Looks like we're going to be in for a long day here, and I'm getting bored. So, here's the play-by-play on the day.
9:30 a.m.: Rain fell until about 9:30 this morning, but finally relented, and the Safety Safari and
11 a.m.: Pre-race ceremonies begin on time, and all looks good for a noon start as scheduled. NHRA announces that the teams will be on a 65-minute turnaround time between rounds instead of the traditional 75.
Noon: It’s cloudy but dry, and racing begins. We get all the way through Top Fuel and the first pair of Funny Car before …
12:30 p.m.: ... a light rain begins to fall as Jerry Toliver and Jim Head are preparing to race. The drivers climb from their cars, and the car covers go on. Toliver’s is particularly well-appointed, with a representation of the car on its side. Many in the hardy
12:50 p.m.: The Safety Safari begins drying the track again.
1:10 p.m.: Racing resumes, and we get three more pair down the track before …
1:18 p.m.: … a light rain returns as Del Worsham and Robert Hight are firing their cars. Car covers come out, and there is much milling about and bench racing.
1:50 p.m.: The rain finally relents, and the Safari begins drying the track … again.
2:02 p.m.: The call goes out for the drivers to get in their cars. Like a car-wash customer waiting for his auto,
2:05 p.m.: The cars are lit, and Hight powers to a stunning 4.74, breaking the track record of his former teammate, the late Eric Medlen. Hight acknowledges Eric in his top-end interview, and he’s a little melancholy about taking away his buddy’s record. How 'bout that Safety Safari?
2:09 p.m.: The rain is back. At this rate, one pair every 55 minutes, we’ll finish approximately on Tuesday.
2:10 p.m.: Both the cars of Tony Pedregon and Melanie Troxel ,who had completed their pre-run rituals, are towed back to the pits to have their engines serviced, oil changed, etc.
2:25 p.m.: The rain quits and drying starts, then …
2:34 p.m.: ... rain starts again. Sigh. Again, the pressroom denizens call up weather Web sites, and everyone’s suddenly a meteorological expert, predicting when we’ll be running again.
2:50 p.m.: John Force, still wearing his head and neck restraint, hobbles out to the starting line to check out the situation and is met, as always, with a roar from the crowd.
3:06 p.m.: Still a whole lotta standing around going on; the Safari trucks are poised in the shutdown area, ready to pounce. Cruz Pedregon, next in line to run John Force, is pacing around the burnout box while crew chief Rahn Tobler checks out the track. It's a mix of dark clouds and gray sky, but the clouds are whipping by fast and not dropping much wet stuff. Local newspaper guys are beginning to talk about writing rainy-day stories. Copycats.
3:10 p.m.: Famed Sports Illustrated photographer Heinz Kluetmeier, who, along with reporter Rick Hoffer, has been shadowing John and Ashley Force all weekend for an upcoming story in SI, comes to the media center and is immediately surrounded by the drag shutterbugs, eager to meet him and hear his tales.
3:21 p.m.: The trucks are rolling, the trucks are rolling!
3:22 p.m.: The car cover is off of Pedregon's machine, and the dual jet dryers are hot-lapping at a furious pace. After Hight's blast, everyone is eager to see what the track will dish up next.
3:25 p.m.: "The Cruzer" is all suited up and hopping in, but Force is nowhere in sight, unless he's hiding inside his car under its black car cover. ... but wait.
Not only does Force come strolling up, but Melanie and Tony P. come steaming past and roll into the burnout box ahead of them to resume their rightful place in the running order. We're about to have nitro again. It's been about an hour delay, and by my count, we're two and a half hours behind schedule. The cars light at 3:27 and ...
3:28 p.m.: ... Mel and Tony do their burnouts and pull in to stage. The crowd rises. And Rick Stewart shuts 'em off. More rain. :(
3:35 p.m.: I venture out into the light rain to get some details (is there nothing I won't do for you guys?) and chat with T-Ped crew chief Dickie Venables. After the first no-go, they hauled back to the pits to cool the clutch only. No oil change. But now, with two burnouts on the clutch, he's concerned and wants to change it out. He discusses the situation with Mark Oswald and Brian Corradi of Melanie's team. They don't seem as convinced a new clutch is needed, but both cars head off down the return road, so I guess that's where they're headed.
