To a competitive runner, a marathon is a 26.2-mile event that is completed in merely a few hours. The equivalent of a marathon to a drag racer is the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals presented by Lucas Oil. The event is active for four days (most teams are there for about a week when you include parking, pit setup, tech inspection, etc. and beyond that for those who partook in the test session on Thursday, Aug. 25), and those nitro racers fortunate enough to see it to its completion log a total of 9,000 recorded feet on the dragstrip, equivalent to about 1.7 miles.

The wacky weather over Labor Day weekend made the 1.7-mile marathon more of a biathlon. The event was a hot and humid one at the onset with temperatures reaching the high 90s and track surface temperatures rising to the mid-130s. The weather shifted Sunday, and racers were greeted with brisk, 60-degree air and a chilly headwind when they woke up on race day, and the track temperature stayed in the 70s and 80s.

I asked several crew chiefs whether the drastic change in air conditions required big adjustments from the baselines they established over the weekend or if it was like working with a clean sheet of paper. The most common answer was “both.”

A Top Fuel dragster or Funny Car that made a competitive lap on Monday would have been over-clutched and underpowered with the same setup Friday through Sunday. The motors had to be backed down to compensate for the mineshaft air Monday, which meant thicker head gaskets to create lower compression ratios, less mag timing, less nitro percentage, and lower blower overdrive.

Brian Corradi, who tuned Antron Brown to a victory in Top Fuel along with Mark Oswald, was still agonizing over how much to slow the blower speed when I talked to him prior to the start of eliminations.

“The change in blower speed is a lot different, about 3 percent or more,” said Corradi. “The closest conditions we saw to today was on Sunday night. Even from then, the temperature dropped from 72 degrees to 60 degrees. The water grains are down about 30 [grains of water per pound of air]. The barometer is down a little but pretty close to the same.

“The thing we worry most about is backing it up too much and shaking the tires. We also have to make a decision about whether to run new tires or old tires. We’ve been breaking in new tires all weekend.”

When conditions change to the point that it is nearly a blank slate for competitors, Alan Johnson tends to become the favorite in Top Fuel. He did little to sway that opinion because he and Brian Husen tuned the Del Worsham-driven Al-Anabi dragster to low e.t. of every elimination round leading up to the final. Brown, the No. 1 qualifier, adapted quite nicely, too, and ran between 3.819 and 3.842 while proving to be as good when fans were huddled up in jackets as he was when they were sporting tank tops and SPF 50.

Both drivers were gamely on the Tree in the final and engaged in a great side-by-side race. Brown was a bit quicker early, and both ran screaming 282-mph times to the 660-foot increments. Brown won the bout by a 3.81 to 3.83 count, and Corradi evened the score with Worsham for his narrow loss in Funny Car in the 2005 final when Corradi was tuning for Frank Pedregon and Worsham doubled up with Skoal Showdown special event and national event victories.

“The racetrack was so good that it ate up the tune-up,” said Corradi, who also won Indy in 2007 while tuning Mike Ashley’s Funny Car. “We kept throwing weight [on the primary clutch levers] at it. I guess it had enough to win.”

During Brown’s incredible six-win season in 2009, things fell flat for a few events that began with a first-round loss at this event, and that slump ultimately cost him the season title. A win here and a No. 2 berth heading into the playoffs may help the popular driver finish the job amid stiff competition in the Top Fuel ranks this season.

“Having momentum going into the start of the Countdown is big,” said Corradi. “We’re going to keep pressing. This is the biggest race of the year, but we don’t treat it differently from any other race. That’s how we’re going to treat the rest of the races this year. No pressure.”

The thoughtful-yet-fearless approach of the Matco Tools team was essential to putting Brown, a former sprinter on his high school track team, on fast dashes throughout his triumph of the Indy marathon.

The Fast Five

Just because Mike Neff had already wrapped up the No. 1 spot in Funny Car heading into the Countdown doesn’t mean that he didn’t want to win this event in a bad way. The driver and tuner of the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang had never won Indy in either capacity, although he was a part of wins as a crewmember for Cory McClenathan in 1996 and 1999 and Cruz Pedregon in 1994. He also wanted to shake off a meager four-race stretch in which he only tallied two round-wins, for which he was most bothered by the fact that he wasn’t competitive during most of his losses. “Zippy” added his name to Indy folklore while extending John Force Racing’s winning streak at this event to four years.

