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Connolly Trades Doors For Nitro In 2015

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, February 6 2015

Dave Connolly has bailed from his Pro Stock ride in favor of driving Top Fuel in 2015.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Dave Connolly’s door-slamming days are so-over, as the one-time Pro Stock prodigy breathes-in the rarified nitro air synonymous with driving an NHRA Top Fuel dragster.

Connolly is scheduled to make his competitive debut in the C&J Energy Services dragster fielded by Bob Vandergriff Racing Friday during the first two of four rounds of qualifications for the 55th annual Circle K NHRA Winternationals. The event at historic Pomona (Calif.) Raceway is the season-opener of the 24-race Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule.

Vandergriff Jr., whose NHRA driving career dates to 1994, finished 11th in Top Fuel points last season and out of the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs. A three-time race winner, Vandergriff subsequently tapped Connolly to replace him as teammate to triple Top Fuel world champion Larry Dixon Jr. For Connolly, a brief offseason of testing has produced one wow-factor moment after another.

“It’s all about opportunities,” Connolly, 32, said during a national teleconference. “When Bob was making a change in his program and approached me I was very honored to even be considered for a position in Top Fuel. In my opinion it’s the pinnacle of drag racing, and it’s the fastest cars on the ground – the fastest thing on the property. That’s as high as it goes and never in a million years did I think about even having the opportunity to race on a pro level like I have in Pro Stock, and now in Top Fuel.

“It’s been a blessing, and again, when I was approached, I didn’t have to think very long on it. Not too many people get opportunities like this, so I’m going to try to take full advantage of it.”

Connolly finished third in Pro Stock points for the fourth time in his career in 2014, trailing world champion Erica Enders-Stevens and runnerup Jason Line, a two-time world champ. Connolly, who has 26 career Pro Stock victories, returned to the cockpit in the Charter Chevrolet Camaro fielded by Gray Motorsports after spending the 2013 season as tuner for Enders-Stevens. Connolly’s three national event victories included back-

No door slamming for Dave Connolly in 2015.

to-back Wally trophies earned at Texas Motorplex in Ennis and Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Ill., during the Countdown.

“I’ve kind of grown up in the Pro Stock ranks,” Connolly said. “It’s been a fun journey so far (in Top Fuel). It’s opened my eyes quite a bit to what kind of monsters these Top Fuel cars are. We’ve got to experience a lot of different things _ tire shakes, smoking the tire early, smoking the tire down track, even blew up a few times.”

Recall that Pro Stock still competes over drag racing’s traditional quarter-mile, while Top Fuelers go start-to-finish at 1,000-feet. A native of Elyria, Ohio, Connolly made the move to the “Factory Hot Rod” class in 2003 and qualified in 11 of 13 events as protégé of Pro Stock pioneer Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins. Connolly was crowned E.T. Bracket Finals champion in 1999 and NHRA Division 3 Super Gas champ in 2002. The sum total of those laps, however, did not fully prepare Connolly for blast-off in a Top Fuel car.

“The G-forces that they pull all the way down the track is pretty much incredible,” Connolly said. “They just pull from 200-feet to 700-feet; these things are really covering up some ground and can really set you back in the seat. As far as the driving standpoint, obviously a Pro Stock car there’s a few more things going on, but again, you have a lot more time to adapt. You’re covering up so much ground in such a little amount of time, any little movement or small mistake turns into a big one in a hurry. Just getting adapted and acclimated with the speed rate and everything is the biggest challenge so far.

“I’m a huge fan of Pro Stock racing _ love all aspects of it, love the technology. But when you think ‘drag racing,’ it’s the first one to the finish line, and again, these things are going a thousand foot in 3.7-seconds and 330 miles an hour. That alone kind of sold the deal for me. I’ve always been interested in all categories of drag racing from Stock Eliminator to now it’s Top Fuel. I must say it’s kind of grabbed a hold of me tightly. It’s very addicting.”

Former Al-Anabi Racing driver Khalid alBalooshi was last year’s Winternationals champ in Top Fuel, joining John Force in Funny Car and Line in Pro Stock. ESPN2 will televise 90 minutes of same-day qualifying coverage Saturday at 10 p.m. (EST) and three hours of same-day eliminations coverage Sunday at 7:30 p.m. (EST). ESPN3’s live eliminations coverage begins Sunday at 2 p.m. (EST).

Vandergriff hired tuner Joe Barlam from Al-Anabi Racing after team-owner Alan Johnson lost funding from the Qatar Racing Club in early January. Barlam, a six-disc clutch specialist, will work with holdovers Kurt Elliott and Mike Guger. Additionally, BVR has formed a technical alliance with Don Schumacher Racing, home to eight-time/reigning Top Fuel world champion Tony Schumacher.

Coincidentally, Connolly said “The Sarge” tops the list of drivers he is anxious to stage against. “Obviously, Tony Schumacher has got the No. 1 on his car, so you definitely always want to take him out,” said Connolly, who tested twice in West Palm Beach, Fla., during the offseason. “To be honest with you, I’ve made only three runs in the 3.381- to 3.376-second range, so very, very green to the class still.

“Again, Top Fuel Session 101 is definitely in order. You know, there’s a lot of ‘firsts.’ Right now it’s getting A-to-B and learning that when the thing smokes the tires what to do. I haven’t been put in a pedal situation or a lot of race-day Sunday situations. It’s going to take a lot of experience.”

Schumacher said Connolly’s humble-pie approach will serve him well during his transition. “Once you get in those cars you can think you’re the coolest guy in the world,” said Schumacher, driver of the U.S. Army dragster. “They start up the cars and all that goes out the window, and the funny thing is he does have a great leader. He’s got Larry Dixon and Bob Vandergriff as a team-owner who’s made so many laps. But when the car starts and they step away, you are 100 percent alone and that’s the humbling part. There’s no one that can help you.

“I think he’s (Connolly) a great driver. I think Vandergriff made an excellent choice, but it’s going to take him time to get used to a Top Fuel car, the difference in staging. There’s so much that’s different. But he understands how to race. He’s got the perfect attitude, and he’s a good athlete. All those things are going to play right into it, and he’ll go out and make some laps and he’ll get used to it and become a great driver like everyone expects. That’s why Bob put him in the car.”

WINTERNATIONALS FAST FACTS

MOST VICTORIES

John Force, Funny Car, 7; Bob Glidden, Pro Stock, 7; Greg Anderson, Pro Stock, 5; Don Garlits, Top Fuel, 5; Warren Johnson, Pro Stock, 5; Don Prudhomme, Top Fuel/Funny Car, 5; Larry Dixon, Top Fuel, 4.

TRACK RECORDS

Top Fuel _ 3.704-seconds by Morgan Lucas, Nov. ’14; 330.15 mph by Doug Kalitta, Feb. ’14

Funny Car _ 3.965-seconds and 324.12 by John Force, Feb. ‘14

Pro Stock _ 6.480-seconds and 213.67 mph by Erica Enders-Stevens, Nov. ’14

NATIONAL RECORDS

Top Fuel _ 3.701-seconds by Antron Brown, Oct. ‘12, Reading, Pa.; 332.18 mph by Spencer Massey, April ’12, Concord, N.C.

Funny Car _ 3.965-seconds and 324.12 mph by John Force, Feb. ’14, Pomona, Calif.

Pro Stock _ 6.464-seconds and 215.55 mph by Erica Enders-Stevens, May ‘14, Englishtown, N.J.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, February 6 2015
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