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Sportsman Drag Racers: "BREAD & BUTTER OF DRAG RACING", they keep Drag Racing ALIVE!

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slow and steady

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Brad Pierce’s ’58 Corvette is one of the coolest cars in Super Gas, but to be perfectly honest, it also happens to be one of the slowest. While Pierce has no problem running the 9.90 index, his trap speeds often hover in the high-130-mph range, which puts him well behind most of his competitors, who routinely stop the speed clocks with runs in the 160- to 170-mph range.

Before we dissect Pierce’s latest win, it’s worthwhile to explain why speed is so important in Super-class racing. Years ago, racers realized that using a timed throttle stop, they could easily and consistently adjust their cars to hit the target index of 8.90, 9.90, or 10.90 for Super Comp, Super Gas, or Super Street, respectively. They also realized that a high-horsepower engine combination allowed them to spend more time “on the stop” early in the run, which produced top speeds that were vastly disproportionate to elapsed times. Faster top speeds meant that slower opponents would take an early lead but would also have difficulty judging any car approaching quickly from behind. That strategy works well for many racers, but Pierce long ago decided that he wasn’t going to mortgage the farm just to do what everyone else was doing. To that end, he doesn’t seem to mind racing against cars that are often 20 to 30 or more mph faster at the finish line.

“I guess I’m just used to it,” he shrugs. “A lot of guys want to throw $100,000 into a car to make it go fast, but I can’t do that. I have to race within my means. I’ve learned to look over my shoulder. I’ve always raced that way. When I was younger, I did a lot of bracket racing, and I always admired the guys who could win with slower cars. Really, though, it just boils down to cutting a light and being able to run the number. Sometimes I think, ‘Would I be a better racer if I had a faster car?’ Maybe, but that’s not really an option for me.”

Pierce acknowledges that when racing a slower car, it is critical to gain a starting-line advantage, or at the very least, not surrender a big lead to an opponent. He worked that strategy to perfection in the second round in Phoenix, where he used a .006 light and a 9.93 to take a holeshot win over Ed Hutchinson, who trailed with a .027 light and a 9.927. The finish-line speeds were 136.84 for Pierce and 161.75 for Hutchinson.

“With a slower car, I have to dial honestly,” said Pierce, who is now a six-time national event winner, with three of those victories at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park. “I can go down there and hold more than about two-hundredths. That’s hard to do at a national event because there is so much time between rounds, and the weather can change drastically. That’s where the fast guys have an advantage. You just have to learn when to cut them loose and when to take the finish line. Really, you just need to put a package together and hope they can’t match it.”

Pierce also understands that after more than 5,000 runs, he’s very familiar with his Corvette, so he’s able to accurately predict its performance regardless of track and weather conditions. He bought the car more than 20 years ago as a basket case and did almost all of the work himself, including paint and bodywork.

“This car doesn’t have all the latest technology, but it’s a really good car,” Pierce said. “It’s not a roadster, but it has good visibility. I can see out of all the windows, and because I spend so much time looking over my shoulder, it also helps that my neck is pretty flexible. This car also weighs 2,700 pounds with me in it, so it’s about 300 to 400 pounds heavier than most Super Gas cars. That helps me because I get better traction than some of the high-horsepower cars. When we get on a hot track, some guys struggle, but I am usually pretty consistent. 
I had thought about selling it to get a lighter car, but it’s a part of me now. I don’t think I could part with it. Someday I will take it apart and powdercoat all the parts and make it really nice, but for now, I’m just happy that I can still be competitive in it.”


Another hot start: 
With a win, a runner-up, and a semifinal finish in two categories at the first two events of the season, Steve Williams is off to a fantastic start. Then again, he’s actually a bit behind last year’s pace. Thus far in 2016, Williams has been nearly unbeatable in Super Comp with a victory at the season-opening Circle K NHRA Winternationals and a runner-up finish at last weekend’s CARQUEST Auto Parts NHRA Nationals in Phoenix. In Super Gas, Williams has a semifinal finish in Phoenix to go with a third-round showing in Pomona.

