The licking of the chops began more than a year ago when NHRA moved the Auto-Plus NHRA Nationals in Reading from its summer date to early October. Maple Grove Raceway is one of the fastest venues in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series, and racers knew that a chance to race there during the fall season would make for the widespread falling of national records.

Expectations were met, to say the least. Cool conditions in which the corrected altitude readings were in the triple digits when the race was completed on Monday made way for record blasts. The national e.t. records were shattered in Top Fuel and Pro Stock, the quickest field in Pro Stock Motorcycle history was established, and the quickest side-by-side contests in history were staged in three of the four classes.

It’s arguable as to whether Top Fuel, Pro Stock, or Pro Stock Motorcycle had the most awe-inspiring moments during eliminations. The Funny Car class wasn’t quite on par due to the facts that the three-second barrier was crushed two weeks earlier and the winner, Robert Hight, won with steady performances rather than displays of unmatched performance potential.

The standard by which all performance-laden events come short of comparing to is the 1975 NHRA Finals in Ontario, Calif., but there are usually one or two definitively fast events held per year in a modern drag racing season. The Reading and Gainesville events fit the bill this season with honorable mentions going to the Englishtown and fall Charlotte events.

After establishing that there were new standards of performance established at this event, part of the fun afterwards is dissecting which runs, series of runs, or races are the most memorable. I did my best below.

Best performance, single run:

1. Del Worsham’s 3.735, 323.81
He may have lost the race, but that had to do with when the run began and not what happened between the starting line and the finish line. This run was a masterpiece. Worsham would have left with the national record anyway with his previous 3.760, and that run was barely enough to provide a backup for this pass. The "best run in Top Fuel history" argument had been a convoluted one when comparing runs made with different nitro percentages, minimum weights, and racing distances. Also factored in those arguments were how quick certain runs were at different parts of the track. The pass that the gold Al-Anabi dragster made in the final put those arguments to rest.

Worsham eclipsed the longstanding benchmark for quickest 660-foot time when he reached that point in 2.989 seconds. No driver had been quicker than 2.991 seconds since Gary Scelzi did so at the Houston event on Halloween weekend in 1999. There was an interesting history behind that run. Scelzi, also being tuned by Alan Johnson, had a malfunction in the clutch that caused the canon to apply the clutch way too early. That usually causes instant tire smoke, but the track surface was so good that the tires stayed glued even with the clutch locking up with a motor that was making great power in below-sea-level conditions. An A.J.-tuned dragster had not been in the sub-three-second zone to the 660-foot mark since until the final round.

It should be noted that, although the provisional national e.t. record changed hands a few times during the events, Worsham’s 3.735 is the only run that eclipsed Cory McClenathan’s 3.752 from the Englishtown event in 2010.

The run itself was a thing of beauty. A majority of the 20 3.7-second runs made throughout the course of the event were done with dragsters dancing around and drivers trying to prevent them from sashaying at the top end. There was no wasted motion on Worsham’s run, which arched up and stayed planted in the middle of the groove. Replays of the final round provide a great contrast between Worsham’s perfect 3.73 and Massey’s great 3.77.

Though the ride to Santa Maria, Calif., aboard Johnson’s jet was probably a long one for Worsham, he was a part of a run that may stand as the greatest in history for a long, long time.

2. Frank Manzo’s 5.411, 264.44
Manzo made a handful of runs in qualifying and early eliminations that were in the high-5.4 to low-5.5-second range despite shaking, pedaling, and acting like a bucking bronco. It left all to wonder, “How fast can he go if he gets this track figured out?” He showed everybody when he made the quickest lap in Top Alcohol Funny Car history in the semifinals, during which he also clinched his 15th championship.

Manzo has made his share of great runs, and his ample supply of horsepower has usually separated his runs from the successful loaded-for-bear attempts of his competitors. On this occasion, Manzo had early numbers that have never been paralleled. After an outstanding .912 60-foot clocking (he had a quicker .911 time on his next run), he charged to the first sub-2.4-second 330-foot time in class history at 2.391 seconds. He went 3.561 seconds at 212.83 mph to half-track and remained straight as a string. He eclipsed the previous benchmark of 5.432 seconds that he set at the Gainesville event earlier this year and ran another 5.41 in the final to secure the national e.t. record.

3. Jason Line’s 6.477, 212
It was difficult to not rank this higher. Perhaps Line himself did a poor job of selling it to me when he admitted that, though his Summit Racing Equipment Pontiac GXP is a beast, none of his barrage of 6.40s were perfect runs. He said that the car could have run a 6.46, and I don’t think that Worsham or Manzo can nitpick the runs that are listed above.

With that being said, wow, what a pass. It was difficult to predict what the track would hold in such cool conditions after the second round was postponed until Monday due to rain. Cars in the three pairs in front of Line either ran low 6.50s or shook the tires, so Line lighting up the scoreboard with the quickest run in Pro Stock history was a jaw-dropper. Longtime fans of the sport can probably remember when a 6.47 was a quick time for a Top Fueler, let alone a 500-cid, naturally-aspirated doorslammer.

Best performance, event:

1. Line scored a win and a national e.t. record from the No. 1 qualifying position while recording four consecutive 6.4-second runs.
It was the second time in Line’s career that he performed the trifecta of winning, qualifying No. 1, and setting the national e.t. record — the other was in Richmond, Va., in 2006. The fact that so few others have done the same in the history of the class wasn’t lost on Line.

The incoming national e.t. record was 6.492 seconds, and Line eclipsed that time during all four elimination rounds. Line, quite simply, has the most dominant car in any Professional category at the moment, and he also enjoys the biggest points lead. There are still three races left, but Line probably ought to go ahead and clear some space on his mantle next to his 2006 NHRA Full Throttle championship Wally.

