Features

Posted by: Brad Littlefield
The licking of the chops began more than a year ago when NHRA moved the Auto-Plus NHRA Nationals in Reading from its summer date to early October. Maple Grove Raceway is one of the fastest venues in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series, and racers knew that a chance to race there during the fall season would make for the widespread falling of national records.

Expectations were met, to say the least. Cool conditions in which the corrected altitude readings were in the triple digits when the race was completed on Monday made way for record blasts. The national e.t. records were shattered in Top Fuel and Pro Stock, the quickest field in Pro Stock Motorcycle history was established, and the quickest side-by-side contests in history were staged in three of the four classes.

It’s arguable as to whether Top Fuel, Pro Stock, or Pro Stock Motorcycle had the most awe-inspiring moments during eliminations. The Funny Car class wasn’t quite on par due to the facts that the three-second barrier was crushed two weeks earlier and the winner, Robert Hight, won with steady performances rather than displays of unmatched performance potential.

The standard by which all performance-laden events come short of comparing to is the 1975 NHRA Finals in Ontario, Calif., but there are usually one or two definitively fast events held per year in a modern drag racing season. The Reading and Gainesville events fit the bill this season with honorable mentions going to the Englishtown and fall Charlotte events.

After establishing that there were new standards of performance established at this event, part of the fun afterwards is dissecting which runs, series of runs, or races are the most memorable. I did my best below.

Best performance, single run:

1. Del Worsham’s 3.735, 323.81
He may have lost the race, but that had to do with when the run began and not what happened between the starting line and the finish line. This run was a masterpiece. Worsham would have left with the national record anyway with his previous 3.760, and that run was barely enough to provide a backup for this pass. The "best run in Top Fuel history" argument had been a convoluted one when comparing runs made with different nitro percentages, minimum weights, and racing distances. Also factored in those arguments were how quick certain runs were at different parts of the track. The pass that the gold Al-Anabi dragster made in the final put those arguments to rest.

Worsham eclipsed the longstanding benchmark for quickest 660-foot time when he reached that point in 2.989 seconds. No driver had been quicker than 2.991 seconds since Gary Scelzi did so at the Houston event on Halloween weekend in 1999. There was an interesting history behind that run. Scelzi, also being tuned by Alan Johnson, had a malfunction in the clutch that caused the canon to apply the clutch way too early. That usually causes instant tire smoke, but the track surface was so good that the tires stayed glued even with the clutch locking up with a motor that was making great power in below-sea-level conditions. An A.J.-tuned dragster had not been in the sub-three-second zone to the 660-foot mark since until the final round.

It should be noted that, although the provisional national e.t. record changed hands a few times during the events, Worsham’s 3.735 is the only run that eclipsed Cory McClenathan’s 3.752 from the Englishtown event in 2010.

The run itself was a thing of beauty. A majority of the 20 3.7-second runs made throughout the course of the event were done with dragsters dancing around and drivers trying to prevent them from sashaying at the top end. There was no wasted motion on Worsham’s run, which arched up and stayed planted in the middle of the groove. Replays of the final round provide a great contrast between Worsham’s perfect 3.73 and Massey’s great 3.77.

Though the ride to Santa Maria, Calif., aboard Johnson’s jet was probably a long one for Worsham, he was a part of a run that may stand as the greatest in history for a long, long time.

2. Frank Manzo’s 5.411, 264.44
Manzo made a handful of runs in qualifying and early eliminations that were in the high-5.4 to low-5.5-second range despite shaking, pedaling, and acting like a bucking bronco. It left all to wonder, “How fast can he go if he gets this track figured out?” He showed everybody when he made the quickest lap in Top Alcohol Funny Car history in the semifinals, during which he also clinched his 15th championship.

Manzo has made his share of great runs, and his ample supply of horsepower has usually separated his runs from the successful loaded-for-bear attempts of his competitors. On this occasion, Manzo had early numbers that have never been paralleled. After an outstanding .912 60-foot clocking (he had a quicker .911 time on his next run), he charged to the first sub-2.4-second 330-foot time in class history at 2.391 seconds. He went 3.561 seconds at 212.83 mph to half-track and remained straight as a string. He eclipsed the previous benchmark of 5.432 seconds that he set at the Gainesville event earlier this year and ran another 5.41 in the final to secure the national e.t. record.

