Features

Posted by: Brad Littlefield
In a sport consisting of teams that are hell-bent on going as fast as possible, slowing down can be one of the most difficult things to do.

Two weeks prior to the Phoenix event, temperatures in the 50s at Maple Grove Raceway provided the stage for previous national records and personal best elapsed times and speeds to be annihilated. The track was so good and tight that tuners had to turn the wicks up on their motors even with the crisp air helping to provide plentiful power.

The racing conditions and collective mind-set of the crew chiefs made a figurative 180-degree turn when they arrived in the summer-like conditions of Arizona in October. The air temperature remained at 100 degrees throughout the afternoons at the event, the track temperature approached 130 degrees, and tuners had to take the combinations that they had developed for speed into places they had never been with them before.

Hot conditions have long been considered an equalizer, and it showed in the results. Several non-touring teams qualified in the middle of the Top Fuel and Funny Car fields, and Spencer Massey, Morgan Lucas, Ron Capps, and Tony Pedregon all failed to crack the quick 16. Massey entered the race with the points lead, but his team was unable to temper the power level down enough to make an A to B run despite making what they considered to be very large changes.

One of the success stories at the event was Top Fuel winner and No. 1 qualifier Larry Dixon. His crew chief, Jason McCulloch, pulled off a challenging feat in getting the Al-Anabi dragster to make consistent, 3.9-second runs to net their second win of the season.

“We’ve spent all year trying to make more power, and we had to figure out how to bring the power level down to keep it from wearing through the clutch,” said McCulloch.

Dixon’s reaction after beating new points leader Antron Brown in the final round by eight-thousandths of a second was quite emotional for a driver who had won 61 times before. After his 12-0 run in final rounds in 2010, Dixon scored his second win of 2011 in the 20th race of the season. He had been shut out of the final round for 10 straight races prior to Phoenix.

Part of the reason Dixon’s season hasn’t been as successful is the unprecedented level of competition among the upper echelon in the class, particularly between the two Al-Anabi and three Don Schumacher Racing entries. Dixon’s performance level hadn’t fallen off, nor had that of rival Tony Schumacher, who has been winless thus far. The pie got smaller with Schumacher’s teammates, Brown and Massey, combining for 10 wins and Dixon’s teammate, Del Worsham, scoring six.

McCulloch has also adjusted to being a full-fledged tuner for the first time in his career. He has been a crew chief in name since the team formed in 2009, though Alan Johnson made decisions on the car until moving his focus to the Worsham-driven dragster this season while grooming crew chief Brian Husen. Earlier this season, Dixon painted the situation with the analogy of Luke Skywalker taking on Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Although McCulloch is a rookie tuner competing against crew chiefs with more experience, the drop-off in wins from last year still bothered him. He is acutely aware of his role in the performance of the car and feels empathy for a proven crew that has become accustomed to reaching the winner’s circle with great regularity. Other than assistant crew chief Ronnie Thompson, who was added to the team this season, the majority of the crew had been together since they were part of the championship-winning U.S. Army teams.

Dixon is 20 points, the equivalent of one round, out of first place with two races remaining. Any one of the top five drivers can conceivably be the 2011 NHRA Full Throttle Top Fuel champion, and the Al-Anabi Silver team has shown that they are prepared to bring the heat regardless of what conditions come to them.


The Fast Five

The Funny Car winner for the second straight year and third time in the past four years is Jack Beckman. The Aaron’s/Valvoline driver netted his third win of the season, though he had been relatively quiet despite maintaining favorable standings in the points. His last win was in Atlanta and last final was during the Western Swing, but he’d hit enough singles and doubles along the way for the former Super Comp world champ to take the points lead for the first time in the Professional ranks. In addition to a deadly consistent car provided by crew chief Rahn Tobler, Beckman drove out of his mind with lights between .045 and .057 during clean starts.

Antron Brown is back in the points lead after his eighth final-round showing of the season. The Matco Tools driver made the quickest runs of both Saturday qualifying sessions and ran low e.t. of eliminations in the opening round, which set up a huge matchup against Del Worsham in round two. Worsham broke traction, and Brown’s winning e.t. didn’t earn him lane choice, but he put his starting-line prowess to use in a holeshot win over Tony Schumacher in the semi’s. Both of Brown's final-round losses this season occurred at the hands of Larry Dixon.

