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Muggy, wacky Norwalk race has gamut of memories

Scorching heat in Norwalk, Ohio, kept crew chiefs struggling and kept fans away during Friday and Saturday qualifying sessions. (Photo by Brian Wood)
Scorching heat in Norwalk, Ohio, kept crew chiefs struggling and kept fans away during Friday and Saturday qualifying sessions. (Photo by Brian Wood)

How do ice cream, pizza, vintage aircraft, premature parachutes, 100-degree temperatures, $100-grand jackpots, and the Mojave Desert belong in one story? That was the beauty of this past weekend's Summit Racing Equipment Nationals at Summit Equipment Motorsports Park at Summit Equipment, Ohio -- er, Norwalk, Ohio. Promoter Bill Bader's race had a little something for everyone. . . .

Destination: Winners Circle - Spencer Massey, FRAM/Prestone Dragster (Top Fuel), Mike Neff, Castrol GTX Ford Mustang (Funny Car), Vincent Nobile, Mountain View Dodge Avenger (Pro Stock), Andrew Hines, Vance & Hines Screamin' Eagle Harley-Davidson (Pro Stock Motorcycle)


The specifics -

Top Fuel - In a final-round duel between two Texas racers, No. 7 qualifier Massey (Fort Worth) used a holeshot to beat No. 1 qualifier Steve Torrence (Kilgore), with a 3.916-second elapsed time at 312.50 mph to the Capco Contractors Dragster owner-driver's 3.894 / 315.71. Massey's victory margin was 0.0026 seconds, or about 14 inches. Massey recorded his class-best fourth victory in his fifth final-round appearance this season and his first final round since May at Topeka. Torrence has two victories in four final rounds in the past six races. Afterward, Massey's crew chief Phil Shuler was coy about whether the Don Schumacher Racing team will bring out a new chassis at Denver for the start of the Western Swing, saying with a grin about his tight-lipped stance, "It'll make you think." Massey said of his run against Torrence, "I knew the final round was going to be huge. Steve was running awesome all day. He's been running awesome all season, actually. I'm from Texas; he's from Texas. And we both drove Top Alcohol Dragsters in Division 4. The weather here was even hot like it is in Texas."

Funny Car - Mike Neff repeated his Norwalk victory in this meetings of Mustangs, running away from Tim Wilkerson with a 4.217-second E.T. and 298.21-mph speed. The Levi, Ray & Shoup Ford owner-driver countered with a 4.244 / 296.96. Neff, who doubles at John Force Racing as his own crew chief, addressed some problems with his car that had kept him from going beyond the quarterfinals at six of the seven previous events and led the JFR contingent by qualifying second and earning his second victory of 2012. Neff had been runner-up at Pomona and Phoenix to begin the season and had won at Houston but, like colleague Robert Hight, had dropped off in performance. Wilkerson had reached the semifinals at Topeka but otherwise never made it any farther than Round 2 all year. He faced Ford opponents in every round and defeated two JFR racers (Force and Hight) to advance. "You run the best you can and you hope it is good enough. Fortunately for us today it was," Neff said. "You weren't going to run much better out there. The track was kind of slippery and that was about all it had. The final -- I would say that was a good solid run for me. I was on a really good run in the first round and I thought it would run 4.11 but it popped the blower. The second round it spun the tires from half-track to the finish line. It put a hole out in the semis and ran 4.28. Finally in the final I got it to run on all eight, and it made a good clean run right when I needed it. Tim Wilkerson put up a heck of a run over there. It had to be very close at the finish line. It was just our day."


Pro Stock - In this match-up that reprised the final of the K&N Horsepower Challenge bonus race Saturday, Nobile hit the $100-grand-weekend jackpot by beating Line, 6.661 / 208.01 to 6.705 / 207.88. Nobile earned $50,000 for winning the K&N das-for-cash, $25,000 for winning his second Wally of the season and fifth overall, and $25,000 from the NHRA for doubling-up. It marked the third straight final round for the new Chevy Camaro, but Line couldn't stop Nobile from scoring his second straight Norwalk victory. Line, in one of two KB/Summit entries, had qualified No. 2, Nobile No. 5.

Pro Stock Motorcycle - Andrew Hines thwarted another attempted coup of the Vance & Hines Screamin' Eagle Harley-Davidson regime, winning on a holeshot against Hector Arana Jr. Hines (6.929/193.43) defeated Hector Arana Jr. (6.928/191.84) on the Lucas Oil Buell. Hines earned his second consecutive victory; he won the previous bike final at Joliet, Ill. So far this season, no one has stopped a Harley-Davidson in the final round of Pro Stock Bikes. Hines and Eddie Krawiec have passed the victories back and forth. LE Tonglet and Michael Ray each has had a shot at dethroning the Harleys, and the father-son Arana team has taken three cracks at it.


