Dixon, Spoiler Pedregon Among Happy Ones At Reading


By Susan Wade

National Hot Rod Association Top Fuel drivers Larry Dixon and Cory McClenathan were on the same flight last month from Charlotte back home to Indianapolis. Dixon had beaten McClenathan in the semifinals of the Carolinas Nationals there at zMAX Dragway en route to his victory.

Sitting in different parts of the airplane, McClenathan text-messaged Dixon: “I’m not going away.” Dixon texted back, “I know you’re not.”

They met again Sunday in the final round of the Toyo Tires Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway, near Reading, Pa.. It was the fifth time in seven races they’ve squared off in the semifinal or final. Dixon beat McClenathan in the final at Las Vegas, Brainerd, and Indianapolis — and now at Reading.

Afterward Dixon, the points leader, downplayed his 12th victory in as many final rounds in the Al-Anabi Dragster.

“All I got was a gold man (the Wally trophy), not the championship. But it was huge,” he said. “You’re racing the No. 2 guy in points and you could tighten it right up or spread it out. [In the final,] I blew the tires off right at the start and I’m thinking I’m done. Then I saw his tires start to get loose and I thought, ‘Maybe I can catch him.’ Our car just hooked up. I had such a run on him and I blew by him so fast. When I saw the win light come on, I was laughing and couldn’t believe it all at the same time, because that’s a race you shouldn’t win, and I just won.”

FRAM Dragster driver McClenathan, who’s 89 points behind in second place, said, “It just makes it tough when you get down this close and he’s beatable. He was very beatable there, but he just feathered back into it and just motored on down through there. As I had the gas all the way down. He just blew by me. We had nothing. It isn’t over. I never stop fighting.”

But McClenathan wasn’t alone in his frustration. Just as everything seemed to go right for other Sunday winners Cruz Pedregon (Funny Car), Dave Connolly (Pro Stock), and Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle), nothing could go right for the John Force Racing Funny Car gang, Tony Schumacher (Top Fuel), Pro Stock contender Jeg Coughlin, and No. 1 qualifiers Allen Johnson (Pro Stock) and Hector Arana (Pro Stock Bike).

For the first time this season, Force and teammates Robert Hight and Ashley Force Hood all lost in the opening round. Hight fell first, shutting off his Ford Auto Club Mustang engine early with tire shake against Tony Pedregon.

Two pairs later, Force encountered a broken part in the clutch pedal assembly of his Castrol GTX High Mileage Mustang that prevented him from backing up after his burnout. With Dale Creasy Jr. sitting at the Christmas tree, idling, Force drove on through. His car stopped on track, and he left it sitting there. He apologized to Creasy, who had to cut off his engine, then start it again and make his solo run.

Moments later, Force Hood experienced her second supercharger explosion of the weekend in his race against Cruz Pedregon. The powerful blast buckled the body of her Castrol GTX Mustang as Pedregon whisked [past her. She was unhurt.

"There was no warning at all," she said. "I remember it leaving great, hooking up, and then 'Boom!' It was a complete surprise. It felt just like it was on a really good run."

Force Hood was on a potentially strong run Friday, too, when her blower detonated during the second qualifying session, launching the body into the cool night air.

John Force, who had been in the opposite lane, surveyed the damage. What he found was encouraging.

"The body went airborne because it unhinged. It didn't break in half. That is what is most important," Force said, "because when they break in half, you lose all your aero on these Ford Mustangs. The strength of these bodies comes from Ford engineering.

"It is just good to see that a lot of the safety we have on these cars will hold them together," Force said. "We have seen cars explode and come in half and pieces go flying. She was early when she blew up instead of in the lights. The body was damaged, but it wasn't broken in half. That means the structural strength was there."

This incident looked like Force Hood's 2007 Seattle wall-banger and the explosion she experienced at Maple Grove last year in qualifying. It also was a preview of the blow-up she would have in Sunday's first round of eliminations. More importantly, it certified all the research and development the Eric Medlen Project has been doing. Those safety changes are working.

Night conditions in Eastern Pennsylvania were perfect for potential record-setting performances. Matt Hagan set the Funny Car national elapsed-time record, and Hector Arana captured the top Pro Stock Motorcycle spot with the second-quickest run in class history.

Those cool temperatures at tracks with great hook, tracks such as Maple Grove and Englishtown's Raceway Park, only encourage tuners and drivers to be aggressive, capitalizing on the chance to shine. Force Hood said that factored into her decision to stay on the throttle when she sensed something amiss. Because it happened early in the run, she said, she wasn't sure if her instincts were correct.

