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U.S. Nationals Pose An Interesting Question

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, August 31 2012

Antron Brown won his first U.S. Nationals Top Fuel title a year ago. It was a huge moment. (File photo courtesy of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

The NHRA is unique in a number of ways. One of those ways goes on display this weekend and it’s tough to decide whether that way is good unique or bad unique.

The U.S. Nationals are drag racing’s big event. It’s the sport’s Daytona 500, it’s Indianapolis 500. In several senses, it is bigger and more interesting than those events; like in way it is not just about the top tier of drag racing, but features a week’s worth of grass roots racing on the same Lucas Oil Raceway strip where the big boys and girls will perform on the weekend.

A key aspect of the U.S. Nationals, the pro portion of which is scheduled to begin today in Claremont, Ind., is the fact that it sets up as the final regular-season event on the NHRA schedule: the series’ six-race Countdown begins at zMAX Dragway in Concord, N.C., next time out.

The question for some NHRA purists has, for years now, been: Is it coolish or foolish to have the Nationals serve as the last-chance event before the playoffs?

Does the situation make The Big Go bigger? Or does it water it down, de-highlight it as the NHRA’s showcase individual event.

The opinions of drivers interviewed in recent days seem to be heavily weighted toward the former – the Nats are absolutely sitting in the right place on the schedule.

“I think it is,” Pro Stock driver Larry Morgan, who is eight in points but just 18 points out of 11th and, hence, needs a big weekend to earn a Countdown berth, said when as if the timing of the U.S. Nationals is good. “I mean, you’re coming down to the end and I believe it’s probably the best time. I mean, you add one part and start another. I think that’s what this whole Countdown is about. I think it’s great myself.”

Bob Vandergriff, who is fighting for a Top Fuel Countdown berth as he is 10th and three-points ahead of 11th, agreed. He said that the intersection of the Nationals and start of the Countdown is perfect.

“I think it just adds to the drama of the biggest race of the season,” Vandergriff said. “I think that’s why the program was put in place, is to take advantage of the timing of it, where the points stop right now, I think it’s just created an even bigger event than it could have already been. For the U.S. Nationals, to make that even bigger and put more pressure on you and more emphasis, you’re already trying to win the race, it’s so big you just throw that on top of it, I think it’s just added to the whole race.”

Top Fueler Clay Millican, also a bubble boy at 11th this weekend, said, “The Countdown is doing exactly what I think NHRA wanted it to do. It’s got the media talking to two guys battling for the tenth spot. In the old system, you would not be talking to us and there would not be this story of two guys battling to get into the Countdown. And I know our team and Bob’s team is working our tail off to make our cars run with those multi-car teams, and we may have got the championship. That’s part of the deal. You can’t really overshadow the U.S. Nationals. The only thing you can do is add to it, and I certainly think this story is adding to it.”

Drivers, however, often have a different perspective on their sports. What is good for them and their interests is, sometimes, not what’s good for fans and fans’ interests.

Many NASCAR drivers, for example, consider a good race to be one in which they don’t have to take chances to get victories. That is, they are more concerned about piling up points than exciting the fans.

Some NHRA fans think U.S. Nationals should not be sharing center stage with the Countdown; that when the Nationals end on Monday, the emotion of the moment should be about winning or losing the greatest drag race on the planet; that headlines read “Smith Wins Nationals?” and not “Smith Earns Countdown Berth!”

Tough issue. One which will not likely ever find consensus.

The hope here is that headlines will read: “Smith Wins Nationals And Also Earns Countdown Berth!”

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, August 31 2012
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