The skies finally showed some mercy, clearing enough after a second weekend of nasty weather to allow National Hot Rod Association drivers to complete the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals. But Tony Schumacher showed no mercy in his U.S. Army Dragster, surpassing “Big Daddy” Don Garlits as the Top Fuel king at the sport’s marquee event.
Schumacher beat Don Schumacher Racing teammate Spencer Massey in a close final-round match to tie retired Pro Stock legend Bob Glidden with a ninth victory at historic Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis.
Joining Schumacher in the winners circle were Funny Car repeat winner Mike Neff, Pro Stock crew-chief-reverted-to-driver Dave Connolly, and Pro Stock Motorcycle Harley-Davidson dominator Andrew Hines.
Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car), Allen Johnson (Pro Stock), and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) emerged as the so-called “regular-season champions” as the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series set its Countdown to the Championship fields. The six-race playoffs will begin this Friday at zMAX Dragway at Charlotte.
The restart featured delights and dejections, engine explosions, and plenty of plot twists. See which drivers are in and out of the Countdown, who blew up, and who kissed whom.
SCHUMACHER: NO. 9 ‘MIGHT BE SWEETER’ - Top Fuel winner Tony Schumacher said his ninth triumph at Indianapolis — his second of the season and 69th of his career – “may be sweeter” than his first. “To have a chance to win a ninth against my teammate, who was running as good if not better and had lane choice, made it a perfect moment. I didn’t feel like I was stellar on the lights. But I left on everybody, [crew chief] Mike Green made the car run fast, and we got the trophy.”
He said winning any race, let alone this historic Labor Day classic, is difficult and that the face of the Top Fuel class has changed considerably since 2000, when he won his first U.S. Nationals. “Anymore, it’s more difficult to win a race, by far, than it has probably ever been. There was a time where we were a tenth [of a second] ahead of everybody and just needed to not make any mistakes, but the top seven cars are all so close that it’s pretty gratifying,” he said.
He eliminated Hillary Will, Morgan Lucas, and No. 1 qualifier Shawn Langdon before winning against Massey by 0.0443 seconds, or about 21 feet. Schumacher’s only other victory since October 2010 came this June, on Fathers Day, at Bristol, Tenn.
10TH-PLACE MYSTERY SOLVED - Bob Vandergriff took the 10th and final Top Fuel spot.
NEFF KEEPS JFR STREAK ALIVE - Tuner-driver Mike Neff’s Funny Car victory in the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang extended John Force Racing’s reign at the U.S. Nationals to five consecutive years. JFR drivers have won at Indianapolis eight times in the past 11 seasons. His showdown against Tim Wilkerson signaled the fourth straight all Ford Racing final and the fourth consecutive year the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang has won. Ashley Force Hood won in 2009 and 2010, and Neff has gone back-to-back.
Neff, the No. 10 starter Sunday, said “It is amazing how close everything today was to last year. I didn’t do very good job in qualifying last year. [He was ninth in 2011.] I remember getting up last year and just not feeling very good. I remember thinking, ‘I am going to have to really pull something out of the hat’ last year. I had the same feeling this morning. I felt like we were close.”
He set low elapsed time in the first round, then got a free pass in the quarterfinals after Todd Lesenko had a second spectacular-looking engine explosion in as many days and couldn’t compete. “You don’t see that very often,” Neff said of the second-round solo run. “We were quick every run. As the day went on I started feeling better. I felt like it was either going to be your day or it wasn’t,” he said.
“I was nervous the first round with all the cars smoking the tires in the left lane. I didn’t have lane choice. Then Lesenko blew his body off and there was all that drama. There was a lot going on, and I watched Force smoke the tires and then [points leader Ron] Capps [lose]. It was just really stressful. Once that was over and I knew I was getting a single, it just got better.”
2, 4, 6, 8 . . . - JFR has the Nos. 2, 4, 6, and 8 seeds at the start of the Countdown. Robert Hight is second, Mike Neff fourth, Courtney Force sixth, and John Force eighth.
COUNTDOWN KISS - Funny Car winner Mike Neff was locked into the Countdown long before the U.S. Nationals. But toward the bottom of the order, three drivers (Bob Tasca III, Matt Hagan, and Tim Wilkerson) were scrounging for every last point and advantage they could earn. And they sweated bullets with every round Sunday. Neff was aware of the scramble for the final playoff position, but he wasn’t sure what all was going on with the points until Jeff Arend paid him a visit.
