NHRA Notes: The ‘Stang Is Back

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, February 14 2010
Cory McClenathan will lead the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series into today's Kragen O'Reilly Winternationals. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA)

Cory McClenathan will lead the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series into today's Kragen O'Reilly Winternationals. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA)

Ford Motor Co. marked its official return to drag racing’s famed “Factory Hot Rod” wars Saturday, when veteran competitor Larry Morgan qualified a 2010 Mustang for the 50th annual Kragen O’Reilly NHRA Winternationals at Pomona, Calif.

Morgan covered the Auto Club Raceway quarter-mile in 6.645-seconds and 207.88 mph to earn the 15th spot on the 16-car Pro Stock ladder for the National Hot Rod Association season-opener. And in what rates as a natural first-round Ford vs. Chevrolet matchup, Morgan is paired opposite former multiple champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. and the Cobalt he qualified at 6.591-seconds and 201.08 mph.

“I’m so excited, I almost can’t hardly stand it,” said Morgan, a 10-time Pro Stock winner who has switched to Ford after years of campaigning a Dodge Stratus. “It’s incredible.  We ran real well in testing, both times we were out.  We’re just so excited for Ford to get the Mustang out there and show off what (engine engineer) Mose Nowland has been working on for months.”

Morgan’s successful qualifying effort capped a 14-month testing and developmental program with Jim Cunningham Racing aimed at pairing the new Ford 500 Pro Stock engine and 2010 Mustang body. Cunningham and Erica Enders ran the chassis/engine combination at the NHRA Finals at Pomona in November, while the powerplant was in full development.

Morgan and teammate John Nobile were selected to open the season, with the latter failing to make the cut in his Larry Morgan Racing/Lucas Oil Summit Racing Mustang. Cunningham Racing is expected to make its 2010 Pro Stock debut at Gainesville (Fla.) Raceway in mid-March.

Ford’s Pro Stock heydey was fashioned around Bob Glidden, who won nine of his 10 NHRA championships in various Ford-bodied models. Glidden’s reign included a stretch of five consecutive championships between 1985-89. Glidden, whose 85 career victories rank third on the all-time NHRA list, scored Ford’s most recent Pro Stock victory at Englishtown, N.J., in 1995.

The 2010 season is Morgan’s 23rd in Pro Stock but first with “The Blue Oval” and Nowland, who has been involved with successful high-profile Ford Racing programs dating to the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans effort in the 1960s.

“Certainly, since we left Pro Stock racing, about the time Bob Glidden retired (1997), there’s been a lot of breakthroughs on alloy, compositions, strength and methods of valve train dynamics,” Nowland said.  “It was very delightful for me to have spent so much time on NASCAR projects in that there’s a lot of things we learned there that we applied to this engine.  Our goal was to get out there pretty quick with an engine that would stand a good chance to qualify and keep the price down.  I believe we’ve met the challenge pretty good. My expectations are running high right now.”

Fram Team Slims Down: Cory McClenathan and the FRAM Top Fuel Dragster spent  the offseason losing weight in a concerted effort to get quicker and faster. That sweat equity was manifested Saturday, when Cory Mac regained the No. 1 spot in qualifying for the season-opening Winternationals.

McClenathan covered Auto Club Raceway’s 1,000-foot strip in 3.787-seconds and 320.05 mph in the next-to-last pairing to secure the 34th pole of his career and third at the Winternationals.

“We knew we needed to shed some weight both with the driver and the race car,” said McClenathan, who ended the 2009 season fourth in points with one victory in four final rounds. “We needed to be 35 pounds lighter and have more power with our package. The FRAM guys (including crew chiefs Todd Okuhara and Phil Shuler) went to work on that, and I went to work on myself, and it’s been a win-win situation for everybody.

“The competition has gotten so tight that we’re just focusing in on all the little things that have to do with these cars, and in the offseason we put the car on a huge diet and it really paid off.”

McClenathan has two wins in Pomona at the season-ending NHRA Finals but none in the Winternationals. “I just want to go out and prove that we have one of the better cars in the pack, and I think we do, and obviously I think it’s the most consistent,” McClenathan said. “It would be nice to come out of the gate and win the Winternationals. That’s one race where I’ve been to the finals and never won. And that would be a great start for us.”

Debate rages at 1,000 feet: Legendary owner/drivers Kenny Bernstein and Don Garlits understand why NHRA continues to run its nitromethane Top Fuel and Funny Car classes at 1,000-feet, rather than the traditional quarter-mile. That doesn’t mean “The King of Speed” and “Big Daddy” are in complete agreement on all aspects of the subject.

