The heat was ratcheted up to record temperatures in Northern Ohio during the weekend of the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals in Norwalk. Along with it, second-year Pro Stock driver Vincent Nobile caught fire with a double-up win at the event and the special K&N Horsepower Challenge contested on Saturday, earning a prize total of approximately $100,000.

The 21-year-old student at Adelphi University has a special relationship with Summit Racing Equipment Motorsports Park. He is not only undefeated there in Professional competition, which he can also lay claim to at Royal Purple Raceway in Houston, but he also made his first run down the quarter-mile in Norwalk 16 years ago. At 4 years old, he got to ride along in Roy Hill’s passenger-equipped Pro Stocker.

Nobile used his starting-line skills to win two of the three rounds of the K&N Horsepower Challenge, and he relied on a fast, consistent car to do the trick on Sunday with the exception of the semifinal round. All four semifinal contestants shook the tires and engaged in pedalfests, and Nobile was able to post the quickest time of the round.

Pedaling a Pro Stock car is not a matter of simply regaining control of the race car and mashing on the gas. The five-speed transmissions jump into neutral when a driver gets off the throttle and attempts to hold it in gear to prevent it from doing damage to the springs of the clutchless trannies. Mentally, it’s usually safe to assume that the race is lost at that point anyway. Nobile, however, was able to think quickly and get the Mountain View Tire/NAPA Batteries/Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund Dodge Avenger down the track sooner than more experienced drivers Jason Line, Shane Gray, and Allen Johnson in that round.

“I saw Jason Line and Shane Gray get in a pedaling match in front of me, so I mentally prepared myself for that situation,” said Nobile. “Luckily, my dad [John] taught me how to drive and told me to find 5th gear as soon as possible if I ever had to lift and saw that the other guy wasn’t in front of me. I felt like Ron Capps in the car. That was the coolest round I ever won in my life.”

Having the quickest time of that round enabled Nobile to pick his lane in the final, which may have played a part in outrunning opponent Line. Line equaled his best reaction time of the season to get the early advantage but surrendered the lead by the 60-foot mark.

Nobile was the key ingredient in getting the Mountain View team into contention when car owner Nick Mitsos hired him before the 2011 season. The team already had good cars, Hemi engines supplied by the J&J Racing shop that have recently powered Allen Johnson to three straight No. 1 qualifying positions, and the guidance of Johnson’s crew chief, Mark Ingersoll. A quick-leaving, consistent-shifting driver was the final piece of the puzzle.

Many Professional drivers look at elapsed times and reaction times as separate entities, but quick leavers and drivers with Sportsman racing experience (often one in the same), like Greg Stanfield and Jeg Coughlin Jr., tend to speak of performance in terms of the overall package. If you add up every driver’s average e.t. and reaction time during the 2012 season, only points leader Greg Anderson’s sum is lower than Nobile’s, and it’s closer than you would think.

The data for the DragStats column featured in National DRAGSTER is compiled by adding up all drivers’ representative runs during eliminations and their best qualifying run in the e.t. category and all reaction times except for red-lights and obvious late lights on singles. Nobile has a total package of 6.633 (.020/6.613), which is a thousandth of a second slower than Anderson’s package of 6.632 (.043/6.589). The two drivers are actually close to a dead heat when factoring in the fourth digit after the decimal rather than rounding to the nearest thousandth.

Below, I examined further statistical evidence of Nobile’s mastery of the Christmas Tree.

• Nobile led all Pro Stock drivers in average reaction time last season with a .022 average in 49 leaves (five red-lights) and is the current leader this season with a .020 average in 27 leaves (three red-lights).

• Only three of his 24 green launches in 2012 have been slower than .029. Of those three, his worst light is .040, which is .004-second quicker than the class average.

• The .051 light that he cut in the semifinal round of the K&N Horsepower Challenge was quick enough to net a holeshot victory despite being slower than the worst light of his career in eliminations (.048, which occurred during the second round at this event last season).
• The only drivers in the same league as him on the Tree this season are regular starting-line assassins Coughlin, who has a .024 average but only one red-light to Nobile’s three, and Stanfield, whose .031 average has been adversely affected by a recent slump since switching powerplants.

• Nobile scored four holeshot wins last season and already has three to his credit in 2012 compared to one holeshot loss in each season. His two holeshot losses occurred at the hands of Rickie Jones, who was the reaction time leader in 2009 and 2010, and Stanfield, who was second to Jones in both of those seasons.

• He has had a 74 percent first-leave percentage, the percentage of times a driver gets the starting-line advantage (fouls and fouls drawn count), in both seasons behind the wheel. He led all drivers in 2011 and is second to Stanfield (75 percent) in 2012.

In short, the kid is really, really good on the starting line.

The Fast Five

Spencer Massey
gives away fewer round-wins than any other driver in Top Fuel. The FRAM team seems to be able to post competitive times in any type of condition and has a driver that never gives anything away on the starting line. Massey’s approach of racing the track and pressuring his opponents to force their hands to try and beat them has worked well with four wins so far this season. Massey had a good enough car to reach the final, and he drove well enough to beat the better car in the final when he put a holeshot on Steve Torrence.

