunday number was a superb 4.531/322.
Interestingly, three days weren't enough for several teams, as Larry Dixon drew a 4.54/281 and a 4.51 Monday, the latter at just 307 mph. None of his seven runs gave Dixon a full ride, but DID provide enough info that the team has decided to forego further tests and get ready for Pomona.
Another team that improved was Amato and Russell, who zinged to 4.548/323.89 and a 4.541/316.45, both career bests! In fact, the speed was a career high for Darrell as well, giving crew chief Jimmy Walsh more than a decent baseline. For you stat freaks, the 60-foot numbers were .824 and .812, respectively!
Monday also saw the Schumacher funny car teams at work. Scotty Cannon whipped up a 4.945/305 while Whit Bazemore was close with his 4.950/312. Crew chiefs Lee Beard and Mike Neff mentioned the ubiquitous "good baseline" in post-test press releases.
All told, about thirty teams made runs at Firebird, and certainly every one of them gained knowledge on those that failed to show.
Over the next few days, I'll try to put together a list of every car and its best run from Chandler (before they all get to Tucson, anyway). There are still two big fueler-testing weekends, and we haven't even discussed a Pro Stocker yet!
If you're close to one of these pre-season tests, it is your absolute best opportunity to get in shoulder-to-shoulder with your favorites. These are of a much lower key than an NHRA national event, and everybody has a lot more time to chat.