Topeka: Round nine preview

SUMMER NATIONALS HEAT UP TOPEKA HEARTLAND PARK HAS BEEN A WELCOME SITE FOR NHRA'S "DRIVER OF THE YEAR" WINNERS TOPEKA, Kan. -- Heartland Park Topeka has played like a home away from home for the NHRA drivers who've won the prestigious Driver...

SUMMER NATIONALS HEAT UP TOPEKA

HEARTLAND PARK HAS BEEN A WELCOME SITE FOR NHRA'S "DRIVER OF THE YEAR" WINNERS

TOPEKA, Kan. -- Heartland Park Topeka has played like a home away from home for the NHRA drivers who've won the prestigious Driver of the Year award.

Melanie Troxel is hoping for more of the same when the NHRA POWERade Series returns to Heartland Park Topeka, May 25-28 for the 18th annual O'Reilly NHRA Summer Nationals presented by Castrol GTX.

Troxel was recently awarded the Driver of the Year foundation's award for the first quarter of 2006, beating out IRL's Helio Castroneves and NASCAR's Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne. All she did to garner the attention of the national panel of motorsports writers and broadcasters who vote on the award was advance to five of six final rounds, win two races and lead the POWERade Series standings wire-to-wire.

"I just can't believe that we are going to this many final rounds," said Troxel, who after receiving the award proceeded to advance to another final round at Atlanta Dragway, where she finished runner-up to Doug Kalitta. "It feels like a dream. It is just so incredible."

History is certainly on Troxel's side as she heads for Heartland Park Topeka.

A year ago, 1996 Driver of the Year John Force won his eighth overall race at the Kansas track -- more than any other POWERade Series driver there -- while 2004 Driver of the Year Greg Anderson won his third consecutive race there.

A sweep by the two NHRA Drivers of the Year and the 2006 first quarter winner is hardly out of the question.

Entering the event, Troxel is in first place in Top Fuel, Force is in second place in Funny Car and Anderson is in first place in Pro Stock.

For Troxel, it would be her first win at Heartland Park Topeka, but in a season of impressive firsts it would hardly come as a surprise.

Troxel has become the first woman in the 40-year history of the Driver of the Year foundation to win one of its quarterly or year-end awards and with her five final-round appearances to start the 2006 season she became the first driver (male or female) in the history of the Top Fuel class to open a season with five consecutive final rounds.

"It seems like we can do no wrong. I don't want to wake up from this," said Troxel, who a year ago at this time was unemployed (she had previously competed in Top Fuel in 2000 and 2002). She was signed by Don Schumacher Racing last summer and has now run in 18 events, beginning with Denver in July of 2005. Topeka will be her 20th event since her return to full-time racing.

It's been a remarkable ascent for Troxel and while she is deservedly hogging the headlines -- her story has been chronicled by CBS Sunday Morning, CNN, USA Today and a number of local affiliates and metropolitan newspapers -- she is by no means alone in carrying on the legacy begun by Shirley Muldowney 30 years prior.

Hillary Will -- a Muldowney protege -- is a rookie in Top Fuel while second-year driver Erica Enders is currently in third place in Pro Stock. In the Pro Stock Motorcycle category, which runs an abbreviated 15-race schedule, Angelle Sampey leads the series standings with three victories and Karen Stoffer sits in fifth place.

And when NHRA returns to Topeka in 2007, there may be a woman competing in each of the three classes represented there. John Force's daughter Ashley, who currently competes in the Lucas Oil Series and has won five national events in the Top Alcohol dragster category in her career, earned her Funny Car license earlier this year in Las Vegas.

To be sure, this move by the women is not an anomaly, but rather a trend. After eight of 23 events (four in Pro Stock Motorcycle) in the $50 million NHRA POWERade Series season:

*A woman leads in Top Fuel (Troxel leads by 154 points over Doug Kalitta); a woman is in fourth place in Pro Stock (Enders is 97 points shy of Anderson); and a woman is in first place in Pro Stock Motorcycle (Sampey leads Andrew Hines by 36).

*Troxel is 22-6 final elimination record so far this season for a .786 winning percentage.

*Enders is fourth in points in Pro Stock with two No. 2 qualifiers and two No. 3 qualifiers so far in 2006. She has also advanced to one final round (her second career final round) and one semifinal (her third career semifinal).

*Will has qualified sixth or better at five of the seven events in 2006.

*Stoffer returned to action at the Gatornationals -- after recovering from a freak accident that left her with numerous broken bones -- by qualifying No. 6 and advancing to the quarterfinals. She advanced to the semis in Atlanta and is fifth in the POWERade Series standings.

It was 30 years ago, back on June 13, 1976 at Columbus, Ohio, that Muldowney broke the gender-barrier with the first win by a female in NHRA's premier class, Top Fuel.

Today, Muldowney bears witness to her legacy at every national event which she attends as a member of Team Kalitta, most notably as the mentor to the 26-year old Will. The team also includes Doug and Scott Kalitta and Dave Grubnic, who stood in Troxel's way at the Gatornationals.

"Seeing all the women in the final round is great for the sport," said Dave Grubnic, who defeated Troxel at Gainesville in the Top Fuel finals but was runner-up to Troxel at Las Vegas. "Of course, Shirley Muldowney, who is on our team got it all started and she'll tell you just like these girls today will tell you that they just want to be thought of as competitors. That's how I look at them."

All in all it figures to be an awfully competitive weekend at Heartland Park as the 2006 POWERade Series world championship chases begin to really heat up.

-nhra-

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Series NHRA
Drivers Shirley Muldowney , John Force , Doug Kalitta , Greg Anderson , Jimmie Johnson , Kasey Kahne , Scott Kalitta , Karen Stoffer , Melanie Troxel , Andrew Hines , Don Schumacher , Hillary Will , Angelle Sampey