On the Road: September ’19

38th annual Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals

Last time I updated On the Road I was riding high on the heels of back-to-back NHRA Lucas Oil Series Super Comp wins, and I was fired up about the prospect of chasing the 2019 national championship.  Here we are, nearly 2 months later. I haven’t had quite the same level of success; but I’ve been grinding out rounds and am still in contention for the title as the points chase hits the home stretch.  On the family front, school has started for our oldest, our youngest is now a certified walker (and into everything)! Business is crazy as ever, and like I’m sure they do at times for you, things seem to be moving at a very rapid pace!  That’s my life in its current season, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Here are some highlights from the last month and a half.

Wait, you just won:

Yea, so in late July we returned from Topeka on the heels of two wins in as many weeks.  So I did what any other throttle stop toting, red-blooded racer would do: I decided to change everything.  I mean every. Damn. Thing.


Complete transparency: this wasn’t as earth shattering a change as it might seem.  Back in April, the motor that I’d run in my ThisIsBracketRacing ELITE dragster went KABOOM in Vegas (conveniently, in the 2nd round of the Spring Fling Million).  At that time, we had a sister motor coming together at Huntsville Engine.  The plan was to make my dragster and my wife’s dragster twinkies: same motor, converter, gear, tires, etc.  Well, that got derailed and as usual my wife took one for the team (ie. Got the short end of the stick; which, as you’ll come to find out is a recurring theme.  Bless her heart.). I got the new powerplant, and she treaded water with the combination that is both a bit slower and has given me fits for years. If I hadn’t started balding in my mid-twenties, maybe I could blame my lack of hair on that damn conventional head 598…

At any rate, the repairs were complete on the motor that went BOOM, and I decided to go back to the original plan.  Jess would get her motor (I just broke it in for her, and made sure it knew how to win), and I’d get my original back.  Again, the motors are identical, so we left everything from the mid-plate back in my car alone – just swapping motors. The project on Jessica’s car wasn’t quite as simple.  In order to make it a true twinkie; we changed tires, third member, transmission, converter, carburetor, and a few assorted odds and ends.

One important note here: I use the term “We” very lightly.  I mentioned the hiring of my crew chief/mechanic/Mr. Do It All Chris Estep in the last edition of On the Road.  If you read that, you remember me writing that I don’t really know how we ever raced without him?  Yea… We in this sense means Chris. He did all that. Including a trip to Huntsville to pick up the motor…  In 4 days. We got home from Topeka Monday afternoon. We raced both cars at I57 Dragstrip on Saturday night.

The Saturday night test session went about as well as could be expected: Jessica got the quickest and fastest time slip of her career: 4.60 @ 151.  Then her car wouldn’t start in round 3. This actually brings up an interesting riddle that I can’t figure out. If you readers have any insight, I’m all ears…  When we put that motor in my dragster, it wouldn’t turn over intermittently. It would start fine a dozen times, and without warning on the 13th try it wouldn’t turn over at all.  We literally changed everything that (in my mind) could relate to starting the car: battery, starter, starter solenoid, master switch, battery cables, ground cables, etc.  All to no avail. But, when we put a second battery in it, all was well and good. So after a month of fighting it, that’s exactly what we did. It’s had two red top Optima’s ever since.  Keep in mind, this is the same car that with the sister motor started without issue with 1 red top Optima for over 3 years! Weird, right?

So… We put said motor in Jessica’s car, which as you may have guessed has 1 Optima battery.  It started fine numerous times at the shop, and showed no signs of weakness through two time trials and the first two rounds.  Round three: nobody’s home. We slid a second battery in it and whalaaa… No issues since.

At any rate, an unfulfilling end to my sweetie’s day (Stay tuned: this becomes a theme).  I worked my way to the semi-final round (which also becomes a theme) before making a decent run only to get shown the exit by eventual winner Kevin Carrier.

Off to Brainerd:

Dan Fletcher once told me that he’s not a fan of chasing points simply because it makes you go to places that you don’t want to be and run races that you don’t want to run.  Now, I’ve got nothing against Brainerd International Raceway.  In fact, it’s one of my favorite facilities and racing atmosphere’s in general.  But given the choice between driving 14 hours to race an NHRA divisional event (that might pay $3,000-to-win) and staying home to take my son to his first day of 1st grade… I’d typically pick the option that didn’t involve the 1000 mile journey.  Maybe Dan is on to something.

Regardless, I did elect to make the trip to Brainerd for back-to-back events: the divisional and the NHRA Lucas Oil Nationals the following week.

On the race track, it was a story of decent finishes, but missed opportunities.  In Super Comp at the divisional, I was paired with Trevor Larson in round 3. Excellent racer, tough matchup.  Given the situation, it was a huge round. The winner was guaranteed a fourth round bye run. After that, either Trevor or I would have to win at 5 cars remaining (against an opponent that ultimately red-lighted to Trevor) for a second bye run into the final round.  Yes, it was one of those quirky ladders you can get occasionally from a 65-ish car field. Needless to say, it was a huge round for someone competing for a national championship.

