What do you know? That guy does still write “On the Road” for DragRaceResults.com! I know, I apologize, it's been awhile. OK, it's been like, a year. I don't have any good excuse for my failure to provide semi-regular updates here as I have for some 15 years except, well, life happens.
As I tend to do, my first instinct with this column is to wax poetic. Many of you have been reading “On the Road” pretty regularly since I was in my early 20's. I'm 35. I'm not the kid in the staging lanes anymore. And to be honest, I don't have the same content for stories that I used to. The 400,000 mile truck that I used to haul with has been replaced by a series of luxurious Racing RV's toter homes. Two machines that I like to think are candidates for “Best Appearing Car” at any event, my American Race Cars dragster featuring unreal K&N colors from Todd's Extreme Paint and my Racing RV's backed, Charlie Stewart Race Cars built Corvette have replaced the old faithful Vega as the car(s) that people associate me with. I'm still the same guy (and I still have the truck and the Vega), but life and racing have evolved for me. These days I don't often have stories about the wheels running off of my tow vehicle (literally) in downtown Washington DC, or the steering wheel of the Vega catching fire as I stage. Thankfully, my equipment has undergone a massive upgrade. And, for the most part my racing schedule includes events along the NHRA tour and the biggest bracket races (both in terms of purse and prestige) in the nation. I rarely frequent the small 1/8th mile tracks across the country that I basically made a living on for years (at which I met many of you at personally). I'm not saying that I've upgraded; local and regional bracket racing will always be dear to my heart. My point is that it simply doesn't make for as good of a story. My competition and the tales that surround it are more predictable: I've never witnessed a brawl in the staging lanes of a national event. I've never been threatened with disqualification for “sand-bagging” at the Spring Fling. See, it's just not the same as it used to be! And my fear, for your sake as a reader, is that my current racing adventures simply don't make for as entertaining of a story!
Today, I'm a father to Gary; a husband to Jessica; a confidant to few; a representative of K&N, Racing RV's, and our other core partners. My favorite stories center around new things that my 3-year-old says and does, family vacations, and laughter with friends. While those moments mean everything to me, I can't imagine that those stories are as engaging to you as the $2,000-to-win Footbrake race at the country dragstrip 70 miles off the interstate; the one with enough parking for about 47 cars, the track owner who holds court in a driver's meeting from the back steps of the tower prior to eliminations, and the quaint odor of alcohol and weed emanating from the hundreds of 20-year-old pick up trucks backed up to the fence on the spectator side of the track. See, it's just not the same! I guess I'm getting old.
The last time I touched base, I was busy complaining about my lackluster 2015 season. On the heels of back-to-back NHRA national championships, I just could not getting anything going at the beginning of last season. When I wasn't making mistakes, my cars weren't quite good enough to win; and when everything did come together I was running into .00x packages in the other lane with regularity. As most of you know, that all came to a pretty abrupt end shortly after my last column in early August, 2015.
Shortly after that column went up, we won Super Comp at the NHRA national event in Brainerd. When we did, the feeling was more relief than elation. It hadn't been a great year; and I was honestly hoping that I'd get on the board in 2015. A week later, I won at the divisional event in Bowling Green; which was awesome. I was really satisfied to win there; it's arguably the toughest divisional event of the season (100+ cars, right before Indy), and it was my third win at that race. But a part of me thought, “Man, I wasted all my luck at the wrong time. No way you're going to win 3-in-a-row at Indy.”
Then it happened. My ladder was that of typical Indy: I ran bad dude after bad dude for 7 rounds over 4 days of eliminations. But funny thing; seemingly all of those bad dudes made mistakes in the other lane! I was solid, and I'd like to think I would've been tough to beat, but to be perfectly honest I didn't have to beat too many opponents. I had a couple red lights, one opponent who left before the tree, and in the final my opponent ran out of C02 and his air shifter didn't operate. Regardless of how it happened, it did happen. We won Indy!
