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Drag Racing Story of the Day!

Phoenix 2003

By Phil R. Elliott

After viewing two pre-season tests and the NHRA Winternats, I chose not to attend the 19th annual Checker-Schuck's-Kragen NHRA Nationals at Phoenix. It is the second race in the POWERade Series and is always stunning, performance-wise. But between sensory overload and my attempt at relocating to Carson City, Nevada, I just had to say no.

In gleaning the information gathered from the Summit Racing website and ESPN coverage, it sounds like those of us that didn't attend missed a thrilling event, filled with track records, career bests, and unquestionable moments of triumph. I also stumbled over some facts, moments, and a few questionable things I thought I would share with you.

At Pomona, the Professional car count total was 79 (20 TF, 21 FC, 38 PS), plus 37 alcohol entries (19 TAD, 18 TAFC). At Phoenix the Pro count was 73 (19 TF, 20 FC, 34 PS) with zero alcohol cars. This was the second year of the alcohol cutback plan, supposedly to help Sportsman racers save a little money and to cut back on pit congestion at certain facilities.

I mention all of this to show that the nitro entry numbers are remaining fairly stable, but with very little depth. In the nitro heavy west, numbers should be in the mid-twenties somewhere, leading me to believe that somewhere down the line, there is the potential once again for short fields.

And, like I stated a year ago in coverage from Phoenix, the lack of Alcohol entries actually hurts nitro performance, especially early on. Every nitro run (that got that far) on Friday was hampered with downtrack tirespin, most often with the centers burned right out of the Goodyears. Last year we had a new tire to blame but I continue to believe it is from lack of rubber on the tall end. Had the alcohol cars been present, they would have had two qualifying sessions before the nitro cars had their first. Last year, ambient heat too factored into the tire spinning theories, but 2003 showed less of that too.


Nonetheless, Friday saw great performance from the usual suspects.

Pro Stock fans knew they were in for a treat with mid-60 degree temperatures, especially when in only the second pair, JR Carr ran a sub 6.9. Then it was a barrage of 6.8s before Scott Geoffrion, in his last race in the Mustang, hit an outstanding 1.00 60-footer and a 6.853/200. It was several pairs before the run was bettered.

And that 6.850/200 clocking came from Mark Pawuk. The Summit driver, according to stats, never won a round in 2002. What did he have at Phoenix to help him better himself? The brain trust of no less than Bob Glidden and Bill Jenkins! Can you imagine walking up to your own trailer and seeing these two gods working on your racecar? Pawuk must have been pinching himself all weekend to make sure he wasn't dreaming.

Jeg Coughlin (6.856/200), Kurt Johnson (6.848/202.30), Greg Anderson (6.857/201), and Allen Johnson (6.851/201) all had moments in the sun, with KJ's marks good for both ends of the track record.

Bud Prince Brandon Bernstein ran 4.555/323 and Larry Dixon had a 4.599/322 during an otherwise disappointing session one for the fuelers, but the world champ had his number erased when the scales found Miller to be Lite by 15 pounds.

Verbal protests were lodged and a major controversy erupted. Team owner Don Prudhomme claimed that Cory McClenathan, in the other lane at the time, had taken an inordinate amount of time before staging. Crewchief Dick LaHaie, long known to keep his entries close to legal weight, figured the extra cackle time burned off 1-1/2 to 2 gallons more fuel. The loud conversations fell on deaf ears and the crew was immediately seen bolting on an extra 25 pounds in two chunks, one on either end of the car.

I see both sides to this argument. One is, when discussing seven bazillion horsepower, how much affect can 15 pounds possible have? The other is that the rule states a 2100 minimum weight. My further argument asks why there needs to be a minimum weight number in a supposedly unlimited class?

Of course the whole subject put a stopwatch on everyone's pre-staging ritual. I'd say there will be a new time limit rule applied soon for a maximum from the moment the order to "fire the next pair" is given to the time the pre-stage bulb must be lit. Later in the weekend, when asked about his staging technique, Cory Mac just smiled and said basically he was glad to be the center of attention for a change.

Most thought that temps would elevate enough for session two that the carbed doorslammers would not respond. 

In the late Friday session, Dixon went into heavy tire smoke before the end of the pad, forcing LaHaie to move into Saturday in the defense mode instead of full offense like normal. But Darrell Alderman' s 6.882/200 made believers out of most, and the rest toppled when Bruce Allen buzzed the Reher & Morrison Pontiac to a 6.841/201.10 to once again stab the track record. A host of 6.89s and 6.88s drew yawns, and suddenly it took Ron Krisher's 6.868 to earn 8th! Greg Anderson improved slightly (6.844/201) but the crowd wanted a real number.

