On Sunday afternoon during the season-opening event in Pomona, the pit area surrounding the Auto Club Ford Mustang wasn’t awash with smiling faces. Big numbers in testing and a No. 1 qualifying effort were followed by a frustrating opening-round loss when the race car was backed down too much and shook the tires. Robert Hight was visibly frustrated, and you could get between crew chief Jimmy Prock and his computer monitor at your own risk.

The event was frustrating but not deflating for the team that were anything but backed-down when they proceeded to reel off three consecutive wins. It's tough to say if the loss had a Bruce Banner-Incredible Hulk effect on the team, but their opponents haven't liked racing them since they got angry. There are maybe a handful of teams who are nearly unbeatable when they’re “on” (Matt Hagan, Mike Neff, and Cruz Pedregon come to mind), and the switch has certainly been flipped in the Auto Club camp. A confident Auto Club team is a dangerous Auto Club team.

“You can just see it when you are in the car and [Prock] is not having a hundred trips to the box,” said Hight. “You just see the confidence in his eyes and that gives you more confidence. You just go up there and cut a light and hopefully see that win light.”

Scoring three straight wins in the class that features drag racing’s most temperamental cars doesn’t happen very often, at least not since John Force’s 1993-2002 era of domination. Hight previously did it in the middle of the 2010 season. The other three most recent occurrences are Pedregon winning the last three races of the 2008 season, Force sweeping three races early in 2005, and Tony Pedregon winning three in a row in the middle of 2002.

Another indication how tough Hight is once he gets rolling is his record in final rounds. He is 15-2 in finals since the start of the 2009 playoffs. He made 4.0-second runs in both of his losses, which came at the hands of Hagan at the 2010 Chicago event and in the quickest side-by-side race in history at the season-ending race in Pomona in 2011.

One difference in Hight’s team this year is the depth of talent available in the camp. Hight maintained the exact same crew for the past five seasons with the exception of the body and tire position with Prock and assistant crew chief Eric Lane having been with the team since its inception. In addition to having the other John Force Racing crew chiefs and track specialist Lanny Miglizzi available to them, the team is also working with John Medlen, Dale Armstrong, and Ron Armstrong this season.

The “same old, same old” seems like a good formula for race situations. Despite going through some dry spells in 2011, Hight scored five wins that equaled the class-high mark. The presence of the trio of innovators at the races and especially at test sessions enables the forward-thinking Prock to sort through new ideas to benefit the performance of Hight and, by proxy, his teammates. This is one of few teams on the tour that legitimately looks forward to going out on test dates rather than viewing it as an obligation or punishment.

How long Hight can keep his momentum rolling and his ability to rebound once it ceases are to be determined. For the time being, competitors aren’t at ease when they see a blue car in the opposite lane.

The Fast Five

Spencer Massey
’s second win of the young season occurred in a different manner than his win at the season opener. He relied on career performances to topple foes in Pomona, whereas killer lights and consistent runs did the trick at The Strip. Massey qualified No. 2 but didn’t make the quickest run of any one round until the final. In fact, he didn’t make the quickest run of his own semifinal pair, but he used a .040 light to hold off Steve Torrence and score a final-round berth. A 3.83 with an event-best .038 light was enough to defeat teammate Antron Brown in the final.

Other than the result of the final round, Antron Brown’s performance mirrored his 2011 win all the way down to the special Aaron’s/Matco Tools wrap on his dragster. Like 2011, Brown had trouble in qualifying and managed to get through the first round, this time via a holeshot win over Shawn Langdon. Like 2011, crew chiefs Brian Corradi and Mark Oswald cracked the code, and Brown ran low e.t. of eliminations, this time with a 3.77 at a career-best 326 mph. Brown won a pedalfest against No. 1 qualifier Morgan Lucas in the semi’s but wasn’t able to down his teammate in the final.

Bob Tasca III scored his first round-win of the season and then some. Tasca recently added Dickie Venables to his arsenal that includes crew chiefs Chris Cunningham and Marc Denner, and the trio deciphered a track that had been giving other tuners fits. From the No. 2 qualifying position, Tasca used a holeshot to get by Jeff Arend in the first round and relied on a solid Quick Lane/Motorcraft Mustang beyond that to reach the final and vault all the way up to No. 6 in the point standings.

Pro Stock didn’t seem like a class that would boast four winners in the first four races due to the way it started as the Greg Anderson and Jason Line show, but here we are after Allen Johnson became the latest addition to the winner’s circle. It was a victory not only for the Mopar team but for the engine shop led by Johnson’s father, Roy, which also produced the bullet that propelled Vincent Nobile into the opposite lane in the final. Anderson and Line were trailered in the second round by Johnson and Nobile, respectively. A.J. ran a smart race with good-enough setups that didn’t straddle the edge from crew chief Mark Ingersoll, whose victory was a sentimental one a few weeks after the loss of his father, Buddy.