I was overcome with emotion in the shutdown area (really from about 1,000 feet on, as I knew that I had won the biggest event in our sport). I grew up on my father's stories about Indy. He revered the place and the event, and told tales of swapping engines in the drive-in across the street; rebuilding transmissions in the bathtub of a nearby motel. When he'd tell those stories, I'd be thinking 'Dude, that doesn't sound like much fun to me,' but he'd be grinning from ear to ear in the memory. I stayed away from Indy for the longest time. There were always big buck races on Labor Day weekend, and the thought of essentially spending an entire week at Lucas Oil Raceway Park to compete in a single event always sounded kind of ridiculous. Then in 2012, mainly due to sponsorship obligations, I went for the first time. Although I lost early with both cars, the hook was set. The atmosphere is just unlike any other event. There is an electricity in the air unmatched by any event I've attended short of the Million Dollar Race. I set my mind then to winning Indy, and I've been every year since. As I slowed at the end of the track after the final, all I could think about was my father smiling that prideful smile as he looked down on me. I wish he could have shared that moment with me, Jessica and little Gary, but I know that he was a big, big part of it.
The Indy victory did two things; it provided a huge check on my racing bucket list. Don't get me wrong, coming into 2015 I could have walked away from our sport knowing that I had achieved more than I ever would have imagined possible as a child. I grew up around the sport, and I had big dreams, but I can say honestly that claiming two world championships and making a living in our sport for well over a decade has eclipsed anything I had in mind when this journey began. Even so, I had earmarked three particular events that I would love to win before I hang up my helmet: the JEGS All-Stars, Indy, and the Million. By claiming the All-Stars win in Super Gas earlier in the season, and now Indy, I was able to check off two of the three in 2015 alone. If I didn't win a round the rest of the season, it would still be one that I'd remember for the rest of my days.
The other thing that Indy did was continue this ridiculous streak that was earning me national attention. In the three week swing (Brainerd, Bowling Green, Indy), I had amassed an unheard of 20 consecutive round wins in the ultra-competitive Super Comp category in my K&N Filters dragster. What a run! I had journalists asking if that had ever been done before, and I didn't know the answer. I just knew it was pretty incredible to be the one doing it!
Even more incredible, the streak continued. My next NHRA appearance was a few weeks later, at our home-town national event near St. Louis. There, I once again hoisted the 'Wally,' running the streak to 27 consecutive rounds. At that point, seemingly everyone that I heard from was confident in saying that it had never been done before. We went on to Dallas for our last national event of the season, where I was able to run the streak to 29 rounds before it came to an end in pretty spectacular fashion. At mid-track, alongside Billy Torrence in round three, the rods came out of my trusty 632 in the most violent explosion I've had behind the wheel. Seriously, it felt like the car jumped off of the ground! I could smell the oil as I turned off the track, and I hopped out to see water literally running out the side of my BRODIX Aluminum block into our J&J Engine diaper (which obviously prevented the situation from potentially being far worse). Talk about one extreme to the other! There was very little salvageable from the engine (it broke 14 of the 16 Jesel rocker arms in half!), so I went from 29 consecutive win lights to a $20,000 repair in less than 8.9 seconds!
You'd think that 29 consecutive round wins would make a guy a serious threat for the national championship. That just goes to show how poorly I started the year – I was never in contention. I ended up with a perfect national event score thanks to three victories (I couldn't even count a runner-up from earlier in the season), but with the exception of the Bowling Green win I managed to advance past the second round in divisional competition just once all season! I ended the year ranked 4th in Super Comp, behind champion Kevin Brannon, Mike Shannon, and Tommy Phillips.
The Winter Series
The Dallas explosion created a whirlwind week. I actually raced on Sunday in Dallas before losing in the quarterfinal round of Super Gas with our Racing RV's Corvette. We beelined back home to Illinois, and I spent my Monday removing the engine from the 'vette (which was done for the season), and putting it in my K&N Filters dragster to replace the motor that was no longer in operation. Tuesday, I was able to make a few test laps at I-57 Dragstrip, and Wednesday we were Southbound for Montgomery Motorsports Park and the Million Dollar Race.
My dreams of Million Dollar glory would wait another season, as I was bounced early in the main event yet again. I've been to every 'Million' since my first in 1999, and I've only managed to make it to the split once; when I got down to 7 cars in my Vega in Memphis back in 2008. I've won seemingly every event surrounding the big show (against all the same competition that enters the Million), but I've never had much success in the main event.
Thankfully, the weekend ended on a high note. In Sunday's $25,000 finale I advanced to the final three cars before rain ended the event. We split the money evenly, but I won a pair coin tosses to take home the trophy and the “Happy Gilmore” check!
