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New Kids on the Winner’s Block

New Kids on the Winner’s Block

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Published by Phillip Gary Smith
New wave of drag racing at the professional level begin to take over the fields at these amazing 10,000 horsepower per racer events.
New wave of drag racing at the professional level begin to take over the fields at these amazing 10,000 horsepower per racer events.

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Published by: Phillip Gary Smith on May 02, 2013
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Media Matters: New Kids on the Winner’s Block Storylines opening the 25th O'Reilly Northwest Nationals broadcast

morphed to a conclusion altogether different. Why? Did the ESPN production crew, broadcasters and reporters misjudge the race, fail to do homework, take in too much mountain air? Nope. The culprit is the sport, drag racing, winding through mystic brackets with serpentine pathways leading fortuitous drivers to that trophy, a Wally. Example: glancing at the Pro Stock qualifying brackets after the four qualifying rounds, it was oh-so-easy to realize the intriguing possibility of Greg Anderson’s Summit Chevy Camaro meeting the GK Motorsports Cobalt of Erica Enders in the quarterfinals, resolving on the race track what words had not. All they needed to do . . . clear that first round. Anderson dispatched Kurt Johnson’s Mark Christopher Auto Pontiac, even though he recorded a sleepy light on the launch. Ender’s opening round against veteran Ron Krisher’s Valvoline Pontiac— whose son, John, is about her age—was more mathematically interesting as their Reaction Times were identical (.035) as were their speeds (209.56), but she covered the distance quicker. Then in what ESPN announcer Paul Page calls “moments of pressure,” Anderson/Enders squared-off in the quarterfinals. “Every once in a while, (pressure) leaks out,” Page observed, fashioning drag racing broadcasts as the most entertaining in motorsports. The incident creating such a hubbub—a photo showed Enders holding her first-victory Wally high—developed after the win over Anderson at Chicago’s finals.

His distress revolved around the photo using his hauler as a backdrop. ESPN recounted the story while displaying the tell-tale image. Even though “It’s all over the internet,” Enders explained, I had not chased it down. Glancing at the screen, all I saw was a young woman with a trophy held high in front of a racing trailer. Anderson apologized for “bringing it to television.” ESPN producers must have handed him kudos and cookies instead. Such fun, a racing controversy for television audiences and race fans, can’t be bought. Why would one need to fake controversy anyway? The art of drag racing provides the real thing for free. Viewers have to love Enders’ bluntness: “It’s a damn shame I went red” in their previous race in Sonoma, but not here, not today. Her lead over the entire quarterfinals lap gave clues the day’s outcomes might be historic but in a much different slant than Saturday night’s qualifying broadcast. A threat to sweep the Western Swing a historic twice, Antron Brown in his Matco Tool Top Fuel dragster drove hard to be the first ever to capture that honor. First-round found him in a double-highlighted race against inimitable Clay Millican’s Parts Plus machine. Viewers were reminded of Millican’s reputation for knocking off higher qualified teams as this pair was selected for the broadcast’s Marquee Matchup and also picked by color commentator, Mike Dunn, as his selection for an Upset Alert. The round was neither. Millican explained, “We (at least) made Antron stay honest.” Brown’s focus on one-round-at-a-time came through as he called these rounds “like baking a cake, one (ingredient) at a time.” Spinning those big slicks well before he could escape those dastardly quarterfinals, screams of disappointment from fans arose as Brown’s historical possibility collapsed inwardly like baking an over-beaten cake. “Antron’s done!” exclaimed Dunn, not referring to cake but pointing out the dragster had lost traction “as they started to apply the clutch” against Shawn Langdon’s Al-Anabi dragster in the other lane.

Langdon courted a date-with-destiny, his first win, gaining the finals when he trailered David Grubnic’s Optima Batteries machine in the semifinals, prematurely starting the Aussie’s 50th birthday celebration. Tim Wilkerson quipped about his upcoming quarterfinals with Ron Capps’ NAPA Dodge Charger: “Capps next round? Duck Soup,” leading Dunn to create a whole new category . . . “(Call it) sarcasm Sunday.” The quarterfinals foiled Wilkerson’s Levi Ray & Shoup Ford attempt to win this event for the unheard of fourth-straight year. Statman Lewis Bloom no sooner told us, “He’s tied with Whit Bazemore for most wins on the Western Swing,” then Page lamented, “And there goes (Wilkerson’s) chances.” The broadcast alerted the audience to this possible outcome with the clue Wilkerson swapped engines between rounds with “no extra time at the line,” meaning the team was pressed. Dunn noted, “All these streaks are getting broken in the second round.” Not quite; Pro Stock’s sweep-candidate, Allen Johnson’s Mopar Dodge Avenger, stayed on mission until a doomed meeting with friend and finalsbound Enders. Meanwhile the broadcast kept the point’s battle in the Funny Car ranks upto-date after each round, graphically explaining teams remaining in the top 10 through Indy’s date earn eligibility to compete in the Countdown to the Championship. Teams just outside the elites are shown feverishly working on combinations and power, pulling out all the stops like a concert organist engaging the Grand Ophicleide for absolutely the most force possible. The contrast of old vs. new, senior vs. young gradually became as plain as the August snow remaining on Mt. Rainier. Glimpses occurred along the way like reporter Gary Gerould joking with Warren Johnson about gray hair after Johnson’s Pontiac GXP surprised Shane Gray’s TBC Retail Camaro in the first round.

