Billy Idol’s “Hot In The City” had to be Norwalk, Ohio’s theme song this past weekend. However, despite the molten air from muggy, near-triple-digit temperatures and devilishly scorching track temperatures reported between 140 and 150 degrees at Summit Racing Equipment Motorsports Park, the racing was entertaining. Fans didn’t see a lot of straight-down-Main-Street runs, but they got their money’s worth of crazy on-track results at the Summit Racing Equipment Nationals. Here’s a sample of the thrilling, the scary, the goofy, and the unexpected . . .
IT WAS SO HOT THAT . . . – Describing conditions, especially during Friday and Saturday qualifying, sounded like a Jay Leno monologue routine. It was so hot that . . . Photographers were inside the tower’s press room, shooting through the window. . . . The GEICO entertainment team launching T-shirts into the grandstands Friday might have saved their energy and simply handed a souvenir to every one in the small group of bleacher braves. . . . EMTs helped about 60 fans with heat-related illnesses. Not even the track operators’ popular dollar-per-pound ice cream could ease the discomfort. . . . John Force said, “It’s like the Mojave Desert out there.” . . . Tim Wilkerson called it “brutal” and said his crew members “have such pride in their work, they’ll literally work themselves to the point of exhaustion on a good day, and on a scorching day like this you can’t fool around. I don’t know how many cases of water and POWERade we went through.” . . . Top Fuel’s Morgan Lucas said, “I commend all the fans for sticking it out in the heat this weekend and being as dedicated as they’ve been. It’s not easy. We all appreciate it and wish we could’ve put on a better show.”
I’m from Texas; he’s from Texas. And we both drove Top Alcohol Dragsters in Division 4. The weather here was even hot like it is in Texas.
IN LEAD AGAIN – FRAM/Prestone Dragster driver Spencer Massey took the points lead for the fourth time this season in winning the Top Fuel trophy. He beat Steve Torrence on a holeshot (3.916-second elapsed time at 312.50 mph to 3.894 / 315.71). Massey’s victory margin was 0.0026 seconds, about 14 inches. Massey earned his class-best fourth victory in his fifth final-round appearance this season and his first final round since May at Topeka. Torrence has two victories in four final rounds in the past six races. Following the race, Massey said, “I knew the final round was going to be huge. Steve was running awesome all day. He’s been running awesome all season, actually. I’m from Texas; he’s from Texas. And we both drove Top Alcohol Dragsters in Division 4. The weather here was even hot like it is in Texas.”
IF YOUR NAME STARTS WITH ‘N’ . . . – You get a Wally trophy from Norwalk for the second straight year. Funny Car’s Mike Neff and Pro Stock’s Vincent Nobile scored back-to-back victories at Summit Racing Equipment Motorsports Park. Said Nobile, “This is only my second trip to Norwalk and I’ve won three races and 11 straight rounds. So I guess you could say this is my favorite track on the tour.” Neff seemed in his element right from the start, even in the nasty weather that would give tuner and driver alike (and he’s both) a frustrating time. “The track is in great shape. It is always fun racing out here in Norwalk,” Neff said after Friday’s sweaty-nasty struggle.
NEFF BACK IN WINNING FORM – Mike Neff won the meeting of the Mustangs in the Funny Car final, running away from Tim Wilkerson with a 4.217-second E.T. and 298.21-mph speed. The Levi, Ray & Shoup Ford owner-driver countered with a 4.244 / 296.96. Neff, said his Castrol GTX team had stayed in Chicago after the Joliet race and discovered more than delicious deep-dish pizza. He said they addressed some problems with the car that had kept him from going beyond the quarterfinals at six of the seven previous events. They were bang-on, allowing Neff to lead the JFR contingent by qualifying second and earning his second victory of 2012. Neff had been runner-up at Pomona and Phoenix to begin the season and had won at Houston but, like colleague Robert Hight, had dropped off in performance. “The final — I would say that was a good solid run for me,” Neff said. He had won, in spite of popping the blower on his first run, spinning the tires on the second, and dropping a cylinder in the semifinal. “Finally in the final I got it to run on all eight [cylinders], and it made a good clean run right when I needed it. Tim Wilkerson put up a heck of a run over there. It had to be very close at the finish line. It was just our day. You run the best you can and you hope it is good enough. Fortunately for us today it was.”
