Author: Littlefield, Brad
Date published: July 30, 2010
Sean O'Bannon and his Forest River RV team didn't make plans to go to the NHRA Northwest Nationals until one week before the event, and the decision proved fruitful as they scored their third win in their last five national event starts. What should have been a raucous celebration was a subdued, business-like, and respectful departure from the race after O'Bannon, like everyone else in the alcohol pits, was rocked by the news of Mark Niver's passing during the event.
"Jeff [Lirones, crew chief] gave me a great race car, and I just tried to make it through the day," said O'Bannon. "It's nice to win, but I lost my friend. It makes it tough, so we just took it for a quiet win. There was no cheering or celebrating when we got back. The guys just patted each other on the back and loaded the car up to take it somewhere else."
O'Bannon qualified No. 5 as the team adjusted to the great air conditions after running in places like Topeka and Fallon, Nev., in previous outings. He ran a great 5.60 in the first round, earning lane choice over second-round opponent John Lombardo Jr., who made the next-best run of the round with a 5.61. O'Bannon stepped up even more with a 5.57 in round two to fend off Lombardo's quick 5.63.
The inevitable O'Bannon vs. Doug Gordon matchup at a West Coast event occurred in the semifinals. Gordon was particularly outstanding on the Tree with a .006 light, but his car fell off when the clippard valve failed to activate the high-speed fuel leanout timers on the MB Cabinets entry. O'Bannon had to prepare for a final-round battle with Steve Gasparrelli after hearing about Niver.
"I thought about Mark a lot and went through the debate of what he would and wouldn't want us to do," said O'Bannon. "At a certain point, enough people came over and said that Mark would want us to go racing. I tried to put my game face on and block out as much as I possibly could."
That wasn't the only emotional factor in play during the final round. Many were in support of Gasparrelli because he was joined at the track by his father, Lou, a bona fide West Coast alcohol racing legend who has been battling cancer for years. Lou had been unable to attend any events since the start of the Division 7 race in Phoenix in February, but he and wife Vickie got on a flight to Seattle after he went through radiation treatments on Friday.
"With Louie and Steve out there, it was hard to even sit in my car and not think that you wanted to see them win," said O'Bannon.
Gasparrelli got a big holeshot and ran a game 5.65, but O'Bannon ran him down with an outstanding 5.58 in a close win. O'Bannon's third victory in this class matches his three career wins in Top Alcohol Dragster.
"I didn't drive the best, but I happened to have the best race car, and it pulled me through," said O'Bannon. "I went to Niver's pit on Sunday after we won and gave Tanis [Niver, Mark's wife] the trophy for our deal. It broke my heart. They've been around for so long that it will be hard not to see Mark with his gold can beer at the end of the day. It's a tough, tough deal."
The key race: "Doug Gordon is always the key race with us," said O'Bannon. "He'sdefinitely one of the most intense competitors on the West Coast, and getting past him is always very, very tough for us."
The runner-up: Gasparrelli is due to score his first win since his Topeka triumph in 2006. His Entro Component Solutions entry has been running hard this season after some initial growing pains early on when he began calling the tuning shots for the first time in his career, albeit with good support around him, including Bob Miner and his uncle, Michael.
Fast facts: Oregon native Jeff Ashwell made his first national event start of the season with support from NAPA and Walery's Pizza, which also helped sponsor Funny Car racers Grant Downing and Matt Hagan. ... Ken Webster's semifinal finish in the SynOil Fluids entry was his best national event effort since the 2009 Kragen O'Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals.
Did you know: Gordon, like fellow Division 7 racer Chris Demke in Top Alcohol Dragster in Houston and Las Vegas this season, followed his first career No. 1 qualifying position with a second consecutive effort.
Quotable: "We decided to go to Seattle the week before. We looked at the car count and said, 'We should probably go.' It was a lastminute choice for us, but it turned out to be a good one." - Sean O'Bannon ND