Jessica and I left the Racing RV's rig at Todd Ewing's house in Alabama and came home for a week before we embarked on the annual winter series. I used to be a November regular, but hadn't made the trip in several years. We decided that we'd only have a few more chances to enjoy long trips like that; once Gary starts school 3 weeks in Florida will not be possible; so we figured we'd go enjoy it while we had the opportunity. And so we went: Valdosta, GA to Bradenton, FL, to West Palm Beach for three weeks of action packed fun in the sun.
In the end, we had about as good a trip as you could have without actually winning a race. In Georgia's three $20,000 races, I advanced the quarterfinals, semi-finals, and final consecutively but never could seal the deal. We didn't have much success in Bradenton; but I advanced to the semi's on day one of Moroso and was still in with five cars remaining in the last event before a downpour that ended our weekend and our season. For a while, I even thought we might survive the marathon without much mechanical trouble; but Jessica spun a rod bearing in the later stages of Moroso. It didn't hurt much, and I began the series with a fresh SR20 632 from Huntsville Engine in my car, so the BRODIX Head Hunter topped 582 from the 'vette got pulled from beneath the bench and called into action again to finish out the season in Jessica's car. The good news? She got to race and went faster than she'd ever been. The bad news? She went faster than she'd ever been. On the ride home, she told me “That 4.60 stuff was pretty fun. Why can't we just leave that motor in my car?” I guess that spun rod bearing was a little bit more expensive than I realized!
The winter series shortened our offseason. Over the last several years, I had become accustomed to a long break from racing: we had been hanging things up after the Million, and not racing again until late April for the most part. This time around, we returned from Florida just before Thanksgiving and had intentions of starting the 2016 season in mid-March. In addition to the typical winter freshen and clean-ups, I had a new K&N Filters backed, American Race Cars dragster to assemble.
Shortly after our season wrapped up, I delivered my '13 dragster to Shawn Anderson in Wisconsin. “Big Block” Shawn bought my previous Super Comp car, and we've become good friends since. In what I think is the ultimate compliment, he was so impressed with our 2009 American Dragster that when I decided to upgrade, he elected to do the same.
On my new pipe, I went just a little over the top. My goal in putting it all together was not to build the nicest dragster I had ever owned, that was a given. My goal was to build the nicest dragster I had ever seen. Whether or not we accomplished that feat is a matter of opinion; but I couldn't be happier with the end result. The chassis was obviously designed and fabricated by American Race Cars. From there, every component (and I mean EVERY component) went to Todd's Extreme Paint. We powdercoated the chassis. We chromed a few pieces here and there; but just about everything received K&N colors courtesy of the staff at Todd's.
Once I got everything home, my job was to assemble the car without beating it up! The engine was the same Huntsville Engine 632 that I finished 2015 with: it features a BRODIX aluminum block and BRODIX SR20 cylinder heads, Manley I-Beam rods, Wiseco Pistons, Crane Cam and lifters, a Milodon wet sump oiling system, Manley Valve Springs, Clark Gaskets, Jesel Rocker Arms, Jesel Belt Drive, and an APD 1250 Max Speed Carburetor burning Renegade 116+ Race Fuel. It's protected by K&N filters (air, oil and fuel), and wrapped in a J&J engine diaper. The cooling system includes a Dedenbear remote water pump, expansion tank, and water header, all plumbed with Earl's ANO-Tuff fittings. Todd and his crew applied the K&N graphics on the valve covers, intake manifold, and several small engine accessories (yea, even the distributor cap).
Todd's also painted the BTE transmission case, which houses a BTE Top Dragster powerglide wrapped around a BTE 10” converter. That power is transferred to a Moser 3rd member (also painted) via a CV Driveshaft (guess what? Painted) from Goethe Enterprises. We leaned on Moser Engineering for the entire rear end assembly: M9 housing (which got paint), 40-spline axles, Pro-Drag Disc brakes. Mickey Thompson 3195 “Big Bubba” slicks are mounted to Weld Delta bead locks couldn't escape Todd's paint gun. An Ohlins TTX-36 shock absorber handles the suspension duties.
In the cockpit (which is all painted... even the damn floorboards) with me resides the new Auto Meter LCD dash/data logger, along with a K&R Pro-Cube Delay box and switch panel, Biondo's new Pro Outlaw shifter, and a Dixie shift solenoid (all... painted). I did the wiring myself, but it was made easy thanks to quality products from K&R and Fastronix Solutions.