LOOK OUT, JOHN FORCE – Tim Wilkerson had reached the semifinals at Topeka but otherwise never made it any farther than Round 2 all year. But, facing Ford opponents in every round and defeating two JFR racers (John Force and Robert Hight) to advance wasn’t enough to satisfy the veteran privateer. He said he was perturbed that he lost the final because he has won more than he has lost when he gets that far on a Sunday. The happy news is that he has the Western Swing coming up, and he has done well with that grind of three far-flung races in three straight weeks. He needs just 30 points to overtake John Force for 10th place, so a determined Tim Wilkerson likely is a dangerous Tim Wilkerson.
TAKES LINE OUT TWICE – In this Pro Stock showdown that reprised the final of the K&N Horsepower Challenge bonus race Saturday, Vincent Nobile hit the $100-grand-weekend jackpot by beating Line, 6.661 / 208.01 to 6.705 / 207.88. Nobile earned $50,000 for winning the K&N dash-for-cash, $25,000 for winning his second Wally of the season and fifth overall, and $25,000 from the NHRA for doubling-up. It marked the third straight final round for the new Chevy Camaro, but Line couldn’t stop Nobile from scoring his second straight Norwalk victory. Line, in one of two KB/Summit entries, had qualified No. 2, Nobile No. 5.
Nobile won the K&N Horsepower Challenge (for the class’ top eight overall qualifiers in the previous 12 months) during Saturday qualifying. In that race-within-a-race, he defeated Allen Johnson in a wire-to-wire effort in the opening round. In the middle round, Nobile edged Mike Edwards by .0061 seconds, launching first as they ran identical 6.733-second E.T.s. Then the 20-year-old Adelphi University student beat Line on a holeshot (6.750 to Line’s quicker 6.732) to become the youngest to earn the K&N Horsepower Challenge — and he did it in his first try.
“Never in a million years did I think we could come in here, win both races, and get that double-up bonus,” Nobile, who drives the Nick Mitsos-owned Mountain View Dodge Avenger, said. “We have a great team and when everything is clicking, we’re tough to beat. But at the same time, winning seven straight rounds against the best racers in Pro Stock is almost impossible to do. I’m just in shock. My crew gave me a great car this weekend. The weather was brutally hot, and we had some of the highest track temperatures we’ve ever raced in but we managed to get the job done.”
IT’S ALL FOR PEGGY – What made Vincent Nobile happiest to win the K&N Horsepower Challenge was the fact it got a Toyota Tundra pick-up for Peggy Coleman. She survived the Joplin, Mo., tornado in May 2011 that claimed 150 lives and demolished her home. She was paired as a spectator partner for Nobile through an online contest. “She was my full inspiration to win this thing,” Nobile said. “This is not about the money. It’s not even about the trophy. It’s about the story. Winning the race meant winning a Toyota Tundra for Peggy Coleman. She was in a terrible situation where she lost her house, and it’s great to be able to give something back to her.”
HARLEYS STILL DOMINANT – Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Andrew Hines thwarted another attempted coup of the Vance & Hines Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson regime, winning on a holeshot against Hector Arana Jr. and his Lucas Oil Buell. Hines won with a 6.929/193.43 performance over Arana Jr.’s 6.928/191.84. Hines earned his second consecutive victory. He had won the previous bike final at Joliet, Ill. So far this season, no one has stopped a Harley-Davidson in the final round of Pro Stock Bikes. Hines and Eddie Krawiec have passed the victories back and forth, and each has three. LE Tonglet and Michael Ray each has had a shot at dethroning the Harleys, and the father-son Arana team has taken three cracks at it.
