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Outside the Lanes: Randy Cunningham's Barcalounger-view of ESPN drag racing coverage

This week at the Gatornationals we witnessed a premature parachute predicament, a tribute to Eric Medlen, and a pair of wall whackers.

Broken barriers--The weekend marked the 20th anniversary of Kenny Bernstein’s smashing of the 300-mile-per-hour barrier, which took place at the 1992 Gatornationals.

Big honors--Viewers learned that the elder Berenstein was also the first driver to win titles in Top Fuel and Funny Car, while being the second race car driver ever to be inducted into the International Jewish Hall of Fame.

Swamp Rat’s final run--Interesting fact: Brandon Bernstein was the last driver to race against Don Garlits, which took place during 2003 in Atlanta.

The deck seems a little stacked--The marquee matchup of the weekend? Alexis Dejoria versus John Force. Dejoria entered the race with five career starts, while Force sported 574.

Even more Berenstein stuff--More Berenstein family info: Kenny began his racing career in 1972 in the Funny Car ranks, picking up his first win in 1979 at Baton Rouge. Berenstein won a total of six championships in both the Funny Car and Top Fuel categories.

A two-fer--Finally, both father and son Berenstein won in Las Vegas on the same day in spring of 2001, when Kenny took the Top Fuel title while Brandon added the Funny Car win.

He’s a HOFER--The icing on the Berenstein cake? Kenny’s induction into the 2009 Motorsports Hall of Fame of America.

Ain’t no doubt about it--Steve Gibbs, the Director of Competition for NHRA from 1972 until 1998, stated about Berenstein’s 300-mile-per-hour run, “We wanted to make sure it was the right guy, and not some kind of fluke time that can pop up. You know, you get a little piece of paper blow through the lights, and we’ve seen that happen over the years where a time will pop up out of nowhere, and it confused the issue, so we just went to a great extent to make sure that whoever ran 300 was the right guy and got the proper credit. 300 I can guarantee you was Kenny, and that’s the last great barrier. I don’t think anyone will ever go 400, and so we wanted to make sure that the last great barrier in drag racing received the proper credit with the right guy, and I’m convinced there’s no doubt about it.”

It just popped out! In his first round round run, Morgan Lucas’ chute popped out almost immediately after launch, but his forward momentum was enough to carry him to a win over Brady Kalivoda. Mike Dunn, who blamed the premature party on the acceleration that caused a wire to come loose on one of the parachutes, stated, “Man, that was pret-ty wild!”

I’m comin’ for ya--When asked about her matchup with John Force, Alexis Dejoria responds, “The first time you race John Force, yeah, it’s in your head a little bit, but it’s not this time. I’m going after the 15-time champ.”

Boom--Morgan Lucas’ equipment malfunction felt, “…really weird, especially by the time it fully blossomed.” Later, he added, “I wasn’t sure if something was grenaded or not.”

I’m here to help! Following Ron Capps’ brush with the left-lane wall during qualifying, much of the vinyl by the Funny Car’s left rear wheel area resembled swiss cheese. However, viewers learned that Don Schumacher Racing sent a computer file with the NAPA logo to a Gainesville-area company that quickly created a new wrap for the car. In a show of true NHRA spirit, the new wrap was then installed by “vinyl guy” from the John Force camp, an employee already busy with repairs to the right side of Courtney’s ride following her sideswipe during Saturday’s qualifying rounds. Capps’ comment? “It just shows you, everyone’s a big family out here.”

Weird pairing--Interestingly, the “wall whackers” met in first-round action. Capps won the matchup. No wall was injured during the course of the event.

Twiddly diddly dee--Antron Brown took advantage of the social media before his first-round matchup with David Grubnic, tweeting, “First round is going to be a treat. Crew chiefs are ready to throw down!” No word if Brown was typing while driving…

Uhh…that doesn’t look right--Brown won the round, but lost the battle of the pocketbook after blowing his supercharger, which then sat cockeyed atop the left side of the engine behind his head. Paul Page commented to Mike Dunn, “Little costly, yeah, that supercharger shouldn’t lean over like that” as Brown’s car slowed to a stop at the top end. Page added, “You taught me that, Mike. Totally wrong.”

Yep, I hit a jet dryer--More tweet treats, this time from John Force Racing: “Jet dryers on track at Gatornationals. Heads up, Montoya!” in reference to Juan Pablo’s on-track run-in with a jet dryer following a Daytona 500 rain delay, setting the vehicle on fire.

No relation whatsoever--Regarding John Force’s first-round matchup against Alexis Dejoria, Dave Reiff informs viewers that Force has a 14-0 record against females that aren’t related to him. “The Boss” has 1,100 round wins, Dejoria has zero.

