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

It’s a great feeling when a plan comes together. Just ask Atlanta Top Fuel winner Steve Torrence, whose team went from concept to its first conquest in the span of a year.

At the Atlanta event in 2011, Torrence drove Dexter Tuttle’s Top Fuel dragster for the last time before he embarked on his own venture. Much of what now comprises the Capco Contractors dragster was still in the form of billet aluminum blocks, racks of chromoly tubing, and carbon fiber sheets. Three-and-a-half months later, Torrence was making test laps at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis.

It couldn’t have happened without proper funding, which the 29-year-old driver had in place with his family’s Kilgore, Texas-based pipeline construction, hydrostatic testing, and road boring business. He also needed the right people to call the shots, and his first and only choice was Richard Hogan. Torrence had faith in what Hogan could do if he built a team from scratch with what was essentially a blank check and a blank canvas.

One of Hogan’s first drag racing jobs was working for “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, the 1950s racing nemesis of his father, Charlie “the King” Hogan. A stint working as a crew chief for John Mitchell’s Montana Express team brought him to Montana, where he still resides (assistant crew chief Bryan “Speedy” Shipman oversees the day-to-day operations of the team in Brownsburg, Ind.).

Hogan got the chance to work with Alan Johnson during his first championships in the 1997 and 1998 seasons and worked on Johnson’s Funny Car driven by the late Bruce Sarver. He worked for a few independent teams, like Bob Bode's, for the next couple of years and got the chance to work with Johnson again when he tuned the Rod Fuller-driven David Powers Motorsports dragster in early 2005 as a satellite team to the U.S. Army dragster when it had no second car to compare data with. A second car with Melanie Troxel driving materialized during the Western Swing, and Hogan was hired to tune it. This became the most successful stretch of his tuning career. Hogan tuned Troxel to six straight final-round appearances beginning at the season-ending event in 2005 and held the points lead for the first half of the 2006 season.

The sponsor, crew, and team moved to Morgan Lucas Racing in 2007, and Hogan was reassigned to the car driven by Morgan Lucas during the season. Hogan was dismissed early in 2008, leaving him to seek work without the capable crew that he assembled with the exception of Shipman, who resigned. He consulted several teams during this time, but nothing stuck for long until he teamed up with Torrence.

“Look what he and ‘Speedy’ did over there with Melanie,” said Torrence. “They went to six finals in a row and pretty much dominated the class for a while. He’s one of those guys who could give Alan Johnson and Mike Green a run for their money. In addition to that, he and I are good friends and knew each other before any of this started. I just had all the faith in the world in him.”

Hogan and Shipman got on the case of assembling a top-notch crew, finding a shop in Brownsburg, setting up a new truck and trailer, buying tools, and dealing with the dozens of vendors that it requires for obtaining the parts to field a 7,000-horsepower Top Fuel dragster. By mid-August, they had a Brad Hadman dragster equipped with the latest Alan Johnson Performance Engineering parts ready to test.

“We made two test laps at Indy last year, went to Dallas, and qualified well,” Torrence recalled. “We went to the semi’s at Phoenix. The car has run well since day one. That’s just a testament to what they put together.

“These guys have pretty much had free reign for anything they need for this car. We try to pattern everything we have and do around what the multicar teams have. We have two cars, 15 short blocks, and 15 sets of heads. We have all the parts and pieces that we need. When we show up, we’re ready to race and compete with these guys.”

In three races, Torrence reached the semi’s once and ended his season with a top-half qualifying effort in Las Vegas. After a test session in South Florida before the start of the 2012 NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series, Torrence began the year with guns blazing. He endured a strange trend of being in races decided by holeshots in five of the first seven rounds he competed in, but his performance received attention. His car began to stand out above most of the pack in the past three races. He qualified No. 1 at the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte and has been the No. 2 qualifier at the two races since.

“It’s by far better than what I imagined,” said Torrence. “We had every ambition of going out and building a top-notch, first-class team, but there are so many variables and so much hard work that goes into putting these things together. You also expect a little more of a learning curve with everything being completely new, but Richard, Bryan, and these guys are great at what they do, and they gave me a super-sweet race car in Atlanta.”

