Dog Days Of Summer Bring Out Drag Racers’ Bite

REACTION TIME


By Susan Wade

Everybody’s getting mouthy lately.

During the National Hot Rod Association’s Western Swing that concluded Sunday at Denver, fans have seen plenty of verbal fireworks. And somehow Ray Charles, God rest his soulful soul, keeps being thrown into the mix.

Pro Stock veteran Warren Johnson insulted the nitro drivers — all, he later said, in the name of “big-time auto wrestling.” Funny Car drivers Jim Head and Bob Tasca responded with put-up-or-shut-up dares to Johnson.

The Pro Stock Motorcycle class, never short on drama, erupted with Michael Phillips accusing Matt Smith of being racist and Smith denying that and saying he simply called Phillips a cheater.

Funny Car icon John Force put all that on the back burner Saturday, launching a tirade against FOX News commentators Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck while disagreeing with ESPN2 analyst Mike Dunn’s list of the top drag racers of all-time.

A damning FOX Sports Radio segment didn’t help, either.

Rewind to the Northwest Nationals at Seattle . . .

Johnson, upset with the track prep for the Pro Stock class during the first round at Seattle, got off-message a bit and pooh-pooed the talent level the nitro classes require. He alleged to ESPN reporter Gary Gerould about Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars that “Ray Charles could drive one of those things in his current state.”

(Scotty Cannon once had snarled in 2005 that Pacific Raceways had dangerous bumps: “Ray Charles could see there’s bumps!”)

Head and Tasca did not let Johnson’s blast go without reply. Head told online magazine Competition Plus he would provide the Funny Car and tune it if Johnson wanted to do “a Ray Charles impersonation.” Furthermore, he said, “Lucky for him, I can’t afford to burn the car up. So he ought to be safe there . . . but if I had the money, I’d light him up pretty good so he could say what Ray Charles driving is all about.” He even volunteered to “put the Ray Charles name over the window for him.”

Tasca fired back: “I will get in his car with my eyes closed. You can tape my eyes closed. And you can take my car and he can tape his eyes closed and see who makes it further. If he wants to accept the challenge, we’ll get in each other’s car, and I’ve never driven a hunk of s— GM in my life, but I’ll drive one and he can drive a Ford, eyes closed just to prove a point. I’m sick and tired of him talking s— about the fuel car drivers. Consider this my challenge to a blindfold match.”

Then, at the FRAM-Autolite Nationals at Sonoma, Calif.’s Infineon Raceway, Johnson conceded that he “probably got a little overzealous last weekend” but held fast to his convictions — and slipped in a couple more barbs, calling Tasca’s comments “the case of a spoiled brat” and referring to Tasca and Head as “laptop cowboys” who “didn’t really listen to what I said — they didn’t hear what I said. I said it didn’t take much talent to drive those cars down the racetrack, because everything is pretty much taken care of. I didn’t say they didn’t have any talent.”

Johnson said of the challenge, “You never know. I’ve driven just about everything, but at this point I’ve got other fish to fry. I have nothing against Bob (Tasca) or any of the guys out there, but . . . they’re not the whole show.” He said his point was that the racetracks need to accommodate the needs of every racer, “not for the less than one-tenth of a percent of the race cars that are out there.”

He said he took offense at Tasca’s shot at General Motors: “Absolutely — because I think the same thing about them damn Fords. You know what ‘Ford’ stands for. You’re standing in front of the mirror in the morning. You’re shaving. You got your Ford T-shirt on. You look at it. D-R-O-F. Oh yeah — driver returning on foot.”

Turning serious, Johnson said of the safety concerns, “We’re all involved in it. I think the fuel cars have the most say-so in it, because they are the ones that really propagated this problem because of the fact they shortened the racetrack. Not the fuel cars that did it — it was the NHRA that came up with this quick fix. Well, this quick fix has been in effect for two years, and unfortunately we’ve killed more than Scott Kalitta. We’re in the multiples now.”