“I am glad I wasn’t fighting for one of those last spots in the Countdown. I didn’t know what was at stake,” Neff said. “I knew Tasca, Hagan and Wilkerson were all right there.
“After the semis, when I beat Matt Hagan, Jeff Arend came over and actually came up in my lounge and gave me a kiss on the cheek. He said, ‘Thank you,’ and I asked, ‘For what?’ He said he was in the Countdown [and the kiss was] because he needed one of those guys to lose,” Neff said. “There was just too much going on.”
WILKERSON SLIDES IN - Tim Wilkerson put his Levi, Ray & Shoup Shelby Ford Mustang in the Funny Car final to seize the 10th and final berth in the Countdown to the Championship field. He leapfrogged both Matt Hagan and Bob Tasca III. To begin with, he was the only one of the four drivers fighting for the final two Countdown slots who qualified in the top half of the U.S. Nationals field.
But Wilkerson sat through eliminations and watched rival Jeff Arend and Matt Hagan win before he had his chance to defeat Tasca for the loser-out duel. Wilkerson won on a holeshot, battling Tasca side by side down the 1,000-foot course. He still was out of the top 10, with Hagan No. 10, and his next opponent was Arend.
In Round 2, Wilkerson won as Arend smoked the tires, but Hagan also won (against Robert Hight). So it came down to his semifinal meeting with Johnny Gray. At that point, Hagan had a three-point lead on Wilkerson and Arend was nine points ahead. Wilkerson had to win the round — against the strong-performing Johnny Gray — or he would miss the Countdown cut. If he won, he was in. Gray’s Dodge quit on him near the end of the run, and Wilkerson at last had survived the drama — or perhaps created it.
“We were small-balling them to death out there, running 4.13s and daring anyone to beat us,” Wilkerson said, “but it worked and the car was really consistent. It would’ve been great if all those guys lost in the first round, just to make it easy and simple for us, but it seemed like we had to find a way to pick them off one at a time. And each time we did we still had further to go if we were going to get in the playoffs. We just kept taking it one lap at a time, but . . . you better believe we were counting points.”
Moments later, Mike Neff defeated Hagan, knocking the defending champion from the playoffs and leaving Arend in 10th place. However, Wilkerson spilled oil on the track in his final-round run against Neff and lost 10 points. So he ended the day in 10th place, moving Arend to ninth. So Wilkerson had earned the final playoff spot by only seven points, and he had had to advance as far as the final round to do so.
“We were eating pistons up all day, and I said before the final that we need to fix that or we’ll go broke,” Wilkerson said. “It almost cost us more than money. It came real close to yanking that playoff spot right back out of our hands with the penalty. How bad would that have been? To get all pumped up knowing you’d done something pretty difficult by having a near-perfect day, and then have it taken back out of your hands? Luckily, we had just a enough cushion to keep it, and we’ll have to win the championship out of the 10th spot, I guess. 10th is way better than 11th. It’s just a shame the motor wouldn’t hold together for another hundredth of a second.”
HAGAN MOVING FORWARD - Knowing his chance is gone to repeat as Funny Car champion, Matt Hagan said he and his team have “put it behind us” and will concentrate on the small successes he can achieve still. “Now our goal is to go out and win a couple races and make something out of the season. We think that’s very doable. It will bring all these guys’ spirits back. It’s something we can do during these last six races.”
CURIOUS DILEMMA FOR CONNOLLY - Dave Connolly doesn’t get many chances to drive a Pro Stock car these days, but he’s busy making his mark as a crew chief for sizzling-hot Erica Enders in the KLR Group Chevy entry. After all, he guided her to the No. 1 qualifying spot at this year’s Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, putting her in terrific position to win for a third straight race and the fourth time in seven races. But this particular event was different. Connolly had that opportunity to drive, in the IDG Chevy, and he took it to compete for only the third time this season. Connolly had won the U.S. Nationals twice, and he was especially eager to win a third time. Then came the ultimate scenario: he had to race Enders in the final round Sunday.
“Erica’s car is still running on mean,” Connolly said on the eve of eliminations. “We’re going to try to continue the roll that we’re on.” But he had other ideas Sunday when they pulled to the starting line opposite each other. He intended to treat her like any of his other competitors.
“It was definitely bittersweet in the final, running Erica,” Connolly said. “I think I’m more proud when she wins than when I win. I truly mean that. I hope she whips my butt the next six finals. But it’s the U.S. Nationals, and there’s no laying over. It was cutthroat. Pro Stock’s brutal right now. It doesn’t matter where you get in. You definitely have a shot. With Cagnazzi power under the hood and judging by Erica’s performance, we’ve got the right tools.”