2. Manzo clinched his 15th Top Alcohol Funny Car championship with the quickest run in class history, which he repeated in the final round. Of the 5.419 he ran in the final, he said, “It was a little quicker early but actually slowed down for some reason after that.” I don’t know of another driver that can make the second-quickest run in class history and essentially say, “What a pig.” If John Force doesn’t win the Funny Car title this season — and the odds are certainly stacked against him at the moment — Manzo will equal his record of most season titles in NHRA history.

3. Worsham made three passes in eliminations that were quicker than the incoming national e.t. record.
His other run was a “paltry” 3.777. Three drivers ran quicker than the 3.770 record during the event, but Worsham was the only driver to do so during eliminations. Worsham now has possession of three of the four quickest time slips in class history.

Best side-by-side performances:

1. Hector Arana Jr. and Matt Smith staged the quickest side-by-side race in Pro Stock Motorcycle history in the final round. Smith had an outstanding 1.03-second 60-foot time and actually lost ground. Arana recorded an unprecedented 1.024 60-foot time on his Buell and kept his Lucas Oil Buell hooked up to win the first elimination bout in class history in which both riders recorded 6.7-second runs.

2. Massey and Worsham staged the quickest side-by-side race in Top Fuel history in the final round. It was equal parts tragedy and triumph for Worsham in a 40-point swing that was awarded to Massey, the points leader. Massey had just defeated Worsham’s teammate, Larry Dixon, in a semifinal round that is now the second-quickest side-by-side race in history.

3. Line and Greg Anderson staged the quickest side-by-side race in Pro Stock history in the semifinal round. One silver lining of light rain further delaying the action on Monday following the Pro Stock semifinals is the extra time that the scoreboards from this pair stayed lit to pronounce the quickest Pro Stock pair in history. Anderson was .001-second shy of making it an all-6.4-second race. Line had the best package in Pro Stock history by pairing his 6.482 with a .015 light.

The Fast Five

Spencer Massey
has been hyped as a “leaver” for some time. He has accrued the reaction time statistics to support it, and now he has a defining performance, a magnum opus of starting-line mastery. Credit crew chiefs Todd Okuhara and Phil Shuler for sending the FRAM dragster along to four runs between 3.770 and 3.783 and trusting their driver to accrue the additional edge. Massey could have been vulnerable in his semifinal race against Larry Dixon had he slacked on the Tree, and his holeshot win over Del Worsham was an iconic moment. It’s rare that a driver who was in the opposite lane of the best run in history can say “I had the best seat in the house” without any irony.

The difference in Jimmy Prock’s confidence between Saturday during qualifying and Monday after the event was huge. Prock was struggling to regain his footing with the tune-up of the Auto Club Ford Mustang driven by Robert Hight. Hight would make one respectable run in every four attempts heading into the race, and the trend appeared to continue during qualifying. He apparently got in the ballpark with a 4.04 in a crucial first-round victory over Ron Capps, and they followed up with an equally big win against Matt Hagan with a 4.09, which would be their worst run of the event. Hight ran a 4.05 and 4.06 to handle Jeff Arend and a tire-smoking Johnny Gray to score his fifth win of the season, which is a career high. Prock said he refrained from hopping up the tune-up for the final because Hight was in such a zone on the Tree that he cut four lights between .051 and .069 while shallow-staged.

The later we get into the season, the stronger Hector Arana Jr.'s case for the Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award becomes. The rookie Pro Stock Motorcycle rider qualified No. 1 for the fifth time this season and made career-best laps to secure his second win. Arana moved up to second in the championship standings and has the potential to follow the precedent of LE Tonglet, who won the title during his rookie season in 2010.

Missing the top 10 with access to some of the best equipment in the class was a crushing disappointment to Ronnie Humphrey, and he’d been working with Frank Hawley to improve his reaction times while his Summit Genuine HotRod Hardware Pontiac GXP has simultaneously been getting better and better. Humphrey qualified No. 2 and reached the semifinals for only the second time this season. He made what is now the fifth-quickest pass in Pro Stock history at 6.489 seconds to defeat Rodger Brogdon and advance to the first final of his career. It was the second time that all three Ken Black Racing-powered cars reached the semifinals — the other occurred at the season-opening race in Pomona.

It seemed academic that John Force would be the No. 1 qualifier at this race before Johnny Gray unloaded the third-quickest run in Funny Car history at 4.010 seconds in the final session to nip Force by a thousandth. Gray drove the Alex’s Lemonade Stand/Service Central Charger to 60-330-foot splits that were quicker than Matt Hagan’s during his 3.99 run in Charlotte. Gray used up every bit of the intimidation factor of being No. 1 qualifier to get through the first two rounds with tire-smoking runs before laying down a 4.022 to beat Bob Tasca III in the semifinals. Rob Wendland and Dickie Venables are working well together in a low-pressure situation to make Gray the strongest spoiler in the Countdown.

Special Awards

Stats of the race:
Robert Hight scored the 2,000th round-win for John Force Racing when he defeated Jeff Arend in the semifinal round. The 2,000 round-wins that JFR has now accrued accounts for nearly one-fifth of all rounds contested in Funny Car competition (10,183 rounds, according to NHRA announcer Bob Frey’s statistics).

There have been 100 perfect reaction times recorded in the Professional ranks since 1985. Chip Ellis recorded the 100th one pair after Jerry Savoie recorded the 99th in the first round of Pro Stock Motorcycle eliminations. The bikes account for 62 of the perfect lights recorded.

Greg Stanfield earned his sixth holeshot win of the season, which leads all drivers in all categories. Since 2008, he has earned seven, 12, nine, and six (and counting) holeshot wins per season, accounting for more than one-third of his 97 round-wins during that span.

Crew chiefs of the race:
Alan Johnson and Brian Husen had a bad hot rod in Top Fuel; Jimmy Prock got his mojo back in his fifth win of the season; Rob Downing, Tommy Utt, and Jeff Perley flat-out dominated in Pro Stock; Hector Arana Sr. gave his son a fast bike that can now run quicker to 60 feet than anybody in the class.