Among the drivers lost are Top Alcohol Funny Car drivers Bobby Martindale (at Atlanta, 2008) and Neal Parker (at Englishtown, June 2010) and Top Alcohol Dragster driver Mark Niver (at Seattle, last week).

“I don’t have anything against the fuel guys, but we’ve gotten into a situation because of a problem that they had. Now we need to address how we’re going to correct this disaster we’ve got going on now so everybody benefits,” Johnson said.

Meanwhile, the Pro Stock Motorcycle feud escalated at Sonoma. With no love lost already between Smith and Phillips, Smith congratulated Phillips after losing to him in eliminations — but told top-end public-address announcer Alan Rinehart, “There’s still a rivalry. I’m a good sport, and he was hooting and hollering over there. I just went over there and told him, ‘Good job.’ We’re still going to have that rivalry, and I still think he’s not legit.

“It’s just amazing. Everybody in the class slows down three- to four-hundredths [of a second] and he picks up two-hundredths. NHRA, I do not know what they’re doing, but they have to do something. It’s just not fair,” Smith said. “Ray Charles can see what’s going on.”

Phillips said, “I’m not going to worry about that guy (Smith). He has a racial problem. We’re out here, just trying to go rounds. Matt’s got a little racial issue with me, but I’m not worried about it. He can’t get me out of my game.”

Said Smith, “I don’t even know what he’s talking about. He’s always throwing the race card out there all the time to whomever. Over the last five years, he’s gotten in four or five people’s face about everything. Nobody else has problems with anybody but him. He has been in an argument with me, Hector (Arana), and last year it was Steve Tartaglia. It is just numerous people all the time with this guy. It is not one isolated incident.

“I have customers (at Matt Smith Racing) who are black, I have [bike competitor] Redell Harris, and he knows I’m not a racial person.,” Smith said. “I’m friends with everybody in the world. I help anybody I can out there. I do not care what color they are or where they came from. The person who sponsors me is Sheikh Khalid [of Qatar]. I do not have a problem with anybody unless they’re not legit — and he’s not legit. I will never call him a name. I just called him a cheater.”

Phillips rides the Suzuki that Andrew Hines used to ride and sold to Phillips in 2003. He also is running a Vance & Hines engine and said the Vance & Hines folks inspected it and pronounced it within the rules.

“I showed Byron [Hines] what I was doing and I pulled it up on the computer,” Phillips said. “He told me I was doing a great job and to keep up the good work. I’m finished with all that he-said, she-said stuff. I have to stay focused, and I want to win the championship. And I’m not going to let anybody get in my way to do that.”

Matt Hines, the three-time Pro Stock Motorcycle champion and brother Andrew Hines’ crew chief, said, “Those things [Suzukis] make quite a bit of horsepower. He [Phillips] has big speed and he tucks in, and that bike is probably one of the most aerodynamic bikes out here. His bike also may have some things that are working just a little bit better than some of the rest of the guys’. Maybe it has a really good air box on it or a few things here and there.

“We sold Michael the motor he’s using,” he said, “but he really doesn’t do anything to the motor. The only thing he does is take the head off and give it to us, and he might change the valve springs. We [Vance & Hines] do all the real maintenance on the motor. Nobody else has gone inside that motor besides Michael or us [Vance & Hines]. Some of these other guys out here who we’ve sold motors to should be running faster. And Michael tucks in so good — he puts his head down and he can’t even see where he’s going. He has his head lower than anybody else out here and his body fits his bike really well.”

He said if Smith’s team were using Phillips’ bike, Smith likely would have similar results.

Hines said he, too, was the target of doubters in his day: “I’ve made runs in the past that surprised me, and people told me there’s no way I could be running as fast as I was. So it’s definitely possible for him to be going that fast.”

That story might have more chapters, but Force insists his doesn’t. Realizing he offended fans [and who knows? maybe even sponsors] with his ad-lib remarks at Denver, he backpedaled.

Force had blurted to the ESPN cameras, “You guys go around with this — you’re like FOX News — like Hannity and Beck: All lies! All crap!”

