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Drag Racing Story of the Day!

This Irresistible Grasp

2002 Bill Ott

Sunday, May 19, 2002
Raceway Park, E-Town, N.J.

A Bills-eye view of Englishtown. Photo by Bill Ott
A Bills-eye view of Englishtown. Photo by Bill Ott

A dream unthreatened by the morning light
Could blow this soul right through the roof of the night
There's no sensation to compare with this
Suspended animation... a state of bliss**

Pre-flight Checklist: Hmmm... Let's see... Wings... check, Propeller... check, Seat Belts... check, Camera... check, Tape Recorder... check.  "OK ... we can take off now." All of the critical stuff has been checked out and is in proper working order. Let's get ol' 'Saratoga 8473 Charlie' pointed straight towards Runway 26, airborne, and headed due East... quick! After all, it's already 8:45 AM and Raceway Park is still a whole 45 minutes away. I figure that'll leave us with 90 minutes to wander around the pits before first round. Man, I can smell the NITRO already!!

After taxiing over to Runway 26 we make one final Pre-Flight Check (double checked to make sure I remembered a notebook and pen) when another single engine aircraft... just like ours... pulls up and stops just to our left. Seems they're also going to be taking off on (off-on?) the same runway. So here we are, parked side by side, checking flaps, stabilizers, etc., with the engines revving. COOL!! Who'da thought First Round might happen right here at Capitol City Airport? Unfortunately the people in the tower (and the FAA) frown on 'Street Racing' these things, so we wait patiently while the other aircraft takes off. Too bad... would'a been fun! We follow them down the runway, up into the sky, get our headings and head off our separate ways.

Hey, you know those strange folks that bring us the news and weather every evening?  Well they're still insisting that we're in the middle of a drought... but who could tell with all of the rain that's fell here in Harrisburg these past few days? Even heard that Raceway Park had to cancel the Friday night Pro Qualifying Session and delay the start of Saturday's sessions due to the wet stuff.

However, this morning we've been blessed with one of those beautiful Chamber Of Commerce type sunrises everyone hopes for. Yep, we got us a beauty... just don't venture outdoors without at least a sweater on. Forty one crisp degrees this late in May just ain't natural! But, I brought along a jacket. Yes, and gloves, and sweatshirt, hell even got the 'ol Long Johns out... just in case. According to the airport weather, the temperature is the same chilly forty one over in E-Town.

OK... time to settle back, relax, and enjoy the ride. Oh, forgot to mention, today we've got "the good DR. Bob" at the helm, and my own personal pilot "Treetop Al" sitting in the second chair. Our original plan was to cruise at about 5500 feet but we soon ran into some heavy cloud cover, it started to get a little choppy, and visibility dropped to about zero. Moving up to 7500 feet put us well above the clouds and things settled down nicely again.

Kicking back once more, the conversation returns to today's much anticipated Finals. These two guys usually make our annual trek to E-Town their only race each season... Man, I couldn't live that way!!! But both guys keep pretty busy schedules... so we make the most of this one.

Ice is forming on the tips of my wings

Unheeded warnings, I thought I'd thought of everything**

Descending back through the cloud cover as we approach Old Bridge Airport is weird enough for someone who doesn't spend a lot of time in planes like this... it's that zero visibility thing again... but, what little I can see out there is more than enough. It seems that in a matter of just a few seconds the windshield AND wings are covered with a sheet of ice! Damn... and I forgot to bring along my de-icers... have to remember to add them to the next year's Checklist! We see a hole below us in the cloud cover and head straight for it... as soon as we're back in the sunshine the ice disappears as quickly as it appeared. The pass over the track, final approach, and landing are as smooth as glass... as usual. Again, don't forget, we've got TWO seasoned flyers up front.

