Drag Racers Mix It Up With NASCAR Stars at Prelude To The Dream

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By Susan Wade

NHRA Funny Car racer Ron Capps said this one race “will bring out every bit of courage you have.”

He wasn’t referring to this weekend’s Southern Nationals at Commerce, Ga., the eighth event on the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series schedule. (He was runner-up there at Atlanta Dragway to current Don Schumacher Racing teammate Cory McClenathan in the Top Fuel class in 1995. Ten years ago, he reached his first Funny Car final, losing to John Force in that 2000 race, and he was runner-up there the following season to Frankie Pedregon.)

No, the race that will throw at Capps the biggest challenge of maybe the entire year isn’t a drag race. It’s the Prelude To The Dream, the June 9 all-star dirt Late Model race at Tony Stewart’s Eldora Speedway at Rossburg, Ohio, that will showcase more than 25 renowned drivers and raise money for four of the nation’s top children’s hospitals.

The sixth annual Prelude — officially this year the Gillette Fusion ProGlide Prelude to the Dream — will crown an individual race winner, but a new team format will mark the race within the race. The field will be broken up into four teams, each representing a designated children’s hospital: Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis,  Cincinnati Children’s, Levine Children’s Hospital in Charlotte,, and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.

Capps will support Team Riley captain Clint Bowyer, along with teammates Ryan Newman,  Jeff Gordon, Brian Vickers, A.J. Allmendinger, and Kenny Wallace.

Kasey Kahne will captain Team Cincinnati. On his squad will be drag racer Cruz Pedregon and NASCAR stars Joey Logano, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, and Bill Elliott. Racing for Team Levine will be captain Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, David Reutimann, Dave Blaney, and Marcos Ambrose. Team St. Jude is composed of captain Denny Hamlin,  Carl Edwards, Robby Gordon, Ken Schrader, Aric Almirola, Ricky Carmichael, and Ray Evernham.

Action on the half-mile clay oval will be telecast live nationwide on HBO Pay-Per-View®, with proceeds from the broadcast supporting the four hospitals.

Capps and Pedregon are used to taming 7,000-8,000-horsepower Funny Cars, but June 9, all the drivers in The Prelude will All will pilot 2,300-pound dirt Late Model stock cars capable of producing more than 800 horsepower.

This past Saturday, Capps, driver of the NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger Funny Car, practiced for The Prelude at Kings Speedway’s three-eights-mile dirt oval at Hanford, Calif. He drove local California racer Bryan Burnes’ dirt late model car to seventh place in the A-Main. It was the same car that Jeff Gordon drove to second place in his first appearance in the Prelude in 2007.

Capps qualified eighth and finished fourth in his heat, which earned him 10th place for the A-Main. Thirty laps later, unscathed, Capps took the checkered flag in seventh place.  Tommy DeLago, crew chief for the DieHard Funny Car that Capps’ Don Schumacher Racing teammate Matt Hagan drives, joined Capps for the event, qualifying 12th and finishing 12th.

“Because this was the car that Jeff Gordon drove to second place in the Prelude in 2007, I knew it was going to be good right from the get-go,” Capps said. “These cars are so hard to drive, and they’re such a handful. It’s good to get the seat time before the Prelude.

“When you drive a late model at Eldora it’s not for the weak at heart. It’s a place that demands every bit of your courage,” he said. “It’s nice to get into a car that really gives you a lot of confidence.”

“For me it was a big confidence-booster going into the Prelude. At the Prelude. You’re racing against the best race-car drivers in the world,” Capps said. “The last time I drove on dirt, I didn’t feel I did so well. I was really lacking in my confidence level. And after this last weekend, having a great car under me, I gained a lot of confidence.

Capps said he arranged the ride for Tommy DeLago, who, he said, “has been known to race different kinds of cars on occasion.” Said Capps, “He had a great time. Whenever you jump into somebody’s else’s car, you always want to bring the car back in good shape, and we did that. That was important to us.”

