The 52nd Annual NHRA O’Reilly Auto Parts Winter Nationals felt some of the wrath of Mother Nature, with the final session of qualifying on Saturday, Feb. 11 being washed out by rain. The rain lightened up overnight, decreasing to a minor drizzle early Sunday morning. This caused a minor delay to the start of Sunday’s final eliminations. Once the rain stopped, the overcast with minor bursts of blue sky and sunshine provided for some highly optimal weather conditions, improving the performance of the racecars. Race teams took advantage of these optimal conditions and turned up the wick, giving the fans some unparalleled on-track performances.
Throughout the event, there were near record performances in all categories and a couple of wild mishaps. During the first round of the Top Alcohol Dragster eliminations, Mike Austin had his car suddenly veer sideways at close to 180 mph, then becoming airborne. His car then flew over the guard wall at around 150 mph and tumbled down the safety lane adjacent to the racetrack. Due to the stringent safety requirements and innovations on these racecars, he received no injuries. In another incident, two popular funny car drivers collided, nose to tail, as they went down the racetrack. Popular driver “Fast Jack” Beckman had just passed retired school teacher, Gary Densham at near half track, where they were both traveling at around 250 mph, when Beckman’s car suddenly made a move towards the centerline. Before he could make the correction, it crossed directly in front of Densham’s car, causing him to hit the back of Beckman’s car. Once again, great driving skills by both racers and the tremendous safety features on these powerful racecars limited the damage to minor on both vehicles. Neither driver received any injuries, but the fans were treated to some unexpected thrills.
In The Top Fuel category, The Don Schumacher Racing team had three of its team cars facing each other in the semi-final round of eliminations. After defeating the 7-Time Top Fuel Season Champion, Tony Schumacher in the U.S. Army Dragster, the very popular young Spencer Massey in the Fram/Prestone Top Fuel Dragster faced off against the popular Antron Brown in the MATCO Tools/ Aarons Top Fuel Dragster. In defeating Schumacher, Massey ran the fastest speed in history for the 1,000-foot distance with a 3.745-second time and 328.62 miles-per-hour effort. Brown had defeated Morgan Lucas in the Geico/Lucas Oil Top Fuel Dragster, the only non-Team Schumacher Dragster in the semi-final round. Lucas had just come off a very interesting Super Bowl weekend. His family holds the title rights to the Lucas Oil stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana, where the recent NFL Super Bowl was played, taking them from the excitement of NFL Championship football to the thrills of NHRA Championship drag racing in a weeks time. At the flash of green, Brown had the starting line advantage (0.036 to 0.049 reaction time), but Massey made up the difference within 100 feet and then drove to victory with a 3.750 at 325.77 mph to 3.794 at 320.44 mph performance.
In the popular funny car category there were plenty of stories. One of the biggest ones was the first race for the two new rookie woman racers. Alexis DeJoria drove the Tequila Patron Toyota Solara funny car out of the Kallitta racing stable, and qualified 11th in the stout funny car field. The other rookie was Courtney Force. Force qualified 12th in the TRAXXAS Radio Control Race Cars Ford Mustang funny car. DeJoria was taken out in the first round by the 15-time champion, John Force. Courtney Force fared better, getting to the second round, where she lost to John Force Racing teammate, Mike Neff. Force ran her career best 4.143 at 313.88 mph to Neff’s strong 4.070 at 315.49 mph effort. In the final round it was all Team Force, with Neff squaring off against the team patriarch, John Force. John Force came into the final round, with a best elimination round performance effort of 4.12 seconds. Neff entered the final round as the quickest and most consistent car in the class, going 4.073 seconds in the semi-final round to take out Ron Capps in the Napa Dodge. But, John Force didn’t win 15 season titles by “rolling over and playing dead” against cars that were running stronger than his own. That is when he is at his best and this final round would be no different. When the lights flashed to green, Force was away first with a 0.067 to 0.175 second reaction time-advantage. Then he held on for a narrow 30 feet finish line victory margin, winning with a 4.08 at 315.64 mph to a much quicker 4.036 at 316.82 mph effort. Besides winning Funny Car category in dominating fashion, Team Force also made news with the return of Oakdale native, John Medlen, to the fold just a week earlier. Medlen, along with the rest of the John Force racing “tuning brain trust” was instrumental in the team’s dominating performances at this season-opening event.
In the third professional category, Pro Stock, the return of five-time Pro Stock season champion, Jeg Coughlin to competition was a popular one. Coughlin has always been known for his superb starting line prowess, normally gaining the starting line advantage against fellow racers. The Winter Nationals would be no different. Though Coughlin had his race car running strong, it was by no means the quickest car in the class. He used his starting line skills each round to advance, finally reaching the final round where he faced off against four-time Pro Stock season champion, Greg Anderson in the Summit Performance Pontiac GXP. Though Coughlin left first, 0.017 to 0.027 second reaction time advantage, Anderson took the win light with a 6.549 at 210.87 mph to 6.586 at 209.62 mph effort. This event also marked the first time in NHRA history when two women drivers qualified at the same event in the Pro Stock category, with Erica Enders qualifying 13th and Grace Howell qualifying 16th.
Due to the rain delays, many of the sportsman categories will be completed at a later date. When the books close on the 52nd Annual NHRA Winter Nationals, it will go down as one of the most exciting season openers in recent years. Next up is the 28th Annual NHRA Arizona Nationals.