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ACDelco NHRA Gatornationals notebook
Sunday, March 15, 2009


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News and notes from the 40th annual ACDelco NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville. Compiled by the NHRA.com and National DRAGSTER staffs.

SUNDAY 
(Previous: Friday | Saturday)
Last update: 4:50 p.m. Eastern (click to latest item)

Winning time: Welcome to Day 4 of the 40th annual ACDelco NHRA Gatornationals. The sun is shining down on Gainesville Raceway as we prepare for the final day of racing and the crowning of this year's champions. We're going to kick off the day with a round each of Stock, Super Stock, and Super Comp before heading into pre-race ceremonies and then the first round of the Full Throttle Pros at 11 a.m. ET. You can follow along with our live audiocast or, if you can't stay by the computer all day, follow the action on NHRA's Twitter page, http://twitter.com/NHRA_FTS, where you can have updates sent to your cell phone.

Pre-race: In pre-race ceremonies, Karen Stoffer's new GEICO Suzuki was named Best Engineered, and David Allen's BB/AM Pontiac GXP Comp entry was named Best Appearing. The Cottrell Racing/DoDealz.com Top Alcohol Dragster team was named Best Appearing Crew.

Additionally, several 2008 champs were saluted, including Pro Stock Motorcycle champ Eddie Krawiec, Top Alcohol Dragster king Bill Reichert, Super Comp champ Shawn Langdon, and Super Gas titlist Brian Forrester.

Thunder in the pipes: After the national anthem and the pinpoint skydiver touchdown, the first round of Top Fuel is under way.

Top Fuel first round:
Larry Dixon advanced with new low e.t. (3.882) and will face Morgan Lucas in round two with lane choice. Other second-round pairings (lane choice denoted by bold): Brandon Bernstein vs. Shawn Langdon; Bobby Lagana vs. Antron Brown; and Cory McClenathan vs. Tony Schumacher. Lane choice may be important as six of the eight won in the left lane. The track temperature is 99 degrees, and with only a few clouds overhead, the track will probably get tricky by round two.

Bernstein's victory against Urs Erbacher was the round's most thrilling as the Budweiser/Lucas dragster rode a tightrope down the centerline to the finish. "It just drifted over there and stayed there, but I didn’t want to jerk it back and kick the tires loose, so I just held it straight until I got to the finish line," said Bernstein.

Funny Car round one:
Low qualifier Bob Tasca III shallow staged and slowed considerably from his qualifying pace and opponent Jim Head picked up, making for a close finish, but the first-time polesitter advances to round two to face teammate Tim Wilkerson, who will have lane choice. Other second-round pairings (lane choice denoted by bold): John Force vs. Jerry Toliver; Ashley Force Hood vs. Matt Hagan; and Del Worsham vs. Tony Pedregon. As in Top Fuel, all those with lane choice took the left lane, and six of the eight winners were in that lane.

Highlights of the round: Ashley Force Hood surrendered a big starting-line lead to Cruz Pedregon and tracked him down in the last hundred feet or so by running low e.t. of the meet, 4.118. Tony Pedregon's holeshot victory against Capps handed the points leader his first loss of the season after eight straight round-wins.

Getting down: Ron Capps' NAPA Auto Parts Dodge had been a handful in qualifying, darting once to the guardwall and a second time to the centerline. Turns out that between races, the crew had taken off the small wickerbills that surround the front fender flares. They create drag but also downforce. They were back on for round one, but Capps was uncharacteristically late (.117) and lost on a holeshot to Tony Pedregon.

Pro Stock round one:
Low qualifier Mike Edwards advanced to round two and will meet Rickie Jones in the second frame and will have lane choice. Other second-round pairings (lane choice denoted by bold): Kurt Johnson vs. Jason Line; Greg Anderson vs. Greg Stanfield; and Allen Johnson vs. Jeg Coughlin.

Highlight of the round: Curiously, the lane of choice for the Pro Stockers was the right, the opposite of what the fuel cars preferred, and all eight winners were in the right lane. Seven of the eight with lane choice took the right lane; the only one who didn't, Johnny Gray, lost to Stanfield on a holeshot by .006-second. Ouch.
 