Johnson’s annals in the sport produced this tidbit after Gerould commented on the Georgian’s two-year drought of round wins. “This is not a one man job like years ago. It’s a team.” Then delivering one of his notable professorisms, “I’d say we are on a directionally-correct course.” Effervescent Gary Densham, an independent with the field’s oldest make a 2009 Dodge kept the other oldest entry, Jeffrey Diehl’s 2009 Monte Carlo, out of the race. Speaking for the independents not qualifying for Funny Car eliminations, Densham quipped, “Too bad any of us can’t race, but I’m glad it’s not me.” Densham’s first time racing in Seattle? 1973, an age when first round opponent, Jack Beckman, couldn’t even spell “Valvoline.” Nothing contrasts age better—or worse?—than standing with young Courtney Force. By capturing a quarterfinals win in her Traxxas Ford, she earned a semifinal’s destiny with Social Security eligible John Force and his Castrol GTX Ford. She becomes engulfed in a waiting dad’s ecstatic embrace, cameras capturing every moment of father-daughter. This broadcast was filled with quotable lines and interesting asides like Page commenting on a big save by Vincent Nobile wrestling his Mountain View Tire Avenger. He then told viewers “Statman said in my ear ‘mere mortals would have crashed.’” Nobile just turns 21 in November. After Tony Shumacher tripped a redlight, the first such misstep in a dozen years, Dunn cracked, “It’s been 12 years for me, too, but I haven’t driven.” The three pro finals showcased the young sweeping the veterans for drag racing dominance. Enders started the roll by completely out-racing Anderson’s teammate, 2011 Full Throttle champion Jason Line’s Summit Camaro. Two Summit cars in two finals in two months yielding Enders two Wallys. Picture that . . . .

That gives her one more thing in common with fiancé, Richie Stevens, now racing Pro Stock in the ADRL. She explained, “(He) won here 12 years ago,” over Jeg Coughlin for his third Wally. That was the event’s 13th year; but her trophy is special, silver, commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Northwest Nationals. The rookie Force passed a resurgent Matt Hagan (turning 30 in November) and his Aaron’s Dodge Charger at midtrack, notching her first pro victory at the same track where she won Top Alcohol Dragster when just turning 21. Her father, wearing a mike from the think-ahead production crew just in case this very thing occurred, went beserkly happy. “Did you see that?” he repeated and repeated, an elder’s trait. She gushed with the specialness of the accomplishment. “This is an amazing feeling; third-time’s charm!” Her mother, Laurie, explained, “I had to remind her she won here before, and she said don’t put that pressure on me” sounding just how daughters respond. A month short of turning 30, Shawn Langdon raced the Al-Anabi dragster into the finals for the first time this year, facing the least-covered team with two wins in Top Fuel, Steve Torrence in the Capco Contractors entry. Snatching a first-round win even as Torrence spun the dragster nearly vertical to the wall, Gerould noted he drove it “like a sprint car on a dirt track.” Nothing like that in the finals when he outlasted a spinning Langdon. Page noted the lasting significance of this race; it is “history today.” Dunn smartly concluded, “What a way to cap off the Western Swing.” Capco crew chief, Richard Hogan, allowed that “(We) had three lucky (rounds) in one day.” But it was Torrence, a few months younger than Langdon, nailing the ultimate story of this broadcast and the Western Swing. With two women winning in the Pro ranks for the first time and young drivers dueling for the

Top Fuel and Fuel Funny Car wins in the finals, the real significance of this day unfolded. A story developed entirely different than those three hours before the broadcast ended; these new stories are of youth in drag racing pushing the sport into its new era. Torrence exalted in his excited winner’s interview, “It’s five kids out here!” Write phillip@go2geiger.com

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