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The Big Wait

September 3, 2012

NHRA’s Safety Safari works on the rain-soaked Lucas Oil Raceway dragstrip
NHRA photo

NHRA’s “Big Go” turned into the “Big Wait” at Lucas Oil Raceway near Indianapolis. This is drag racing’s marquee event and, like stock car’s season starter and Holy Grail the Daytona 500, it got rained out. NASCAR held their race the following evening.

NHRA is waiting until Friday to get the Lucas Oil Sportsman categories out there, holding two qualifying sessions for the professional Full Throttle Drag Racing Series cars and motorcycles on Saturday September 8th (as if it were a normal race weekend) with the Traxxas Shootout for Funny Car held that day as well. Final eliminations are set for September 9th.

While the Top Fuel Traxxas Shootout, held on Saturday night went on as usual and both that category and Funny Car managed to get their third round of qualifying in, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle only made it down the quarter-mile twice. At Indy, there are five qualifying sessions scheduled – this weekend was clearly a washout.

As Monday wore on and conditions improved, many people wondered why NHRA’s Mac Tools U.S. Nationals was being postponed for a bit less than a week, particularly with the first Countdown to One race a week after the make-up? The track itself is a mess, a blend of water, oil and NHRA’s special chef’s blend of track prep.

It requires more than a half-day worth of curing after this type of persistent rain before it’s ready for racing. You might be able to wing it with another series, but these racers are going for speed and nothing more – their safety would surely have been at risk. Not worth it… someone could have easily been injured the way the track looked at noon – sure it looks better as I write this closer to 4PM but heck, that would have put final eliminations under the lights. And there’s still another 30-40 percent of showers?

This weekend had been a mess from the start with weather problems and a huge amount of stoppage in the first  Friday night Top Fuel qualifying session. What should have been done by 8:30 or so went on until nearly 10 – or maybe later, I didn’t look at the clock.

Saturday was a wet/dry/wet/dry day and NHRA got one and a half qualifying sessions in the can, with the two Pro Stock classes left in the lurch. Sunday was a laugh and the field was set – pending Monday weather – without more than three timed runs on the dragstrip in the books. It was strange – can’t remember the last time the Big Go was rained out.

Had NHRA gone ahead and run eliminations, starting around 3PM on Monday, some big names would not have been in the show. Guys like champion Funny Car driver Robert Hight and two-time champ Cruz Pedregon, one leading the Countdown to the Championship and the other working to get in. Larry Morgan, who was eighth in Pro Stock points coming into Indy failed to go quick enough to qualify over the weekend.

All three of these guys get another opportunity next Saturday – if the weather holds. So do Tommy Johnson, Cory McClenathan, Terry McMillen and Hilary Will in Top Fuel. Last year’s Pro Stock champ at this race, Greg Stanfield couldn’t make the field as it stands, joining Morgan and Kurt Johnson as those still trying to get into Pro Stock. Former Pro Stock Motorcycle Indy champ Steve Johnson and class stalwart Michael Phillips are still on the outside looking in.

All of this should make qualifying – if it happens – next Saturday even more interesting, as should the results of Pro Mod, which ran a single session on Friday and never had the chance to get back on-track. In that group, the sole name driver still on the outside looking in is Leah Pruett, who drives for Roger Burgess’ R2B2 Racing.

While we’re talking about the “have-nots”, let’s also look at the top qualifiers that were ready to go out as No. 1 qualifiers. Spencer Massey who won the Traxxas Top Fuel shootout against three-time 2012 winner Steve Torrence, set a mark at 3.762 at 324.51 to beat teammate Tony Schumacher’s former top ET/speed of 3.772/326.79 in the enclosed cockpit Don Schumacher Racing car.

How about Courtney Force in Funny Car? Her Traxxas Ford Mustang made the F/C  shootout on a fan vote and she turned the best ET and track record speed of 4.049/317.27 to knock Jack Beckman’s 4.051/302.62 from the preferred perch. She’s got mixed emotions, hoping brother-in-law Robert Hight makes the field and being ready to go – but having to wait nearly a week – to try for her second Wally trophy in a rookie season.

Erica Enders, easily the hottest driver in Pro Stock with three victories to her credit in a Chevy Cobalt – and the first woman to win in the category – holds the top spot at the moment, and has led qualifying since the track opened. Her 6.624/208.84 bested the Dodge Avenger of Vincent Nobile at 6.631/208.78 in the hotly contested Pro Stock category. Series point leader Allen Johnson is third in his Mopar Avenger.

In Pro Stock Motorcyce, it’s the customary Harley-Davidson V-Rod versus Buell battle. This time Andrew Hines took over the No. 1 position with his 6.928/194.21-pass on the newly painted H-D to beat Hector Arana Jr’s pass of 6932/189.86 (fastest on Friday with his Buell) to No. 1.

Now coming on 9PM after an afternoon of mostly sunshine – with a scattered sprinkle here and there – I’m wondering if NHRA made the right decision by canceling so early… could they have run starting at 3PM and gone to 8-9 (as they did for qualifying)? Unfortunately, we’ll never know but it turned out to be a beautiful afternoon – albeit one without racing.

Whether the “Big Go” will play out next weekend is up to the weather gods and no one else. This would be a last-chance opportunity because the following weekend, the NHRA races at Charlotte’s zMas Dragway, using two of the four lanes. Be fascinating to see how it all plays out.

By Anne Proffit

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