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Twenty-five and counting (and the one that got away)

28 Aug 2007
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

So, there I was, standing in the warm embrace of the cascading water of the morning shower where I traditionally do some of my best thinking, running through my pre-Indy checklist at T-minus two days, when it struck me with all of the suddenness of someone unexpectedly flushing a toilet in another part of the house and searing me with scalding water (that's a simile, folks; it didn't actually happen; well, not today at least).

For me, this year's upcoming Big Go is my 25th straight. People in the drag racing world like to brag about such things, especially when it comes to Indy. I mean, after all, I've been to more consecutive Winternationals and World Finals than that, but Indy still holds a certain mystique that dates back to when it was the only national event, when it was the site of the crowning of national champions, when drag racers drove from all points of the compass in their pilgrimage to the Nationals.

It's fair to say that with all of the days I've spent in Indianapolis, I could probably apply for part-time residency. After all, any real trip to Indy encompasses at least six days, which at times 25 equals 150 days. I can tell you where the best restaurants are downtown, where the casual dining places are on 38th Street, the location of every Steak n Shake in town, and four or five ways to beat the traffic and get into O'Reilly Raceway Park at Indianapolis. I can show you where the Indianapolis Indians used to play, over on 16th Street in a stadium built back in the 1930s that reeked of everything that is good and bad about minor-league baseball, before they moved into their fancy-schmancy digs at Victory Field in downtown about 10 years ago, where Indians' minor-league legend Razor Shines never got to play and might not have wanted to anyway.

I can show you where you can do some serious go-karting in the kind of machines that will hurt you if you don’t respect them (where a former National DRAGSTER staffer once actually got pitched out of his kart after spinning out during one of our staff competitions) or show you where you can putt-putt against a windmill instead.

But I digress ….

Preparing for the National DRAGSTER staff dinner in Indy on Thursday night, an annual pre-race, team-building tradition, I see that we have a party of 16, which I don't think even includes the wheeler-dealers from the advertising department who no doubt will be out schmoozing clients for more revenue and probably in a far more expensive restaurant. The total includes editorial staffers, photographers, NHRA.com Web master Jade Davidson, and the boss lady, Adriane Ridder.

We'll be there en masse for another milestone, the 20th edition of the Daily DRAGSTER newspaper that we print on three nights at Indy (I'll talk about this more later in the week), but also because it's Indy. Getting to go to Indy long ago became one of the great perks of the job where traditionally we send just two reporters to each race. Having the whole gang there seems appropriate in covering the world's biggest drag race, and besides, who doesn't want to be there when history is made, which seems like every year in Indy.

Although I've been here at National DRAGSTER for 25 years, anyone familiar with the "year-plus" rule of counting realizes that I'm in my 26th year (the same way you're living your first year of life before you have your first birthday), which all of you mathematicians out there have probably deduced means that I missed Indy my first year on the job. Seems like there was some sort of unwritten rule back then that new employees didn't get to go to Indy their first year (oh my, how am I going to break this sad news to Kelly?), which would have been bad enough had the year that I missed not been The Year.

Put away your slide rules, chums, because I'm talking about 1982, perhaps one of the most amazing U.S. Nationals ever … still. Tom Anderson became the first Funny Car driver to run in the 5.70s on Friday, which was amazing until a day later when Don Prudhomme ran 5.63, thanks to a healthy dose of then-legal nitrous oxide. The adjective we used in National DRAGSTER to describe that run was "spine-twisting." Gary Beck became the first Top Fuel driver to run in the 5.40s, the Pro Stock field was the first all-seven-second grouping in history, the first Big Bud Shootout … it just goes on and on. And I missed it.

Of course, in the years since, that wound has been salved some by other unforgettable Indy moments I've witnessed: Don Prudhomme's 1989 sweep, Pat Austin's near double in 1991, super veterans Connie Kalitta and Eddie Hill duking it out for the Top Fuel title in 1994, "Big Daddy" and Shirley under the lights at the 50th annual event in 2001, Tony Schumacher's Top Fuel dominance the last few years … that list could go on and on as well.

There's no doubt in my mind that this year's edition also will become one of those "remember when" Indys, and we hope you'll follow along online and in print as our staff covers the race. Online, in addition to the normal wonderful reporting, photos, audio, and video, we'll again present the ND staff blog, a nontraditional "notebook-style" column co-written by the seven of us as we wander the grounds at ORP and share with you what we've seen, heard, and, yes, sometimes even smelled. (You can find the past two Staff Blogs, as well as the many other special features we've produced over the years, in our Special Sections archive here.)

The Indy Staff Blog 2007 feature should be up and running late Wednesday when Kevin McKenna has the first editorial boots on the ground. The rest of us will finish up this week's edition Wednesday afternoon, rush home and finish packing, then jump aboard a plane early Thursday morning. We hope we'll see you there or at least be able to bring Indy to your home in other ways.