Chief Starter Rick Stewart tells me that in all of his years of starting race cars, he's never had to shut off the same two cars twice, back to back. More history at Thunder Valley!
Capps is still strapped into the NAPA Dodge. I peek under and ask him how many times he's been in and out. "Four," he says, then adds wishfully, "we must be in the final."
3:47 p.m.: With T-Ped and M-Trox in the pits and needing about 30 minutes to swap out clutches, looks like Force and "Cruzer" will move ahead of them. The car covers come off again and are neatly refolded for the gazillionth time today, and it looks like we're ready again. By my rough count, we're three hours-plus behind schedule. It's gonna be a long day.
3:50 p.m.: Cruz beats Force, who shakes and gets loose. Then his car locks up on the top end. Great ...
Only two more pair to go, then Pro Stock, then Pro Mod round two, then Top Fuel round two ... or at least that's what I hear. T-Ped and Mel will have to fit in there somewhere, too.
I'm not doing round by round here, so stop refreshing so much. I'll update significant milestones as we hit them. Or if it rains again.
4 p.m.: The Motel 6 Vision screen shows Tony P. and crew warming the car in the pits after installing a new clutch. No Pro Stockers have rolled into position yet; are we waiting for the two wayward floppers?
Turns out they're on the way, and we'll wait on them. Meanwhile, it's announced we'll go right back into Top Fuel after Pro Stock. And here come the last two floppers ... winner gets Ashley Force in round two. Will it be an all-female tilt with Melanie?
Yes! Melanie's car makes a move to the centerline at 330 and falls back until Pedregon smokes 'em slightly at half-track. They go through the lights together, with Mel tightroping the centerline and earning her first Funny Car round-win. More history coming up, race fans.
4:19 p.m.: For about two minutes there, everyone was looking at the sky instead of the track. Amazing. Blue sky. And what are these things attached to our feet? Shadows? No, couldn't be. Then, like an apparition, it's gone, and it's cloudy again.
4:35 p.m.: Round two of Top Fuel ... and the blue skies are back.
5:19 p.m.: We ran the Pro Mods and the Sportsman cars, now it's back to Funny Car; looks like Melanie and crew got their allotted 65 minutes and then some. She and Ashley are in the second pair. The sun is shining, and dark clouds are flitting by but not over.
5:24 p.m.: Unbelievable, part 1. Mel upsets Ashley, 4.82 to 4.86, in their historic bout.
Unbelievable, part 2: I'm informed that we're about 20 minutes away from a major, major downpour. Fast-moving, yes, but packed with wet stuff. Sigh.
5:38 p.m.: Oh, goody. Bob Frey has just announced that the coming storm is packing thunder and lightning and that the fans should be prepared to head for cover when it arrives. With Pro Stock on the line, ain't no one going nowhere yet. Hard core. Guess we're gonna see a REAL "thunder valley."
5:51 p.m.: Top Fuel round three pulls into position. They're racing the weather as much as each other. The sky is dark, dark, dark ... incredibly, the GEICO-banner-towing airplane that has been in the sky since the event started is still circling despite the incoming storm. At least with everyone watching the sky, it's getting lots of "views."
5:58 p.m.: Just as Tony Shoe beats Hillary Will to join Dixon in the final, the skies open up again. Just sprinkles now, but enough to stop the action. The Super Comp diggers that were next are doing three-point turns and heading back under the tower and, I'm guessing, to the arks.
6:05 p.m.: Oh yeah, now it's raining. Hard. Best estimate we hear is a two-hour downtime. I need a nap.
6:50 p.m.: The rain has relented a bit, and even though it's still sprinkling, some of the Safari crew is on the track pushing the biggest water puddles aside with tractors and sweepers. There's even a sliver of sunshine peeking down on the bleach box, a ray of hope to the faithful still here.