Best race: Jerry Savoie vs. Angie Smith, Pro Stock Motorcycle round one: Other than the impressive side-by-side matchups discussed in the first section, this huge holeshot win was the best race of the event. Savoie cut a perfect .000 aboard his Suzuki and ran a 6.97 to hold off a much better 6.86 run by Smith by a .009-second margin. Savoie is usually quick on the Tree, but it was surprising that Smith, who has been one of the better leavers in the class this season, only managed a .117.

Tough luck of the race: A foreign object inside of Brandon Bernstein’s left rear tire caused it to blow out during his run in the third qualifying session. The Copart team had to sit out the final qualifying session to prepare their spare car because the chassis was bent in front of the foot box after the incident. He missed a good qualifying session in which he was bumped out of the top half of the field.

Quotes of the race: “We can’t win the championship, but I guess we’ve got No. 11 locked down.” — Rob Wendland, crew chief for Johnny Gray. Gray missed the playoffs and has a 261-point lead over 12th-place Tony Pedregon.

“This might turn out to be the tightest points battle with the most cars who can still win the championship in Pomona since the Countdown started.” — Jimmy Prock

“We needed new jackets, and this is the only way I know how to get one.” — Top Alcohol Dragster winner Mike Kosky, who won for the first time since the 1999 event

Drivers seem to have it all. They get to take the fast thrill rides and take a lion’s share of the glory and recognition. However, the biggest negative to being the driver of a winning dragster rather than being any other member of the team is not getting to experience the euphoric celebration that occurs on the starting line as soon as the win light flickers.

Bob Vandergriff Jr. was able to think long and hard about how he would celebrate a Top Fuel victory. After all, he had yet to win a race before the Dallas event despite 13 previous final-round appearances in a career that began in 1994. He decided that his long wait wasn’t going to end with a lonesome moment of quiet reflection at the top end. The athletic driver stopped his car before the turnoff and ran back toward the starting line in his firesuit and helmet on a 100-degree day to ignite an unprecedented midtrack celebration with his team and the fans who rushed down to join them.

It was a special and unique moment for an accomplishment that was a long time in the making. It had shades of the iconic moment when fans rushed from the stands to witness Don Garlits shave his beard at the 1967 Nationals after he ended his summer slump and made his first six-second pass in the final round.

Vandergriff recorded the most runner-up finishes before his first event victory in NHRA history. John Force had the most famous streak with nine runner-ups before scoring his first win in Montreal in 1987, and the 15-time world champ has done pretty well since then. The late Scott Geoffrion equaled that mark with nine Pro Stock runner-ups before he scored his first win in Memphis, Tenn., in 1993. Dave Grubnic came pretty close with eight Top Fuel runner-ups prior to his first win in Topeka in 2005.

Though there had been several occasions when Vandergriff had an overmatched car in the final, he also had some good cars that weren’t able to seal the deal for a variety of reasons. He’d been ahead when his car launched into a wheelstand before, and he lost one winnable final when the rotors in his blower were inserted backwards. His best season was in 2007, during which he endured five heartbreaking runner-up finishes en route to a fifth-place finish.

Vandergriff has been competitive before, but he’s more bullish on his current C&J Energy Services team than he has been on any of his teams in the past. He feels strongly that he’d be contending for a championship rather than playing spoiler in the Countdown to the Championship had his team been in its current configuration all year. The proof is in the pudding.

Vandergriff qualified No. 2 at the Denver event in his first race with Rob Flynn controlling the tune-up. He got past the first round for only the third time all season, and Rod Fuller, who drives the YAS Marina/DiGiorno dragster that Vandergriff manages, reached the semifinals. Nitro veteran Mike Guger, who worked as Flynn’s assistant crew chief at David Powers Motorsports and Kenny Bernstein Racing, got his first-ever shot at making the tuning calls on Fuller’s car one race earlier at the Chicago event.

Flynn and Guger were released from the Copart team only three races into the 2010 season and spent a great deal of time tuning blown doorslammers in the Middle East before they got another shot at nitro racing. Even while they were racing successfully in another category, the two never stopped talking about nitro racing and brainstorming new ideas about how they’d run a nitro car when they were given another opportunity. They have since been part of an impressive two-car assault that is behind only the Don Schumacher Racing and Al-Anabi Racing teams since the start of the Western Swing, and they continue to work feverishly to close the gap.

The win light provided a moment of redemption for Flynn, whose last team still hasn’t won an event since replacing him early last season. It also provided validation for Vandergriff, a skilled driver with a savvy marketing mind who finally earned top honors at drag racing’s highest level.

The Fast Five

Before Dallas, Cruz Pedregon’s season had been defined by great runs like a 4.015 in Pomona, a 4.095 in Denver, and a 4.026 in Indy. The two-time Funny Car champ finally put together a great race at a time when it counts the most for his championship hopes. Though Pedregon would have loved to put his Snap-on Toyota in the winner’s circle more often this season, he stressed on several occasions that his main objective was to put his car in the top five heading into the Countdown and have a strong enough car to make a championship run from there. Making his own tuning calls with help from crew chief Danny DeGennaro, Pedregon has maintained an aggressive mentality with a car that can run low e.t. at any given time but has also been susceptible to tire smoke and engine damage. He’s been developing a feel for when to rein it back, and — with the exception of a pedalfest that he won on a hot track in the semifinals — he showed consistency and an ability to go four rounds on Sunday.

The KB Racing cars have been so dominant of late that it has been easy to overlook the fact that Jason Line had let two winnable finals slip away at his last two events; he lost to teammate Greg Anderson on a holeshot in Indy and gave away the Charlotte final on a red-light. Line would have let things like that fester at him earlier in his driving career, but he showed his resiliency by completing the job in Dallas with a .027 light in the final while running the quickest e.t. of the round for the third time that day. Line’s fifth win of the season stretched his points lead by enormous proportions due to a strange first round in which seven of the top 10 drivers in the point standings were upset.