One race after getting surprised by 2010’s quickest leaver, Rickie Jones, in the opening round, Vincent Nobile flexed his bulging starting-line muscles once more in his first final-round effort of the season. He cut a .002 light in round one to hand Jeg Coughlin Jr. a rare holeshot loss despite Coughlin cutting a very good .016. He followed that with a holeshot win against No. 1 qualifier Jason Line. He drew a red-light from Greg Stanfield, who hadn’t given up a starting-line advantage all season, in the semifinal round at this event for the second straight year to reach the final against Allen Johnson.

Special Awards

Stat of the race: In an event that could be dubbed “the Holeshot Nationals” or “Leaving Las Vegas,” a remarkable 12 elimination rounds were decided by holeshots in an event that didn’t feature Pro Stock Motorcycles. Top Fuel accounted for five holeshots alone and Pro Stock featured four and Funny Car had three.

Crew chiefs of the race:
Todd Okuhara and Phil Shuler gave one of Top Fuel’s best leavers the opportunity to succeed with four consistent runs; Jimmy Prock orchestrated the best run during qualifying and in three of four elimination rounds; Mark Ingersoll, along with Roy Johnson and John Nobile, helped provide the setups for both Pro Stock finalists.

Best races: Antron Brown vs. Shawn Langdon, Top Fuel round one: They ran two of the six quickest e.t.s of the round beside one another, and Brown’s .048 light decided the race by seven-10-thousandths of a second (approximately four inches).

Spencer Massey vs. Steve Torrence, Top Fuel semifinal:
Torrence probably deserved a better fate than having a perfectly good .056 light and low e.t. of the round result in a loss, both those are the breaks in the late rounds of Top Fuel racing. Massey earned the .009-second winning margin for the FRAM team.

Vincent Nobile vs. Jeg Coughlin Jr., Pro Stock round two:
Coughlin rarely gives up holeshot losses, but there’s not a big window for success when your opponent cuts a .002 light and is right with you in performance. It wasn’t the end of the day for Coughlin, however, as he went on to win the event in Super Comp driving wife Samantha’s dragster.

Matt Hagan vs. Mike Neff, Funny Car round one: The 2011 Full Throttle champ was hungry for his first round-win of the year, and he would have to work for it against the second-ranked driver of the young 2012 season. Hagan got a slight edge on the Tree and parlayed it into a holeshot win when both drivers recorded 4.16s, and Hagan crossed the finish line first by a .013-second margin.

When the Tire Kingdom NHRA Gatornationals presented by NAPAFilters.com concluded on Monday after rain washed the last two rounds of Pro eliminations into a bonus day of action, four great performances were rewarded with event wins at one of the most prestigious stops on the tour. Eddie Krawiec won the weekend with a dominant win and the Pro Stock Motorcycle national e.t. record, Funny Car winner Robert Hight confirmed his eighth consecutive season with at least two wins at only the third stop of the 2012 NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series, and Mike Edwards let his left foot do the talking in an exciting Pro Stock final. The most compelling story, to me, was the redemptive tale of Top Fuel winner Morgan Lucas.

At this time last year, Morgan Lucas’ season had already seen its best days, and crew chief Aaron Brooks and an overworked R2B2 Funny Car crew were trying to dig themselves out of a pile of DNQs. The young driver/owner who has sampled many crew chiefs with limited success and the young tuner who has bounced around since first assuming the lead role converged this season, and the result has been a GEICO/Lucas Oil dragster that can run with anyone in the country.

Timing is everything in this sport. Lucas, the No. 1 qualifier, legged his dragster out in round one after the parachutes deployed prematurely. Had opponent Brady Kalivoda not smoked the tires at the step, Lucas would not have still been in competition to record three of the five quickest runs in Top Fuel history.

Brooks, who admits that one of his biggest problems has been the unwillingness to back down his tune-up, found track conditions that generously rewarded his aggressive mentality. Aggressive doesn’t mean reckless in Brooks’ case. He is a detail-oriented perfectionist who shudders at the thought of being outrun.

Lucas took off like a rocket ship in the second round and reached the eighth-mile mark in under three seconds. (To put that in perspective, Alan Johnson did that once with Gary Scelzi driving after a clutch management malfunction, once with Del Worsham during the 3.73 run in Reading last October, and never with Tony Schumacher.) In each of the next two rounds, he repeated the feat to the eighth-mile and the 3.74 elapsed times that popped up on the scoreboard.

“It isn’t going to last forever, but right now, this car just has a little sweet spot,” said Brooks.

