Those of you who, like me, have been long time frequent visitors of DragRaceResults.com, may have read my “On The Road” columns for more than a dozen years. This blog of sorts started when I was a 19-year-old college student, reliving my experiences at (and along the way to) the race track. Those of you who have had the… Uh… Pleasure of reading these columns for the last fourteen years have basically watched me grow up, both personally and professionally. There’s nothing cooler than having a conversation or getting a message from a longtime reader and how they feel like they share my successes and failures. When people I hardly know tell me that they’re proud of how far I’ve come and what I’ve accomplished, that’s a pretty indescribable feeling.
2013 was an unforgettable year for me, both personally and professionally. My wife and I welcomed our son into the world in April; nothing will ever top that moment. On the race track, I was able to achieve my lifelong dream of winning the NHRA World Championship. Pretty incredible- a dream season to say the least. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve it, and I realize that this amazing roller coaster has to come to a stop at some point, but it’s safe to say that 2014 felt like an extension of that dream. This weekend my family and I will once again fly to California to accept a second NHRA World Championship, this time in Super Gas. As I type that, sit back and reread it, I still can’t completely comprehend it. Surreal seems like a fitting description.
I swear I’ve had “On the Road” on my “to-do” list for months, but as they say, “Life happens,” and I’ve allowed several other projects to take priority. For those of you who enjoy reading my ramblings and continue to support and cheer on our team, I apologize for the delay in providing an update. Let’s get right to it…
I wrote my last column from the K&N Spring Fling in Bristol back in May. On the race track, that was a pretty forgettable weekend for me. Hot on the heels of a great start to the 2014 season, I arrived at Bristol with my K&N dragster and trusty Vega in tow, but I struggled to gain traction all weekend (I mean that figuratively; not that my cars were spinning the tires). Obviously at this point in my career, my main focus is on NHRA competition; but I made a point this season to bracket race more. I need to be at races like the ‘Fling, the World Footbrake Challenge, the Million, and others from a business standpoint: I see a lot of friends and racers at those events that I won’t see again all season. Beyond that, I felt the need to give myself opportunities to compete against top competition and actually make runs down the race track. In NHRA events, the top competition is there to be sure; but in 14 events driving two cars, I may not make 250 passes all season. At races like the Spring Fling, I could make 50 in a weekend!
I feel like it’s good for me as a driver, because I want to stay sharp. It’s frustrating at times, because I’m admittedly not as sharp as I once was (funny how going from making 1,000 runs a year to 300 will do that), and that shows up more in bracket competition, because I can’t rely as much on equipment, strategy, and experience (all of which I feel are huge assets in .90 competition). At any rate, I got smacked around pretty good at the ‘Fling; but it was good for me. It made me a better racer.
I left Bristol Sunday afternoon, made a quick pit stop at home in Illinois to swap cars, and arrived in Topeka, KS early Thursday evening for the NHRA Kansas Nationals (if you’re looking at a map, stop – it’s not optimal travel planning). The weather in Topeka was treacherous, but we actually managed to get everything finished up on schedule. My K&N teammate Matt Rose whipped me in round 2 of Super Comp, but I managed to keep my hot start alive in Super Gas by knocking off my good buddy Jeff Lopez in the final round to earn the 7th NHRA national event victory of my career. Anytime I get to compete on that stage, it’s an awesome experience; but getting to do so beside a lifelong friend is really cool. I remember sitting on Jeff’s couch and talking to him about racing one another for national championships and event victories. To live that in reality is pretty neat.
After a week off, Jessica, Gary and I headed north to Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, IL for an NHRA Division 3 event. In what would go on to be a yearlong storyline in Super Comp, I lost in the third round by a whopping .001-of-a-second. For all the good fortune that we enjoyed in Super Gas throughout the season, our Super Comp effort came in on the opposite end of the spectrum. In Gas, I got away with mistakes, and all of the coin-flip races that could go either way, well, they went my way all season. In Super Comp, on the other hand, none of them went my way! Chicago was another example of that.
Our Super Gas tear continued, however, as I won a pivotal barn-burner with TJ Coughlin in the final round. In that matchup, I was .006 to TJ’s .014. The weather was crazy, and we were both flying. I ended up winning with a 9.879 to his 9.878. Now, I could pat myself on the back for being .006 and taking .007; that was a good job. But I could’ve just as easily been .007 or taken .008; and that wouldn’t have worked. It all just fell my way, and that was the story of the season.
In fact, the late rounds at Joliet were a microcosm of my entire Super Gas season. On paper, it looks like I was a machine: in six non-bye-run rounds, I was between .014 and .005 on the tree, and seemingly made the right decision every round. That’s perception. Here is reality…
In round 4, I ran Kari Larson. She’s really good. And it’s a really important round: the winner advances to the quarterfinals (where they will race for a bye run to the final), and even though it was early in the season it looked as though her brother Trevor and myself were title contenders – so there’s more riding on it than a typical round. On paper, I’m .007, 9.917. That’s a pretty solid run. In reality, I was setting up behind her because I expected her to hit the brakes. She held it to the floor, and as we hit the finish line, my heart sank: she outfoxed me. My win light came on, because she ran 9.89. That could just as easily been 9.90, like she figured; and I still would have been behind, waiting on the drop.