Michael Phillips
didn’t have a spot in the field heading into the final Pro Stock Motorcycle qualifying session, and he followed one clutch run on Saturday with four more on Sunday. The rider of The Edge Suzuki posted top speed of the event on the run that put him in the No. 14 spot, and he used consistency and great riding to get through the field. After receiving a single against a broken Hector Arana Sr. in the opening round, he cut a .018 light to put Charlotte winner Eddie Krawiec on the trailer despite running a 7.01 to Krawiec’s quicker 6.98. Phillips used big top-end charges to outrun Jerry Savoie and Hector Arana Jr. and find the winner’s circle. It was an emotional victory with his mother, Aline, and brother, Jerome, in attendance along with the rest of his team. 

It was a strong weekend for both Capps brothers in the Funny Car ranks. Ron and Jon Capps got to race against each other for the first time in the semifinals. Jon, who is five years younger than the NAPA driver, qualified a career-best third and doubled his career round-win total in an impressive effort for sponsor Dave Biesenbach and the Paul Smith-led team. Ron, meanwhile, kick-started his title hopes with three round-wins over non-playoff drivers — Tony Pedregon, Johnny Gray, and Jon — en route to a runner-up finish.

Spencer Massey left his home event with the Top Fuel points lead after reaching the final round for the second straight weekend. Massey didn’t have an easy road to the final either. Shawn Langdon had the quickest losing time of the event against him in the first round, he had to beat Del Worsham in round two, and he stopped Antron Brown’s winning streak at 14 consecutive rounds when he put him away in the semi’s.

Special Awards

Stats of the race: Mike Edwards lost on a holeshot for the first time this season. He has been much sharper on the starting line this year than over the past two seasons, during which he endured seven holeshot losses apiece.

The last time Kurt Johnson had been to two consecutive final rounds was a half-decade ago when he followed a runner-up at the Topeka event in 2006 with a win in Chicago.

Top Alcohol Funny Car winner Tony Bartone scored his 300th round-win in the alcohol ranks when he defeated Billy Davis in the first round.

Super Gas winner Tommy Phillips has been outstanding at Texas races. He has won at both the Dallas and Houston events in Super Comp or Super Gas in each of the last two seasons and has scored nine of his 24 career wins in Texas.

Crew chiefs of the race: Todd Okuhara and Phil Shuler had the quickest car of every elimination round until the final; Danny DeGennaro and Cruz Pedregon figured out how to make their fast car finish the job and complete four round-wins; Kurt Johnson made quality runs to get to his second straight final; Matt Hines gave his riders bikes that outran their opponents in a pair of holeshot losses.

Best races: Matt Hagan vs. Mike Neff, Funny Car round one: This was the marquee matchup of the first round between the drivers who claimed the No. 1 and 2 positions in the point standings coming into the race. Both drivers made quick runs, but Hagan was better on the starting line and held on to score a holeshot win by .005-second. Hagan had kicked himself earlier in the season for losing on two holeshots and a red-light in key moments, but he made it up to his team by earning them a critical round-win in the playoffs.

Hector Arana Jr. vs. LE Tonglet, Pro Stock Motorcycle round two: It’s hard to fathom a race between two different bike configurations traveling 1,320 feet being decided by an inch. That’s what happened here when Tonglet’s Suzuki took an early lead but was run down by the Lucas Oil Buell at the stripe by .0003-second.

Chris McGaha vs. Greg Anderson, Pro Stock round one: The biggest upset in a round full of them had to be McGaha, a Comp racer in his second-ever Pro Stock start, taking out Greg Anderson in the first round. McGaha, who lives in Odessa, Texas, got the Elite Motorsports Pontiac out of the gate first with a .042 to .086 advantage and held on at the stripe by .001-second.

Tough luck of the race:
Matt Smith battled electrical issues throughout the race and ran out of time before his bike would fire in the semifinal round against Hector Arana Jr., who got out of the groove and aborted his run. Smith made some comments after the race about Arana’s sportsmanship, though it appeared that Arana waited for Smith to refire until given instruction by the starter to proceed.

Tommy DeLago, crew chief of the DieHard Dodge Charger driven by Matt Hagan, was locked into his focused, take-no-prisoners mode on Sunday when he noticed his team’s historic achievement commemorated on the wall at zMAX Dragway. Their historic first three-second Funny Car run of the 1,000-foot era was recognized with the lettering “3.995-FC, Matt Hagan, 9-16-11.” In typical DeLago fashion, he gruffly dismissed it, muttering, “Whatever,” and carrying on with the business of trying to win a drag race.

Of course, the gesture became meaningful to DeLago once the race ended and his mind-set began to decompress. The whole concept of being a part of a milestone achievement never took hold of the intense crew chief until the race ended, and his scowl became a smirk when he transformed back into the funny, affable character that his pals know as Tommy D.

Cool weather and constant overcast graced “the Bellagio of dragstrips” and allowed for record times and record fields throughout the season. The will-they-or-won’t-they discussions about the first three-second Funny Car run that have seemingly occurred during every quick session over the past two years were finally put to an end when Hagan navigated the DieHard Charger to an outstanding 3.995 at 316.23 mph in the last pair of the Friday night qualifying session.

The number on the board was a surprise to DeLago.

“We were never really actually trying to go for it,” said DeLago. “We used information that we had from runs before to try to pair what we did when it ran good in the back half with what we did when it ran good in the front half. I never expected it to run 3.99. We ran 4.05 earlier, and I went up there trying to run 4.01 or 4.02 from what I know with our previous experiences. Sometimes this thing can surprise us, but I never really expected it to do that. This car made a lot of runs back to last year when it just does what it wants. Thankfully, it makes a better decision than I do a lot of the time and runs good. That’s fuel racing.”