The victorious Lucas has found some level of scrutiny at every corner since coming into the class in 2004. His event wins were outnumbered by the number of people who assumed the crew chief position on his team, which caused outsiders to question his management (fair to an extent), call for him to clean house, or unfairly blame his driving for being the common denominator whenever poor showings and personnel changes gave the message boards fodder to rip the 28-year-old driver. On the flip side, he also has fiercely loyal supporters who defend him in the court of public opinion.

Lucas doesn’t wear any animosity, and the aspect he most likes to point out about his team’s turnaround is the fact that it was done with the core team — crewmembers Richard “Oz” Crampton, Andrew Polk, Brian “Swifty” Swift, Brandon “Pork Chop” Greene, Dustin Smith, Terry Erzar, and James Maradits — remaining intact.

“It goes to show you that we’ve had the right ingredients for a long time and didn’t know how to put it together,” said Lucas. “That’s what Aaron and Rod [Centorbi, assistant crew chief] brought to the table.”

Able to focus on driving with complete confidence in his equipment, Lucas is doing some of the best driving of his career. Nobody left first against him all season until the final round at this event, during which he only gave up a scant .004-second advantage.

“The kid is good, which helps me a lot,” said Brooks. “I’ll bring up little, stupid stuff to him, and he doesn’t forget it.”

Brooks, who at 38 years old is nascent by crew chief standards, found himself on the fast track to great things when he got the assistant crew chief gig on the Oakley Funny Car under Mike “Zippy” Neff in 2001 after just three full years as a crewmember for Don Prudhomme and Kenny Bernstein. He got to learn from Neff and Johnson during that time and experienced a championship season with Scelzi driving during the 2005 season. When Neff left during the 2007 season, other people were brought in to run the car, and Brooks received crew chief opportunities elsewhere that never lasted for more than a season.

Toward the position most responsible for a team’s performance, competitive nature generally doesn’t allow fans, team owners, sponsors, etc. to heed the words of Axl Rose and give just a little patience. Sitting in the GEICO/Lucas Oil crew chief lounge while a beaming Brooks and Centorbi downloaded the computer data from the second-quickest run in Top Fuel history, I got to watch one of the most even-keeled people in the sport become a little fiery after I asked if any of the squashed opportunities or detractors came to mind while he saw the 3.74-second times and win lights pop up on the scoreboard. Self-assured as Brooks is, he can’t help but hear some of the negative talk about past performance.

“My wife, Melanie, gets emotional after she gets on all these websites and reads what people say about me,” said Brooks. “I hear it from her. I ignore it because I don’t give a [care] what anybody out there says. My wife’s just reading all these blogs, and people are just running [stuff] on you like, ‘This [person]’s stupid,’ just running their mouth. I don’t care, but now it’s like, ‘[Forget] you guys.’ They can say whatever they want.”

One thing that is being said now is that Lucas is running as well as he is because of Johnson’s influence. That’s true to an extent but undermines Brooks’ contribution. It’s difficult to describe the relationship between Johnson and the Morgan Lucas Racing teams due to Johnson’s roles as the person responsible for the performance of the competing Al-Anabi dragsters and as a parts supplier to many teams through his business, Alan Johnson Performance Engineering. It would be safe to describe MLR as a really good customer. One thing that can be clarified, though, is that Johnson is not turning the knobs or making run-by-run decisions on Lucas’ dragster.

“A.J.’s never even seen one of my runs [on the computer],” said Brooks. “We talk, but he’s not up here saying, ‘You need to do this, or you need to do that.’ Joe [Barlam, MavTV/Lucas Oil dragster crew chief] kind of relies on him more for advice as he’s getting more experience and confidence.”

For now, Lucas and Brooks are enjoying the high of being front-runners in a tough division that requires all competitors to play hardball.

The Fast Five

In his third straight event title, Eddie Krawiec left nothing on the table. The rider of the Vance & Hines Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson took firm command of the field when he made the quickest run in class history at 6.750 seconds on Saturday, which became the national e.t. record by the end of the event. If not for a strong headwind, he may have easily broken the Pro Stock Motorcycle 200-mph barrier on that run. He gobbled up the qualifying bonus points for making the quickest run in all four sessions, and the two-time Full Throttle champ didn’t ease up on Sunday. He defeated teammate Andrew Hines in the final to lock up a triumph that garnered him the maximum allotted 150 points.

Robert Hight became the first driver of 2012 to win his second national event. He made one of the five quickest laps in all but one qualifying session, and he stepped up more when a load was taken off of the Auto Club Ford Mustang in eliminations. Recognizing superior grip on the racing surface, crew chief Jimmy Prock had his crew put smaller rear “ramp” wings on the back of the rear deck of the body to reduce drag and rear downforce, thus freeing up the clutch and driveshaft speed to make his tune-up work optimally in stellar conditions. The result was the three quickest and fastest runs of eliminations. They put the wing back up when the track got almost 20 degrees warmer in the final. They underestimated the track and shook and smoked, but their opponent did the same thing minus the masterful pedaljob performed by Hight.