On the hottest racetrack that the Top Fuel field has seen all year, Torrence was hot in the figurative sense. He cut quick lights and ran 3.84s to outrun the two Bob Vandergriff Jr.-owned entries in the first two rounds, followed by a 3.88 to put Brandon Bernstein away in the semi’s and earn lane choice over Tony Schumacher in the final. Schumacher dominated the narrative due to his now-30-race winless drought and the fact that the 67-time winner had never scored at Atlanta Dragway, but Torrence dominated the race with a 3.89 at 320 mph to Schumacher’s tire-smoking 4.91.

The time it took to get a new team off the ground from scratch and put it in the winner's circle is similar to what the Al-Anabi Racing team did in 2009.

“I really wouldn’t have thought that we’d get our first win pretty much one year to the date from when we started it,” said Torrence. “We went out and showed that we're capable of going out and running with those top-caliber teams, and we’re a one-car deal. We had a pretty good place to start with all the most current equipment we could get.

“There’s not a lot of input from anyone outside except from going off of all the years of experience that Richard has. I was in the room with him a few nights ago, and we were looking at runs from 2000 and 2001. I was racing Super Comp then, and he was out here tuning fuel cars. He has a vast wealth of experience and knowledge to go off of.”

Torrence, who credits his incredible 2005 Top Alcohol Dragster title run to helping him with the mental and competitive aspects of racing against top drivers in important eliminations rounds, enjoyed celebrating the win with his tight-knit group of mostly young crewmembers. The atmosphere in the Capco pit is usually loose and filled with playful banter, and that stems from both Hogan’s exceptionally friendly demeanor and Torrence’s belief that racing should be fun regardless of the outcome that day.

“I think that sometimes it just takes good chemistry,” said Torrence. “I have that with Richard and ‘Speedy’ and everybody who works on this car. And we have a good time. It’s a fun, family environment.

“Everybody knows what’s expected of them and watches each other’s back. It’s basically more like family. We all spend more time with each other than we are with the rest of our families. If you can’t go out there and enjoy yourself, it’s not worth doing it. When you are having fun, it makes the hard work you put in worth it because you get something back.”

The Fast Five

Ron Capps
scored a huge win near the headquarters of his sponsor, NAPA Auto Parts. The four-race win streak that Robert Hight began at the second race of the season had overshadowed some of the other plot points of the Funny Car season during that time, notably the remarkable consistency of Rahn Tobler’s tune-up that nearly got Jack Beckman to the winner’s circle on several occasions and finally did the job with Capps in their second of two straight final-round appearances. Capps went A to B during all eight runs he made. Capps has a race car that can go up and down hot racetracks much like the way he did during his best years with Ed “the Ace” McCulloch calling the shots.

Greg Anderson, Jason Line, and Ronnie Humphrey did about all that their sponsor, Summit Racing Equipment, could ask for at one of its events. Anderson won for the third time this season and is the only Pro Stock driver with multiple wins this year. Line may have had the better car on Sunday, but Anderson was able to get off the line quicker against his teammate and engine tuner to secure the win. Speaking of getting off the line quicker, Humphrey deserves recognition for scoring holeshot wins over Kurt Johnson and Mike Edwards. He had been hard on himself over his reaction times last season and has worked hard to become a better leaver.

Eddie Krawiec continued the run of Harley-Davidson V-Twins reaching the winner’s circle. One week after teammate Andrew Hines won the silver Wally in Houston and two races since Krawiec scored at the season opener in Gainesville, Krawiec won from the No. 2 qualifying position and made the quickest lap in three of four eliminations rounds. A final-round matchup with No. 1 qualifier Hector Arana Sr. seemed imminent before Michael Ray, who had upset Hines with a holeshot in the second round, put down the 2009 champ in the semifinals. Krawiec left first and outran the Matt Smith-owned Buell in a 6.90 to 7.03 final-round contest.

Simply winning his first national event wasn’t enough for 24-year-old Drew Skillman. Twenty-one years after Pat Austin won two classes at the same event in Topeka in 1991, Skillman became the 11th driver to do the same by winning in Stock and Super Stock. Skillman joins a list of eight world champions (Austin, Edmond and Scotty Richardson, Jeff Taylor, David Rampy, Gary Stinnett, Kevin Helms, and Peter Biondo) and two drivers with 24 national event wins (Jody Lang and Tommy Phillips).

Robert Hight netted his fifth final-round appearance and fourth No. 1 qualifying position of the young season. His final-round loss ended a six-race streak of wins by John Force Racing drivers that he and the Auto Club team mostly carried.

