Columbus: Connolly looks forward to homecoming

PRO STOCK'S DAVE CONNOLLY LOOKS FORWARD TO SECOND SWEET HOMECOMING AT NATIONAL TRAIL RACEWAY HEBRON, Ohio -- A typical 22-year-old laborer spends hours fetching coffee, hoping for his big break out of an entry-level job. NHRA Pro Stock phenom...

PRO STOCK'S DAVE CONNOLLY LOOKS FORWARD TO SECOND SWEET HOMECOMING AT NATIONAL TRAIL RACEWAY

HEBRON, Ohio -- A typical 22-year-old laborer spends hours fetching coffee, hoping for his big break out of an entry-level job. NHRA Pro Stock phenom Dave Connolly's big chance has come sooner than he expected. While many of his peers carpool to the office at 60 mph on the nation's highways, Connolly cruises down the drag strip at more than 200 mph as a professional drag racer.

Connolly, an Elyria, Ohio native and one of a crop of young drivers now carving out places of their own in the nation's premier drag racing series, comes home to the 41st annual Pontiac Performance NHRA Nationals presented by Summit Racing at National Trail Raceway, May 19-22. The $2 million event, which was moved from June to May in hopes of avoiding central Ohio's rainy season, is the eighth of 23 races on the NHRA POWERade series and one of the oldest on the history-rich schedule.

"Basically, I got lucky and I got a job doing what I love," Connolly said. "The passion for that hasn't gone away yet, so it makes it easier. That and we have a good time on the road. We still go out at night. It's not all about racing all the time. We still manage to do normal things too.

"A lot of family definitely comes to (Columbus) and Chicago. That's just about six hours away. Obviously we want to do better and put on a good show for them. Last year (at Columbus) everything seemed to go smoothly."

Drivers in four professional categories (Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle) will battle for victories on National Trail's historic quarter-mile drag strip and work to improve their positions in the series point standings. Other defending winners include the late Darrell Russell (Top Fuel), Del Worsham (Funny Car) and Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

Connolly comes into the race second in the POWERade point standings after suffering an uncharacteristic DNQ at last weekend's event at Atlanta Dragway. With the setback Connolly dropped out of the series lead, which he had held for the first time in his Pro Stock career after winning two events early this year.

Connolly enjoyed a sweet welcome home at Columbus last year. After qualifying sixth, he ripped through the elimination rounds before posting a runner-up finish to defending Pro Stock world champion Greg Anderson.

Connolly is no stranger to success. He earned the NHRA Division 3 Super Gas championship title in 2002 and was the Top E.T. Bracket Finals champion in 1999 before turning pro. Despite his record, however, Connolly didn't expect to be mentioned in the same breath as NHRA drivers the likes of current series leader Warren Johnson or Anderson so soon. In fact, when Connolly raced a Chevrolet Cavalier that belonged to his mother at local tracks at the age of 15, he didn't envision ever getting the chance to drive in the competitive category at all.

He made his first NHRA professional start in 2003 at Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Ill. and carried a 7-11 win-loss round record that first season. In 2004, his first full year of competition, Connolly finished third in the POWERade Pro Stock point standings with three wins in five final round appearances.

Despite his own driving talent made undeniable by two early-season wins in 2005, Connolly credits his crew and solid support from team owner Mike Dzurilla for his success.

Connolly defeated Johnson at the CARQUEST Auto Parts Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., in February and Anderson at the NHRA SummitRacing.com Nationals at Las Vegas in April.

"To do it so fast, it's actually really surprising," Connolly said. "Actually, I never thought I would get the chance to run Pro Stock. Obviously, it's more the team than the driver by far. You've got to have a good engine program and good people working on your car. To be working with them is just a pleasure."

Connolly showed off a new Chevrolet Cobalt at Bristol Dragway and introduced the new ride to competition in Atlanta, however with less than favorable results. He hopes to make a better showing with his new car at National Trail.

"It seemed like everything that could go wrong happened (at Atlanta)," Connolly said. "The one thing we were worried about going there was the car, and that was the only thing that cooperated. We'll go back to the shop and get things together and come back strong next weekend at Columbus."

Although he spends much energy concentrating on his Pro Stock schedule, Connolly still occasionally races in the Super Comp category with his father Ray, who has been an integral figure in Connolly's young career.

"We're too much alike a lot of times," Connolly said. "He's a real organized person. I think that's the way we landed this job a few years ago. He's a real neat person, and he's real smart when it comes to working on the car.

"We were a lot more competitive until I started racing. Now we both realize that things do happen. It's kind of a mutual understanding."

Anderson, who won his first race of the season at Atlanta and ranks third in the Pro Stock category point standings in the $50 million POWERade Drag Racing Series after seven events, is once again a force to contend with in 2005, as is Johnson, who notched his 800th round win at Bristol Dragway. Johnson, known as "The Professor" for his hands-on approach to the sport, is expected to retire from full-time professional Pro Stock competition after this year's "School's Out" tour. Also near the top of the list is Jason Line.

In Top Fuel, look for strong showings by points leader and three-time winner this season Doug Kalitta and Tony Schumacher, a two-time winner this season. Larry Dixon, who gave drag racing legend Don "The Snake" Prudhomme his 100th career win in Las Vegas, is a three-time winner at National Trail and one of the favorites in the 7,000 horsepower category.

Favorites in the Funny Car category include Whit Bazemore, John Force and Cruz Pedregon, who have all turned in impressive showings to date this season. Bazemore was the first driver in his category to earn two victories in 2005 and current series points leader Force, who won in Atlanta, is once again showing the strength that made him a 13-time NHRA POWERade world champion. Force, a three-time winner at Columbus, leads a successful young stable that includes Eric Medlen and son-in-law Robert Hight. Del Worsham and Tony Pedregon also are recent winners at the Ohio track.

The Pontiac Performance NHRA Nationals marks the fourth start this year for the Pro Stock Motorcycle category. Winners to date include points leader GT Tonglet, who won in Atlanta, Steve Johnson, who led the point standings for the first time in his 18-year career this season, and Houston victor Karen Stoffer. Expect quality efforts by defending world champion Andrew Hines and three-time series champ Angelle Sampey, a two-time winner at NTR.

-nhra-

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Series NHRA
Drivers Larry Dixon , Warren Johnson , Tony Pedregon , Del Worsham , Whit Bazemore , John Force , Tony Schumacher , Doug Kalitta , Greg Anderson , Cruz Pedregon , Karen Stoffer , Jason Line , Andrew Hines , Eric Medlen , Steve Johnson , GT Tonglet , Angelle Sampey , Dave Connolly