But his performance was the one about which Pro Stock fans and racers were buzzing. Even Connolly was amazed. “It’s incredible,” he said following his .002-second victory margin. “To even race Pro Stock was always a dream of mine as a kid. To win the U.S. Nationals in ’07 was unbelievable. It was one of those wins you’ll never forget. I ran in ’07 and ’08 and won and haven’t run here since. We’ve got a little 12-round winning streak right now.”
Connolly said he went all out against Enders, knowing he had to be at his best if he wanted to win. He said his car “went out there and rattled and went left. It was ugly, but I pulled another gear and tried to keep going. When I let the clutch out and pulled second, I didn’t think I stood a chance. I plugged fifth and looked over and saw a lot of flat black (Enders’ car). I knew it was going to be tight down there. It made for an exciting race.
“She drives incredibly consistent,” Connolly said. “She’s hard to rattle, and didn’t rattle in the final.”
READY TO BATTLE AGAIN - Erica Enders took her Pro Stock runner-up finish to her own crew chief, Dave Connolly, in stride. She said, “It’s a bittersweet day, for sure. I’m happy for Dave and the entire team, of course. He’s one of my best friends, and it’s great to be in victory lane with him and all the GK guys. But I’d much rather be the one holding the trophy.
“We still have an awesome hot rod, and I’m excited for the Countdown,” she said. “My guys have worked their butts off all year, and we’re not going to slow down for anyone. We’ve all worked hard to be in this position, and I’m going to do my best for them, just like they do their best for me.”
She downplayed her suddenly super-strong status. “I’ve heard people say we’re the car to beat for the championship, and I’m honored to hear that. But nothing is given in Pro Stock. You have to earn everything you get, and that’s what we plan on doing,” Enders said.”
HINES COMPLETES TEAM SWEEP - It’s official — the Vance & Hines Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson team has won every regular-season Pro Stock Motorcycle race this year. Andrew Hines earned his first Indianapolis victory, easily defeating Hector Arana Sr. in the final round. He has won four times, and points leader Eddie Krawiec has won the other six events. “This is really satisfying,” Hines said. “Minus one year, I’ve raced every year on a Harley. And for us to struggle like we’ve done here, with inconsistency in tuning and riding, and every scenario possible going against us, like last year when my transmission locked up after the first round burnout, to finally get the Indy win and stand in the U.S. Nationals winners circle is something I can look back on years from now. I had found the winners circle four times here with the Pro Bike battle, and to actually stand there with the U.S. Nationals trophy means the world to me.
“[Eddie] and I intend to extend our streak,” Hines said. “Charlotte and Dallas are two tracks that I’ve never won at, so those are the last two on my list there. It’s a whole new deal now with the Countdown. Luckily my motorcycle finally turned the corner, and we could have fun with it and tune it.”
BIKE FIELD SET - Michael Ray, Shawn Gann, and Matt Smith claimed the final three playoff positions in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class.
PRO STOCK COUNTDOWN FIELD - After claiming one of the three last Pro Stock spots in the Countdown, Larry Morgan discovered that his Lucas Oil Ford Mustang is misbehaving. “It’s one weight off our shoulders and a new one on,” he said. “But we’re OK with that, for sure. The car gets upset real easy right now. When it gets upset, it doesn’t work worth a darn and we blow the tires off and mess the run up. We’ll get that fixed and be ready for these last six races.”
Four-time class champion Jeg Coughlin, who struggled all year in his first go with his new JEGS.com/Mopar Dodge Avenger team and his own engine program, grabbed a spot, as did V Gaines. “The drama of the getting into the Countdown was at an all-time high in all the pro classes,” Coughlin said. “Pro Stock was right at the top of the list with six guys vying for the last four spots. We think we’ve got a better team and a better car than we’ve showed all year. We’ve gotten our act together lately and the car has been much more drivable.”
PLAYOFF GRIND - The Countdown has scheduled five races in as many weekends.
QUALIFYING RE-OPENED - Persistent rain Labor Day forced postponement of eliminations, but the day before, activity was washed out and the NHRA declared the fields set. With the re-do, NHRA declared qualifying would re-open. Courtney Force (Funny Car), Erica Enders (Pro Stock), and Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Bike) kept their top spots. But Top Fuel’s Spencer Massey lost his position to Shawn Langdon, who ran the fourth-quickest pass (3.740 seconds) in class history.