What few parts didn't get in the way of Todd's paint gun were either chromed or powdercoated at nearby 2 Boyz Blasting. We even went so far as to install light weight, polished dzus fasteners from Drag Race Solutions! And then of course, we covered up most of Todd's work on the body with vinyl from Accelerated Graphics! If you can't tell, I'm extremely proud of the new whip; and constantly amazed at just how far our program has come.
As usual, the offseason ended in a thrash to get everything finished and together in time for our debut at the DragRaceResults.com Ultimate Series in Huntsville, AL in late March. I actually tested the new car for the first time on Tuesday afternoon at home, then drove all night to Huntsville with it, and my wife Jessica's car in the trailer... Jessica's car didn't have a motor in it.
I spent Wednesday morning installing her 598 in the Huntsville Engine parking lot before heading to the track that evening. After rain on Thursday, my “shake down” runs were the two time trials for my first event of the season: just a $50,000 race! While the new car was arguably the better performer of the two, I didn't have much success in it. Our season did start on a high note, however, as I was able to close the weekend with a $25,000 victory in Jessica's car. What a way to kick things off!
I drove home Saturday night and enjoyed Easter Sunday with the family. By nightfall, we were all on the road; pointed west. Destination, Las Vegas!
After the long drive west, we kicked off our three-week stay in Sin City with the NHRA national event. I lost early in Super Gas, but Dan Fletcher (who we enlisted to drive Jessica's car) and I were both going rounds in Super Comp. Sunday morning, we locked horns in the quarterfinal round, with a semi-final bye run hanging in the balance. Prior to our run, I reminded Dan that in 5 previous meetings (in 3 different categories), his reaction time window beside me had been from .002 to -.002. I half-jokingly told him to back off a bit; that he didn't have to be THAT good to beat me. He was then .001 and .001 under. I was .014 and tried (unsuccessfully I might add) to take the finish line. It didn't work out for me.
The weekend ended in Fletcher's 96th NHRA national event win, and first in Super Comp. It also marked my first win as the husband of the car owner. And it marked the second big victory for Jessica's American Race Cars dragster in as many weeks.
After a trip to Disneyland and a rainy weekend (in the desert... I know, right?) at the NHRA divisional event (which was ultimately postponed until November), our third week in Las Vegas brought the event that we really made the trip for: the Spring Fling Million! There, I was able to get our new K&N dragster into the winner's circle for the first time in Thursday's $20,000 event. 3 bigs wins in 4 weeks!
In the big show, Friday's Million, I felt like I was going to do something special. I had both dragsters still in competition at 25 cars remaining. There, I turned it -.001 red in Jessica's car after advancing my K&N dragster to the round of 13. At 13, I hooked eventual winner Jeff Verdi; so logic can tell you how that turned out! We agreed to a field-wide split at 13 cars, so the loss there actually netted me the exact same amount of money that I'd won after the split the night prior. Hard to be upset financially... Until you start to think about what could have been. At that point, deep in the million, the round I lost was worth $10,000. Every subsequent round? More than that. And then if you really want to agonize yourself, how about that -.001 the round prior. That one cost me $10,000 too. And, if that drops .000 instead, and I hold on to win the round, I'm likely sitting on the bye at 13, which actually makes me an additional $20,000 (with the opportunity for more). For sanity's sake, let's think about the money we won, rather than the money we left on the table!
Many of you know that Jessica and I were expecting; that's the reason I was wheeling her American Race Cars dragster early in the season, and how we got the opportunity to team with Mr. Fletcher for that awesome win in Las Vegas. We found out that Gary was going to have a little brother. We had decided to name him Caden Rayce. Shortly after returning home from Las Vegas, we learned of some complications in the pregnancy. A month of pure hell led up to May 20, when we ultimately lost Caden 4 monoths prior to his due date.
I think it goes without saying; this was the most difficult thing that we have ever been through – individually and as a family. The details are as awful as you can imagine, and intensely personal. The hurt and pain is real. As I write this, we've had nearly 3 months to cope, but I don't think that pain ever truly goes away. We're not the first couple to lose a child, and unfortunately we won't be the last. But that knowledge doesn't make it any easier.
I've never been one to say that “Everything happens for a reason,” I thought those words were bullshit when my father passed away, and I'll stick with it. But I am a believer that we can find strength in any situation, no matter how painful. In this instance, for me, strength comes in perspective. I always loved my son; but I look at him in a different way now. I'm thankful for his health and I truly appreciate every second we spend together. I've been in love with my wife since our first date; but holding each other in our deepest sorrow has brought us closer. She's stronger than I ever imagined, and I love her and respect her more every single day.