MRS. SMITH’S WILD RIDE – With husband racer Matt Smith waiting at the starting to make his final qualifying run, Angie Smith made the Pro Stock Motorcycle cut at No. 15 but had the scariest moment of her career when her bike’s brakes failed. Miraculously, all she suffered was a bruised and possibly sprained pinky finger after she and the bike sailed through the sand trap and a mown, grassy field and headed directly for a cornfield. She ditched the bike, laid it down, just before plowing into the sturdy stalks with their razor-sharp leaves at 190 mph.
She tumbled onto her left side, and the bike disintegrated as it bounced the other way toward the crops. She lay motionless for a few seconds, then sat up, understandably dazed a bit. She said she was banged up but otherwise unhurt (save maybe a pinkie finger that took an extra beating), and talked about how she hoped the bike would be repaired so she could race Sunday. It wasn’t, and Hector Arana Sr. got a free first-round pass.
“I am OK,” Angie Smith said right away Saturday. “I’m just a little sore, but it was a wild ride. I thought I was in motocross. It just sucks that my motorcycle is messed up. Hopefully we can repair it so tomorrow I can race. I’m racing tomorrow if tech lets me and my team lets me.”
I was like, ‘I don’t want to mow down the whole cornfield,’ so I just bailed.
She said her bike wasn’t acting quite right when she did her burnout before the run but that she ignored any red flags.
“I was coming out of the burnout and my front brake was getting a little washy. When you’re holding the front brake and doing your burnout, the lever comes in a little more and sometimes they do that when you’re in hot conditions. So I didn’t really think anything about it,” she said.
Matt Smith was beside himself as he saw the accident unfold. But moments he later said, “That’s my wife, and I love her to death. And it’s hard to see something like that happen. I told her the bike can be fixed and I’m just glad she’ll be all right.”
GRAY SEEING RED – Johnny Gray, driver of the NTB/Service Central Dodge Charger and No. 1 qualifier in the Funny Car class, was furious Sunday that he didn’t even get a chance to compete. He had predicted that the match-up between him and rare No. 16 qualifier Robert Hight would “be a dogfight” until the last inch of racetrack. Gray’s parachutes fell out of his car during the burnout. He blamed “that stupid safety crud they put all over these cars. They don’t let the drivers drive ‘em. They’ve got all these safety switches. There’s nothing wrong with the motor — there’s nothing wrong. Just the safety switch shut it off. I don’t know why they don’t let the drivers drive the damn cars.”
’ESPECIALLY WHEN A GIRL WINS IT’ – The most popular pairing of Friday’s second qualifying session was Courtney Force against her 15-time Funny Car championship father, John Force. Of course, they weren’t competing against each other; they were racing the track and the timing beams in a quest to make the top 12 in the order that night. Just the same, the crowd rose to their feet as Courtney Force posted a better E.T. than her famously dominant dad. In one of the better side-by-side races of the day, her 4.140-second clocking was better than her father’s 4.196. She was sixth and he was ninth overnight. “Well, it’s always exciting for the fans to see a father and daughter race,” John Force said, “especially when a girl wins it. My car was all hopped up, but she was just faster and ran a 4.140. She’s really evolving as a driver. It’s really great for Traxxas and all their fans along with Castrol, Ford, Mac Tools, Auto Club, BrandSource and Freightliner, but it wasn’t so great for me.” Courtney Force said, “It is pretty fun to run beside him.”
WHO’S HOT, WHO’S NOT – On the rise are Top Fuel winner Spencer Massey (who lead the points again and has more Wally statues than any of the classmates this year), Andrew Hines (who seems to have the leverage against teammate Eddie Krawiec at the moment as their Harleys rule the bike class), Mike Neff (who gained the two positions he lost in the standings at Joliet), Tim Wilkerson (who’s knocking on the Funny Car Countdown field door), and Bob Tasca and Cruz Pedregon (who are moving up in the Funny Car standings).
