Jack Beckman is in uncharted territory heading into the 60th annual Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, which takes place Aug. 27-Sept. 1 at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis. But a strong performance in his 10,000-horsepower Valvoline Max Life/MTS Dodge Charger at the world’s most prestigious drag race would be just the turnaround his 2014 Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season needs.
Beckman is currently in 11th place in the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship and is on the verge of missing the Countdown for the first time in his career as a full-time driver. He trails Tim Wilkerson by 16 points for the final playoff spot, making an already huge event even bigger for the 2012 Funny Car world champion.
It is also one of the must-see storylines heading into the prestigious Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, as NHRA competitors in all professional classes will be looking to stay in the top 10 or move into the top 10 with a memorable showing at the last race of the regular season.
“We've painted ourselves into a corner,” said Beckman, who won the Traxxas Shootout in Funny Car at Indy a year ago. “We've put ourselves into a position where we have to be (darn) near flawless at Indy to get in there. Now that's just the battle. But that's the only thing I can think about right now is Indy. Our goal is to run for the championship, which it isn't possible if we're not in the Countdown. If we can't get this Valvoline car into the Countdown, I'd be devastated, but it means that we didn't earn it.”
Shawn Langdon (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), Mike Edwards (Pro Stock) and John Hall (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of an event that will once again be televised on ESPN2 in more than 10 hours of coverage.
The Funny Car battle between Wilkerson and Beckman is the tightest race for 10th place in any of the four professional categories, but Wilkerson, who has finished in the top 10 in each of the past six seasons, won’t let that affect his approach.
“There’s not really any added pressure, just the same sort of pressure we feel at every race, where we put it on ourselves to do our sponsors proud and do ourselves proud,” Wilkerson said. “I try to not let it affect the way we tune the car or the way I drive.”
As for paying attention to what Beckman does during the weekend, Wilkerson, who trails Del Worsham by 52 points for the ninth position, is only worried about his own performance. That is, unless he sees Beckman or Worsham next to his Levi Ray and Shoup Ford Mustang in the opposite lane during eliminations. Eight-place Cruz Pedregon has also not secured his berth into the Countdown and will also be racing to get into the playoffs as well.
“We definitely pay attention, but the bottom line is that the way we approach each run down the track doesn't really have anything to do with what other people are doing,” Wilkerson said. “If we line up in eliminations against Jack Beckman or Del Worsham, then you can scoreboard watch because all you want to see is the win light. Other than that, we're all too busy to be spectating. If we just win rounds, we don't have anything to worry about.”
In Pro Stock, Greg Anderson is a six-time winner of the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals but the four-time world champion needs another strong performance this year in Indy to secure his spot in the Countdown to the Championship.
He leads rookie Jonathan Gray by 32 points and certainly understands what is on the line.
“Sure, there is a little bit of pressure,” Anderson said. “First of all, I love going to Indy. It's a magical place for me. I love that particular race, but this has been a different year for me. It's been challenging, but it's also been very rewarding. I feel very fortunate to be where I'm at, but I want to make the Countdown. If I don't, I might need therapy. I guess there is pressure, but I like that. In the past, I think I've done some of my best work under pressure. I'm going to Indy with a positive mindset and hopefully I can make it happen.
Anderson, though, does not want to simply squeak into the Countdown. A strong performance from his Summit Racing Equipment Chevy Camaro, coupled with his first victory since 2012, would be the ideal start to a championship chase.
“Right now, I'm thinking about winning races,” Anderson said. “I keep saying that as important as it is for me to get qualified for the Countdown and make up more points than Jonathan Gray, it's not nearly as important to me as winning a race. If I can't win a race, I don't know if I'm worthy enough to win a championship. I have to prove to myself that I can win again. I'm not going to worry about trying to survive an extra round. I'm going to Indy to win that race.”
Gray, meanwhile, is simply excited for the opportunity to compete against one of the most successful Pro Stock drivers in NHRA history for a shot at a Countdown berth in his first Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals appearance.
