Norwalk: Round 11 preview

MOTORSPORTS SHOW IN OHIO TO NORWALK NORWALK, Ohio -- There are plenty of reasons fans have made NHRA POWERade Series drag racing the second most popular motorsport in the United States. There's nothing like watching two 7,000 horsepower machines...

MOTORSPORTS SHOW IN OHIO TO NORWALK

NORWALK, Ohio -- There are plenty of reasons fans have made NHRA POWERade Series drag racing the second most popular motorsport in the United States. There's nothing like watching two 7,000 horsepower machines rocket off of the starting line with a force stronger than a space shuttle launch. The pits are open. Racing simulators are a mainstay at every national event.

But it's mostly because fans see themselves in the drivers.

Consider the current professional roster:

* In 2007, 24-year-old Ashley Force announced her move to one of the most powerful categories on the planet -- Funny Car. When she made her debut, she and her father John became the first father-daughter pair to ever compete against each other in a professional motorsport. And fans had a front seat view of the transition through A&E's real life television show "Driving Force."

* In 2006, then 24-year-old J.R. Todd went from virtual obscurity to a guest on CNN when he became the first black driver to win in Top Fuel. His debut was a fairy-tale season that no one predicted, and he topped it off by earning the Auto Club Road to the Future rookie of the year award. He hasn't disappointed fans this year either.

* Seven women are serious threats to the 2007 world championship titles in four professional categories (Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle).

Most know someone who either races in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series (a feeder series for the professionals) or wants to. Indeed, NHRA drag racing has moved far beyond the early years of flag-drop starts and rebel racing.

On June 28-July 1, the elite drivers of the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series come to Norwalk's Summit Racing Equipment Motorsports Park for the inaugural Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals, the 11th of 23 events in the series. The newly renovated track features a state-of-the-art media center and upgraded facilities that position it as one of the top drag racing venues in the country.

Drivers are quick to voice their anticipation for bringing the hottest rivalries in drag racing to Norwalk.

"The one word that comes to mind when I think of Norwalk is unbelievable," said Robert Hight, driver of the Auto Club Ford Mustang and 2005 rookie of the year. "The racing surface is unbelievable. The fans are unbelievable ... When you can get so many people from Michigan and Northern Ohio to a race like an NHRA event you know they will be excited to see the Auto Club Ford Mustang as well as John and Ashley Force's Castrol GTX Ford Mustangs as well as the rest of the Funny Car teams."

The story lines coming out of the John Force Racing camp are almost as unbelievable.

In January, Ashley Force announced her intention to turn pro. She turned to teammates Robert Hight and Eric Medlen for advice. Then in March, just three months into the season, Medlen died of injuries sustained in a testing accident in Gainesville, Fla. Ashley, Robert and John pulled together to get through the grief and returned to the circuit after missing one race. The headlines didn't stop after their return. Surprisingly, both Robert and Ashley are sitting comfortably inside the first cut-off in the new play-off style format adopted by the POWERade Series, called the Countdown to the Championship. Incredibly, John, a 14-time world champion, has yet to crack the top 8.

News is coming fast out of the Chicago-based Don Schumacher Racing team, too. Four-time and reigning Top Fuel world champion Tony Schumacher, largely recognized for his U.S. Army colors, has struggled to reach the winner's circle, earning only one victory in the first nine races. Any other world champ may be worried, but Schumacher, guided by crew chief Alan Johnson, is known for turning early disadvantages into motivation. In 2006, Schumacher earned his fourth world title with the most memorable performance in NHRA history. He needed to win the final race of the season with the final pass of the year in a national record-setting time. A perfect stage for the perfect storm was set. And he did it.

In Pro Stock, a pair of formidable challengers has finally stepped up with a serious threat to the Summit Racing Equipment Pontiac team juggernaut of Greg Anderson and Jason Line. Between the two of them, the team owned by Las Vegas businessman Ken Black has held the world championship title since 2003. Now Ohio teammates Jeg Coughlin Jr. and Dave Connolly -- both known for taking advantage of their opponents at the starting line -- have formed a truly formidable alliance. After 10 events, Anderson has topped the point standings with six victories, with Jeg Coughlin and Dave Connolly, respectively, standing between Line and second place.

Pro Stock Motorcycle features three women vying for a spot in the Countdown, including NHRA's winningest female, Angelle Sampey, Karen Stoffer and Peggy Llewellyn. U.S. Army Suzuki rider Sampey, who set the NHRA national elapsed time record at 6.871 seconds over the weekend in Englishtown, N.J., has been desperate to unseat reigning world champion Andrew Hines, who rode his Screamin' Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson to his third consecutive world title in 2006. So is Sampey's teammate, Antron Brown, who would love to take the first spot in the winner's circle in Norwalk.

The Lucas Oil Series boasts plenty of local drivers who will all compete for valuable points toward 2007 world championship titles.

SCHEDULE: Professional qualifying sessions are scheduled for 4 and 7 p.m. on June 29, and noon and 2:30 p.m. on June 30. Pre-race ceremonies will begin at 10 a.m. on July 1, followed by the first round of professional eliminations at 11 a.m.

TICKETS: For tickets, call (419) 668-5555 or purchase online at www.tix.com.

ON TV: On June 30, ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise two hours of qualifying at 10 p.m. (ET). On July 1, ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will telecast NHRA Race Day, a 30-minute pre-race show, at 11 a.m. (ET) and televise three hours of eliminations at 8 p.m. (ET).

ON THE WEB: For complete online coverage of the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals, please visit www.NHRA.com

-credit: nhra

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Series NHRA
Drivers Antron Brown , Jeg Coughlin , John Force , Tony Schumacher , Greg Anderson , Peggy Llewellyn , Karen Stoffer , Ashley Force , Jason Line , Andrew Hines , Eric Medlen , Don Schumacher , Robert Hight , J.R. Todd , Angelle Sampey , Dave Connolly , Ken Black