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The end of an era?

02 Nov 2016
Kevin McKenna, National Dragster Senior Editor
The Sports Report

Tommy Phillips won for the 38th time in his career when he wheeled his CBS ArcSafe Corvette to the Super Gas title at the NHRA Toyota Nationals in Las Vegas. Shortly after the final, he acknowledged that he’s contemplating big changes in the near future. With untold thousands of quarter-mile passes under his belt and a similar amount of highway miles, Phillips is about to slow down. He has made the decision that 2017 will be his last as a touring pro.

“I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I think it’s time to take a step back and not travel so much,” said Phillips. “I’ve been out here for 20 years, racing all over the country, and I’ve enjoyed it immensely, but I have some other things I want to do, and I think the time is right to do it. I’ll probably still keep a Super Gas or Super Comp car, and I’ll do some bracket racing around the house; I still plan on racing, but I don’t see myself going to 18-20 national events a year — that schedule is grueling.

“I’ve been thinking about this for probably two or three years," Phillips said. "I’m 46 now, and I won’t say that I’m worn down, but I would like to see life slow down a bit. There are other things on the horizon and other projects I’d like to get to. I will still support the Lucas Oil Series races, and if I suddenly look up and see that I have a chance to win a championship, I’ll pursue it, but that’s not going to be my primary focus.”

Phillips, along with Dan Fletcher, Luke Bogacki, and David Rampy, is part of a select group of individuals who are able to make a living as a Sportsman racer. For the most part, all of them benefit from corporate support as well as race winnings in order to make ends meet. That’s certainly the case for Phillips, who enjoys the backing of CBS ArcSafe, K&N Filters, Capco Contractors, and Scoggin Dickey Performance.

So far, 2016 has been a big year for Phillips as far as on-track achievements go. In April, he won his first national event in Super Stock when he drove to a win in Houston, and five months later he won the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals for the second time in his career. He also claimed a victory in Brainerd as well as a divisional event in Noble, Okla.

“I’ve never won five races in a season, but this is the third time I’ve won four of them,” Phillips said. “From midseason on, it has been terrific. I got to win a race in my Super Stock car, and I enjoyed that project, but since we went back to Super Gas, it’s been good. That is where my roots are and where I grew up. That’s where I’m most comfortable.”

Phillips’ recent performance in Las Vegas was nothing short of remarkable. Through seven eliminations rounds, his slowest reaction time was a .021, and that light came accompanied with a perfect 10.050 on the altitude-adjusted 10.05 index. In the final, Phillips defeated Kevin Moore with a perfect 10.057 to a 10.043 breakout. Phillips also made it to the fifth round of Super Comp and drove equally well with another string of nearly perfect reaction times.

“Honestly, I felt a little better about my [Super Comp] dragster,” he said. “I felt like I was going to do well in that car. I just missed the Tree slightly, and it cost me. We’ve worked hard on that dragster, but I just can’t get it to the end; it’s a little frustrating. In Super Gas, I just managed to do the right things at the right time and avoid the land mines.”

With four wins in Super Gas, Phillips remains a contender for the 2016 championship, but he admits that he’s a long shot. In order to pass current leader Mia Tedesco, Phillips would have to win the final Division 7 NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series event this weekend in Las Vegas.

“It’s pretty cut and dried: If I win this week, I win the championship,” Phillips said. “If I do win this, it would mean a lot to me. I’ve never been a guy to follow points week by week. My mentality is to just do what I can to try to win each race. I have been blessed to win a lot of big races, so I won’t say that my career won’t be complete if I don’t win it, but it would sure be nice to add it. It would be a nice cherry on top.

“I know how lucky I am. I’ve gotten to do everything I’ve wanted to do. Life has been great. I probably didn’t realize this when I was in my 20s, but life is a journey and not a destination. I used to hear it from my grandparents and my parents, and it didn’t make sense. It does now. That’s what I will take from the last 20 years. I’ve met some great people and made some great friends, and I just don’t know how you can put value on that. One thing that is also important to me is helping young racers in our sport. We need them, and I love our sport, so I want to support them. Now, maybe I’ll have a little more time for that. I’m not leaving the sport, maybe just the driver’s seat.”
 

Taking the fifth: Jimmy DeFrank is the In-N-Out Burger of NHRA Sportsman racers. By that, I mean he does one thing, but he does it as well as anyone else. In-N-Out doesn’t sell chicken fingers or breakfast tacos, and DeFrank doesn’t bracket race or run in the Super classes. Both of them play to their strengths, and that is the secret to their success.

For DeFrank, that success now includes five championships in the Super Stock class. DeFrank suffered a rare early-round loss in Las Vegas, but he officially locked up the title when Brett Speer and Nick Morris, two of his closest pursuers, did not make it to the final round in either Las Vegas or the Division 2 Lucas Oil Series event in Rockingham, N.C.

DeFrank’s fifth championship followed a familiar pattern in regards to his points tally. DeFrank won the season-opening race in Pomona and padded his lead with a second victory in May at the Division 7 Lucas Oil Series event in Fontana, Calif. A runner-up at the Sonoma divisional, a semifinal finish at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, and a final-round victory at the Division 6 event in Woodburn, Ore., helped to secure the title.