“I’m comfortable with it in the safety aspect of where we were going before we made this reduction,” said Bernstein, owner of the COPART Dragster driven by son Brandon. “And I think the racing today is closer than ever.  I think there are some good sides to it, and the not-so-good.  The not-so-good is you very seldom will see a car pass somebody at the finish line like you did when it was a quarter-mile, when someone’s car would give up and you would sneak by them, because 1,000-foot comes up awful quick.

“It has put more pressure on drivers. They’ve got to be on their toes on the starting line because it’s such an advantage if you happen to be a good ‘leaver.’

“I think safety-wise it was the smart thing to do at the time. I don’t have a problem with it today.  Could we go back to quarter-mile racing?  Yeah, if the safety was there.  In other words, if you could bring the cars under control and make them not destroy themselves at the last 300 feet and run 300 (mph).  All you have to do is run 300 miles an hour for the fans, 301. It doesn’t matter if it’s 320. None of us knows the difference other than the fact that the number comes on the board.  So I’m good with the 1,000-foot, and all safety aspects.  I think it’s made for good racing.

“Traditionally it’s not good, of course, like the quarter-mile.  But it needs to be a safe quarter-mile if they possibly can.  I’m not sure that we can get there under what I see right now.”

Garlits said he originally agreed with the distance reduction in the name of driver safety. “But I was under the impression it was going to be a short-term deal until they got engines under control,” Garlits said. “Crew chiefs under control, I guess I should say.  They’re the ones that are turning the knobs and that’s what needs to be done.

“They need to put some strict rules in there.  Because I’ve sat up in the stands at several events now with the fans that don’t like the 1,000-foot racing.  Now, if everybody was racing 1,000-foot, it would be different.  But they see this big finish line down there with the scoreboards and they see these Funny Cars shutting off early, they think.  Well, they’re shutting off at the 1,000-foot mark, but it does look like it’s shutting on off early because the scoreboards and the rest of the cars are going further.

“And I think NHRA does need to address that. I think we should go back to quarter-mile racing, and put some very strict limitations on the dragsters.  And Kenny’s 100 percent right. Let them go 300, 301, 299.They don’t need to go 320. He’s right. You can’t tell the difference.”

KB’s shout-out for Glidden: Kenny Bernstein ended his stellar driving career as the first driver to win NHRA world championships in Funny Car and Top Fuel, and with 69 combined victories. None remains more special than his first in Funny Car…and not for the obvious reason. Bernstein recalled that moment during a teleconference featuring himself, Top Fuel innovator “Big Daddy” Don Garlits and 10-time Pro Stock champion Bob Glidden.

“I’d like to add something, just a footnote, so these guys (media) know what a person Bob Glidden is,” Bernstein said. “The first race I won was 1979 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, against a guy named John Force.  When they took the pictures in those days, you always got the cover of National Dragster with all three winners – Pro Stock, Top Fuel and Funny Car.

“I’ll never forget, Glidden repositioned me in the photograph so that when they mailed out the National Dragster, the stamp that the post office put on it wouldn’t cover me up. It covered him up because he had won before, and it was my first win.  So I told him thank you, but I thank him again.”

Glidden replied: “You’re too much. You know, when I started racing, of course Don Prudhomme had been winning a lot and had the Army sponsorship. And all of us little guys hoped we could be somewhat like Don Prudhomme. Then Kenny comes along and opens the whole world up to us in the business of sponsors. And, gosh, Kenny, I know none of us have thanked you for it. But by gosh, thanks!”

Sarge Ponders four-wide: NHRA competition will take on an historic new look and sound with the inaugural points-paying Four-Wide Nationals at zMAX Dragway near Charlotte from March 25-28. Qualifying and eliminations in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle will be conducted in four lanes, rather than two, at O. Bruton Smith’s state-of-the-art drag strip.

Tony Schumacher, the seven-time and reigning Top Fuel champion, said his opinion on the format is similar to the one he espoused when NHRA introduced the six-race Countdown to 1 championship.

“I don’t get to make the rules, but I read them,” said Schumacher, driver of the U.S. Army Dragster. “It’s the way it is. You know, I hear everyone going back and forth, “Well, what about this…’ you know?  I can’t believe the dangers.

