So, here I sit in the Indy tower. It’s Monday, about 11:30 a.m., and we should just about be wrapping up the first round of Top Fuel. Instead of thousands of horsepower, the famed dragstrip in Indy is host to (by my fast count) the 56 feet of the diligent members of the NHRA Safety Safari, still laboring on the racetrack long after the event has been officially postponed a week by a combination of today’s bad forecast and, more specifically, the damage wrought on the track by yesterday’s downpour. The track scrape to remove the comprised rubber is supposed to take at least five hours. Add to that an iffy forecast and some balky equipment, and it ain’t a pretty picture, but all of the elements combined are enough evidence that the right call was made.
We’ll have to wait a week to crown not only the winners of the 58th annual Big Go, but also to decide which 10 drivers in each class will make the playoffs and which Funny Car driver will win his or her half of the Traxxas Nitro Shootout. There are a lot of reasons to come back next weekend (of course, I will be here).
The decision to move the event’s conclusion a week is rare for Indy but not unprecedented. The first Nationals, in 1955 in Great Bend, Kan., got down to the final seven cars – five dragsters (including that of eventual winner Calvin Rice) -- battling for the class championship, with the winner to face off against Jim Nelson's coupe and Fred Voight's Chrysler-powered dragster, winner of the Open Gas class, in a three-way battle for Top Eliminator, eventually won by Rice nearly two months later in Perryville, Ariz.
More recently, the 2003 U.S. Nationals is the only other Big Go forced beyond a Tuesday finish (of which there have been several). At the 2003 event, we got to the same point in the program – Saturday qualifying complete, with the then-equivalent of the Traxxas Nitro Shootout (the Big Bud Shootout) still to run. That weekend's other bonus event, the K&N Filters Pro Bike Klash – like the Top Fuel Traxxas Shootout this year – had already been completed.
We came back a week later to wrap up the show, with two qualifying sessions and the Shootout. Tony Pedregon won the Shootout for the first time, beating his boss, John Force, in the final.
The winner of the Bike Klash was the inspirational Reggie Showers, a double amputee whose handicap in no way was a handicap in his riding career.
"This is the leg that kicked the ass today," Showers joked, as he waved one of his prosthetic racing legs over his head in the winner's circle. "Seriously, as a disabled person, I've had to fight for everything I've had in my life. Winning races in the NHRA is no different. It's a struggle every round.”
Showers, whose only other final round had been a runner-up in Chicago earlier that year, wasn’t done yet as the following weekend he also won the U.S. Nationals for the first time, becoming just the latest in a series of drivers such as Ed McCulloch, Don Schumacher, and Gary Beck whose first victory came at the Big Go. Two weeks later, Showers added a victory at the Mid-South Nationals in Memphis to cap three spectacular weeks in his career, but he never won again. Just another great Indy story.
The surprise of the meet may have been David Baca, who piloted his Johnny West-tuned Hunter’s Hope/American Racing dragster to the No. 1 qualifying spot with a 4.49 Friday and held the spot until eliminations. Baca, whose father, Dennis, won the event in 1977 in a bit of a surprise, had similar hopes, but they were dashed by the late Darrell Russell in round two.
Russell’s Wayne Dupuy-tuned entry made it all the way to the final, where it fell to Tony Schumacher, who won his third of what is now eight Indy wins.
None of the other low qualifiers reached the winner’s circle either. Force, like Baca, fell in round two; his loss came to Johnny Gray, who then was driving the second Checker-Schuck’s-Kragen entry for the Worsham team. Gray’s win over Force avenged boss Del Worsham’s first-round loss to Force.
Gray also reached the final – the 500th in the history of Funny Car -- but fell to Tim Wilkerson, runner-up at the 1997 event to Whit Bazemore.
Kurt Johnson led the Pro Stock field and actually reached the final before being stopped by his former crewmember, Greg Anderson, in the final. K.J. turned the Tree red to hand Anderson his second Indy win.
Before Labor Day Monday eliminations began at the 1961 Nationals in its Indy debut, racing at the Nationals was held Sunday, but at the 1959 Nationals, the first in Detroit, we had our first Monday finish as darkness forced Houston's Rodney Singer and crew chief Karol Miller, the AA/D class winners, to wait until Monday to beat Jack Chrisman, A/Dragster class winner with his Joe Malliard-tuned, Chrysler-powered, chain-driven Sidewinder II, for Top Eliminator honors.
The 1971 Nationals became the first to have a Tuesday finish, and anyone who was there won’t soon forget the Top Fuel final, the famous “burndown” between Don Garlits and Steve Carbone. In a nutshell, Carbone made it clear he would not stage first, and Garlits, despite being the heavy favorite based on performance, also vowed similarly, which played right into Carbone’s hands when Garlits’ overheated engine smoked the tires. When I interviewed “Big Daddy” a few years ago, he called it the biggest mistake of his racing career.
Marvin “Who?” Graham’s 1974 Top Fuel win also came on Tuesday, as did Prudhomme’s fifth Indy win (over youngster Billy Meyer), and Bob Glidden won the second of what would ultimately become nine Indy Pro Stock wins. Likewise, Terry Capp’s biggest Top Fuel score came on a Tuesday at the 1980 event. The 1994 Top Fuel final, where veterans Connie Kalitta and Eddie Hill dueled, almost needed another day as it took place under the lights (a first!) after the start of eliminations was delayed three and a half hours.
Other than that, for a race held in late summer in the Midwest, the event has not had any other major postponements in its first 57 years, a pretty remarkable achievement.