Johnny Gray was a busy man between driving the Service Central Dodge Charger, following sons Shane in Pro Stock and Jonathan in Comp, and hosting and greeting representatives from his sponsor’s company, which also happened to be sponsoring the event (no pressure, right?). Crew chief Rob Wendland began the event with a conservative approach after making significant changes from the fuel system to the clutch to having fresh pipe put on the front half of the chassis done by the guys at the Don Schumacher Racing fabrication shop in a day and a half. He reverted back to his aggressive mentality as the race went on and unloaded a 4.05 against points leader Mike Neff in the semifinal round. Wendland, like Jimmy Prock on Hight’s team, underestimated the 98-degree track in the final round and stuck the tire, creating a pedalfest that was ultimately won by Hight.

Like Robert Hight, former Full Throttle champion Mike Edwards got to cross a Gatornationals win off of his career to-do list. Considered one of four historic sites, along with Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis, Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, and Old Bridge Township Raceway Park, Auto-Plus Raceway at Gainesville hosts an event that is considered one of the biggies among those who follow the sport. Edwards did it the way he almost always used to do it before establishing his own engine program: with his left foot. The savvy vet was first off the line in all four rounds and saved his best for last. Greg Anderson, who had earned lane choice in the final by .001-second, left a distant second behind the Penhall/Interstate Batteries Pontiac when Edwards cut a .003 light, and a 6.53 to 6.56 advantage on the track cut less than half into Edwards’ lead.

Anyone who feels bad for Tony Schumacher about not winning in any of his last nine final-round appearances needs only to look at the points standings to alleviate their pain. “The Sarge” is on top of the heap after eight round-wins in the first three events. The U.S. Army driver gained bonus points in each of the four qualifying sessions for making one of the three quickest laps of each session, and he was the first driver to leave on Morgan Lucas all season when they raced in the final. Crew chief Mike Green was straightforward in asserting that they need to go back to work to find more performance to match up with or beat the 3.74s that have been popping up in the opposite lane.

I want to add a paragraph to a nonracer, a person who put the “chief” in chief starter this Sunday, Mark Lyle. Three races into his tenure in the coveted position, the former Division 6 starter showed who was boss when Matt Smith and Hector Arana Sr. engaged in a staging battle during the second round of Pro Stock Motorcycle while nasty weather was inching toward Gainesville. When Lyle decided enough was enough, he ordered both riders behind the next pair of bikes, explained the situation to them, and lit the Tree for two well-behaved competitors one pair later. He was assertive, fair, tempered, and added no theatrics, and the crowd ate it up.

Special Awards

Stats of the race:
Robert Hight has won in 14 of his last 16 final-round appearances. In both of his losses, he made a 4.0-second pass against Matt Hagan, against whom he staged the quickest side-by-side race in Funny Car history last November at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.

Doug Kalitta broke a drought of 16 races between semifinal appearances. Although it was in a losing effort, he recorded his first 3.7-second pass against Morgan Lucas in the semi’s. The Kalitta team appears back on track, and they believe that the changes they made over the winter will be reflected more in warm conditions.

The championship hangover is a very real thing in the Funny Car class. Of the last 10 Full Throttle champs, only one (2007 champ Tony Pedregon) scored a win in the first three races of his title defense. Pedregon’s four round-wins in the first three races is the most of the group, followed by 2009 champ Robert Hight with three round-wins, three champions with two round-wins, two champions with one round-win, and three champions with no round-wins. The worst start by a champ happened when John Force followed his 2006 title with no round-wins and a DNQ in the first five events of the 2007 season. Matt Hagan may not be off to a good start in his title defense, but at least he’s in good company.

There were a bevy of firsts at this event. Funny Car’s Alexis DeJoria, Pro Stock’s Mark Martino, and Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Scotty Pollacheck earned their first Professional round-wins. Buell riders Joey Gladstone, John Hall, and Ulf Ogge also made their first race-day starts.

Today in misleading stats: Aaron Brooks has now called the shots on more sub-three-second runs to the eighth-mile mark (three) in his career than Alan Johnson (two).

Crew chiefs of the race: All Aaron Brooks did was lead the charge on three of the five quickest runs in Top Fuel history; Jimmy Prock had his crew take the wing off the rear spoiler in the staging lanes before the first round and was rewarded with the fastest car on the property; Rob Downing and Jeff Perley set up the quicker car in the Pro Stock final in their first race since Tommy Utt left the team for Cagnazzi Racing; Matt Hines — no explanation required.