The 3.99 was an outstanding run, even though it wasn’t even a perfect run. It was going an otherworldly 273 mph at the 660-foot marker, but it dropped a cylinder at 850 feet, an issue that hampered the speed more than the elapsed time. The speed potential would be realized in the first round of eliminations.

Hagan needed to run 4.035 seconds or quicker to officially back up his time to record a national e.t. record and collect the accompanying 20 championship points. He nearly did so during the third qualifying session on Saturday until his car pushed a head gasket out at 620 feet and still recorded a 4.038, albeit engulfed in fire. The team thrashed to replace the engine and burnt wiring and components between sessions, but they didn’t maintain traction in the final qualifying session.

Final eliminations began on Sunday with conditions that seemed ripe for backing up a national record. However, the racing gods made it tough on Hagan when the sun presented itself during an oildown while the DieHard car was waiting in the water box.

“The sun was coming out, and I’m panicking,” DeLago recalled. “I’m squeezing flows down, moving timers out. I went up there with the overcast thinking, ‘I don’t want to shoot myself in the foot, but it’s going to shake if we back it down too much.’ I had it set up like Q3, but we weren’t anywhere close to those conditions after the sun came out.”

The rapidly changing air and track conditions caused DeLago to have to step out of his comfort zone to make the last-minute changes necessary. The result was a 4.018 that backed up the record, but the real surprise was the speed number below that: 322.27 mph, the first 320-plus-mph run.

“Tommy made a change in the management system after the burnout, and I’ve never seen him do that before,” said Hagan. “That’s down to the wire. He was 100 percent on top of it to run that speed and that e.t. with the sun shining on the track.”

Said DeLago, “One thing I’ve always thought about but never had enough [courage] to do is taking the management cover box off after the burnout and start squeezing flows down. I don’t know how much I squeezed them. I never even looked all day because I kept them there once they were set. I thought what I did would make it run an .06, .07, or an .05 at best. I couldn’t duplicate that 3.99 yet because I’m so on edge with the fuel system. On that run, the motor was like a sewing machine, and it ran 3-[effing]-22. That was more surprising than the 3.99. I saw Jack [Beckman] go 318.9 and thought that was the mile per hour of the decade.

“I was just turning knobs," said DeLago. "I don’t know how much or where it was. I knew it needed more flow to slow it down somehow. It just had badass power on that run. It didn’t run on any clutch, just power.”

Hagan got the record for the third time in his career and closed the deal by winning the event. He went 4.054, 4.032, and a cylinder-dropping 4.130 to score respective wins over Cruz Pedregon, Beckman, and points leader Mike Neff. Hagan earned a total of 147 points of a possible 150, the most points ever earned by a Funny Car driver at a single event. He trails Neff by 22 points in the Countdown to the Championship.

The strategy that DeLago employed this season appears to be paying off. He sacrificed the opportunity to win as many races as possible with a proven combination this season in order to develop a potentially stronger setup for the playoffs. His 2010 title defeat and similar seasons endured by his mentor, Ed “the Ace” McCulloch, caused him to rethink his approach.

“We did a lot of testing this year, and I never knew if it was going to work out,” said DeLago. “We came close [to winning the championship] last year, and I wanted to use that as a learning experience to make me stronger. My philosophy and approach this year was to try to get a good start with last year’s combination and then test from Houston on. We were lucky enough to stay in the top 10 while testing. We came here and took everything we thought we learned testing. We were like, ‘We’re going to use this, but we’re not going to use that.’ You still never know how it’s going to work.”

Winning the championship is the ultimate goal for the DieHard team, and they are hungry to do so after coming so close in 2010 before John Force’s Neff-tuned team ultimately won it. That being said, DeLago is quick to sing the praises of his most prominent championship competitor.

“Granted, this is only one race,” said DeLago. “I really think that Mike Neff and those Force teams are the class of the field. All of our Funny Cars aren’t too bad, either. What Neff has done this year and what he did winning the championship with John last year is amazing. Doing all of the duties of a driver this year — that’s autograph stuff, displays, and PR stuff in addition to driving the car — and running a crew, running a race team, and being the class of the field all year is unbelievable. I don’t think I could do all that. My job of just tuning the car has my brain at max cackle already. He is a pretty amazing guy.”

Regardless of what happens for the remainder of the season, DeLago, Hagan, and the crew were a part of a historically successful weekend that will go down in the NHRA history books.

“It was an awesome weekend,” said DeLago. “My guys [Gage Fairchild, Joe Janish, Brian James, Jason Davis, Ben Ratcliffe, Terry Prososki, and Chris Stillwell] do a hell of a job. My assistant crew chief, Glen Huszar, I couldn’t do this without him. He’s an intelligent guy. He’s bad to the bone.”

The Fast Five

I was urged by the Aaron’s/Matco Tools team not to make the easy comparison to their sponsor's mascot by calling them “Lucky Dogs.” That being said, timing was crucial in Antron Brown’s third consecutive victory and sixth of the season. Brown ran consistently in the low 3.80s throughout the event, but the Al-Anabi drivers and his Don Schumacher Racing teammates were reeling off 3.70s. It didn’t help matters that the onboard data recorder failed in the first two rounds, forcing crew chiefs Brian Corradi and Mark Oswald to tune it the old-school way. The resilient team stepped it up when they needed to with two 3.7-second runs to close eliminations and oust mechanically-plagued teammates Tony Schumacher and Spencer Massey, who spun the tires and blew an engine while trying to set the national e.t. record, to secure the win and, for the first time this season, the points lead.

Eddie Krawiec rode the quickest and fastest bike on the property. The Vance & Hines Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson made three out of four of the quickest runs in qualifying and did the same in eliminations. His bike posted identical 1.047-second 60-foot times when he ran 6.81s in the second round and semifinals. Krawiec had an equally dangerous bike at the previous five events but left empty-handed at each one with four holeshot losses and a red-light start. The 2008 Pro Stock Motorcycle champ mentally regrouped before the start of the playoffs and carried a swagger that could be evidenced in his attitude, body language, and each of his top-end interviews.