Hey, talk to me! Asked about what it takes to be successful behind the wheel, Alexis Dejoria is asked about the relationship she has with her car. Her reply? “I definitely talk to my car. It doesn’t answer me back, though. Not usually. It’s your office, it’s your life. You’re in these things constantly. You have to be connected to the car. You have to feel it out when it’s going through something, when it makes different sounds. You have to be completely connected body and soul to this machine. I’ve definitely had words with her. And it’s still a her, even though I’m a girl. I still say it’s a girl.”

I love my happy place--Following Dejoria’s comments, Paul Page asks Mike Dunn, “Everybody has their special way of getting into it. (preparing to race) Do you have any special way?”, to which Dunn replies, “Nah, there’s not much happening up there, so it’s pretty easy to find my happy place.” Page replies with a huge laugh, saying, “Aww, my goodness it’s fun working with you.”

Show me the money! Courtney Force’s sideswipe with the wall during qualifying must have caused a quick call to her auto insurance company, as the loss of both the chassis and the body cost JFR a cool $150,000. Father John quickly put the accident in perspective, saying, “I gotta win today to pay for the damage to Courtney’s car. I need a payday.”

What did I just say? Dejoria played spoiler, defeating Force with a 4.115, 309.27 mph-effort after the champ lit the tires. Paul Page asked, “You think John was talking to himself in the car during that run?” to which Mike Dunn replied, “John talks to himself all the time.” Page then adds, “Trouble is, he can argue with himself.”

What? Huh? Upon exiting her car, Dejoria asks an NHRA official, “What happened back there?” The official replies, “Who cares? You beat him.”

It was my first win! Dejoria comments to Gary Gerould about her first professional round win, a career best 4.11, “I can’t tell you how great that feels right now. Not just to get John Force but anybody right now. I’m so stoked for my team. For Del Worsham, you’re the best.

Are you kidding me? Matt Hagan’s first-round loss to Johnny Gray meant that the defending champ has zero round wins this season. Zero.

Wanna play? Vincent Nobile joins the Twitter parade as he tweets, “Well, it’s finally raceday! Get to race Rickie Jones first round, used to race Hot Wheels with him back in the day as kids pretty neat deal.”

He won by how much? Jones wins by .0073 seconds in the matchup. The margin of victory? 27 inches, the length of about 20 Hot Wheels cars laid end to end.

He learned his lessons--e learnHAntron Brown is a very quick learner in the Top Fuel category. During his Pro Stock Motorcycle career, Brown won his 16th race during his tenth season and 146 races on his bike. However, Brown equaled that number of wins after only five years and 95 races behind a nitro wheel.

Man, you fast! Morgan Lucas’ parachutes played nice in his Round 2 victory over Spencer Massey, only popping out after Lucas burned his way to a 3.747, 322.73 mph effort, the third-quickest in history. According to Mike Dunn, Lucas was 2.99 seconds at the 1/8 mile, which had only happened twice previously in the history of drag racing.

Twist and shout--Lewis Bloom, the “Stat Guy”, reports that tuners Jimmy Prock and Tim Richards both twisted the dials for Joe Amato, who won the Gatornationals four times.

Dad, can I have a trophy? Jack Beckman noted that his son Jason, who celebrated his 5th birthday on Thursday of Gatornationals week, wanted him to win so “Fast Jack” could bring home a “Wawwy.” Beckman said he would be happy to pay for another trophy if he won the race so that he could also provide a version for his dad, who turned 75 on Saturday.

Hit me! While the crowd watched the second round staging duel between Matt Smith and Hector Arana, Sr., Paul Page was overheard to say, “I might go up and just slap one in the back of the helmet.”

Let’s play ball! Following the 1:12 mark of the starting line shenanigans, Mike Dunn asked out loud, “How are the Mets doing this year?”

That’s a big zoom! Eddie Kraiwec’s 199.14 mph run in the second round against Scott Pollacheck was the second-quickest pass ever in Pro Stock Motorcycle.

Let’s hoot and holla--Matt Smith called his staging duel with Hector Arana, Sr. “…good, old-fashioned fun. They don’t let us play that much, but Hector is a real sportsman. He shook my hand at the end of the run and that’s what it’s all about. The fans went crazy when they made us shut ‘em off. I could hear the fans hooting and hollering.”

Don’t ya like me? Jim Oberhofer, tuner for Doug Kalitta, found himself with extra help in the pit area before the semifinals, as Connie Kalitta came to assist Oberhofer’s efforts following David Grubnic’s early exit. Oberhofer (with a huge grin on his face) commented that, “With Grubby getting beat, I got a lot of help from Conrad now. He’s over here thinking that he’s hurting my feelings, but I told him that I’ve worked for him for so long that I have no feelings that he can hurt. I love the guy.” No feelings were hurt during the interview.