Williams, well known as the vice president of K&N Engineering, enjoyed a similar hot start last season, when he drove to three final rounds at the first three races, including the Division 7 opener at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park. That event will be held next weekend, and Williams will have another opportunity to reach a final round or two.

Last season, Williams acknowledged that his hot start allowed him to dream of winning an NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series national championship, but he did not make it to another final round and ultimately missed the top 10 in both classes. As a testament to the competitive nature of NHRA Sportsman racing, Williams finished No. 17 in Super Comp and No. 18 in Super Gas.

In Phoenix, Williams scored a big semifinal win in Super Comp over Trevor Larson with a nearly perfect 8.901, then lost the final to Chandler Meziere when his K&N dragster slowed. In Super Gas, Williams broke out with a 9.886 in the semifinals against Clint Fishel’s 9.915 effort.

Run of the event: A handful of drivers were battling for the No. 1 qualifying spot in Top Dragster, including reigning Division 7 champ Jesse Adams, who secured the pole with a 6.001 in his supercharged entry. Because the class is limited to entries running 6.00 and slower, there was very little chance that Adams, who also exceeded 230 mph on the run, was going to get bumped from the top spot.

Race of the weekend: Normally, a .015-second package in a Super Stock car almost guarantees a win light, but Mike Loge proved to be the exception to the rule in Phoenix. After a .009 reaction time in round two, Loge drove his SS/LA Duster to an 11.116 on his 11.11 dial but watched as the win light came on for Jerry Hatch, who wheeled his SS/HA Challenger to a .008 light and a perfect 9.730 to win by a scant .007-second. Hatch had an outstanding weekend in Phoenix with a runner-up in Stock and a semifinal finish in Super Stock.

In case you missed it: Among the winners crowned at the season-opening Division 4 NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series event at Houston’s Royal Purple Raceway was Greg Stanfield. The part-time Pro Stock driver and engine builder drove his FS/D Challenger to a final-round victory over Bobby Brannon in Stock eliminator. Although he’s a four-time national champion in Super Stock, Stanfield hadn’t won a Lucas Oil Series event since the Royal Purple Raceway bash in 1997, and his last Stock eliminator win of any kind was in 1986 at the first Lucas Oil Series race held at the then-new Texas Motorplex.

A tale of two tracks

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Ron and Amy Shirley from Lizard Lick Towing pose with Earl Wells, center.

According to NHRA Division 2 Director Rich Schaefer, Earl Wells is the type of individual who always goes for the wow factor. Wells, whose business interests include a three-car Pro Mod team, has gone above and beyond for his latest venture, GALOT Motorsports Park. Wells purchased GALOT (an acronym for Get A Load Of This), the former Dunn-Benson Dragstrip in Benson, N.C., in 2015 and has made a host of improvements, including 330 feet of climate-controlled concrete, a state-of-the-art lighting system, two tower suites, a dedicated media center, more than 70 RV electrical hookups, rental garages, and a speed shop. The track also features a pair of scoreboards with high-definition-video capabilities.

“I have recently visited GALOT Motorsports Park, and I can tell you that the place resets the benchmark for what a modern drag racing facility should be,” said Schaefer. “Earl Wells is someone who doesn’t mess around. When he tells you he’s going to do something, he does it, and he does it first-class because I don’t think he knows any other way. The whole Get A Load Of This thing is no joke.

"I originally went there with the intention of having a Southeast Division National Open event, but once I saw how magnificent the place is, I couldn’t help but think that we needed to come right out and have a [NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series] race. We’re still in the planning stages, but I would expect that we’ll have a lot to offer at the inaugural race, including things like a Jr. Dragster event and a Pro Mod race.”

