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Drag Racing Story of the Day!

Hot Times in Spokane: The 2001 AHRA World Finals

By David Hapgood

AHRA Spokane Top Fuel winner, Craig Smith. Photo by David Hapgood
AHRA Spokane Top Fuel winner, Craig Smith. Photo by David Hapgood

See more photos HERE: Photo Review: Spokane 2001

A major heat wave rolled into town for the World Finals this year, making it the hottest race I've attended in nearly thirty years of going to races. It was even hotter than the old Summernationals events at Englishtown. Frankly, the heat at Spokane this year was almost too much. We're talking heat stroke for some, and large numbers of other race fans leaving the stands to find shade wherever they could find it. Meanwhile the on track action was pretty hot, too. I always have high expectations for this event and its large fields of independent fuel racers, some of whom you are unlikely to see anywhere else. This year's running of the World Finals was another great edition.

Unfortunately, not all the action was great. On Saturday afternoon, Top Fuel Harley rider John Andres suffered fatal injuries in a spill near the top end. The accident cast a long shadow over the remainder of the event. The community of racers and race fans came through in a big way with a large donation to the Andres family. It was the least that could be done.

I arrived at the track later than planned and so my first stop was at the tower to check the qualifying lists. In T/F, Chris Karamesines led the pack with a 5.46. In funny car, Jeff Bennett's 5.97 held the top spot, though the funny car list was not long. With just six entries on hand, the field was light to say the least. The saving grace was that all six teams were hard core low buckers. Let's hope that next year we get eight of them.

As the sun went down the spectators began filling the stands for a night of nitro and beer. In the three years that I have been going to this event, I have never seen the stands this packed.

After the final qualifying session in T/F Harley, the leader was Robin Gauthier with a 7.082. In Pro Mod, it was Ross Hogenson with a 6.974. In Pro Alcohol Funny Car, it was John Knox with a 6.264 and in Pro Alcohol Dragster, it was Mike Austin with a 6.053. The track was cleared for the big stuff -- Top Fuel and nitro funny car. 

The buildup for Spokane's Saturday night session is an annual highlight on many race fans' calendars, including mine. By the time Saturday night rolls around, the track is usually at its best, the racers have had a couple of chances to pin their combos down, and the fans show up in droves. The bleachers are so close to the action that virtually everyone has a front row seat. The fans here cheer for all the teams whether they win or lose, so the ambiance is fantastic. It has nothing to do with a points chase, sponsors, or replays on a giant TV screen. It has everything to do with lesser-known fuel teams (and a few legends thrown in) attacking on all-asphalt starting line in front of a packed house at an elevation 2240 feet above sea level. In other words, it's perfect.

It was time to roll! Bobby Baldwin lined up against Christ Karamesines. This was a great race, with Baldwin grabbing the pole at 5.14 to the Greek's close 5.25. Baldwin's run was just a little more than a tenth off the track record, and the fastest run I've seen at the facility. Next it was Craig Smith's final chance to break into the show. His opponent was Todd Meikle in a FE steel block slingshot (!). Smith left hard and never looked back, hitting a 5.42, good for the top half of the field. Meikle ran a 7.01. 

Gary Omlin now sat on the bubble and he was up next, running Gordie Bonin. On the green, Bonin's motor coughed loudly and died while Omlin, in the same Unsponsored gray dragster he's been running for years, blasted down the track, lit the tires, lifted, got back into it hard and drove it through to a 5.636. His crew went wild -- it was a career best pass for Omlin. Next up was Lee Kohlman in the low buck "Blown Wages" fueler up against Ron Smith's unsponsored and unlettered red car from Seattle. Kohlman sounded rough pulling into staging and his run was short, while Ron Smith shot down the track with a 5.55. Top fuel qualifying was complete and this was the order: 1) Baldwin, 5.145, 2)Karamesines, 5.251, 3) C. Smith, 5.428, 4) Bonin, 5.552, 5) R. Smith, 5.558, 6)Omlin, 5.636, 7) Kohlman, 6.102, 8) Meikle, 7.015. Rob Passey was 1st alternate at 8.62.

