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NHRA Notes: Massey Amasses Points

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, November 6 2009
Spencer Massey is on a tear. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA)

Spencer Massey is on a tear. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA)

The operative term in boxing is “stealing a round” – a flurry of punches fired-off during the final 10 or so seconds to impress the ringside judges right before they mark their scorecards.

Similarly, Top Fuel rookie Spencer Massey scored big style points in his bid for the 2009 Auto Club Road to the Future Award with his victory against Larry Dixon in last Sunday’s ninth annual NHRA Las Vegas Nationals.  Massey earned his second national event victory of the season against Dixon – the driver Spencer replaced at Don Prudhomme Racing  – in the final round at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Massey outran Shawn Langdon, Steve Torrence and Brandon Bernstein to reach the final, powering his U.S. Smokeless Dragster to a 1,000-foot pass in 3.827-seconds at 314.53 mph to defeat Dixon, whose Al-Anabi Racing Dragster lost traction at the start and clocked-in at 5.503-seconds and 174.87 mph.

“It’s unbelievable just being able to get to the final round. Every race car out there is capable of winning,” said Massey, selected by “The Snake” to replace Dixon during the offseason. Voted the NHRA’s top rookie in 1995, Dixon drove Prudhomme’s car for 14 seasons and won back-to-back championships in 2002-03 before joining tuner Alan Johnson’s start-up team.

Dixon exited Vegas and Round 5 of the Countdown to 1 –  NHRA’s six-race playoff – just one point behind six-time and reigning champion Tony Schumacher. The archrivals will decide the 2009 Full Throttle Drag Racing Series championship in NHRA’s premier division during the Auto Club Finals at Pomona, Calif., Nov. 12-15.

Massey, meanwhile, is among four rookies eligible for Auto Club Road to the Future honors, a lineup including fellow-Top Fuel driver Langdon, Matt Hagan in Funny Car and Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Doug Horne. More than 135 media members were invited to cast ballots in voting that ended Thursday.

Massey is sixth in Top Fuel points, 148 behind “The Sarge” and the last driver mathematically eligible for the title heading into Pomona. Langdon, 27, is eighth in points, 196 out. Horne, 21, sits sixth in PSM, 263 points behind championship leader Hector Arana. Hagan, 26, is 12th in Funny Car points.

Massey, who scored his first career victory at Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Ill., in June, is the only rookie winner among the four professional classes.  But in addition to on-track performance, voters were advised to consider the following criteria for each candidate: Relationship with fans, media and sponsors; participation in NHRA promotions, number of events competed and driver’s potential as a future star in the sport.

“I don’t like to think that I should or shouldn’t (win rookie of the year),” said Massey, a 27-year-old native of Fort Worth, Texas. “I don’t really think like that. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I would like for it to happen, but Shawn (Langdon) is an awesome racer and so is Matt Hagan and Doug Horne.

“Obviously, we’ve got a couple of wins now and the points are the points, but there’s a whole lot of different situations and things that happen for the rookie of the year. I don’t know if it (his second win) draws a line under it or puts a check by my name or whatever, but I’d love to find out at the end of Pomona that it happened that way.”

Matt Hagan qualified No. 1 in Vegas, only to be trailered by Don Schumacher Racing teammate Jack Beckman in the second round of eliminations. The pair launched with nearly identical reaction times but a dropped cylinder in Hagan’s Valvoline/shelor.com Dodge Charger R/T allowed Beckman to win by 11 feet.

“We have a good race car,”  Hagan said. “We qualified well, and qualifying No. 1 is great, but it’s even better when you go rounds on race day. Stuff happens. These Funny Cars have a lot of variables and you never know what can cause it sometimes, but we’ll go to the next race and see what happens.”

Hagan’s consolation prize was both ends of the track record – a 4.030-second elapsed time and 313.88 mph – fastest speed in NHRA history racing to 1,000 feet.

Robert Hight’s point-lead in Funny Car ballooned from 13 to 105 over John Force Racing teammate Ashley Force Hood in Vegas, where Hight and crew chief Jimmy Prock collaborated for their third win in five Countdown races.

Hight, son-in-law of team-owner and 14-time Funny Car champion John Force, has been a perennial contender for the title the past five seasons. But this will be the first time he will head into the Auto Club Finals as points-leader. The former JFR crewman attributed his current level of confidence to the performance improvement of the Auto Club Ford Mustang.

“You don’t have to go out there and do dumb things trying to pull wins out,” said Hight, brother-in-law of Force Hood. “I did that earlier in the year when we were struggling. I got lucky since I never red-lit. I was trying to do too much because I knew the car needed a little help. It doesn’t work that way. You have to do what you know how to do. It ‘s all about confidence.”

A two-time championship runnerup, Hight’s ascension to the top of the points table has allowed him to reflect upon his current high-profile status.

“I never thought I would get to this point,” said Hight, 40. “I never thought I would get to drive a race car. I was happy and content to be driving down the road in one of John Force’s trucks and working on his race car. I just owe it all to him for giving me this opportunity to come out here. When you are on a team like this you’re expected to win. That put a little added pressure on you. You also know you have good equipment and a good car. That makes it easier to learn, and trust me, I am still learning.”

Ashley Force Hood delivered what amounted to a concession speech in Vegas, as a 105-point deficit to JFR teammate Robert Hight clearly has made her a longshot to become the first female Funny Car champion in NHRA history.