The addition of the GALOT event, June 3-5, gives the Southeast Division three Lucas Oil Series events in North Carolina, which has long been a hotbed of Sportsman racing action. The 2016 schedule will also include stops at zMAX Dragway in Charlotte (April 15-17) and Rockingham Dragway (Oct. 28-30).

“The whole time I’ve been a division director, my goal has been to expand our footprint to include more facilities in the Carolinas,” said Schaefer. “Steve Earwood at Rockingham joined the division last year, and of course we have zMAX Dragway, which of course has a pair of great NHRA Mello Yello Series events. Now the Sportsman racers in the Carolina region have three Lucas Oil Series events in their backyard, and they also have a doubleheader weekend in Atlanta, so now these racers can compete for national and divisional championships with a minimal amount of travel. I think we’ve made it easier for racers here."

Given that a lot of events, including many major bracket races, use the eighth-mile distance, Schaefer is also excited to see an eighth-mile event back on the Lucas Oil calendar.

“We’ve seen with the Summit Racing Series just how popular eighth-mile racing is, and it makes for some extremely competitive racing,” Schaefer said. “The interesting thing about GALOT Motorsports Park is that they have the land to become a quarter-mile track, and at some point, I’d expect to see that happen, but I also think that racers will be quick to embrace the eighth-mile format. Ultimately, I see this as a stepping-stone to having perhaps a six-race National Open series in the Carolinas, which would include all eighth-mile tracks. I definitely think the interest is there.”


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SPORTSnationals Countdown

Fewer than 100 days remain until the 100th running of the prestigious Indy 500, and as cool as that may be, that also means there are fewer than 100 days until the JEGS NHRA SPORTSnationals makes a triumphant return to its birthplace, Beech Bend Raceway Park, May 27-29. When it was launched in 1974, the SPORTSnationals quickly became a must-attend event for NHRA’s Sportsman racers, and more than 40 years later, that certainly will be the case again.

Division 3 Director Jay Hullinger expects to have as many as 600 entries in Bowling Green, Ky., and based on the popularity of his NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series events, which routinely top 500 cars, one might even think he’s a bit on the conservative side.

“There has been an overwhelmingly positive response to having this event return to Bowling Green,” said Hullinger. “A lot of people still have fond memories of the original races there. Earlier, I had modestly said we’d have 550 cars, but I’ve had a few other people tell me that I’m very low. Some people expect to see between 600 and 700 cars, and I guess I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case. We had 666 at the [Lucas Oil Raceway] opener in Indy last year and 570 at the Bowling Green divisional event, so that might not be too far off. The fact that racers will get a grading point for attending should also be a bonus. I honestly think this event will generate more Sportsman participation than any other event this season except for Indy.”

The JEGS NHRA SPORTSnationals 2.0 will pay homage to the original Bowling Green event in a number of ways. Perhaps most impressive is the return of the five winners from the inaugural event in 1974, who will be honored as grand marshals. All five champions -- Jimmy Scott (Pro Comp), Dick Krieger (Comp), Paul Mercure (Modified), Bobby Warren (Super Stock), and Joe Moore (Stock) -- remain active in NHRA Drag Racing in some form, and Mercure and Warren are Hall of Famers.

While Beech Bend Raceway Park remains one of the most scenic and historic venues in the country, the track has undergone and continues to undergo numerous renovations. Longtime track operator Dallas Jones has supervised the project that includes freshly paved entrance roads and pit areas. Jones and his crew also plan to grind the track surface prior to the Memorial Day weekend event. The adjacent water park is also undergoing extensive renovations.

“In addition to the Lucas Oil Series event and the NHRA Hot Rod Reunion, we have also had a Division 3 National Open event here in Bowling Green for the last 29 years, so the SPORTSnationals tradition has been kept alive,” said Hullinger. “The purse for this event is significant, and we’re bringing in a national event announcing crew with Alan Reinhart and Bob Unkefer as well as the D-3 TV live feed, which is very popular. We’re also planning on having shootout events for each class.

