INDIANAPOLIS, Aug. 28, 1998: Not since 1989 has a driver other than John Force been in the NHRA Funny Car Championship points lead going into the U.S. Nationals. Well, times have changed and a new breed of potential champions is vying for that No. 1 position, and some just happen to be driving Chevy Camaros.
Leading the Funny Car point standings by 31 points is 33-year-old Ron Capps, driver of the Copenhagen Camaro Z28, in only his second season in the Funny Car ranks. Not far behind him, in third place after Force, is another Chevy Camaro Z28 Funny Car driver, Chuck Etchells, in the Kendall/Ma Ma Rosa's Pizza/Superwinch entry. Each of these Chevy drivers is aiming for his first Winston Championship as the NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series heads to Indianapolis and the prestigious U.S. Nationals next weekend, Sept. 2-7, round 16 of the 22-event series.
Chevrolet's third Funny Car driver, Whit Bazemore, in the Team Winston Camaro Z28, is no less earnest in his quest to defend his 1997 U.S. Nationals Funny Car title and gain valuable points to move up in the standings from seventh place. Bazemore also has never won a Winston Championship in his 10 years of Funny Car competition.
Capps is no longer celebrating his second consecutive Funny Car title, earned in Brainerd last weekend, his fourth of the season (he's won more titles so far this season than any other Funny Car driver) and the sixth of his career. Chevrolet is also done revelling in Camaro's sixth victory of the season and eighth since it entered the Funny Car category last year. Both are now seriously focused on winning the U.S. Nationals and on earning those precious points towards a championship.
"It's amazing that I could even be talked about in the same sentence as Force," says Capps, of Carlsbad, Calif. "He's dominated over the years. It will be exciting to roll up on the starting line at Indy knowing that we have the points lead going into the biggest race of the year and that we are actually contenders for the championship. But we have to stay focused and that's the one thing 'Snake' (team owner Don Prudhomme) is very adamant about. You can't replace the experience he and Roland (Leong, crew chief) have. If anyone knows how to stay focused down the final stretch in a championship race it's Prudhomme."
Etchells, 44, of Putnam, Conn., winner of two titles so far this season and a 20-year veteran in the Funny Car category, has his sights set firmly on his first championship. Only 85 points behind Force and 116 out of first place, he is very much in the running. Etchells led the point standings earlier in the season and is determined to put himself back in front. "There are two races that I have always dreamed about winning," he says, "the Gatornationals, where my love affair with drag racing started, and the U.S. Nationals, not only because it is the biggest and most prestigious event on the NHRA circuit, but because of its place in our sport's history. We also see Indy as an opportunity to get back some of the ground we lost in the chase for the championship in the past few races."
Bazemore, 35, of Indianapolis, has been testing at Indianapolis Raceway Park this week along with his fellow Camaro drivers. "We are working on making the Camaro more consistent," he says. "We've had good performances recently, but the car is always on the edge and we are unable to maintain our performance to consistently win rounds. These two days of testing will hopefully put us in a better position to sucessfully defend our U.S. Nationals title."
Winner of one title so far this year, five in his Funny Car career, before he switched to the Camaro body in June, Bazemore is 268 points out of first place.
Pro qualifying sessions for the U.S. Nationals begin at 7 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 4. Qualifying continues at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Sept. 5. Two additional qualifying sessions are scheduled for 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Sept. 6. Final professional eliminations start at 11 a.m. on Sept. 7. Pro Stock Truck qualifying begins at 3 p.m. Sept. 3. Pro Stock Truck eliminations begin at 11 a.m. Sept. 6.
TNN will televise three hours of semi-final and final round coverage of the U.S. Nationals on Sept. 7 at 4 p.m. EST. TNN will also provide coverage of the Big Bud shootout on Sept. 6 at 4 p.m. EST.
OTHER CHEVROLET FACTS GOING INTO THE U.S. NATIONALS:
* Kurt Johnson, driving the AC Delco Camaro Z28, is just six points short of second place in the Pro Stock point standings. His dad, Warren, is first in points, 345 ahead of Kurt. Kurt and Warren are aiming for a 1-2 family finish in the Pro Stock championship.
* Pro Stock Trucks will compete in Round 8 of the 1998 12-event series at the U.S. Nationals. Chevy S-10 drivers are 1-2-3 in points: Larry Kopp, John Lingenfelter and Jerry Haas.