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Posted by: Brad Littlefield
Tommy DeLago, crew chief of the DieHard Dodge Charger driven by Matt Hagan, was locked into his focused, take-no-prisoners mode on Sunday when he noticed his team’s historic achievement commemorated on the wall at zMAX Dragway. Their historic first three-second Funny Car run of the 1,000-foot era was recognized with the lettering “3.995-FC, Matt Hagan, 9-16-11.” In typical DeLago fashion, he gruffly dismissed it, muttering, “Whatever,” and carrying on with the business of trying to win a drag race.

Of course, the gesture became meaningful to DeLago once the race ended and his mind-set began to decompress. The whole concept of being a part of a milestone achievement never took hold of the intense crew chief until the race ended, and his scowl became a smirk when he transformed back into the funny, affable character that his pals know as Tommy D.

Cool weather and constant overcast graced “the Bellagio of dragstrips” and allowed for record times and record fields throughout the season. The will-they-or-won’t-they discussions about the first three-second Funny Car run that have seemingly occurred during every quick session over the past two years were finally put to an end when Hagan navigated the DieHard Charger to an outstanding 3.995 at 316.23 mph in the last pair of the Friday night qualifying session.

The number on the board was a surprise to DeLago.

“We were never really actually trying to go for it,” said DeLago. “We used information that we had from runs before to try to pair what we did when it ran good in the back half with what we did when it ran good in the front half. I never expected it to run 3.99. We ran 4.05 earlier, and I went up there trying to run 4.01 or 4.02 from what I know with our previous experiences. Sometimes this thing can surprise us, but I never really expected it to do that. This car made a lot of runs back to last year when it just does what it wants. Thankfully, it makes a better decision than I do a lot of the time and runs good. That’s fuel racing.”

The 3.99 was an outstanding run, even though it wasn’t even a perfect run. It was going an otherworldly 273 mph at the 660-foot marker, but it dropped a cylinder at 850 feet, an issue that hampered the speed more than the elapsed time. The speed potential would be realized in the first round of eliminations.

Hagan needed to run 4.035 seconds or quicker to officially back up his time to record a national e.t. record and collect the accompanying 20 championship points. He nearly did so during the third qualifying session on Saturday until his car pushed a head gasket out at 620 feet and still recorded a 4.038, albeit engulfed in fire. The team thrashed to replace the engine and burnt wiring and components between sessions, but they didn’t maintain traction in the final qualifying session.

Final eliminations began on Sunday with conditions that seemed ripe for backing up a national record. However, the racing gods made it tough on Hagan when the sun presented itself during an oildown while the DieHard car was waiting in the water box.

“The sun was coming out, and I’m panicking,” DeLago recalled. “I’m squeezing flows down, moving timers out. I went up there with the overcast thinking, ‘I don’t want to shoot myself in the foot, but it’s going to shake if we back it down too much.’ I had it set up like Q3, but we weren’t anywhere close to those conditions after the sun came out.”

The rapidly changing air and track conditions caused DeLago to have to step out of his comfort zone to make the last-minute changes necessary. The result was a 4.018 that backed up the record, but the real surprise was the speed number below that: 322.27 mph, the first 320-plus-mph run.

“Tommy made a change in the management system after the burnout, and I’ve never seen him do that before,” said Hagan. “That’s down to the wire. He was 100 percent on top of it to run that speed and that e.t. with the sun shining on the track.”

Said DeLago, “One thing I’ve always thought about but never had enough [courage] to do is taking the management cover box off after the burnout and start squeezing flows down. I don’t know how much I squeezed them. I never even looked all day because I kept them there once they were set. I thought what I did would make it run an .06, .07, or an .05 at best. I couldn’t duplicate that 3.99 yet because I’m so on edge with the fuel system. On that run, the motor was like a sewing machine, and it ran 3-[effing]-22. That was more surprising than the 3.99. I saw Jack [Beckman] go 318.9 and thought that was the mile per hour of the decade.

“I was just turning knobs," said DeLago. "I don’t know how much or where it was. I knew it needed more flow to slow it down somehow. It just had badass power on that run. It didn’t run on any clutch, just power.”