Biggest Winner of the Weekend - Pro Stock driver Vincent Nobile pocketed $100,000 in two days of work for the Nick Mitsos-owned Mountain View Dodge Avenger team. He won the K&N Horsepower Challenge during Saturday qualifying, beating Jason Line, the bonus race's top seed, in the final round and earning $50,000. Then he defeated Line again in the Pro Stock final Sunday to take the Wally trophy, $25,000 for the victory, and another $25,000 double-up bonus from the NHRA for winning both races.

"Never in a million years did I think we could come in here, win both races, and get that double-up bonus," Nobile said. "We have a great team and when everything is clicking, we're tough to beat. But at the same time, winning seven straight rounds against the best racers in Pro Stock is almost impossible to do. I'm just in shock. My crew gave me a great car this weekend. The weather was brutally hot, and we had some of the highest track temperatures we’ve ever raced in but we managed to get the job done. This is only my second trip to Norwalk and I've won three races and 11 straight rounds. So I guess you could say this is my favorite track on the tour."


Biggest Loser of the Weekend - The Bader Family. It's no knock against them, but the heat was a killer for their gate, especially Friday and Saturday. With ambient temperatures in the muggy high-90s and track temperatures reported between 140 and 150 degrees, not even the track operators' popular dollar-per-pound ice cream could ease the discomfort. "It's like the Mojave Desert out there," Funny Car's John Force said after his qualifying run Saturday. None of several contacts at Norwalk's Fisher-Titus Medical Center could confirm reports from reliable sources that a steady stream of ambulances Friday delivered heat-stricken fans from the racetrack. But the consensus -- with evidence from the grandstands that appeared about two-thirds empty -- was that this was the worst toll heat has taken on an NHRA national event in a long time. The Baders are well-known for their hospitality and attention to "the Four Ts: Traffic, Tickets, Trash, and Toilets," but some things even the Baders can't combat.

Hard-Luck Award Winner - Johnny Gray, driver of the NTB/Service Central Dodge Charger and No. 1 qualifier in the Funny Car class.

Gray, who had predicted that the rare match-up between him and rare No. 16 qualifier Robert Hight would "be a dogfight" until the last inch of racetrack, was furious after his car dumped the parachutes during the burnout. Gray fumed that the cause of the trouble was "that stupid safety crud they put all over these cars. They don't let the drivers drive 'em. They've got all these safety switches. There's nothing wrong with the motor -- there's nothing wrong. Just the safety switch shut it off. I don't know what they don't let the drivers drive the damn cars."

Up-Down Index - Top three making improvements, three headed the wrong direction/having bad weekend


1- Spencer Massey -- He regained the Top Fuel points lead with his victory, improving two positions.

2 - Andrew Hines -- With his triumph in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class,

3 - Mike Neff - Funny Car repeat winner at Norwalk regains the two positions in the standings he lost at Chicago.

Honorable mention - Cruz Pedregon and Bob Tasca -- Both Funny car drivers improved two spots in the standings. Steve Torrence reached final round again. Tim Wilkerson, who is using his Funny car runner-up status Sunday to inch closer to a spot in the Countdown field, got a tremendous effort from his team. They had worked overnight Saturday to put a car together for Dan Wilkerson to race, yet had the energy in sweltering heat to guide the veteran owner-driver to four rounds Sunday. ("Great day and a great morale boost for my guys," Wilkerson called the experience. "I can tell you this about my crew, though: They're not the types who slow down and get lazy when it feels like 115 degrees out. They work just as hard as they do when it's 65, so we have to keep them hydrated and really watch them or they'll work themselves right to the ground.



1 - Matt Hagan - Struggling Funny car champ said he's digging extra deep to find new ways to buck up the team's spirit.

2 - Brandon Bernstein - This will be the next streak the media latch onto. Bernstein's last victory came in the fall of 2009, at Richmond, Va.

3 - Larry Morgan - The Pro Stock driver dropped from the top 10.

Dishonorable mention - Top Fuel rookie Khalid alBalooshi - He was the No. 3 qualifier but was unable to convert that into at least his first round-win, stretching his winless string to 12 races. "There was a problem in the engine, and we lost the race. Everybody is doing his job on the Al-Anabi team, and we will keep working. We will keep trying and know that one day our luck will change." and Funny Car's Jeff Arend - With his quarterfinal defeat, he gave up half the ground he had gained a week before.


- Funny Car points leader Robert Hight, who is counting on all those points he banked in his molten-hot start to the season, qualified 16th for the first time in his career and recorded his 250th round-win in ugly fashion on a solo pass at Johnny Gray's expense.



Most Notable Qualifying Occurrence - Besides Angie Smith's bike crash, Dan Wilkerson's intense fire that ruined his car, forcing his dad -- eventual runner-up Tim Wilkerson -- to supply a back-up car for Sunday's eliminations.

Most Notable Elimination Occurrence (Readers Choice) -

A. Keith Murt's wire-to-wire victory against Doug Kalitta, in Murt's second career start

B. Hines pulling even with Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson teammate and points leader Eddie Krawiec at three victories apiece -- while the team has blanked all its opponents.

C. Courtney Force won in the opening round of Funny Car action in spite of her admitted staging mistake that caused her to have a drowsy .222-second reaction time. Then Tim Wilkerson led Round 2 eliminations by winning also with a .2-second light.

