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Sturbin: The Sarge Is In Command Again

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, October 2 2009
Tony Schumacher won the Top Fuel race at the Fall Nationals in Texas on Sunday. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA)

Tony Schumacher won the Top Fuel race at the Fall Nationals in Texas on Sunday. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Tony Schumacher’s return to the NHRA Top Fuel points lead is full of juicy irony, in that “The Sarge” knocked off the team of former tuner Alan Johnson in the final at Texas Motorplex last Sunday.

Schumacher  – the six-time and reigning world champion – stormed to his fifth victory of the season by trailering Larry Dixon in the final of the 24th annual O’Reilly Super Start Batteries NHRA Fall Nationals in Ennis.  It took Schumacher only two races into the six-event Countdown to 1 playoffs to move past Cory McClenathan and into the lead in search of an unprecedented seventh title.

Schumacher will take a 27-point advantage over Dixon and his Al Anabi Racing Dragster into the 22nd annual O’Reilly NHRA Mid-South Nationals presented by Pennzoil Friday through Sunday at Memphis Motorsports Park. The event in Millington, Tenn., is Round 21 of the 24-race Full Throttle Drag Racing Series.

Schumacher credited crew chief Mike Green for dialing-in the setup that allowed him to navigate the Motorplex’s troublesome , 1,000-foot right lane in 3.944-seconds and 312.86 mph vs. Dixon.  It was a moment, Schumacher said, worthy of Johnson – generally acknowledged as the NHRA’s top nitromethane tuner and the brains behind Schumacher’s historic title run from 2004-2008.

“Mike Green took a lot of abuse at the beginning of the year,” said Schumacher, addressing his cadre of preseason doubters. “A lot of people wrote, ’Game over. Ha-Ha. How you going to fill those shoes (of Johnson)?’ He (Green) has proven (capable) of filling them extremely well. And we’re just making it fun.

“Before each round we’re talking a little bit and making sure we’re enjoying this moment, because they’re all huge. We’ve proven we have the car that can go out and run as quick, if not quicker, than anybody out there if we do our job right. And that’s a great thing to have. The guys that are working on the car are second-to-none, and I am having so much fun driving for ‘em.  It’s awesome. If I can keep that mentality, we’re going to go out and win some races.”

Specifically, four races and 16 rounds of competition remain in the Countdown.

Schumacher’s expectations? “I hope four trophies,” said Schumacher, defending event champion at Memphis Motorsports Park. “That’d be really cool. Big races. I mean, this has been – of all the years I’ve raced, the most difficult, the most dig-deep, crunch-time, bottom-line, bases-loaded moment – every time. There are a lot of good cars. First round goes by, the guys that are left – the eight cars that are left – are all in the top-10. So you think…if you don’t win, one of ‘em’s going to.’ It’s got to be us. If we don’t win, someone’s taking the lead away from us.’

“When we beat Antron (Brown) the second round and took that lead, anyone that would have beat us from then on would have taken over the lead if they had gone on and won it. That tight, that good.”

Cleaning out the notebook from The Plex, where we can’t wait to see how track-owner Billy Meyer celebrates the facility’s 25th anniversary event in September 2010:

*Sweden’s favorite Funny Car driver, Leif Helander, will attempt to add to his 15 minutes of nitromethane fame by qualifying for this weekend’s event. Recall that Helander basically received a free pass into the depleted 16-car ladder in Ennis.

Helander, 65, was eliminated in the first round by pole-sitter Robert Hight, who went on to record his 13th career victory en route to taking over the Funny Car points lead. But Hight showed empathy for Helander, who added to his curiosity factor by informing the media that he was racing on money taken from his pension.

After locking up the No. 1 qualifying spot Saturday, Hight admitted he knew nothing about Helander but was anxious to meet him. One of his jobs with John Force Racing, Hight said, is selling parts – and the European market is a prime target for both new and used and slightly abused stuff.

“He (Helander) came by after I came up to the press room (Saturday) and he introduced himself and kind of told me his story,” said Hight, driver of the Auto Club Ford Mustang. “It reminded me of that movie “The World’s Fastest Indian.” And it’s like, we’ve had controversy here lately, we’ve had drivers arguing. But it puts it in perspective what we’re doing out here.

“This guy here, he’s 65-years-old and he’s dreamed all of his life to come over here to the NHRA – what we take for granted – and he’s living the dream. So, you know what, we forget why we’re here and why we’re doing this and how fortunate we are to be part of NHRA drag racing. So it was really refreshing to see that guy and just watch him in the pre-race (ceremonies). He didn’t know where to stand, where to go. Just a great guy. I’d like to get to know this guy a little better.”

Hight has a tenuous 13-point lead over teammate Ashley Force Hood, driver of the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang tuned by Dean Antonelli and Ron Douglas.

“This is probably the best race car I’ve ever had,” Hight said. “We’ve won races, been close to winning the championship but to be this dominant and this consistent, this steady…it’s going down the track every single run. The only person to beat me was my teammate, Ashley, in Indy in the final. And we had a malfunction and it kind of blew up.

“But it’s not hurting itself. It’s running fast. (Crew chief) Jimmy Prock has definitely got a handle on this. But we still have to give it to Dean Antonelli and Ron Douglas. They helped us, and thank God Jimmy listened to ‘em and worked with ‘em. It’s kind of hard to want to go out and beat those guys. Because without them, we wouldn’t be here right now.”

*Rooting for Hector Arana gets easier once you’ve met the man, and watched crewmen Louie Lubliner and Dan Gonzalez hustling to get the Lucas Oil Buell ready between rounds for a not-so-improbable run at the Pro Stock Motorcycle championship.