Vincent Nobile breathed life back into a fierce campaign for the Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award that honors NHRA’s top rookie. He scored his third win of the season, and all three victories included a holeshot win in the final round. His 78 percent first-leave percentage leads all drivers in the Pro Stock ranks. It was anybody’s race once the top three qualifiers and three top performers at this point of the season — Jason Line, Greg Anderson, and Mike Edwards — were eliminated in the early rounds. Nobile’s four lights between .006 and .025 separated him from the remaining cars in the pack. His .009 light in the final was the difference in a 6.67 to 6.65 contest against Allen Johnson in an all-Mopar final.

Nobile kept pace with but didn’t pull away from friend and fellow rookie Hector Arana Jr. Arana kept up his torrid pace of late by securing his third win. The championship chase has shaped up to mirror the 2010 battle in which then-rookie LE Tonglet surprised Andrew Hines down the stretch. Arana is now within 10 points of event runner-up and points leader Eddie Krawiec, who is Hines’ teammate. Krawiec kept the final round from being a father-son affair by overcoming a .001 light by Hector Sr. in the semifinals, but he couldn’t touch Arana’s final-round package of a perfect light paired with a 6.884, .001-second off from his time in the first round that stood as low e.t. of the event.

The Service Central Dodge Charger driven by Johnny Gray has been the most competitive entry outside of the Countdown to the Championship in any category. Gray was the No. 1 qualifier in Reading with the third-quickest run in class history, and he didn’t falter in much warmer conditions. His 4.23 and 4.27 in the first two rounds were two of the three quickest runs of eliminations, and he won his semifinal race against Jim Head with an adept pedaljob in an incredibly close decision.


Special Awards

Stats of the race

NHRA announcer Bob Frey pointed out that Jack Beckman became the 39th driver in the history of the Funny Car class to lead the points in the championship era that began in 1974. That seems like a low number, but drivers such as Don Prudhomme, Raymond Beadle, Kenny Bernstein, and especially John Force dominated their respective eras.

Ron Capps
’ surprising DNQ ended the longest active qualifying streak in the Funny Car class at 105 races. He hadn’t failed to qualify since the Topeka event in 2007. He and Tony Pedregon entered the season with a tie for the longest active streak, and they were the only two nonqualifiers of the 18 Funny Cars entered at this event.

There were six total red-lights in the Funny Car class all season before drivers got jumpy in eliminations at this race. Jeff Diehl red-lighted in what would have been an upset over Jim Head in round one, Robert Hight uncharacteristically jumped the gun in round two, and Paul Lee left before the Tree was activated against Head in the second round.

Crew chiefs of the race: Jason McCulloch led his team to victory despite not having lane choice in the last two rounds; Rahn Tobler gave his driver the most consistent car of the event; Mark Ingersoll, Roy Johnson, and the newly-added Jim Yates gave Allen Johnson the quickest car of the last three rounds and had involvement with Nobile’s winning team, too; Hector Arana Sr. gave his kid the bike to beat and nearly put himself in the final against him.

Best races: Johnny Gray vs. Jim Head, Funny Car semifinal: It was difficult to distinguish the winner of this one with the naked eye, and even a photo finish required the viewer to squint. Though neither made great runs, they left together and were glued together going down the track. Head led most of the race, but Gray got to the stripe first by .0006-second.

Larry Dixon vs. Steve Torrence, Top Fuel semifinal: Dixon staved off elimination from Torrence’s upset-minded new team by .006-second.

Steve Casner vs. Jimmy Lewis, Super Gas final: The most exciting of the Sportsman finals occurred in a rare instance when Casner and Lewis cut identical .013 lights and ran identical 9.918s on the 9.90 dial. Casner got to the stripe first by a miniscule .0007-second.

Tough luck of the race: A fuel leak in the first round ended Greg Anderson’s day and prevented him from making up any ground on teammate Jason Line in the championship battle despite Line leaving the door open by going out early.

Quotes of the race: “I love the heat. Anything below 100 degrees is cold.” — John Stewart, crew chief for Top Fuel driver Shawn Langdon

“Personally, I like that one of the Countdown races is on a hot track with some personality. The champion should be someone who can perform well in different conditions.” — Funny Car No. 1 qualifier Cruz Pedregon

“Sometimes it’s racing, and sometimes it’s a drag, and we got the drag part of it this weekend.” — Spencer Massey, who relinquished his points lead after failing to qualify

"I went from the hospital to the semifinals." — Steve Torrence, who missed the second round of qualifying due to a virus and dehydration but earned a semifinal finish on Sunday

 
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