“I’m very interested to see how the 64-car fields for Top Dragster and Top Sportsman play out,” Hullinger said. “In Top Dragster, I think we could still see a 6.79 bump spot for 64 cars. We’ve had bumps in the 6.4s for 32 cars, and they continue to get quicker each year. We have a lot of fast cars in this part of the country, and when you throw in the racers who we expect to travel, it’s going to be very competitive. I feel pretty positive that we can regain some of the magic that made the original Bowling Green SPORTSnationals so special.”
 
The trouble with doubles

Wednesday, February 17, 2016


Winning one national event is a major achievement for just about any NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series Sportsman driver and winning two in the same weekend remains a goal that is achieved by only a select few. That point was reaffirmed during the season-opening Circle K NHRA Winternationals in Pomona, where Dan Fletcher and Robert Naber both made it to two final rounds, but neither one of them was able to run the table. Fletcher finished with a win in Stock (his 95th career win) and a runner-up in Comp, and Naber collected career win No. 4 in Super Gas and was a runner-up in Super Comp.

Fletcher is certainly no stranger to the concept of a double victory. In fact, there is probably no one who understands the degree of difficulty involved in the feat. The Pomona event marked the 11th time in his career that Fletcher has had a chance to double yet he’s only finished the job once when he won the Super Stock and Stock titles at the 2013 Seattle race. Luckily for Fletcher, he has also not had to deal with the bitter disappointment of losing two finals, either.

“It’s crazy to think that this is the 11th time I’ve had a chance to double, but I’ve only been able to finish the job once,” said Fletcher. “I guess that it’s harder than it looks because I really can’t explain it. On one hand, you made it to two final rounds so you’re on a roll that day, but at the same time, both of your opponents got to the final as well so they must not suck, either.”

In Stock, Fletcher was consistent if not spectacular with a string of conservative reaction times and some smart finish-line driving behind the wheel of his Peak-backed COPO Camaro. He drove to national event win No. 95 with a final-round win over 1999 Stock champ Don Little, who broke out by a thousandth of a second.

In Comp, Fletcher was one of just 15 drivers to make the first round in Pomona, but his chances for a victory suffered a hit when he incurred a big Competition Index Control penalty in round one by driving Rick Braun’s Cobalt to an 8.077 (-.623) in his round-one win over Scott Hedlund. Fletcher somehow managed to reached the final, but his 8.027 best (-.553) fell to Doug Lambeck’s (-.574) 8.406. Adding insult to injury, Fletcher’s loss was accompanied by a .02-second permanent index reduction.

“This race was a bit different than most of the other times I’ve had a chance to double,” Fletcher said. “I really had no business being in the Comp final. I lost .12-hundredths in the first round, so I should have been done after that. I honestly don’t care that I lost the Comp final, but I hated to take two-hundredths [permanent index reduction] in the final. That will bother me for a long time. One Sunday night, I should have been the happiest guy in Pomona because I’d just opened up with a win and a runner-up, but I was miserable because the last run I made down the track was a big mistake.”

Naber, above, attempting his first double, competed in the Super Comp final first but lost to Steve Williams via a close double breakout. A few minutes later, Naber had a chance for redemption and didn’t let it go to waste with a nearly perfect 9.901 in the Super Gas final after Mike Wiblishouser red-lighted. All told, Naber competed in 12 eliminations rounds and won 11 of them to start the season.

There have so far been 19 drivers who have combined to produce 32 national event doubles, but there are many more drivers, including Fletcher and Naber, who have come up short. Their plight only helps to illustrate just how difficult it is to win two classes at the same event. The fact remains that more often than not, a driver in two finals is likely to take a win and a loss, or on a handful of occasions, two losses.

“One would think that after you’ve won 10 or 11 straight rounds in two cars that it wouldn’t be that hard to win a couple more, but it is,” Fletcher noted. “It’s a good question, but I really have no idea why so many potential doubles end up in splits. I guess I’m just grateful that I haven’t lost both finals. I wouldn’t enjoy that.”