Arana’s victory at The Plex was his third in a row and fourth in the last five.  Arana has padded his lead over reigning PSM champion Eddie Krawiec and his Vance & Hines Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson V-Rod to 27 points.

“All this is new to me,” said Arana, who went winless for 18 years before scoring his breakthrough victory in 2008. “So, I’m just going to keep doing what I’ve done all my life. And that’s just keep working hard – and be Hector.”

Arana and his crew are quite aware they have the proverbial target on their backs, now that they have put some points between themselves and the Vance & Hines H-D factory pairing of Krawiec and three-time champion Andrew Hines. Arana’s lead over Hines is 111 points.

“I can’t worry about that,” said Arana, 51, a native of Miami of Puerto Rican descent. “I don’t want to focus about that. I’m just going to focus now on going to Memphis, getting this (S&S) motor ready and make sure we don’t overlook something that can bite us – something that can cost us a run.

“My crew members…let me tell you something, it has gotten hectic inside that trailer, in the motor home. Because of the pressure – the pressure of winning the race and so we can have a chance for this championship. There’s been moments that there’s been…ahhh…arguments, you know? But they work hard. They really do. Ninety-something degrees over here and we have no air-conditioning in that trailer but we never give up. And they never slow down. They never say, ‘I’m going to take a break.’ Until it was all done last night, they didn’t quit working.”

*Pro Stock points-leader Mike Edwards rolled into Memphis as defending event champion and bona fide qualifying machine. Edwards posted his 12th pole of the season at The Plex. Coincidentally, NHRA’s new 3-2-1 qualifying bonus points system has been a boost to the championship aspirations of Edwards, driver of the A.R.T./Young Life Pontiac GXP.

The Oklahoman scored 10 extra points during four rounds of qualifying at zMax Dragway and went on to win the Countdown opener in Concord, N.C. In Ennis, Edwards netted the maximum 12 bonus points and finished with a 90-point total for the event. Despite a semifinal loss to Greg Anderson, Edwards leads four-time class champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. by 65 points. Anderson, a three-time champ, earned his second win of ‘09 Sunday and is third, 80 points behind Edwards.

*Having slipped to sixth in Funny Car points on Sunday, Ron Capps spent Monday testing the NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger R/T at the Motorplex. Capps and crew chief Ed “Ace” McCulloch opted to pull out the chassis that won them four races in the beginning of the season.

“We pulled out the car that we had run the first half of the year,” said Capps, who has endured first-round exits in the first two Countdown events. “Even though you have cars that are built identically to each other, you hear a lot about a crew chief finally just going back to the car he knows best. You struggle a little bit and you start to think maybe it’s your tune-up. And then, lo and behold, you go back to a proven chassis that you know will react to what the commands are from the crew chief, and it reacts right away.

“That’s what happened to us. We stayed on Monday and basically just went back to what we knew. We had pulled out a new car in Norwalk (Ohio) this year. It was the sister to the chassis we ran the first half of the year and we front-halved the car that we’d been running the first half of the year _ the one that won four races for us and is the current holder of the national elapsed-time record (4.023 seconds in Phoenix).

“You just don’t think that a car that has been built identically is going to be any different. First pass on Monday the car ran 4.18 (seconds) in conditions that were quite a bit warmer than in the first round on Sunday. And Sunday’s quickest run was a 4.17 by Bob Tasca. That was very encouraging. It went right down the track like it had in the past. We ran 4.18 and 4.17 in two passes.”

A five-time winner this season, Capps came into Texas fourth in points. “We asked ourselves, is it too late now? We’re not sure,” said Capps, 94 points behind Hight. “We’re going to give it a heck of a try.”

*Jack Beckman’s runnerup finish to Robert Hight has vaulted the driver of the Valvoline/Mail Terminal Services Dodge from sixth into third in the Countdown standings.

“Everybody on the team is upbeat,” Beckman said. “We moved up in the points, we made it to the final round, which is what we have to do. But, you don’t want to make it into the final round and lose. I think sometimes losing in the semis is better than losing in the finals because that’s the one round where everything is on the line. It’s more money, more points, and that’s where you earn the Wally (the NHRA winner’s trophy named for NHRA founder Wally Parks).

“We have 16 rounds of competition left and I think we’re going to have to win eight or nine of them to be a factor in the championship. What it basically means is getting at least one win in the next four races and pretty much reaching the semis or better everywhere you go if you want to have a shot at winning this. And I think right now we don’t have to change a thing.”

Meanwhile, Mail Terminal Services is continuing its popular “Mail From Home” campaign, supporting U.S. troops serving in war zones. During the past two NHRA seasons the campaign has sent over 195,000 post cards overseas signed by fans and supporters at each NHRA national event with morale-boosting messages for the troops, along with NHRA National Dragster issues and other automotive magazines. Photos of cars and drivers also have been included. 
In 2009 the “Mail From Home” program has been challenged to exceed the previous records of cards distributed to hit a 125,000-count record for one season.

*Funny Car drivers Tim Wilkerson and Bob Tasca III have announced the extension of their successful technical alliance through the 2010 season. Wilkerson and Tasca formed the alliance prior to the 2009 campaign and have acted as teammates throughout the year, although both teams are independently owned and operated.

Still, the teams have shared tuning information, the drivers have worked to improve performance and both organizations have combined to create an expanded marketing platform at the racetrack. Wilkerson, defending event champion at Memphis Motorsports Park, and Tasca each has qualified for the Countdown. Tasca, driver of the Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Shelby Mustang, is fifth after two events while Wilkerson, driver of the Levi Ray & Shoup Shelby Mustang, is eighth. Each driver has won two national events this season.

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, October 2 2009
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