ENNIS, Texas – When Michael Ray returns to the Texas Motorplex this weekend for round two of the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship, NHRA’s playoffs, he will enter his home track as a defending event winner.
That’s a great feeling for Ray, a native of New Braunfels, Texas, who defeated Karen Stoffer in the finals last year to score his first career victory in his first full season in Pro Stock Motorcycle. Ray’s family and friends were able to witness the event at a track just two hours from his home.
“For my mom and dad and everybody being there and all the sacrifices my parents made throughout their entire life to see me be successful it was awesome,” Ray said. “My dad busted his butt for one of those Wallys and never got one, and standing there with my father in victory lane and seeing the tears in his eyes and excitement was just like, ‘This is awesome.’ That is what I’ll never forget.”
Ray and all of the racers in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series return to the Texas Motorplex for the AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals, Sept. 19-22, the second of six races in the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship playoffs. Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Bob Tasca III (Funny Car) and Allen Johnson (Pro Stock) join Ray as defending winners of the race that will be televised on ESPN2HD.
Ray has amassed two wins and two No. 1 qualifying positions in his first season with the Sovereign-Star Racing Buell team. He is fourth in the Countdown to the Championship, 48 points back of leader Hector Arana Jr., but he isn't letting the pressure get to him during the stretch run.
“I think so much of our team’s success is the character we all bring to the table and the fun that we have,” Ray continued. “I have a sticker on my dashboard that says, ‘Just add fun.’ That is all we do. We joke about it and some people say, ‘You just don’t seem to be taking this very seriously,’ but there’s not another team that has a bigger fire lit under its butt than this one. But you have to have a lot of fun out here or this sport will eat you alive.”
Leading Ray, Scotty Pollacheck and the Sovereign-Star Racing team is George Bryce, who is one of the most renowned crew chiefs in the Pro Stock Motorcycle category. As a rider, he raced to four consecutive titles in the National Motorcycle Racing Association from 1981 to 1984. As a crew chief, he has amassed 71 victories and earned six championships between John Myers and Angelle Sampey. His guidance and skills have put Ray in a position to succeed each time he climbs on his Buell.
“When you look back at the history he has at being a great crew chief, he is a magician on the track producing results,” Ray continued. “Those things for me being a young driver, I’m 29 and in my second full time season, for me that is worth its weight in gold. It is like being a rookie quarterback and having a 20-year veteran back there being your mentor. He does such a good job.”
Following the AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals there are only four races remaining in the Countdown to the Championship. Ray and his team realizes to make a run for the championship crown in the two-wheel category requires going rounds at each event.
“You can literally count how many rounds of racing there are left,” Ray concluded. “Right now the first race coming off Charlotte coming into Dallas I did a little comparison to last year and I went in seventh in points and I came out fourth. You can have one really great race and set yourself up.”
For Ray to recapture glory at the Texas Motorplex he will have to outlast a tough field of competitors. Series leader Arana Jr. heads the class with four wins aboard his Lucas Oil Buell while Matt Smith, John Hall, defending world champ Eddie Krawiec and Hector Arana Sr. will be contenders during the event.
In Top Fuel, Texas native Spencer Massey leads the points standings after racing to a runner-up finish at the most recent event. He has yet to win at the Texas Motorplex and will need to do so to keep has championship drive alive. Defending world champ and event winner Brown, seven-time world champion Tony Schumacher and other standouts like Charlotte winner Morgan Lucas, Khalid alBalooshi, Doug Kalitta, Clay Millican, Steve Torrence and past Motorplex winner Bob Vandergriff also will attempt to win on the all-concrete dragstrip.
In Funny Car, Matt Hagan leads the series standings with four season victories at the controls of his Magneti Marelli/Rocky Boots Dodge Charger and will be trying to earn his second victory at the Motorplex. He will need to hold off veterans Cruz Pedregon, a three-time event champ, and Ron Capps, the 1998 winner there. Others to watch include the Force powerhouse that includes 15-time world champion John Force, his youngest daughter Courtney, a two-time winner this season, and two-time Motorplex winner and Auto Club Ford Mustang driver Robert Hight, who won the playoff opener in Charlotte.
Johnson will have his work cut out for him in a loaded class. Points leader Mike Edwards aims to bring his Interstate Batteries/I Am Second Chevy Camaro back to the Motorplex winner’s circle as he did in 1998, giving him seven victories in his dream season. But chasing him is a number of standouts, including Johnson’s teammates Jeg Coughlin, who has three wins including the most recent victory in Charlotte, and three-time season winner Vincent Nobile. Texas native Erica Enders-Stevens will be trying to grab a victory in her home state, as will Rodger Brogdon of Tomball, Texas and Chris McGaha of Odessa, Texas.
The NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series also will thrill the crowds during the weekend with intense competition on the track.