The Summit Racing entries of Greg Anderson and Jason Line continued to dominate the Pro Stock ranks with their fourth all-team final of the season. Anderson beat his teammate on a holeshot in the final, but getting to the final in and of itself was a big feat for Line. He had never responded well to the pressure of trying to win Indy in the past, and he had tallied only five career round-wins at the event in his seven previous starts despite having some great cars during that stretch. Anderson’s sixth career Indy win is his fourth win and fifth final-round appearance over the past six races this season.

The battle for the Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award, which honors NHRA’s top rookie, got a lot more interesting with Pro Stock Motorcycle rookies Hector Arana Jr. and Jerry Savoie both reaching the final. Pro Stock’s Vincent Nobile likely holds the edge if voting were to commence tomorrow, but both riders showed that they’re going to merit strong consideration. Arana, the preseason favorite for the award, has lived up to the hype recently with a final-round appearance in Brainerd, then a breakthrough win at this event aboard the Lucas Oil Buell. Arana qualified No. 1 three times this season and had been knocking on the door of earning a victory. Savoie, who looked more polished than Arana at the season opener in Gainesville, and his Mark Peiser-led White Alligator Racing team showed their perseverance by overcoming engine woes during qualifying to reach his first final.

Brandon Bernstein
hadn’t reached a semifinal berth since the Englishtown event in June and the Las Vegas event in April before that, so his competitive effort that resulted in a final-four finish was a remarkable turnaround for the Copart team. Legendary tuner Dale Armstrong was called in to assist crew chiefs Todd Smith and Donnie Bender at this event, though the biggest assist of the race belongs to Funny Car driver/tuner Tim Wilkerson. Bernstein’s frequent cylinder-dropping issues of late were diagnosed as supercharger problems, and Wilkerson helped the team by lending them a reliable unit during qualifying. Bernstein used that same blower for the remainder of the event and improved on every pass. Wilkerson had been given access to Don Prudhomme’s blower dyno several years ago when Smith and Bender worked there, so he was more than willing to help them.

Nobody made a sub-five-second run against Bob Tasca III on his way to the final round, but the ease with which he earned his win lights on the track was in stark contrast to the thrashing that his Quick Lane/Motorcraft team had to do in the pits. Tasca suffered engine woes throughout the race and had short turnaround times because he was near the back of the pack in the early rounds. The hard work paid off as Tasca, who entered the event on the playoff bubble, moved into the No. 8 spot as the points reset for the Countdown.

Special Awards

Stats of the race:
Frank Manzo became the winningest driver in U.S. Nationals history when he won in Top Alcohol Funny Car for the 10th time in his career, breaking his tie with Pro Stock legend Bob Glidden. His Al-Anabi Monte Carlo made 5.4-second laps throughout eliminations and defeated first-time finalist Fred Tigges in the money round. Manzo, who can make a strong case for being the greatest Sportsman racer of all time, has scored double-digit wins at three other venues — Reading, Englishtown, and Atlanta.

Larry Dixon’s semifinal loss ensured that a decade-long stretch of only Dixon and Tony Schumacher winning in Top Fuel at this event would be broken. “A lot of drivers would probably want to kick my ass if I complained,” Dixon quipped.

Two longstanding qualifying streaks ended when Cory McClenathan (103 races) and Tony Pedregon (101 races) failed to make the respective Top Fuel and Funny Car fields.

Crew chiefs of the race: Brian Corradi and Mark Oswald had the best car when it was 90-plus degrees during qualifying and 60 degrees during eliminations; Mike Neff got hot when the weather cooled, and he had a booming 270-mph speed at 660 feet during the second round; Rob Downing, Tommy Utt, and Jeff Perley have done a superb job on the Summit Racing Pontiacs to get them to the front of the pack on a consistent basis; Hector Arana Sr. gave his son a rocket ship to ride on Monday.

Best races: Chip Ellis vs. Michael Phillips, Pro Stock Motorcycle round one: The riders practically left together, and Ellis withstood Phillips’ top-end charge to win by a tiny .0008-second margin.

Hector Arana Jr. vs. Angie Smith, Pro Stock Motorcycle round one: Three pairs behind Ellis and Phillips, Smith cut a great .009 light but was nipped by Arana by two thousandths at the stripe.