Best races: Clay Millican vs. Khalid alBalooshi, Top Fuel round one: Millican put an early nose on the rookie from the Al-Anabi camp and held on to score his second win against him this season, this time on a holeshot decided by a .005-second margin.

Tony Schumacher vs. Antron Brown, Top Fuel round two: Schumacher used a holeshot to get a one-hundredth stripe against a teammate who he hasn’t been able to beat in any of their last five meetings.

Johnny Gray vs. Mike Neff, Funny Car semifinal:
The third all-4.0 race of the event was the closest contested. Gray started his sponsor’s event a little behind in qualifying but eventually reached top form when he had to race Mr. Consistency.

Rickie Jones vs. Vincent Nobile, Pro Stock round one: In the first meeting that pitted the drivers with the quickest reaction time averages in 2010 and 2011 against one another, Jones handed Nobile a rare holeshot loss when his .015 to .023 advantage at the line was enough to hold off a thousandth-quicker Nobile.

Quotes of the race: “You can’t show up with a B-plus average to an A race.” — Tony Schumacher

“The rig was at J.T. [Stewart]’s shop dropping some things off on Monday morning. They were back in Columbus [Ohio] on Wednesday unloading the nostalgia car and loading up the Funny Car stuff. They pulled into the track sometime on Thursday morning.” — Johnny Davis, longtime crew chief for Jim Head, describing the journey that the road warriors on his team took to make it possible for them to score a runner-up finish with Chad Head driving their nostalgia Funny Car at the March Meet in Bakersfield last Sunday and get the elder Head’s Funny Car to this event in the same truck and trailers

“I guess I don’t know my own strength.” — Hillary Will, who pulled the steering wheel off of the Dote Racing dragster near the top end during her third qualifying pass

“I feel bad because we only have one NAPA Filters body. It has a ‘Darlington stripe’ on it now.” — Ron Capps, after his brush with the wall during the third qualifying run

A couple of Top Fuel drivers I talked to in the past week have described their class as “300-mph Pro Stock” or “Pro Stock on nitro.” A dozen cars have shown capable of routinely making runs in the high-3.70 to low-3.80-second range, which makes for a tight field in which starting-line performance is taking on an increased role.

Since I began keeping holeshot stats in 2005, the number of races decided on holeshots has varied from 11 to 23 each year. The height took place in 2009 when class rookies Shawn Langdon (four holeshot wins) and Spencer Massey (three) and second-year driver Antron Brown (four) did a large chunk of the damage. In two races so far in the 2012 NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series,six Top Fuel races have been decided by holeshots.

Steve Torrence is a prime example of how crucial starting-line performance has been. All three of the rounds that the young driver has competed in this season have been holeshot wins or losses. He fell victim to Langdon’s psychic .010 light in the first round of the season opener, slayed Brandon Bernstein’s quicker 3.79 in the first round at the Phoenix event, then surrendered a 3.79 to Clay Millican with an off light in the second round.

“The reaction times are more crucial than they’ve ever been,” said Torrence. “With the cars being as close as they are, drivers feel like they have to do everything they can. You’ll see a lot more guys going after it now, too. You’ll probably see more red-lights and spectacular reaction times than normal this year. Losing in Pomona wasn’t so bad because I had a .059 light, but I screwed up in Phoenix and threw away a winning run on race day.”

In 2011, an upper tier emerged with the Al-Anabi dragsters then driven by Del Worsham and Larry Dixon and the Don Schumacher Racing dragsters driven by Massey, Brown, and Tony Schumacher establishing their entries as the class’ elite. Only one other driver – non-touring Rod Fuller – recorded a 3.7-second run that season. This year, other teams appear to have caught up or at least come within striking distance. The Morgan Lucas Racing dragsters driven by Morgan Lucas and Bernstein, the Kalitta Motorsports dragsters driven by Doug Kalitta and David Grubnic, Bob Vandergriff Jr., Torrence, and Millican have recorded runs of 3.818 or quicker.

“You cannot miss the Tree this year is what it comes down to,” Langdon pointed out. “In Phoenix, Tony Schumacher was No. 2 with a 3.78, and Bob Vandergriff qualified No. 10 with a 3.82. Even if you’re running 3.78, there are so many teams that can run 3.83 or quicker that can get you with an .050 light. With all the cars running so close and the drivers stepping on the lights, you’re going to see the most wins and losses by holeshots this year out of any other year.”

Langdon is part of the reason for the uptick in starting-line performance. The two-time Super Comp world champ quickly solidified his reputation as a leaver during his 2009 rookie season. He led the average reaction time rankings in 2010 when Massey, who did the same in 2009 and 2011, didn’t have a full-time ride. Langdon had 10 holeshot wins with no such losses heading into the 2012 season.