Special Awards

Stat of the race: After seven events, only seven Funny Car drivers have qualified for every race: Robert Hight, John Force, Courtney Force, Johnny Gray, Bob Tasca III, Jeff Arend, and Bob Bode. It’s shaping up to be similar to the wild 2007 and 2008 seasons, during which no driver qualified for every field in 2007 and only three (Ron Capps, Tony Pedregon, and Tim Wilkerson) had perfect attendance on race day in 2008.

Crew chiefs of the race: Richard Hogan showed an impressive hot-track tune-up in his arsenal; Rahn Tobler and John Collins gave Ron Capps a fast, ultraconsistent race car to drive; Rob Downing and Jeff Perley called the right shots to get both Ken Black cars in the final; Matt Hines edged Hector Arana Sr. in Pro Stock Motorcycle because he was able to sustain his performance for two more rounds.

Tough luck of the race:
Mike Neff became another in a string of surprise nonqualifiers in Funny Car this season. One week after winning the Houston event, at which he wasn’t qualified heading into the final session, he faced a similar predicament on the final hit but wasn’t able to execute. While on pace to get in the show, Neff’s Castrol GTX Mustang had the barrel valve in the fuel system become unplugged due to a broken snap ring or cap, causing a lean fuel condition that resulted in the blower popping.

Best races: Michael Ray vs. Andrew Hines, Pro Stock Motorcycle round two: Ray, who had been one of the more vocal riders about slowing down the Harley-Davidsons before their minimum weight was increased by 20 pounds, used a holeshot to defeat Drew by a .002-second margin at the stripe.

Courtney Force vs. Jack Beckman, Funny Car round one:
The rookie’s former Super Comp instructor almost taught her a lesson on the starting line, but she was able to overcome his holeshot to win by .006-second.

Steve Torrence vs. Brandon Bernstein, Top Fuel semifinal: Steve-o was just a hair quicker off the line and a little quicker downtrack. He needed every bit of his run to fend off the hungry MavTV team and win by .007-second.

Ronnie Humphrey vs. Mike Edwards, Pro Stock round two:
Edwards came on strong at the top end but ultimately fell .006-second short. Humphrey’s second holeshot win of the day ensured that all three Summit cars made it to the semi’s.

When I was in Indianapolis in December for the International Motorsports Industry Show, I got the chance one day to visit some of the team shops that are located in Brownsburg, Ind. Each one had its share of memorable features — the expansiveness and the state-of-the-art equipment at the John Force Racing shop is worth covering in a future column — but the thing that left the biggest impression on me was the parts and inventory room at Don Schumacher Racing that serves as a kind of Top Fuel retail store headed by Tommy Johnson Jr.

Basically, T.J. keeps supplies on hand that each of the seven nitro teams located within the 120,000-square-foot facility use a high volume of. The organization benefits in terms of productivity, cost savings, and convenience.

“It’s a parts store for Top Fuel and Funny Car,” said Johnson. “We manufacture a lot of our own parts, which I stock in the room. The other half of the room is for high-volume usage stuff. It’s all things we use in large quantities that the teams go through a lot, so I buy it in bulk and stock it on the shelves. I look for better pricing, better deals. I buy it in bulk and break it down into smaller items on the shelf for the teams to get when they need it.

“It saves money in two areas: It saves in the area of getting a cheaper price by buying in bulk, and it saves a lot of man power and time. Guys used to have to go to Wal-Mart or Sam’s Club to get supplies for the team, so every week they’d be out two or three hours at a time buying supplies and picking up stuff. Now, they come to my store at the shop, and I have everything they need in stock.”

Matco Tools Top Fuel dragster crewmember John Benshoof referred to the room as “T.J.Maxx” while I was there. It makes a great deal of sense for a team that size to have such a resource on-site, and John Force has recently hired an employee to do something similar.

“It’s something that really needed to be done and only a few of the teams can do on that level,” said Johnson. “When you have that many teams, you have to be able to have a good way of managing the volume of parts and supplies that they go through. Your resources for buying it are better. Instead of having each team buy everything, it makes more sense to combine everything.”

Johnson, who has won nine events as a driver in Top Fuel and Funny Car from 1993 to 2007 and would ultimately like to get back into the cockpit, is visible at the racetrack as the track specialist for DSR, but he spends most of his time in charge of purchasing at the shop. The job was created prior to the 2011 season when Schumacher saw an opportunity to rein in expenses for his ever-expanding operation while making better use of his employees’ time than searching for supplies at local retail stores.