3. Jason Line’s 6.477, 212
It was difficult to not rank this higher. Perhaps Line himself did a poor job of selling it to me when he admitted that, though his Summit Racing Equipment Pontiac GXP is a beast, none of his barrage of 6.40s were perfect runs. He said that the car could have run a 6.46, and I don’t think that Worsham or Manzo can nitpick the runs that are listed above.

With that being said, wow, what a pass. It was difficult to predict what the track would hold in such cool conditions after the second round was postponed until Monday due to rain. Cars in the three pairs in front of Line either ran low 6.50s or shook the tires, so Line lighting up the scoreboard with the quickest run in Pro Stock history was a jaw-dropper. Longtime fans of the sport can probably remember when a 6.47 was a quick time for a Top Fueler, let alone a 500-cid, naturally-aspirated doorslammer.

Best performance, event:

1. Line scored a win and a national e.t. record from the No. 1 qualifying position while recording four consecutive 6.4-second runs.
It was the second time in Line’s career that he performed the trifecta of winning, qualifying No. 1, and setting the national e.t. record — the other was in Richmond, Va., in 2006. The fact that so few others have done the same in the history of the class wasn’t lost on Line.

The incoming national e.t. record was 6.492 seconds, and Line eclipsed that time during all four elimination rounds. Line, quite simply, has the most dominant car in any Professional category at the moment, and he also enjoys the biggest points lead. There are still three races left, but Line probably ought to go ahead and clear some space on his mantle next to his 2006 NHRA Full Throttle championship Wally.

2. Manzo clinched his 15th Top Alcohol Funny Car championship with the quickest run in class history, which he repeated in the final round. Of the 5.419 he ran in the final, he said, “It was a little quicker early but actually slowed down for some reason after that.” I don’t know of another driver that can make the second-quickest run in class history and essentially say, “What a pig.” If John Force doesn’t win the Funny Car title this season — and the odds are certainly stacked against him at the moment — Manzo will equal his record of most season titles in NHRA history.

3. Worsham made three passes in eliminations that were quicker than the incoming national e.t. record.
His other run was a “paltry” 3.777. Three drivers ran quicker than the 3.770 record during the event, but Worsham was the only driver to do so during eliminations. Worsham now has possession of three of the four quickest time slips in class history.

Best side-by-side performances:

1. Hector Arana Jr. and Matt Smith staged the quickest side-by-side race in Pro Stock Motorcycle history in the final round. Smith had an outstanding 1.03-second 60-foot time and actually lost ground. Arana recorded an unprecedented 1.024 60-foot time on his Buell and kept his Lucas Oil Buell hooked up to win the first elimination bout in class history in which both riders recorded 6.7-second runs.

2. Massey and Worsham staged the quickest side-by-side race in Top Fuel history in the final round. It was equal parts tragedy and triumph for Worsham in a 40-point swing that was awarded to Massey, the points leader. Massey had just defeated Worsham’s teammate, Larry Dixon, in a semifinal round that is now the second-quickest side-by-side race in history.

3. Line and Greg Anderson staged the quickest side-by-side race in Pro Stock history in the semifinal round. One silver lining of light rain further delaying the action on Monday following the Pro Stock semifinals is the extra time that the scoreboards from this pair stayed lit to pronounce the quickest Pro Stock pair in history. Anderson was .001-second shy of making it an all-6.4-second race. Line had the best package in Pro Stock history by pairing his 6.482 with a .015 light.



The Fast Five

Spencer Massey
has been hyped as a “leaver” for some time. He has accrued the reaction time statistics to support it, and now he has a defining performance, a magnum opus of starting-line mastery. Credit crew chiefs Todd Okuhara and Phil Shuler for sending the FRAM dragster along to four runs between 3.770 and 3.783 and trusting their driver to accrue the additional edge. Massey could have been vulnerable in his semifinal race against Larry Dixon had he slacked on the Tree, and his holeshot win over Del Worsham was an iconic moment. It’s rare that a driver who was in the opposite lane of the best run in history can say “I had the best seat in the house” without any irony.

The difference in Jimmy Prock’s confidence between Saturday during qualifying and Monday after the event was huge. Prock was struggling to regain his footing with the tune-up of the Auto Club Ford Mustang driven by Robert Hight. Hight would make one respectable run in every four attempts heading into the race, and the trend appeared to continue during qualifying. He apparently got in the ballpark with a 4.04 in a crucial first-round victory over Ron Capps, and they followed up with an equally big win against Matt Hagan with a 4.09, which would be their worst run of the event. Hight ran a 4.05 and 4.06 to handle Jeff Arend and a tire-smoking Johnny Gray to score his fifth win of the season, which is a career high. Prock said he refrained from hopping up the tune-up for the final because Hight was in such a zone on the Tree that he cut four lights between .051 and .069 while shallow-staged.