Pro Stock Motorcycle round one: Low qualifier Matt Smith advances on Ryan Schnitz's -.014 red-light and will run Steve Johnson in round two with lane choice. Other second-round pairings (lane choice denoted by bold): Angie McBride vs. Andrew Hines; Hector Arana vs. Eddie Krawiec; and Karen Stoffer vs. Shawn Gann.

Highlight of the round: Hector Arana was dead late (.186 reaction) but caught a break when Junior Pippin's Buell bogged just off the line. Arana powered the Lucas Oil Buell to new low e.t. of 6.935 while Pippin recovered and went hard to half-track before sitting up and giving up the chase. The bikes also preferred the right lane, with seven of the eight saddling up over there, but only six won. Steve Johnson picked his lane and won out of the left lane, and Shawn Gann won out of the left to upset Craig Treble.

Top Fuel round two: Tony Schumacher's nine-round winning streak at the event ends against his DSR teammate Cory McClenathan. Both struck the tires and pedaled expertly at 300 feet, but Cory Mac chased down "the Sarge" to win, but it cost him an engine. He'll race Bobby Lagana Jr. with lane choice. All four drivers with lane choice took the left, but only Dixon, who beat Morgan Lucas with another 3.88, and Bernstein won there, and they race in the semifinals, where Dixon gets to pick 'em.

Fast fact: Second-generation racer Bobby Lagana Jr., whose Tire Kingdom dragster is tuned by his 24-year-old brother Dom, upset tire-smoking Antron Brown; Lagana's two round-wins today double his 45-race career total.

Funny Car round two: Matt Hagan pulled off the upset of the round by beating Ashley Force Hood, 4.171 to 4.179, and will have lane choice against Tony Pedregon in the final four. It's the first semifinal appearance for Hagan. Ashley's dad, John, a seven-time Gatornats winner, will take on fellow Ford racer Bob Tasca III, who almost traded paint with teammate Tim Wilkerson at the top end as both closed on the centerline.

Observation: Based on his two winning interviews so far today, if John Force continues to drink a can of Full Throttle after every round-win, his interview is going to be indecipherable if he wins the race.

Pro Stock round two: Rickie Jones tattooed low qualifier Mike Edwards off the line, and Edwards' chances got slimmer when his mount got a bit loose. Jones will race Jason Line, who holds lane choice. Greg Stanfield put a light on Greg Anderson as well and scored a holeshot win by .008-second and will race Allen Johnson, who's hoping to give his mother a birthday present at day's end. A.J. has lane choice.

Highlight of the round: World champ Jeg Coughlin looked more life a drift racer as his yellow Chevy got really loose in the left lane against Allen Johnson.

Pro Stock Motorcycle round two: A wacky, wacky round. Angie McBride has obvious transmission woes after the burnout and staged against Andrew Hines hoping for a miracle that didn't come. When the Tree went green, she sat still while he rocketed to victory. Shawn Gann then bogged and killed his engine on the burnout and barely got it restarted in time to get to the line against Karen Stoffer, who gamely waited for him. Then she waited for him when the Tree went green, too, with a .137 light that cost her a holeshot loss, 7.02 to 6.98.

Next round: Battle of the heavyweights as Matt Smith, who beat Steve Johnson, takes on Andrew Hines. In the other half, Shawn Gann will race Hector Arana, who beat Eddie Krawiec.

Top Fuel semifinals: Cory McClenathan advanced to the final in fiery fashion after Bobby Lagana Jr.'s Cinderella story hit midnight when he smoked the tires. Cory Mac's Fram digger wounded an engine just past the 330 timers and was in flames the remainder of the track. Larry Dixon beats tire-smoking Brandon Bernstein to reach his seventh Gatornationals final and will have lane choice against McClenathan.

Did you know? Not only has Cory Mac never won the Gatornationals in his prolific career, but until this year, the 34-time national event winner had never even reached the final round here.

