Land of 10,000 horsepower

23 Aug 2016
Brad Littlefield, National Dragster Associate Editor
Tuesday Morning Crew Chief

The realities of the last two years have changed the perception of the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals at Brainerd Int’l Raceway. Once known for a laid-back atmosphere, the raucous campground on the premises known as “the Zoo,” and its spot on the schedule as a lead-in to the prestigious Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, its excellent racing surface complemented by cool conditions the past two seasons have made it a bona fide performance-fest.

If it sounds as if you’ve read this before, it mirrors the sentiments of the column from two weeks ago discussing Pacific Raceways in Seattle becoming the Maple Grove Raceway of the Northwest. Both events have become must-watch races for those whose spines tingle when big numbers pop up on the scoreboard.

There were outstanding performances to write home about in every category, and the Funny Car class once again attained spotlight status with the national e.t. record being lowered for the second consecutive race. The overwhelming sense of déjà vu intensified with the rescheduled final from the Protect the Harvest NHRA Northwest Nationals presented by Lucas Oil taking place one day before the final round of the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals with eerily similar scenarios playing out. National e.t. record holder Del Worsham smoked the tires immediately against Ron Capps in the Seattle final. Twenty-four hours later, new national e.t. record holder Matt Hagan did the exact same thing, this time with Worsham being the benefactor in the driver of the DHL Toyota’s first win of 2016.

"The track giveth, and the track taketh away," said Worsham. "It felt like a mulligan, man. It was unreal. It’s not often you get a chance to run two finals in two days. You can’t make mistakes. Whatever took place for us yesterday probably happened to Hagan today."

Worsham appears to be ahead of the game when you compare his 2015 championship campaign to this season. The turning point for him last year was an audible to attend the Indy test session, during which Worsham blew the dust off his CDL and drove the rig from Brainerd to Indy. This year, Worsham goes to Indy with a win in the bag and a higher spot in points, and his car will stay home during the Indy test session while he and his team assist their teammates with the Tequila Patron Toyota Camry, in which Worsham will make some laps.

"I feel like we’re ahead of the game," said Worsham. "Brainerd is a pretty special place for me going back to 1991 when I got my first No. 1 qualifier here 25 years ago. I always wanted to win this race. I damn near won this race in 2000, and John Force picked me off on a big ol’ holeshot. I'm excited to be here and get the monkey off our back. I’m excited to go to Indy and then start this NHRA Mello Yello Countdown [to the Championship]."

Taming the monster: Brittany Force quickly went from the offseason question of "Will she get her first win?" to "How many?" after scoring victories in quick succession in Gainesville and Charlotte. However, the Alan Johnson- and Brian Husen-led Monster Energy team struggled to put four rounds together on Sunday, and it wasn’t because it was getting outrun. Whether related to traction or mechanical maladies, Force had a difficult time getting to the finish line under power during a series of second-round or semifinal losses. This time, it didn’t happen until the final, but she lit the beacon at the top end anyway.

Force faced a red-hot Antron Brown one day after the Matco Tools driver secured his fourth win of the 2016 season. The points leader had defeated Steve Torrence in the rescheduled final of the Protect the Harvest NHRA Northwest Nationals presented by Lucas Oil on Saturday, running his career head-to-head record against Torrence to an oppressive 19-1, and came back one run later to qualify No. 1 with an outstanding 3.679.

Force, who reached the final last season, ran just a step quicker than Brown in each eliminations round. Brown got the jump on the Tree, but he didn’t lead for more than a split second when his dragster went up in smoke. Force incurred problems during the middle of her run and, noticing Brown was not beside her in the other lane, legged it out until the engine blew and the parachutes deployed, tugging the dragster and her heart simultaneously. In a half-second that must have felt like hours, she crossed the stripe with a 4.169 at only 180.21 mph and saw the final-round win light illuminate on her scoreboard for the third time in her career.

"It was definitely a crazy one," said Force. "If you’re going to blow everything up, at least get a win light on. I didn’t see Antron next to me, so I was going to keep my foot in it. Then I felt it blow up and felt the tug from the chute. I saw the win light on, got out of the car, and the thing was on fire, but we’re in the winner’s circle."

It was the 16th win in Brainerd for John Force Racing with five drivers (John Force, 11; Eric Medlen, two; Robert Hight, Gary Densham, and Brittany Force, one each) and the first in Top Fuel.

Skills to pay the bills: In 2015, successful young Super Stock and Stock racer Drew Skillman embarked on a magical rookie campaign in which he, as a teammate to Erica Enders at Elite Motorsports, won the St. Louis event and locked up the Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award. Then the rules changed.

The introduction of electronic fuel injection and other changes in Pro Stock for 2016 reshuffled the deck, and the first 13 races of the season were absolutely dominated by the KB Racing team, with Summit drivers Greg Anderson and Jason Line divvying up the victories. Meanwhile, Skillman went through some adversity of his own when he and the Elite camp parted ways days before the start of the Eastern Swing, and he worked out an eleventh-hour deal to get his horsepower from Gray Motorsports. The two camps appeared to take parallel paths back toward the front of the pecking order.

