race reports

Pepsi Nightfire Nationals at Boise, Idaho


48th Time is Historical


Words and photos by Brian Losness

Mendy Fry (at left) got the Top Fuel win over Adam Sorokin.


For the world of nostalgia and bracket racing there is no event that carries the prestige of the Pepsi Nightfire Nationals at Boise’s Firebird Raceway.


The race has been run for nearly half a century and has been facilitated by the New family for that entire length of time, and this makes a huge difference in the overall feel to this race. I have both written about and spoken to people about when one comes to this race it is like stepping back into the 1970’s. Moreover, the facility has every modern amenity that national event tracks have, and in some cases even better.


Bakersfield has -- and I believe will always have -- that Southern California hot rod/drag racing feel to it. It was one of the original drag strips. However, the Nightfires augments that SoCal feeling with northwest friendliness, and loyalty to the mix. That mixture leads to the fact that on Saturday night the stands were SRO, which is a given for this event.

Idaho governor, Brad Little (checked shirt) and members of the Idaho State Historical Society with (right from governor) Scott New, John New, and NHRA president Glen Cromwell. The track was also named to the National Register of Historic Places.


The Governor of the State of Idaho was on hand to sign a proclamation proclaiming August 10, 2019, as Firebird Raceway Day in Idaho. The governor did not do the typical politician deal and do a photo op and then bail; he stayed and watched till the conclusion of the session Saturday evening. Adding to the horsepower of the attendees Saturday night was NHRA President Glen Cromwell making his first trip to Idaho to take in the Nightfires.


What the dignitaries and the devoted fans saw was some excellent racing. What helped this was the fact that for the first time in a long, long time, the weather was phenomenal. Last year it was 114 degrees on Saturday afternoon. This year just 83 at the same time on Saturday afternoon. The track was excellent.


Qualifying Top Fuel


Sometimes this event overlaps with the Bonneville Speed Trials, and that was the case this year. This kept one or two teams from attending the Nightfires. Those who did attend took advantage of the situation and it showed.

The first session on Friday afternoon set the table for what the weekend had in store. Mendy Fry drove Tom Shelar’s High Speed Motorsports digger to the top of the charts with a really early shut off 5.86/198.61 lap. There are some in this class have stated that Shelar has found a derivative theory to the Steve Boggs combination that was run in Tony Bartone’s car.


Jim Murphy was second with a 5.90/249.49, and Phil Ruskowski rounded out the six-car field at 7.79/150.73.


The second session on Friday evening got very exciting. Teamd began to step up, this was evident as the newly monikered Nitro Cougar (changed from Nitro Kitty) drove the gray High Speed car to a 5.67/236.42 and once again shutting off early. Adam Sorokin drove the Champion Speed Shop car to number two at 5.88/214.36 again also shutting off early.

Jim Murphy (shown) was also on a run to improve as he approached the lights but the car uncharacteristically hung a hard left and cleaned out the timing blocks at the finish line.


“I went for the chutes and I must have missed them, then made the mistake of getting on the brakes and the car started to bounce,” Murphy stated.


He tried to get the car stopped before the end of the track but to no avail, and he went off the end. The car went about two hundred yards off the end of the track and did a really lazy barrel roll, which went around 1-½ times, coming to rest on its side. The Firebird safety crew was on the car in a flash and righted the car, and Murphy climbed out under his own power.


The team went right to work checking the car over and discovered most of the damage was cosmetic so they would attempt to get back into the fight.


The next morning Murphy and the team had field stripped the car down to the chassis, gave it a through power washing, and then proceeded to put the car back together again. They would miss the final qualifying session but would be ready for the first round on Saturday evening.


In Q3 Fry continued to put the pressure on the rest of the field. As she stepped up and went even quicker at 5.62/233.84 in the middle of the day on Saturday. Sorokin was second and Murphy hung on to third. The lower half was headed by Ohio’s Tyler Hilton at 6.60/147.10, Bret Williamson doing double duty in Top Fuel and Pro Mod, was in at 7.09/142.64. The Mike Fuller team just couldn’t get their feet underneath them all weekend. Canada’s Phil Ruskowski rounded out the field.


