Epping: Round nine preview

IHRA Championship Races Coming Down to the Wire; New England Dragway will Set the Stage for Frantic Final Race Four of five professional classes still up for grabs as racers prepare for Amalie Oil North American Nationals NORWALK, OHIO (July...

IHRA Championship Races Coming Down to the Wire; New England Dragway will Set the Stage for Frantic Final Race
Four of five professional classes still up for grabs as racers prepare for Amalie Oil North American Nationals

NORWALK, OHIO (July 22, 2008) -- With two races remaining on the 2008 IHRA schedule at least 20 professional drivers have legitimate chances to walk away with world championships. In what is shaping up to be the most competitive, exciting season in history four of five class leaders are clinging to razor-thin advantages in their respective points chases. The Amalie Oil North American Nationals presented by the New England Dodge Dealers, the ninth of 10 national events on the 2008 season schedule, will provide what could be a turning point as these 20 drivers pursue their dreams.

Prior to the 2008 season Spencer Massey (Fort Worth, Tex.) was a virtual unknown on the IHRA circuit. The 25-year-old Texan came up through the junior dragster ranks and spent the fledgling years of his racing career driving an injected nitrous dragster in NHRA sportsman competition. He now is one of the most recognizable drivers in drag racing.

Mitch King tapped Massey to drive his Top Fuel car in IHRA competition one week before the 2008 season opener in San Antonio. Massey got his Top Fuel license on a Monday, the following Sunday he was in the winner's circle at San Antonio Raceway celebrating his Ironman win at the Amalie Oil Texas Nationals after winning the first Top Fuel race he ever entered.

Massey's magical ride continued two weeks later in Rockingham where he made it two-for-two with another national event victory, this time at the IHRA Spring Nationals in Rockingham. He has also claimed national event victories in Martin, Mich. and Tulsa, Okla. (both over Terry McMillen in the final round) and will hold a 73-point advantage over second-place Bruce Litton heading into the North American Nationals.

"It's never over until it's over," Massey said of the championship points chase. "We have six runs left and are about 70 points in the lead. My goal is to try to keep pace with (Bruce) Litton. I want to go at least as many rounds as him so he can't get around us."

Massey never expected to be in this position.

"I'm just living the dream," he said. "It all started in San Antonio and has just snowballed from there. I've gotten more confident with the car and realized what the car is capable of. But I'm still learning how to drive the car. Every run you make you learn something new and you get more familiar with the car. But I still want to go faster."

Massey has rolled up an impressive 15-4 won-lost record in elimination rounds this season.

Terry Haddock is in his 12th season behind the wheel of a Nitro Funny Car, and for the first time in his career he has legitimate world championship aspirations. A win at the Mopar Canadian Nationals in Grand Bend, Ontario put him on top of the IHRA Nitro Funny Car points standings and, as a result, also gave him a financial boost.

Mike Ashley from the mortgage company Lend America took notice of Haddock's season and decided to provide him enough financial assistance to let him chase his dream. Lend America will be Haddock's primary sponsor the rest of the season.

Haddock had a comfortable lead heading to the Sooner Nationals in Tulsa, bit NFC rookie Matt Hagan had a dream weekend...the kind of weekend he needed to move back into championship contention. After qualifying in the top spot and sweeping both "Last Man Standing" bonuses, Hagan went on to win the race. The weekend pulled him to within 51 points of Haddock in the points race.

Hagan chopped 121 points off Haddock's points lead in Tulsa. This came three weeks after not qualifying for the eight-car eliminations field at the Northern Nationals at US 131 Motorsports Park. The race in Martin was Hagan's first with John Smith calling the tuning shots on his 2008 Solera.

"After the DNQ in Martin I knew we had a lot of stuff to change around," Hagan said. "They came in and changed the whole motor combination, changed everything. We spent the whole week preparing for that race after blowing it up really bad, so we were behind the eight-ball heading into Martin. We stayed after it and ran the lowest ET and highest mile an hour of the weekend after the race was over. So that was encouraging."

It was encouraging from a nuts and bolts perspective, but not qualifying in Martin was brutal for Hagan's championship outlook.

"It felt like someone had ripped my guts out and was stomping on them," he said. "Being in the position where we had done so well, we had won two races already, and having that DNQ felt like someone took a stick and hit me in the head. But I knew what John Smith could do with a racecar, with his father Paul assisting him, and I figured we'd be okay. It just took one more race to prove it."

Hagan moved up to third in the Nitro Funny Car standings. Haddock has 536 points, Paul Lee 513 and Hagan 485. However, only Hagan and Haddock remain alive for the 41-point season-ending bonus awarded to drivers who competed at every scheduled event so that considered, he is ahead of Lee.

"It's very obtainable," Hagan said of the championship. "I set my goals at the beginning of the year to win three races and we have been able to do that. Now the goal is to go out and win a championship. With this racecar and the Smiths tuning it, if I can do my job on the starting line it's very possible. It will be a lot of work and it's a steep hill to climb, but it's very doable.