Home Court Advantage: The dragstrip at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona is named Parker Avenue in memory of longtime Pomona Police Chief Ralph Parker, who was instrumental in the development of the facility. The pit-side return road is also named Wally Parks Boulevard in honor of the late NHRA founder. Years from now, it’s not too difficult to imagine that there might also be a “DeFrank Drive” on the Fairplex property in honor of Jimmy DeFrank. The four-time Super Stock national champion has a record of success in Pomona that is unrivaled.

With his most recent win at the 2016 season opener, nine of DeFrank’s 19 career wins have come in Pomona and 28 of his 46 final rounds. He’s also won the season opener five times, including his memorable Stock/Super Stock double in 2013.

In his most recent win, which came behind the wheel of his California Car Cover Super Stock Cobalt, DeFrank survived a couple of close calls en route to the final round. He landed the Wally after 1996 Phoenix champ Fred Moreno red-lighted in the final. As a side note, in three of his four championship seasons — 1997, 1999, and 2009 — DeFrank had started the season with a final-round finish in Pomona.

“Pomona has always been special since it is our home track and the first track I went to as a little boy,” said DeFrank. “I have a lot of great memories and always dreamed of winning races here. Between winning races and wrapping up championships, we’ve made a lot of great memories over the years, and I just hope it continues.”

Run of the weekend: Super Gas national champion Jimmy Lewis appeared to do everything right in the quarterfinals at the Circle K NHRA Winternationals with a .004 reaction time and an 9.906 in his Sunset Racecraft Corvette. The only problem was that Lewis did not turn on the win light because his opponent, eventual runner-up Mike Wiblishouser, was just as aggressive with a .002 light and a 9.908 and turned on the win light by just .0001-second. 

In case you missed it: Sweden’s Jimmy Alund, who became the first European driver to win an NHRA Pro title when he claimed the Pro Stock championship at the 2013 NHRA Four-Wide Nationals, made his Stock debut at this year's Winternationals with an A/S ’68 Nova recently purchased from Clark Holroyd. Alund, who plans to race the car at as many as 10 events this season, qualified No. 4 and red-lighted in round one.

 

Maybe this year

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Tommy Phillips’ racing résumé reads like that of a first-ballot Hall of Famer. For starters, he has won 34 NHRA national event wins in 45 final-round appearances. Throw in another 29 NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series divisional wins, multiple Division 4 championships, and a couple of JEGS Allstars titles, and it’s easy to see why Phillips is regarded by his peers as one of the best drivers of his generation. For all his successes, Phillips still lacks perhaps the one thing he covets most: an NHRA national championship. He doesn’t necessarily lose sleep over it, but the laid-back Texan is quick to admit he’s not content to let that aspiration go unfulfilled.

“I’d be lying if I said I don’t think about it; I do once in a while,” he said. “I don’t know if ‘bothered’ is the right word for it, but I do feel like a career is ultimately measured in championships. Dan Marino is one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history in anyone’s book, but he’ll never be Tom Brady because he didn’t win a championship. Ultimately, that’s how we decide things. To be considered one of the best, you have to be the person who gets it done.

“Where do I fit in the world of Sportsman drag racing? Will it upset me if I don’t get at least one [championship]? I don’t know, but I definitely won’t think my career was a failure. I do know that I can’t work any harder or put any more effort into it. Pretty much every year I’ve left it all out there. Every year, when I drive out of the gate in Pomona in November, I don’t recall a time when I think there’s anything else I could have done as far as preparation. If I give it my best every year and it still doesn’t happen, then I can live with that.”

Since posting a fourth-place finish in Super Comp during the 1994 season, Phillips has had an incredible run that now includes 18 top-10 finishes in Super Comp, Super Gas, and Stock. On four occasions, he has had to settle for second place. With approximately 1,000 Sportsman racers listed in each class every season, outlasting all but one of them has to be a bitter pill to swallow.