With just six funny cars, the class would have no bubble but the session was mandatory so all six were ready to go. First pair was current #1 Jeff Bennett against Mike Grekul. Bennett's KBM Motorsports Avenger laid down a hard, swerving pass for a 6.01 time slip to post the second of the weekend's two best funny car passes (the other was his earlier 5.97). But the joy was short-lived as the car had deposited a puddle of oil on the starting line which led to an oil trail clear through the top end. Not looking good! A cleanup ensued and what a cleanup it was. Spokane's race fans have got to be the most patient in the world but even this pushed the limits. This mess took forever. 

About an hour into it the fans had finally had enough and began yelling at the cleanup crew and throwing debris onto the track. The solution: bring out the Wheelstanders. And so the Plum Crazy and One Night Stand wheelie cars blasted up and down the clean lane while the clean up crew pushed brooms nearby in the dirty lane. The track still wasn't done when this was over so the fans just screamed louder. But with a row of nitro funny cars in the staging lanes nobody was about to leave. Then the announcement: after much deliberation, the remaining funny cars would all take solo passes in the "clean" lane.

In quick succession, Terry Haddock launched, drifted, and tossed the blower belt. Jack Wyatt skipped off the line, boiled the tires, drifted, got off it, on it again and then....then the hard news: more oil on the track. The cleanup crew set off down the track in their dollar rent a truck but this time the fans began to leave. It really was getting late. "We appreciate your patience," said the even announcer, Jack Armstrong, "Things happen on a drag strip. Things blow up." Amen! Then the announcement that Don Sosenka, up next, was going to do a full quarter mile burnout as soon as the lane was ready. Finally it happened and it was worth the wait. The burnout was nothing that special but I wonder if Sosenka -- a man with a sense of humor -- wasn't talking about the run he was about to make which, in fact was just about a fully quarter mile burnout. 

The final pass in funny car was Jason DuChene in Castrol of Canada Daytona but the track was cold and it just wasn't going to happen. They gave it their best but failed to improve their earlier time. They've gotta do something about the fuel shutoff, as his engine was virtually wide open in the shutdown area with the chutes out full. A little scary. That was it for qualifying. The jet cars ("Brain Dead" and "Rolling Thunder") finished off the program. I grabbed a beer and headed off behind on the track's junkyards where I spent the night. The final order in funny car qualifying was as follows: 1) Bennett, 5.970, 2) Haddock, 6.359, 3) Grekul, 6.664, 4) Wyatt, 7.370, 5) DuChene, 7.593, and 6) Sosenka, 9.275.

Race day dawned with a rare morning lightning storm. Then the sun appeared for another day of blistering heat. The track dried off fast, the fans arrived (though as usual only about half the fans that show up for Saturday night), and before long it was time for round one. Following a hilarious rendition of the national anthem in which the singer's voice cracked, wheezed, and ground almost to a halt, it was #1 qualified Baldwin against #8 Meikle in his slingshot. Meikle took a chance on the tree and redlit but it wouldn't have helped him anyway as Baldwin was flawless with a 5.21 blast. Next, the disappointing news that Ron Smith had hurt his power plant in the pit warm-up and would be unable to make the call. Gordie Bonin laid down a 5.69 for the solo. 

Next up, Karamesines versus Lee Kohlman. This was a good one with the Greek out ahead when the tires lit up past half track and he kept his foot on it HARD. Karamesines may not have hit 300 mph on this day but his tires certainly did. He won with a 5.32 while Kohlman used up his engine right behind Greek at 5.77. A great drag race. Finally it was #3 qualifier Craig Smith against #6 Gary Omlin, fresh off his career best the previous night. Omlin doesn't race often and it would be an understatement to say that when they do run they really try to win. On the green, the cars were out strong with Omlin pulling away until his tires broke loose and Smith came driving past. But Omlin wasn't done yet: with tires boiling he was on it hard -- Go! Go! Go! But it was too late -- Smith was out in front for good, winning 5.70 to 5.89, the best race of the round.