“Don was really happy about the fact that we’re not losing productivity from a guy because he’s out for hours on end trying to find stuff,” said Johnson. “It’s all here. We’ve condensed a lot of things. Some teams were using this, some teams were using that, and we looked at it and said, ‘Hey, this doesn’t make a lot of sense. We’re going to buy it all from the same place and get a better price by buying it all in more quantity.'

“Last January, I didn’t have a ride for the season, and Don asked me to work for him, saying he had something he wanted me to take over and see if I could make it better," he added. "DSR had gotten so big so fast that this became an area that needed to be reined in. It started off with coming in and trying to consolidate where the teams were getting everything to get a better price on stuff. It grew from that to controlling the supply of new parts that we build and parts that we buy for the cars. I don’t do all the parts that we buy for the cars, but I handle anything in a large volume, like seals, some of the bearings that we use a lot of, things that we would normally order several times throughout the year. It just kept going from there.”

Johnson turned out to be the thorough and detail-oriented person needed for the job. He sometimes endures ribbing for how he keeps the shelves organized like that of a retail store down to having the labels on each product turned out toward the aisle.

When teams arrive at the shop after a race, Johnson interacts with a member from each team, usually the assistant crew chiefs, and simplifies the process of restocking the trailers that teams use as mobile race shops when they’re in the pits at each event.

“I print an inventory sheet for each team when they come home from a race and hand it out to every trailer,” Johnson explained. “The guys go through the cabinets; do some inventory on what they’re low on, what they need; and they mark it on the sheet. They bring the sheets to me and pull what they need off the shelves. I give the team an invoice for what they took, and they’re on their way. It streamlined the paperwork trails, everything.”

Johnson spends a significant portion of his time researching deals for items to buy in bulk. He has often found that some of the smallest items have helped him achieve the greatest savings over the course of a season.

“I spend a lot of my time doing research, like finding products, different people who sell it, where it comes from, who can get the best deal,” said Johnson. “I can tell you for a fact that it has cut some huge costs. For instance, one item we go through a lot of are paper towels. I was able to knock $0.10-$0.12 off the price of a roll of towels. We use 40,000 rolls of the one towel in a season, so that adds up to an annual savings of $4,000-$5,000. You take that times all the savings you use.

“It’s funny. Probably the biggest savings of one item we use at each purchase that’s about $2,000 cheaper to buy as a bulk item than a one-at-a-time item is the toilet chemical for the toilets in the trailers," he added. "That was one of the biggest savings I found. We buy it by the 55-gallon drum now instead of buying the bottle at the store. You start adding that stuff up and go, ‘Holy cow.’ I didn’t realize what kind of gains I could make doing this.”

Being able to monitor the rate that each of the seven teams go through items has given T.J. the opportunity to compare and contrast them and find ways for each team to operate more efficiently.

“It’s an inventory control system, too,” said Johnson. “Teams sometimes don’t realize how much of one product they’re actually going through. If there is a certain item that one team uses an excessive amount of, we can find it by looking at a spreadsheet. If we have one team that’s out of balance with the rest, we try to figure out why. It kind of keeps everybody in check. I work closely with the assistant crew chiefs because they generally do all of the ordering of parts. Toward the end of the season last year, I gave each team reports with highlighted areas and asked why they were high on certain items or asking why they weren’t using certain items that we have on the shelf.”

T.J. has eyed ways to further improve and expand his role at DSR by organizing the purchasing for other areas of the company and possibly opening up their shop to pass the savings along to other teams located in the area.

“It seems like every time I turn around, there’s another area of the company that we’re looking at trying to improve, like office supplies, janitorial supplies, etc.,” said Johnson. “Office supplies are something we incorporated this last winter. I’ve also moved into the hospitality side of things ordering stuff for them.”

In the meantime, T.J. has made sure to make his job as simple as possible for someone else to take over for when an opportunity to drive again arises.

“I want to race,” said Johnson. “What I’m doing isn’t my passion, but I do enjoy it. My long-term goal is not to be doing this; it’s to be back in the seat. All along the way, I made it as simple as possible so someone else can take over the reins when I’m ready to go back to racing.”