Top Fuel Eliminations

The first round of eliminations there were no upset, as all three of the top qualifiers including Murphy made it to round two.


In the semi finals pitted Sorokin and Murphy with Fry getting the bye. The Sorokin-Murphy match up should have been a barn burner, however it was over at the beginning as Murphy blew the tires off at the hit and Sorokin went on to take the with an early shut off 6.05/206.04.


The Nitro Cougar went on to really put the pressure on as she drove Shelar’s tuneup to a jaw dropping 5.59/227.08. Mendy shut the car of again about 1,000 feet.


The final most would considered a forgone conclusion, but that is what many thought at the March Meet where strangeness reared its ugly head when a screw that holds the linkage to the barrel valve and the butterflies fell out on the burnout and Fry was left to watch Sorokin run away with the victory.


Would weirdness happen again for the second time for Fry? Yeah … no! Sorokin (at right) was out first at the green as he usually is, but by the sixty-foot clock the gray dragster was on the hunt. Mendy drove the car to about the first mile-per-hour light and shut it off, knowing she had the win in the bag. With a 5.62/254.76 to cover Sorokin’s coasting 6.08/204.08, this would make Fry a back-to-back at the Nightfires.


The next stop for the long skinny cars is Spokane, Washington, August 16-17.


Funny Car Qualifying

Twelve floppers made the trek to Idaho, and qualifying at the Nightfire Nationals was exciting right out of the gate -- almost too exciting for Jon Rice and the Rice Brothers’ “Nitro Spud” Corvette flopper. The body, a former Tom Hoover “Showtime” car, made its first attempt to qualify when things got ugly.

The car was laboring a bit, as Rice drove the car to the finish line, he hit the chutes and the fuel shut off.


“I saw a small fire through the windows in the firewall, and so I hit the bottles and brakes,” Rice explained. As he hit the brakes the fire grew in intensity and then somehow got into the fuel tank and set it off. The car continued to burn as it went down the shutdown area, and Rice decided it was getting warm in the car. “It felt like it was slowing down, so I got out of the hatch and saw the car was still going pretty fast. It went off the end of the track and finally slowed down enough for me to get out, so I did. Then I realized, oh damn the field is on fire too.” The Firebird safety team did a wonderful job in a sense playing whack/a/mole, working on Rice’s burning race car and containing a grass fire at the same time. Fire agencies from near by Eagle and Star, Idaho responded and got the grass fire contained to just over an acre.

Rice’s car, unfortunately, was a complete loss. A hard pill to swallow for the small Idaho team. Positive thoughts to them and we hope they will come back stronger than ever.


After all the excitement, when qualifying resumed the leader in the club house was the “Happy Hour” Camaro driven by Tim Boychuk and crew chiefed by the legendary Twig Ziegler with a 5.811/242.84 lap. In the number-two slot it was Shawn Langdon’s car chief Matt Bynum, who at the March Meet made his own headlines as they turned over the Cecil Matthews Nitro Nick Camaro during a test and tune run. Now team Matthews made the trip to Idaho with a very stealth looking 69 Mustang bodied entry. Bynum was reward with a 5.812/250.23 pass.

Third was Jeff Arend in the Don Nelson-owned “California Hustler” tuned by Ron Swearingen. Arends’s time was 5.85/245.81.


Rounding out the eight-car show was Pleasanton, California’s Tony Jurado, in the “Capital Punishment.”


Rice, along with “Hollywood” Kris Krabill, Bill Windham, and Scott Stanger were on the outside looking in. The floppers were supposed to qualify again Friday evening, however the Jim Murphy incident and then of all things (at least in this part of Idaho) rain curtailed the activities for the evening.


The NHRA and track officials gave the Funny Car guys a second chance at qualifying on Saturday, moving their first round to Sunday.


So, on Saturday the floppers got their second round of qualifying and took complete advantage of the very cool conditions. Arend took the provisional pole at 5.71/250.32 followed by fellow Canadian Ryan Hodgson in the Bob Papernick-tuned Camaro, at 5.72/255.82. Third was Billy Morris in the “Problem Child” Camaro at 5.76 245.00. Jurado still held the bump spot at 5.98/236.22.