“My goal going into this year was to finish fourth or better; I would be pumped with that,” said Force Hood, driver of the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang. “To be fighting for first or second this year has gone better than I ever expected it to. When you’re right in the middle of it you get greedy and you want everything. Really, if you take a step back, I never expected to be running for first. Now after this year we will be gunning for first. The sky is the limit for us next year.

“In Pomona, if one of our teams is on that stage in first place, that’s all that matters. That is what we have been working for all season.”

New-car blues worked against Mike Neff at Vegas, where he again pulled double duty as driver/tuner of a Ford Drive One Mustang resting on one of the new John Force Racing chassis. The switch to the new chassis gave Neff a revised set of issues en route to a loss against Jack Beckman’s Valvoline/MTS Dodge.

“The new chassis we built is great and it will be better than what we have,” said Neff, crew chief for 2005 Funny Car champion Tony Pedregon during his tenure at JFR. “The problem that we discovered is the parts we put on it that control all the electronics…it changed everything. We couldn’t get a handle on it. It kind of threw us a curveball. We’re going to fix all that and go to Pomona. We will be close and take a shot at it.”

Some cheap sunglasses might have helped Cory McClenathan advance into the Top Fuel final in Vegas. McClenathan scored a huge second-round win against Don Schumacher Racing teammate and points-leader Tony Schumacher in the second round before pairing-off against Larry Dixon in the semifinals. With the chance to eliminate the top two in points, Cory Mac found himself battling a setting sun.

The resulting glare on the starting lights became a factor as McClenathan took off behind Dixon with a 0.150-seconds reaction time to Dixon’s 0.073 (0.000 is perfect). McClenathan lost the race while posting a quicker pass of 3.844-seconds/316.38 mph to Dixon’s 3.845-seconds/314.61 mph. Dixon’s subsequent loss to rookie Spencer Massey in the final left him one point behind Schumacher heading into Pomona. McClenathan, driver of the FRAM Tough Guard Dragster, is third – 48 points behind the leader.

“It had to be the glare,” said McClenathan, a four-time championship runnerup in the 1990s. “It’s ridiculous because as a driver you’re either late, get beat on a hole shot, or you don’t, and I did. We had a great opportunity to win. We ran great. Phil and Todd (crew chiefs Shuler and Okuhara) did their jobs, the rest of the FRAM team did their jobs, but the driver just flat let them down.

“I couldn’t see where Larry was, I couldn’t see if he was staged. By the time I finally said, ‘Forget it, I have to look at my side and concentrate on that,’ it was too late. The lights were coming down, I hit the gas. I knew I was late the whole time, knew we were trailing. All of a sudden I started seeing that we were catching him, but it was too late. I could have made it a lot easier on the Army team (Schumacher), I could have made it a lot easier on the FRAM team by going up there and doing my job, and it just didn’t happen, for the all the wrong reasons.”

Mopar will compete with a new Pro Stock Dodge Avenger beginning with the 2010 season.  The car of  Team Mopar driver Allen Johnson was on display at the 2009 Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) Show in Vegas through Friday. Officially approved for NHRA competition, the Avenger’s competition debut is scheduled for the 50th annual Kragen O’Reilly NHRA Winternationals in Pomona, Calif., Feb. 11-14. The Avenger replaces the Dodge Stratus R/T body, which has been in use by Mopar HEMI-powered competitors since the midpoint of the 2003 season.

The Avenger was developed in-house at Chrysler Group LLC, using tools and resources also employed in the production model.  The greatest challenge to the Dodge Motorsports Engineering team assigned to the project was maintaining maximum identity of the Avenger in the new body without forsaking performance down the quarter-mile.

Led by Johnson, Mopar Pro Stock drivers worked closely with the engineering team to ensure the new Avenger was large enough to accommodate all safety features, including the roll cage and quick ingress and egress in case of an emergency. To that end, the size of the car’s front door was adjusted to maximize driver safety.

“We’ve been racing the Stratus since mid-2003. Just having a change is an upgrade,” Johnson said. “We feel we’ve been at a disadvantage with some of our competitors who have been racing in new bodies for the last few years. I was fitted for the new body in late September. NHRA was there, and we spent a lot of time going over the templates. That was exciting. I’m glad we’re going ahead full-bore.”

Cruz Pedregon Racing joined with NHRA’s Competition and Technical departments for a series of test runs following the Vegas event, part of a continuing initiative to find a new combination designed to reduce horsepower in the nitromethane Funny Car and Top Fuel categories.

The combination tested on “The Cruzer’s” Advance Auto Parts Toyota Solara included a single magneto, one less clutch disc and a smaller fuel pump.  Currently, nitromethane race vehicles employ two magnetos in their engine set-ups.  Pedregon, Funny Car champion in 1992 and 2008, described the tests as “encouraging,” but further testing is planned. Dan Olson, the NHRA’s director of Top Fuel and Funny Car racing; Pedregon and crew chief Rahn Tobler worked together on tune-up changes and strategies between each test run.

“We obtained some good data that will give us a great starting point for further tests,” Pedregon said. In addition, NHRA will continue to work with Funny Car driver Tim Wilkerson and his Levi, Ray & Shoup Shelby Mustang team on the combination tested earlier in the season which included decreased displacement, use of a smaller capacity fuel pump, decrease in percentage overdrive in the blower, a change on the rear-end gear ratios, and the use of 90 percent nitro.

NHRA officials reiterated this is strictly a testing and research project with an open-ended completion date.  Once any decision is finalized, NHRA would give affected competitors ample time to adjust.

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

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, November 6 2009
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