If Bill Reichert ends up with a record sixth Top Alcohol Dragster championship this year, he can look back on the Midwest Regional at Route 66 Raceway outside Chicago and know that it probably wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t won this race. In Top Alcohol Funny Car, Mickey Ferro, who crashed at the Jegs Allstars race in his last appearance here, prevailed over perhaps the best field ever assembled.
“We really, really needed this,” said Reichert, who was upset in the first round in his first two regional appearances, in Indianapolis and Norwalk. Under the new format introduced this year, national championships are determined by each driver’s best three of five regional events and best seven of 10 nationals – not five of eight divisionals and five of eight nationals, as in years past – so after Reichert’s early exits at his first two regionals, he absolutely had to sweep three straight for a perfect regional score.
At Maple Grove Raceway over Memorial Day weekend, Reichert edged the driver who dethroned him in 2011, Duane Shields, in a classic 5.45-to-5.45 final, and his first two rounds at this event were just as tight. “I used to lose all those close ones decided on the Tree, but now it seems like I win them,” said Reichert, who nipped longtime rival Marty Thacker in the first round by just four-thousandths of a second, 5.49 to 5.50, and Randy Meyer in the semi’s, 5.41 to 5.41.
In the final against “Dyno Dave” Heitzman, Reichert was off the line first and scored easily with his best reaction time and best run of the day, a .059 and a 5.35. Heitzman smoked the tires early and slowed to an 8.65. “I’m not saying we’re going to win another championship this year – I’d never say that – but this weekend sure will help,” Reichert said.
In the first round, in the biggest upset of the weekend, Heitzman dropped No. 1 qualifier Chris Demke, who had dominated qualifying all weekend and had made the only run in the 5.20s, a 5.26. Heitzman left first and took the biggest win of his career, 5.36 to 5.37, putting a giant dent in Demke’s championship plans. In the semifinals against Noah Condo, who made a strong comeback this weekend, Heitzman soloed to an even better 5.35 after Condo had to shut off after the burnout.
Ferro took two of his three round-wins on holeshots, winning the Top Alcohol Funny Car final over Norwalk winner Chris Foster, 5.70 to 5.68, and the semifinals over Ray Drew, 5.74 to 5.70. “I knew I had to concentrate this weekend,” Ferro said. “I got beat on a holeshot in Houston, and it’s bugged me ever since, and I told myself I wasn’t letting that happen again. In a field like this, you really had no choice.”
With an unbelievable 5.667 bump, this was the second-quickest field in regional event history, behind only the 2009 Sonoma event, where it took a 5.659 to get in. Ferro didn’t even qualify in the top half; he was fifth with a 5.64. Cassie Simonton led the field for the first time in her career with a 5.601, just thousandths of a second ahead of Frank Manzo. Foster was third with a 5.61, Fred Hagen Jr. and Ferro ran 5.64s, and Brian Harvanek, Paul Noakes, and Drew all ran 5.66s.
So competitive was the field that just one driver from the fast half, Foster, made it out of the opening round. Drew took out Simonton, 5.66 to 5.71; Foster advanced when Harvanek, who reached the final round at the Indianapolis regional, crossed the centerline; Ferro beat Hagen, 5.69 to a shutoff 8.11; and Noakes survived a trouble-plagued match with Manzo, 7.67 to 8.41.
Ferro cut a .056 light in the semi’s against Drew’s .094, which allowed him to get there first by just two-thousandths of a second, 5.742 to 5.709. “It was 90 degrees out, everybody was battling the track, and I knew I had to be ready,” Ferro said. “This wasn’t a normal race. Look at all the cars that were there. Any one of them could have beaten me.”
Foster skated around his lane in the other semifinal match to run down Noakes, who had a .018 light, 5.81 to 5.88. In the final, Foster’s 5.68 left him just seven feet short of Ferro’s 5.70. “Chris and I have run a few times now, and they’re almost always close,” said Ferro, who won the 13th regional event of his career. “This is probably the toughest one of them all.”