DieHard Race Week Start-Up, St. Louis
Thursday, September 27, 2012

God bless Curtis Francois!

After the track in St. Louis was closed for a year, it was Mr. Francois, a retired race car driver and real estate developer, who heard the cries of motorsport fans throughout the St. Louis area and took the leap of faith and brought it back! And drag racing fans should take note that the anchor of reopening what is now called Gateway Motorsports Park is the National Hot Rod Association. With a 20-year agreement in place, it is time to Go Full Throttle by the Gateway Arch with this weekend’s AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals.

And for those of you scoring at home, this will be the fifth of six straight weeks for the men and women of the NHRA dating back to the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals presented by Auto-Plus on Labor Day weekend. Race 20 of the 23 NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series events for 2012, this is the third race in the Countdown to the Championship, and for those with championship aspirations, it is a put-up-or-shut-up kind of weekend. Those who put up in Dallas were Antron Brown in Top Fuel, Bob Tasca III in Funny Car, Pro Stock’s Allen Johnson, and Michael Ray in Pro Stock Motorcycle.

Let’s start with Top Fuel, where the closest battle is shaping up for the title as the top six drivers in the points are separated by just five rounds of racing. Only 16 rounds are left to claim, so this is still anybody’s game. We have Antron to thank for that because a narrow victory over his teammate Spencer Massey in the Dallas final made for a 40-point swing. Because he earned 20 more points for winning, Antron kept Spencer from taking those points, and at the end of the day, the two are tied, level, even … equal. Because of that outcome, third through sixth in the standings — Tony Schumacher, Shawn Langdon, Morgan Lucas, and Brandon Bernstein — still are close enough to make a major impact. Larry Dixon in the Dote family car (his second with the team) is one of 23 drivers pre-entered for St. Louis (Cory McClenathan is entered but will not race after surgery to remove his gall bladder — get well, Cory!), which means the Countdown drivers will have to work extra hard so their chances don’t get spoiled.

Which brings me to Funny Car: With the Dallas race finished and the points tallied, it’s looking more and more like Ron Capps’ year (a championship would be his first after finishing second three times) as he increased his lead to five rounds over Mike Neff and teammate Jack Beckman. When the championship round was run, it was a pair of non-Countdown drivers, defending series champ Matt Hagan and Bob Tasca III, going head to head. A second-generation Ford driver, Tasca won the pedalfest final to become the ninth different winner in the class this year. Along the way, both Bob and Matt spoiled the day for five racers searching for a title. Tasca took out Courtney Force (second round) and Cruz Pedregon (semi’s), and Hagan bested John Force (round one), Tim Wilkerson (round two), and teammate/points leader Capps (semi’s). Nineteen racers, many of whom would like to spoil someone’s day, are pre-entered.

In Pro Stock, Allen Johnson’s chances at his first world championship got a little better when he beat Erica Enders in the final. His lead is now five rounds over Jason Line. Vincent Nobile (seven rounds behind) and Enders (eight rounds behind) are next in line in the standings.

After 12 consecutive wins dating back to last season (and tying the all-time record for consecutive wins with the KB/Summit Pro Stock duo of Greg Anderson and Jason Line), Eddie Krawiec and Andrew Hines both fell to the wayside in the Pro Stock Motorcycle semifinals aboard their Vance & Hines Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidsons. For Krawiec, it was a holeshot loss to the Suzuki of Karen Stoffer that ended his day, and the Buell of Michael Ray actually outran Hines. In the final, second-generation racer Ray picked up his first win. Hines and Krawiec are now separated by less than a round in the standings. Hector Arana Jr. is in third place (four rounds back), and Ray’s win moved him up two spots, to fourth.

If you read close enough (and took notes!), we have the very real possibility of three first-time series champions. Schumacher is the only previous champ in Top Fuel, and the leaders in Funny Car and Pro Stock have a comfortable edge in the standings. We’ll know more after this weekend.

Tickets … you want tickets? I have info for you: 855-RACETIK (722-3845) or GatewayMSP.com will get you hooked up to see the AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals in person. ESPN has you covered the rest of the way. It’s been a bit of a moving target lately, but as of this writing, here is the schedule:

Live second-session qualifying: Friday, Sept. 28, at 6:30 p.m. (all times ET) on ESPN3
Qualifying recap: Sunday, Sept. 30, at 3 a.m. on ESPN2
Qualifying recap re-air: Sunday, Sept. 30, at 1 p.m. on ESPN2
Live final eliminations: Sunday, Sept. 30, at noon on ESPN3
Final eliminations recap: Sunday, Sept. 30, at 8 p.m. on ESPN2

As always, if things change, I will do my best to update through Twitter (@DaveRieff) or Facebook. And for those of you who follow the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series as well, the championship moment in Top Alcohol Dragster will air immediately after Sunday afternoon’s qualifying show at 2 p.m. You have to love it when a story comes together! Check it out, and you’ll see what I mean!

Safe weekend, safe travels … and an enjoyable weekend, the last one in September! WHAT? Wow  ... where does it go?