The next round I ran Richard Kurth, we’re racing for the bye to the final. There, on paper, I’m .005, take .004 to run 9.918. I look like a hero. Here’s how that actually went down… I leave and think “crushed it.” He’s behind me on the stop, and as we kick off I start running away from him. Keep in mind, I run about 167-168 mph in Super Gas trim; most opponents aren’t tracking me down. Well, I immediately think, “He was late or he’s slow.” I give it two good kicks of the throttle right at the 1/8th mile mark. As I do, I hear the second stage of his throttle stop kick back open. Uh oh. Literally, for the next 640 feet, I was back on the floor, wishing that I had nitrous as I watched him creep up to me. I didn’t take .004. I got there first .004. And I made a huge mistake, that somehow didn’t cost me the race. That was the whole season; it looked a lot more impressive on the time slip, or from the stands that it did from the driver’s seat!
After the win in Chicago, we headed back to Bristol for the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals, which would prove to be one of the few setbacks of our season. In the second round of Super Gas, my RacingRV’s Corvette inexplicably broke a pushrod, which cost me the round. Minutes later, in Super Comp, I lost a good race to my close friend and marketing partner Carl Watts in round three.
Todd Ewing helped me tow the Corvette back to the trailer and survey the damage. Needless to say, when I realized that I’d broken a thick-wall 7/16” pushrod in half I feared the worst. In my experience, that’s more the result of a problem than the cause. But as we dug deeper we found no further issues: no broken lifter, no broken rocker arm, just a freak pushrod defect. On one hand, it sucks that it likely cost me a round. On the other, I was so happy that I didn’t have to attempt to revamp that combination that had been so successful early in the season!
Once we returned home, I got to enjoy a weekend away from the NHRA tour, which allowed me to compete in the Vega at I-57 Dragstrip and play crew chief for my wife, Jessica. If you read the last column you know that we built her a new American Race Cars dragster over the winter and she’d been getting her feet wet in the long and skinny car early in the season.
I lost early in the Vega, with a string of not one, not two, but three red lights that totaled a foul of .004. As I said in a Facebook post, the good news is that I don’t back off. The bad news is… That I don’t back off! Thankfully, that was not the story of the night.
In just her sixth competition outing with the new dragster, Jessica drove to victory in Super Pro! I know I’m a little biased, but she didn’t just win either; she kicked everyone’s ass! Her worst light from round three on was .006, and she capped off her performance with a .001, take .001 lap in the final (to be dead-on with a 2)! What a stud! I’m telling you right now, I’ve had the good fortune to win some pretty big races over the course of the last 20 years, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been more excited than I was to see her win light come on in the final round!
The very next weekend our dream season continued with another Super Gas victory, this time at the national event in Joliet. The RacingRV’s Corvette made a clean sweep of the windy city thanks in large part to critical late round wins over Trevor Larson in the semi’s (in retrospect, that may have been the biggest round of our season), and Ray Miller III in the final round. Much like the points meet, on paper I looked like a world beater; in the helmet there was a lot more doubt! Either way, we’ll certainly take it.
July 4th weekend annually brings us to I-57 Dragstrip for their Mega Bucks event, which features a $5,000 winner’s purse in Super Pro. For a while, I really liked our chances to claim that top prize. With 15 cars remaining, I was still in with the Vega, and Jessica had the bye run in her dragster. I won, so we were both down to 8. On her bye run, her car didn’t sound too crisp, and she lit up the scoreboard with a 5.5-something on her 5.18 dial-in. Uh oh!
I figured she had to have either broken a rocker arm or a rocker stud, so I had a spare of each and my valve train box ready as she pulled up to the trailer. Her father and I found the problem (of course, we pulled the wrong valve cover first), and I had the new stud and rocker installed in short order. All we lacked was bolting the valve cover back on as they ran the first pair of quarterfinal round. I told Jack to finish it up, and I hopped into the Vega and made a beeline for the staging lanes. Luckily, they had pulled a potential bye run out, so Jessica and I weren’t the last two cars in line. I told the track crew that Jessica was coming; not to start her 2-minute timer until my pair ran; and I strapped my helmet on. I got cracked that round, but she got the win light in her freshly repaired whip to advance to the semi-finals. Unfortunately, her night ended there, and we went home fairly empty-handed. As you might imagine, she was disappointed, but in the big picture she had won her first race in the dragster and advanced to the 7th round of a big bucks event in back-to-back weeks. That’s nothing to hang your head about!
Next up, we traveled to Bristol, TN for the annual BTE World Footbrake Challenge. Back in what almost feels like another life, the WFC had been really good to me! I was runner-up in the first $50,000-to-win race back at the inaugural WFC, and I’ve been in a handful of finals there since. But I hadn’t been back in several years, and I don’t get to hit the bottom bulb much anymore. Unfortunately, that showed! I lost some really good races throughout the weekend, and the best effort that I managed was a 6th round loss in Sunday’s finale. Although it wasn’t a successful outing, I look at that race much like I do the K&N Spring Fling. The competition at that race forces me to try to do things that I’m not sure I’m capable of. It makes me push the envelope. That makes me a better racer. The results may not have shown up that weekend, but I’m better for making that trip. Plus, I had a lot of fun spending time with friends that I don’t get to see very often!