How about Kurt Johnson? K.J. came into this event with only three round-wins all season (all red-lights), no wins since the Brainerd event in 2008, and no final-round appearances since the season-ending event in 2009. He had been making visible strides with the Total Seal Pontiac GXP lately, and he simply outran his first three opponents before taking on Jason Line and the Summit Racing juggernaut in the final. Line was the heavy favorite, but he gave it away on the starting line with a -.003 red-light. Johnson scored the 40th win of his career and has all the makings of a championship spoiler for the rest of the season.

Female racers as a whole had a strong presence at the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Nationals, and it wasn’t Erica Enders carrying the torch on this occasion. Karen Stoffer was the No. 2 qualifier and runner-up in Pro Stock Motorcycle; Michelle Furr nearly became the first woman in NHRA history to score a national event double when she won in Super Comp and was runner-up to Dennis Hill in the Super Street final; R2B2 Racing teammates Melanie Troxel and Leah Pruett qualified Nos. 1 and 2 in Pro Mod and met each other in the final with Pruett collecting her first career win. Pruett drove the same turbocharged ’12 Mustang that Eric Hillard won the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals presented by Lucas Oil with two weeks earlier.

Mike Neff was the last remaining Funny Car driver who wasn’t under the DSR umbrella. He defeated Brainerd winner Johnny Gray in the semifinal round to prevent an all-DSR final. Neff maintained his points lead despite Hagan’s 147-point performance. His Castrol GTX Ford Mustang was strong in qualifying with a 4.038 that earned him the No. 2 spot. He caught a break against Tony Pedregon when he was able to pedal through tire spin and still advance, and he posted solid runs of 4.07 and 4.08 after that to advance to the final for the ninth time in 17 races this season.

Special Awards

Stats of the race: The quickest fields in the history of the Top Fuel and Pro Stock Motorcycle classes were recorded at this event. Morgan Lucas anchored Top Fuel with a bump time of 3.884 seconds, and Steve Johnson's 6.984 served as the cutoff in the second all-six-second field in the history of the bike class.

Five runs faster than the previous fastest speed in Funny Car history (316.45 mph) were recorded at this event.

Crew chiefs of the race: Mike Green tuned the U.S. Army dragster to the fastest speed in Top Fuel history and was .002-second shy of the national e.t. record; Tommy DeLago had the best tuning weekend of his career; Rob Downing, Tommy Utt, and Jeff Perley gave Jason Line the car to beat; Matt Hines had his winning rider dialed in at the launch and beyond.

Best races: Antron Brown vs. Tony Schumacher, Top Fuel semifinal: Brown extended his 2011 record against “the Sarge” to 5-2 in a tight race that was decided by .004-second. Schumacher had an early lead but couldn’t hold on when his dragster started pushing the head gaskets.

Shane Gray vs. Greg Anderson, Pro Stock round one: Gray pulled off a huge upset when he garnered a .034 to .079 reaction time advantage and held off the No. 2 qualifier by less than a hundredth.

Tough Luck of the race:
Tony Schumacher can’t catch a break this season. The U.S. Army crew tore down and rewired the dragster after Indy to eliminate whatever glitch was ailing it, and Schumacher returned to his dominant self during qualifying. He made his worst run of eliminations in the semifinals when he pushed a head gasket out at 660 feet, and he only lost to Antron Brown’s best run of the weekend to that point by .004-second.

Melanie Troxel’s crew had a busy weekend. She sported three different looks with three different Toyota Solara bodies on Roger Burgess’ Funny Car. The blue-and-white ProCare RX body they ran on Friday was damaged in the second qualifying session, so they put their all-white ProCare RX body on the Funny Car for Saturday. They endured major carnage on their final qualifying pass when they recorded a 4.04 but broke the crankshaft and pulled the center main cap at 850 feet. She ran a third body with In-N-Out colors on Sunday; the body was still being touched up at a paint shop that Friday.

Hector Arana Sr. and Hector Arana Jr. were both sidelined with electrical issues during Pro Stock Motorcycle eliminations. The elder Arana was unable to start due to what they believe is a crank sensor malfunction in the first round, and Hector Jr. was unable to fire in the second round, possibly due to a cam sensor. Hector Jr. put his bike on the stands after he got back to his pit, and, naturally, it fired up immediately.

Quotes of the race:
“When people are mad at you at the end of the race, it usually means you’re doing good.” — Mark Oswald, co-crew chief on the Aaron’s/Matco Tools dragster

“I want to crush everybody. We’ve had the bike to do it, but the rider hasn’t been there. Well, from now on, the rider’s going to be there.” — Eddie Krawiec

“We had a car in 2003 that went down a dirt road, and we kind of got off tangent. We debuted a new car in Bristol, and it was a rough ride there, but it really started to thunder in Brainerd.” — Kurt Johnson

To a competitive runner, a marathon is a 26.2-mile event that is completed in merely a few hours. The equivalent of a marathon to a drag racer is the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals presented by Lucas Oil. The event is active for four days (most teams are there for about a week when you include parking, pit setup, tech inspection, etc. and beyond that for those who partook in the test session on Thursday, Aug. 25), and those nitro racers fortunate enough to see it to its completion log a total of 9,000 recorded feet on the dragstrip, equivalent to about 1.7 miles.

The wacky weather over Labor Day weekend made the 1.7-mile marathon more of a biathlon. The event was a hot and humid one at the onset with temperatures reaching the high 90s and track surface temperatures rising to the mid-130s. The weather shifted Sunday, and racers were greeted with brisk, 60-degree air and a chilly headwind when they woke up on race day, and the track temperature stayed in the 70s and 80s.

I asked several crew chiefs whether the drastic change in air conditions required big adjustments from the baselines they established over the weekend or if it was like working with a clean sheet of paper. The most common answer was “both.”

