The alarm went off at 4:45am on Saturday August 31, signifying it was
time to get up and get ready for my first trip to Indianapolis. Being a
drag racing spectator since I was approximately two years old, I had
read about and watched on television the spectacle that was the NHRA
U.S. Nationals. I knew all the great moments and knew that someday I
would attend. When it was announced that both Shirley Muldowney and Don
Garlits would be competing, and not knowing when their last Indy might
be, I made the decision to go, and coaxed my parents into joining me. I
wanted to say that I went to Indy!
I made the trip as economic as possible by flying in Saturday morning
and leaving Monday night, staying in a hotel merely two nights.
The trip to Indianapolis Raceway Park from the airport was a little
confusing, as the directions provided by the NHRA Media Guide mentions
Raceway Road, so we turned there and had to turn around out of three
private parking lots before finding the entrance right off of Route 136.
After paying $5 for parking (I guess this is Indy) we entered the gates
welcomed by the Mac Tools sign, grabbed lunch, and were in the stands
just in time for the first round of the K&N Filters Pro Bike Klash.
We were on the Mac Tools side of the track (left lane), and the seats
were fabulous, complete with backing to lean on. And the heat! Oh my, it
was going to be a very warm weekend.
After taking in the upsets in round one of the K&N Klash we got
ready for a great round of pro qualifying. G.T. Tonglet's 7.45 in the
Screaming Eagle Harley Pro Stock Bike was at least in the ballpark this
time. Darrell Alderman's 6.898 from the Team Mopar Dodge, second
quickest of the round, gave us hope that he could break into the field
that evening. Pro Modified followed Pro Stock, where there were many new
names, and many cars that didn't seem capable of qualifying. That was
the problem at E-Town; too many middle-of-the-pack cars of drivers you
never heard of. Got a little boring, but then it was time for Top Fuel.
The prettiest run of the round was Shirley Muldowney's sensational
4.69, 314.68, which was within .05 seconds of Low E.T. of the round.
Unfortunately Garlits had to shut off with dropped cylinders, but was
still qualified for the moment at 14th with his Friday 4.88. Then Funny
Car came up, followed by the Klash final where Craig Treble continued
his great year by defeating holeshot artist Mike Berry.
The Top Alcohol Dragsters put on a great show for their final round
of qualifying. With 33 cars vying for 16 spots, the bump spot was
already a great 5.57. Getting to see new names like Jared Dreher, John
Haley, Tim Rudy, Ken Perry, Lee Callaway and Mike Bowers to name a few,
along with seeing drivers I had only read about: Darren Nicholson, Steve
Federlin, Marty Thacker, Shelly Howard and David Wells, among others. Of
course, my biggest cheer was saved for the great hope of Division One,
Fran Monaghan, Jr. and the Chicken Chokers entry. They were already
qualified at 5.51 heading into the session, and survived some fantastic
bumping, as the field ended up being the quickest in history.
While Alcohol Funny Car, my favorite class, did not have a lot in
depth, it made up for in quality. The number one spot changed hand
several times in a last-ditch qualifying session. First, Bob Newberry
took the pole with a 5.711 until Bucky Austin crossed the finish line
right behind him with a 5.698. Then a few pair later, Frank Manzo laid
down a 5.656, only to be bested by Jay Payne's 5.644 one pair later.
Of course, for Payne, it would have been more beneficial had he
qualified second in this case, but more on that later.
Pro Modified led the night session at approximately 6:44pm Central
Time, and ended with former champions Fred Hahn and Shannon Jenkins on
the outside looking in. Angelle Savoie laid down a great 7.15 in Pro
Stock Motorcycle. Unfortunately, Team Mopar missed the tune-up for the
night session, and Alderman's 6.882, 200.57 fell short of the field.