Chagrined, Force said the next day, “Sometimes I try to be funny and I’m not. I need to stick to what I do best. After yesterday, my focus will be on drag racing. That comedy stuff, I’m done with it. Drag racing’s what John Force does — for Force fans and for America.”

Fox Sports Radio hosts Andy Furman and Sean Farnham invited industry insider Michael Knight on their July 17 program and spent more time mocking drag racing than listening to Knight explain the recent fatal accidents from Phoenix, Englishtown, and Seattle. Knight was more than prepared to discuss what the NHRA has been doing to improve safety in the wake of the accidents but had no real chance to share it.

So perhaps Cincinnati-based Furman’s “honor” as Ohio Magazine’s “No. 1 sports talker” in the state sizes up the problem. “Sports talker?” Honestly. At least the broadcast industry no longer pretends that its on-air yakkers are journalists. Anyway . . .

One of the hosts referred to drag racers as “toothless, tattooed jerks.” It’s unclear for what sport he was confusing drag racing.

Another comment from the uninformed duo was “I’d rather spend a night in jail than go to an NHRA drag race.” Yet another: “If there’d been three fatalities in a year’s time in any other sport there would be a Congressional investigation, but drag racing’s so small nobody cares.”

Knight, armed with facts, knowledge, and understanding of each situation — as evidenced by his article in The Arizona Republic, in addition to his years of experience and his sterling reputation — seemed not to make a difference to the closed-minded and ignorant hosts. They said they would take phone calls from listeners but never gave the call-in number and took no calls.

Aside from the shameful conduct of the ill-prepared stick-and-ball-oriented hosts, the show exposed the fact — if nothing else has — that the NHRA has a disturbing image problem. What the sanctioning body intends to do about it is the subject for another “Reaction Time” offering.

Force, the NHRA’s most identifiable personality, has his own image problem to combat. In praising fellow Ford racer Tasca and his own son-in-law, Robert Hight, Force said, “These young kids have all the fire, and this old man, all he has is bull—-.” At Denver, he might have been right, sadly.

But in the end, Force was saying his heart was in drag racing.

Maybe while thinking of his romance with drag racing he was humming that Ray Charles hit: “I Can’t Stop Loving You.”

  • Richard Deaver
    John Force lost me as a fan with his comments about Fox, Hannity and Beck. He could have kept his political beliefs under wraps and would not have alienated fans like myself. I have been a fan of his for years, but after this, that's done. His so-called, "apology" did not reference anything he said earlier, so anyone who did not see his tirade didn't have a clue as to his hateful comments the day prior. Had he come out and actually apologized to those he called liars, I would have forgiven him, but this was NOT "comedy" as he puts it. It was an unprovoked attack on people that it is my guess he has only heard about from MSNBC and the rest of the liberal mainstream mediots.
  • Rico
    But what does that have anything to do with racing, Richard? Seriously, if the guy can drive a car, appreciate him for exactly that talent! To expect that he have the same political beliefs and ideology that you have is irrelevant. Judge the man for the reason you took the time to write this post... Racing.... This isn't a beauty contest, man!!!!
  • Richard Deaver
    Well Rico, that's exactly my point. Force DID NOT have to launch into a tirade against Fox, Hannity or Beck. No one brought the subject up to him, it wasn't a topic of any conversation and it HAD NOTHING to do with driving a car or racing. None. Period. The question had only to do with Mike Dunn's list of the best drivers, but Force had to adlib with a hateful comment. Like I said, I was a big fan, but if he has to bring political issues into his little dances with the ESPN guys just to get on TV, then he also deserves the outcome of those comments. You may also recall I clearly stated he could have kept his political beliefs to himself and no one would have been the wiser, myself included. I could have cared less how he felt about them, which is also my point. Keep his mouth shut about NON-RACING topics. Because he cannot control his mouth at times, he stuck his foot in it.
  • Rico
    Richard... I read your new comment twice and I will agree with you. In the end, it's just best to keep one's mouth shut.
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