As you read this column, the “regular season” portion of the 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series tour will be coming to a head. The Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals in Brainerd and the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals represent the closing verses of an 18-race regular season that have seen the best professional drag racing teams on Earth battling tooth and nail for win lights, Wallys, and a spot in the top 10 of their respective classes. Teams in the Pro categories have felt the slowly closing vise of the season raise the pressure on their efforts from Pomona until today. From this point forward, those that have made the top 10 will deal with the greatest pressures of their professional lives. How they succeed or fail under these circumstances may define them for a lifetime.
It has been 11 years since the Countdown to the Championship came into play for the 2007 season, and every year since then there have been moments of triumph and moments of heartbreak. Who can forget Ron Capps coming up two measly points short to Jack Beckman in 2012? Who can forget the drama that encapsulated Steve Torrance’s championship hopes, starting with the massive wreck in Dallas last year, and his angrily honest response to coming up short at Pomona? Robert Hight’s calamitous but triumphant weekend at the World Finals will live in drag racing lore forever. Where do these reactions come from? What are they rooted in? Pressure.
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When the 2018 Countdown begins, there will be teams that excel and teams that fold up like a cheap tent. There will be “sleeper” teams that show flashes of brilliance before flaming out and others that will stumble out of the blocks and never regain their stride before time runs out on them. Pressure does different things to different people. For the small scale, we see pressure on a week to week basis when teams with new crewmembers are forced to turn their cars on a tight timeline. Sometimes the mistakes are glaring—oil leaks, loose fuel system fittings, etc. Other times, the mistakes have a lower profile but no less disastrous outcome. Early-round loses in the Countdown are insurmountable. The format places perfection at even more of a premium than it is at every other race. Fans and racers alike can taste it.
Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” The same can be said for the 10 teams in the Countdown in all the Professional categories. They all leave Indy knowing that they are in contention and they all have some time to consider that fact and plot their future. There will be drivers and crewmembers that spend their nights staring at the ceiling, praying that they do not make a mistake, and others that sleep well, knowing that they’ll be mentally correct for whatever competition comes their way. Perhaps that’s the difference between merely surviving the early stages of the Countdown and actually grabbing them by the throat and achieving during the process.
I am a Boston Red Sox fan. It is a genetic predisposition being born and raised in the Boston area, a place where I still live. I have experienced the nadir of performance during the 1986 World Series against the New York Mets, and I have experienced the ultimate triumph in watching the team come back from impossible odds against the New York Yankees in 2004. I have seen promising teams wilt in September and teams lacking names turn on the Jets and make late playoff runs that no one expected. The same elements that either flawed or blessed those teams will do the same to NHRA competitors this year. It does not matter if you are holding a bat or a torque wrench, the mental exertion is still the same.
The much hated and maligned coach of the New England Patriots, Bill Belichick, has a motto that’s been adopted by many teams in the NFL and beyond. It is as simple as it is daunting, “Do Your Job.” If one can draw any parallels between an NFL team and an NHRA team, the way Alan Johnson’s operations seem to peak at the right time sure mirrors the Patriots in many ways. It is fine to be good during the regular season if you are going to be great in the Countdown. That’s Johnson’s historical modus operandi and something that 40 teams will be looking to replicate this year.
Drag racing, no matter its form, has always been a sport based on the idea of momentary perfection. You never have to beat the other 15 cars in your eliminator at once, you just have to beat four of them, one at a time. You have to be better than them at the given moment you are faced with the challenge, no more and no less. That being said, the numbers get daunting. The reality is that the Countdown presents 24 qualifying opportunities and the potential for an additional 24 eliminations runs. Being perfect 48 times has thus far proven a drag racing impossibility for more than a decade.
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