Brainerd key for drivers going for last Countdown berths, Troxel ready to shine in Europe at FIA Nitrolympx


By Susan Wade

Minnesota’s nickname is the “Land of 10,000 Lakes.”

At this weekend’s Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway, it’s the Land of 10,000 dreams and anxieties.

That’s especially true for National Hot Rod Association drivers Terry McMillen and Dave Grubnic (Top Fuel), Jeff Arend and Tony Pedregon (Top Fuel), and Kurt Johnson and Rodger Brogdon (Pro Stock). They all are trying to grab their last spots in their classes as the Countdown to the Championship fields are finalized. A handful of Pro Stock Motorcycle riders also are scrambling to fill the remaining five Countdown positions.

Never mind that rural-market Brainerd, Minn., might not be the most strategic venue the NHRA could have chosen as the final event of its so-called “regular season” — where the 10-driver pro fields are set for the Countdown.

McMillen, Arena, and Johnson don’t care where they have to go. They just want to have a chance to run for the title in the six-race Countdown that kicks off Labor Day weekend at the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis.

Chasing current ninth-place Top Fuel driver Steve Torrence are No. 10 Dave Grubnic and McMillen, who’s only 19 points out of the mix. In the Funny Car class, only one spot is up for grabs, and Arend is hoping he can bump out No. 10 Tony Pedregon, the two-time champion. Pedregon has a 33-point edge.

Pro Stock’s Johnson, who grew up in Minnesota, would like nothing more than a hometown hurrah. In the past four races, he has improved four spots in the standings, from 15th to 11th. He’ll be trying to pass 10th-place driver Rodger Brogdon. He’s 80 points behind Brogdon but has four victories at BIR in his favor. Johnson never has finished outside the Top 10 in his 17-year career.

Five Pro Stock Motorcycle spots are open. Reigning champion Hector Arana leads the pack, and having clinched also are three-time champ and three-time 2010 winner Andrew Hines, three-time winner Michael Phillips, 2007 champion Matt Smith, and perennial contender Steve Johnson.
Top Fuel’s Larry Dixon and Pro Stock’s Mike Edwards clinched the No. 1 seeds, earning a 20-point bonus once the playoffs begin Labor Day weekend at Indianapolis with the U.S. Nationals.

The No. 1 spot in Funny Car so far belongs to John Force, but teammate, son-in-law, and reigning champion Robert Hight is looking to close that 28-point gap. He’s looking to erase the sting of DNQ at Brainerd last season that sent the Force camp into a tailspin.

Last year, amid some turmoil that included a health scare for crew chief Austin Coil, Force switched cars and teams with Hight to help him qualify for the Countdown and ended up embroiled in controversy that he took a dive to enable Hight to advance to the final round at Indianapolis and make the field.

But Hight has a dual motive.

“I want to do well in Brainerd for a couple of reasons. Last year we didn’t qualify, and that was just terrible. It put a lot of pressure on the team but we pulled through and I think ultimately it made us stronger,” Hight said. “The other reason I want to do well in Brainerd is that 30 point lead as the No. 1 Funny Car going into the Countdown. The No. 1 driver will be either me or John Force. I have more work to do than him but we will give it our best shot.”

He has some momentum, with his victory in the previous race, at Denver, among his four this season. But Force has won this Brainerd event 11 times in 13-final-round appearances. Force also has won four times this season, tying them for best in the class.

“Every driver gets up for racing John Force. I’ll be honest — it is a little tougher for me because he is the reason I am in the driver’s seat,” Hight said. “This is his 25th anniversary with Castrol, so this is a big year for him. Castrol is on my Auto Club Ford Mustang, too, so this is a really a win-win situation. One of us will be the No. 1 Funny Car [driver] for the Countdown, and the other one will be No. 2. For those last six races it will be a battle.

“The other thing is you can’t just focus on John because Ashley’s (teammate Ashley Force Hood‘s) Mustang has been running so well, too. She has just run into some bad match-up and had some bad racer luck. If she gets hot in the Countdown that could be trouble for all of us.”

For most of the nitro-class drivers, the drill is familiar. Funny Car driver Tim Wilkerson expressed it best: “We’ve been there, and we know what it’s like. The key is to do as well as we can in Brainerd. If we move up, that’s great. If we slip a few, that’s not the end of the world. You can make up a lot of points in just one race during the Countdown, and we have six playoff races to work with. The object is to build some confidence and feel good about the race car by the time we leave Minnesota. That’s the main goal.”

Meanwhile, across “the pond,” Pro Modified racer Melanie Troxel has returned to Germany’s Hockenheimring. Last year, she was simply a spectator at the FIA Nitrolympx — where NHRA drivers Cory Lee and Brady Kalivoda and others have competed.. This time, she’s on the track when qualifying takes place August 13 and 14 for the August 15 eliminations.

Troxel, who made an exhibition pass earlier this year at England’s Santa Pod Raceway, said she has “gotten a taste for racing over there. We’re looking forward to going back and running some of the kind of numbers we did in our exhibition run in England.” She registered a 5.937-second pass at 242.42 mph that was the quickest and fastest Pro Mod run in Europe at the time.

“I was impressed with the level of competition over there,” Troxel said of the Nitrolympx. “There was a huge diversity of classes and cars. Plus, Hockenheim is a beautiful facility.”

She’ll be back in her Roger Burgess-owned ‘67 Camaro, in which Micke Gullqvist topped her Santa Pod effort with a 5.911 / 245.78 this summer in Finland.

“All the pieces are in place for us to run really well. The guys have a little more data on running that car over there because the car has run two more events since I was last over there,” she said. “So we’re going to go over there to put all the pieces in the right places and hopefully we’ll have a good weekend. It would be really special to add an FIA trophy to our collection here at R2B2 Racing.

“It’s really exciting to be racing FIA again, even more so knowing we’ve got the best car on the European circuit at the moment,” Troxel said. “We had just gotten the car dialed in at the end of the race in England, but our best run came on an exhibition pass. We certainly feel like we have some unfinished business to take care of over there.”

Burgess and his staff at R2B2 Racing have been assisting Gullqvist this year. The first European racer to win a national event on the NHRA tour, Gullqvist will race as a teammate to Troxel at the Nitrolympx.

“Michael (Gullqvist) came over here this spring and won the Atlanta race so maybe we can return the favor in Germany,” Troxel said.

After two events, Gullqvist is second in the FIA championship points. Troxel, who did not race in Finland, is 15th overall out of 29 drivers.

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