Gainesville: Round three preview

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE GEARS UP FOR DEBUT AFTER FOUR MONTHS OF TEAM SWAPS GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Of all of the professional categories, Pro Stock Motorcycle is the only one that can legitimately bill itself a 'close fraternity' (be it one of men and...

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE GEARS UP FOR DEBUT AFTER FOUR MONTHS OF TEAM SWAPS

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Of all of the professional categories, Pro Stock Motorcycle is the only one that can legitimately bill itself a 'close fraternity' (be it one of men and women). But after a two-month off-season that produced more changes than continuity, have the family rules changed too?

Pro Stock Motorcycle kicks off its season at the 39th annual ACDelco NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway March 13-16. This event, one of the Series' most popular, is the third of 24 in the NHRA POWERade Series.

Of all the category's swaps, moves made by the former U.S. Army Suzuki duo of Angelle Sampey and Antron Brown were the most drastic. Brown made his professional Top Fuel debut in Pomona, Calif. in February, in the seat of the Matco Tools dragster for David Powers Motorsports. He's a quick study -- Brown earned the No. 1 qualifying position in Pomona and has two round-wins in two races (over European star Urs Erbacher and Doug Herbert).

Sampey, the winningest female in NHRA history with 41 career titles, stuck with the category that made her a three-time NHRA POWERade Series world champion. She'll ride the Rush Racing Products Buell Peggy Llewellyn made popular last season.

"It's pretty crazy," Sampey said. "I guess us as drivers, we think about who's going to be on whose team and who's going to have a better chance now...I think racers really pay attention to where everyone is going to have a good idea of who we'll have to look out for. But the competition is really awesome nowadays, so it really doesn't matter as much."

Although she remains close to Brown (who is also her cousin by marriage), Sampey welcomes Chris Rivas, who runs out of the same engine camp, as her new teammate. She will always rely on the support she gets from Brown, Rivas and Craig Treble, who rides the Team Tigue Suzuki.

"With other teams, I think friendships might grow some years and weaken some years," Sampey said. "I've learned by experience you have more friends the less you win. I have decided it's more important for me to win than have friends at the race track. I think the person who wins most will always have the least friends at the track. I've learned to accept that and I'd like to be that person again."

While Sampey and Brown moved out from underneath the Don Schumacher Racing umbrella, Chip Ellis moved in -- and moved from Georgia to Indianapolis with his family to work at DSR headquarters fulltime. He also switched from a Buell to the Schumacher Electric Suzuki.

"The facility here is unreal," Ellis said. "We have pretty much unlimited resources as far as parts and the technology aspect of it goes. It's awesome. The shop is so big, right now we have 13 trucks inside the building. Everybody just works like they were at the track, out of their trucks. It's a real change for me."

Ellis cites frequent go-karting trips with could-be rivals like Andrew Hines, a three-time world champion, Sampey, and even Brown as evidence the relationships between them aren't likely to change. And yet, an edge of aggression remains.

"It gets pretty competitive," Ellis said. "I think we're all competitors at heart. No matter if we're at the go-kart track or playing golf or racing on Sunday, we all want to win, no matter what we're doing. But I'd probably lose the golf game."

While so many riders swapped teams and owners, reigning POWERade Series world champion Matt Smith had his own dilemma to work out -- his sponsor pulled out for 2008, leaving Smith and teammate Angie McBride seatless. It wasn't long until he found a replacement. Smith will ride the NitroFish Wear Buell in 2008.

In Pro Stock, Kurt Johnson comes to Gainesville hoping for a little redemption himself. The last two seasons Kurt has failed to qualify for his sponsors' event, a streak no one wants hanging over his or her head. Johnson and his father, Pro Stock legend Warren Johnson, ranked sixth and seventh respectively in the points after Phoenix, want nothing more than to reach the winner's circle at Gainesville Raceway. If anyone can win there it's Warren Johnson, who with nine wins is the most successful pro driver, in all categories, of all time in Florida (John Force has seven).

"Overall, the Pro Stock class has been extremely tough in 2008, so we'll have our work cut out for us, but I believe we're up to the task," Kurt Johnson said. "We're coming down with a new car, new motors, and have all of our equipment primed and ready for a big weekend. We'd like to duplicate our winning performance from the 2005 ACDelco race in Las Vegas, so we can invite all of our corporate friends to celebrate with us in the ACDelco Gatornationals winners' circle. That would be one heck of a party."

The focus in the ultra-competitive Funny Car class remains Robert Hight, who's piloted his Auto Club Ford Mustang to two final rounds in a row (including a season-opening win in Pomona.) In Phoenix it was Jack Beckman who claimed the event title, but the field of talent is deep and the rest of the drivers hungry for their first wins of the year.

Tony Schumacher and Larry Dixon lead the Top Fuel category with one win each -- and one point between them. Of the two, Dixon has the better career record in Florida with three wins to Schumacher's two, but the U.S. Army talent won there is 2007.

SCHEDULE: Pro qualifying sessions are scheduled for noon and 2:30 p.m. on Friday, March 14. Qualifying continues at noon and 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 15 and final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday, March 16.

TICKETS: Tickets are available for the ACDelco NHRA Gatornationals. Call NHRA at (800) 884-NHRA or check online at Ticketmaster or NHRA.com.

ON TV: ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise qualifying highlights at 1 a.m. (ET) on Sunday, March 16. ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise NHRA Race Day, a 30-minute pre-race show, at 11 a.m. (ET) on Sunday, March 16. ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise the race beginning at 6 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, March 16.

-credit: nhra

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About this article
Series NHRA
Drivers Doug Herbert , Antron Brown , Larry Dixon , Kurt Johnson , Warren Johnson , John Force , Tony Schumacher , Craig Treble , Jack Beckman , Chris Rivas , Matthew Smith , Don Schumacher , Chip Ellis , Urs Erbacher , David Powers , Robert Hight , Angelle Sampey , Angie McBride