Raceway Park redeems its reputation with stellar event

Ron Capps' DSR-owned NAPA Dodge set the history-making Funny Car pace last Sunday at the NHRA Toyota SuperNationals, helping in large part to restore the shine at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park at Englishtown, N.J. (Photo by Ron Lewis)

ENGLISHTOWN, N.J. - Like a woman who just lost 50 pounds or a man who just won the lottery, all of a sudden Old Bridge Township Raceway Park is popular.

In the emotional aftermath of Scott Kalitta's fatal accident during Funny Car qualifying here in 2008, a handful of top-performing drivers railed against the storied racetrack, insisting they either felt scared -- an yes, they used that word -- or wouldn't come back. Without many facts at the time about how and why that accident occurred, those drivers -- and you know who you are -- blurted out wild statements, accusing the racing surface of being dangerous.

They raced the day after Kalitta's death. No one pulled out of the fields in protest, fear, or even mourning. They came back the next year -- and the next and the next and the next. And a few of those who warned of doom and gloom and fed the drag-racing drama queens of anonymous Internet infamy loved the place this past weekend.

What was not to love?

At this past weekend's Toyota SuperNationals, this dragstrip produced the quickest 1,000-foot passes ever in Top Fuel and Funny Car, from the Don Schumacher Racing duo of Spencer Massey and Ron Capps.

It played into hometown hero Eddie Krawiec's Pro Stock Motorcycle strategy, letting him run the table on the Vance & Hines Screamin' Eagle Harley-Davidson and earn the most prized trophy in his possession.

It showcased a full day of suspenseful side-by-side races.

It gave a boost to young Top Fuel team owner Steve Torrence, who won for a second time in three races in this first season of independent driving in the Capco Contractors Dragster.

It encouraged veteran Johnny Gray, who knew he had a stout Funny Car in the NTB / Service Central Dodge Charger.

And Old Bridge Township Raceway Park assured Pro Stock winner Greg Anderson that the bran-new Chevy Camaro would perform well. Furthermore, it assured runner-up Jason Line, who tunes Anderson's car, that he prepped the Camaro right for its maiden voyage . . . which means that his own new Camaro should fare well when he rolls it out next week and the Thunder Valley Nationals at Tennessee's Bristol Dragway.

So are these drivers hypocrites?

They're racers. They aren't journalists. They never promised to investigate facts before speaking authoritatively.

Hypocrites?

Though evidence might suggest so, the best answer simply is "They're racers."

Non-racing logic would conclude that if you had a violent crash that broke your back and were blessed by God to be able to go back to work -- to walk and function normally -- you wouldn’t want to go anywhere near the activity that put you in that position or anywhere near that accident scene.

But Brandon Bernstein -- a happy, healthy, well-adjusted husband and father with a second baby on the way with wife Tracey -- uses racers logic.

"It's a big prestigious race, and there's a lot of history there. It's a big race, but it's like any of the other ones to me," Bernstein said. "Everyone always asks me about my crash there, gosh going back [almost] 10 years now, but I don't even think about it any more," Bernstein said. "You have to treat it like just another race. The wreck was bad, and I hurt my back, but that was a long time ago now. We really don't dwell on that sort of stuff."

Non-racing logic also would tell you to think twice before driving a race car again, at the least at a dragstrip where you’re lucky you were uninjured after a harrowing ride. Imagine traveling about 250 miles an hour and having your method of stopping the car fly off the back end of it. You barrel through a safety sand pit and catch-fencing before stopping safely. And you come back in a car that goes darn near 100-mph faster and take your chances? Some would call that crazy.

Alexis DeJoria calls that going to work. She's a racer. She's extremely bright and recognizes what potential dangers lurk in these machines. But she uses racers logic.

"Obviously it's an intense race and there are a lot of emotions flowing. It's a tough weekend for a lot of people. We've seen so much sadness there, and I feel so grateful and blessed that I'm able to return to that track when others weren't so fortunate. We've all been through a lot there," the Kalitta Motorsports driver said, "but I'm excited and honored to come back as part of such a wonderful organization.I just want to stay very focused on doing my job and not get too wrapped up in the emotional side of it. I've always done well there, and believe it or not, it's my absolute favorite track. Even when I had my crash, I was running my career best at the time."

Her crew chief, Del Worsham, had his share of wars with Raceway Park and wound up spending three months at St. Barnabas Hospital in nearby Livingston, N.J., with burns and a serious hand injury froma Gfunny Car accident. He recovered fully and, like Bernstein, talks about it only if somebody else brings it up. Worsham's a racer, a racer's racer, the current (but retired-from-driving) Top Fuel champion.

And racers race. They think about racing. They think about working on their cars. Their minds are programmed to focus whatever is next on the racing agenda.

This past Saturday night, racers gathered in the Kalitta Motorsports pit for what has become an annual celebration of fun-living, tough-driving Scott Kalitta, a two-time Top Fuel champion. Over steak, lobster, and plenty of liquid refreshment, they swapped memories of Scott, the ultimate racer, "a gladiator" Tony Schumacher called him.

Several years ago, one of the airplanes in the Kalitta Air fleet that belongs to team owner and Scott's father, Connie Kalitta, lost an engine in mid-flight. It just broke from the wing and plopped into Lake Michigan. Asked what in the world went wrong, the unruffleable, low-key Scott Kalitta wrinkled his lower lip, shrugged, and almost nonchalantly said, "Aww, you know . . . things happen . . . "

Yes, things happen. Horrible things happen. But many positive things happen, too.

Ron Capps, remembering his buddy Scott Kalitta while reveling in his own moment of glory -- Don Schumacher Racing's moment of glory and sponsors NAPA's and Prestone's moments of glory -- put the Englishtown controversy in perspective. The thought occurred to him that this was Old Bridge Township's weekend of glory.

"This track reminds me of the guy you run across in life, all weathered, blue collar, who has worked his butt off all of his life, is wrinkled and into his retirement … this track reminds me of that. It has been around forever," Capps said last Saturday after qualifying No. 1 in the Funny Car lineup.

"It's neat to give this track what we did last night. It's a legendary track on our circuit. I think it's kind of neat [for the run] because there has been a lot of bad press when bad things have happened in the past," he said. "I guess, in all essence. to give it something cool like we did on Friday night was pretty neat.

"We are going back to the Kalitta pits tonight, like we do every year, and Connie throws a party to celebrate Scott's life. I feel like Friday was something that Scott would have been proud of. "

He probably would have, for sure.

The record-setting and the close races continued, and Raceway Park had one of its shiniest moments in years.

- 30 -

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