Langdon speaks of the counter-effect that quick leavers entering the class has had on established veterans. Previously established stars in the fuel ranks have worked on becoming consistently quicker to keep up with both their younger counterparts and the diminishing performance gap between teams in the upper and lower rungs of the top 10.

“Spencer, Steve Torrence, Antron, and myself have come in over the past couple years, and you have all these veterans,” said Langdon. “I would look at it in my first year like I had something to prove when I had to race guys like Tony [Schumacher], who was coming off his sixth straight championship. On the other side of that, those guys aren’t going to let some rookie kid come in and dethrone them from the championship. There was kind of a counter-effect where Spencer and I came in and had decent success with our reaction times, and you’d slowly see the other drivers catch on.”

“It’s definitely changed the class,” added Brown. “You have other people who have to worry about it now. It was important before, but there would be times when someone would be like, ‘Go ahead and leave on me by two- or three-hundredths because I have a tenth on you.’ Those days are gone now. My teammate Tony [Schumacher] would tell you that during four or five of his world championships, his car was so dominant that he knew he could have a good, solid .070 and his opponent’s day was over. Now you have to cut a .050 or .040 light every round because everyone is so close to each other. Being a champ, he can bring that game every time, too.”

Langdon was selected to drive for Al-Anabi Racing this season largely because of his starting-line prowess, and he opened the year with a holeshot win but quickly felt the pangs of his first holeshot loss when former teammate Lucas outdueled him, .046 to .062, and won with a nearly identical but .001-second slower run.

“It sucked,” said Langdon. “I hated it. Losing on a holeshot wasn’t what I envisioned in my first race with a new team. It hurt my feelings bad. I sat down and told myself that an .062 light isn’t going to cut it anymore; there’s no other way around it.

“My favorite quote to date is from Moneyball. It goes something like, ‘I hate losing more than I love winning.’ I think that sums up the difference between a holeshot win vs. a holeshot loss. Losing on a holeshot is the worst feeling in the world. Not only did you let yourself down, but you let down all the guys on your team who gave you a better car than the other guys gave your competitor.”

Brown, who has averaged three holeshot wins per year since switching to the class from Pro Stock Motorcycle in 2008, attempts to put his reaction to holeshot wins and losses in proper perspective.

“Any loss hurts for me, personally,” said Brown. “If somebody cuts a .020 light to your .050, you can’t hang your head on that because they took a guess at the Tree and it worked. If you cut a .080 light and someone’s .050 beats you, it hurts a lot, so it all depends on the circumstances.”

More than a driver’s reaction to the three ambers that appear on a Christmas Tree go into a reaction time number. The reaction of the car and the depth at which the car is staged also play big factors. The latter improves the reaction time number when the car is staged deeper into the beams but takes as much away from a car’s e.t., so tuners often encourage their drivers to stage shallow for a better chance at earning lane choice. The former is something that crew chiefs work on to improve the car’s overall performance.

“All the teams know that the winning combination is in how the car reacts, how the driver reacts, and how fast the car goes,” said Brown. “All the crew chiefs have been working on making the car react better. You could be the quickest leaver in the world, and you’ll be cutting .070 to .080 lights all day long in a car that doesn’t react. It’s free e.t. A car that can suddenly allow a shallow-staged driver to cut .020 lights would instantly have a three-hundredths advantage on everybody. That’s huge.

“You can change the fuel system with the way the car gets fuel, throttle-pedal position, how much [ignition] timing you have at the step of the throttle, and make the clutch more aggressive. There are pros and cons to all that because making the car more aggressive early puts you at risk of smoking the tires or slowing the car down in the first 60 feet if you went overboard. Too much clutch early on can cause it to not wear enough, too much fuel can cause it to drop a hole, and too much timing can cause you to nuke it right off the step of the throttle. A lot of stuff goes hand in hand, and you have to play with it until you find that happy zone where you get the best of all the worlds mixed together.”

Brown warns that some of the killer lights at the first couple races were likely due to track conditions in which cars could have an aggressive starting-line setup and thus react quicker, but he maintains the importance of cutting consistently quick lights during a season in which the class is loaded.

Drivers have taken it upon themselves to help their teams by making their natural reaction times as consistently quick as possible. Most utilize a practice Tree of some kind religiously, and some have consulted eye-care professionals and sports psychologists and tried different visors and glasses to garner any advantages they can muster.

“I’m still trying to find ways to make myself quicker,” said Langdon. “I’ve been doing exercises to try to make my natural reactions a little quicker. The level of competition is always rising. Who knows where it will end? You don’t want to be the guy caught having a bad reaction time.”