The later we get into the season, the stronger Hector Arana Jr.'s case for the Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award becomes. The rookie Pro Stock Motorcycle rider qualified No. 1 for the fifth time this season and made career-best laps to secure his second win. Arana moved up to second in the championship standings and has the potential to follow the precedent of LE Tonglet, who won the title during his rookie season in 2010.

Missing the top 10 with access to some of the best equipment in the class was a crushing disappointment to Ronnie Humphrey, and he’d been working with Frank Hawley to improve his reaction times while his Summit Genuine HotRod Hardware Pontiac GXP has simultaneously been getting better and better. Humphrey qualified No. 2 and reached the semifinals for only the second time this season. He made what is now the fifth-quickest pass in Pro Stock history at 6.489 seconds to defeat Rodger Brogdon and advance to the first final of his career. It was the second time that all three Ken Black Racing-powered cars reached the semifinals — the other occurred at the season-opening race in Pomona.

It seemed academic that John Force would be the No. 1 qualifier at this race before Johnny Gray unloaded the third-quickest run in Funny Car history at 4.010 seconds in the final session to nip Force by a thousandth. Gray drove the Alex’s Lemonade Stand/Service Central Charger to 60-330-foot splits that were quicker than Matt Hagan’s during his 3.99 run in Charlotte. Gray used up every bit of the intimidation factor of being No. 1 qualifier to get through the first two rounds with tire-smoking runs before laying down a 4.022 to beat Bob Tasca III in the semifinals. Rob Wendland and Dickie Venables are working well together in a low-pressure situation to make Gray the strongest spoiler in the Countdown.



Special Awards

Stats of the race:
Robert Hight scored the 2,000th round-win for John Force Racing when he defeated Jeff Arend in the semifinal round. The 2,000 round-wins that JFR has now accrued accounts for nearly one-fifth of all rounds contested in Funny Car competition (10,183 rounds, according to NHRA announcer Bob Frey’s statistics).

There have been 100 perfect reaction times recorded in the Professional ranks since 1985. Chip Ellis recorded the 100th one pair after Jerry Savoie recorded the 99th in the first round of Pro Stock Motorcycle eliminations. The bikes account for 62 of the perfect lights recorded.

Greg Stanfield earned his sixth holeshot win of the season, which leads all drivers in all categories. Since 2008, he has earned seven, 12, nine, and six (and counting) holeshot wins per season, accounting for more than one-third of his 97 round-wins during that span.

Crew chiefs of the race:
Alan Johnson and Brian Husen had a bad hot rod in Top Fuel; Jimmy Prock got his mojo back in his fifth win of the season; Rob Downing, Tommy Utt, and Jeff Perley flat-out dominated in Pro Stock; Hector Arana Sr. gave his son a fast bike that can now run quicker to 60 feet than anybody in the class.

Best race: Jerry Savoie vs. Angie Smith, Pro Stock Motorcycle round one: Other than the impressive side-by-side matchups discussed in the first section, this huge holeshot win was the best race of the event. Savoie cut a perfect .000 aboard his Suzuki and ran a 6.97 to hold off a much better 6.86 run by Smith by a .009-second margin. Savoie is usually quick on the Tree, but it was surprising that Smith, who has been one of the better leavers in the class this season, only managed a .117.

Tough luck of the race: A foreign object inside of Brandon Bernstein’s left rear tire caused it to blow out during his run in the third qualifying session. The Copart team had to sit out the final qualifying session to prepare their spare car because the chassis was bent in front of the foot box after the incident. He missed a good qualifying session in which he was bumped out of the top half of the field.

Quotes of the race: “We can’t win the championship, but I guess we’ve got No. 11 locked down.” — Rob Wendland, crew chief for Johnny Gray. Gray missed the playoffs and has a 261-point lead over 12th-place Tony Pedregon.

“This might turn out to be the tightest points battle with the most cars who can still win the championship in Pomona since the Countdown started.” — Jimmy Prock

“We needed new jackets, and this is the only way I know how to get one.” — Top Alcohol Dragster winner Mike Kosky, who won for the first time since the 1999 event


 
..
TwitterFacebook