Mike Neff won for the second time this season and put his Castrol GTX Ford Mustang woes behind him. Between his wins in Houston and Norwalk, Neff went on a five-race stretch that featured a DNQ and only two round-wins, and he dropped from No. 2 to No. 5 in the points standings in the process. Having narrowed his problem down to some parts he had been using in the clutch, Neff entered this race with the consistent car reminiscent of the one that had a knack for slaying drivers on hot tracks throughout 2011. He made his best run of the day at 4.21 seconds when he needed it the most against fellow driver/tuner Tim Wilkerson in the final round.

With the exception of the Houston event, Andrew Hines had taken a backseat to Vance & Hines Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson teammate Eddie Krawiec in the early season despite having done some of the best work on the Tree of the three-time champion’s career. His time has come this summer with his second win in as many weeks. Hines qualified No. 1 and defeated Mike Berry and Steve Johnson before edging Krawiec in a great semifinal race. In the other semi, Hector Arana Jr. scored a holeshot win over father and Lucas Oil teammate Hector Arana Sr. The younger Arana was a little quicker than Hines in every round except the second round, but Hines was able to flaunt his riding skills in the final with a holeshot win over Arana, just like he had done in the Houston final. The Harleys have swept all six races this season with Hines and Krawiec notching three apiece.

Steve Torrence has been in four of the six Top Fuel finals contested since the beginning of May. The Capco Contractors driver won his first two in Atlanta and Englishtown and garnered runner-up efforts in Chicago and Norwalk. The two losses were frustrating for Torrence because he had a car capable of winning each time but didn’t due to a foul start and a holeshot loss. Be it a coincidence or a sign of how competitive Top Fuel is this season, Torrence has already been in eight races this season that were decided by holeshots, of which he has an even 4-4 record.

The wild weekend Tim Wilkerson experienced nearly resulted in his first trip to the winner’s circle since the Seattle event last summer. The driver/owner/crew chief pulled double-duty on the owner and crew chief fronts by fielding a Summit-sponsored Mustang driven by his son, Daniel. He managed to get both cars qualified in the top half of the field, but a fire on Daniel’s final qualifying run made for a long night of repairs. They rolled out a spare car with Diversified Yacht Services livery for Daniel to run in eliminations. Daniel lost in round one, but the elder Wilkerson went on to defeat three of four Blue Oval brethren with wins against John Force, Robert Hight, and Bob Tasca III before suffering a close 4.21 to 4.24 defeat to Mike Neff.

Special Awards

Stats of the race: Vincent Nobile is the youngest driver to win the K&N Horsepower Challenge special event that dates back to 1985, the third driver to win the final round on a holeshot, the 12th driver to win, and the sixth driver to double up at the national event.

Two milestones occurred at the John Force Racing camp: John Force made his 600th start, and Mike Neff scored his 100th career round-win in his semifinal victory over Bob Tasca III.

Best races: V. Gaines vs. Greg Stanfield, Pro Stock round one: These two were glued door handle to door handle the whole way down the track. Stanfield had a slight holeshot advantage and was a touch quicker to the 330-foot increment, but Gaines ran him down and won by a razor-thin .0008-second margin.

Hillary Will vs. Clay Millican, Top Fuel round one: Millican got the jump at the Tree but was run down by the Dote Racing dragster by a .008-second margin. It was a costly loss for Millican due to a 10-point oildown penalty incurred that put him in a tie with Bob Vandergriff Jr. for the No. 10 position.

Andrew Hines vs. Eddie Krawiec, Pro Stock Motorcycle semifinal:
The Harley riders saved their best lights of the event for each other with Hines getting a four-thousandths advantage at the line and four more downtrack.

Crew chiefs of the race:
Richard Hogan provided his boss with the best dragster on the property in warm conditions; Tim Wilkerson might have had the best car in the heat, and he gets bonus points for putting himself and son Daniel in the top half of the field; Mark Ingersoll and John Nobile had a fast, consistent Dodge that their star driver was able to win with not once but twice; Hector Arana Sr. tuned the quickest bike of each eliminations round whether it was his son or himself riding it.

Quotes of the race:
“The car heard the national anthem.” — Jason McCulloch, after being asked why the Al-Anabi gold dragster dropped a cylinder in the first round. Driver Khalid alBalooshi has yet to win a round this season despite qualifying in the top half of the field at three-quarters of the events.

“As often as our car goes 6.77, we might do pretty well in Top Sportsman if this Pro Stock deal doesn’t work out.” — Chris McGaha

“All those grains of water take the guts right out of it.” — Ron Krisher

“It’s a lot better than 17.” — Mitch King, on his Keith Murt-driven Top Fueler qualifying a career-high No. 9. Murt went on to score his first round-win.

“It’s been hot all weekend, so I had to get a little air in there somehow.” — Steve Torrence, after one of his side body panels peeled off in the first round