That came from Warren Johnson whose earlier shaker (6.891/201) had been bumped, smoothly sped to a great 6.835/201 to outrun fellow Pomona finalist Allen Johnson who slowed slightly (6.874/202). Troy Coughlin's 6.849/201 was good for but 5th and mark Pawuk's previously amazing 6.85 was down to 6th. Greg Stanfield finished the session with a 6.865/200 that only deserved 10th best. The bump was already 6.883.

Darrell Russell, one year after the complete crew flip-flop, showed 4.574/322 strength for the Joe Amato camp receiving hamburgers for the weekend courtesy of the Scottsdale McDonald's franchises. Other great performances included Doug Kalitta's 4.529/329, John Smith's 4.591/312, Clay Millican's 4.549/327, and another 4.551/323 from young Bernstein.

With a 4.640 from Jim Head and 4.7s from David Grubnic, David Baca, Melanie Troxel, Bruce Litton Paul Romine, Cory McClenathan, the bump was already getting tight. .

Friday early on was better to the Funny Car clan. The good numbers were run by Dale Creasy (4.917/306), Gary Scelzi (4.937/307), Whit Bazemore and Tim Wilkerson (side-by-side 4.885/314 and 4.865/310, respectively), Ron Capps (4.885/316) and Johnny Gray (4.894/309.20). In session two, Gary Densham (4.807/320), Frank Pedregon (4.852/312), Tony Pedregon (4.797/317), John Force (4.829/321.81), Tommy Johnson Jr. (4.892/310), Scelzi (4.861/319), Capps (4.880/318) and Gray (4.850/312) not only placed the provisional bubble at 5.056, but tied the track ET record (4.797, held by John Force) and broke the existing track speed record (previously 321.19 mph held by Densham).


It was the 11th pair of Pro Stocks before anyone made a move, Mike Edwards (6.874/200) got off the bump, and V. Gaines (6.854/201) got in. A just bumped Alderman (6.868/201) and clawed back in, then a rash of 6.86 and 6.85 numbers came, with no one improving. That is until David Reher sent his driver on a 6.831/201 jaunt, followed closely by Anderson's 6.837/202. Both WJ and AJ shook away their chances to improve.

Larry Dixon sped to a soft-for-him 4.572/323 as the first nitro car out. And while most figured it was back to normal for them, team strategy had been thrown into a rather abnormal spin. Instead of "going for it" as is customary, LaHaie played catch up.

Except for Mike Strasburg's good 4.759/302, a consistent improvement on an earlier 4.779/306 in the B&J Transmission special, and Rhonda Hartman's 4.781/291 which bumped Melanie Troxel (4.789), the rest of the session was filled with tire, aluminum, and oil smoke.

The same could be said for FC session three, with a couple exceptions. Phil Burkart had a major fire in Bill Blomgren's Geronimo as the crankshaft broke in three places. The aftermath and cleanup delayed things somewhat, but certainly not like it might have been before diapers were made mandatory. Bill Schultz led the Geronimo crew in the art of repair and refit of all the lines and wires for their final attempt.

Two pairs later, Tim Wilkerson ran a very expensive 4.872/289 that saw a flash from the supercharger and a lot of pieces tinkle to the ground. Eyewitnesses suggested that his burst panel set a new Firebird Lake height record.

Much tire smoke followed then very late in the session another bit of downtime occurred when Tommy Johnson lit up his supposedly smokeless tobacco machine. His time was negated when he got too close to the 1000-foot timer which also messed with the clocking of opponent John Force.

Finally, Gary Scelzi chalked up a consistent 4.879/314, and TonyP and Johnny Gray ran side-by-side high 4s to close the session.

The final session gave far more drama.

The Pro Stocks put on a show of side-by-side, close-knit racing, and many made minuscule increases albeit with nary a move. In the 10th pair, a very determined Jim Yates (6.872/200) earned 15th, a spot at least in the show for the moment. He had failed to qualify at Pomona. Then it was back to consistent, side-by-side, 500ci, gas, and carbs, door slammer action that any promoter would beg for. It was Tom Martino (6.873) that ended in the 16th spot, just .042 behind the track record setter.

First up in TF, bump (4.788) sitter Bruce Litton sped to a 4.733/315 to move up four spots. Then, Scott Weis smoldered his tires for the umpteenth time while Strasburg improved again (4.740/297). Andrew Cowin finally got the Carrier Boyz closer to the lights (4.891/280) and Paul Romine recorded a 4.737/301. Ms. Troxel returned Mrs. Smith's favor by bumping Rhonda with a decent 4.704/302. That moment was followed by the Smith couple. With John's Prestone machine solidly in the field, it was up to the Fram group to get their distaffer in as well. Both cars seemed sluggish off the line, then Rhonda's ride started into a powerstand. With little choice the veteran pulled her boot out of the throttle and frustratedly coasted on.

