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Vandergriff Jr. Makes Two Winning Passes

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, September 26 2011

Bob Vandergriff Jr. spoiled the party for Top Fuel Countdown participants Sunday at the AAA Fall Nationals. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

ENNIS, Texas – Bob Vandergriff Jr. says his natural athleticism kicks-in every time he rolls to the starting line in his Top Fuel dragster.

But after an impromptu victory sprint up the all-concrete Texas Motorplex Sunday afternoon, Vandergriff admitted he really needs to start hitting the treadmill.

“It’s a long way back to the starting line with all this gear on,” Vandergriff said after trailering native Texan Spencer Massey in the final of the 26th annual AAA Texas NHRA Fall Nationals. “About halfway back I said, ‘Man, I need to start running again.’ It was tough but it was worth it, something I’ve been waiting to do for a long time.”

Vandergriff raced to his first career victory in 14 final-round appearances, the longest streak of finals frustration before a win in NHRA history. Totally amped, Vandergriff hurriedly exited his car after defeating Fort Worth’s Massey in a pedal-fest-of-a-race. And rather than wait for the obligatory winner’s interview, the still-helmeted Vandergriff began to sprint back toward the starting line…on a track where the temperature read 131 degrees.

“I’m a little overwhelmed right now,” Vandergriff said in the press box, still clutching his pewter “Wally” Trophy. Vandergriff said his victory sprint had been in the planning stages for about five years.

“I always said that when I finally did win I didn’t want to be down there by myself and have my guys jumping all over the starting line and me down there hearing cricket noises,”

Bob Vandergriff and his Wally from Texas. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series)

said Vandergriff, driver of the C&J Energy Services dragster. “At the starting line I told my guys, ‘After I win this round I’m coming back to you. So meet me halfway.’ ”

Vandergriff’s sprint ended when an NHRA official picked him up in a golf cart, putting an unusual exclamation point on his less-than-artistic 1,000-foot pass of 4.243-seconds at 239.44 mph. Both Vandergriff and Massey lost traction and smoked the rear tires on their cars, with the latter crossing the line in 5.200-seconds and 145.48 mph.

“We’ve lost finals every way, just any way we can beat ourselves we’ve lost. So you get to questioning it,” said Vandergriff, who qualified eighth on the 16-car ladder in a rail tuned by Rob Flynn and Keith Stewart. “We finally got the crew I’ve been looking for. I knew it was going to happen. I just was hoping it was this time. I don’t think I could take another speech where I say, ‘Well, it’s all right,’ because it’s not all right.

“What was really great about it was that all the Sportsman winners and everybody who was on the side of the track came to the wall. Some of ‘em jumped over the wall to shake my hand on the way back. That means a lot when the other racers appreciate it.”

Meanwhile, pole-sitters Cruz Pedregon (Funny Car) and Jason Line (Pro Stock) ran the table in their respective classes en route to wins, while Michael Phillips upset top-qualifier Hector Arana Jr. in the Pro Stock Motorcycle final.

A 46-year-old resident of Cumming, Ga., Vandergriff had advanced to only one final in the previous 17 races, losing to Massey at Heartland Park Topeka in May. Vandergriff won the Auto Club Road to the Future Award as the NHRA’s top rookie in 1994, but has dealt with four complete seasons (2001-03 and 2005) during which he did not compete in a single national event.

Sunday’s race – Round 2 of the six-event Full Throttle Countdown to the Championship – was the 246th start of Vandergriff’s career. His overall won/lost record stood at 143-221 _ numbers hardly in line with Vandergriff’s athletic background. A native of Los Angeles, Vandergriff was an all-state football and basketball player at LaHabra High School. He also is a scratch golfer.

“Like in other sports, I’ve always won and always done very well,” said Vandergriff, who improved his 2011 won/loss record to 11-15. “To come out here and have so many variables that are out of my control while you’re trying to build that same kind of program, it’s been tough.

“And it’s been disappointing to get out here, and you see guys win who you don’t think are as good as you are. Or you think, ‘Man, I should be able to do that’ and you’re not able to do that and it eats on you. It’s been 17 years since I’ve been out here now. But I’ve had a great time and you’re never going to hear me complain. I’m very competitive. It’s something that drives me every day. That’s really why I’m out here to do this, the competition is what gets me going. And I finally feel like I have a team now and a car that’s capable of winning.”

Massey’s FRAM/Prestone dragster was the first to lose rear-tire traction, followed by Vandergriff’s own slide job.

“Yeah, I went out and smoked the tires and didn’t see him,” Vandergriff said. “Just reactions took over and I stepped on the gas again and it turned sideways on me. My first reaction was to take my foot off the throttle because I knew I was sideways. But I saw the finish line coming up and I said, ‘I can get it there.’ And then I was thinking to myself, ‘Damn, don’t crash this after you cross the finish line because that’s going to be a really bad celebration. I’ll be upside-down with the trophy.’ It was a pretty exciting final.”

Massey, a three-time winner this season, said he needed to improve his pedaling. “We’ll just continue to work on that,” said Massey, 29, who lost in the final for the second consecutive Countdown race. Antron Brown, Massey’s Don Schumacher Racing teammate, defeated him last Sunday at zMAX Dragway in Concord, N.C. But Massey exited The Plex as a first-time Top Fuel points-leader, seven in front of Brown heading into next weekend’s 27th annual Uni-Select Auto Plus NHRA Nationals in Reading, Pa.

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

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, September 26 2011
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