Kalitta Motorsports Top Fuel driver Dave Grubnic made big progress at the recent O'Reilly Auto Parts Route 66 NHRA Nationals in Chicago, where he drove his Candlewood Suites dragster to the final round of eliminations and vaulted right into the top 10 in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series standings. The final was his first of the year – in fact, it was his first since the Phoenix event in 2008 – but the belated blossoming wasn't the least bit unsettling for the amiable Aussie.
"You know, we've always been a little bit of a late starter," said Grubnic, whose car is tuned by legendary driver and team owner Connie Kalitta. "We went through the same sort of scenario last year, where we were fighting for the Countdown and ended up blasting ourselves into it in Reading.
"But we've been working with some stuff, and Connie has always been an innovator. We made some changes to our fuel system, and it seemed to pay some results [in Chicago] – the conditions were so demanding with trying not to strike the tires on that 130-degree racetrack, which is pretty much unavoidable, but the car ran great. Connie worked with that clutch, he knew what to do with it, and it was going down the racetrack."
Grubnic had a rough start to the season, recording a nonqualifying effort at the season opener at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, then seeing the door closed in the first round at six of the first 10 races of the 2011 season. But he qualified ninth at Route 66 Raceway – his best position since starting eighth at the Charlotte event this spring – and in the first round of eliminations, he got a little bit of a break when Abu Dhabi/Yas Marina Circuit driver Rod Fuller came up with a punctured left front tire and could not make the run in his DiGiorno pizza-backed rail. Grubnic showed promise right away; he was on a clean single pass until the tires began to spin downtrack, bringing the winning digits to a 4.26.
Conditions were changing for the worse, and crew chiefs were wearing very serious expressions as the quarterfinalists rolled to the starting line toward a track that was 10 degrees warmer than it had been in round one and hovered right below 130 degrees Fahrenheit. Kalitta had the right combination to get down the track, though, and Grubnic put a 4.04 on the scoreboard to defeat tire-smoking hometown favorite T.J. Zizzo. Although the winning number was good, it wasn't enough to earn lane choice in the semifinals, where he was to meet young holeshot ace Shawn Langdon, who had just issued a reminder of his quick reflexes when he beat reigning world champion Larry Dixon with a superior start and slower e.t., 3.96 to 3.95.
Grubnic took the upper hand in the meeting with Langdon and launched first, .075 to .090, then raced to a 4.10 as his opponent smoked the tires early. The final round set up Grubnic vs. incoming points leader Del Worsham, who had bested Grubnic's teammate Doug Kalitta in round two. Grubnic made a strong effort on a surface that had just barely cooled, but the win light flashed in Worsham's lane above a 3.97 to beat a 4.05.
There wasn't a win to be had, but the weekend was definitely one to be counted as a positive for the determined team: Both Grubnic and teammate Jeff Arend, driver of the DHL Funny Car, advanced to the last act, and a Kalitta Motorsports Top Fuel dragster and Funny Car had never before been to the final at the same event.
Team owner Connie Kalitta
"Connie knew from past experience what it would be like and adjusted accordingly," said Grubnic. "The same with our Funny Car guys; it's all one big team. It was a great experience to sit in the car and watch Jeff and really hope he would win, and of course we wanted to have both our cars in the winner's circle. Unfortunately, we didn't achieve that goal, but we did get to the final round, and you have to get there to have a chance to win it.
"All the credit goes to Connie and my crew – James Riola, Gabe, Steve, Seth, Todd, Terry, Ed, and Mike, who was away and we missed that weekend. Corey Kalitta was on our car filling in for us, and that was pretty cool. They did a fantastic job, and for being out of touch with going rounds, they certainly haven't forgotten how to do it. They had that car ready well before we had to be up to the starting line."
Now the three-car team has a renewed enthusiasm and is busily gearing up to travel out west for the kickoff of the famed Western Swing, a strenuous stretch of back-to-back-to-back events in varying conditions that will begin in Denver.
At last season's Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals, Grubnic set low e.t. of the meet in the first round on a 3.88 pass, which should have come as no surprise – success there has seemed to come almost easily for the group: Doug Kalitta walked away with the Wally last year, fallen teammate Scott Kalitta was a Denver Top Fuel winner in 1994, 1995, and 2004, and Connie has won on the mountain twice in a Top Fuel dragster (1984 and 1985).
"I'm excited," admitted Grubnic. "Last year, we'd done some work in other areas with our engines and tested some of those theories in Denver. The car ran pretty decent, and Connie wants to model what we did last year and see if we can improve on that. He did a great job there last year, and I'm very much looking forward to it.
"What we have to do is turn that performance into consistency because that's what wins races, and then we'll be in the hunt for the championship. You can't put the cart before the horse, so our goal is to qualify well, go rounds, and try to win every time we go to a national event. If we just continue with those short-term goals, then everything else should take care of itself."
For tickets for the Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals, log on to the Bandimere Speedway website or call 800-664-UWIN (8946).