"I was excited for the run, because it was cool with good conditions," she said. "It gave me a little warning to lift. I was thinking these are the best conditions we have seen in a while, [that] maybe I am just feeling it go so hard. I didn’t want to make the wrong choice and lift. As soon as I was thinking that is when it went. I just made the wrong judgment call.”

She said her head hit both sides of the roll-cage padding. That she had no head or neck troubles was another victory for the Eric Medlen Project. That was about JFR’s only consolation all weekend.

“I am going to put this race behind me and just go home. I won’t think about it again. You can only over-think things. There is nothing different I would have done,” Force Hood said. “Some days are not our days. Today just went really badly for our team. That doesn’t mean that the next race can’t go really well for us.”

Hight agreed. Three first-round losses at the start of the Countdown caused him to say his Funny Car title defense “has been a disaster.” Aside from earning the provisional No. 1 qualifying spot in the first session, which Matt Hagan grabbed with the E.T. national record that pushed him past Force atop the standings, Hight’s Countdown continued to be a disaster.

“No one at John Force Racing will ever give up,” Hight said. “There are two races left in the playoffs and anything can happen. There could be more national records set and there are qualifying bonus points available.”

That’s how Tony Schumacher is approaching the final two Full Throttle Drag Racing Series events, at Las Vegas and Pomona, Calif.

Matco Tools Dragster driver Antron Brown dealt Don Schumacher Racing teammate Tony Schumacher’s title hopes a significant blow in Sunday’s quarterfinals. After Brown won with a 3.829-second run to Schumacher’s 3.865, the U.S. Army Dragster driver said, “That was a tough one. Obviously, this second-round loss hurt our championship hopes. But I can tell you that we’re going to keep working hard and will never give up. You have to give credit to Antron and his team. They went out and put up a good number and beat us fair and square. That’s the way it goes sometimes.”

Schumacher had trailed leader Larry Dixon by 94 points entering the event and is 154 off the pace in third place with two races left. “We’ll try to win the last two races and see how it all shakes out. That’s the only way you can look at it right now,” Schumacher said.

Schumacher has seven championships. Coughlin has four in Pro Stock and six overall, including those from the sportsman ranks. And knowing hopes are dimming or snuffed is especially hard to accept. But Coughlin took it in stride after his first-round loss to Greg Anderson doomed his efforts.

Coughlin not only lost his bid for a third straight Reading victory Sunday, but he also saw his hopes for a fourth championship fizzle against Anderson, who was No. 2 in the standings. Anderson cranked out a 6.544-second, 211.43-mph pass that set both ends of the track record.

“We really just have had a miserable car for the past three races. It was actually good here, much better than it’s been, but those first three Countdown races just knocked us down. We were capable of winning today. The last three races we couldn’t say that,” Coughlin said. “You have to step it up in Countdown to win a championship, and we haven’t done that the last two years,” Coughlin said before advancing to Round 4 of the Super Comp runoffs Sunday.

Allen Johnson knocked himself out of contention for his first Pro Stock title at Charlotte, failing the NHRA’s zero-tolerance alcohol policy. What faint glimmer the weekend’s No. 1 qualifier saw went dark Sunday in the first round, when Warren Johnson beat him.

Arana got past Connie Cohen in the opening round of bike eliminations but was one of the guilty ones as all four quarterfinal losers gave away their chances by red-lighting. It was a disappointment for Arana, for he had ridden his Lucas Oil Buell to the second-quickest E.T. in Pro Stock Motorcycle history Saturday — 6.828 seconds at 196.16 mph, to take the No. 1 qualifying position.

It was a lovely turnaround for the current Pro Stock Motorcycle champion, who had battled a spate of mechanical and electrical troubles recently but got help from Lucas Oil Ford Pro Stock racer Larry Morgan.

“We started struggling at Brainerd and it just kept getting worse,” Arana said. “I didn’t give up. I just kept working hard and the guys kept working hard. I replaced just about everything. I said, ‘Guys, if it’s still doing it, then we have to replace one more thing — the loose nut between the seat and the handlebars. My son was the one that was the happiest – he said, ‘All right! I’m getting closer to riding this bike!”

However, Arana found the problem and said of his bike, “This thing’s an animal again.” And like other animals, this Buell — and evidently the rider — was unpredictable Sunday.

