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Two passionate Top Fuel racers back on track

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Brady Kalivoda was an 11-year-old son of a Seattle drag racer, standing at the gate of Indianapolis Raceway Park in a pink shirt in 1984, collecting donations for seriously injured Top Fuel legend Shirley Muldowney.

In the 1990s, he bought a David Peters lithograph that featured Top Fuel favorite Cory McClenathan in his "Mac Attack" checkerboard dragster. And Kalivoda dragged that precious autographed picture across the country when he went to work for racers Tom Hoover, Jim Head, Tony Schumacher, and Clay Millican en route to his own sporadic Top Fuel driving career.

Today Kalivoda's and McClenathan's stories are intertwined as they return to the racetrack this weekend for the National Hot Rod Association's marquee Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis.

Some of Kalivoda's and certainly McClenathan's happy drag-racing memories have come at Don Schumacher Racing. Kalivoda, a magna cum laude graduate of Central Washington University with an accounting degree, learned the nuts and bolts of servicing a car there. McClenthan revived his career there and in 2010 waged a fierce war to the end with eventual three-time champion Larry Dixon.

But DSR also has been the linchpin in some of Kalivoda's and McClenathan's lowest moments.

In January 2010, Kalivoda was invited to represent the NHRA in its global initiative in Abu Dhabi as teammate to Tommy Johnson Jr. in the DSR-prepared twin Yas Marina Circuit Dragsters. He had arranged for a hiatus from his Phoenix- based window company for the opportunity, and the crews at DSR had customized the car for him. He was about ready to step onto the stage at a press conference at DSR headquarters and she his elation with reporters. But like a beauty-pageant contestant who hears another young lady's name announced as the queen, Kalivoda stood there, stunned to hear Hot Rod Fuller's name and see Fuller come bounding to the podium. He didn't even know Fuller was in the building.

Kalivoda already hadn't raced since a low-budget deal ended in the spring of 2007, and this was a huge opportunity turned into a crushing disappointment for the 38-year-old who said he knew his window of opportunity was closing.

McClenathan was about to embark on what might have been his best year ever with his 11th top-five finish in the final standings. But he lost his DSR-owned FRAM Dragster ride during the off-season to young lion Spencer Massey in a sponsor-driven, age-discrimination shocker that reflected not at all on McClenathan's skills but rather his status as a 48-year-old.

While McClenathan picked up a Top Fuel ride at Topeka with team owner Dexter Tuttle this May, he didn't have any long-term prospects . . . Until he met Santo Rapisarda, an Australian crane-company owner with an established passion for drag racing. Rapisarda hired McClenathan to go to Sydney and Brisbane and race there.

Then he discussed the idea of having DSR build a dragster for competition in the States. With that, McClenathan was back in action, with the blessing and technical support from his former co-workers, from Don Schumacher and Vice-President and engineer Lee Beard, as well as crew chiefs Todd Okuhara, Phil Shuler, and Scott Okuhara. Helping him have been members from Massey's crew and those from the teams of DSR drivers Antron Brown and Tony Schumacher.

McClenathan, a two-time U.S. Nationals winner (1996, 1999), will drive a dragster that was repurposed from Tony Schumacher's surplus fleet -- with his nostalgic checkerboard livery.

Just before Rapisarda put that deal together, though, McClenathan had followed up on an inquiry from longtime racer Mike Dakin, whose Tipp City, Ohio-grounded family was looking to compete in the Top Fuel class. (Mike's brother, Pat Dakin, is a Full Throttle Drag Racing Series Top Fuel regular and has been for decades.) McClenathan bowed out of that deal but steered the Dakins toward Kalivoda.

Mike Dakin offered the job to Kalivoda in late July. And they tested at Indianapolis the same Aug. 5-7 weekend that Kalivoda's father, Dick, was being honored at Pacific Raceways in Seattle, at the O'Reilly Northwest Nationals, as one of the NHRA's 60th Anniversary Legends. So, like McClenathan, his program came together in an amazingly short time.

Both Kalivoda and McClenathan will be back on the racetrack, back where they feel they were born to be, in the cockpits of 7,000-horsepower Top Fuel dragsters.

Each knows the competition is stout among the 25 entrants.

"Holy smokes! There are nine who won't make it," Kalivoda said of his U.S. Nationals rivals. "It's a brutal field. At Indy, everybody throws the trailers at you. So it may seem somewhat masochistic for a small, independent team to want to debut at Indy. But we said, 'What the heck? It's the Big Go!'

"We're not trying to cherry-pick the races where we might have the best chance to qualify," Kalivoda said. "We wouldn't be doing it if we didn't think we could qualify. We decided, 'Let's have some fun at Indy, then we'll re-evaluate everything Tuesday,' " he said.

Qualifying for the Full Throttle Series pros will begin Friday night and will continue with two sessions Saturday and two more Sunday. Final eliminations are set for Monday (Labor Day). 

The plan for McClenathan is to race in the final three events of 2011 -- at Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Pomona, Calif -- after a swing halfway around the globe, to Sydney, for a race. So just like Hot Rod Fuller (back from the United Arab Emirates because of the season break during scoring weather) aims to wreak havoc on the Countdown to the Championship field, so does McClenathan.

"Not only would I love to help the DSR guys by blocking some people, I'd like to be a spoiler -- me and Hot Rod. It's good and devilish all at the same time. But we know this car's going to run well," he said.

One thing everyone knows is that passion propels people to unlikely successes, and traditionally, the U.S. Nationals is the perfect stage for that.

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