D. Jason Line defeated Shane Gray in a "Pro Stock pedalfest" when both lost traction and won with an 8.21 elapsed time. Nobile took out top qualifier Allen Johnson immediately after that in an ugly race and gained lane choice with a 7.792-second E.T.


Racer With The Most Heart - Vincent Nobile (Pro Stock)

What made him happiest to win the K&N Horsepower Challenge was the fact it got a Toyota Tundra pick-up for Peggy Coleman, who survived the Joplin, Mo., tornado in May 2011 that claimed 150 lives and demolished her home. She was paired as a spectator partner for Nobile in an online contest. "She was my full inspiration to win this thing, Nobile said. "This is not about the money. It's not even about the trophy. It's about the story. Winning the race meant winning a Toyota Tundra for Peggy Coleman. She was in a terrible situation where she lost her house, and it's great to be able to give something back to her."


Best Promotion - Happy news for the Baders here. Patriotic touches to the facility and patriotic display in race-day ceremonies earn an A-plus. Red, white, and blue balloons released before the first pair of dragsters fired up reminded of the Indianapolis 500 (although it might have been better to let them loose behind the grandstands or somewhere not as close to the lanes). Cool-looking was painting of the Stars and Stripes on the pavement at the starting line by an enthusiastic New York flag-specialty who declared, "I've seen every great work of art, and the greatest work of art is the American flag. It was created with the greatest purpose in humanity. It's my duty to keep painting it." The flyover of the T-6 Texan aircraft from the Cleveland Wing of the Commemorative Air Force was impressive, as well.

Memorable Quotes of the Weekend -

-"It's definitely rewarding to be able to go to the finals, just because we had to go through all that heat and all that suffering. At least we went to the finals. It was all worth it. If we would've lost in the first round after being miserable in all that heat, it's like, 'Man, why were we even here Friday and Saturday?' " - Hector Arana Jr. (Pro Stock Motorcycle runner-up)

- "We'll be ready for anything that comes our way over those three weekends [Western Swing]. Both Tony and I have posted sweeps out there in recent years, so we know what it takes to get the job done." - Antron Brown (Top Fuel)

- "I commend all the fans for sticking it out in the heat this weekend and being as dedicated as they've been. It's not easy. We all appreciate it and wish we could've put on a better show." - Morgan Lucas (Top Fuel)

- "We had something break in the valve train, and even though we didn't blow the motor up, we pushed a head gasket. And that severed a fuel line, so you get fire in a hurry. That was my first real fire, with big flames that don't go out right away, but I felt calm in there and knew I had to get it stopped and get the body up. The Safety Safari gets there in a hurry, but I wanted to see if we could save the Summit Racing body so I jumped out and got it up. Unfortunately, the vinyl was kind of crispy and when we got it back to the pit we found a few spots that had delaminated. If that was all we had, maybe we would've stayed up all night like maniacs and repaired it, but we'd just spent two of the longest and hottest days ever at the race track, and it took about a minute for my dad to say 'Get the other car out.' We still had a lot of work to do, and without the guys on the 'A Team' over there, we never would've made first round. I owe all of those guys about a hundred steak dinners. They saved us." - Dan Wilkerson (Funny Car), regarding his qualifying fire.

- "It's hard to turn a lot of things into a positive and make it sound better or look better, but that's what we have to do. We'll just keep working hard until we get back on top." - Matt Hagan (Funny Car)

- "Between my driving yesterday in the Challenge (special event) and blowing the tires off the car today, we definitely didn't show what we've got in Norwalk, and that definitely ticks us all off." - Erica Enders (Pro Stock)

- "When we got [to Norwalk] Rahn [Tobler] said he messed up in Chicago. He said he went out of his normal routine of racing the track on Sunday. It was a learning experience, and it was cool to hear Rahn say that. But we win as a team or lose as a team. What sets Rahn apart from a lot of crew chiefs is that he learns from something and isn't worried about admitting it and making a change. I'm pumped up that he knew why it pulled the tires loose at Chicago and has adjusted to that. He gives me a lot of confidence." - Ron Capps (Funny Car), explaining that his six-final-round streak ended at Joliet and that his crew chief Rahn Tobler told him he regretted not using a more conservative set-up.

- "Robert had me dead to rights. I'm damn lucky they had a problem." - Tim Wilkerson (Funny Car runner-up), regarding his quarterfinal victory over Robert Hight

Down the Road - July 20-25, Mopar Mile High Nationals, Bandimere Speedway, Denver

At The Back Gate - Brian Corradi, Antron Brown's crew chief with Mark Oswald on the Matco/Aaron's/Toyota Dragster, owns a pizza restaurant with wife Jackie Corradi in Middleburg Heights, Ohio, near Cleveland. Brown had a slice of pepperoni and cheese with his "homeslice" this past week at Master Pizza. He was making pizzas, signing autographs, donating memorabilia for an auction, and helping raise money for the Children's Home of Berea.


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