"The Summit team outworked us this winter, period, so catching them wasn’t going to be an overnight thing," said Skillman. "We thought with the rule changes that we’d come out on top or at the bottom, and we were on the latter of that situation. I started the year with Elite and switched to Gray Motorsports, and both teams worked very hard. This is proof of their work today."

Skillman, who took crewmember Al Lindsey with him and otherwise jelled with a new team led by crew chief and legendary European Pro Stock racer Tomi Laine, qualified No. 4 and used a holeshot to defeat Bo Butner in the second round when both ran identical 6.626 elapsed times. (Oddly, the pair behind him also posted identical elapsed times when Vincent Nobile defeated Anderson, with both running 6.625s.) He met Minnesota native Line in the final. Line’s only Brainerd win occurred in 2014, when the last two rounds were rescheduled to Indy. Skillman ruined Line’s homecoming with a 6.648 to 6.681 advantage to become only the fourth Pro Stock driver to win in 2016.

Long way to the top: Andrew Hines has a dominant track record of being in each of the last 23 rounds contested in Pro Stock Motorcycle and winning 21 of them (including the NHRA Pro Bike Battle at Sonoma Raceway special event), though the round-wins haven’t come as easy as the numbers suggest. He and Harley-Davidson Screamin' Eagle Vance & Hines teammate Eddie Krawiec have used their race-day acumen to win rounds that outright performance may not have during that span.

Hines and Krawiec found themselves behind the eight ball when a decision to begin the race on brand-new tires to get them broken in for the all-important stretch of playoff races backfired. A racing surface with a tight grip on the starting line demands a worn-in rear slick to garner initial wheel speed, so the numbers to the 60-foot increment – already a weak point in the run for two of the class’ heavier touring riders – struggled significantly. The championship team worked and worked on the setup while the Star Racing and White Alligator Racing entries put up big numbers on the scoreboard.

Without the benefit of lane choice in each of the last three rounds, Hines found ways to keep advancing to the next bracket. Namely, he tightened up his performance on the Christmas Tree. Jerry Savoie’s Suzuki was favored in the final round, but Hines snatched the win with a perfect .000 reaction time to score a 6.866 to 6.863 holeshot win.

"It was a struggle throughout the day," said Hines. "We put an old tire back on the bike in the final and took our chances. I didn’t want to be .000, but I was pressing it because I knew I needed an advantage against Jerry. I told Jerry before the final, 'Don’t beat me up too bad.' When I saw the win light, I chuckled a little bit because I couldn’t believe it."

Special Awards

Best run: Matt Hagan's 3.822, 333.82 during the final Funny Car qualifying session
This run was nothing short of spectacular. On a starting line with one of the tightest grips racers have seen, the Rocky Boots/Mopar Dodge Charger had enough oomph to get up on the tire and rocket down the dragstrip. Crew chief Dickie Venables had made adjustments to the fuel system that enabled the car to run a booming 288.21-mph speed at the eighth-mile to complement the early numbers. Hagan held on to the quickest and second-fastest Funny Car runs in NHRA history while the front tires lightly danced on the racing surface.

Best race: Jason Line vs. Erica Enders, Pro Stock semifinals
Line looked as if he were dead in the water when Enders, who is trying to solidify a position in the top 10, stapled five-hundredths of a second to him on the starting line. Line used everything the Summit Racing Camaro had under the hood to squeak around Enders by .001-second and move on to the final round in his native Minnesota.

Driver of the race:
Andrew Hines

How much more clutch can it get than a perfect reaction time in the final to win on a holeshot? Hines never had lane choice in any of the last three rounds, and his combined reaction time in those rounds was .022. To reiterate, that was his cumulative reaction time, not his average reaction time.

Crew chief of the race: Dickie Venables
Final-round tire spin notwithstanding, the Rocky Boots/Mopar Dodge Charger was the best car at another event that raised the performance benchmark for the Funny Car class. Venables and assistant crew chief Mike Knudsen knew the middle of the run was the weak spot that separated their car from those at the very top of the qualifying sheets, and they zeroed in on the fuel system to turn that weakness into a strength that catapulted Matt Hagan to the quickest elapsed time and second-fastest speed in the history of the category.

Stat of the race: In the history of the Seattle and Brainerd events before 2015, four national records had been set at either race: Gaines Markley set the Top Fuel speed record at 234.27 mph in Seattle in 1972; Mark Oswald set the Top Fuel speed record at 256.41 mph in Brainerd in 1982; and Darrell Gwynn and Don Prudhomme set the e.t. records in Top Fuel (5.052) and Funny Car (5.305), respectively, in Seattle in 1988 when the event was held in the fall. In the past two years, six national records have been set at those two events. Last year, both ends of the record were set in each nitro class in Brainerd. In 2016, Del Worsham and Matt Hagan set the Funny Car e.t. record at consecutive events in Seattle and Brainerd.