Stuck in the mud are current Funny Car champ Matt Hagan (who has to keep learning new ways to be positive), Top Fuel’s Brandon Bernstein (who is ripe for a “media winless streak watch” for not winning since October 11, 2009, at Richmond, Va.), Top Fuel rookie Khalid alBalooshi (who had his best start, at No. 3, but couldn’t convert that into at least his first round-win, stretching his “0-fer” streak to 12 races), Pro Stock veteran Larry Morgan (who tumbled from the top 10), and even Joliet Funny Car winner Jeff Arend (who lost in the quarterfinals and gave up half the ground he had gained the week before).
UH, SORRY, DAD - Dan Wilkerson (who scared parents Tim and Kist Wilkerson enough with a 2009 wall-banger at Memphis in which the tires came off his car) experienced an intense fire that ruined his car during Norwalk qualifying Saturday. It forced his father to haul out his back-up car for Sunday’s eliminations.
“We had something break in the valve train, and even though we didn’t blow the motor up, we pushed a head gasket,” the younger Wilkerson said. “And that severed a fuel line, so you get fire in a hurry. That was my first real fire, with big flames that don’t go out right away, but I felt calm in there and knew I had to get it stopped and get the body up. The Safety Safari gets there in a hurry, but I wanted to see if we could save the Summit Racing body so I jumped out and got it up. Unfortunately, the vinyl was kind of crispy and when we got it back to the pit we found a few spots that had delaminated.
“If that was all we had, maybe we would’ve stayed up all night like maniacs and repaired it,” he said, “But we’d just spent two of the longest and hottest days ever at the race track, and it took about a minute for my dad to say ‘Get the other car out.’ We still had a lot of work to do, and without the guys on the ‘A Team’ over there, we never would’ve made first round. I owe all of those guys about a hundred steak dinners. They saved us.”
HUH? – Norwalk served up a few race-day rarities. In just his second career start, Keith Murt scored a wire-to-wire victory against Doug Kalitta. Courtney Force won in the opening round of Funny Car action, in spite of her admitted staging mistake that caused her to have a drowsy .222-second reaction time. Then Tim Wilkerson led Round 2 eliminations by winning also with a .2-second light. In the Pro Stock semifinals, Jason Line defeated Shane Gray in an unusual pedalfest for the factory hot rods when both lost traction and won with an 8.21 elapsed time. In the next pairing, Vincent Nobile took out top qualifier Allen Johnson in an equally ugly race and gained lane choice with a 7.792-second E.T.
YO, HOMESLICE – Brian Corradi, Antron Brown’s crew chief with Mark Oswald on the Matco/Aaron’s/Toyota Dragster, owns a pizza restaurant with wife Jackie Corradi in Middleburg Heights, Ohio, near Cleveland. Brown had a slice of pepperoni and cheese with his “homeslice” this past week at Master Pizza. He was making pizzas, signing autographs, donating memorabilia for an auction, and helping raise money for the Children’s Home of Berea.
LOVIN’ AMERICA – The Bader family gets an A-plus for its patriotic touches to the facility and pro-America display in race-day ceremonies. The release of red, white, and blue balloons before the first pair of dragsters fired up borrowed from Indianapolis 500 tradition (although it might have been better to let the balloons loose from another spot not as close to the starting line). Cool-looking, too, was a painting of the Stars and Stripes on the pavement at the starting line by an enthusiastic New York flag-specialty who declared, “I’ve seen every great work of art, and the greatest work of art is the American flag. It was created with the greatest purpose in humanity. It’s my duty to keep painting it.” The flyover of the T-6 Texan aircraft from the Cleveland Wing of the Commemorative Air Force also was impressive.
WESTWARD HO – The Western Swing will start July 20-25 with the Mopar Mile High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway, near Denver.