Boychuk, who started the session at number one, was relegated to number six behind Dan Horan who also ran a 5.811 but was two miles per hour faster at 244.96.


Saturday evening when the other professional classes ran first round, the Funny Cars got their third qualifying session. There was some shuffling of places and some bumping and unbumping that went on. Krabill stepped up huge getting in with a 5.96/236.96, which pushed his way back into the field.


This was a bright spot for Krabill and the Aikens team as they rebounded from a disastrous blower explosion that eviscerated the body on that car at the Ignitor in May. Coming back to Boise with a beautiful new 70½ Camaro, blue and white in color for the Nightfires, however the first two runs were nothing to write home about then the team got some traction with this third run. Krabill’s run pushed out Jurado.


A couple of pairs later Jurado returned the favor to Hollywood as his 5.77/246.08 pushed Krabill back to the Tater Baker competition. And with that the field was set.

Tony Jurado (at right) with Tim Boychuk in “Happy Hour.”


There was only one upset in round one as Tony Jurado kept up the momentum from qualifying and took care of Billy Morris who blew the tires off at the hit. Jurado ran a very solid 5.84/243.72 for the win. Arend, Hodgson and Horan all advanced, with Horan getting everybody’s attention when his David Fears-tuned ride went 5.66/261.62 in his victory over Bynum. Hodgson also got people’s attention with his own pair of 60s, a 5.69 at 261.27 mph. Quietly lurking in the weeds was Arend and his 5.74/248.93. The semifinals were going to be epic.

Dan Horan


The semis would pit Hodgson versus Horan, and Arend vs Jurado. The first pair would pit the pair of 60’s cars. At the green it was Hodgson who got out by eight hundredths of a second. In most cases this deal would be over, but, as it has been said, we don’t race on paper, and for some reason the Canadian Camaro slowed down a full tenth of a second, Hodgson was .069; 5.800/257.53, and Horan was .149; 5.704/258.91. The victory for Horan by .016 of a second.


The other semi had Cinderella story Tony Jurado alongside veteran journeyman Jeff Arend. Jurado had five thousandths at the tree, but that lead was short lived, and Arend drove around the purple Camaro with a very consistent 5.75/251.52 to cover Jurado’s 5.98/239.74.


The final pulled around this was going to be a pick ’em race. There is a great deal of history between these two teams. Many of the crew were with Swearingen when he was Horan’s crew chief and they won all those races and the championship. Many went with Ronny when he went to Don Nelson’s “California Hustler.” So, they are very familiar with each other.


At the green it was Horan out on Arend by a mere .002 for some reason the Patriot could not duplicate their 5.60 pace and the car slowed down 5.76/248.66 which was covered up by Arend’s consistent and winning 5.74/252.85.


The win puts Arend in the Championship point lead, and if history repeats itself when Swearingen has a points lead, its like a mother grizzly protecting her cubs. Its going to be tough to wrestle it away from him.

The Tater Baker final pitted “Hollywood” Kris Krabill up and alongside Bill Windham. Krabill would get the jump at the light and never be headed as he would take the win 5.90/245.36 to Windham’s 6.88/144.26. This makes Krabill one of if not the winningest driver in Nightfire history.


Fuel Altereds

Five fuel altereds showed up at Boise. That fact made a couple of the racers angry. One of the racers went as far as to say “All these keyboard drivers running their mouths and then they don’t bring their ‘stuff’ out here and race with us. This track gives us a great place to race and they “f-ing don’t show up. That will never happen again as long as I can help it.”


Dan Hix for the most part has had the run of the class, outside of James Day taking the win at the March Meet.


Hix was again the class of the field as he qualified number one at 6.04/243.41. He was followed by Tom Padilla at 6.25/226.66. Mathew Leonard from Salt Lake City via Australia was third at 6.40/214.59. Troy Owen was parked in fourth at 6.88/222.77. Rounding out the field was Keith Wilson at 7.77/108.45.

Tom Padilla


Round one Hix ran a 5.99 on a single and Owen took out Leonard 6.45 to 7.26. In the final pairing both Padilla and Wilson stepped up their games and put on a whale of a race with Padilla taking the win 6.13 to a 6.30. In round two Hix took out Owen and would face Padilla who got the bye to the finals.


