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5 on a Monopoly board—Reading Railroad—comes from the train borrowing its name from this largest city hosting the nearby Auto-Plus NHRA Nationals. The conditions here are historically conducive to Elapsed Time and speed records; this year’s event pounded those records like a penny flattened by a passing train. The event is of such importance for teams in the Countdown to the Championship, plus those getting their revenge on as spoilers, that the weight of the race creates an ingredient for spectacular television: pressure. Producing one of the top qualifying shows of the year, the ESPN team found the balance of both pressure and records producing a special program in its intensity and downright fun television. First, even Mother Nature felt pressure as a weather trough kept temps cool and clouds boiling, a perfect prescription for sizzling performances. Weather also doused the Sunday eliminations with a rain delay for the completion of finals until Monday’s special one-hour show at 10:00 p.m. Lead announcer, Paul Page, set the stage with “pressure is mounting.” The program took viewers through several pits, finding comments like the Army’s Tony Shumacher (“Always get better in pressure”), Pro Stock’s Greg Anderson, then veteran Warren Johnson keeping his contrarian “professor” designation with “I’ve never seen an increase or decrease (in pressure); really, there is no difference.” Commentator Mike Dunn, back in his chair after a week gone, pointed out Ron Capps’ Charger, not yet in the show with the eliminations down to one last try, “must be feeling the pressure.” The NAPA team’s prescription for winning the championship—chugging along with at least two rounds in each of the Countdown events—found that mission in peril unless they make the grade with a spot in the show.
Capps called his upcoming last qualifying pass “A key run . . . we need to back it down a lot. We don’t know what’s wrong. (Crew Chief Ron Tobler) is in a crisis.” The cameras showed that in Tobler’s face until Page verified what viewers had just seen—“There it is!”—Capps in with the No. 8 slot. “Probably found a little issue that got fixed,” surmised Dunn. Thus the Marquee Matchup was anointed with Capps vs. Jeff Arend’s DHL Toyota “since Arend has been down the track in every round,” calculated Dunn. Exciting television followed as Capps spun off the line, looking every bit like a loser, but Arend developed his own problems further down the track. Capps hooked up (Dunn noted, “He can drive!”) for the lap win. “Ron Capps comes back,” Page stated. “He really fought for it.” For that, he received the Aaron’s Lucky Dog of the Race award. A bigger issue remains for the Napa team: a face-to-face race with teammate and new National Record holder (“Both ends!” exclaimed Dunn), Jack Beckman with his Valvoline Battery Extender Charger. The brackets railroaded these two on a quarterfinals collision course. Momentum seems to have swung his way as Beckman ran an opener of 3.986 ET, the only one in the class to break the four-second mark. Dunn noted, “Amazing, as it was burning itself up.” Page answered, “He’s riding the magic carpet” as the two are virtually tied in points totals.
Spencer Massey’s two big qualifying-round explosions in the Fram dragster, the night session and then the third, earned major story status in the broadcast. “Massey blows it up big time!” Dunn shouted, noting he lost five points due to an oil down, putting him 23-points or two laps behind Top Fuel points leader, Antron Brown. Massey waxed philosophically on the “biggest explosions I’ve ever had. Obviously have concerns . . . It’s nitro; there’s going to be fire, explosions. We were trying to go low.” He got his unintended wish in the opening race against Khalid Albalooshi’s Al-Anabi Dragster, “We start the day with a major upset,” as Page called it. Up-in-smoke, Massey’s weekend and his chase for the Countdown seems over, finding him about as low as he can go. Highlight reels were filling up quickly at Maple Grove as Page added, “Come to Maple Grove and get entertainment.” None were more satisfying than the two Kalitta dragsters—Doug Kalitta’s MAC Tools ride and David Grubnic’s Optima Batteries—running personal bests and a tie for the quickest pass. Grubnic added, “Connie’s been sneaking up on it” as Dunn pointed out “We know Kalitta’s not shy; (he) stood on it and it stuck.” Senior reporter Gary Gerould pointed out, “Connie’s doing a happy-dance!” “Staman,” Lewis Bloom added, “Connie Kalitta went to his last final here in 1996.” The shocking opening rounds continued when Grubnic’s Kalitta entry was startled, grappling with an up-in-smoke problem while Ike Maier’s Laporte Racing dragster pedaled further down the track for the win. “Connie Kalitta is pretty disappointed,” added Page, but it’s “the role of a spoiler” like Maier to derail their race. Gerould, interviewing the surprised Maier, pointed out this telling sticker on the dragster’s side: “Driver carries no cash: Drag Racing took it all.”
