INDIANAPOLIS – When qualifying begins for the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, all racers in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series will enter the race with an assortment of goals on their to-do lists. While some racers will be thrilled by simply qualifying for Monday’s eliminations at the Big Go, others will be desperately looking to stay in the top 10 in points so they can keep their world championship dreams alive by advancing to the Countdown to the Championship, NHRA’s six-race postseason playoffs. Even more will be trying to have a great race so they can move into the top 10 and qualify for the Countdown playoffs. The Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals begins Aug. 28 and concludes Sept. 2 at tradition-rich Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis.
The Funny Car category has one of the tightest points battles going around the bubble zone, highlighted by ninth place racer Bob Tasca III, sitting only 35 points ahead of 11th place Del Worsham. Also in that mix is the 2009 Funny Car world champion Robert Hight, holding on to 10th, but only four points behind Tasca and 31 ahead of Worsham. Hight is no stranger to this high-pressure game as the California native won his world championship title four years ago with a drama-filled Indy regular season finish followed by a sensational Countdown playoff winning rally from the 10th position. Looking back it was an incredible feat that continues to be the talk of legend, but it certainly isn’t a situation that he wants to be faced with on a recurring basis.
“I’m not comfortable,” said Hight during a two-day test session held at Lucas Oil Raceway in advance of the event. “I wish I was up there two or three spots. We’ve put ourselves in this position, but you know anything could happen.”
Tasca and 2011 Top Fuel champ Worsham were also testing prior to the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals trying to find any advantage possible to earn a berth in the Countdown to the Championship.
“That is one of the goals you set at the beginning of the season,” said Worsham between testing his DHL Toyota Funny Car. “Besides qualifying for all the races is being in the Countdown. We all want to win the championship and until we enter the Countdown to the Championship that isn’t going to be possible.”
“Every team out here wants to make the Countdown and right now our destiny is in our hands,” said Tasca. “We’re in and we want to stay that way. Every other driver and every other team who hasn’t clinched would say the same thing. It's a dogfight out there every week.”
In Top Fuel, Bob Vandergriff, on the strength of a win and one runner-up finish is 10th in points and will attempt to qualify for the Countdown to the Championship for the third time in his career. He has a little more breathing room than Hight, as he is 72 points ahead of 11th place David Grubnic, who has been charging forward in the last three events. Vandergriff will take part in the Traxxas Nitro Shootout on Saturday and even though his team has many goals they want to accomplish, they will still race the same way they do at the 23 other events on the schedule.
“We really treat it as any other race as far as racing the car,” said Vandergriff, who is only six points behind ninth place Steve Torrence. “You take weather conditions and track conditions into consideration and create your game plan from there. It is a little different at Indy because you have five qualifying runs and we have the Traxxas Nitro Shootout as well so you need to make sure you get your car down the track Friday night so your decision making process for the Traxxas Shootout isn't affected by your qualifying concerns and vice versa.”
For the first-time ever, all 10 Countdown positions are locked heading into the final Regular Season race for the 200-mph Pro Stock category, but that isn’t the case in the Pro Stock Motorcycle division. Six spots are up for grabs in the two-wheel class, and only 47 points separate ninth place Shawn Gann from 12th place Andrew Hines. LE Tonglet is 11th and veteran rider Steve Johnson is currently holding down the final bump spot of 10th.
Three-time Pro Stock Motorcycle champion Hines is in an unfamiliar position of being outside the top 10, however he is ready for the challenge on his Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson. Hines raced to a semifinal appearance in Denver and plans to try to grab every point available during the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals.
“It has come down to the point where we have lost a few points here and there,” said Hines. “We need to make up a few points in qualifying where in the best case I would have to go to the semis instead of going straight to the finals. If we could knock it down under two rounds behind the guys right in front of us it would make it a little easier on raceday to get into the top ten.”
Johnson has won the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals twice in his career and knows it will be a tough task to keep both Tonglet and Hines at bay, but he is up for the challenge.
“Having two world champions behind me, Andrew Hines and LE Tonglet, I’m not taking anything for granted,” Johnson stated. “To be in the Countdown is more than everything for me. You got to have love and health in your life, but after that it’s being in the Countdown for me.”
The teams and crews that have spent the season racing to have an opportunity know what is at stake at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals and are focused on having success that will propel them into the field.