Hagan got the record for the third time in his career and closed the deal by winning the event. He went 4.054, 4.032, and a cylinder-dropping 4.130 to score respective wins over Cruz Pedregon, Beckman, and points leader Mike Neff. Hagan earned a total of 147 points of a possible 150, the most points ever earned by a Funny Car driver at a single event. He trails Neff by 22 points in the Countdown to the Championship.

The strategy that DeLago employed this season appears to be paying off. He sacrificed the opportunity to win as many races as possible with a proven combination this season in order to develop a potentially stronger setup for the playoffs. His 2010 title defeat and similar seasons endured by his mentor, Ed “the Ace” McCulloch, caused him to rethink his approach.

“We did a lot of testing this year, and I never knew if it was going to work out,” said DeLago. “We came close [to winning the championship] last year, and I wanted to use that as a learning experience to make me stronger. My philosophy and approach this year was to try to get a good start with last year’s combination and then test from Houston on. We were lucky enough to stay in the top 10 while testing. We came here and took everything we thought we learned testing. We were like, ‘We’re going to use this, but we’re not going to use that.’ You still never know how it’s going to work.”

Winning the championship is the ultimate goal for the DieHard team, and they are hungry to do so after coming so close in 2010 before John Force’s Neff-tuned team ultimately won it. That being said, DeLago is quick to sing the praises of his most prominent championship competitor.

“Granted, this is only one race,” said DeLago. “I really think that Mike Neff and those Force teams are the class of the field. All of our Funny Cars aren’t too bad, either. What Neff has done this year and what he did winning the championship with John last year is amazing. Doing all of the duties of a driver this year — that’s autograph stuff, displays, and PR stuff in addition to driving the car — and running a crew, running a race team, and being the class of the field all year is unbelievable. I don’t think I could do all that. My job of just tuning the car has my brain at max cackle already. He is a pretty amazing guy.”

Regardless of what happens for the remainder of the season, DeLago, Hagan, and the crew were a part of a historically successful weekend that will go down in the NHRA history books.

“It was an awesome weekend,” said DeLago. “My guys [Gage Fairchild, Joe Janish, Brian James, Jason Davis, Ben Ratcliffe, Terry Prososki, and Chris Stillwell] do a hell of a job. My assistant crew chief, Glen Huszar, I couldn’t do this without him. He’s an intelligent guy. He’s bad to the bone.”



The Fast Five

I was urged by the Aaron’s/Matco Tools team not to make the easy comparison to their sponsor's mascot by calling them “Lucky Dogs.” That being said, timing was crucial in Antron Brown’s third consecutive victory and sixth of the season. Brown ran consistently in the low 3.80s throughout the event, but the Al-Anabi drivers and his Don Schumacher Racing teammates were reeling off 3.70s. It didn’t help matters that the onboard data recorder failed in the first two rounds, forcing crew chiefs Brian Corradi and Mark Oswald to tune it the old-school way. The resilient team stepped it up when they needed to with two 3.7-second runs to close eliminations and oust mechanically-plagued teammates Tony Schumacher and Spencer Massey, who spun the tires and blew an engine while trying to set the national e.t. record, to secure the win and, for the first time this season, the points lead.

Eddie Krawiec rode the quickest and fastest bike on the property. The Vance & Hines Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson made three out of four of the quickest runs in qualifying and did the same in eliminations. His bike posted identical 1.047-second 60-foot times when he ran 6.81s in the second round and semifinals. Krawiec had an equally dangerous bike at the previous five events but left empty-handed at each one with four holeshot losses and a red-light start. The 2008 Pro Stock Motorcycle champ mentally regrouped before the start of the playoffs and carried a swagger that could be evidenced in his attitude, body language, and each of his top-end interviews.

How about Kurt Johnson? K.J. came into this event with only three round-wins all season (all red-lights), no wins since the Brainerd event in 2008, and no final-round appearances since the season-ending event in 2009. He had been making visible strides with the Total Seal Pontiac GXP lately, and he simply outran his first three opponents before taking on Jason Line and the Summit Racing juggernaut in the final. Line was the heavy favorite, but he gave it away on the starting line with a -.003 red-light. Johnson scored the 40th win of his career and has all the makings of a championship spoiler for the rest of the season.

