Saturday, August 30, 2008

The sites and sounds and more at the U.S. Nationals

INDIANAPOLIS – I am at O’Reilly Raceway Park in Indianapolis this weekend for the U.S. Nationals, the biggest National Hot Rod Association drag race of the season.

I’m here because the NHRA makes its first visit to the new zMAX Dragway @ Concord in a couple of weeks and I am trying to both learn enough about drag racing to cover it properly and talk to some of the folks here for stories I’ll be writing before the Carolinas Nationals.

I walked around for a long time Friday and then again on Saturday morning. When I wasn’t talking to people like John Force, Tony Schumacher and Greg Anderson, I’ve been just trying to get a feel for this whole deal.

I keep going back into my mind to one of the first conversations I ever had with one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, Fox Sports chairman David Hill. Somehow we started talking about America’s infatuation with the automobile.

Hill is from Australia, but he has a remarkable understanding of what the car means in our culture. We talked about how getting a car and the legal right to drive it changes an American’s life on a very basic level. When you can get in the car and just go somewhere, that gives you control over your life in a way that cannot be overstated.

And if America is in love with the automobile, then this is Valentine’s Day.

There are, literally, hundreds of cars here to go down the drag strip in one class or competition or another. One sheet I saw Friday listed 778 entries for that day’s qualifying runs. I don’t know if all of them ever got to the starting line, much less the finish line, but I know it seems like there were 7,780 trucks and trailers and flatbeds and haulers and other conveyances parked all around this drag strip to get the cars that did show up here.

Over in the pro pits, Don Schumacher’s mega-team had something like a dozen big-dollar transporters on hand to support all of its cars. Way out in the sportsman pits, dozens upon dozens of people were crawling around on the ground and diving into their engines working, at their own level, with as much passion on trying to win as every professional team on the property.

There’s a big buzz in the NHRA garage about the upcoming visit to the Charlotte area. People who’ve seen the $60 million facility they’ll be racing at have told people who haven’t seen it how nice it’s going to be. One driver told me Saturday that he thinks that by next year – not 10 years from now, but by next year – the Carolina Nationals could be considered as important to do well at as these U.S. Nationals.

That may be a little much – this is the sport’s Daytona 500 – but I think the NHRA is going to really enjoy its first race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

One thing I think fans in the Carolinas are going to love about drag racing is how accessible the drivers are.

Several times each day, most drivers will walk over to the ropes of their work areas and stand talking to and signing autographs for fans. You can stand close enough to see the crews piecing the cars together and, when the engines are being warmed up, you can get a face full of nitro fumes. The back of my throat may be burning for days.

The big news this weekend so far has been that Alan Johnson, the crew chief for four-time defending Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher, is leaving Don Schumacher Racing at season’s end to start his a team that will have one Top Fuel car and one Funny Car in 2009. Alan Johnson Racing will operate in partnership with Al-Anabi Racing, which is owned by His Highness Sheikh Khalid Bin Hamad Al Thani of the nation of Qatar.

Translated to NASCAR terms, this would be very much like Chad Knaus of Jimmie Johnson’s team starting a Sprint Cup operation with backing from the prince of an Arab nation. Needless to say, if that happened in NASCAR I’d be writing more than two paragraphs in a blog about it.

Friday night, the first car that went down the track in Funny Car qualifying was the one owned by Conrad (Connie) Kalitta. Jeff Arend was driving it, but the name above the door still was “SCOTT.” It was the first time Kalitta’s team had brought a Funny Car back to a race since Connie’s son, Scott, was killed in a crash at a race in Englishtown, N.J., earlier this year.

It was a truly moving moment, especially when Arend made a good, solid pass down the track.

Saturday afternoon, during a round of Super Gas or Super Alcohol or Super Comp or Super Something (I told you I was just learning this), somehow a foam block on the center line at the finish line got knocked out of the way. This left the electric eye beams in both lanes that turn the clock off at the end of the track staring right at each other, basically messing up the whole timing system.

So one entire round of one class and part of round in another class had to be wiped out and rescheduled for later in the day. The NHRA reshuffled the schedule and everybody just dealt with it as best they could.

In NASCAR, that kind of snafu would have ignited hours or arguments and discussions at the track and days of speculation about grand conspiracies afterward. Lots of people would have been convinced NASCAR did it on purpose to help – or to hurt – Dale Earnhardt Jr.


Mike Hutton said...

Nice job David. Hope you enjoy the rest of your weekend in Clermont. If you get a chance and just want a great meal, go up SR267 into Brownsbug (10 min from ORP) and get to the Green Street Cafe. It's on the east side of the road right next to a Kroger store. The breaded pork tenderloin is the way to go, and the atmosphere (30+ years of Indy 500 and NASCAR stuff) ain't bad either.

Anonymous said...

Oh, lord. Once them Quataris get a foot in the door, there goes the neighborhood.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading David's comments. Not sure if it's his first drag race but I would love to seen David's "reaction" to the hit of a fuel car's throttle at the starting line. I have seen people jump out of their skin at that first hit. Words can't describe that sound. Enjoy it David. No provisionals, only the fastest cars will race. Nascar should do the same.

Unknown said...

So, David Poole is a neophite in the pits of an NHRA event. I know you will enjoy the experience. One of the best parts of attending an NHRA event for a fan is that EVERY ticket is a pit pass. NASCAR has nothing on the NHRA for fan access to its stars.

Anonymous said...

Great column David. The more I watch NHRA, the less attractive NASCAR becomes. NHRA has their act together so they can deal with SNAFUs, they don't change the rules every week, and the announcers cover the racing a 100 times better than NASCAR TV announcers. One of the highlights of this week was the interview with Don Prudhomme, J.Force, and W. Johnson...priceless.

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