There are a number of storylines emerging in the Pro Modified points race this season. After building a big lead will Canadian Kenny Lang be able to hold off the rest of the class? Which of the nitrous-assisted drivers, Mike Castellana, Jim Halsey or Pat Stoken, will finally break down the magical 5-second barrier? Has there ever been a better nitrous car than the 1968 Firebird Mike Castellana has brought to the dance this season?

One thing is for sure; the Amalie Oil North American Nationals will go a long way towards answering these questions. Kenny Lang, on the strength of his victory over Castellana in the final round at Tulsa Raceway Park, edged his lead over Castellana in the points chase to 57 points. However, it could have been bigger.

Castellana claimed both Last Man Standing five-point bonuses in Tulsa, qualified #1 and was the runner-up at the race. His Awesome/AlAnabi Motorsports Team has become the team the rest of the participants are chasing when you look at the numbers. At the Sooner Nationals in Tulsa Castellana put together a string of runs in the 6.00 range. He had the quickest and fastest passes in three of the four qualifying rounds before mechanical problems against Ed Hoover in the second round caused him to struggle the rest of the event. He had a bye into the final, but there fell to Lang.

Three weeks earlier he ran the quickest nitrous pass in IHRA history, a 6.000 in the first round of eliminations at the Northern Nationals in Martin. It has been a long journey for Castellana and his team.

"We struggled a little bit. We knew we had the power to run a good number, but we just weren't able to use it all," he said. "If you look at the conditions we ran those numbers in...that surprised us a little but. We expected the good numbers sometime this year, but not in those conditions."

Lang realizes how important his win over Castellana was in the final at Tulsa Raceway Park. His victory possibly changed the momentum of what is shaping up to be a classic IHRA nitrous vs. blower battle to the finish.

"It gives us a little more breathing room," he said. "A little more, but we still don't have much. We had built up a good lead and had it as high as 90 points, then we lost that and it went down to 46 points. Now we built it back up a little bit. At least we're holding things steady but we're by no means comfortable. It's going to go down to the last couple of races, I'm sure of it."

Laurie Cannister (Johnstown, Ohio) has not clinched the Alcohol Funny Car world championship as of yet, but unless she is abducted by aliens or something her final two events should be victory laps of sorts. Her final-round appearance in Tulsa gave her an astounding 231-point lead over Paul Noakes, who sits in second place.

Cannister has won five of the eight national events this season and has an unbelievable 19-3 won-loss record in elimination rounds in 2008. Right now the last thing Cannister is worrying about is the championship. Her team will take the "one race at a time, one round at a time" approach.

"That's how we've approached the whole season, and we're just going to keep it that way," she said. "We want to come out and win as many events as we can. If or when the championship happens it'll be great and we'll enjoy it, but we're not going to change the way we've kept our approach all season."

The North American Nationals will be the most important race of the season for drivers in the Pro Stock class. Not only will it go a long way towards determining who will end up grabbing the world championship at the end of the season, $100,000 will be up for grabs in the Torco Pro Stock Showdown. This race within a race will take place during Saturday qualifying, with the eventual winner taking home $50,000.

The Pro Stock Showdown will provide Pro Stock fans with quite an appetizer, and the North American Nationals will be a main course every Pro Stock fan will want to be a part of. The Pro Stock championship points race has turned into a four-man rumble with everything on the line. Points leader Jeff Dobbins will enter New England Dragway with 561 points. Right behind him, just three points back, sits Sooner Nationals champion Pete Berner with 558 points.

John Montecalvo is third with 503 points while Frank Gugliotta remains very much alive in the championship points chase with 487 points.

The points chase is so close if Berner were to win the Pro Stock Last Man Standing Friday in Epping he would enter Saturday as the points leader.

"The points race is really tight right now. There are a couple of races left and everyone in this chase is really strong," Berner said. "We have to keep on our game and make good runs. If we can continue to make good runs good things can happen."

Berner has been on a hot streak lately and he got some help in Tulsa when Dobbins, the racer he is chasing, fell in the second round to Bob Bertsch.

"We've been pretty fortunate making it to the finals at the last three races," he said. "We couldn't get it done until we got it done in Tulsa. The moon and the stars really lined up for us there. Jeff going out early really made things easier on us because the only thing we can control is what our car is going to do. The other teams we just have to fight them hard, and they're all great teams. It's so close and we're all such good friends that we're all kind of rooting for each other."

The Amalie Oil North American Nationals will begin Friday, Sept. 5 with two pro qualifying sessions, one at 2pm and one at 7pm. Saturday there will be two professional qualifying sessions, one at 2pm and the second as part of the New England Dodge Dealers Night of Fire at 7pm. Final eliminations are slated for Sunday, Sept. 7, beginning at 11am.

-credit: ihra

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Series Drag
Drivers Laurie Cannister , Bruce Litton , John Montecalvo , Ed Hoover , Mitch King , Paul Lee , Mike Ashley , Terry Haddock , Jim Halsey , Matt Hagan , Kenny Lang , Spencer Massey , Frank Gugliotta