I missed the tree slightly, but had a small advantage: .018 to his .020.  I took the finish line stripe by .003. I ran 8.893 to Trevor’s 8.894. Ugh.  As I mentioned before, our matchup in round 3 was essentially a semi-final. Trevor went on to win the race.

Fast forward one week to the national event: I advanced to the semi-final round for another marquee matchup with Gary Stinnett.  Gary is arguably the greatest Super Comp racer in history. He’s also in contention for the 2019 championship, just like I am. In our matchup, I had a slight advantage on the tree, but my car was going much quicker than I anticipated and I did a poor job at the finish line to lose a double breakout, 8.86 to 8.88.  Another Uggh. He went on to defeat Tyler Bohannon in the final round.

Meanwhile, I also entered my wife’s car in Top Dragster at both events.  At the divisional, I advanced to the semi-final in that class before I missed the tree with a .020 light.  Bob Fuller laid down a .020 package beside me to get the win; even though I took .001 at the finish line (to be .001 under).  That pesky thousandth!

A week later at the national event, I drove Jessica’s car to the T/D final, only to fall to Henry Weibusch.  That time I didn’t lose a double breakout, and I didn’t lose by .001: instead I rolled myself through .002 behind!

All in all, it’s hard to say that the trip wasn’t successful: I entered 4 classes and finished with a runner-up and two semi-finals.  But in terms of Super Comp points collection, I could definitely look back on it as a pair of missed opportunities!

On a personal level…  I had A LOT of guilt about leaving my family for 10 days to go racing by myself.  That was compounded by missing the first day of school. I looked for ways to get home for it (Gary’s first day was Tuesday, two days after the conclusion of the divisional and 2 days before the start of the national), but it just wasn’t realistic.  Driving or flying, it was a 14+ hour day of travel to be home for just over 24 hours, followed by another 14+ hour day of travel.  

So I made the decision to stay in Brainerd and was fairly content with it.  Then my wife called Monday night after the “Meet the teacher” open house. You know, the one where the school was so packed she had to park in an adjoining parking lot, and walk a half-a-mile in the summer heat… While carrying our 14 month old and trying to keep up with our 6-year-old?  Only to get into the classroom, and try to corral said rambunctious 14-month-old who just wants to get everything out of every drawer and throw it across the room, while introducing herself to the new teacher? It went so well that Ms. Kurfman, who was meeting 20 new students and parents for the first time, asked JESSICA if there was anything she could do to help her.  

Dad of the year right here.  Dad of the damn year.

So I was really feeling like a piece of you know what, and I was dreading the call Tuesday morning after drop off.  My little man, for all his amazing attributes, really struggles with anxiety. Jessica and I both felt certain that the first day of school would be an emotionally taxing episode.  It was the biggest reason that I was hesitant to leave and force her to face it alone.  

But then I got the call.  And it was by far my biggest win of the week (and I’m not just saying that because I didn’t win on the track; I could have doubled in Brainerd and this still would’ve been the win).  My little guy was a stud. At dropoff, it was “Bye Mommy, Bye Jack. See you later.” Door slam. Mic Drop. The most amazing thing about kids is how they grow and mature and change right before your very eyes.  That’s not to say we won’t have the occasional anxious moment; but sometimes things just fall into place when you least expect it. That brought a huge sigh of relief for Jessica and an immense reassurance to me (maybe I wasn’t a complete piece of excrement after all).

Bowling Green & The Big Go:

If I had a manager I’d fire her.  Or tell him to buy a calendar. Or a globe.  But I don’t, so I’ve got no one to blame. I left Brainerd on Sunday afternoon, after 10 days in beautiful Minnesota.  The 14-hour drive put me home a little after lunchtime on Monday. I was home for just under 3 hours: long enough to kiss my wife and pick up Gary from school… And I was back on the road to a business meeting near Nashville.  After a day and a half there, I was back home Wednesday afternoon, and I actually got to spend two nights in my own bed before heading to Beech Bend Raceway Park for the NHRA Division 3 LODRS early Friday morning.

I had high hopes coming into Bowling Green: It’s my single favorite race track and I’ve had a lot of success there in the past.  This year it was not meant to be. My .007, take .008 was denied by Pat Martin in round 2.

Originally, the plan was for us to travel to Bowling Green as a family: my wife was going to compete as well.  Earlier that week, Jack came down with Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease. She took one for the team (got the short end of the stick) and decided to stay home with him.  Enter the guilt – World’s best Dad!

Then, things shifted once again.  Jack got better. Gary didn’t show any signs of sickness.  My mom volunteered to come with. And next thing we knew, they were on their way to Bowling Green Friday evening.  Sweet! I bought Jess a tech card and assured her we’d get her close to the 8.90 index after one time trial Saturday morning.

Then the announcement came: there was weather on the way.  The decision was made to shorten the race from 3 days to 2.  Rather than a time trial Saturday morning, we’d go right into first round.  Great!  

