In the absolutely crazy world of NHRA championship drag racing, one of my biggest regrets is that I cannot get more time to just hang on the fence and watch sportsman drag racers do their thing.
The average race fan may be missing out on some of the greatest racing by leaving the grandstands when the sportsman racers come up to the line. As a sportsman guy myself, I very much keep up with it and enjoy watching every class, though some are harder to understand than others. Each category offers interesting stories and exciting racing if you just take the time to figure out what’s happening on the track.
The alcohol classes are easy to understand. The first one to the finish line wins. Though they don’t go quite as fast as we do with the Parts Plus/Great Clips Top Fuel dragster, they are really close to what we do. Shane Westerfield won Alcohol Funny Car in 2017. He is a guy who was a boat racer and had to learn the ins and outs of driving something with a rollcage and four tires. In Top Alcohol Dragster, Joey Severance has won three championships in a row and only a few people have accomplished that feat.
Moving on to Super Stock and Stock, it becomes more complicated. A fan needs to understand the index system, and that the Stock classes are based on the cars we see driving on the road. Once you comprehend a breakout and why a handicap system is used, it is fantastic racing. Justin Lamb won both Stock and Super Stock world championships in 2017. He joins a very elite group of only two others who have won two world titles the same year; Jeff Strickland who did it last year and Scotty Richardson, an unbelievable racer in his own right. If the fans try, it doesn’t take long to figure out what’s happening.
The Super categories, though heads-up, have their own quirks to figure out. Fans often wonder why the cars take off and then noticeably slow down again before huge top-end charges to the finish line. These drivers have to drive both ends of the track. I have heard it many times called a high speed game of chess. To me, it’s good racing to watch a guy who didn’t leave the line first run closer to the index for the win. This year, Austin Williams earned the Super Comp world championship. This guy has also won a championship in prior years in Stock Eliminator. If fans would just look at some of these guys and what they’ve accomplished, it makes it so much fun to watch.
The average race fan may be missing out on some of the greatest racing by leaving the grandstands when the sportsman racers come up to the line.
The Super Gas world champion in 2017 is Johnny Labbous, Jr. who comes from a legendary family in drag racing history. Johnny won race after race and looked like he would be a runaway winner in both Super Gas and Super Comp. Austin Williams slowly but surely tracked him down and took the Super Comp championship. Johnny won the Super Gas title. That was a story I followed all year long. It’s thousands of sportsman racers, but elite racers stand out.
One of the greatest drag racers ever, Davd Rampy, has won five different championships in multiple categories. He has 96 national event wins and is approaching that 100-win mark. These sportsman racers are from all over the country. Many of these winners do this for a living, without big money sponsorships. They have to turn on a lot of win-lights to even have gas money to get home. This provides drama in the things that everybody wants to see in racing if you just understand the story.
I recently looked at the list of NHRA’s Top 50 Racers of all-time. Five of them are sportsman racers: Scotty Richardson, David Rampy, Frank Manzo, Edmond Richardson, and Pat Austin. It takes a lot of good racing to be included in that list.
A lot of fans are coming to national events to watch us stomp on that loud pedal and burn nitro. If they just look at the stories, they may find themselves rushing to the grandstands to see if David Rampy is going to get his 100th win this year. So many professional racers have risen from the sportsman ranks. Jeg Coughlin is a bad dude in a Pro Stock car, but he also won many times in sportsman classes.
Shawn Langdon may be a Top Fuel driver, but he started as a junior dragster racer and also won a Super Comp world championship. Jack Beckman does some teaching at the Frank Hawley Drag Racing School, and he was also a Super Comp world champion. These are fan-favorites. Fans watch them in the nitro classes, but you can bet your butt that Langdon, Beckman, and Jeggie are watching the sportsman guys run and keeping up with their stories. There is so much turmoil and good racing going on as the year progresses.
If you hear them calling Super Stock, Super Gas, or Comp Eliminator to the lanes at an NHRA national event, consider taking a few minutes to watch and enjoy the drama as part of the experience.