Cory McClenathan, Robert Hight, Mike Edwards, and Andrew Hines are the leaders after Friday's lone qualifying session at the 56th annual Mac Tools U.S. Nationals presented by Lucas Oil at O'Reilly Raceway Park at Indianapolis.
The Full Throttle racers each got one pass Friday and will have two more on both Saturday and Sunday in their bids to earn a spot in the 16-car fields for Monday's final eliminations. The event is the first of six in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series Countdown to the Championship. Ten drivers in each of the four Full Throttle classes battled through a 17-race "regular season" for the right to take part in the playoffs and a chance to win a Full Throttle championship. With the points reset in 10-point increments – save for the top seed, who got a 20-point bonus – every race already means a lot, but when the playoffs kick off at a race as big as the U.S. Nationals, the stakes seem ever higher.
McClenathan, who clocked a sub-track-record 3.79 in pre-event testing eight days ago, bettered that number with a sizzling 3.789 at 319.98 mph to take the provisional pole in Top Fuel. McClenathan's Phil Shuler- and Todd Okuhara-tuned Fram dragster already have four No. 1 qualifiers to its credit this season.
"The track was better tonight than it was in testing, but we just wanted to go out there and repeat what we had done, and we did it," said McClenathan. "Todd and Phil are just doing such a great job and are so in tune with each other on what they're going to do in different conditions.
"This is probably my best chance to win the championship since 1997, and it's interesting that some of the same people are still around me, like Mike Green, and Lee Beard. I don’t wqant to say it's going to happen, but it will be a lot of fun if it does. We'll rock the hosue down, I guarantee you."
Antron Brown, a two-time U.S. Nationals Pro Stock Motorcycle winner (2000, '04) is the No. 2 qualifier with a 3.809, just ahead of Kalitta Motorsports teammates Dave Grubnic (3.823) and Doug Kalitta (3.842). Kalitta is running a special DEWALT paint scheme at this event to support event sponsor Mac Tools.
Eight-time Indy winner Tony Schumacher has top speed at 321.35 mph in his retro-look Army dragster, which was unveiled before qualifying to honor the team's 10-year anniversary with the armed forces. His 3.844 is good for No. 5. Behind them are T.J. Zizzo (3.864), Brandon Bernstein (3.865), and former U.S. Nationals Top Alcohol Dragster champ Steve Torrence (3.882).
Bruce Litton's Lucas Oil dragster has the No. 12 spot with a 3.953.
Hight, who has reached the U.S. Nationals Funny Car final in each of the last four years, seems on track to do it again after charting a 4.055 to lead not only his team but also the field. His Automobile Club of Southern California Mustang ran the number alongside team boss John Force's 4.058 at 312.86 and both of them knocked Ashley Force Hood from the No. 1 spot and broke the new track records of 4.059 and 310.98 she had set earlier in the session. The old marks were 4.073 set two years ago by Tony Pedregon and Force Hood's own 309.84 mph record set last year.
“It’s exciting to come in here with a new paint job that celebrates my 2009 championship and take it to the top, but what’s really exciting for me is that all three of the John Force cars are 1-2-3 within thousandths,” said Hight. “We had a good test session here a week ago. I was actually nervous about tonight because we ran well in testing but Jimmy Prock was not happy. He’s been back at the dyno, and he’s worked night and day trying to figure out how to make this car leave better. Tonight, we had the best 60-foot time we’ve had in a long time, and the time he spent on the dyno paid off.
“More than anything, that’s the way to start the Countdown out. This is a new season for us. From this point forward, we have to forget everything that happened before. It doesn’t matter how many wins we had at Force Racing. From here forward, we have to be perfect and do our job because there’s too good of cars out here that are chasing us.”
Behind the Force triumvirate are Brainerd winner Bob Bode, who ran a career-best 4.109 for the fourth spot. Jeff Arend is in the No. 5 hole with a 4.110, just a few ticks ahead of three-time Indy winner Cruz Pedregon's 4.113. Melanie Troxel, who also is competing in Pro Mod this weekend, is No. 7 at 4.146 and Ron Capps sits eighth at 4.149.
Tony Pedregon is the No. 12 man with a 4.334.