In fairness, it was the right call by the D3 staff, it just didn’t benefit my poor wife, who – say it with me now – got the short end of the stick!  Did I mention that we’d never made a throttle stop run with that combination in that car? No big deal, it’s IDENTICAL to mine, right? For those of you who have never raced an index class… Making two cars run 4.61 back-to-back and making two cars run 8.90 back-to-back without some testing and data, well… They’re two different things.  Jessica was on a fresh 8.63 in round 1. Yea. That didn’t work out.

After another couple nights at home, I set out for Indy solo.  If you’ve listened to the podcast or read much of this blog, you know how stoked I get for the Big Go.  Admittedly, this year’s edition was trying for a variety of reasons not related to my personal performance (for more listen to our podcast recapping Indy), but it was still the Big Go and it was still awesome.

Jess once again took one for the team (got the… You know) and stayed home with the boys so Gary wouldn’t miss school.  Brad Plourd drove her car in SC (I’ll have you know that based on Jessica’s 8.63 I was able to get Brad really close on the first time trial).  He drove great, but lost a close race to Edmond Richardson in round 3.

Jess and the boys came over to Indy Friday evening, after school.  So we got to spend the long weekend together:

I was able to advance to the final 9 cars in competition before turning it red to Chris Sullivan.  Another solid performance, but another missed opportunity. My round 5 exit did catapult me into the national points lead by less than a round over Ray Ray Miller.  We both have 4 races remaining at which we can earn points. Gary Stinnet, Brian Preszler, and others still have legitimate title hopes as well. As I said last month, I love the opportunity to compete with a title on the line: I guess I’m a bit of an adrenaline junkie.  However these next 2 months shake out, I’m going to be my best to embrace the opportunity and have fun with it. I’ve been really fortunate to compete for the championship late into the season on several occasions; and I know it’s really hard to get into this position, much less win it.  And with the season of life that we’re in, who knows if or when I’ll have a similar opportunity. With that in mind, I’m going to soak up every second of it that I can!

Team Illinois

Our last race was the Great American Bracket Race and All-State Challenge in Memphis, the week after Indy.  This time around, we had the best of intentions to actually, you know, get there early. Get my wife a time trial, all that good stuff.  

Yea.  We broke down 10 miles from home Thursday night.  Thankfully, Chris was with us (he doesn’t normally come; but he threw his car in the trailer for this race), and thankfully the issue wasn’t serious.  It was just a loose fuse. A loose fuse that took us 4 hours of tearing the motorhome apart to find and diagnose. When I say we… Yea, you get it. I wanted to help, I really did.  But as we lifted cover after cover off of the electric system on the RV, I may as well have been looking at a nuclear reactor. I was pretty overwhelmed. But Chris ultimately figured it out.  We were back up and running around 11 PM. Rather than drive all night with a screaming 14-month old, we elected to drive the 10 miles back home and try again in the morning.

With that, we rolled into Memphis Friday around noon; just as they were calling second round to the lanes.  Guess what Jess? Time trials are overrated! With no real idea what we could run or what we needed in the box, we entered and bought back into round two.  There, Jess let go .001… Only to bump it to a red light. I actually managed to do a good job and win the blind round. But the next round, when I actually knew what I could run, I gave back the finish line.  Sweet!

That night brought first round of the All-State Race.  Team Illinois: Jessica, myself, Chris, Rob Fisher, and Joe Davis were set to square off with a Texas team featuring Bart Nelson, Curt Harvey and others.  The All-State format features a best-of-five matchup, with the winning team moving on to round 2. Jessica and I both won our rounds, but our remaining team members were unable to overcome a variety of mechanical issues, and we ended up losing the deciding 5th race when Rob went under by .001 (that pesky damn thousandth again)!

At the last Great American $50K main event in 2017 (the race got rained out last season), I made my way to the semi-finals, only to lose to Chris Bear.  In that matchup, we were both .010. We were both .001 under. The only difference in our timeslips was that little win arrow at the bottom, which pointed to the direction of his lane.  Fast forward to round 3 of this year’s event. Bobby Mouat and I were both .006 up front. We were both dead on with a 7. That little arrow didn’t point my way again.

Jess and I went a few rounds the rest of the way, but nothing too notable.

What’s Next:

If you’ve been keeping up with the Vega Resurrection blog, you know that we’re making slow but steady progress on my prized possession.  With my racing schedule the rest of the way, it’s not realistic to think it will hit the track this season, but we’ll definitely have it ready for 2020.

By the time you read this, we’ll be in Bristol for the Fall Fling 500K.  I’m pretty fired up. In fact, I’m honestly as stoked for this race as I’ve been for any event in a long time.  Actually, the next three weeks will be huge. After we return from the richest race in drag racing history, the next two weeks bring back-to-back NHRA events in nearby St. Louis: first the national, then the points meet.  So it’s probably the biggest 3-week stretch of my season, and I can’t wait.  
After that, the remaining schedule is a little bit fluid.  I’ll need to pick up another national and divisional event somewhere, but I’m not 100% sure where just yet.  The Million is on the calendar, and I haven’t missed that in 20 years. So we’ll see where we end up. Regardless, I’m sure I’ll have a good story to tell.  You can look for that here. Between now and then, who knows? Maybe our paths will cross On the Road!


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