Drag Racing Online: The Magazine

Volume VIII, Issue 9, Page

A Newbie At Indy

By Glen Grissom

’ve been very fortunate in my racing career so far to report on a variety of races--from drag races at a hometown eighth mile to NHRA national events; from local dirt tracks to the NASCAR Daytona 500. But I had never been to the NHRA U.S. Nationals at Indy, and always wanted to go since I was in my teens. When DRO jefe Burk told me to fire up the laptop and hit the road to the Mecca of drag racing, I was there!

At first arrival is seems just like any other NHRA national drag track and event by outward appearance. But it quickly becomes clear – as it did as I walked across the staging lanes for the first time -- why Indy is so different from other drag racing events. You can feel the historical pressure in the atmosphere like an engine does a change in the barometer. For instance, there were more Hemi cars than you’ll see in a lifetime at the Hemi Challenge, just to set the tone.

The atmosphere and dynamics is equivalent to what you feel at stock car racing’s Daytona 500 or sprint car racing’s Knoxville Nationals. The “go or go-home” clarity and truth of drag racing also separates it from the manufactured “entertainment racing” found in the U.S today. There are no “lucky dog” free passes here and that adds to the do-or-die attitude.

Although you hear almost all the racers say it’s just another track and event, that is just smoke. They know an Indy win puts them among the best and the select of their sport. Why? Because this is where all the racers that came before brought their best and rightest stuff. It is where all the racers that are there now have done the same. Your team’s performance and you will be judged against not only the current competition, but also the speeding ghosts of the sports’ past. Pressure? Nah, it’s beyond that – it alters your life and mind for a few days.

Need an example? How about when Funny Car legend John Force won the Skoal Showdown and $100,000 on Sunday. He looked like a lock on winning Funny Car, the distractions of this TV show put aside while he’s got back in racing form. As much as I dislike his “reality” TV show, I genuinely respect and admire him and his family. Yet after he red-lighted himself out of the first round of Funny Car Eliminations against Jim Head, I feared for his life -- meaning that he would take it – he certainly seemed to have his reasons.

Force stormed into the Press Room after the loss in as raw and raging a mood as I’ve ever seen a racer. The only racer I’ve personally seen such an unfiltered public display of emotion from was when Dale Earnhardt Sr. came into the Press Room at Daytona years ago after Neil Bonnett died on-track there, to clarify in no uncertain language that his friend had not died due to driver error – as was being reported.
You know how Force’s voice is always at full throttle? Well, it was bouncing off the chip in full broadcast and paralyzed the press corp.

“I have the best car here and I failed! This is Indy! It’s not where you make mistakes! I hate myself and my sponsors should hate me too! I’m the best there is and I forgot how to race! If you lose like this at Indy you deserve to have your ass kicked!” he blasted, and ended with a sardonic, “God Bless Capps!” as he barreled out the door.

There were no questions. What were you going to ask the man? I just hoped he didn’t have any sharp objects nearby, and felt strangely sad and respectful simultaneously – the man puts his soul into his racing, and the incredible desire that makes him a champion also consumes him to self-hate when he doesn’t meet his (very) high standards.
Teams and PR people like to pick Indy to make big press announcements so they get maximum coverage, but they went into hyperdrive this year according to the press vets who have been here before. Those vets were all gracious in helping me get names straight and historical info correct. I didn’t really know any better, but it did seem like a lot was going on – some planned, and other news running like the throttle was stuck.

First off, 60-plus year old Kenny Bernstein decides to come back and race Funny Car in 2007. OK, that is big news. It would be like if Richard Petty said he was returning to stock car racing, or maybe Garlits and Dick LaHaie teaming up to come back to Top Fuel.

What lit the pits off was when the rumor of NHRA Pro class inspector Ray Alley was leaving (was requested to leave) the sanctioning body to crew Kenny in 2007 became fact! Now that got the pits fuming – the guy who has inspected and seen and approved all the teams’ combinations now is going to crew one and compete? Why didn’t they just hand all their team notebooks over to Bernstein right now?

There ought to be a law or moratorium time (one year) before an NHRA inspector can jump across the line to work on a drag team – but I don’t think the U.S. Dept of Labor would think that was so fair and smart. Not unless a non-compete clause is put in the original employment contract. Those are not unknown in racing (or race reporting).

Where else would an announcement of the magnitude of Jeg Coughlin Jr’s returning to Pro Stock sort of get overwhelmed by the Bernstein news?
And how can we disregard that the NHRA announced it’s changing the points system in 2007 and incorporate a “playoff” format. Taking a page from the NASCAR marketing book, the NHRA has decided to make the final few races even more cut-throat and fan-maxxed.
Big Daddy Garlits threw the playoff idea and concept totally into the sand traps when asked about it on the ESPN nationwide telecast (I’m sure there was orifice puckering by NHRA top management to hear his disgust with it!). Greg Anderson isn’t a fan of the change either. But it will inject marketing momentum into the Pro class points races and perhaps help build the NHRA TV audience – which is critical if the sport is to grow. And some might argue that goal isn’t that useful anyway.

The Big Go! has a bar higher than the other events. Everyone brings their best stuff; everyone pushes to the edge EVERY round; it takes more rounds to win; you have a gun to your head and you know there could be a loaded chamber in the next round putting you out.
That ulta-competition separates the racers from the drivers. Champions are made at this level of competition. There is no way to learn it, you have to experience it and perform in it, or you don’t. A win here is so special because it publically marks that you have the ability to deliver at the highest capability a drag racing team can achieve. And there is next year if you don’t. .



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