||Jeff Arend scored his first win 16 years ago in Reading, at the wheel of the Paul Smith Drag Racing School entry.
In the final round, Arend defeated Tony Pedregon, who was driving then for John Force Racing.
"I can remember my reaction time, my e.t., and who I beat every round, still to this day," Arend says fondly.
Jeff Arend, driver of the Kalitta Motorsports DHL Toyota, has nothing but love for Maple Grove Raceway – and rightfully so. The SoCal transplant who originally hails from Toronto scored the first Funny Car win of his career at the historic racetrack in 1996, and returning to the lush, tree-lined facility is always a welcome point in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series season.
"There are quite a bit of memories there," said Arend. "That day was something that I'm going to remember for the rest of my life, and I get to relive it again every time we go back there. The fans are really nice; a lot of them remember and were there for that win, and they'll come up, and we'll get to talk about it. I can remember my reaction time, my e.t., and who I beat every round, still to this day."
Arend's tremendous and stunning achievement included round-wins over some of the most notable drivers in the category, including Dean Skuza, Al Hofmann, Del Worsham, and final-round opponent Tony Pedregon. At the time, Pedregon was driving a second car for John Force, and Arend was competing in just his 14th national event.
"It wasn't like we qualified super well; we were No. 10," recalled Arend. "But we were able to beat all those guys. Probably the coolest thing for me was that we outran everybody, I left on everybody, and every run was within a tenth of a second. Nobody red-lit, nobody gave it to us, and nobody smoked the tires – and then to race Tony and what was probably one of the biggest budgeted cars at the time and outrun him. It was pretty awesome."
The final round was a David and Goliath-like affair, with Arend driving Paul Smith's Drag Racing School Funny Car with a volunteer crew. The entire event was an unplanned adventure for Arend, who made the trek down from Toronto on a whim with a few friends intending only to spectate.
"It's a funny story because we showed up Friday afternoon kind of late, maybe an hour and a half before the first qualifier, and went over to say hi to Paul Smith," said Arend, who had driven for Smith in the past but with much more advanced planning. "After about five minutes, he said, 'My ankle is killing me; why don't you drive?' I had all my gear with me, so I said OK. One of my friends had never been to a race, and they were like, 'Oh my God, you could win; wouldn't it be cool?' I was thinking, 'You've obviously never been to a race – this is hard.' I had no idea."
Arend competed in just seven national events that season, and it would be 13 years before he would win another Funny Car title. A full-time gig was still more than a decade in the making.
"At the end of the day, if I had to quit then, it would have been OK," said Arend. "If you're going to win a race, that's the way you want to win it. The crew does their job, the driver does their job, and you earn it. But I stuck with it, and it feels really good to be where we are now."
In 2008, Arend joined Kalitta Motorsports to drive the DHL Funny Car following the untimely death of Scott Kalitta, and in 2009, the team earned its first win together at the national event in Memphis, Tenn. Two years later, Arend finished in the top 10 in the Full Throttle Series Funny Car points for the first time to build the foundation for what could arguably be considered a career year for the 49-year-old pilot.
"Our goal since I came to the Kalittas has been to have a safe and competitive car," said Arend, currently ninth in the standings and guaranteed a second consecutive finish in the top 10. "Last year was big for us as a team, and this year, we had a few goals. We wanted to win a race – which we did in Chicago – we dreamed about being in the Traxxas Nitro Shootout, and we definitely wanted to be in the Countdown to the Championship. We accomplished all three goals, and you couldn't ask for much more than that. I'm really proud of our guys."
With tuners Jon Oberhofer and Nick Boninfante, Arend and the DHL crew are aiming to climb higher in the standings to close the 2012 season in a better position than last, when they were No. 8 at season's end. As the tour makes its way to Maple Grove Raceway, Arend may very well be in a position to make a move in the desired direction.
"If the weather is good there, that is a fast track," he said. "Since we changed our car right before Brainerd, we have a tune-up that's really good on cool tracks, where before we didn't. So I'm really looking forward to getting back there. Last year, we were in the semifinals and ran our fastest mile an hour ever, 316. Now I think we can go there and run well into the 4.0s and be competitive with everyone else."
For tickets for the Auto-Plus NHRA Nationals, call 610-856-7200 or log on to www.maplegroveraceway.com.