“I look at it all like a bigger challenge,” said Brown. “Being quick off the line is an added advantage. I look at every piece of the racetrack. If you keep the car straight, that’s added e.t. If you’re quicker off the line, that’s added e.t. The more things you take away from your opponent, the better chance you give your team to win. You’ve got stiff competition in the first round now, so you have to work to become a better and more consistent leaver.”

The all-team final seems like the ultimate win-win for members of the teams involved. All three Professional categories contested at the NHRA Arizona Nationals were all-team affairs, and for the most part, each losing team celebrated with the winning contingent afterward. Funny Car finalists Robert Hight and Mike Neff have teams that work fairly close with one another. Pro Stock finalists Jason Line and Greg Anderson literally work on each other’s cars. The Top Fuel finalists, on the other hand, were a tale of two teams at the end of the day.

When members of the Matco Tools Top Fuel team get back to the impressive Don Schumacher Racing facility in Brownsburg, Ind., they will walk through a lobby at the front entrance that features a replica of the U.S. Army dragster, a display of Tony Schumacher’s multiple national event Wallys and seven championships Wallys, and even a life-size cardboard cutout of “the Sarge” himself. Perhaps such daily reminders that their teammate has experienced one of the most fruitful careers in the history of the sport make it difficult for them to feel bad about preventing Schumacher from reaching the winner’s circle once again.

Since winning the fall Las Vegas event in 2010, Schumacher has gone 0-8 in final-round appearances. Many of those losses were decided by margins of thousandths of a second. Coincidentally, Schumacher started his career 0-8 in final rounds before winning his first of a class-leading 67 wins.

His fiercest competition has come from within the DSR team as teammates Brown and Spencer Massey have been dominant in head-to-head matchups against him since the beginning of the 2011 season. Brown has won eight of their 10 matchups in that time span, including four final rounds. Massey, meanwhile, holds a 5-1 advantage over Schumacher, including the final round at last year’s Denver event.

The Matco Tools team had been through a series of different owners before they found a home at DSR. Brown drove for David Powers in 2008 before the team was purchased by Tim Buckley during the 2008-09 off-season and sold again to Mike Ashley, who hired current tuners Brian Corradi and Mark Oswald. (Corradi had once been dismissed from the crew chief role on the Matco Tools Funny Car at DSR to later find success with Ashley’s Funny Car team.) They led the point standings for most of that season but lost out on the title to Schumacher. Ashley left the sport later during the season, and the team was absorbed by DSR. It took the good part of the 2010 season to transition to the cars and parts that the DSR teams run, but the Matco Tools team got their groove back in 2011, a year when the adopted sons became a thorn in the side of the star child.

The DSR organization received backlash after the 2003 Seattle event in which Gary Scelzi chose the less-favored lane against championship-contending teammate Whit Bazemore in the Funny Car semifinals, and the team owner has since vowed that all DSR teams race in a heads-up manner. They have proven to do so, and Schumacher’s lack of success against his teammates of late is a testament to their stance against team racing that has become a source of pride among the DSR teams.

The Matco Tools team shares a mutual respect with the U.S. Army team, though the empathy only extends so far.

“The way I look at it, they have 67 wins, and we just got our 16th, so we still have a ways to go to catch up,” said Brown.

“We’re not ready to ease up any time soon,” said crew chief Corradi. “You feel a little bit for the crew over there and for [crew chief] Mike Green because you know they work hard, but they have a good car.”

Winning in the nitro ranks is so difficult that one need not apologize for it. Winning teams are comprised of some of the most fiery, competitive people that one can imagine. Even when a team wins so much that they become a little jaded, nothing short of a title satiates the thirst for victory.

Corradi shares the tuning duties on the Matco Tools dragster with the methodical, even-keeled 1984 Funny Car champ Mark Oswald. Crew chiefs and drivers are very emotionally connected to their memories of racetracks, and Corradi felt like they let one slip away in the final round of the Phoenix event last October. In the crew chief lounge after the race, Corradi banged his fist on the computer desk and flashed a clenched small with a half-jokingly-crazed look in his eyes while he proclaimed, “We should be celebrating a back-to-back!”

Schumacher has a team and the driving ability to make a long-overdue trip to the winner’s circle. The biggest obstacles he has to overcome, however, may be the teams that neighbor him in the pits and at the shop.

The Fast Five

Unsatisfied with their qualifying efforts and having to race each other in the semifinal round in Pomona, Jason Line and Greg Anderson went to The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway to test during the week and entered this event with guns blazing. They had not done well by their lofty standards at past Phoenix events. The only time a driver from the Ken Black Racing stable won in Phoenix was when Anderson scored there in 2003. They made sure that a Summit Racing Pontiac would grace the winner’s circle by advancing to the final round with both of their entries. Line won and lessened Anderson’s head-to-head advantage over him in final-round matchups to 11-8.

