Author: Burgess, Phil
Date published: May 27, 2011
Atlanta 2011 will be etched in my mind as Exhibit A for not ever believing the weather forecast, and I'm definitely happy that the weather guessers got it wrong (mostly) for the 31st annual Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Southern Nationals.
As we boarded the plane to wing our way east Thursday morning, the forecast was for 70 percent chance of rain Saturday and a pretty healthy percentage Friday. Earlier in the week, Sunday even had a pretty fair chance of rain. With the Topeka event the following weekend, Atlanta had disaster written all over it, as in come-back-in-a-few-weeks disaster.
Well, other than a 20-minute delay from a spritz before Friday's first NHRA Full Throttle session and separate 90- and 20-minute downtimes Saturday, we were weather blessed, which is saying something if you've ever been to the event. Friday was an absolute Hot-lanta kind of day - temps near 90 degrees with high humidity - that left me soaked after just a full lap of the pits. Saturday was cold and cloudy, and Sunday proved to be Goldilocks (just right) weather, and it showed in the performances, especially in Pro Stock. We were done by 4:30 p.m., a far cry from some of the event's historic late finishes. Despite the wildly varying weather, track prep by the NHRA Safety Safari presented by AAA was lauded by all of the racers.
As you can read throughout this issue, there was a lot going on in Atlanta. Antron Brown beat Tony Schumacher in a rematch of their 2008 Atlanta final, which was Brown's first Top Fuel win, and in the process, he kept "the Sarge" winless at Atlanta Dragway, the only venue on the tour where Schumacher has not won. (Schumacher did win the pull-up contest with Full Throttle TV's Abby Tubbs Saturday; he was "Army Strong" with an effortless dozen, and she had quite a few less.)
Schumacher, who had earlier beaten decadelong rival Larry Dixon in the latest rubber match of their long rivalry - going ahead 37-36 on the scoresheet - took it all in stride. "We're not going to dwell on this by any means, and, to be perfectly honest, it's really not that important in the grand scheme of things," said Schumacher. But Brown, ever the good sport, said, "I told him I'd trade him an Atlanta trophy for 30 of his Wallys." No takers there.
You have to imagine that Aaron's, the newest sponsor for the Don Schumacher Racing organization, has to be pretty happy with its involvement. Brown won in its colors in Las Vegas, and Jack Beckman has scored twice, in Charlotte and Atlanta. The company's Lucky Dog mascot was high-fiving fans in the winner's circle with good reason.
The DSR double-up was the 24th for the organization, and two of those are actually triples from when it also had Pro Stock Motorcycles on the team.
Despite Schumacher's near miss, there were a lot of firsts in Atlanta: Jason Line got his first Atlanta win after two previous runner-ups; LE Tonglet got his first win of the season and broke the Harley team's two-race monopoly; Shawn Langdon handed Top Fuel points leader Del Worsham his first first-round loss of the season; local favorite Bob Vandergriff Jr. got his first round-win since the 2009 Memphis, Tenn., event; Terry McMillen made his first NHRA semifinal appearance in Top Fuel after defeating Vandergriff in round two; after missing the field at the season's first five races, Melanie Troxel, who was runner-up at this event in Top Fuel in 2006, qualified in Funny Car for the first time this season; and Robert Patrick qualified for Pro Stock for the first time ever with his Mustang and made an NHRA field for the first time since the end of the 2002 season.
Qualifying was also a show unto itself. The big news, of course, was John Force setting low e.t., breaking daughter Ashley Force Hood's 4.073 track record with a 4.072 and tying Warren Johnson at the top of the NHRA record sheets with his 138th No. 1 qualifying effort.
Spencer Massey collected his second Top Fuel pole at the place where he scored his first in 2009 with a still-standing track record of 3.820. Atlanta has been good to the 2009 rookie of the year; he won in Top Alcohol Dragster in 2007 and 2008 and was runner-up in Top Fuel in 2009.
Two-time world champ Cruz Pedregon's No. 4 qualifying effort in his Snap-on Toyota extended his streak of top-six qualifying efforts to 17. McMillen, who had just two DNQs last year in his first full season on the tour, almost got his first in 2011, but he fired off a 3.965 in his Richard Hartman-tuned Amalie Oil/UNOH dragster to go from No. 20 into the field on his last pass. "Nerves are shot, but it's all good," he tweeted after his successful last-gasp attempt.
Ronnie Humphrey, the surprise No. 1 qualifier in Pro Stock two weeks ago in Houston, gambled on the weather and skipped Friday's two qualifying passes to watch his daughter graduate from the University of North Carolina. The weather held, and he powered his Genuine Hotrod Hardware Pontiac to a 6.665 to make the field.
The celebrity factor also was high in Atlanta and included NASCAR great and Georgia hero Bill Elliott ("Awesome Bill from Dawsonville"), who was attending his first drag race in 15 years and marveled at how much the cars had changed in that time, and Grey's Anatomy television star Jesse Williams (Dr. Jackson Avery), who was attending his first NHRA race. Williams, a Chicago Bulls fan who was a guest at the Atlanta NBA playoff game the night before to see them eliminate the Hawks, got a tour of the starting line for an NHRA Full Throttle experience between Top Fuelers during the first session with his fiancée, Aryn Drake-Lee, and he later tweeted, "So loud, insane vibrations, smoke, and heat!" Also on hand was Robin Broidy, producer of the upcoming Snake and Mongoose feature film, who was gathering more information and talking with NHRA sponsors about possible inclusion in the film.
As you can read in Bits from the Pits, more than $10,000 was raised at the event for disaster relief for the Red Cross to aid Southeast residents affected by late April's tornadoes. As noted here last week, Steve Johnson was flying the Red Cross colors on his Suzuki and was working the PA system to ask fans to donate towards the $10,000 goal at the booths set up in the pits.
Come late Sunday, the collection was up around $9,500, but during a starting-line interview with Johnson, announcer Alan Reinhart stopped to "take" a cellphone call and announced that event sponsor Summit Racing Equipment had just pledged $500 to take the number over the top.
Pardon the interruption in my weekly Pure Nostalgia series, chronicling the early years of NHRA. I should have had 1968 up for you this week, but travel to Atlanta and other factors forced me to postpone it a week. If you hadn't figured out by now, with only 48 issues, I wasn't going to get through all 60 years anyway this year, but because the last decade or so is still pretty fresh in everyone's minds, I'll probably cut it off somewhere in the 1990s. Maybe at '99?
In the meantime, you can get an interesting nostalgia fix by checking out the NHRA Hot Rod Heritage Racing Series coverage on page 58 from Firebird Raceway's recent Ignitor event. The advent of the Nostalgia Funny Car has brought a lot of old 1970s heroes back out to show they still have what it takes. You can see Northwest ace Twig Zeigler (whose car was a recent Hot Shots selection) back behind the wheel, and Roger Garten back in the saddle of his Iron Horse Mustang. You can also see a shot of Gary Densham's Teachers Pet entry (albeit with son Steve at the butterfly instead of Gary). If you squint your eyes just slightly, you'd swear you were looking at a 1970s issue of DRAGSTER. Too cool.