“You know what?  It is what it is. We’re going to sit up in the seat. We’re going to do our job. When the light comes on, we’re going to go. I’ve tried to oversimplify it. I’ve told you that a thousand times.  Oversimplify it.  When the light comes on, doesn’t matter if there are 30 cars, when the light comes on, go as fast as you can to the end. When you get out, they’re going to tell you if you won.  And that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

“The Sarge” admitted he hasn’t actually read the full set of rules on the controversial format. “It doesn’t matter,” said Schumacher, who is working on a streak of six consecutive titles. ”Really, I look at it that light comes on, and we’re going to go.  And the other cars staging, yeah, the guys can play a little bit of a game if they don’t stage. But in reality, that’s how NHRA chose to do it. I think it’s going to be exciting.  I think a drag race has always been one guy against another guy.  But it’s something new.

“I commend them for trying to improve the sport. No matter what the outcome is, to try to make a change for the sport. You know, I love drag racing. I could have gone in many different directions and driven many different cars and I chose to stay here. I believe in it, and I think it’s a great sport.

“Let’s go out and see.  If it doesn’t work out, I’m sure they’ll go back to the way it was. If it does work out, we have something new.  Let’s have some fun. I don’t think the danger is any more.  We’ve got a guardrail between us.  In reality, there is a guy next to you.

“The hardest part we’re going to have is three cars smoke the tires, or four cars. I’m pretty trained to hearing the car next to me.  When you hear that car, you know what he’s doing. You know when he’s off and on the throttle. When you have four guys doing it, it’s going to be nuts.

“But watching it is going to be exciting.  Watching four cars go out there and battle, it will be pretty cool.”

Hagan soul searching: Matt Hagan’s winless rookie Funny Car campaign admittedly made for a restless offseason.

“After last year, you had to really sit down and think to yourself and do some soul-searching,” said Hagan, who has DieHard on-board as primary sponsor on the Dodge Charger he drives for Don Schumacher Racing, along with continued support from shelor.com. “To go to 24 races and make about 100 laps during the year and not come out with a win was disheartening, but we got really close.

“In the offseason I had to step back and look at what I could improve on and what I can make better this year.  It’s tough to be away from your family, even though they support everything you do, so I just I had to make a commitment to myself this year to come out with a great attitude and a big desire to win. I know with the quality of team that we have it’s very, very possible. Don Schumacher knows how to put a winning team together.”

Hagan, a 27-year-old Angus Cattle farmer from Christiansburg, Va., reached two final rounds and qualified No. 1 twice in 2009 en route to an 11th-place point finish.

“Don kept everybody on our team together for this year and that says a lot because we all know each other, we’re all growing together,” Hagan said. “I’m learning from them and they’re learning from me. And that goes a long way when you have the same people around you who have the same confidence in you as you have in them. But, I tell you, there’s still a lot to learn in these cars and I know we’re going to be learning every lap.

“I’m really looking forward to the new season. I’ve been training real hard at home, running and weight-lifting. My goal is to win the first race.”

Hagan qualified fifth for today’s season-opening Winternationals after a pass at 4.091-seconds and 308.64 mph. Veteran Gary Densham and his Chevrolet Impala will provide the opposition for the first round of Hagan’s sophomore season.

“I guess saying you’re a rookie is great when you mess up,” Hagan said, “so hopefully we don’t mess up too many times this year and we won’t have to worry about that. I know I’ve learned a lot last year running with the veterans out here. They sure can handle race cars, and I’m learning to do the same thing.”

Force’s anniversary flashback: John Force credits former Funny Car rival Gordie Bonin for paving the way to a Castrol primary sponsorship that today, at 25 years, stands as the longest active partnership in motorsports.

“Gordie Bonin introduced me to John Howell (former Castrol sponsorship manager) in 1985,” said Force, driver of the 25th anniversary Castrol High-Mileage Ford Mustang. “I’d just lost my Valvoline deal and all I wanted was something to replace it, which was $5,000 cash and our oil. So, that was the original deal for 1986. Then, in 1987, they came out with the Castrol Super Team with me and Gary Ormsby (Top Fuel), Larry Morgan (Pro Stock), Pat Austin (Top Alcohol Funny Car), Bill Barney (Top Alcohol Dragster) and David Nickens (Competition). And here we are, 126 wins and 14 championships later, still together and not through winning, either.”

Wilkerson AC-counting and Son: Tim Wilkerson, owner/driver of the Levi, Ray & Shoup Shelby Mustang Funny Car, hopes to secure funding that will allow his son, Daniel, to run up to six races in 2010. Daniel Wilkerson, who made his Funny Car debut at Topeka, Kan., last year, is a senior accounting major at the University of Illinois.

“I told him there’s always going to be money to count,” the elder Wilkerson deadpanned. “You might see him drive my car from time to time, if we have enough cars to make two cars.”

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, February 14 2010
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