Some NHRA Racers Look For Topeka Turnaround; Others Like Status Quo
Putting on a brave face, ignoring critics, and finding creative ways to mask annoyance with the same old media inquiries simply is getting old for NHRA Top Fuel drivers Tony Schumacher and Shawn Langdon and Funny Car racers Matt Hagan and now Mike Neff.
Both Antron Brown and Spencer Massey are looking for rebounds in their Top Fuel performances at this weekend’s Dollar General Summernationals at Heartland Park Topeka. And long-overdue Doug Kalitta and Brandon Bernstein (in his 200th pro race) need break-out efforts.
Others — such as Top Fuel’s Steve Torrence, Funny Car’s Ron Capps and Robert Hight, and Pro Stock’s Greg Anderson ,Jason Line, and Allen Johnson — are riding a wave of success as this eighth race of the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series season approaches.
Schumacher understands the interest with his 30-race winless streak, but the U.S. Army Dragster driver said he’s decidedly tired of hearing about it.
“Yes, yes, and yes, again,” he said. “But I do understand it’s sort of headline-grabbing because of the kind of team we are. We’ve won numerous championships and now suddenly that same team is being shut out. Once we get that first win, we all can move on from there.
“We have come so close this season. It’s really amazing that we have not been able to get over the hump. It’s something I don’t think anyone can explain,” he said. “To be 0-11 in finals the last couple of years is unbelievable to me. But I still hold to the belief we will break through in the near term. If anything, the percentages have to eventually swing our way. Like I’ve said over and over, it’s not a question of if, but rather when it will happen.”
Thanks to four final-round appearances this year, Schumacher is the Top Fuel points leader. He was No. 1 qualifier at Heartland Park last year, and he won there in 2010. He’s expected to roll out a new Don Schumacher Racing-built chassis in which he took three test laps at Atlanta two weeks ago the day after the Southern Nationals.
One of his crew members said, “It’s time to mothball the old chassis, since it only gets to finals and doesn’t win.” Schumacher agreed.
Al-Anabi / Toyota Dragster driver Shawn Langdon, tantalizingly close to a first Top Fuel victory and in the best car of his career to halt his team’s record seven-race dry spell, said, “I don’t think there’s any reason to hit the panic button, but we need to get things turned around before we fall too far back in points. We can’t sit around too much longer, because a couple of the teams have things figured out and they’re running well. We can run with them, but we just need to do it consistently and do it on Sunday.”
“We have the potential to go out at every racetrack and set low E.T., qualify No. 1, and win. Alan [team manager Johnson] has always been one step ahead of everybody else,” Langdon said. “And when Alan says we’ll be fine, I take his word for it.”
He’s tied for sixth place with Doug Kalitta, who’s a 32-time winner but has been silent since the July 2010 Denver event. Kalitta earned the Top Fuel trophy at Topeka in 2006. And Bernstein hasn’t been in the winners circle since his October 2009 victory at Richmond.
“When you have a consistent race car and you get a little bit of momentum going and rounds under your belt, you get into a groove,” Bernstein said. “Then you just need to keep that going and the wins will come. That’s what we’re planning on doing.”
That’s what Funny Car champion Hagan planned to do, too. Instead he has found himself saying, “It’s not for a lack of trying on my part, Tommy’s or the team’s”– and every variation of that he can think of.
Hagan, who’s 2-6 in eliminations so far this year, said, “I feel real bad for our crew. Those guys work as hard or harder than anyone out there. I know Tommy’s tried about everything. This team hasn’t quit. No one’s giving up, that’s for sure.”
Everything was going Neff’s way this time a year ago, but seeing his lead from the so-called “regular-season” evaporate in the six-race Countdown to the Championship made an impression on the tuner-driver for John Force Racing. And his failure to qualify at Atlanta opened the scab.
From that came an unlikely compliment to the Countdown playoff system that burned him in 2011. “Days like that (at Atlanta) are one thing that is positive about the Countdown, Fortunately, that’s not going to hurt us too bad.
“These early races are worth nothing at the end of the season,” Neff said. “They’re going to reshuffle our points after Indy, anyway. Sure, you want to qualify at every race – and you want to win – but you’re going to have good days and bad days. It’s all about timing. These early races are about finding the limits and getting ready for the Countdown. It’s all about who has the best car in those last six races. You could win all the other races and it still wouldn’t matter. It comes down to a six-race season.”
The Castrol GTX Ford Mustang driver still is second in the standings, tied with Atlanta victor Ron Capps.