Robert Hight
had a bit of a score to settle with Firebird Raceway before earning the 24th win of his career. In years past, he had two final-round appearances and no wins, and he’d run the quickest elapsed time in history at one point but failed to back it up for a national e.t. record. Last October, Hight had a rare miscue on the starting line during eliminations that was the beginning of the end of his title hopes. This year, Hight got the job done with consistency and a bit of good timing with No. 1 qualifier Johnny Gray smoking the tires against him in the second round when he wasn’t consistent. The driver of the Auto Club Ford Mustang has now won at every track on the tour with four exceptions: Gainesville, Brainerd, Seattle, and Englishtown.

High 3.70s and low 3.80s came cheap during the second session of Top Fuel qualifying. Al-Anabi Racing team manager seemingly said “OK, I’ve had enough” when he sent Shawn Langdon down the track in 3.754 seconds, the fifth-quickest run in Top Fuel history. Langdon defeated former teammate Morgan Lucas for the first time when they raced in the second round. Langdon seemed like he had the car to beat on Sunday until he smoked the tires at the hit in the semifinals, which happens from time to time when you have a tuner that isn’t afraid to play fastball.

Mike Neff has done everything but win during the first two races of the season. His Castrol GTX Mustang made one of the most impressive runs of the event when he went 4.09 in the less-favored left lane in the semifinals to take a three-hundredths stripe against Jack Beckman, who had won this event in three of the past four seasons. Lane choice in hand, Neff was heavily favored in the final. He had let one slip away on the starting line in the Pomona final. This time, he did a masterful job of driving to pedal his car to get through tire shake and still manage a 4.16, but it wasn’t enough for teammate Robert Hight’s 4.13. Neff carries the points lead into Gainesville.

There are quite a few Top Fuel entries that have impressed me this year, and semifinalist Clay Millican is one of the more surprising. Of all the teams that are running low 3.80s or quicker right now, Millican and Bob Vandergriff Jr. have the least amount of known Alan Johnson influence. Johnson directly operates the Al-Anabi dragsters, used to work at the Don Schumacher Racing organization that fields three dragsters, consulted the Kalitta Motorsports and Morgan Lucas Racing dragsters at different points, and has a strong relationship with Torrence Racing crew chief Richard Hogan. Millican and the Parts Plus team recently added veteran tuner Lance Larsen to work with young tuners Justin Crosslin and Mike Domagala, and they announced their presence with a 3.81 to open eliminations in Pomona and have carried their performance on through the desert.

Awards section

Stats of the race: This was the first event in NHRA history that featured three team finals in the Professional classes. It was the 24th time that there was an all-team final in Top Fuel. Sixteen of those occasions featured Don Schumacher Racing entries while Kalitta Motorsports accounted for four, Larry Minor Racing dragsters squared off twice, and Morgan Lucas Racing and David Powers Motorsports had one apiece.

Cory McClenathan and Antron Brown both achieved career milestones involving the number 400. McClenathan made the 400th race-day start of his career. Brown, meanwhile, earned the 400th round-win of his career when he beat Shawn Langdon in the semifinal round.

Crew chiefs of the race:
Mike Green called the shots on a U.S. Army dragster that was better than the event winner until the final; Mike Neff had a great car all weekend and made the best run of eliminations by someone who did not have lane choice during the semifinal round; Rob Downing, Tommy Utt, and Jeff Perley continued to make the Summit Racing Pontiacs the gold standard in Pro Stock.

Best races: Greg Stanfield vs. Ronnie Humphrey, Pro Stock round one: The class’ holeshot king did just enough on the starting line to advance with the 11th-quickest run of the round by a .001-second margin.

Ron Capps vs. Cruz Pedregon, Funny Car round one: “The Cruzer” cut a .037 light and was a ways out on the NAPA Charger before his Snap-on Toyota came unglued around the 660-foot blocks. At that point, he was unable to hold on when Capps raced past to win by a .002-second margin.

Tough luck of the race:
Morgan Lucas blew up in the figurative sense when he began the year by qualifying No. 1 en route to a semifinal finish in Pomona. He took blowing up more literally in Phoenix when he experienced a second-round boomer that cost him a win against former teammate Shawn Langdon. Lucas broke a lifter early in the run, and the series of mechanical failures that took place afterwards caused the lines going from the valve covers to the puke tank to build pressure and pop off. The oil was ignited by the hot header pipes and made the GEICO dragster light up like a roman candle.

Alexis DeJoria failed to qualify after a promising start to the season. On her final qualifying attempt, a piece of a piston broke off and hit the straps of both spark plugs in that cylinder, closing the gap and causing that cylinder to go dead on an underpowered 4.29 that was shy of the 4.25 bump.

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