That dude’s pretty sharp--Shawn Langdon is a member of the “Quick Learner Club” after moving to Al-Anabi Racing with Alan Johnson. In 69 events for Morgan Lucas Racing, Langdon achieved #1 Qualifier status on one occasion, had a low E.T. of 3.826, and a top speed of 318.99. After only three races for Al-Anabi, Langdon has already achieved a #1 Qualifier honor, a low E.T. of 3.754, and set a new high speed mark for himself at 323.12 miles per hour.

Always in our hearts--When asked about the evolution of the Funny Car category in the five years since the death of Eric Medlen, John Force observed that, “It was all headed by his dad John. It was a tough day and a tough week, but you’ve gotta make a positive out of something that was such a tragedy. Eric Medlen was the next generation for John Force Racing. He was the deal, you know? I always believe that God has a reason, and when I saw my kid (Courtney) crash today, the first thing I saw was that John Medlen took the helmet and run down to Chuck Davies’ group at Simpson with that brand new helmet that they just changed. It was very critical, and we’ve been using them this year. And that car? It smacked the wall and now it’s on the way back to Ford to the engineers, and they’ll look that car over. John (Medlen) looked at me and he was so proud. He said, ‘The girl hit that wall hard to the point it almost knocked her out.’ I mean, she was almost out of air. But he said, ‘She didn’t even have a headache. It’s all that padding, the stuff we did to the roll cage, all that NASA stuff that we got through Ford. We did something right that the loss of Eric Medlen means something. He’s saving lives out here, and I believe that. I was sick when I got to my kid, trust me, so at the end of the day, that car will go back and get checked. It’ll get retired, because we don’t run ‘em again when they get hit that hard, and we’ll let the Ford engineers twist it and look at it. John Medlen, thank you for Eric Medlen and for you for saving my life. When I crashed we built the three rail cars and now maybe my kid today, you don’t know. What I know is she’s walking around here, she’s as goofy as her dad, but she wants to drag race.”

Don’t run with scissors--Following Jack Beckman’s red light in the Funny Car semis versus Robert Hight, Paul Page commented, “Awww. Everybody keep sharp objects away from Jack Beckman. Robert Hight has the win.”

I’m one ahead of ya--Pro Stock driver Chris McGaha had one previous round win in his career, a holeshot victory in 2011 at Dallas against Greg Anderson. This meant that when the pair met again in the Gatornational semis, McGaha held a winning record (1-0) against the Summit stalwart.

Ummm…not anymore--Anderson quickly evened the score, running a 6.52 versus McGaha’s 14.115.

Beckman’s not buying--Following his semifinal loss to Robert Hight in Funny Car, Jack Beckman expressed concern regarding the red light which put his hot rod on the trailer. “Well, it was clearly a red light it shows there, but I don’t buy it. Our car did not run a 4.22. And the only way you can get a red light and extremely slow E.T. is something reestablished the stage beam before the car left the starting line. What I’d like to see is who got to the finish line first. We know Robert went green, we know they ran quick, but our car was way quicker than a 4.22 on that run. I’ll bet our time slip’s gonna show an incredibly slow 60-foot, and that’s a stage beam malfunction. It is what it is, unless they see some evidence that clearly overturns it, like Steve Johnson at Indy. We just stand with the way it is. We’ll take our car, we’ll go to Vegas, we’ll try our best to get a trophy there.”

OK, so who won? In response to Beckman’s query into who crossed the finish line first, the video showed that Hight’s Ford was victorious, breaking the beam just under a half-car length in front of Beckman.

Whoosh--Andrew Hines’ 6.781, 197. 39 mph-effort in his semifinal win against Hector Arana, Jr. was a career best for the Harley-Davidson gunslinger.

That’s some bling--Before the final round matchup between teammates Hines and Krawiec, Andrew’s record against the 200-mile-per-hour barrier-buster was a gaudy 4-2.

AARP in the NHRA--Terry Adams, crew chief for Mike Edwards, commented following Edwards final round win (and first-ever Gatornationals title) over Greg Anderson, “We’re just a couple of old guys out here just having a good time.”

Lots of brains--How many crew chiefs did it take to contribute to Robert Hight’s final round matchup against Johnny Gray? In the case of JFR versus DSR, a mere nine were available to provide advice to “Top Gun.” That’s a bunch.

Tribute to a friend--Following Hight’s victory, an emotional Jimmy Prock commented to Dave Reiff, “We lost Eric (Medlen) here and I wanted to get John Medlen back in the winner’s circle here, and we did that, and I’m really thankful and glad for that to happen.”

Lucas repeats himself--The final-round Top Fuel pairing Morgan Lucas versus Tony Schumacher was the first since Memphis in 2009, which was won by…Lucas.

The record remains unbroken--Lucas’ 3.743 winning effort against The Sarge spoiled the DSR effort to sweep the first three races of the season, something never accomplished in the history of Top Fuel.

Randy Cunningham