That wasn’t Capps’ first practice run. He got a chance to compete in the Saturday, April 3 Bill Baker Memorial Late Model race at California’s Santa Maria Speedway.

“I grew up in the Central Coast of California [San Luis Obispo] and have gone to Santa Maria Speedway a lot as a kid,” Capps said. “The promoter there is a big drag-racing fan, so I got a chance to run a Late Model there last year and get some practice in. It turned out their opening night of this season was a weekend off for us and I was given another chance to race a Late Model and get a little bit of seat time before the Prelude coming up. And that is really important to me.”

“I’ve gotten to race in Tony Stewart’s Prelude every year, and I’ve always shown up there without getting a chance to run a dirt car much in advance,” he said. “Our schedule gets so busy, and of course now every year a lot of the NASCAR guys have bought their own teams and they get out and practice before the Prelude.”

For me to go racing with these guys in the Prelude who do it every weekend really challenges me. It’s not something I do very often. I feel in any race car, whether it’s road racing, dirt racing, or drag racing, it’s all about a ‘seat of the pants’ feel.

“I’m used to going 300 mph in four seconds, so racing in the Prelude is a little bit out of my comfort zone. The more seat time I get behind the wheel of a dirt Late Model, the better it will be for me when I get to Eldora in June.”

The live, commercial-free broadcast will begin at 7 p.m. EDT (4 p.m. PDT) with an immediate replay. HBO Pay-Per-View’s racing telecast has a suggested retail price of $24.95 and is available to more than 71 million pay-per-view homes. Ordering information and up-to-the minute racing information is available at either www.PreludeToTheDream.org or www.HBO.com.

At an April 20 news conference at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway , Stewart, the architect of The Prelude and Eldora Speedway owner, announced that each hospital will receive a donation, with the payout breakdown as follows

Winning team receives 45 percent of net money raised.
Second-place team receives 25 percent of net money raised.
Third- and fourth-place teams each receive 15 percent of net money raised.
The lowest team score wins, and only the top-five drivers from each team will be scored. For example, if Team Riley has finishes of first, fourth, seventh, 11th and 18th, respectively, from its top-five drivers, its score will be 41. In the event of a tie, the sixth driver will be scored.

“We wanted to shake things up a little bit this year,” Stewart, who has won the Prelude to the Dream three times since its inception in 2005, said. “The team concept adds another level of excitement, because there’s now a race within the race. As individual drivers, we all want the big trophy at the end of the night. But it’s cool knowing that battles for fourth and fifth and even 11th and 12th will make a big difference for what children’s hospital ends up with the big check.

“We plan to raise a lot of money for all of these hospitals, no matter where their teams finish. Since HBO Pay-Per-View began televising the Prelude in 2007, we’ve been able to help a lot of deserving charities, and helping children has always been a part of that mission. With this format, we feel we can raise more money than ever before. We’ve always set a goal to raise $1 million. We haven’t been able to reach that goal yet, but with this year’s Prelude, where we have a race within a race, I think we have our best shot yet to reach that magic number.”

The five previous Prelude to the Dreams have raised more than $2.5 million. Stewart said his goal to have the Gillette Fusion ProGlide Prelude to the Dream raise $1 million “is an ambitious goal, especially in this economy,. But if we don’t shoot for a number that is a true difference-maker, we’re not ever going to reach it. That’s our goal, and me and everybody else associated with this event is going to do everything we can to meet that goal. Now, we just need everyone out there to purchase the event, enjoy all the action going on at Eldora, and know that their dollars are going to a very worthy cause.”

Kyle Busch, who has his own foundation that helps young children, said, “The biggest part about it is it’s fun for us, the drivers. Tony has done a great job of that of making it fun and not making it a chore to do this event. We want to go out and put on a great show for the fans who want to come out and see us out of our element doing what we love to do most, which is racing, getting behind the wheel, something different, and just having the opportunity to go out there and have some fun on some dirt.”

And the drag racers, who are used to driving on pavement and not making left turns while racing, will be doing their part.

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