Resurgent Lucas changes Top Fuel dynamics

Morgan Lucas shares his thrill of winning the Tire Kingdom Gatornationals with fiancee Katie Pallone at Gainesville, Fla., Monday, March 12. He said her enthusiasm is "turning this into that much more of a family effort." (Photo By Ron Lewis)

Morgan Lucas has driven in the National Hot Rod Association's Top Fuel class since 2004, but these past few days at the Tire Kingdom Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla., represented his coming-out party.

For all the challenging, awkward, and sometimes sad steps in his journey, he said he "wouldn't want to start all over again. The growing pains have got us where we're at, and some of the growing pains have helped me learn the things I've needed to learn. If we had had a well-oiled machine from the get-go, I might have learned a few other things about the business. But the true core values I wouldn't have learned."

At age 28, the GEICO/Lucas Oil Dragster driver still is the youngest in the NHRA headliner class.

"By no means am I where I need to be yet," Lucas said, "but I'm a whole lot closer to it than I used to be. I've been to hell and back."

However, with his supreme, record-setting performance in qualifying No. 1 and winning this 43-year-old NHRA classic for the first time, everything has been heavenly. He arrived in Florida still floating from his recent engagement to longtime girlfriend Katie Pallone and at the racetrack still buoyed by leading the field and reaching the semifinals at the season-opener at Pomona, Calif.

Lucas was top qualifier at Auto-Plus Raceway at Gainesville. He got a truly lucky break in the opening round of eliminations. He set the track elapsed-time record and continued to lower it throughout the event, driving the GEICO/Lucas Oil Dragster like a bracket car with consistent 3.7-second passes.

And in the final round, he recorded the second-quickest elapsed time in Top Fuel history -- 3.743 seconds at 326.87 mph -- to extend opponent Tony Schumacher's winless streak in the U.S. Army Dragster to 26 events.

In earning his career fifth victory, Lucas improved from fourth place to second in the standings (behind Schumacher).

His engagement already made him feel like one lucky man, and it was evident he genuinely was with his improbable first-round victory. In that one, he took advantage of Brady Kalivoda's tire smoke at the first hit of the throttle and won in spite of himself, as his parachute dropped out accidentally and he dragged it down the right lane for an ugly but vital 4.694-second, 173.12-mph victory.

Against Lucas, seven-time champion Schumacher smoked the tires in his second consecutive final-round appearance and finished with an uncharacteristic 5.289, 139.63 showing. Had he won, he would have passed both "Big Daddy" Don Garlits and Larry Dixon and emerged as the most successful dragster driver at this traditional East Coast opener.

Instead, Lucas joined Robert Hight (Funny Car), Mike Edwards (Pro Stock), and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) in the winners circle.

"I can honestly say everybody on our team is extremely competitive. But at the same time, I think they're extremely graceful when it comes to losing and taking the downturns in stride," Lucas said.

Lucas was emphasizing the "graceful" part, but they had had enough of that. This was their time to shine. They could be just as graceful in winning. That shift in Top Fuel dynamics, Lucas said, largely came with the arrival of crew chiefs Aaron Brooks and Rod Centorbi.

"I think we finally got this really good chemistry going with our addition of Aaron Brooks and Rod Centorbi," the team manager/driver said. "I think it rejuvenates the whole program. And everybody's excited."

"What I love about Aaron," Lucas said, "is that he's not afraid to be aggressive. I never had a crew chief that thought like that. He like cautious-aggressive. He thinks about things in a really practical way. It's nice having a crew chief that's close to your age.

"So I think all the things we have right now are really putting us in a really good direction," he said. "You have to ride the wave while it's up, because it's not always going to be up. You can't count on everything going smooth. Right now my confidence is sky-high."

As for the parachute faux-pas, he said, "For the guys to recover the way they did this weekend, I'm so impressed."

He said, "There's probably not a single person more excited than my fiancée, Katie. She's just jumping up and down and she couldn't be happy enough for everybody. It's really exciting to be turning this into that much more of a family effort."

Lucas seems to excel at races plagued by rain. His 2009 Memphis victory also finished Monday because of a rain delay. His other three victories – last year's Winternationals at Pomona and his 2009 victories at Atlanta and Brainerd – also came after lengthy weather delays.

"I would love to win one of these in a normal situation," Lucas said. "But we don't care when we put these trophies on our shelves how we get 'em. We just like to get 'em and know that we worked hard to get there."

Schumacher, with a lineup of dangerous opponents in Terry McMillen, Antron Brown, and Shawn Langdon, was impressive.

"I've been beaten by Tony in the finals before, and I've beaten Tony in the finals before," Lucas said. "When you race a guy like that -- he's such a class act -- you get more geared up just to do the right thing and do the job. They've been awesome. They've been going rounds. The guy's No. 1 in points, so that's for a reason. That's for his consistency."

Lucas remembered buddy Eric Medlen, who lost his life in Gainesville five years ago this month, following a Monday testing crash that has sparked safety improvements in racing.

"At the top end, I dedicated this race to Eric," Lucas said. "I've always wanted to win one and dedicate it to him. It's almost too coincidental. Something like this, winning here on Monday, it's almost too coincidental. It's really special to me to have this trophy on our shelf at home. To be able to honor him and John and (stepmother) Martha and (mother) Mimi, it's a big win for us, and we're going to remember this one all year."

And already this looks like it will be a special year, indeed, for Morgan Lucas.

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