Edwards is back on the pole where he's spent so many races this season – he was No. 1 at 11 of the season's first 17 events – after charting a 6.596 with the Penhall/Interstate Pontiac. The Countdown's top seed won this race previously in 1998.
"It was a really good way to start the weekend," said Edwards, who picked up three bonus points to add to his incoming lead. "We thought we could run a 6.60, but we ran a little bit better than we thought we could. The guys on my team obviously did a great job. With the conditions forecast for the weekend, we may be able to improve on that. We’ll see what happens.
"The [qualifying bonus] points are very important to me. All those points really add up. At this race, with five qualifying sessions, that’s almost a full round’s worth of points."
Right behind Edwards is Allen Johnson, who's been a top three qualifier at nine of the last 10 races with his Mopar Avenger. Johnson's 6.601 is a hundredth ahead of No. 3 qualifier Jason Line, who has started in the top half of the Indy field in six of his seven starts. Greg Stanfield is the No. 4 driver with a 6.616.
The top eight is rounded out by Johnny Gray (6.618), Warren Johnson (6.630), Shane Gray (6.633), and defending event champ Jeg Coughlin Jr. (6.634).
Larry Morgan, who has won this race in both Pro Stock and Super Stock, is the No. 12 qualifier at 6.653.
Hines, who posted a 6.898 at 191.51 to lead Pro Stock Motorcycle testing last week at Indy and entered the event hot off a win in Brainerd that earned him the top seed in the Countdown, kept that momentum alive with a 6.97 that grabbed the No. 1 spot after the day's lone session for his Screamin' Eagle/Vance & Hines Harley Davidson. Hines has never won the U.S. Nationals – he was runner-up to Steve Johnson in 2008 – but his crew chief, big brother Matt, owns a pair of Indy Wallys.
"I dreamed of coming to this race as a little kid and to be here riding a Harley-Davidson at this race is just fun," said Hines. "I've never had as good a motorcycle as I have right now and I'm probably the best racer I've ever been in my career. My lights are consistent – and not red, which is a big deal – and it's all about being comfortable. This team is back where it used to be.
"I've been racing here since 2002 and never won it; it's just plagued me -- bad luck and bad timing and bad fortune. I think this is my best shot ever to win it. We've won the [K&N Pro Bike] Battle here the last six years but it was always on a Saturday. With that race gone, maybe we can concentrate more on Monday rather than trying to hit it so hard right out of the gate to win the Battle money Saturday and concentrate on getting the Wally Monday."
LE Tonglet, who was a question mark about even attending the event after breaking his engine in Brainerd, bounced back nicely with a 6.985 to grab the No. 2 spot on his Suzuki, while Matt Smith's Al-Anabi Buell makes it three different makes atop the scorecard with a 7.003 for third. Hines' teammate, Eddie Krawiec, is the No. 4 qualifier with a 7.011.
Michael Phillips has top speed, as usual, with his Racers Edge Suzuki at 189.04 on a 7.046 pass that was good for the No. 5 spot. World champ Hector Arana sits sixth with the Lucas Oil Buell at 7.052, while Shawn Gann (7.069) and two-time Indy champ Steve Johnson (7.113) round out the top eight
Redell Harris has the No. 12 spot with a 7.257. Twenty-one bikes made passes Friday.
Roger Burgess raced to the qualifying lead in the Get Screened America Pro Mod portion of the event. Burgess powered his ProCare Rx ’68 Camaro to the front of the 16-car field with a performance of 5.926 seconds at 244.74 mph.
Burgess won the Pro Mod race here one year ago, when it was an exhibition event. Now he’s hoping to defend his victory since the category has become an official NHRA touring series.
“Last year was a nice win for us but it didn't result in a Wally, so we're hoping to get one of those this time,” Burgess said. “Al (Billes, crew chief) got the tune-up right and we pretty much went straight down the track. We may have left a little in there so that gives us something to shoot for the rest of the weekend. We want to shoot for consistency and I think the weather tomorrow should give everyone a chance to improve. If conditions get better, we'll all get quicker.”
Troy Coughlin was second in his Team JEGS ’68 Camaro with a 5.928 at 238.51 and veteran driver Rickie Smith was third overall in his ’68 Camaro with a 5.958 at 237.75. Series points leader Von Smith, who has earned three victories this season in his Barwa ’68 Camaro was fourth with a 5.975 at 241.80.