NHRA reverses race-format policy at U.S. Nationals

Jimmy Prock, crew chief for Robert Hight's Auto Club Ford Mustang, will have two more chances to get his driver into the U.S. Nationals field at Indianapolis. (Photo by Ron Lewis)

CLERMONT, Ind. - Courtney Force is the No. 1 Funny Car qualifier for the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis.

Or is she?

Force, who threw out a ceremonial first pitch last week at the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians baseball game, has to contend with a curveball the weather and the National Hot Rod Association tossed her way Monday.

Remnants of Hurricane Isaac soaked the Labor Day weekend classic, wiping out the final day of qualifying Sunday and eliminations Monday. However, the sanctioning body made an unprecedented move in postponing the remainder of the event until this Saturday and Sunday. It re-opened qualifying Saturday, extending the opportunity to the originally scheduled five sessions.

So after declaring the 16-car fields set for the final race before the six-event Countdown to the Championship starts Sept. 14, the NHRA "un-set" them.

(Never mind that the weather cleared up immediately after the NHRA pulled the plug on Monday's activity. And never mind that even with the overly generous estimation of five hours to prep the wet and even leaky racing surface, conditions would have allowed the event to be completed Monday. Never mind that three days of telling the incredibly heady fans to be patient and wait out all the waves of rain for three days, the sanctioning body hastily decreed an end to the proceedings remarkably early Monday.)

So while Force must withstand two more qualifying sessions to earn her first No. 1 start, the news was optimistic for her John Force Racing colleague, Robert Hight. He failed in three attempts to put his Auto Club Ford Mustang in the 16-car field, so this means a fresh opportunity.

"We had three chances, just like everybody else, and we didn't get it done," Hight said, adding he is lucky.

"You don't get many second chances in drag racing," he said. "Usually you lose a round and you are out of here. If you don't qualify you are out of here. Getting to try and qualify is big, but if we don't get my car fixed, we could be having this conversation next Saturday night. And if my car is still running the way it is, we won't be in the field.

"Indy is a different race, because it has five qualifying sessions. If this would have been a normal race where you only get four, I doubt they would have reopened qualifying," Hight said. "I don't know the reasoning behind that, and I don't make those calls. I am glad they gave us and some more teams another shot."

Once again, Hight was needy and got the break he was hoping for at Indianapolis. In 2009, he was in the race but not in the Countdown, and boss/father-in-law John Force was accused of losing on purpose in their head-to-head match-up in eliminations so Hight could grab the No. 10 position in the playoff seeding. Hight went on to win the Funny Car championship. Force got into a shouting match with Tony Pedregon at the top end of the track that ultimately cost Force $10,000, as he pushed an NHRA official during the dust-up.

This time, the decision that helped Hight came from off the racetrack.

However, Hight made one thing clear: "Everyone is getting the same gift that I am."

Hight certainly is not the only driver to benefit from the NHRA's decision. Fellow Funny Car driver Cruz Pedregon, a two-time series champion who's seventh in points, still is unqualified for the race. He hasn't secured his berth for the Countdown to the Championship that kicks off at zMAX Dragway at Charlotte.

Pro Stock's Larry Morgan is fighting to get into the U.S. Nationals and to stay among the top 10 drivers eligible to compete for a championship. For him the extra qualifying sessions are a stroke of luck. Ronnie Humphrey, who's qualified No. 16, now must hang onto that spot or improve if he has a chance to make the Countdown field.

However, a scramble in the Pro Stock qualifying order could spoil a momentous occasion for the females. For now, Erica Enders is top qualifier, giving women two of the top spots among the four pro classes. She and Force were set to join Pro Stock Motorcycle's Angelle Sampey as the only No. 1 female qualifiers in the four professional categories at the prestigious U.S. Nationals.

Spencer Massey (Top Fuel) and Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle) also are No. 1, at least for the moment.

The NHRA's decision to re-open qualifying Saturday easily could change the first-round match-ups that were announced for eliminations. And those carried Countdown implications. For example, Don Schumacher Racing teammates Ron Capps and Matt Hagan were scheduled to race each other in Round 1. Capps is the new points leader, and he wants to keep his No. 1 status heading into the Countdown and earn the 20 bonus points that go with the honor. Hagan, the current Funny Car champion, is desperate for every point just to qualify for this year's Countdown. Having to face Capps -- with DSR insisting, and proving, it has no team orders -- would have been an excellent draw for the fans, but it would have been a nail-biter for the two drivers.

Hight is doing more than eyeing a chance to make the U.S. Nationals field. He's looking to regain the points lead he enjoyed for most of the season but lost in the previous race (at Brainerd, Minn.) to Capps.

"I am locked into the Countdown. There is a shot that I could go to No. 1," Hight said. "If Capps falls early and we can gain more than 60 points, I think I still have a shot at that No. 1 in the Countdown. That is huge, because that is a 30-point lead. That somewhat affords you a bad race in the Countdown. It still goes back to if my car is not performing we are not going to get there."

Also at question with Sunday's rainout was when and where the Funny Car NHRA Traxxas Nitro Shootout would play out. Would it run at Charlotte? Would it take place at Dallas, near headquarters of sponsor Traxxas? If the fields were set at Indianapolis, as the NHRA declared Sunday afternoon, its formatting would not be compatible with eliminations. The Traxxas Nitro Shootouts were supposed to help restore some shine to the fading glory of the U.S. Nationals, so it was a concern what effect would come from moving it to another venue. With the new U.S. Nationals plan, the $100,000 bonus race within a race will go Saturday at Indianapolis during do-overs.

Top Fuel's Spencer Massey defeated Steve Torrence in the final round of Saturday's Top Fuel version of the Traxxas Nitro Shootout to earn $100,000 for Don Schumacher Racing.

With the Funny Car Traxxas Shootout going during Saturday qualifying, Hight will have to try to win the race, yet not be so aggressive he fails to make the main event. But he said he doesn't feel any extra pressure.

Courtney Force said Saturday evening after she led her field with a 4.049-second elapsed time and set the track speed record at 317.27 mph, "Honestly, it's hard to say when you go out and you're No. 1 qualifier what is going to happen on race day. Everything changes on race day."

Within 48 hours, she found out just how true that is.

 

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