Funny Car semifinals: Bob Tasca III's career weekend continues as he beats John Force, who tightropes the centerline and then changes lanes behind Tasca. After Tasca's chute deployed, Force had to make a quick swerve back to the left to get back into his own lane. Defending two-time Gators winner Tony Pedregon earned lane choice against good pal Tasca for the final. Tasca was the best man at Pedregon's wedding.

Interested spectators: Matt Hagan's DSR teammates Ron Capps and Jack Beckman both had front-row seats for Hagan's run, standing behind the car for support as he launched.

Pro Stock semifinals: Allen Johnson shouldn’t be in the Pro Stock final, but he is. His Mopar Dodge sashayed around the right lane on launch, but he tracked down Greg Stanfield, whose car went silent at the top end. In the other semifinal match, Rickie Jones got loose in the right lane and lost to Jason Line, who goes to the Gators final for the second straight year.

Pro Stock Motorcycle semifinals: Matt Smith trounces Andrew Hines, 7.03 to 7.11, but Hector Arana does him five better with a stunning 6.98 to chase down Shawn Gann's holeshot. Arana's light was a .120, slow but better than his first-round .186. Arana has final-round lane choice.

Winners crowned: Larry Dixon (Top Fuel), Bob Tasca III (Funny Car), Jason Line (Pro Stock), and Hector Arana (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were crowned Professional winners. The win was the first of his Pro career for Tasca, the 44th for Dixon, the 17th for Line, and the second for Arana.

Lucas Oil Sportsman wins went to Duane Shields, (Top Alcohol Dragster), Frank Manzo (Top Alcohol Funny Car), David Eaton (Comp), Herbie Null (Super Stock), Scott Helms (Stock), Brian Forrester (Super Comp).
 



SATURDAY
Welcome to Day 3: Eliminations are under way in the Sportsman classes, with Stock and Super Stock. Pros run under the same schedule as yesterday, at 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. It's an overcast day right now, but no threat of rain, and the Florida sun undoubtedly will burn off the clouds before long. As a group, the Pro racers predicted Friday that Saturday would yield better track and weather conditions.

New rider: Douglas Horne, the 2008 All Harley Drag Racing Association Rush Pro Fuel champion, made his NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle debut Friday at Gainesville Raceway. That's a pretty big step considering that the Aberdeen, Md., racer competed in his first motorcycle drag race at Gainesville just three years ago in the All Harley Drag Racing Association. He finished seventh in AHDRA points and received the 2006 AHDRA Sportsman Rookie of the Year award.  The next year, he was the Nitro Pro Fuel class points runner-up to his teammate, LE Tonglet, brother to NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle racer GT Tonglet. Last year, Horne's team supported the RAACE Foundation (Race Against Abuse of Children Everywhere), a Maryland-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting child sexual abuse through public-awareness campaigns, and powered to four straight AHDRA national event wins and the 2008 championship.

He made the jump to NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle this year astride an '09 Buell built by Junior Pippin and Rick Maney with a Kosman chassis powered by an S&S engine tuned by veteran crew chief Bob Taft.

"As a young race fan, you dream of this opportunity," he said. "You just have to take it round by round to make the best of it. The great part about this is that every round we advance, it gives the announcer that many more opportunities to talk about Horne Racing, the RAACE Foundation, and our efforts to spread awareness through www.raace.org and the mission to eliminate child sexual abuse by raising public awareness.

“With the economy the way it is, we are not sure how many events we will make this year. We know that it’s tough out there, but we figured now would be the best time for us to enter the sport of NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle Drag Racing, make a statement on behalf of the RAACE Foundation, and advance my career."

One down: After experimenting Friday with a single-wheelie-bar setup, Pro Stock veteran Warren Johnson returned to a conventional setup for Saturday. Although he made a run good enough to initially make the field, the winningest racer in Gatornationals history was later bumped out and has just one shot left to make the field.

Sole man: Other than Cory McClenathan's 3.91 that challenged Larry Dixon's Friday 3.90 for the No. 1 spot, the highlight of the third Top Fuel session had to be the crewmember for Del Cox Jr. who literally walked out of his shoes while backing up the rookie driver after his burnout. The tacky track yanked the tennies right off his feet, much to the delight of the huge crowd, but he gamely pressed on, snatching his shoes from the sticky surface's grasp and continuing on in his socks, the bottoms of which quickly went from white to black.