“On one hand, I think that anyone who’s won a championship has earned it” Phillips said. “You really can’t luck your way into one. At the same time, you have to have a break when you need one. For the last 10 years or so, it seems like the person who’s won the championship is the one who gets on a roll and wins four or five races. My philosophy is to just focus on doing the best I can at every single race and hope that near the end of the season I still have a chance. Sometimes the other guy, or girl, just does a better job.”

Each close call has been frustrating, but few defeats were tougher to swallow than the 2009 Super Comp battle, where Phillips finished in third place but was just nine points — less than one round of competition — behind eventual champion Jim Perry. He’s also galled by his second-place finish in Stock in 1999, largely because his title hopes were dashed by a broken engine.

“There are two years that stick out in my mind,” he recalls. “In 2009, I had to go to the Las Vegas divisional and win the fourth round. I raced a guy who made a good run, but he left me a little room near the finish line. I ended up giving it back by two-thousandths. I mean, I wouldn’t have done anything differently, but it still hurts. I was basically a couple of inches from a championship, and that one is all on me. It was in my hands, and I didn’t get it done. The funny thing is the week before that race, Tom Bayer was leading the points and I drew him in the first round and won, so I’d already cleared a big hurdle.

“The year that I lost in Stock, I was the leader all year long, and then my motor blew up at the end of the season. I think I just needed to win two rounds; that’s just bad luck. I know it’s a race engine and things can happen, but how often does a 450-horsepower Stocker engine blow up? That’s how you know it was just Don Little’s turn. In the end, he did a better job and earned it.”

Last season, Phillips found himself in the middle of another intense points battle in the Super Comp class. After opening the season with a pair of national event wins in Las Vegas and Topeka, he kept the pressure on through the summer months with a third win in Seattle. Phillips kept his title hopes alive until the waning days of the season but ultimately settled for a third-place finish behind upstart Kevin Brannon and Mike Shannon. He was one of just four drivers in Super Comp to earn 600 points, but his total of 610 was well behind Brannon’s robust 657-point score. 

As he prepares for 2016, Phillips wonders, as he always does, if this could be the season that he finally gets to don a tux for the annual champion’s banquet in Hollywood, Calif. He won’t make any predictions, but he will acknowledge that a lot of time was spent during the offseason upgrading his program. He’s also committed to following through with a change that was made last season: racing his Super Stock Cavalier more often in lieu of his Super Gasser. Phillips also enjoys a lot of corporate support from companies like CBS Arc-Safe, Wood Racing, Orteq Energy, Capco Contractors, and his newest partner and engine supplier, Scoggin Dickey Race Shop.

“My program is very solid, but we’ve made some changes this winter,” Phillips said. “One of the most exciting deals is my alliance with Billy and Steve Torrence and their Capco company. They’ve always been a part of my team, but this year they wanted to step up their involvement. They race in Top Fuel, but they’re also very involved in Sportsman racing. I’m also looking forward to our new Scoggin Dickey engines. On the marketing side, I’m not sure that people understand what it takes to keep an operation like mine out there. It’s expensive, and I need to have good support all the time. Driving the car might be an individual moment, but there is nothing individual about what I do. It takes a lot of help.

“I’m also really excited about racing the Cavalier in Super Stock,” Phillips said. “I’ve had that car for four years and made 26 runs in it, but it’s been very good. I really want to run it a full season and see what I can do. If nothing else, it’s something different, a new challenge.”

All of the close calls and near misses he has had over the years have made Phillips understand, perhaps as much as anyone, that championships are a result of good timing and good fortune. A huge points total that might easily win a championship one year might barely crack the top five the next, which makes it hard for any racer, no matter how talented, to openly predict a championship. Still, he remains optimistic that this might finally be “the year.”

“Confidence is such a big part of this deal, and I’m going into this season really feeling good about what we’ve got,” he said. “As long as the preparation and the effort are there — and I’m sure they will be — then I’m willing to accept whatever happens.”

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