If Robert Hight wins this weekend, he will become the third Funny Car driver to win this race three straight times. Mark Oswald (1989-91) and Tony Pedregon (2001-03) did it. Only five drivers – Oswald, Pedregon, Don Prudhomme, Kenny Bernstein, and John Force – have won three consecutive Funny Car trophies (or more) at the same event in NHRA history. Force owns the longest event winning streak with five straight Gatornationals victories from 1992-96.
Auto Club Ford Mustang driver Hight has a huge lead in the Funny Car standings, 203 points more than No. 2 drivers Neff and Capps. His only stumble was a first-round loss to No. 16 qualifier Todd Lesenko in the season-opener at Pomona, Calif. If one subtracts that from his totals, Hight is averaging 110 points per race. That is 85 percent of all available points. Even with the uncharacteristic Winternationals results, Hight has earned 77 percent of all available points for Funny Cars through the first seven races.
“Having this points lead is a luxury,” Hight said. “(Crew chief) Jimmy Prock and my guys have been giving me a great race car.”
Rahn Tobler and his crew have been giving Capps a great one, too. Capps has advanced to the past three final rounds and with the Atlanta victory vaulted to a second-place tie in the standings with Neff. He has won at Topeka three times (1998, 2006, and 2009) and was runner-up to John Force in 2000.
“What is so special to me is just going to Kansas to race where it really all started,” the NAPA Dodge Charger driver said, referring to the first NHRA national event in 1955, on an airpstrip near Great Bend, Kansas. “I’m a West Coast guy, but the first NHRA national event 57 years ago was here in Kansas. Now, Heartland Park Topeka is a long way from what it was like at Great Bend, but the spirit of competition is still there.”
Meanwhile, in Top Fuel, Torrence said he isn’t concerned about the forecast for 85-degree temperatures this weekend at Topeka. His Torrence Racing / Capco Contractors Inc. Dragster performed well in the heat two weeks ago at Atlanta Dragway, when he earned his first professional victory.
“It was absolutely flying,” Torrence said, “and it will be hot in Topeka, so that definitely bolsters our confidence. We know Richard Hogan, our crew chief, has a good handle on the tune-up in hot weather conditions and on hot tracks. It really takes a good crew chief to be able to finesse the race car and get it to go down the track . . . and still run quick.”
Torrence said the Atlanta victory “has made us hungry for another one. We are not satisfied with that. We want to keep going.”
Here’s a sneak peek, by class, at what to look for in the pro ranks:
Spencer Massey said his crew, which was on-target enough to earn a class-leading three victories so far, made the mistake of trying to keep up with eventual winner Steve Torrence at Atlanta. Todd Okuhara and Phil Shuler, his crew chiefs, watched the cars running ahead of them in the quarterfinals at Atlanta and thought they could master the hot, tricky racing surface. “We tried pushing for our time to be as quick (as Steve Torrence’s 3.848), and it bit us,” Massey said. “Our motto is not to beat ourselves and we beat ourselves.”
That was the fourth second-round loss of the season and second straight for Massey.
Brown might could be wearing a rally cap this weekend, looking for a reversal of fortune in his Matco Tools Dragster. In the Atlanta race, he experienced his first opening-round defeat in 33 starts. “The disappointment has kind of stuck around, to be honest,” Brown said.
He has led the Top Fuel standings three times this season and would like to regain it from DSR mate Schumacher. Brown was top qualifier at Topeka in 2009 and 2010 but never has reached he final round at Heartland Park Topeka.
According to Brown, Top Fuel competition is “crazy right now. The days of one team dominating are over. Nobody is going to run away and hide from the rest of the field.”
The NHRA is in its 61st season, and this weekend’s Dollar General NHRA Summernationals at Heartland Park Topeka, will be the Funny Car class’ 700th race. John Force, with 134 victories, heads the list of 88 different Funny Car winners. Tony Pedregon, who earned 27 with John Force Racing, is second with 43 overall. Prudhomme has 35, and Capps is closing in with 33. Kenny Bernstein had 30, and still-active Cruz Pedregon needs just one more Wally to tie him. Hight has 27 victories, and inactive racers Del Worsham (25) and Whit Bazemore (20) are among the best in Funny Car history.
John Force owns the record for Funny Car victories at Heartland Park. That includes six in the Summernationals
Tony Pedregon will join the Toyota ranks in Funny Car competition this weekend in Topeka. He’ll become the fourth to drive a 2012 Toyota Camry. His brother, Cruz, has run Toyota Funny Car bodies since 2008, when he won Toyota’s only Funny Car championship. After making the switch to the new 2012 Toyota Camry Funny Car at Charlotte, Jeff Arend has advanced twice to the semifinals and cracked the top 10.
Allen Johnson said, “The front two guys are pulling away a little bit, so we’d like to put a stop to that. We certainly have the package and the personnel to do it.”
