DieHard Race Week Start-Up, Chicago
Thursday, June 28, 2012
We’ve all heard the expression, “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen!” Though this might seem like a trite and overused phrase most of the time, for this weekend’s O’Reilly Auto Parts Route 66 NHRA Nationals presented by Super Start Batteries at stadium-like Route 66 Raceway, there is nothing stale or hackneyed about that description -- it is going to be hot on many levels this weekend in the kitchen, aka Joliet, Ill.
Let’s start with the most obvious: the weather. With forecasted highs each day in the mid- to upper 90s, racers and their teams must confront track temperatures that could get into the 130-degree range. That means a tough track, which in turn gives tuners fits trying to manage 7,000 horsepower.
With only seven races left until the Countdown to the Championship begins, following the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals presented by Auto-Plus, the pressure for drivers to perform goes redline on the tach. Every point is at a premium, especially for 2011 Funny Car world champion Matt Hagan, who still is not in a position to defend his title (he is three round-wins behind the line of demarcation in 11th). In fact, some very intriguing battles are shaping up in all four Pro categories to see who is in and who is out come Countdown time. Check them out at NHRA.com.
Just as at every national event, the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series is also in competition, but in the Windy City, the competition is always more intense thanks to a little program called the JEGS Allstars. The once-a-year event where the best racers from NHRA’s seven geographic divisions come together for individual and team bragging rights is always a treat, and this year will be no different with 77 racers from 25 states vying for a share of nearly $120,000 on Saturday afternoon. Double up with the national event Wally, and the good folks from JEGS Mail Order will pay a double-up bonus.
Did I mention that the track is also serving up two nights of nitro (the second session of qualifying on Friday and Saturday starts at 8 p.m. local time)?
What it all boils down to, literally, is a must-see weekend. 888-629-RACE (7223) will put you in contact with the Route 66 Raceway folks for tickets, or you can stop by their website, Route66Raceway.com, and do it all over the Internet.
As always, the ESPN family has your back if you can’t make it to Chicago, beginning with live ESPN3.com coverage of the second session of qualifying on Friday, June 29, beginning at/around 8 p.m. (all times ET). Saturday, because of the late qualifying, ESPN2 will feature two shows. The first one with third-session highlights airs at 6 p.m., and the second featuring session four airs at 3 a.m. But don’t grumble too loudly because this show re-airs on Sunday at 11 a.m. Final eliminations start at 6 p.m. Sunday, again on ESPN2, but remember, all-day live coverage can be found on ESPN3.com beginning at noon.
And this is what you should watch for, beginning in Top Fuel: U.S. Army driver Tony Schumacher is the points leader and returns to his backyard with the Bristol Wally, his first win in more than a year and a half. His Don Schumacher Racing teammates, FRAM’s Spencer Massey and Antron Brown for Matco, continue to run well, as does Capco’s Steve Torrence, who is shaking up this class in a big way. How will GEICO’s Morgan Lucas and MavTV’s Brandon Bernstein regroup after their rare team DNQ, and when will the Al-Anabi team put it all together (I’m sure that Shawn Langdon, Khalid alBalooshi, and tuner/manager Alan Johnson are curious!)? These are questions you must tune in for to find out what will happen next.
In Funny Car, there is no doubt we are witnessing a very special run by NAPA’s Ron Capps and his crew chief, Rahn Tobler, now that they have raced in six straight finals (with two wins). But this is an ultra-deep class with a lot of hungry drivers, such as Motocraft/Quick Lane’s Bob Tasca III, Snap-on’s Cruz Pedregon, and Bristol runner-up Alexis DeJoria for Tequila Patron. Look for new paint on the Todd Lesenko-driven/"Big Jim" Dunn-tuned flopper: Grime Boss. And let’s tip our cap to the aforementioned Pedregon, who will honor the Wounded Warrior Project, an organization dedicated to veterans returning home from Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as Capps, who will recognize the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, which has provided more than $120 million in support for the families of military personnel lost in service to our nation and for severely wounded military personnel and veterans.
Pro Stock will no doubt feature another Summit (Greg Anderson and Jason Line), Mopar (Allen Johnson), and Penhall (Mike Edwards) showdown. But the heat and humidity can be a great equalizer, and that may make things interesting in the normally aspirated four-wheel category.
And finally, on two wheels, keep an eye out for newcomer Kieth Burley and his Castrol-sponsored Triumph Pro Stock Motorcycle as both make their NHRA debut in a class firmly controlled by Eddie Krawiec and Andrew Hines, better known as the Vance & Hines Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson riders. The biggest threat to taking them down might just be the Aranas (Hectors Jr. and Sr.) aboard their Lucas Oil Buells.
The defending event winners are Del Worsham in Top Fuel (no longer driving but up for an ESPY as Best Driver for his 2011 series championship), Mike Neff in Funny Car (Ford’s 200th Funny Car victory), Anderson in Pro Stock, and LE Tonglet in Pro Stock Motorcycle.
Time to start hydrating for a hot time in the Windy City.