“I don’t need to say anything; they are plenty pumped up right now,” continued Worsham. “Everybody is excited and everybody knows what is on the line and what is at stake. They don’t need any words of encouragement at this point.”
“Our guys have been here long enough,” said Hight. “They know what is at stake and they want it just as bad as me or (crew chief) Mike Neff. Everyone is all in on this one.”
Teams in the NHRA Lucas Oil Series and the NHRA Pro Mod Series also will compete during the weekend. In addition, the world’s fastest Super Stock cars will race for bonus bucks and bragging rights during the intense Mopar HEMI Challenge.
Fans can get a taste of the excitement on Wednesday, Aug. 28th by attending the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals Fan Fest, which will feature a display of race cars, live music, a huge jumbotron and plenty of giveaways at Monument Circle in downtown Indianapolis. The Fan Fest, which starts at 11 a.m., also will feature a premier autograph session with many of the top professional drivers in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. In addition, a press conference will be held during the Fan Fest, where several news announcements will be made and the random lottery drawings for the No. 8 spots in the Traxxas Nitro Shootout will be held.
The first of five Mello Yello Series qualifying sessions are scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 30. Two sessions will be held on Saturday, Aug. 31 at 2:30 p.m. and 6 p.m., and the final two qualifying sessions will take place on Sunday, Sept. 1 at 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 2. The Traxxas Nitro Shootout for Top Fuel will be contested Saturday, Aug. 31 with rounds at 4 p.m., 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. The Traxxas Nitro Shootout for Funny Car will be held on Sunday, Sept. 1 for the eight qualified drivers, with rounds at 12:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m. and 4:45 p.m.
ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise more than 10 hours of coverage of the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals. Five hours of qualifying coverage and coverage of the Traxxas Nitro Shootout will air on ESPN2 HD at 1 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, Sept. 1. Eliminations for the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals will be featured during six hours of coverage on Monday, Sept. 2, starting at noon (ET).
Tickets are available for the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals. Tickets are available by calling (800) 884-NHRA (6472), or online at www.NHRATIX.com.
Tony Schumacher, nine-time Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals Top Fuel winner: “I should move to Indy. I really like that town. I’ve won Indy nine times and lost in the final twice. That’s 11 times in the final in like 14 or 15 years that I’ve been one of the last two cars running there. I love going there. I find that place very special. I wish I could figure out why we win the races there, because I would bottle it up and use it at other events. It’s simply amazing. Why can’t we win at Atlanta? We’ve won the Big Go nine times and I’m glad it’s as special as it is. I tell you if you win Atlanta nine times, nice job, but if you win the Big Go nine times, you’re something.”
Jack Beckman, defending Funny Car world champion: “Before I won the Funny Car championship I guessed it would be cool to win it, but I had no idea how cool it actually was until I finally won it. It’s like being a parent for the first time. People tell you that having kids is the greatest thing in the world, but you really don’t understand that until you have kids. The same thing applies to winning Indy for me. I haven’t won it yet, so at this point it doesn’t really mean anything. I do understand that winning the race can be a career-altering experience. We’ve seen that in so many drivers over the years. There really isn’t another place where winning one race has that kind of power to totally change a career. I really hope I can win the U.S. Nationals one day to experience that and become a part of Indy’s rich history.”
Greg Anderson, six-time Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals Pro Stock winner: “Since day one, I thought it was the greatest thing on wheels, and that is how I treat it now that I race there in my Summit Racing Chevrolet Camaro. I don’t go to Indy trying to act like it’s any other race – I go there like it’s the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, where it means the world to win.”
Steve Johnson, two-time Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals Pro Stock Motorcycle winner: “The mystique of the U.S. Nationals is such that it's a race like no other. It's the one we all want to win more than any other. Winning Indy can literally make your career, not just because it's the Nationals but because our fans, sponsors and the media pay more attention to what happens there than they do to any other race. The feeling you get when you win a Wally is like no other in your life, but I promise you, when you're holding the Wally from the U.S. Nationals it's like an out-of-body experience. Time seems to slow down, and you're aware of everything around you, from the fans congratulating you to the men and women you race against shaking your hand. You're just numb. It's hard to take it all in. I've had that feeling twice and man, I want to feel that way again and again.”