Russell recorded a fine to 4.580/322 for the best of the session to that point.

In the next pair, all eyes were on Dixon, shoved down to 5th spot by then. His 4.611/322 in the supposedly worse right lane was of no help at all. In the other lane, David Baca improved to a solid 4.693/303 to move up. Doug Herbert and Millican remained consistent from their earlier numbers (4.629/313 and 4.567/318, respectively), keeping both in the hunt. Then came the fireworks.

The final pair gave the assembled multitude all they could have asked. Second generation stars Brendan Bernstein and Doug Kalitta put on a superb ontrack show, with the rookie taking the winlite, 4.517/321 to 4.512/328! It gave Kalitta a new track ET record and his second #1Q in a row.

One year ago, Del Worsham won after barely qualifying in a last ditch effort, so it was not surprising that he entered the final session in 15th. His 4.886/306 numbers hopped him up to 10th. Amazingly, Burkart returned but tossed a belt in a truly valiant effort. Scotty Cannon moved off the bubble with a 4.966/304. Then Bob Gilbertson vaulted over Cannon with a 4.928/314 in a great side-by-side with Capps' deadly consistent 4.884/315.

A few pairs later it was one of the stories that fans pay to see - Bazemore vs. Force. For those that remember, Phoenix 2002 was a roller coaster of emotions for Whit, who barely qualified in 16th, then lost on a holeshot to John in round one. This time, Bazemore blazed to an emphatic 4.853/320 to grab 6th, while Force struggled to a 4.985/291.

Those five words hardly begin to describe a run that was reminiscent of so many over the years for John Force on the match race trail. The car put a right side cylinder out almost immediately and the car headed left with wheels in the air. John pedaled slightly - really just breathed the throttle - and cranked the butterfly hard right. The cylinder did not come back and neither did his ornery horse. John pulled the reins and the brake handle but not his boot - he rode the badly bucking bronco right on through to the delight of the highly partisan crowd. After all, Mr. Force has "owned" Firebird for many years.

Watching the boss gave both Jimmy Prock and John Medlen some clues and both dove inside their individual timer boxes. Prock gave Gary Densham a fine 4.829/316 squirt against Scelzi's repeating 4.909/315. Then Medlen shot Tony Pedregon to both ends of the track record, a superb 4.789/322.11 that lit the night sky and echoed in the fans' heads as they headed for the parking lot.


With a tight two-tenths spread, Top Fuel looked to be wide open. And after the first pair, Smith and Herbert both smoked their tires, and the second pair was won by Head (over McClenathan) that didn't, fans wondered what exactly they were in for. But then, it was Russell over Baca with a 4.626/318 when the latter lost an engine at 1100 feet. Then Dixon's 4.636/320 took the measure of Ms. Troxel. Things were beginning to look up. Bernstein's solid 4.594/323 took out Strasburg and Millican's similar 4.595/315 stopped Romine. Then, the only "race" of round one saw Litton jump first only to have Schumacher blow by at midtrack to win, 4.592/320 to 4.794/273. Kalitta finished the opener with a quick 4.532/324 trouncing of Grubnic.

Even closer than TF, FC had a .18-second spread after qualifying, with for the first time ever, Team Force dominating the top three positions. Considering their record and momentum coming from Pomona and being the only 4.7 car on the property, it appeared to most that Tony Pedregon and John Medlen were the clear favorites.

Tony's brother Frank started things with a win over Creasy, then Gilbertson took advantage of a faltering Gray with a .001 true win, 4.931/312 to 4.942/298. TonyP began his day with a sub par (for him) 4.870/318 win over Cannon, Densham's shut-off 4.851/289 easily outdistanced a still troubled Cruz Pedregon, and John Force showed strength in a 4.827/320.74 to 4.919/293 romp over Skuza. When "The Show of Force" all advance past round one, look out.
Bazemore grabbed a big win over Johnson, 4.869/320 to 4.893/310, then Scelzi improved over his qualifying consistency to a 4.833/318 to take out defending event champ Worsham, then Lady Luck smiled on Capps. Wilkerson jumped out to a huge lead by virtue of a holeshot (RTs .067 to .089) and a phenomenal .877-second 60-footer. But the aggression was for not, his tires spun and the struggling Skoal Bandit stole the race with a 5.067/258.