Cruz Pedregon, who didn’t qualify for the Countdown, has spoiled the dreams of other Funny Car hopefuls, winning two of the four playoff races. His victory Sunday marks his third appearance in at least the semifinals in the four Countdown races to date, netting him 356 points in the four Countdown events (second only among Funny Car drivers to Matt Hagan’s 382).

“I can’t believe it. It’s kind of surreal to win these races,” Pedregon said. “On Friday we were a mess, doing the things we were doing earlier in the year, but we got things together on Saturday and made two great runs. Other than the first round today, our Snap-On Toyota was flawless. We’re not in the championship, but it feels awfully good to win races.”

Both Pro Stock final rounds saw holeshot victories. Connolly, in only his second race since rejoining the tour and Victor Cagnazzi Racing with new funding, stopped Greg Anderson’s blistering-hot KB/Summit Racing Pontiac GXP. Connolly drove the Victor Cagnazzi-owned IDG Makita Power Tools Chevy Cobalt to a 6.580-second run, nicking Anderson (6.579) by about four inches (11 ten-thousandths of a second). Cagnazzi Racing took the edge in its 21st final-round meeting with the KB Racing team; each had won 10 times before Sunday.

Coming after back-to-back wins at Charlotte and Dallas, Anderson’s runner-up finish at Maple Grove Raceway gave him the points lead over Mike Edwards. It is the first time Anderson has led the standings since September 2008.

“It was a tremendous day for the Summit Racing team that came within a thousandth of being an absolutely fantastic day,” Anderson said. “The final was just a great drag race and showed what this class is. Dave has been out for two years, but he hasn’t missed a beat. It was fun locking horns with him like we did back then. I felt good going down the racetrack, thinking it was a great run and that we had a good shot at winning. To be honest, I was shocked when the light didn’t come on. It was an outstanding race, with both teams doing an excellent job, and they got us by a thousandth.”

In the bike class, Andrew Hines derailed LE Tonglet’s march toward the top of the standings with a better reaction time. He won on his Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson with a 6.916-second, 188.36 mph effort against Tonglet’s quicker and faster 6.913/190.40. This was their fourth consecutive final-round showdown, and Tonglet had won the previous three aboard the Nitro Fish Suzuki.

“When I saw that win light, that was one of the prettiest win lights I’ve seen in a long time,” Hines, who increased his series lead to 72 points over Tonglet, said. “I’m trying to rely on some of the other competitors out there to take LE out early, but we keep matching up in the final round. It’s been tough with that little blue bike beating us the last few races. We were wondering what it was going to take to get it done.

“We have a nice cushion,” he said. “It could come down to just a few measly points there at the end.”

Said Tonglet, “It would have been nice to win for

Kenny Koretsky at his hometown track.” But Koretsky said, “I’ve been ecstatic with what LE and the Tonglet family have done. It’s really hard to win four races in a row, especially against a driver like Andrew Hines.”

But the young rider said, “We’re going to go to our next race at Las Vegas and come out swinging.”

* * * * *

The NHRA isn’t the only drag-racing environment that has benefited from safety measures. Thanks to chassis builder Nicky Montana, the outlaw drag-racing community is safer.

The previous weekend, at The Shakedown at E-Town premier outlaw drag race at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park at Englishtown, N.J., Montana’s handiwork saved Benny Alfonso’s life, like it spared Joe Newsham’s at the 2009 Shakedown.

Pro Modified driver Alfonso is recovering from a compression fracture of a vertebra following a frightening crash in a Montana-signature race car. Newsham walked around at the scene of his fiery, flipping, wall-ricocheting Outlaw 10.5 wreck before a trip to the hospital revealed a compression fracture that did not require surgery.

After race-testing his own designs for three years before he would sell one to anyone else, Montana (MBRC/Pro Chassis Design) constructs his cars with tubing at the car’s stress points thicker than SFI specs require.

The difference between the SFI-mandated 83-thousandths of an inch thickness and his own 95-thousandths, Montana said, is about the depth of a matchbook cover. But when Alfonso rammed the guardwall at about 215 mph, he had no injury, not even a scratch, besides the damage to one disc. The car was intact.

Montana said that in drag racing “everything is jeopardized for the sake of weight. There’s got to be a balance between weight and speed. It’s a double-edged sword — and it has to work right every time.”

Until someone invents a failproof chassis, drag racing has to be grateful for the work of every individual who contributed to the Eric Medlen Project and to thoughtful builders such as Nicky Montana.

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