A Top Fuel dragster or Funny Car that made a competitive lap on Monday would have been over-clutched and underpowered with the same setup Friday through Sunday. The motors had to be backed down to compensate for the mineshaft air Monday, which meant thicker head gaskets to create lower compression ratios, less mag timing, less nitro percentage, and lower blower overdrive.

Brian Corradi, who tuned Antron Brown to a victory in Top Fuel along with Mark Oswald, was still agonizing over how much to slow the blower speed when I talked to him prior to the start of eliminations.

“The change in blower speed is a lot different, about 3 percent or more,” said Corradi. “The closest conditions we saw to today was on Sunday night. Even from then, the temperature dropped from 72 degrees to 60 degrees. The water grains are down about 30 [grains of water per pound of air]. The barometer is down a little but pretty close to the same.

“The thing we worry most about is backing it up too much and shaking the tires. We also have to make a decision about whether to run new tires or old tires. We’ve been breaking in new tires all weekend.”

When conditions change to the point that it is nearly a blank slate for competitors, Alan Johnson tends to become the favorite in Top Fuel. He did little to sway that opinion because he and Brian Husen tuned the Del Worsham-driven Al-Anabi dragster to low e.t. of every elimination round leading up to the final. Brown, the No. 1 qualifier, adapted quite nicely, too, and ran between 3.819 and 3.842 while proving to be as good when fans were huddled up in jackets as he was when they were sporting tank tops and SPF 50.

Both drivers were gamely on the Tree in the final and engaged in a great side-by-side race. Brown was a bit quicker early, and both ran screaming 282-mph times to the 660-foot increments. Brown won the bout by a 3.81 to 3.83 count, and Corradi evened the score with Worsham for his narrow loss in Funny Car in the 2005 final when Corradi was tuning for Frank Pedregon and Worsham doubled up with Skoal Showdown special event and national event victories.

“The racetrack was so good that it ate up the tune-up,” said Corradi, who also won Indy in 2007 while tuning Mike Ashley’s Funny Car. “We kept throwing weight [on the primary clutch levers] at it. I guess it had enough to win.”

During Brown’s incredible six-win season in 2009, things fell flat for a few events that began with a first-round loss at this event, and that slump ultimately cost him the season title. A win here and a No. 2 berth heading into the playoffs may help the popular driver finish the job amid stiff competition in the Top Fuel ranks this season.

“Having momentum going into the start of the Countdown is big,” said Corradi. “We’re going to keep pressing. This is the biggest race of the year, but we don’t treat it differently from any other race. That’s how we’re going to treat the rest of the races this year. No pressure.”

The thoughtful-yet-fearless approach of the Matco Tools team was essential to putting Brown, a former sprinter on his high school track team, on fast dashes throughout his triumph of the Indy marathon.

The Fast Five

Just because Mike Neff had already wrapped up the No. 1 spot in Funny Car heading into the Countdown doesn’t mean that he didn’t want to win this event in a bad way. The driver and tuner of the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang had never won Indy in either capacity, although he was a part of wins as a crewmember for Cory McClenathan in 1996 and 1999 and Cruz Pedregon in 1994. He also wanted to shake off a meager four-race stretch in which he only tallied two round-wins, for which he was most bothered by the fact that he wasn’t competitive during most of his losses. “Zippy” added his name to Indy folklore while extending John Force Racing’s winning streak at this event to four years.

The Summit Racing entries of Greg Anderson and Jason Line continued to dominate the Pro Stock ranks with their fourth all-team final of the season. Anderson beat his teammate on a holeshot in the final, but getting to the final in and of itself was a big feat for Line. He had never responded well to the pressure of trying to win Indy in the past, and he had tallied only five career round-wins at the event in his seven previous starts despite having some great cars during that stretch. Anderson’s sixth career Indy win is his fourth win and fifth final-round appearance over the past six races this season.

The battle for the Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award, which honors NHRA’s top rookie, got a lot more interesting with Pro Stock Motorcycle rookies Hector Arana Jr. and Jerry Savoie both reaching the final. Pro Stock’s Vincent Nobile likely holds the edge if voting were to commence tomorrow, but both riders showed that they’re going to merit strong consideration. Arana, the preseason favorite for the award, has lived up to the hype recently with a final-round appearance in Brainerd, then a breakthrough win at this event aboard the Lucas Oil Buell. Arana qualified No. 1 three times this season and had been knocking on the door of earning a victory. Savoie, who looked more polished than Arana at the season opener in Gainesville, and his Mark Peiser-led White Alligator Racing team showed their perseverance by overcoming engine woes during qualifying to reach his first final.

Brandon Bernstein
hadn’t reached a semifinal berth since the Englishtown event in June and the Las Vegas event in April before that, so his competitive effort that resulted in a final-four finish was a remarkable turnaround for the Copart team. Legendary tuner Dale Armstrong was called in to assist crew chiefs Todd Smith and Donnie Bender at this event, though the biggest assist of the race belongs to Funny Car driver/tuner Tim Wilkerson. Bernstein’s frequent cylinder-dropping issues of late were diagnosed as supercharger problems, and Wilkerson helped the team by lending them a reliable unit during qualifying. Bernstein used that same blower for the remainder of the event and improved on every pass. Wilkerson had been given access to Don Prudhomme’s blower dyno several years ago when Smith and Bender worked there, so he was more than willing to help them.

Nobody made a sub-five-second run against Bob Tasca III on his way to the final round, but the ease with which he earned his win lights on the track was in stark contrast to the thrashing that his Quick Lane/Motorcraft team had to do in the pits. Tasca suffered engine woes throughout the race and had short turnaround times because he was near the back of the pack in the early rounds. The hard work paid off as Tasca, who entered the event on the playoff bubble, moved into the No. 8 spot as the points reset for the Countdown.

