The four Countdown to the Championship NHRA categories will have more than their fellow competitors in mind as they head to Maple Grove Raceway for the third of six races to determine this year’s champions.
It’s the weather - and arriving in this area of central Pennsylvania along with a Hurricane that has strengthened to a Category 4, who knows when and whether the racers will be able to set fast speeds to take them closer to a title?
The NHRA Keystone Nationals has often been known for quick lap speeds over the 1,000-foot and quarter-mile paces, but just as often it’s suffered from weather-related issues. This year’s meeting looks to take place midweek instead of this weekend, thanks to Hurricane Joaquin.
Reading is the third in a three-race, three-week sprint for the drag racers, who were in St. Louis last weekend and at Charlotte the week before. A one-weekend break is intended between this race and the fourth at Dallas the third weekend of October. Last year this race went to Tony Schumacher in Top Fuel, Matt Hagan in Funny Car, Rodger Brogdon in Pro Stock and Eddie Krawiec in Pro Stock Motorcycle. Of that quartet, Schumacher and Hagan took home season honors.
This year’s grid for the title chase is a bit different from 2014. Thanks to his two-race, two-win start to the Countdown, Antron Brown, with six overall wins for the 2015 campaign holds a nearly four-round advantage over eight-time champion, teammate Schumacher. With 77 points in hand, Brown is looking for his second national championship; the first came, in the same category and with the same team, three years ago in 2012.
Polesitter at St. Louis, three-time champ Larry Dixon lies third while Brittany Force, who has won no races but finished consistently well is fourth. J.F. Todd, Doug Kalitta, Richie Crampton, category newcomer Dave Connolly, Steve Torrence and Shawn Langdon round out the eligible-for-title top 10.
The last two are intriguing as Langdon has been competing with Alan Johnson Racing (AJR) since 2012, winning the Top Fuel title in 2013. When AJR was forced to close for the year due to lack of funding, Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) chose to take Langdon for its single open dragster seat during the Countdown (former driver Spencer Massey was fired before the U.S. Nationals). AJR team owner Alan Johnson was hired - last week - to help advance Torrence’s goal of taking the title in 2015. But those two remain the anchors of the Top Fuel category.
The Funny Car picture is emerging a bit different than many expected after the close of the 18-race “regular season.” During that time DSR driver Jack Beckman earned six victories and cleaned his plate at the U.S. Nationals by taking the Traxxas race-within-a-race trophy and the event title.
Since then it’s been all Del Worsham, the 2011 Top Fuel titleholder with Al Anabi/Alan Johnson Racing. See a bit of inbreeding here? Worsham won the first two races in this Countdown, but is being hounded by 2014 champion Matt Hagan and his two teammates Tommy Johnson Jr and Beckman. 16-time champ John Force is fifth, followed by DSR’s Ron Capps, Alexis DeJoria, Cruz Pedregon, Tim Wilkerson and Robert Hight. Worsham drives a Toyota Camry Funny Car, as do DeJoria and Pedregon. The DSR four-car troops race Dodge Charger R/Ts, while Force and Hight use Chevrolet SS floppers.
The always-tight Pro Stock contingent are watching Erica Enders-Stevens work her way to a second straight title in this category, as the Texan owns seven victories thus far. Although she lost to teammate Drew Skillman last week, she’s got 123 points in hand over four-race-winner Greg Anderson. Allen Johnson lies third, followed by rookie Skillman, Larry Morgan, Chris McGaha, Vincent Nobile, Jason Line, Shane and Jonathan Gray. Only Johnson is in a Mopar Dodge Dart; the balance of the Countdown field drives Chevrolet Camaros.
It seems there’s no stopping Enders-Stevens, whose combination appears to be the most robust and reliable in the Pro Stock paddock, where secrets are the norm. This category is prepping for many new changes in 2016, to go with their 2014 rear Goodyear tire spec change and NHRA’s move to Sunoco fuel. Next year all competitors will use electronic fuel injection, change their car bodies to rid the class of its bulbous noses, so cooling issues may come into play for many in 2016.
Pro Stock Motorcycle
In Pro Stock Motorcycle, reigning titleholder Andrew Hines’ two victories have him holding a slim, 34-point advantage on his Vance & Hines Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson over the Buell of Hector Arana Jr. Teammate Eddie Krawiec is third, Suzuki rider Jerry Savoie stands fourth, Matt Smith (Buell), Karen Stoffer (Suzuki), Buell riders Hector Arana and Chip Ellis, Suzuki’s Jim Underdahl and Buell runner Scotty Pollacheck round out the top 10.
All of these laundry ticket facts are moot, of course, if the weather doesn’t cooperate. While Maple Grove has been known as a fast racetrack where records can be set and careers have been made, it doesn’t matter if the racing doesn’t take place. If predictions are correct and there’s no activity until Monday at the earliest, it will be a darn shame for the great fans of the tri-state area of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York (not to mention Ohio, Delaware and Maryland, all within driving distance) and the racers who’d be doing nothing more than bench-racing for a few days.