The first pair in PS proved to be the most entertaining, in the most negative of ways. Gaines grabbed a .009RT but was behind Geoffrion who had a -.005 (that's the way fouls are listed now), then the best Ford effort in awhile went all wrong. After a 6.880/199, the chute failed, Scott G. stepped on the brakes, the car made a quick left turn, and Geoffrion corrected. The steering adjustment was slightly too much and the car shot across the right lane in front of V. Gaines' Cavalier and contacted the concrete - hard! It spun and hit with the tail then skidded to a stop. The good news is that Scott clambered out under his own power. The bad news is that the impact exacerbated his roof-fall injury of a year or so ago. The good news is that Phoenix was the last race for the aero-resistant Mustang, being replaced by a much narrower Escort. The bad news was that the Mustang was already sold. Scott was hauled to the hospital but was released after a thorough checkup. The pretty Ford was not as lucky.

After the cleanup, a really early leave took out Allen Johnson, Terry Adams' Cavalier squirmed and he lifted, Greg Stanfield and Darrell Alderman got outrun and Ron Krisher fouled. Arch rivals Jim Yates and Warren Johnson staged next, and a .006RT took out an off pace WJ. Last up, defending race winner Bruce Allen outran Tom Martino.

The race many have waited for started round two of TF. IHRA champ Clay Millican faced NHRA champ Larry Dixon. The Werner car was off the mark first (RTs .069 to .080) but the Miller entry steadily reeled in its competition and won, 4.536/322 to 4.596/318. Brandon Bernstein's 4.665/309 took out a wheelstanding, tire-smoking Jim Head, and Tony Schumacher's 4.600/323 was enough when Darrell Russell went into hard smoke. To finish the round, Doug Kalitta needed every bit of his 4.557/325 to get around John Smith's valiant 4.664/314. 

Bob Gilbertson began the FC round .010 early and kicked himself all the way down the track when opponent Frank Pedregon faltered. Gary Scelzi's good 4.850/319 was outpowered by Gary Densham's 4.808/314, Whit Bazemore's 4.874/319 outlasted John Force's 5.042/295, and Ron Capps drove around the usually sterling Tony Pedregon, 4.834/318 to 4.859/319. The wins by the Schumacher and Prudhomme teams were both moral victories as much as anything. 

The Coughlin brothers, Jeg and Troy, were winners over Yates and KJ, respectively, in round two of PS. Then Greg Anderson took the measure of Mark Pawuk, the latter in his second round for the first time since late 2001. Bruce Allen finished the round and V. Gaines' chances with a .009RT.

In the semis, Bud Prince showed poise with a slight holeshot and nice win over "Sgt. Shoe," 4.551/320 to 4.587/320. Then Dixon gave up a nickel on the starting line but drove by a tire-smoldering Kalitta with a 4.564/325.

Capps' steady 4.846/319 was an easy winner when F. Pedregon's K&N Firebird spun its tires. Densham advanced with 4.835/316 when Bazemore's Matco Stratus could only muster a 4.977/309.

A very tight true win of .011-second came to Troy C. over Allen. The Reher & Morrison Pontiac was actually out first (RTs .034 to .045) and led nearly the whole distance. But, a 6.854/200 snuck by a 6.875/200. In the other PS match, Jeg C. moved first, (RTs .010 to .017) only to have Anderson's 6.853/201 nose out his 6.872/200, another true win of .011-second!

With another of those pesky yellow and black Jeg's Cavalier to defeat, Greg Anderson put on his best game face, tuning what he called his best racecar ever to a higher degree of perfection. Troy Coughlin actually moved first by .002 in the final but his mount fell from earlier performances to a 6.907/200, allowing Anderson's new 2003 Grand Am to literally cruise to the 6.865/201 victory.

I mentioned a moral victory for Ron Capps when he beat john Force in round two. In the final, he added to that by pulling a miraculous .003RT out of his helmet then held on to a 4.868/310 to hold off Gary Densham's far superior 4.810/318 by .026-seconds. Like Anderson in PS, Capps now holds the points lead. It was easy to see what the term "teamwork" means by looking at the Ed McCulloch-led group following this win.

Like so many times before, the TF final was another battle of the beer wars. This time there was a fairly significant change - Budweiser was relying on a second-generation captain of their ship. Counting the non-points Bud Shootout, it was Brandon Bernstein's second final of 2003, and his second shot at world champ Larry Dixon.

Most will agree that Dixon is not among the best reactors among the fuel drivers but, thanks to crewchief Dick LaHaie, he really hasn't needed to improve himself. Now, with a new pretender to the throne, he will have to rethink that strategy, work with his practice tree, and work with LaHaie on getting the car to react a little quicker. 

In the Phoenix final, power was not enough. The red car moved first (RTs .030 to .088) and the blue car's considerable 4.539/ 321 to 4.574/322 advantage was lacking by .023-seconds. Interesting to know that Brandon's first win came on the same track that his father Kenny Bernstein had his first TF victory.

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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