Taxiing to the parking area we pass by Mr. Kalitta's twin jet monster... man that's a BIG plane. But before we get parked our attention is focused skyward again as we watch a beautiful silver Learjet make it's landing. Wow... now here's an airplane that probably weighs about three times as much as ours does and probably touched down at about 75 MPH faster than ours, but yet, needs about HALF as much runway as ours needed to get stopped!!! Also runs a little over a grand an hour to operate... nowhere near much as a NITRO motor... but, a hell of an airplane nonetheless.

This brings to mind one of life's important lessons I learned years ago... there's always someone who has a bigger, louder, shinier, faster... and most importantly... more expensive toy, than you got!! Always been that way, and always will stay that way.

After securing the plane, getting squared away with the parking lot attendant (yeah, they really have one), we enter through the back gate, and head for the racecars. Hey, just like last year... the first Pro car we came upon is Greg Anderson's Pro Stock Chevy. Got to say hello to Greg and the crew and offer congrats for the good job they (and the whole Pro Stock bunch, for that matter) have done this season. By the way... seems ALL the pro stockers performance numbers took a giant leap this weekend. Starting with Jim Yates' 6.774 #1 Qualifier (and new track record), W.J.'s 203.03 top speed of the qualifying sessions (and another track record), and Richie Stevens' on the bubble 6.815 rounding out the quickest field in history (and the .41 spread made it one of the closest). I also understand that many of the 33 P/S teams entered ran career best ETs speeds, or both. Killer atmosphere!!

Over in the NITRO ranks... Tony Pedregon's pole sitting 4.777 was another track record. Speaking of NITRO... the fans here are the best. Saw scores of them carrying their own gas masks (or breathing apparatus if you must), some of them appearing to be World War II surplus (the masks, not the fans). These are the hard core "True Believers" and they seem to outnumber their brethren at all the other venues I've attended, at least two to one. Personally, I get by fine with an old shop towel, but to each his own.  We got our NITRO dose, and still had time to find a good spot along the fence before the start of the first round. No comment on the opening ceremonies this time... I was taught if you can't say anything good... don't say anything at all. But, the skydivers with the U.S. Flag and the R.F.C. Chaplain's invocation were great, like always.

A flight of fancy on a windswept field
standing alone, my sense reeled**

Now... about that first round... hell, how about that first round first pair? Cory Mac and Mark Kinsella? Mark appeared to drop a cylinder at the hit of the throttle. When they passed by us, they were literally neck and neck with Kinsella trailing one rather impressive fireball, which resulted in an even more impressive Ka-boomer further downtrack.  Man, you could feel the heat from that puppy!

But the Kinsella Ka-boomer was really no laughing matter. Maybe the worst since the 90% rule? The engine plate / clutch can combination along with part of the crankshaft and a few rods (and possibly the reverser) left the car as one unit, bounced from the right lane over to the left guardwall then FLEW back across the track, over the concrete barrier on the right side, and made it about midway across the grass before ever touching the ground again. And it STILL bounced along for quite a ways before it finally rolled to a stop.  The crowd fell silent while we all watched this thing fly around. Fortunately, all of this took place past the end of the grandstands, out in the wide open spaces. The man upstairs must really love Drag Racers. NHRA's stringent safety regs don't hurt, either. Another potential tragedy averted.

Some way to get things started, no? We knew the cleanup from this mess would take a while, so it seemed now would be a good time to cross over to the spectator side and its 'cheap seats'. Plenty of room to sit over here... even found seats in the front row... no problem with those in front standing up. Actually... what's up with all of these empty seats at a National Event? Which brings me to this point AGAIN. It seems as though here on the East Coast, when the fire up a NITRO motor, it means... everyone must now STAND! Why? While to our friends on the West Coast the same sound means... time to sit.

I remember my first visit to Bakersfield... as a NITRO car was fired up and approaching the line... I did what I was taught back home. I stood. Well, as soon as I did, I realized this move made me 'persona non grata' with this whole crowd. How embarrassing to catch even the ire of your friends. I learned that the fence and the top row of the stands were reserved for those who want to stand... nowhere else. But you know what? We ALL could see a whole lot better with everyone sitting. You should try it sometime.

