The NHRA Top Fuel class puts on a stunning performance display Saturday, and Funny Car contender Jack Beckman goes for both ends of his class' national record at the Auto-Plus Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway, near Reading, Pa. Eliminations Sunday promise to be equally dramatic with more rain forecast and cool temperatures that could see the points dynamics change in this fourth of six Countdown races.
In nearly half a century, Maple Grove Raceway has built a reputation for spectacular drag-racing performances. Racers know when they come here each cool, crisp fall that they have a chance to light the scoreboard with some eye-popping elapsed times and speeds -- some worth an extra round of racing points.
Saturday's Top Fuel qualifying for the Auto-Plus NHRA Nationals produced one outstanding display of speed after another -- with some curious surprises.
To understand the pattern at this racetrack tucked into the rolling hills of southeastern Pennsylvania, it might be helpful to think about the nearby town of Reading and its own renown as "The Pretzel City" because it headquarters several pretzel bakeries. Think of the pretzel -- delicious but twisted. That's like the action sometimes at Maple Grove.
For example, Del Worsham blasted to the Top Fuel national E.T. record in the final round here last season -- and lost. So far this year, the pattern has continued leading up to Sunday's eliminations.
Funny Car's Jack Beckman ended qualifying for this year's pivotal Countdown event with a deposit on a national record and 20 crucial bonus points. But the other nitro-fueled class saw its share of scrumptious passes that came with a disappointing aftertaste:
- Morgan Lucas set the Top Fuel national elapsed-time record but qualified second. - Dave Grubnic qualified first with a quicker E.T. -- one that tied the quickest ever in Top Fuel history -- but isn't sitting on a national record that's worth 20 precious bonus points.
- Doug Kalitta ran alongside teammate Grubnic and posted the sixth quickest and second fastest in the history of Top Fuel but will start Sunday's eliminations from the No. 4 position.
Grubnic drove Kalitta Motorsports' Rocky Boots Dragster to the top spot with a 3.728-second, 327.11-mph pass that tied the quickest pass in the history of Top Fuel. It matched Spencer Massey's 3.728-second run this June at Englishtown, N.J. Grubnic's time is the Maple Grove Raceway record.
Lucas' 3.733-second pass at 330.96 mph eclipsed Worsham's national-record run of 3.735 last year at Maple Grove Raceway. The 3.760-second, 326.95-mph run he used to take the provisional No. 1 spot Friday night is within the mandated one percent required to validate the record. However, he will start No. 2 in Sunday's eliminations.
Grubnic ran a quicker 3.728-second lap at 327.11 mph to take the No. 1 position in flurry of record-setting runs. However, Grubnic still hasn't made a run that backs up his mark as the record.
Lucas, deferring to the seemingly confusing NHRA math, said, "Even if it's just for a night, we're the national record holders. All Grubnic has to do is make a run similar to what he did today. But right now that record is ours. I never fathomed actually holding the national record at this level of the sport. I can't tell you how proud of the team I am. This is too cool and a testament to the work the guys are putting into the GEICO car."
Kalitta, Grubnic's teammate, clocked a 3.739-second E.T. at 331.45 mph in the Kalitta Air Dragster to record the sixth quickest and second fastest in the history of Top Fuel. Only Massey, with his 332.18-mph blast at this year's Four-Wide race at Charlotte, has gone faster. Only at Reading, only on a weekend like this one, Kalitta will start no higher than fourth on the grid.
No. 6 qualifier Brandon Bernstein felt it, too. He said his 3.758-second run in Saturday's early session in the ProtectTheHarvest.com/MATV Dragster gave him "such a tremendous rush to make a pass like that one." He said of his own sixth-place qualifying position, "Sixth place with a 3.75, that's just crazy. But we know where we need to be and where we need to go from there. I know my crew chief Joe [Barlam] can tune it any direction we need to go."
In Funny Car, Beckman set pending national records for elapsed time (3.989 seconds) and speed (320.58 mph), and followed up on Saturday with runs of 4.001 and 4.011 that validate the E.T. mark. NHRA rules dictate that Beckman had to run within one percent of his Friday time of 3.989, which he did on his first run Saturday.
The record is not official until the event is concluded. If no driver trumps Beckman's effort Sunday, the record will be his. The E.T. record is worth 20 bonus points. Beckman also can claim the national speed record, but the NHRA does not award any points for that distinction.
He's going after the current E.T. record that Don Schumacher Racing teammate Matt Hagan set at 3.995 last September at Charlotte. Beckman already owns the national speed record at 318.99 mph, which also established last fall at Charlotte.
Beckman called his feat "stunning" and said, "Maybe the most telling thing was after the third session. We had to run a 4.02 to back up our Friday E.T. of 3.98 for the record, and we ran 4-flat (4.001) and our guys were disappointed.
"I love that, because it shows that our expectations are so high right now and they want this car to be flawless," he said. "With nitro it's tough to be flawless. We're still leaving some things on the table and we're running phenomenally. \"
Crew chief Todd Smith said of the Schumacher Electric/Valvoline Dodge Charger team, "We came in here with the thought process that if the weather and the track cooperated we needed to do well. It's business as usual for us to go for the throat every time.
"The E.T. record, quite honestly, doesn't surprise me because the Reading track is so good," he said. "The cars always run really good here. It's amazing to me that it was us who did it. That is amazing."
This facility that opened in 1962 as Maple Grove Drag-O-Way, has been the scene of broken barriers in all pro classes. Joe Amato and Shirley Muldowney made the first side-by-side four-second Top Fuel pass at the 1989 NHRA Keystone Nationals. In the 1994 edition, Mike Dunn and Blaine Johnson shared the first side-by-side Top Fuel pass in which both drivers break the 300-mph barrier. It has been touched by legends and, today, legends in the making.
And Sunday's battles, which pit the racers against the forecasted rain showers as much as each other, promise to add to the lore.
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