Pro Mod crash: George Landis, from Boynton Beach, Fla., was checked and released by NHRA emergency-services officials after his Judge Racing Team Dodge Stratus went out of control, crossed the centerline, and impacted both guardwalls before coming to rest just past the finish line during the final qualifying session. Pro Mod is an exhibition category that is featured at select NHRA events.

Thrilled: After collecting his second straight and eighth No. 1 qualifying spot in Pro Stock, Mike Edwards commented, "This is just so rewarding. I've been doing this a long time, and I've never once had an opportunity to run like this. Everyone knows about the parity in Pro Stock; it's so hard to do, and it feels so good to be part of something that I've dreamed of doing. It's an awesome feeling.

"Pro Stock is such a driver's game; we prove that every race. I can guarantee you that there will be 16 drivers out there, and every one of them has a chance to win the race. We've seen guys win from the front, the middle, and the end of the field."

Cursed: It's bad enough for Mike Neff that he's still having to both tune and drive his Ford Drive One Mustang in the absence of crew chief John Medlen, but the 2008 rookie of the year is also battling the so-called Curse of the Gators, which seems to routinely claim out-of-staters.

“I have been so sick all weekend," he said. "It has been a rough weekend for me. The crew is doing a great job. They are doing most of the work. I have definitely been able to communicate with Medlen this weekend more than during the Phoenix race,” said Neff.  “Everything on the Ford Drive One Mustang is going along all right. These are tricky conditions here. It is all new stuff for us. We have a few new things on the car that we are trying to learn about. We are fighting our way through it. I feel better today than yesterday."



FRIDAY

Ready for his close-up:
Super Stock racer Tony Conte's SS/AS '84 Camaro made a hard right turn just after the launch in round two of class eliminations Friday. Although the home-state driver missed the Christmas Tree, his Dunedin, Fla.-based Chevy did a serious number on the ESPN2 camera that sits near the 60-foot clocks and is focused back at the Tree.

Strong crowd: Friday may be a workday for most of the world, but that didn't stop ACDelco NHRA Gatornationals fans from turning out in droves to enjoy the nice weather and some topflight racing. The pitside grandstands were just about full for the day's action, and a strong contigent also filled a good portion of the new grandstands on the spectator side of the track.

New crew: Top Alcohol Funny Car racer Andy Bohl has a couple of interesting guys working on his crew this weekend: Daniel Wilkerson, son of nitro Funny Car hero Tim Wilkerson, and Todd Veney, son of Hall of Fame racer Ken Veney. Both are accomplished Top Alcohol Funny Car racers in their own right, and both have nitro-flavored dreams, but neither currently has a ride. "It's the Association of Washed-up Drivers," cracked Wilkerson, a former Division 3 champ, who already has earned his nitro ticket in Dad's car; the team hopes to add him to its roster sometime this season. Veney, who has three national event runner-ups, worked for National DRAGSTER but left his position to work for Mike Ashley and then Roger Burgess, hoping to work his way up as test driver into a ride with the teams, but after both of those teams sidelined their efforts, the multitalented Veney is trying to catch on with another team.

Crying fowl: Veteran Division 1 racer Len Cottrell and new driver Bob Weickgenannt are on hand with their new DoDealz.com Top Alcohol Dragster, which is making its debut at this event. Fans familiar with Cottrell's racing history will be disappointed to not see the Chicken Chokers' familiar fowl hanging from the rear wing. The team will represent DoDealz.com at 10 races in the NHRA Lucas Oil and Full Throttle Drag Racing Series this season.

New shoe: Tom Martino, who won the ACDelco NHRA Gatornationals in 2006, will make his first competitive runs in a Pro Stock car in more than a year as the temporary driver for a new Pro Stock Dodge campaigned by Ronnie Humphrey. The car will be powered by a Larry Morgan engine, and Martino believes that he has a better than average chance of qualifying for what promises to be a tough 16-car field.