Understandably, not only was racing not a priority, it was a complete afterthought for quite some time. When we were ready, we eventually got back to the track on our own terms. Our summer months have seen a few highlights and a few struggles on the race track.
Hot, Rainy Summer
To date, I've raced my beloved Vega just once this season. That's the bad news. The good news? It was a victorious outing, as I won the Footbrake class at our home track, I-57 Dragstrip. Our NHRA season has been less than impressive. Super Gas has been a comedy of errors: I have fought a combination issue all season that's had me questioning what I could run a lot – and that lack of confidence has multiplied driving mistakes on my end. It's mind boggling to me that I can take the same combination that won me the championship in 2014, and have it so screwed up that I can miss the target ET by .06-.08 at any given time in 2016. I'll figure this out, but I'll admit it's got me very confused at the moment.
In Super Comp, I've made pretty solid runs but I've been on the wrong end of it. I lost good races at a couple events, and turned it red once; nothing beyond a 3rd round finish since Las Vegas. Jessica got back behind the wheel in early July and promptly earned her first national event round win in Chicago! That's the only time she's raced this season, so hopefully we can build on that going forward.
Our biggest highlight of the summer came at the second stop of the DragRaceResults.com Ultimate Series at Huntsville Dragway in early July. There, I managed a semi-final finish in Friday's $25,000 event in Jessica's car. In Sunday's $25,000 finale, I actually had both cars in the semi-final. Let me back track one round... I had the bye run at 7 cars in my K&N car. I went out first that round in her car, and got the win with a .002 reaction time. From 8 cars on, pairings are based upon reaction time; on a pro-ladder setup. My .002 was the best reaction time of the round, but the other two winners (I was informed as I climbed into my car for the bye run) were .004 and .005. So, in order to not be paired with myself in the semi-final round, I had to have a green reaction time of .005 or better on my bye run. I was .006!
The bad news, I had to eliminate one entry in the semi-final. The good news? I was guaranteed one in the final! There, I got another break when Cassie Pennington turned it red by the slimmest of margins, giving me the big win. Best I can remember, I had won two $20,000 races in my career prior to 2016. This season, we've already collected a $20,000 win and now a pair of $25,000 victories. To say it's been a good season on the bracket stage would be an understatement! Best yet, most of that success has come within the DragRaceResults.com Ultimate Series, which boasts an incredible points program. We've still got one big weekend left in October, but I'm currently leading the series points with one entry, and sit in the top 10 with the other. In a season in which I've essentially punted on NHRA points (due in part to a lack of success and in part to missing a handful of key events), that series has really become our main focus.
Next up for us? We've got a handful of NHRA races on the horizon: national events in Brainerd, Indy, and St. Louis, along with the division race in Bowling Green. In addition, we'll hit a number of great bracket races before we wrap up 2016. Highlights include that last DRR Ultimate Series event in Huntsville, the Moser Great American Bracket Race, the World Series of Bracket Racing, the Southern Footbrake Challenge, and of course the Million Dollar Race.
I haven't even mentioned the two events that we co-promote with I-57 Dragstrip: the Racing RV's Exclusive 150 and the JEGS Summer Door Car Shootout, because I don't really feel like this is the forum to promote them... But both races were successful in 2016, and I'd like to give thanks to all of you who supported one or both events. We'll work to make them even better in 2017.
And of course, I urge each of you to support the companies whose products and services we depend on and who play such a vital role in our success. That begins with K&N Filters and Racing RV's, and stretches through our team of associate marketing partners: ThisIsBracketRacing.com, American Race Cars, Watts Auto Diesel, Flo-Fast Fluid Transfer Systems, AirTek Pressure Monitoring Systems, RacerSwag, APD, Ellis Trucking, JEGS, BTE, Mickey Thompson Tires, Renegade Racing Fuels, Accelerated Graphics, and Todd's Extreme Paint. And of course each of the manufacturers who develop, produce, and refine the products in and on our cars that we depend on week after week, round after round. We don't run products because they're the best deal: we run products because they're the best products that give us the best chance to win. In a lot of cases, we distribute those products as well.
Thanks as always for reading; I'll try to provide more timely updates in the future (even if they aren't quite as entertaining as the “good 'ole days!”)