After about a twenty minute delay we're back in action... lots of tire smoke in the next couple of pairs... the Spirit Of New York/Yankees car lost again in the first round (maybe time to re-think that off season personnel change?).

Ah, here we go, round four Rhonda Hartman-Smith vs. Chris Karamesines. The Greek cut an uncanny .404 light (after an even more telepathic .400 light at the Southern Nats. in Atlanta two weeks ago) that put him way out on Rhonda, who then passed him by mid track, only to start dropping cylinders. The Greek was closing the gap real fast, but ran out of race track. Too bad. Made a mental note to go see The Greek as soon as this round ends... more on that later.

The seventh pair saw Kenny Bernstein run a fine 4.59 to defeat an up in smoke Jim Head.  In final pairing Larry Dixon Jr. ran a stout 4.55 to one up Kenny... hope these two last to the final. Dixon's opponent in the right lane (Don Sosenka) still seems to be having a lot of fun at these races and had everyone talking about his new burnout philosophy... smokeless. Very interesting. I assume something went wrong on the burnout. Back over on Dixon's side of the track... crew chief Dick LaHaie has installed a wheelie bar on the Miller car, and it carried the front wheels picture perfect on this pass. A true thing of beauty, with the front wheels just dangling lightly in the air about the first 150 feet out.

Next up - Funny Car. First pair pits John Force against Tim Wilkerson with Wilkerson having lane choice. The 'ol truck driver hasn't had the best of outings here this weekend... John could only manage a best of 5.04, putting him in the 15th slot. He left on Wilkerson but went up in smoke pretty quick. From then on, it was all Wilkerson. Looks like Densham or Bazemore (or both) might get to play catch up today.

The third pairing found Johnny Gray and Dean Skuza in a pedaling duel until Skuza's blower finally said "Enough!" and blasted the body right off the chassis. The body looked real pretty floating back down to the track surface... 'kinda slow motion like. I'll be watching for this one on tonight's replay. Gray got the win.

Seems like most of the rest of the pairings were pedaling matches (except the last pair)... which don't look so great on TV, but are great to watch when you're actually there. Fun.

The last pair of this first round featured Scotty Cannon and Whit 'Speed Racer' Bazemore. After all of the previous smokers this pairing was a great match up... no smoke here... Bazemore won a close one on a hole shot 5.89 to Scotty's 5.88. Hated to see Cannon lose on a good pass like that one. If Scotty ever gets consistent, look out. But, the 'Speed Racer' did his job, and did it well. By the way, Gary Densham won his round too. Might see some re-shuffling on the points standings before the day is through.

We talked a lot through the Pro Stock rounds... we only have this one event each year to get caught up, remember? Did get to see a few good staging duels though. Next thing I knew, I was listening to the aggravating sounds of the PS/B's doing their burnouts. Time to walk through the pits.

Hey! Been trying to get the Greek's signature since '61... think today might be the day? Damn right... at 1:15 PM on Sunday, May 19th 2002, I finally got it! Time for a cold one! I told the Greek how long I've been trying to chase him down... he didn't seem too impressed. Man, 'ya 'gotta love this guy's operation. They pull the Team Strange trailer behind a pickup... just like the old days. First time I saw the Greek run, he was making exhibition runs at Atco with "The Chizler." That's the same car that ran 204 back in '59.  That day was also the first time I saw Dick Belfatti's "Shadow" AA/FD.

Ran into Parker Johnstone and reminisced briefly about the days when he was Camel Lights champ on the old IMSA GTP series. Loved to watch those big Prototype coupes run at Watkins Glen... also... The Glen was one hell of a fun place to be over those weekends. I believe Drag Racing's own Pat Foster was heavily involved in the development of the # 83 Nissan, driven by Geoff Brabham, that so completely dominated that series back in the late 80's or early 90's (CRS?). Parker is doing a great job behind the mike nowadays, seems real enthusiastic about what he's doing... it comes across nicely on camera. Hey, that Dunn guy ain't doing bad either, is he?