Surrounding the sensory overload produced by nearly 30,000 horsepower at play at one time, there was no shortage of captivating events at the third installment of the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals. Some of them were directly related to four-wide racing while the big speeds in each Professional class would have been regarded similarly at a two-lane race.

The four-wide-related occurrences that drew my interest the most were things like Brandon Bernstein and Ronnie Humphrey losing on two holeshots in the same pair (ouch), four of the five winningest active Funny Car drivers doing battle in the final round, and the element of lane choice. I found it interesting that most fuel teams struggled in Lane 3 during qualifying yet Tony Schumacher chose it at the start of eliminations when he ran low e.t. of the event and recorded the sport’s first 330-mph run (again). That’s what the crew chiefs and track specialists, who were essentially working double-time, get paid for.

The booming speeds stood out in a big way. Only the Funny Car speed record and the fastest speed in Funny Car history — both set at zMAX Dragway last fall — remained intact. Robert Hight’s 320.81-mph speed in the first round was a tick slower than Matt Hagan’s 322.27-mph all-time best and faster than Jack Beckman’s record speed, but Hight was just shy of running within 1 percent of the speed to produce a backup for the national record.

The Summit Racing Equipment Pontiacs are accustomed to finishing 1-2 in some order, and Jason Line and Greg Anderson now have the two fastest speeds in Pro Stock history. Speeds for Pro Stock were fastest on Friday when the ambient air conditions were best for the naturally-aspirated motors to produce the most horsepower, and Line showed how good it was with a 213.91-mph speed that he backed up for a new record. Anderson wasn’t far behind at 213.74 mph.

The big speeds in the fuel classes popped up more throughout the weekend. Spencer Massey impressed with a 328-mph run on Saturday, the class’ fastest at the time, but he made two faster runs the next day after his teammate, Schumacher, showed the way with a 330-mph hit. Three quads after Schumacher’s run, Massey went even faster at 330.55 mph. The FRAM/Prestone team saved the best for the final when Massey paired his .037 light and 3.802 e.t. with a 332.18-mph top-end charge.

The performances beg the question of where the big speeds are coming from. Part of that has to do with the track itself. Paired with favorable conditions, zMAX Dragway boasts a racing surface ripe for fast times. All four lanes are paved with concrete all the way down. The only other tracks without a concrete-to-asphalt transition are Texas Motorplex, which is usually visited in warm conditions in September, and Bandimere Speedway, which is located in a higher altitude than any other track in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series. Additionally, zMAX Dragway is considered a downhill track. All tracks are within 1 percent of level from start to finish, and zMAX Dragway, much like Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, is a bit lower at the finish stripe than the starting line.

In a broader view, the classes are getting faster as racers learn to improve their cars under the same set of rules. Pro Stock racers spend much of their winters burning gas on their engine dynos. The fuel teams develop in several areas, and the emphasis on supercharger development may be where the most gains have been made over the past couple of seasons.

Of the 10 top speed marks up for grabs in the fuel ranks this year, Don Schumacher Racing entries have scored six of them (three for Massey and one for Antron Brown in Top Fuel; two for Johnny Gray in Funny Car). The DSR teams use blowers made by Chuck Ford, who became noticed as a leader in performance in the Pro Mod ranks a few years ago when most of the DSR teams were running stock PSI units that are available to and used by most teams. Morgan Lucas, who owns the remaining top speed award in Top Fuel, runs PSI innards with a billet aluminum case made by Alan Johnson Performance Engineering, just as the Al-Anabi Racing dragsters do. The three top speed marks in Funny Car outside of Gray’s two belong to entries of John Force Racing, which build its superchargers in-house. Manufacturers keep up by improving their mousetraps as well, and the presence of blower dynos at team shops allows teams to experiment with different clearances and end-plate designs to improve their setups.

The Fast Five

The rough patch that Robert Hight went through during the middle of the 2011 season seems like a distant memory. He won five races last year, though he only scored nine round-wins in 16 races outside of his six final-round berths. This year, the Auto Club team didn't add a middle element to feast-or-famine performances; they eliminated the famine completely and started winning consistently. Since starting the year with a No. 1 qualifying position and a disheartening opening-round loss, Hight has won four straight. He struggled in qualifying at this event outside of the run that gave him the No. 1 spot, but crew chief Jimmy Prock got it done on Sunday. Hight delivered the knockout blow in the final when he cut a .058 light to leave first against three of the best drivers in the class, scoring a holeshot win over Cruz Pedregon and outrunning Ron Capps and John Force.

