Race day at the 54th Annual Circle K NHRA Winternationals started off with much fanfare, as thousands of fans were given the opportunity to walk the track with the 2013 drag racing season champions. The reigning Top Fuel champion, Shawn Langdon was joined by Funny Car champ John Force, Pro Stock champion Jeg Coughlin and Pro stock motorcycle rider Matt Smith as they took the fans on a magical tour down the famous track, explaining what it takes to get their respective high horsepowered race cars quickly and efficiently down the track. It was a great opportunity for the fans, young and old alike, to get up close and personal with four champions. For the kids, it was like a dream, especially when you have the ever popular 16-time champion, John Force in the mix.
As the opening ceremonies were completed with a fantastic rendition of the star spangled banner, the first pair of top fuel car were fired up under what appeared to be very gloomy overcast skies. The clouds looked to be so low that you could almost touch them and seemed to be ready drop heavy rain at a moment’s notice. It was hard not to wonder if the weather predictions, stating mostly sunny with some clouds, was an aberration. But these were not the clouds or rain, but were the clouds of deception, bringing forth amazing performance conditions that would reap tremendous performance results for some teams and upsets to others.
The first pair of cars featured 7-time top fuel champion, Tony “the Sarge” Schumacher and Khalid alBalooshi squaring off in a battle of heavyweights. Both teams uncharacteristically struggled in qualifying resulting in their mid-pack 7th and 10th qualifying positions. Though he was the “slower” qualified car, Schumacher was still favored as he was, after all, a 7-time top fuel champion. As the starting light flashed from yellow to green, he took a 0.052 to 0.075 reaction time advantage and looked to be headed to victory. Such was not the case, as alBalooshi and the Ala-Nabi Racing dragster drove around the US Army dragster just before the finish line to take an opening 3.76 at 324.20 mph to 3.847 at 321.50 mph win.
Brittany Force, one of the daughters of funny car champion John Force saw her day come to an end come at the hands of rookie driver Richie Crampton. Force had qualified in 8th position with a 3.778 and Crampton in the 9th position with 3.786. Crampton has taken over the driving duties of the Geico top fuel dragster from Morgan Lucas, as the latter has taken a break from driving to focus on his family (wife and newborn) and the family business (Lucas Oil Products). Crampton showed he was not to be taken lightly, taking a 0.065 to 0.081 starting line advantage and stretching it to a 3.747 at 322.88 mph for the round win, as Force’s dragster lost traction and ran a 4.617 at 279.50 mph. Doug Kalitta and his MAC Tools dragster, out of the legendary Connie Kalitta racing stables, looked to be the car to beat in the category. After taking the number one qualifying spot with a track record 3.713 at 328.86 mph effort, he marched his way to the final round on the basis of a string on 3.7 times slips. On the other side of the elimination ladder, alBalooshi was also “coming alive” and gaining strength, following his first round defeat of Schumacher. He then marched into a final round match up with Kalitta on the basis of consistent 3.7 second runs. The final round would feature the events two quickest and fastest cars in the class, Kalitta (the number 1 qualifier) and alBalooshi (the number 7 qualifier). Kalitta would get the starting line advantage on alBalooshi (0.053 to 0.1012) but the track would not hold the horse power, as his car went up in tire smoke. His opponent also had similar problems and both drivers attempted to work the throttles in an effort to regain traction. Kalitta was not able to get his car to recover and watched alBalooshi take the win light with a 3.974 at 324.36 mph to 5.368 at 143.40 mph.
While Top Fuel was exciting, Funny Car was not to be outdone.
Since his horrific accident in 2007 (the same year his young driver from Oakdale, Eric Medlen, lost his life in a testing accident), Funny Car driver John Force, at age 64, has been on a physical fitness regimen (along with his pursuance of safety improvements, with help from John Medlen) that has him as fit as a 24 year old. Force marched through elimination into the final round on the basis of a 3.989, 4.02 and 4.025 elapse times. He held the low elapse time in every round, except the first, when his teammate (and son in law) Robert Hight ran a 3.986 elapse time. Finals opponent Matt Hagan was no slouch, as he took out the popular Courtney Force and the Traxxes Ford Mustang in the opening round, then took out Hight with a better reaction time and strung up his third consecutive 4.03 second run by taking out Del Worscham in the semi-final round. Both he and Force also had better reaction times than each of their opponents each round. When the two Funny Car “gladiators” met in the final round, it would be a re-match of the final at the 2013 season ending event at this same track. They both were sitting in the exact same lanes at almost the exact same time of day. As they performed their important staging procedures, creeping into the staging beams, the near capacity crowd was on its feet. The Christmas tree starting lights flashed from yellow to green and they both thundered down track. But, this was Force’s day, Force’s time, Force’s race. At 60 feet out Hagan, who had cut a 0.025 (almost unbelievable) to 0.087 reaction time advantage over Force, started to lose traction. At that point, Force sped by and blistered down the race track, resetting the elapse time record (again) to 3.965 seconds, nearly matching his speed record with a 323.58 mph top end speed.
Pro Stock also featured a couple of upsets along the way to the final round. Allen Johnson, the 2012 champion, was taken out in the first round when he was uncharacteristically late on the starting line. Jeg Coughlin, the 2013 champion, was taken out in the second round by defending event winner Vince Nobile. The final round saw V. Gaines (the 7th qualifier) squared off against Jason Line (3rd qualifier). Both drivers utilized dominating 6.5 second performances to battle their way through their respective sides of the elimination ladder for their final round match up. Both drivers virtually left the starting line together with Line getting to the finish line first with a 6.526 at 212.06 mph to 6.533 at 212.56 mph for the victory.
The 2014 season looks to be a very competitive and powerful season, one that is just getting started.