He said his Team Mopar / J&J Racing Dodge Avenger is “a real quality machine right now.” His evidence includes the Las Vegas victory and four consecutive races with at least a semifinal finish, as well as either a No. 1 or No. 2 qualifying position at the past four events. Moreover, he has set the top speed of the meet at each of the last two events.
“The car itself is great and dad (J&J Racing engine builder Roy Johnson) and the engine guys are making great horsepower with the HEMI engines. While we’ve had the fastest car each of the last two weekends, we were a little disappointed that we didn’t win those races. We’ve learned a lot and just have to keep building on what we are doing and what is working,” he said.
Johnson, the 2009 Topeka winner and 2010 runner-up, is third in the standings. He said that No. 3 ranking behind Greg Anderson and Jason Line “is definitely a testament to our team and the product that we have.”
Oklahoman Mike Edwards said he thinks he has a “home-field advantage,” of sorts, with his loyal, home-grown cheering section from the Tulsa-Coweta-Broken Arrow area about 250 miles from Heartland Park Topeka. He said that “takes some of the pressure away. It allows us to be surrounded by those who love and support us. While you are focused on getting another Wally to drive back with the caravan on Sunday night, you are not consumed by everything and it might allow you to make the correct decisions and not second-guess. On the flip side, it also adds a bit of pressure because you do not want to disappoint everyone that took time away from their lives to watch you race.”
Edwards has been No. 1 qualifier at Heartland Park Topeka in each of the last three years. He won here in 1999, from the 16th and final spot, and then in 2010 from the No. 1 position. “I can say I have won this race from both ends of the spectrum,” Edwards said. “In 1999, that was one of those race days you could do no wrong from the starting line to making the right calls on the track. It meant a lot because I did something nobody before did, and that was winning from the No. 16 position.” Then in 2010, Edwards led the field and beat Allen Johnson on a holeshot in the final round.
“Topeka usually comes down to who does better at the start,” Edwrads said, “because the track is very consistent throughout the weekend. I just need to do my job like I did in the couple years I’ve won, and I can add to my Pro Stock trophy collection and have the biggest winners circle photo with everyone coming up from Tulsa area enjoying the moment with us.”
Rival Jeg Coughlin Jr. will have divided attention this weekend — between his Mopar / JEGS.com Dodge Avenger in the Pro Stock class and in his Mopar Challenger Drag Pak in Stock Eliminator. Coughlin, the only driver in NHRA history to win in six professional classes, won at Topeka in Super Stock in 1994 and in Pro Stock in 2000.
Jason Line also has had success at Topeka as sportsman racer. However, the two-time Pro Stock series champion hasn’t carried it over to his long list of pro acomplishments. He never has won at Heartland Park Topeka. He said he and the track “have a long history together. I raced my Stocker at the first event, when they were still pouring concrete when we rolled through the gates. I also won a points meet in Topeka. But for reasons I can’t quite explain, that success has yet to translate over to my Pro Stock car. If there ever was a time that we had a car capable of winning the race, it would have to be right now. My Summit Racing Pontiac has been extremely strong all year, so I feel there is a good possibility we are going fix any issues we’ve had with Kansas in the past this weekend.”
He has one victory in two final-round appearances this year and is ranked No. 2 in the standings.
Like teammate Greg Anderson, the points leader, Line knows he must make four good runs, cut four sharp reaction times, and no mistakes — which we haven’t been able to do since Phoenix,” Line said. “We’ve been close to getting it done, including Atlanta two weeks ago, but just came up a hundredth shy against our teammate in the final.
“I know there are many people who would be more than happy to have our Summit Racing team’s record so far and would gladly trade places with us. However, without trying to sound cocky or arrogant, we are only satisfied when we win,” Line said. “By the same token, as soon as one race is over, no matter how we’ve done, we put it behind us and start working on the next one.
This weekend, he said, “It’s about time I took a Topeka Wally home.”
Anderson echoed that mistake-free mantra and said that’s what has distinguished his team so far.
“I think our success this season comes down to our making fewer mistakes than our opponents,” he said. “Even though we haven’t always been the baddest dog on the planet, somehow the people we’ve raced have made mistakes, which you cannot do in this class if you expect to win. The bottom line is that we keep racing tough, focusing on every little detail, and finding ways to capitalize on our competitors’ mistakes.”
He had his way around Heartland Park Topeka from 2003 to 2007, leading the field three times and winning four times to moe within one victory of Warren Johnson’s all-time class mark at this racetrack.
Anderson, the points leader, said, he wants “to rekindle some of the magic this Summit Racing team had with Heartland Park Topeka. We seem to have misplaced it over the last few years.”