The finals would be the race of the event, for the fuel altereds. At the green it would be Hix out first with Padilla right behind him. The two were welded side/by/side to the stripe with the win light coming on in Hix’s lane 6.13/237.46 to Padilla’s very close 6.14/229.12.


Pro Mod

Nine Pro Mods made their way to Boise, which is a splendid deal since another very high dollar Pro Mod event in Colorado moved their race to this date.


The Pro Mods didn’t seem to be too shy about going after it in their first session as Jeremy Hanger in Kirk Kuhn’s Corvette registered a 5.93/236.13. Second was Justin Wake in his twin turbo Camaro at 5.997.246.71. Third it is Karl Wilson at 6.07/242.93. Rounding out the field was Garrett Richards with a troubled 9.23 / 93.25.


The second session Friday evening Hanger remained at number one Piazza moved up to number two at 5.95/238.30. Wake was bumped to number three Karl Wilson rounded out the top four with a 5.999/244.47. Perennial top runner Sean Renteria held down the bump at 7.01/176.21. On the outside looking in was Mike Maggio.

The third round of qualifying Justin Wake got into the Nightfire mode just not at the same level as Jon Rice. At about 1000 feet there was an audible pop the emitted from the Camaro and fire could be seen at the front of the car as it went through the lights. The fire continued to burn through the shutdown area, and was put out by the onboard system along with the Firebird Safety team.


The Pro Mods got an unusual fourth session on Saturday evening and in that session, Sean Renteria went from the outhouse to the penthouse as he took claim to the number-one position. Mike Maggio would be able to bump himself in.


Sunday in round one there would be a couple of upsets as Renteria would blow the tire off at the hit handing the win to Maggio, number-six qualifier Keith Wilson would upset Ron Piazza Jr, Bret Williamson would get the win over Wake, and Jeremy Hanger would take out Tacoma, Washington’s Garrett Richards.


In the semi finals Hanger would get the competition bye as Wilson was a no-show, and Williamson would take the win over a red-lighting Maggio.


The final was another great race as wily veteran Bret Williamson would take on Justin Hanger, and once again the veteran would get out first on his opponent. However, the silver Corvette just didn’t  have the steam to hold off Hanger, giving Hanger and Kuhns the win 5.93/245.36 to 6.11/244.56.


Sportsman Winners at the Pepsi Nightfire (Courtesy of Firebird Raceway)

Bracketeer Eliminator: Dan Lafferty, .020, 7.07 (7.07 dial), 184.12 def. Parker Theobald, .025, 7.61 (7.64), 165.25

Pro Eliminator: Brandon Umberger, .018, 9.26 (9.24 dial), 135.06 def. Jeff Staley, .033, 10.48 (10.46), 124.51


Heavy Eliminator: Mike Ritz, .006, 12.31 (12.23 dial), 105.82 def. Steven Umberger, .111, 12.18 (11.90), 113.38


Sled/Bike Eliminator: Rich Pedraza, .071, 9.92 (9.92 dial), 117.91 def. Mo Rider, .049, 8.96 (8.99), 147.70

Bracketeer Consolation: Mark Barnhart, .017, 7.33 (7.33 dial), 178.97 def. Brandon Lynch, .028, 7.68 (7.69), 175.11


Pro/Heavy Consolation: Bill Smith Jr., .022, 10.35 (10.35 dial), 127.21 def. Steve Lambert, .043, 10.13 (10.14), 126.97


Pro Nostalgia: Tim Brown, .066, 8.74 (8.55 dial), 155.94 def. Alex McGarry, .581, 8.16 (8.90), 186.54


Pro Allstar Dash: Chris Hall, .015, 9.53 (9.53 dial), 140.83 def. Troy Pecht, .035, 9.91 (9.95), 131.66


Lucas Oil Top Fire presented by CMYK Grafix: Mark Barnhart, .028, 7.32 (7.31 dial), 179.56 def. Kurt Averill, .047, 8.03 (8.04), 167.32


4-Day Bracketeer points champion: Dan Lafferty

4-Day Pro points champion: Brandon Umberger

4-Day Heavy points champion: Steven Umberger

4-Day Sled/Bike points champion: Rich Pedraza 




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