For Top Fuel, both Muldowney and Garlits got greedy and smoked the
tires, while Andrew Cowin laid down a great 4.59, 319.75 in the Yankees
dragster. Terry Haddock laid down a career best 5.06 in Funny Car
qualifying, while Tony Pedregon ended the session with a superb 4.79. It
was after 10pm and I hadn't even gotten a chance to peruse around the
pits. Time to head to the hotel, Motel 6 East, and get up the next day.
Sunday found my folks and I without as much sleep as we probably
required, and being out in the heat didn't help. I cruised the pits
for a bit before heading into the stands to catch round one of the
alcohol classes. The big thrill was seeing the Chicken Chokers win round
one over a higher qualified Marty Thacker when Thacker fouled. He had to
race Jeff Wilson in the next round, who had smoked the tires to a 6.04,
giving lane choice to Monaghan. In Alky Funny, the biggest race was Fred
Hagen's upset over Jay Payne, when Payne blew a motor close to the
1000' mark. Meanwhile, Manzo's opponent merely ran a 6.26, a time
Payne could have beaten coasting. Life is all in the timing.
After a round of Pro Stock Bike and Pro Stock where improvements were
extremely limited to alternates, the crowd was on their feet for the Big
Bud Shootout. This was the Indy crowd I had heard about! Standing up,
ready to watch the race, and boy was I happy when all three Force Fords
got beat in round one. Unfortunately, I knew that would make them more
ready for Monday's eliminations. We sat on the Little Tree side (right
lane) of the racetrack on Sunday and Monday, as the fabulous seats from
Saturday were suddenly reserve seats. Which was fine, because we wanted
to be able to exit easily.
I got my first dose of Comp Eliminator today, but the session to beat
was the Top Fuel final session, which all revolved around Big Daddy Don
Garlits. After being devastated by watching my favorite Funny Car driver
of the moment, Whit Bazemore, miss the field with the Matco car, I was
crossing my fingers for Big Daddy. We watched as Scott Weis dropped the
bump to a 4.765, meaning Garlits would have to make an even better run
to make the field. Well, he did! Swamp Rat XXXIV laid down a fabulous
4.763, 318.54, one of the prettiest runs I had ever seen. The crowd went
nuts, including myself and we were all on our feet cheering Garlits.
Then came Yuichi Oyama. He had a made a run earlier that hurt some
engine parts and still matched his 4.839 best at 260 mph, but I was
still hoping he wouldn't fix his engine problem, and Garlits would be
safe. Well, Oyama laid down a 4.760 that not only placed him in the
field, but also placed him (at least temporarily) on the Billy Anderson
SH*T List. The entire place still cheered for Garlits when he was towed
down the return road. Another great Indy memory. I had hoped that Oyama's
nitro would come up over the legal limit, or his car would be too light,
but to no avail. And with NHRA's anti-alternate policy, it would not
be like the 1993 IHRA North American Nationals when Garlits and Bruce
Larson's were first alternates, but got into the field as an alternate
and went on to win the race.
Muldowney ended up 12th, a spot I liked as she would face John Smith,
who is inconsistent, in round one, and was in a quadrant of the field
with Cowin and Paul Romine, again, not the most consistent racers.
We did not stay for the final Pro Mod session as it was a completely
exhausting day. We ate at a local Outback on our way home, and promptly
fell asleep with ESPN2 coverage on our television.
For Monday, it was shocking that it was here so quickly. It was great
to see all the pomp and circumstance of Indy, including the U.S. Army
band which sounded great. It wasn't the upsets I had hoped for,
although Muldowney did score her first Indy round win since 1987. It was
still great to be a part of the action. Of course, the race of the day
was the Dixon/Bernstein Top Fuel match.
Mac Tools involvement with the race seems to have only elevated it,
especially the Stars and Stripes teams which was done very
professionally, including a new driving suit for each driver.
I don't know when I will get to Indy again, but I am proud to say I
went to the 2002 edition of the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in
Indianapolis, IN! Thanks for the memories!