Time to head back over to the 'Cheap Seats', they're pushing the Fuelers through the crowds here in the pits now. Oh, I did get to snort some more NITRO... all in all... a nice between rounds break. Love this place, man!

Of interest during this round of Top Fuel was... Scott Weis making a full pass (until the motor let go) with one chute deployed... that musta been some kinda' tire shake, eh?... K.B. running a 4.54 in the middle of the day (the sun's out and beating down on the track, but the air's still nice and cool), so far the quickest ET of the entire event... and Larry Dixon carrying the front wheels a few hundred feet again... love those pretty wheelies!

The opening of this round of Funny Car saw 'ol John Force himself standing in the staging area watching all of the action. Man, this guy can just stand there with his arms folded and STILL get a round of applause from the crowd. I read years ago where John said he admired Richard Petty so much because people cheered for him when he did nothing... John, you're in the same spot now. People love 'ya.

Of note... Sarver and Wilkerson's round opening pedaling duel with Sarver winning 6.90 to 6.91! That one was fun to watch...The Cruzer and Bob Gilbertson's identical reaction time pairing that Gilbertson won... Bazemore sending Tony P. home... Densham winning his round with a 4.83. Bazemore won his round with a 4.85, and these two will meet in the next round... 'gonna be COOL!

During this Pro Stock round we were treated to another good old fashioned starting line 'burndown' between Mark Osborn and Gene Wilson (who?) that lasted at least a minute. Seems like 'ol Rick Stewart AKA 'The Iceman' enjoyed this opportunity to relax between pairings. Sometime I'd love to watch 'em BOTH sit for a minute after lighting both bulbs... that would be fun to watch too!

Here come the bikes... here goes me.

Wandering around the pit area again, I ran into an old truck drivin' pal Dave Carr and his twin brother Al (who also drives a truck). These guys are from the Boston area and attend this event and the Finals at Pomona every year. Some year I'm 'gonna tag along with them to the Pomona race. These guys are identical twins and a whole lot of fun to be around, those Boston accents are a lot of fun too! Had a quick chat with Del and Chuck Worsham. Neither seemed real happy with the CSK car's performance this weekend. I thought it ran great. The Worsham's are one of my favorite teams.

I arrived back at my seat with Dr. Bob and Treetop Al just in time for the start of the next round. Cool stuff... Rhonda Hartman red lighting away a chance to take out Larry Dixon, he smoked the tires about mid track. A win here would have elevated Rhonda to Superstar status, LaHaie/Dixon don't miscue often... K.B. taking out Tony Schumacher. Tony also went up in smoke about mid track. That'll give Budweiser lane choice over Miller Lite in the Final. 'Gonna be great!

Funny Stuff... Sarver winning the semi, and on fire in the shutdown area (again)... Densham taking out Bazemore with a fine 4.81... Bazemore smoking the tires at mid-track and still running in the fours (barely though, a .99).

Looks like Greg Anderson will meet Jeg in the final. Greg (not Jeg) will have lane choice. Who cares about the bikes?

Time for another stroll through the pits. I seem to be getting a lot of exercise today... it's a damn long walk from the Cheap Seats to the pits. Stopped by the display for the Old Time Drags and Funny Car Reunion that will be taking place here on July 28th. Jerry Smith had his "First Love" Chevy II on display along with Dave Sano's Corvette.  Dave's 'Vette is the former John Force/Wendy's car, hard to recognize now, with a pretty blue paint job... but, a great advertisement for Dave's Custom Paint shop. Lou Sgro and Bob Rositty are also going to bring their nostalgia F/C's. Lou and Bob will probably make a few passes. Bruce Larson's 'gonna bring the USA 1 Camaro to make a few passes, also... "Jungle Pam" Hardy, "Berserko" Bob, and a whole host of other 'dignitaries' are planning on attending. check out www.funnycarreunion.com for more info.