Regarding his near loss for the 2011 title, Spencer Massey said that he wished the 2012 season started the next day. With his performance through five races, it’s easy to see why. He has three wins, and his pair of second-round losses came at the hands of the eventual event winner on each occasion. His car is fast, he’s among the elite class in terms of the best leavers in the category, and the only driver who was able to stop him last season — Del Worsham — is not competing. Though the season promises to ebb and flow, I like Massey’s chances down the line.

Greg Anderson
wrapped up his second straight win at this event and scored his second win of the season. The Summit driver was the only one of the three Professional winners to finish first in both of his first two elimination quadrants to advance. He probably had the second-best Summit Pontiac on the premises, but his steady job behind the wheel made the difference when teammate Jason Line red-lighted away a quicker e.t. in the final, and Anderson’s .053 light — not great, and he would’ve been more comfortable with either of the .03 lights he had in earlier rounds — was enough to seal the deal against Erica Enders and a tire-shaking Vincent Nobile.

It’s difficult to imagine the roller coaster of emotions that Erica Enders went through when her crew told her on the radio that she had finally earned her first win only to have to retract that statement when it became apparent that she came in second place. She cut a gamely .016 light, but even a perfect reaction time would not have been enough to top Anderson's run. 0-6 in final rounds heading into the next event in her native Houston, the GK Motorsports driver is still seeking that breakthrough victory.

It seems unfortunate that having made 28 consecutive starts without a win is the main talking point regarding Tony Schumacher at the moment because the U.S. Army team is really, really strong. Schumacher is 22 points out of the lead after yet another runner-up finish. It’s not as though the team falters in late rounds either. It seems like his opponents do something exceptional against him during each loss, such as Massey running the fastest speed in class history on this occasion. His 3.753 elapsed time in the opening round was the quickest of his career and the eighth-quickest run in class history.

Special Awards

Stat of the race: Robert Hight joined John Force, Don Prudhomme, Cruz Pedregon, and Kenny Bernstein as the only drivers in Funny Car history to score four wins in a row. Each of the drivers to do it previously have gone on to win the NHRA Full Throttle championship.

Crew chiefs of the race:
Todd Okuhara and Phil Shuler dialed in three of the four fastest speeds in history; Lee Beard and Cruz Pedregon actually outran the Funny Car winner in the last two rounds; Rob Downing and Jeff Perley helped their drivers become the fastest in class history.

Best races: Antron Brown vs. Spencer Massey vs. Brandon Bernstein vs. David Grubnic, Top Fuel round two: The only nonfactor in the quad was a tire-smoking Grubnic. Brown and Massey finished an astonishingly close three-10-thousandths of a second apart (approximately two inches). Bernstein, meanwhile, ran low e.t. of the round but suffered the double indignity of two holeshot losses against Brown and Massey, both of whom had quick .05-second lights.

Jason Line vs. Jeg Coughlin Jr. vs. Ronnie Humphrey vs. Mark Martino, Pro Stock round one: Though Brogdon was out of power early, the rest were roughly a hundredth apart from each other at the finish. Coughlin was the quickest off the line, and Line was able to make up the difference to get in front. Humphrey, despite an identical e.t. to Line, wasn’t quick enough off the starting line to do the same.

Tough luck of the race:
Matt Hagan’s bad luck transcends this particular event since he has had a body-shredding explosion at all three installments of the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals. The real kicker this year was equaling the bump e.t. in the final qualifying session but failing to secure a spot in the starting 16 based on speed. For Hagan, Charlotte is a lovely place to visit in the fall. Springtime? Not so much.

Quotes of the race: “I think I’m going to wear two firesuits in the spring race from now on.” Matt Hagan

“It’s tough to beat Force one time, and he keeps getting resurrected.” — Ron Capps, who faced John Force in all three elimination rounds

“It’s a fireworks display. All these lights are blinking and flickering. You definitely have to concentrate.” — Steve Torrence, on the staging procedure at this event

“My crew put together new cars together in about a week to make the Freightliner/Valvoline Charger identical to the NAPA car. To say I’m appreciative is a huge understatement.” — Jack Beckman, who didn’t seem to miss a beat after his crew chief (Rahn Tobler), crew, and cars were reassigned to the NAPA camp

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