Schumacher, Force Hood, Coughlin, Arana win dramatic U.S. Nationals titles
Monday, September 07, 2009
by Phil Burgess, National DRAGSTER Editor
Tony Schumacher won Top Fuel at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals presented by Lucas Oil for a class-record-tying eighth time, Ashley Force Hood became just the third female Pro winner at Indy by scoring in Funny Car, Pro Stock victor Jeg Coughlin won the Big Go for the fourth time, and Hector Arana scored his first Indy win by capturing Pro Stock Motorcycle to seal an amazing day of racing at O'Reilly Raceway Park at Indianapolis.
With all of the last-second Countdown to 1 shuffling – which extended all the way into the semifinals – heated emotions, and renewed rivalries, this year's 55th annual Big Go will go into the annals as one of the most dramatic in history, going into the history books with the likes of the legendary 1967, 1982, 1996, and 2004 events. The world's oldest, biggest, richest, and most prestigious drag race lived up to its reputation in spades, and then some. It was that good.
Given the way the decade of Top Fuel in Indy has gone, it should be no surprise that for the fourth time in eight years, the final pitted the only two guys to win the Big Go this decade. Schumacher, a seven-time U.S. Nationals winner, was gunning to tie Top Fuel icon "Big Daddy" Don Garlits as the winningest fuel dragster pilot in event history while Larry Dixon, who won the race in his rookie season in 1995 and two times since, was gunning for No. 4. In a true battle of the class heavyweights, Schumacher ran away from traction-plagued Dixon on the money run, 3.86, 314.17 to 4.20, 228.50.
“I haven’t seen [Don Garlits] yet, but we did a TV segment that I think started the show this morning, and he was cool as could be. He said, ‘I’m pulling for you, and I hope you do it,’ ” said Schumacher. “To have a man of that caliber say something like that is just special. I hope he enjoys it, and I hope he enjoys still coming out because he’s the reason we all do this in such a safe manner. The coolest part is he said, ‘You really showed ’em. You showed ’em, kid, that it’s not about one guy,’ and that’s cool because you know at the beginning of the year it was ‘Schumacher’s not going to win again. He can’t win without Alan [Johnson].’ To beat Alan at Indy under all the pressure, that’s good news; that’s what it’s all about. It doesn’t happen every time, but it shows that a great group of people with determination and some serious drive can go out and do anything. We’ve got the right people.
“It wasn’t just tying “Big Daddy” Don Garlits; it’s winning Indy first. All the rest of that stuff is great, but it’s winning Indy. This is the U.S. Nationals. I did not know I had been in eight finals in a row, but that’s crazy, too. It’s awesome. To be able to come to any track and have this much dominance is fantastic because we really did this really with three separate teams — we did this with Dan Olson, Alan Johnson, and now Mike Green. I don’t know why it’s our lucky track, but I sure am glad it’s this one.”
In addition to his event histrionics, Schumacher was gunning for his 60th win in his 93rd final, the first of which was at this event in 1996, when he was runner-up to Cory McClenathan. Schumacher, the No. 2 qualifier in his Green-tuned U.S. Army dragster, marched past a broken T.J. Zizzo, nemesis Rod Fuller, and hard-luck Brandon Bernstein to reach the final, his fifth of the season.
Dixon reached the 90th final of his great career by driving the Al-Anabi machine of Johnson, who tuned Schumacher to all of his Indy wins this decade, past Clay Millican, Morgan Lucas, and Spencer Massey. A solid 3.85 did in Millican, and a 3.87 eked past Lucas. Dixon got a scare in the semifinals against No. 16 qualifier Spencer Massey when his engine went away on the top end but allowed him to hang on for a 4.16 win.
With all of the drama that this weekend included for the John Force Racing Funny Car team – beginning with Thursday's announcement that Hall of Fame crew chief Austin Coil was hospitalized with stomach ailments and would not attend, Robert Hight's long-shot bid at knocking Cruz Pedregon from the final Countdown berth, and a domination of the top half of the qualifying sheets – it was appropriate that two JFR cars, and the Nos. 1 and 2 qualifiers, would meet in the final. In a race that went the distance, Force Hood won a drama-filled race, 4.17, 294.75 to 4.21, 271.19 as Hight's engine expired in a small fireball at the stripe. The win is the third in the class for Force Hood and her second this season.
Ashley Force Hood
“Fortunately, my team’s kind of been out of that drama, so we just kind of continue to do our thing and try to keep focused and do what we’ve been doing,” said Force Hood. “We actually had really struggled in the summer. In the spring, we were going to a lot of semifinals and we won in Houston, and then over the summer, we just didn’t have the season that we wanted. So we came here, and especially after Reading and all the craziness of that, we said, ‘Let’s get back on track. We know we can. We don’t want to be in a slump any longer. We want to get ready for the Countdown,’ and what better place to start than Indy. We got our ducks in a row, and it worked out for us.
“When I won in ’04 [in Top Alcohol Dragster], it was my first national event win, and I happened to win at the 50th annual U.S. Nationals, and you couldn’t pick a better time to win your first event. I don’t think I really realized what was going on that day. Now, I can look back and appreciate it. It’s funny because before that final round, I was thinking, ‘OK, Robert seems to have magic here. When that team comes here, they do really well.’ I’ve spent a lot of winner’s circles here with his team, so I thought maybe this was going to be his day. Then Jerry Darien walked by, and I just had to laugh because I thought, ‘Well, it’s been our day here before, too, with Darien and Meadows — we won here, too.’ It kind of relaxed me a little. Either way, Team Force was going to get in that winner’s circle.”