One thing I've noticed a lot of today in the Pro pits... blistered tires. Hadn't heard anything about this phenomena, but that's what they appeared to be to this untrained eye. Did see a lot of mid track smoke, though. Hmm, is it something about the tires or today's unreal atmospheric conditions?

Finals time. First up - Alcohol Funny Car... local guy and seven time World Champ Frank Manzo put away Bobby Martin with an un-godly 5.54 that tied Tony Bartone's National Record... his 259.91 MPH speed on this pass may be the fastest ever for the class...  AND this win ties him with "The Snake" for all time National Event wins. All in all, not a bad afternoon for the "Ace."

Alcohol Dragster - found Art Gallant's unblown NITRO burner against Duane Shields TAD. Duane set a 5.28 National Record earlier in the day and ran a .30 to take out Gallant, and his dragster was real consistent all day. The boys from Nevada also has a good afternoon.

PS/B - ....^%%&@))00&^$/?>><<< 000000000000000000000.........!

Pro Mod - Fred Hahn took out Troy Critchley for his first win of the season 6.26 to 6.34.

Pro Stock - A jubilant Greg Anderson took out Jeg. Greg left first and got there quicker, 6.80 to Jeg's 6.81. A great win for Greg and the Vegas General Construction Cavalier.

Funny Car - If Densham wins this round against Sarver, he'll take the points lead from 'The Boss'... but who's 'gonna know? Gary is running 'The Boss' Castrol GTX body (what's up with that?). On the green Sarver smoked 'em but Densham (I guess it was Densham) pedaled nicely to recover from some tire shake and ran a 5.04 @ 316 ( damn right he recovered!) to take the best of Sarver, who gave it up. If that really was Densham (?) in the John Force car (?)  (man, am I getting confused!))) then he (Densham) just took the points lead away from 'The Boss'.

OK, Top Fuel Time - It appears from this angle that nobody has switched bodies, paint jobs, drivers. etc. for this pair. But, then again, it coulda been the same driver in BOTH cars (top that one Force), judging by the identical reaction times. A good Drag Race with Larry carrying the front wheels again, but Kenny's Tim and Kim Richards tune up just flat out running the Miller car. Hey, wonder who taught Kim how to tune a Fuel motor? Hint: he was standing there at the starting line too. 

Didn't notice if Dixon lost a cylinder or had any other problems... it was over too quick. K.B.'s 4.60 handling Dixon's 4.81 (who ran in the 4.50's all afternoon, except for the semis). Matter of fact, BOTH guys ran in the .50's first three rounds! Not sure who's doing what in the points chase now... but it's 'gotta be close.

Heading back to the plane (De plane! De plane!) heard Kenny being interviewed over the PA, and he commented on how much he likes this place. Well, let me tell you what, he ain't the only one. I always have a great time at this facility. The fans are great... the track is always up to the job... and the atmospheric conditions are always superb. Moving this event from mid-summer to spring was one of the smartest things the 'powers that be' in Glendora ever did.

Off in the distance, a ribbon of black
Stretched to the point of no turning back**

There's the Capitol City Airport coming into view straight ahead. Hey, these guys NEVER get lost. Seems like we just left Old Bridge Airport a few minutes ago... actually, it was thirty five minutes ago, but who's counting after a great day like this? Hell, I'm ready for next year now!

I keep hearing whispers about the Englishtown facility being on the auction block... now that both Knapp brothers have passed away. But, I'm also hearing about a road racing course being added, and I did notice that some sort of construction project was in progress while 'up there'. And I also saw some construction equipment parked nearby. So, who knows? Anyway, this just helps add to the mystique of this place. I've been to a few different tracks over the years, but this one and Norwalk (Ohio) are in a class all by themselves. How can you escape this irresistible grasp? More old B.S. later.


PS. - I'd like to thank Soaps by Betty www.angelfire.com/wizard/soapsbybetty for their continuing support.

**1986 Pink Floyd
"Learning To Fly"
Music Publishers Inc.


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