"We tested this car in Valdosta [Ga.] this week, and we made some competitive runs," said Martino. "If we can make a good run in the good qualifying session, I think we'll be in good shape. I can tell you that I'm really enjoying working with Ronnie Humphrey. He is a genuinely nice guy." Humphrey plans to renew his competition license in the coming weeks and plans to drive the car at eight to 10 events this season.

Oh, wheelie? Both Warren Johnson and Rickie Jones are running just one wheelie bar on their Pro Stockers in Gainesville. Ironically, they were paired in the first qualifying session. W.J., the winningest driver in Gatornationals history, ran 6.66 while Jones got loose and had to shut off. Asked about the unusual arrangement, more commonly seen in Top Fuel and Funny Car, the "Professor of Pro Stock" blamed the economy. "I can only afford one wheel," he quipped.

Follow along: Low qualifiers after each Pro session can be found on NHRA's Twitter page, http://twitter.com/NHRA_FTS.

Greek speak: Legendary Top Fuel racer Chris Karamesines is making his first NHRA national event appearance since the 2007 ACDelco NHRA Gatornationals. "The Greek" failed to make the field two years ago, continuing a disappointing string of outings that entering this race now spans 13 straight DNQs. The last time he made the field at an NHRA event was the 2003 event in Sonoma, where he qualified No. 7 but lost in the first round.

Trying it with two: Rickie Jones' single-wheelie-bar experiment apparently only lasted one pass as the QuarterMax Dodge Pro Stocker had the usual complement of rotation stoppers for its second pass Friday. W.J. ran the second session still using the monobar.

New bike coming: Matt Smith, who sits on the Friday pole in Pro Stock Motorcycle in his debut aboard the Don Schumacher Racing Suzuki, says the team still is working on its four-valve Hayabusa-motored two-wheeler. "We're still working on it and a new body," said Smith. "I haven't got the latest info, but earlier this year, we were hoping to debut it by the fourth or fifth race of the season. We'll see how it goes."

Going green: It was far from the best run of the day, but Ryan Schnitz's 7.17 aboard Rob Muzzy's Kawasaki ZX-14 was the talk of the Pro Stock Motorcycle pits Friday. The bright green Kawasaki is the only one of its kind on the tour, featuring a liquid-cooled, overhead valve four-cylinder engine. Schnitz and Muzzy debuted the bike last season but never ran quicker than 7.32 seconds. Muzzy noted that the performance improvement was due in large part to an off-season effort to get the bike down to the 575-pound minimum weight.

Turn for the better: Second-year Funny Car pilot Bob Tasca III, who leads the field after the first day, accomplished the run despite a starting-line handicap, which he was able to deftly overcome. "I never would have been able to make that run last year," he admitted. "We had a new guy backing me from Phoenix, we made a change, and I was crooked. Shame on me, I should have picked it up earlier, but I knew I wasn't in the right direction, and I was pointed at the wall. I actually turned the wheel a half turn and rolled into the beams. The tires were pointing right, and I figured that the first hit of the throttle, it was going to move me center, so it did just that. I felt it start going to the centerline, and when I was a rookie, it happened to me more than once, and you jerk it back, and it washes out and [smokes] the tires. I finessed it back, and then it was drifting. I did more driving on that first run than I did on the second run, so I didn't enjoy it as much. That last run, I said, 'I could have put [my son Austin] in there'; it was straight as an arrow."
 

Still learning: Even though he's a two-time world champ and has more than a dozen years of Top Fuel driving under his safety belts, Larry Dixon still takes every chance he can to improve his game. That's important this year, his first with tuner Alan Johnson, who has given Dixon a different starting-line procedure than he has used in the past.

"I think that the more runs, the more laps you get in the car, the more in tune you are," he said. "I'm getting less coaching on procedures in the car because it's becoming routine now. You're doing some things a certain way for four or five years between crew chiefs, and then you get another crew chief, and he wants it a little different. Now we've got 25 to 30 runs under our belt, so it's getting more like home.

"If you want to be able to help the team, you've got to help out however you can. Obviously, whatever they were doing last year as a group was working real well, so I think it's more important for me to fit in with them as opposed to them changing things for me."