As Larry Dixon’s Dote Racing Top Fueler ran a nice 3.816 ET, the ProtectTheHarverest.com railer of Brandon Bernstein was steaming by with a 3.749 ET leading Dunn to quip, “3.80s don’t mean nothing today.” The weekend’s Upset Alert, a race-by-race selection by Dunn, highlighted the round of Pro Stock point’s leader Allen Johnson’s Mopar Dodge and young star Vincent Nobile’s Mountainview Tire Dodge. “For the class to have any shot at Johnson, Nobile must take him out,” Dunn reasoned. “I like Vincent’s chances.” Nobile grabbed the advantage with a .007 RT, but Johnson raced around him with the quickest pass of the weekend for PS to advance his railroading of the championship. Best insight though came when Page, no doubt giving a stat from Lewis Bloom, announced the round of Warren Johnson and V Gaines has “combined ages of 134 years.” It was about that many years ago the local community of Mohnton became a major force in hat manufacturing, an article of clothing that came in handy at this race when cold plus rain combined to shut down the eliminations day. The broadcast continued with two Lincoln Tech Fix-It reports featuring reporter Dave Rieff. His first followed up on the Arend’s oil spill before a launch during eliminations at St Louis. “When is a stud not a stud and is a dud?” He asked, explaining the stud had backed out allowing the oil a pathway to flow. “It cost 20 cents; Team Kalitta checks these every round now.” Then he analyzed Beckman’s record run, highlighting the fact more power remained in the motor. “Quickest pass wasn’t perfect; put a cylinder out.” A favorite of each broadcast is now the Weekend “Wow” Factors. In addition to Massey’s dual fires, Robert Tasca’s Motorcraft Mustang blew up in his dual with Johnny Gray’s Service Central Dodge. Page described “flames pouring off,” while Dunn figures “he probably pushed a head gasket out.”
Qualifying added another “Wow” when Rit Pustari rode a wave with his Surf-Rodz dragster right into Clay Millican’s lane, skipping cones like stones on waters, clipping the Parts Plus dragster in the rear before slipping by on the right-hand side. Page noted this lap “had a lot of potential and it was all bad.” Millican was pragmatic when talking with Gerould: “Quite surprising, holy cow! (But) it’s good for the highlight reel.” Pustari was overheard coming up to Millican when the machines were parked, saying “I’m sorry, man.” Dunn flatly said, “He stayed with it way too long, and was late getting the chute out.” Lastly, Jim Head’s Toyota and Alexis De Joria’s Tequila Patron Camry competed for the best pedalfest of the year. “Now we’ve got a good one! Great pedalfest,” noted Page. “As a driver,” Dunn remembered, “(a pedalfest) is agony.” Head agreed, commenting “Total frustration” and he was the winner. Dunn analyzed the run on the slo-mo camera, a favorite of the booth and viewers, pointing out De Joria’s car “bucked the back tires right off the ground.” The most whimsical “Wow” came from the Pro Stock Motorcycle qualifying as LE Tonglet couldn’t make the turnoff and ended on the street creating a “T” at the drag strip’s top end. Gerould called out his qualifying results to him now on the other side of the fence, outside the grounds. Tonglet gave a verbal thumbs-up, and then wheeled his Zloop Sukuki back in as the security gate lifted. Dunn cracked, “I hope they check his credentials.” The qualifying show (running twice, one of those as a lead-in to the eliminations broadcast) and the rain-shortened eliminations along with the
planned conclusion on Monday fulfilled Page’s explanation of Maple Grove on its 50th year: “Come to Maple Grove and get entertained.” There was plenty of time to do just that. Like owning Monopoly’s fourth most valuable property, Reading Railroad, Maple Grove Raceway is the key track to win the Countdown to the Championship. Connect email@example.com
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