The first round of the small funny car field was further abbreviated by the withdrawal from competition of both the #1 and #2 qualifiers, Jeff Bennett and Terry Haddock. None of these guys carry a lot of spare parts and both Bennett and Haddock had damaged their equipment the night before. This left a free for all for the remaining four teams. Again, with luck next year the track will bring in a larger fleet.

The remaining cars put on a set of good races. First up was Jason DuChene and Jack Wyatt and for a pair of cars that hadn't yet run even in the sixes all weekend, these two got down in a hurry. DuChene got the hole shot and he needed it as Wyatt cranked out a 6.31 only to lose to DuChene's slower 6.41. Next up was Mike Grekul in the "Nitro Rat" Daytona against Don Sosenka in "Mr. Magoo." When Sosenka lit the tires it was all over as Grekul was gone. The final would be Grekul and DuChene.

In T/F Harley, it was Gauthier on a solo, O'Hara over Ruggiero 7.52 to 7.88, Houniet over Welch 7.10 to 9.15, and Heidner over Becker 7.30 to 7.85.

Several hours later, it was time for the semifinals. In Top Fuel, a battle between Gordie Bonin and Bobby Baldwin, with Baldwin winning, 5.62 to 5.96. Bonin gave it his best, driving the fueler like a funny car (all over the track) when the tires broke loose. Then it was Karamesines trying for the final, but first he had to get by Craig Smith. It was not meant to be. The Greek gave it 100% on boiling tires and on who knows how many wheels. Smith's 5.52 shot in the other lane was relatively flawless and he advanced to the final to run Baldwin.

Semifinals in T/F Harley had Dave O'Hara taking a solo only to be shut off on the line with leaking brake fluid. On the other half of the ladder it was Steve Heidner over Ron Houniet 7.34 to 8.41.

Following the semis was a treat. The future "Magoo" -- Don Sosenka's 17 year old son -- came out for a spin in his dad's nitro funny car. Basically he performed a burnout and coasted through the top end. The kid handled it perfectly and you probably haven't seen the last of him.

As the sun began to go down, the finals rolled around. Those who had endured the day's heat were treated to some excellent final round matches. In Pro Mod it was Lee T. Smith with a 6.70 over Tim Vogt. Earlier in the day Smith had run as quick as 6.63, covering the rest of the field by more than three tenths and shattering the track record. In Pro Alcohol Dragster, it was Mike Austin with a 6.01 over Serge Dion. Earlier Austin had blasted to a 5.999. The Top Fuel Harley final was between Steve Heidner and Dave O'Hara. Heidner saved his best pass of the day for last, defeating O'Hara's 7.57 with a 7.28.

Then the nitro cars. First it was Funny Car, with Jason DuChene against Mike Grekul. Interestingly enough, they're both from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. DuChene pulled the lead early into the run but then a couple of cylinders began to die and the car started spraying a whole lot of raw fuel. It wasn't pretty, but he was ahead and it was clear he had no intention of lifting. As the car went by I braced for it to POP, but DuChene's luck held for the final 500 feet of race track, spraying fuel all the way down. WILD. Jason DuChene was the funny car champion, 6.36 to Grekul's 6.64. It was a well-earned victory for the DuChene/Castrol team as well as a fine runner up effort by Grekul.

In T/F, Craig Smith had lane choice and, unfortunately for Bobby Baldwin, Smith chose the lane in which Baldwin had made all his strong passes. On the green, both cars left hard, but Smith left harder and, despite hazing the tires for a few hundred feet in the mid run, it was Smith's best pass of the weekend and Baldwin really didn't have a chance. The times were 5.33/272 for Smith and a 5.83/228 for Baldwin. Craig Smith, 2001 World Finals T/F champ.

And so the event was over. It wasn't the most pleasant race I have been to and it wasn't the fastest -- but it was a great drag race just the same. I'll be back for more next year!

David Hapgood
davidhapgood@dubaimail.com

 

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