Female racers as a whole had a strong presence at the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Nationals, and it wasn’t Erica Enders carrying the torch on this occasion. Karen Stoffer was the No. 2 qualifier and runner-up in Pro Stock Motorcycle; Michelle Furr nearly became the first woman in NHRA history to score a national event double when she won in Super Comp and was runner-up to Dennis Hill in the Super Street final; R2B2 Racing teammates Melanie Troxel and Leah Pruett qualified Nos. 1 and 2 in Pro Mod and met each other in the final with Pruett collecting her first career win. Pruett drove the same turbocharged ’12 Mustang that Eric Hillard won the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals presented by Lucas Oil with two weeks earlier.

Mike Neff was the last remaining Funny Car driver who wasn’t under the DSR umbrella. He defeated Brainerd winner Johnny Gray in the semifinal round to prevent an all-DSR final. Neff maintained his points lead despite Hagan’s 147-point performance. His Castrol GTX Ford Mustang was strong in qualifying with a 4.038 that earned him the No. 2 spot. He caught a break against Tony Pedregon when he was able to pedal through tire spin and still advance, and he posted solid runs of 4.07 and 4.08 after that to advance to the final for the ninth time in 17 races this season.



Special Awards

Stats of the race: The quickest fields in the history of the Top Fuel and Pro Stock Motorcycle classes were recorded at this event. Morgan Lucas anchored Top Fuel with a bump time of 3.884 seconds, and Steve Johnson's 6.984 served as the cutoff in the second all-six-second field in the history of the bike class.

Five runs faster than the previous fastest speed in Funny Car history (316.45 mph) were recorded at this event.

Crew chiefs of the race: Mike Green tuned the U.S. Army dragster to the fastest speed in Top Fuel history and was .002-second shy of the national e.t. record; Tommy DeLago had the best tuning weekend of his career; Rob Downing, Tommy Utt, and Jeff Perley gave Jason Line the car to beat; Matt Hines had his winning rider dialed in at the launch and beyond.

Best races: Antron Brown vs. Tony Schumacher, Top Fuel semifinal: Brown extended his 2011 record against “the Sarge” to 5-2 in a tight race that was decided by .004-second. Schumacher had an early lead but couldn’t hold on when his dragster started pushing the head gaskets.

Shane Gray vs. Greg Anderson, Pro Stock round one: Gray pulled off a huge upset when he garnered a .034 to .079 reaction time advantage and held off the No. 2 qualifier by less than a hundredth.

Tough Luck of the race:
Tony Schumacher can’t catch a break this season. The U.S. Army crew tore down and rewired the dragster after Indy to eliminate whatever glitch was ailing it, and Schumacher returned to his dominant self during qualifying. He made his worst run of eliminations in the semifinals when he pushed a head gasket out at 660 feet, and he only lost to Antron Brown’s best run of the weekend to that point by .004-second.

Melanie Troxel’s crew had a busy weekend. She sported three different looks with three different Toyota Solara bodies on Roger Burgess’ Funny Car. The blue-and-white ProCare RX body they ran on Friday was damaged in the second qualifying session, so they put their all-white ProCare RX body on the Funny Car for Saturday. They endured major carnage on their final qualifying pass when they recorded a 4.04 but broke the crankshaft and pulled the center main cap at 850 feet. She ran a third body with In-N-Out colors on Sunday; the body was still being touched up at a paint shop that Friday.

Hector Arana Sr. and Hector Arana Jr. were both sidelined with electrical issues during Pro Stock Motorcycle eliminations. The elder Arana was unable to start due to what they believe is a crank sensor malfunction in the first round, and Hector Jr. was unable to fire in the second round, possibly due to a cam sensor. Hector Jr. put his bike on the stands after he got back to his pit, and, naturally, it fired up immediately.

Quotes of the race:
“When people are mad at you at the end of the race, it usually means you’re doing good.” — Mark Oswald, co-crew chief on the Aaron’s/Matco Tools dragster

“I want to crush everybody. We’ve had the bike to do it, but the rider hasn’t been there. Well, from now on, the rider’s going to be there.” — Eddie Krawiec

“We had a car in 2003 that went down a dirt road, and we kind of got off tangent. We debuted a new car in Bristol, and it was a rough ride there, but it really started to thunder in Brainerd.” — Kurt Johnson



 
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