“I don't feel any pressure,” Gray said. “There is no sense in putting any pressure on myself because it's not going to do any good. It is what it is. I can only go out there and do what I can do. My mindset going into Indy is that we have to get qualified good, and we have to go a minimum of two more rounds than Greg. We have to qualify as good as he does, if not better, to start. I'm excited to go to Indy and have one last shot at trying to get in the Countdown. This is it.”
Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Adam Arana fully admits there is pressure on him. He trails Steve Johnson by 66 points for the final Countdown spot, meaning the rider of the ProtectTheHarvest.com/MAVTV Buell will need a spectacular performance in the two-wheeled category. Arana hopes that will bring out the best in him throughout the weekend.
“That's why we race all year, to be able to compete for the championship, and if I don't make it into the top 10, then you don't get that opportunity,” Arana said. "I need to try to stay calm and consistent because if you think too much on the starting line, it can create mistakes. I just want to stay calm. I've been doing a pretty good job of that all year, so if we have a fast bike, I hope to be able to go rounds."
In Top Fuel, Bob Vandergriff needs a banner weekend to move into the top 10. He trails J.R. Todd by 130 points heading into the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals and must have a near-perfect weekend to unseat Todd, who recently won at Denver.
Bonus bucks and bragging rights will also be on the line at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals for qualified drivers in Top Fuel and Funny Car as they battle in the lucrative Traxxas Nitro Shootout. The Traxxas Nitro Shootout for Top Fuel will be held on Saturday evening, while the Traxxas Nitro Shootout for Funny Car is contested Sunday afternoon. The winners in each Traxxas Nitro Shootout will earn $100,000.
Drivers in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series and the NHRA Pro Mod Series will look to become winners of the prestigious event during the weekend. The fastest Super Stock cars will challenge for the ultimate bragging rights and a bonus purse during the popular Mopar HEMI Challenge as well.
NHRA will also conduct official presentations to honor six of the most iconic moments in the history of the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals in the Hot Rod Junction Friday-Sunday of the weekend. On Sunday of race weekend “Big Daddy” Don Garlits will reenact his famous beard shaving scene that followed his triumphant 1967 victory and the “Indy’s Winningest Drivers” presentation, a ceremony honoring Schumacher, Bob Glidden and Garlits, also will take place; on Saturday Kenny Bernstein will be honored for becoming the first double-up winner at Indy, Shirley Muldowney will look back at her Indy memories including her 1982 victory, one she called the greatest victory of her outstanding Top Fuel career, and the 1978 Funny Car final where Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen defeated Don “The Snake” Prudhomme will be remembered; on Friday the harrowing 1970 Top Fuel final between Jim Nicoll and Prudhomme will be revisited.
A special Monday edition of the SealMaster NHRA Track Walk also will take place prior to final eliminations, where many of the sport’s most celebrated drivers will walk alongside fans down the historic dragstrip. Fan-favorite Cacklefests and vintage racecars on display in the Hot Rod Junction, along with several autograph sessions featuring the legends of the sport as well as today’s biggest stars will be featured throughout each day of the event. On Friday, a special fireworks show will close out the day’s racing.
The first of five Mello Yello Series qualifying sessions is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 29. Two more sessions will take to the track on Saturday, Aug. 30 at 2:30 p.m. and 6 p.m., and the final two qualifying sessions will take place on Sunday, Aug. 31 at 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 1.
The Traxxas Nitro Shootout for Top Fuel will be contested Saturday, Aug. 30 with rounds at 4 p.m., 5:25 p.m. and 7:45 p.m. The Traxxas Nitro Shootout for Funny Car takes place on Sunday, Aug. 31 for the eight qualified drivers, with rounds at 12:30 p.m., 1:55 p.m. and 4:15 p.m.
ESPN2 will televise more than 10 hours of coverage of the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals. Five hours of qualifying coverage and coverage of the Traxxas Nitro Shootout will air on ESPN2 at 11 a.m.-2 p.m. (ET) and 5-7 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 31. Monday’s (Sept. 1) eliminations for the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals will be featured in six hours of coverage starting at noon (ET).
To purchase tickets for the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, fans can contact NHRA’s Ticket Sales Center at 800-884-NHRA (6472), or get their tickets online at www.NHRATIX.com.