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The fifth dimension

Austin Williams accomplished an almost unheard of feat by winning the Menards NHRA Heartland Nationals for the fifth straight year
24 May 2017
Kevin McKenna, NHRA National Dragster Senior Editor
The Sports Report
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austin1Thankfully for Austin Williams, Heartland Park Topeka is less than 500 miles from his home in Burleson, Texas, but even if the distance was twice that far, he’d still be happy to make the trip. It isn’t hard to understand why Williams might have a fondness for Heartland Park Topeka, especially after he won for the fifth straight year. Williams successfully defended his title in Super Comp when he defeated Jim Repka in the final round and before that, he won three consecutive Stock titles from 2013-15.

Over the last five years in Topeka, racing in both Super Comp and Stock—two very different categories—Williams has compiled an amazing 40-5 record in elimination rounds. In Super Comp, he’s 18-3 and his record in Stock is even more impressive at 22-2. Williams has often been asked to expound on his incredible success in Topeka but a proper explanation eludes him.

“There is something about this place but I'm not sure what it is,” said Williams. “I like a place that is going to be crazy, and the fact that we were wet on Friday, freezing yesterday, and a beautiful day today made it that way. It just worked out for the best. For some reason, this track inspires confidence. For one thing, the Tree is close so you can see it better and it’s easier to cut a light. The second thing, and I’m not sure if it’s just in my mind, is that the stands are quite far away from the track. You almost get the feeling of being at a bracket race because you don’t see the fans. Sunday at a national event is a different animal because you’re usually racing in front of a packed house. The third thing is the weather. It’s always changing, which brings the human element into play.”

Williams suffered a rare early loss in Stock with his championship-winning Plymouth Duster, but he went the distance in Super Comp with his dragster. Williams, like every other racer in Topeka, had to make multiple adjustments to compensate for rapidly-changing weather conditions, but he managed to reach the final where he used an almost perfect run to stop opponent James Repka. After leaving with a .009 light, Williams finished the job with an equally impressive 8.907 while Repka broke out with an 8.883.

austin3“My dragster has been very good this year,” Williams said. “Last winter, I went with a new engine, new carburetor, and a new converter. Basically, I took a car that finished No. 2 in the world last year and changed everything, but it’s come around. My only qualifying run was an 8.77, but I made a few changes and the car showed me what it likes. With the weather, we picked up six hundredths on Saturday and another nine [hundredths] on Sunday, but that was expected.

“I watched the Stock and Super Stock finals [run] in front of me and there were double breakouts in both of them,” said Williams. “I sped my car up a little from the semi’s, and going down through there, I knew that I didn’t’ really want to get there first. I decided not to and it worked out for the best. I had put the car on an 8.90 run, so it worked out for me.”

Every year since his streak began, Williams is asked the inevitable question of how much longer it can last and for that, he has no answer.

“It’s bound to end sometime, right?” he said. “I mean, I’d like to think I can win every time and that’s always my mindset, but at some point reality sets in. Either way, I plan on coming back next year for another try.”

austin45The best of the rest: After winning his first two national event titles in Las Vegas in 2015 and 2013, Jason DeForrest added the Topeka Super Stock title to his record. In a double-breakout final round, DeForrest got the best of Pete Peery with a (-.016) 9.164 to a (-.029) 9.461. DeForrest, in his GT/EA Cavalier, topped past national event winners Larry Hodge, Gene Bichlmeier, and Justin Jenkins before taking a bye-run into the final. Peery, a three-time national event winner and 2015 Topeka champ, got a free pass to the final after Ryan Montford was a no-show in the semi’s. Ironically, DeForrest was competing in his first event of the season.

Jeff Lopez, the 2012 Lucas Oil Super Gas champion, won his fifth national event title when he stopped Randi Lyn Shipp in the Stock final. Lopez, behind the wheel of his COPO Camaro, defeated Shipp’s vintage ’68 Firebird. Lopez gave up a slight lead at the start (.033 to .014) but got the best of a double-breakout race with a (-.020) 9.200 to Shipp’s (-.041) 10.519. Lopez, who was appearing in just his second event of the season in Stock, also scored wins against John Cooper’s vintage ’64 Thunderbolt and Verne Buchanan’s equally classic G/SA ’73 Mustang in the semifinals. For Shipp, the loss marked her first in a national event final after four victories.

Moments before watching his son James race in the Super Comp final, Jim Repka raced against Roger Warren for the Super Gas title. Warren, the winner of the Super Comp class at the 2003 Houston race and 2011 Atlanta event, added a third title when he used a near-perfect 9.901 to stop Repka, who broke out with a 9.882. Warren reached the final round after a 9.95 7to 9.885 win against Daniel Gamblin. A month ago, Warren was the runner-up at the NHRA Springnationals at Royal Purple Raceway near Houston.

austin6Former Jr. Dragster racer Afton Swanson had one of the quickest cars in the Top Dragster presented by Racing RVs class in Topeka, and she was the last one standing on Sunday after a final-round win against 2013 Topeka winner Larry Piper. Swanson wheeled her Spitzer Race Cars-built dragster to wins against Mallori Rogers, Bill Swann, and Bob Henry before taking on Piper in the final. Swanson earned the first Wally of her career in style with a 6.202 on his 6.20 dial while Piper wasn’t far behind with a 6.399 on his 6.37 dial. For the record, Swanson was one of four women to make it to the final in Topeka along with Rachel Meyer (Top Alcohol Dragster), Annie Whiteley (Top Alcohol Funny Car), and Shipp (Stock), but she was the only one to emerge with a victory.