Words by Todd Veney, Images Courtesy Bob Johnson
In just her fourth start in a Top Alcohol Funny Car, rookie Annie Whitely got her first win, upsetting heavily favored Tony Bartone in the Las Vegas regional final, 5.67 to 5.78. Whiteley’s husband Jim and Chris Demke were charging for the finish line side by side in the Top Alcohol Dragster final, but something blew through the lights in Demke’s lane, giving him a bogus 4.92 e.t. and nullifying the race, which will be re-run next weekend.
Bartone wheeled Rick Jackson’s Center Pointe Mustang to low e.t. of both qualifying sessions (5.59 and 5.62) and low e.t of both preliminary rounds of eliminations, but he lost traction in the final and slowed by more than a tenth. “I didn’t know I’d won,” Whiteley said. “I try to just concentrate on staying in my lane and getting stopped, and my eyes never wander. I didn’t see him, but I never look.”
Whiteley’s Roger Bateman-tuned car was the picture of consistency all weekend; she qualified No. 3 with a 5.68 and ran back-to-back 5.68s in the early rounds and a 5.67 in the final for the breakthrough win. “There was a spot on the track that we couldn’t get through when we were testing before the race, and the same thing happened in the first qualifying session,” Whiteley said. “We only had one more shot to get in, so Roger did something to settle the car down, and it made it right down through there. We were thrilled just to make the field – there were 16 cars trying to qualify – and we were ecstatic to get by the first round. That was my first round-win, and when we went up for the semi’s, Roger told me ‘OK, now you’re playing with the big boys.’ ”
Each of the other three drivers left in contention – Steve Gasparrelli, Jay Payne, and Bartone – has double-digit national event victories and has finished in the top two in the national standings. Bartone took out Gasparrelli with a 5.60 and Whiteley edged Payne, 5.68 to 5.69, for the biggest win of her young career to that point.
In the Top Alcohol Dragster final, Demke’s Peen Rite dragster had a slight lead at the 1,000-foot mark, but the outcome was too close to call, so a rerun is scheduled to be held in conjunction with qualifying for the national event at Las Vegas this weekend.
“I saw my win-light come on,” Demke said. “Jim and I rolled around the corner, he came over to congratulate me, and I was just wrapping up my parachutes when somebody came up on a scooter and asked both of us who we thought had won. I said, ‘I did – I never saw him.’ But Jim never saw me either. It was close.”
Going into the final, Whiteley appeared to have the advantage. He qualified No. 1 with a 5.30 and ran a 5.31 to eliminate James Butler in round one and a 5.32 against Don St. Arnaud in the semi’s. Demke, who has swept both national events so far this year, was right behind Whiteley, qualifying No. 2 with a 5.35 and defeating Garrett Bateman and Joey Severance with times of 5.32 and 5.35, respectively.
Whiteley and Demke left almost simultaneously in the final, with Demke in the lead, .030 to .040, and then both drivers went into shake in low gear and slowed to their worst runs all day. “All the numbers to the 1,000-foot mark were accurate,” Demke said, “and for me to lose, I would have had to have had an .854 split from the 1,000-foot mark to the finish line, and I don’t think it did. I thought the motor might have hurt itself right at the end, but looking at the G-meter after the run, it didn’t. Jim ran a 5.40 and, looking at our computer, I think I ran about a 5.39, so I should have gotten there first by 15- to 20-thousandths of a second. The computer doesn’t lie, but rules are rules. I don’t expect NHRA to use what’s on my computer to declare me the winner, so we’ll just have to try again next weekend.”