Special Awards

Stats of the race:
Frank Manzo became the winningest driver in U.S. Nationals history when he won in Top Alcohol Funny Car for the 10th time in his career, breaking his tie with Pro Stock legend Bob Glidden. His Al-Anabi Monte Carlo made 5.4-second laps throughout eliminations and defeated first-time finalist Fred Tigges in the money round. Manzo, who can make a strong case for being the greatest Sportsman racer of all time, has scored double-digit wins at three other venues — Reading, Englishtown, and Atlanta.

Larry Dixon’s semifinal loss ensured that a decade-long stretch of only Dixon and Tony Schumacher winning in Top Fuel at this event would be broken. “A lot of drivers would probably want to kick my ass if I complained,” Dixon quipped.

Two longstanding qualifying streaks ended when Cory McClenathan (103 races) and Tony Pedregon (101 races) failed to make the respective Top Fuel and Funny Car fields.

Crew chiefs of the race: Brian Corradi and Mark Oswald had the best car when it was 90-plus degrees during qualifying and 60 degrees during eliminations; Mike Neff got hot when the weather cooled, and he had a booming 270-mph speed at 660 feet during the second round; Rob Downing, Tommy Utt, and Jeff Perley have done a superb job on the Summit Racing Pontiacs to get them to the front of the pack on a consistent basis; Hector Arana Sr. gave his son a rocket ship to ride on Monday.

Best races: Chip Ellis vs. Michael Phillips, Pro Stock Motorcycle round one: The riders practically left together, and Ellis withstood Phillips’ top-end charge to win by a tiny .0008-second margin.

Hector Arana Jr. vs. Angie Smith, Pro Stock Motorcycle round one: Three pairs behind Ellis and Phillips, Smith cut a great .009 light but was nipped by Arana by two thousandths at the stripe.

Jirka Kaplan vs. Brian Browell, Comp final:
This was wild. Kaplan had to fight his blown altered off the centerline to chase down a coasting Browell, and he got him by a hundredth while running a 6.95 at 211 mph.

Jason Line vs. Allen Johnson, Pro Stock semifinal: A.J. was outstanding on the Tree throughout the day and gave the Summit team their biggest scare with a huge .003 to .043 advantage on the starting line, but Line made a near-perfect run while Johnson had some early tire spin.

Antron Brown vs. Del Worsham, Top Fuel final: The final race of the day was also the closest in Top Fuel eliminations with a hundredth deciding the two at the stripe and the quickest side-by-side race of the day.

Tough luck of the race:
Top Fuel’s Terry McMillen endured two cases of “good news, bad news” during the event. He qualified solidly with a 3.89 in the opening qualifying session and cut his points deficit behind 10th-place Dave Grubnic to within a round in the process, but he broke several primary clutch levers during the run and sidelined the pressure plate that he had been running on his clutch all season. He had to install a clutch he hadn’t used before, which resulted in three straight tire-smoking efforts before he got a handle on it in the final qualifying session. Needing a round-win against Rod Fuller in the first round to pass Grubnic and keep his playoff hopes alive, McMillen’s Amalie Oil/UNOH team put their best foot forward by installing a new engine (never-run block, crank, rods, pistons, etc.) and purchased a new set of valve retainers for their cylinder heads after breaking a couple during the final qualifying run. Valve retainers fit into a groove near the end of the valve stems to secure the intake and exhaust valves to the valve springs. Well, McMillen took the win light against Fuller, but one of the retainers failed and allowed an intake valve to drop and a spark from that cylinder to ignite the air/fuel mixture in the manifold, causing a huge fireball and an oildown penalty that cost McMillen 10 points and kept him out of the top 10 despite the round-win. To add insult to injury, the extent of the carnage left McMillen’s never-before-run block and crankshaft damaged beyond repair. His crew worked valiantly to turn the car around with a shot to get into the top 10 if they could defeat Del Worsham in round two, but Worsham defeated him with low e.t. of the event. McMillen, who never oiled the track in 2010 until oildown rules were inserted at the last race of the season, tallied 35 points in oildown penalties this year that ultimately cost him a playoff berth.

Chip Ellis had some ground to make up to secure a playoff bid in Pro Stock Motorcycle. He ran well on the Kuryakyn Buell to reach the semifinals but wasn’t able to help himself in the process; the other three semifinalists were Hector Arana Jr., Jerry Savoie, and Jim Underdahl, who were Nos. 8, 9, and 10 in the standings entering the event.

Robert Hight
put a holeshot on teammate Mike Neff before he dropped a hole by the 60-foot mark in the first round of Funny Car eliminations. The loss combined with Jack Beckman’s win caused him to drop a spot in the standings. The Auto Club team found no reason why it put a cylinder out until pulling that cylinder head off and noticing several dings and chips on the top of the piston. A small piece of the top piston ring broke off at some point and got loose in the combustion chamber, closing the gaps of the two spark plugs in that cylinder shut early in the run.

Ron Capps’ quest for his first Indy win ended with a cracked spark plug wire causing the NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger to drop a cylinder in the Funny Car semifinals.

Tony Schumacher lost in the first round at this event for only the second time in his career. The U.S. Army driver dropped a cylinder at the step and had his safety shutoff system activate early opposite Bob Vandergriff Jr., who kept his Countdown hopes alive with a win but ultimately missed out after a second-round holeshot defeat.

Quotes of the race: “It was like being in the Bahamas on Friday and Alaska on Monday.” — Top Alcohol Funny Car runner-up Fred Tigges

“I don’t know why everyone is so glum over here after smoking the tires. We just went from two races back to two rounds back. We're doing a helluva job if we keep that pace up in Charlotte.” — Jason McCulloch, crew chief for Larry Dixon

“After we blew up in Bristol, Connie [Kalitta] yelled at me about how [messed] up my tune-up was, and I took his sage advice.” — Bill Miller, owner/tuner of the BME/Okuma dragster driven by Troy Buff

“It’s a drag race, not a parade. In a parade, you always know who’s going to be out front.” — Bob Bode

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