7:05 p.m.: The rain appears to have fully stopped, and every broom, vacuum, and water-pushing and -drying device on the grounds is in action.
7:30 p.m.: Working with hand-wheeled blowers, brooms, and torches, foot soldiers of the Safety Safari have dried the first 200 feet or so while the mounted units, working from the other end, appear to have reached the 660-foot clocks. Neither section is what you'd call dry, but there's no real standing water left except between those points.
7:45 p.m. The word is that we're about 45 minutes away from resuming action. The radar looks clear, and it's record-busting cool. The plan is to go right into the semi's of Funny Car and Pro Stock, then run the Top Fuel final. After that, more Sportsman action, followed by the other finals.
8:06 p.m.: Now it's all about killing time. The bored and frazzled media chow through nine large pizzas in less time than it took to type that, and sporadic outbreaks of Uno are reported. Bench racing is rampant. Say, did you ever hear the one about ...
8:30 p.m.: The magic time has arrived, but the stage is not quite ready. Some Safari trucks continue to toil way down the shutdown area, but the remaining crew chiefs are all scoping out the starting line, and the cars are all in the lanes.
8:45 p.m.: The lanemaster gives 'em the spin-it-over sign, and the Funny Cars of Melanie Troxel, looking for her first Funny Car win, and Jim Head roar to life in the semifinals.
8:48 p.m.: Melanie reaches her first Funny Car final when Head goes up in smoke. Melanie, too, has to pedal her ProCare Rx Dodge through tire shake farther downtrack and does it masterfully. She'll now face either Hight or Neff; if it's the latter, we'll have two drivers going for their first win.
8:51 p.m.: It will be Melanie against Neff. His Ford survives just a bit longer than Hight's as both engines go sour at the top end. Neff is in his second straight final, and one of them will win his or her first Funny Car crown later tonight.
8:55 p.m.: There can't be more than a couple hundred hardy fans still dotting the grandstands, but they'll be able to call their friends who left and tell 'em they missed history. They'll see Greg Stanfield also looking for his first win, in Pro Stock, after five runner-ups, square off against Dave Connolly, both of whom won on holeshots, in the final round.
8:58 p.m.: It's the Top Fuel final, Shoe in the left lane and Dixon in the right. It's Shoe's 75th final and Dixon's 79th, but this one is over early as Dixon has to pedal it and the Army driver grabs career win number 44. We'll look for the Funny Cars and Pro Stockers to come back in about an hour.
9:45 p.m.: Connolly is the first of the remaining four Pro finalists in the staging lanes. It's chilly outside for sure.
9:50 p.m.: Stanfield pulls up, his crew on the golf cart swaddled in blankets. Both drivers are suiting up, either because they're ready to decide this final or because they're cold. It's a toss-up in my book.
9:55 p.m.: Ladies and gentlemen, you're not going to believe this. It's sprinkling again.
10:03 p.m.: The sprinkle was just that, and the jet dryers -- count 'em, three -- are back and cranking. They've probably burned enough fuel today for several around-the-world trips.
10:13 p.m.: The Pro Stockers are under the tower, and the Funny Car finalists are suiting up. It's almost happy time. A few more passes by the jet and the sweeper, and we should be set.
10:20 p.m.: Pro Stock final on the line, Stanfield's GXP in the left lane, DC's Cobalt in the right. Somewhere, GM's Fred Simmonds is smiling. Connolly takes it on a holeshot as Stanfield is dead late. It's Chevy's 150th Pro Stock win.
10:22 p.m.: High drama ensues on the starting line for the Funny Car final when Neff’s crew was unable to get the Mustang shell lifted to rearm the clutch despite the best efforts of teammate Robert Hight and Ashley Force crew chief Dean Antonelli. Troxel had to pedal her car early and appeared doomed before Neff’s machine fireballed, no doubt due to the clutch problem.
Just a cleanup after Neff and a few more Sportsman cars, and we're finally, mercifully done.
Me, I'm outta here. Thanks for playing.