Pedley: Answers And Questions From The Nationals

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, September 6 2009
Karen Stoffer is one of the few women left in the NHRA. (Photo Courtesy of the NHRA)

Karen Stoffer is one of the few women left in the NHRA. (Photo Courtesy of the NHRA)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

Clermont, Ind. – The eliminations are set for Monday’s finals at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals.

Tops seeds are: Antron Brown in Top Fuel, Robert Hight in Funny Car, Mike Edwards in Pro Stock and Matt Smith in Pro Stock Motorcycles.

After rain subsided and the track opened for final rounds of qualifying Sunday, the best drama occurred in Top Fuel.

Larry Dixon started the day No. 1 but late Sunday afternoon, he was knocked back to fourth. Brown, Tony Schumacher and Brandon Bernstein moved ahead of Dixon.

The field for the Top Fuel in the Countdown was set as Doug Kalitta and Clay Millican secured the ninth and 10th berths.

In Funny Car, Robert Hight held on to the top spot but the John Force Racing stranglehold was broken when Cruz Pedregon took over fourth place and knocked the JFR team owner to fifth. After Hight, JFR drivers Ashley Force Hood and Mike Neff were second and third in qualifying.

In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Steve Johnson’s sixth-place ranking and Karen Stoffer’s 10th place finish now has them tied for points in the battle for the 10ths spot. Should they both go out in the same round Monday, Johnson would advance as he holds the Countdown tiebreaker (most rounds won). Michael Phillips and Shawn Gann are the other two drivers fighting to stay in the top 10, but that won’t all play out until Monday.

Some pre-elimination thoughts on the 55th Mac Tools U.S. Nationals:

* It was just months ago that the NHRA was being held up as the model for diversity for all of professional sports. Women had not only broke through the gender barrier in the NHRA, they had rendered it irrelevant.

Women drivers were competing on an equal basis in the Pro Stock Motorcycle, Funny Car and Top Fuel divisions.

Drivers like Melanie Troxel, Hillary Will, Ashley Force Hood, Karen Stoffer and Angel Sampey were not just following the lead of Shirley Muldowney in NHRA, they were winning races and going for championships.

Best, they were accepted not as novelty acts, but as peers on the grounds of drag strips from Pomona to Norwalk.

On Saturday at O’Reilly Motorsports Park, a little fan was walking the midway with her parents. She was wearing a t-shirt which said, “Girls Rule”.

Unfortunately, the shirt should have read, “Girls Ruled”.

This year, only Force Hood and Stoffer from the above list are full-time drag racers. Only those two are at the U.S. Nationals this weekend with living thoughts of competing for the 2009 championship in their divisions.

What happened?

Stoffer, driving a Suzuki for Geico, was asked that after an autograph session earlier in the weekend at ORP.

She blinked. And blinked again.

She said that she had not really thought about it, but, yes, she wondered, too, what has happened?

“I guess I’d have to investigate why it is,” Stoffer said. “I’d never really thought about it but there are a lot of females sitting on the sideline.”

Stoffer said she sure hopes it is not a case of last-hired, first-fired.

“I think maybe what we are seeing is a lot of the females were hired on and their sponsors at the time were good and climbing at the time,” she said. “I just hope it’s more of a coincidence than anything.”

Stoffer, who arrived at the U.S. Nationals clinging to 10th place in bikes and in line to make the Countdown which starts in two weeks in Charlotte, said she was extremely proud of the way the NHRA became a model of diversity a couple years back.

“For women but also for the entire diversity and everything,” she said. “Women are not only driving but are behind the scenes, too. It was the most diverse sport out there so to see us go backward and lose diversity in general, it’s a little challenging and it’s a little disheartening. But if you gave them a couple sponsors, we’d be right back up where we started from.”

* Brotherly love

The possibility had existed this weekend that Tony Pedregon would face brother Cruz Pedregon in Monday’s eliminations. Tony has clinched a Countdown berth but Cruz sits on the bubble at 10th.

What would turn that from interesting to controversial would be a head-to-head run on Monday. Would Tony purposely tank it to put his brother into the Countdown?

Reporter Steve Ballard asked both drivers their opinions on that this weekend. Cruz said no. Tony joked that he would address that if the situation arises.

Drivers in all forms of motor sports have bowed to team orders in the past. But family orders? Interesting.

It all became academic, of course, on Sunday. When the qualifying smoke cleared, the Pedregon’s were located on different sides of the bracket and could only meet in the finals. If Cruz makes it that far, he will have already claimed his berth.

* New rules?

It appears NHRA officials will announce tweaks to the system of awarding points as early as Monday. The new system, which will be put in place when the Countdown begins Charlotte in two weeks, awards points to the top three in each qualifying session.

* Sad moment

Hearing Don Prudhomme saying he is putting his operation up for sale after being dumped by U.S. Smokeless. His young driver, Spencer Massey, has been a great addition to the sport.

* Happy moment

Seeing Kenny Bernstein announcing he has landed a sponsor to replace Budweiser, which is terminating their long relationship. Copart has stepped up, consumers.

* Depressing moment

The announcement that drug abuse may have paid visit to NHRA. Bike racer Matt Guidera has been suspended under the series’ substance abuse policy.

* Speaking the truth

If they issued the command “Ladies and gentleman, start your engines” before NHRA events, they would be speaking literally. The sport boasts the nicest, most grounded professional athletes which I have ever been around in my life as a sports writer.

And its events are among the most fun and the U.S. Nationals are the best of the bunch.

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

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, September 6 2009
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