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New Name, Concrete Waiting For NHRA In Arizona

| Senior Correspondent, RacinToday.com Thursday, February 20 2014

The unknown awaits John Force and the rest of the NHRA drivers this weekend in Arizona. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series)

By Mark Armijo | Senior Correspondent

CHANDLER, Ariz. – Should drag racing Methuselah John Force once again turn back the clock and torpedo another hole into the wind, such as he did two weeks ago by establishing national Funny Car elapsed time and speed records in the 2014 season opener at Pomona, Calif., he would do so on a partially revamped drag strip in the Carquest Auto Parts NHRA Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park.

Wild Horse Pass, formerly Firebird International Raceway, underwent a concrete makeover during the offseason, a $500,000 investment designed in part to help create faster and quicker side-by-side racing in time for this weekend’s event.

Rod Wolter, a consultant recommended by NHRA, oversaw the construction that was completed in late December, one of several projects launched by a new management team that in April took over day-to-day operation of the 458-acre facility.

“It was designed for 4,500 pounds of compression strength, but we’re right at 8,000,” said Wolter, who helped build Gateway International Raceway near St. Louis and supervised other track renovations. “You could run Sherman tanks on it.”

New concrete was poured beginning at the 164-foot mark and was extended to 705 feet, resulting in 541 feet of new concrete.

Other improvements spearheaded by managing director Paul Clayton and track president Dick Hahne, a former operations vice president at Daytona International Speedway, include new scoreboards, timing system and updated lighting.

Jack Beckman, the 2012 Mello Yello Series Funny Car champion, said the Wild Horse Pass strip has “always been incredibly quick, but part of that is the time of year we run.”

“Concrete, all things being equal, means we can engage the lock-up levers in the clutch system sooner,” said Beckman, a three-time winner at Wild Horse Pass in the Valvoline/MTS Dodge Charger. “We can accelerate harder in the earlier part of the run and it should enable us to run quicker and faster.”

About a dozen Pro Stock drivers tested earlier this month at Wild Horse Pass, but no one was predicting track records to fall unless several variables fall into place, notably the weather.

When Erica Enders-Stevens made several passes in the Elite Motorsports Chevy Camaro, temperatures were in the low 60s, a prime ingredient for blurry speeds and quick ET’s. She flirted with the existing track marks (6.498 seconds, 213.77 mph) set last year by Mike Edwards on her first full pass, posting a bumpy 6.54-second run at 211 mph.

“I love this track. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the tour,” said Enders-Stevens, who won last year’s race. “It’s a little bumpy right now, but I think they’ll do some grinding on it before we get back for the national event.

“If they smooth it out, it will help us go even quicker. The new concrete is right where we transition from third gear to fourth and fifth. Those are really important gear changes for us. So if it’s smoothed out and prepped well, we’ll be fine.

“But I’m not sure the national records (6.471 seconds, 214.35 mph) will be in jeopardy. If it’s cool like it is now, you’ll see some quick ET’s. Pro Stock cars really like cool and dry weather.”

Jeg Coughlin, the reigning Mello Yello Pro Stock national champion in the JEGS.com/Mopar Dodge Avenger, also posted a 6.54-second pass (212 mph) on his first quarter-mile run at the test.

“(The new concrete) probably has a couple of waves in it as far as a bump sensation, but it’s also very new so it doesn’t have a whole lot of rubber down on it,” Coughlin said. “So some of that bump is created by the stock car wanting to hook, unhook, hook, unhook, hook, unhook and the car kind of porpoises its way down through there.

“I didn’t feel anything out of the ordinary or anything unsafe by any stretch, knock on wood. I’m sure all the hard work to (rebuild) it will pay off as we get more runs on the track and have another couple of weeks to prepare it.”

Wolter said the bumps were minimal and that minor hand grinding would correct it.

Like Enders-Stevens, Coughlin also said track records are iffy.

“Pro Stock cars depend so much on mother nature,” Coughlin said. “Atmosphere condition weighs in so much on the engine combination. We don’t have super chargers or oxygenated fuel like the Top Fuelers have so we really have to deal with the atmosphere conditions we have. If we come back and have 60-degree temperatures (weekend forecasts for the area are temperatures in the high 70s and low 80s) at 10-15 percent humidity and a good track, we’ll fly.

“It would be tough to hit on a national record just given the barometer here. Where we are at sea level is a little bit higher than a lot of other stops on tour.”

While it might be difficult for Pro Stocks to uncork national record passes this weekend, no one should dare discount Force, who has reached six straight final rounds dating to last season.

Force, who is 64 and last season won a record 16th Funny Car championship in the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang, is the all-time winner (eight) at Wild Horse Pass.

Will he make it nine come Sunday?

“You take a 64 year-old-man and put him in a fire suit, you are Superman, but I am back in the game and we are excited,” said Force, who last won here in 2005. “My ol’ Hot Rod, she’s fast and I love it, and it’s going to help me keep my job because that’s all I’m trying to do, whatever it takes.”

– Mark Armijo is the long-time auto racing beat writer for the Arizona Republic in Phoenix. He is also a frequent contributor to RacinToday.com

| Senior Correspondent, RacinToday.com Thursday, February 20 2014
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