Force Hood, a winner this year in Houston, was racing in her second U.S. Nationals final but her first in Funny Car. She got the chance to add a Funny Car win by reaching her sixth final of the season. En route to the money round, her Dean Antonelli- and Ron Douglas-tuned Castrol GTX Mustang defeated Matt Hagan – knocking the rookie from Countdown contention – then followed with victories against Jeff Arend and Tony Pedregon. The final was her seventh of the season and 12th in the class and followed a heated top-end discussion between Tony Pedregon and John Force, the subject of which was crystal clear.
Hight had not been to a final this season and had not won since scoring at this event last year – his second win in three years in Indy (2006, 2008) -- and although he didn't win, he still had a career day. After beating Grant Downing and Bob Tasca III in the first two rounds, No. 1 qualifier Hight pushed his Automobile Club of Southern California Mustang past his boss, Force, in the semifinals to not only reach his fourth straight Indy final (and 23rd overall) but also lock him into – and knock Cruz Pedregon out of -- the 10-car Countdown to 1 playoffs field.
The Pro Stock final round between Coughlin and Greg Stanfield was a rematch of the Las Vegas final, which Coughlin won, and a battle between a pair of the few drivers to have won national events in five classes. Coughlin won again, this time by the narrowest of margins -- .001-second – to collect his fourth Indy win and seventh this season, 6.689, 206.48 to 6.691, 206.35.
Coughlin, who scored his first of three U.S. Nationals titles in 1995 in Super Gas before winning twice in Pro Stock (2002, 2000), entered the final round with a perfect 3-0 score in Indy finals. The yellow and black Chevy reached the money round in a trio of interesting races in wins against Greg Anderson, Rodger Brogdon, and Mike Edwards. The match with fellow Pro Stock season champ Anderson was an unusual first-round duel. Coughlin was fortunate against Brogdon after shaking the tires hard; fortunately for him, Brogdon already had red-lighted. Paired with low qualifier and event-long performance dominator Edwards, Coughlin scooted through free on Edwards' -.045 red-light start. The final round was Coughlin's77th in Pro Stock and 95th overall.
“We had a three-time world champion first round in Greg Anderson, and it doesn’t get any tougher than him,” said Coughlin. “It was a huge win for a number of reasons. He was trying to protect Jason Line’s opportunity to unseed us for the No. 1 spot going into the Countdown to 1. The win over Greg all but sealed the No. 1 spot for us, which means a lot because you get an extra 20 points going into it.
“That’s how we started the day, but then good old Lady Luck put us through the next two rounds, without question. We had really good luck in the first round against Greg; right at the top of 3rd gear getting ready to go into 4th, the transmission actually broke a gear and shattered my arm for a split second. Fortunately, it went into 4th gear and 5th gear fine, and we got it rebuilt for second round, and away we went.
“Hopefully we haven’t used up all that luck yet as we just got the Countdown started, and it’s a six-race dash for the Full Throttle championship. Let me tell you, it’s going to be one interesting battle in Pro Stock.”
Stanfield earned the right to race for his first U.S. Nationals crown through sheer driving determination, cutting reaction times of .010, .021, and .013 to defeat Steve Spiess, Larry Morgan, and Line. The semifinal bash with Line was won on a holeshot; Stanfield's light and a 6.672 beat Line's .035-initiated 6.659 by a slim .009-second. The final round was the 10th of Stanfield's career.
The Pro Stock Motorcycle final featured two riders who not only had never won the Big Go but also had never even been to the final round at the tour's biggest event. Arana, who led qualifying most of the event, finished where he started – on top – after defeating Michael Phillips, 7.02, 189.10 to 7.08, 185.84. Arana, whose starting-line work at this event was somewhat erratic, left first and led wire to wire for his fourth win.
"This is the sweetest moment for me," said Arana. "All the years I struggled, people always told me, 'There is something better for you,' but I always wondered when my time was going to come. Now, I've won three races this year including the U.S. Nationals, and I can't ask for anything more."
"I red-lighted in the Ringers [Gloves Pro Bike Battle] final on Saturday, and I felt really bad, but I changed my focus for today. I probably lead the class in red-lights, but it's just because I want to win so bad. I just need to learn to be more consistent, but I wasn't too bad today. I had four green lights, and that was enough.
"A while back, Larry Morgan told me that he didn't know if he could help our engine program, but he wanted to take a look at it just to see. I didn't waste any time. I took one of our engines, and I didn't ship it to Ohio, I drove it there, and he told me, 'I think I can make it better.' That's when we started to turn the corner. With the Countdown [to 1] coming up, I can assure you that my engines are coming apart, and they are going back to Larry's before we get to Charlotte."
Arana, winner this year in Gainesville and Brainerd with his Lucas Oil Buell, reached his sixth final of the season from the No. 2 spot, racing past Angie McBride with a 6.97, Karen Stoffer with a 7.00, and Chip Ellis with a 7.050 that earned him lane choice for the final by two-thousandths of a second.
Phillips, runner-up two weeks ago in Reading, reached his second straight final round with his Dam Sport Suzuki from the No. 4 qualifying spot. After a first-round red-light by Jim Underdahl, Phillips advanced past Shawn Gann and Doug Horne with consistent passes of 7.048 and 7.052.
Sportsman victories went to Ken Perry (Top Alcohol Dragster), Bobby Martin (Top Alcohol Funny Car), David Rampy (Comp, his fourth Indy win), Larry Stewart Jr. (Super Stock), Gary Waldo (Stock), Edmond Richardson (Super Comp), and Brian Forrester (Super Gas).
Friday: Dixon, Hight, Edwards, Arana first-day leaders at Indy
Saturday: Force Fords rule Funny Car; all Friday leaders maintain spots
Sunday: Brown, Hight, Edwards, Smith will lead Indy fields into Monday's battle