The beauty of Bristol Dragway, carved into the East Tennessee hills, has made it maybe the most appealing venue on the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series tour.
Its acoustics, too, are spectacular, and caused Funny Car’s Jack Beckman to say, “No racetrack captures the sound like Bristol. When you whomp the throttle, the sound of 8,000 horsepower echoes three times off the sides of the canyon walls. It’s the ultimate place to see and hear our cars.”
Conditions are pretty unpredictable at that track. I’ve seen it hot, seen it cold. I’ve sat through rain and hail. Just about anything can happen in those hills.
“The performance we’ll get will be dictated by the weather,” he said. “Conditions are pretty unpredictable at that track. I’ve seen it hot, seen it cold. I’ve sat through rain and hail. Just about anything can happen in those hills.
“The mountains around the track can really change the conditions in a hurry,” he said. “You’ve got to be as perfect as you possibly can be every time you roll up to the line.”
That’s a tough order to fill. And as nearly perfect as some NHRA pros were at the most recent race, at Englishtown, N.J. — notably Top Fuel points leader Spencer Massey and Funny Car’s No. 2 Ron Capps, who ran the quickest-ever passes in their classes in qualifying — neither won.
Those honors went to Steve Torrence in Top Fuel and Johnny Gray in Funny Car, who have the momentum heading into this 10th race of the season.
Torrence already has his eye on his Countdown strategy for the Capco Contractors Dragster, although the top-five driver is not being smug after earning his second victory in the past three races in this first full season as a team owner. He has a 15-7 elimination record and has qualified no worse than second at the past four events.
However, Torrence said he doesn’t “want to get the cart before the horse” and “will continue to take it one race, one round at a time,” but said he and crew chief Richard Hogan are war-gaming the Countdown.
“Richard has been out here long enough to know exactly how to run the car,” he said. “He knows we are going to need a lot of inventory for the Countdown. We are making plans for the Countdown now. We have had some success. I don’t think that it is just a flash in the pan. I do think we have a very good team.”
Lucas said he and his GEICO/Lucas Oil team “just want to try and put on a clinic this weekend.” His teammate, Brandon Bernstein, doesn’t care how pretty a victory might be or how much of a clinic he can put on.
All he wants to do is snap a 67-race winless streak that dates back to October 2009 at Richmond, Va. With two semifinal finishes and a runner-up effort in the past three events, Bernstein said he thinks it’s time to rely on some of the Bristol magic that has produced victories in 2003 and 2007 and a 2010 runner-up showing. He also owns the track elapsed-time record at 3.828 seconds, which he set last June. “Bristol has been great to us. I love going there. Hopefully that breeds more success.”
In the Funny Car class, points leader Robert Hight, is going for a repeat victory and another mention in the history book. He’s just two round-wins away from joining an elite list of Funny Car drivers who have won 250 rounds or more: John Force (1,103), Tony Pedregon (502), Cruz Pedregon (451), Ron Capps (444), and Tim Wilkerson (261). And he could do it in 171 races (including Bristol), at a pace of nearly 1.5 round wins per race. Only Force has a better ratio (1.85).
“Getting round wins is what this sport is all about. I remember when John got his 1,000th round win in St. Louis a few years ago. These are drivers you want to pattern your career after. I don’t know if I’ll get that many,” Hight said. If he reaches 250 this weekend, he’ll do it in the Elvis 35th Anniversary / AAA Insurance Ford Mustang.
Hight set the Bristol track records at 4.047 seconds and 316.45 mph last June in the Auto Club Ford Mustang. That speed mark, which he clocked in the semifinal round and backed up with a 314.90 mph in the final round, was the national speed record (his first) when he left a year ago. (Jack Beckman has the distinction today, at 318.99 mph)
As hot as Hight might be, Capps has been to five straight final rounds since his pairing with the Rahn Tobler-John Collins tuning tandem resurrected his career at Atlanta.
Hight has cooled down a bit since he won four of this season’s first five races in the Auto Club Ford Mustang, while Capps has heated up in the NAPA Dodge Charger from Don Schumacher Racing. He has vaulted to the No. 2 spot in the standings and is just 157 points behind Hight.
“We’re creeping up on Robert,” Capps said. “Catching him before the Countdown to the Championship is not out of the question.” Capps has won at Bristol twice (2001, ’06).
The Funny Car class’ most recent winner, Johnny Gray, said he thinks back-to-back victories certainly are within reach for his DSR-fielded NTB / Service Central Dodge. And if not, well, that’s OK, too, he said.
We’re creeping up on Robert. Catching him before the Countdown to the Championship is not out of the question.
“I feel just as confident as anyone out there right now,” he said. “There is no reason we can’t get two in a row. My car is running as well as anybody’s, and I think my team is better than anyone’s. There is absolutely no reason in the world that we can’t turn around, go right to Bristol and double up.”
His elder son, Shane Gray, will debut his NTB/Service Central Chevy Camaro in the ultra-competitive Pro Stock class. Younger son Jonathan Gray will compete in the sportsman-level Competition Eliminator class, in the Service Central Pontiac GTO.
“It’s such a special weekend, and you always hope that you can make it even more special,” Gray said. “It would be great to win a race with both kids there, but really, just being with the family on Fathers Day is such a blessing. It’s so much more than so many other families have. And if all that happens is I get to spend the weekend with my kids, well, so be it. It’s going to be a great time, no matter what.”
Morgan Lucas already warned everyone: Just about anything can happen in those hills.