Jirka Kaplan vs. Brian Browell, Comp final:
This was wild. Kaplan had to fight his blown altered off the centerline to chase down a coasting Browell, and he got him by a hundredth while running a 6.95 at 211 mph.

Jason Line vs. Allen Johnson, Pro Stock semifinal: A.J. was outstanding on the Tree throughout the day and gave the Summit team their biggest scare with a huge .003 to .043 advantage on the starting line, but Line made a near-perfect run while Johnson had some early tire spin.

Antron Brown vs. Del Worsham, Top Fuel final: The final race of the day was also the closest in Top Fuel eliminations with a hundredth deciding the two at the stripe and the quickest side-by-side race of the day.

Tough luck of the race:
Top Fuel’s Terry McMillen endured two cases of “good news, bad news” during the event. He qualified solidly with a 3.89 in the opening qualifying session and cut his points deficit behind 10th-place Dave Grubnic to within a round in the process, but he broke several primary clutch levers during the run and sidelined the pressure plate that he had been running on his clutch all season. He had to install a clutch he hadn’t used before, which resulted in three straight tire-smoking efforts before he got a handle on it in the final qualifying session. Needing a round-win against Rod Fuller in the first round to pass Grubnic and keep his playoff hopes alive, McMillen’s Amalie Oil/UNOH team put their best foot forward by installing a new engine (never-run block, crank, rods, pistons, etc.) and purchased a new set of valve retainers for their cylinder heads after breaking a couple during the final qualifying run. Valve retainers fit into a groove near the end of the valve stems to secure the intake and exhaust valves to the valve springs. Well, McMillen took the win light against Fuller, but one of the retainers failed and allowed an intake valve to drop and a spark from that cylinder to ignite the air/fuel mixture in the manifold, causing a huge fireball and an oildown penalty that cost McMillen 10 points and kept him out of the top 10 despite the round-win. To add insult to injury, the extent of the carnage left McMillen’s never-before-run block and crankshaft damaged beyond repair. His crew worked valiantly to turn the car around with a shot to get into the top 10 if they could defeat Del Worsham in round two, but Worsham defeated him with low e.t. of the event. McMillen, who never oiled the track in 2010 until oildown rules were inserted at the last race of the season, tallied 35 points in oildown penalties this year that ultimately cost him a playoff berth.

Chip Ellis had some ground to make up to secure a playoff bid in Pro Stock Motorcycle. He ran well on the Kuryakyn Buell to reach the semifinals but wasn’t able to help himself in the process; the other three semifinalists were Hector Arana Jr., Jerry Savoie, and Jim Underdahl, who were Nos. 8, 9, and 10 in the standings entering the event.

Robert Hight
put a holeshot on teammate Mike Neff before he dropped a hole by the 60-foot mark in the first round of Funny Car eliminations. The loss combined with Jack Beckman’s win caused him to drop a spot in the standings. The Auto Club team found no reason why it put a cylinder out until pulling that cylinder head off and noticing several dings and chips on the top of the piston. A small piece of the top piston ring broke off at some point and got loose in the combustion chamber, closing the gaps of the two spark plugs in that cylinder shut early in the run.

Ron Capps’ quest for his first Indy win ended with a cracked spark plug wire causing the NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger to drop a cylinder in the Funny Car semifinals.

Tony Schumacher lost in the first round at this event for only the second time in his career. The U.S. Army driver dropped a cylinder at the step and had his safety shutoff system activate early opposite Bob Vandergriff Jr., who kept his Countdown hopes alive with a win but ultimately missed out after a second-round holeshot defeat.

Quotes of the race: “It was like being in the Bahamas on Friday and Alaska on Monday.” — Top Alcohol Funny Car runner-up Fred Tigges

“I don’t know why everyone is so glum over here after smoking the tires. We just went from two races back to two rounds back. We're doing a helluva job if we keep that pace up in Charlotte.” — Jason McCulloch, crew chief for Larry Dixon

“After we blew up in Bristol, Connie [Kalitta] yelled at me about how [messed] up my tune-up was, and I took his sage advice.” — Bill Miller, owner/tuner of the BME/Okuma dragster driven by Troy Buff

“It’s a drag race, not a parade. In a parade, you always know who’s going to be out front.” — Bob Bode