DALLAS, Sept. 17, 2007 - In what is winding up to be one of the closest contested campaigns in the history of the NHRA Sport Compact Series, three Chevy Cobalt drivers, Jason Hunt, Marty Ladwig and Gary Gardella, are battling tooth and nail for...
DALLAS, Sept. 17, 2007 - In what is winding up to be one of the closest contested campaigns in the history of the NHRA Sport Compact Series, three Chevy Cobalt drivers, Jason Hunt, Marty Ladwig and Gary Gardella, are battling tooth and nail for the this year's Pro FWD championship. So far, it's been a season of extremely close quarter-mile competition in Pro FWD where the points leader has changed about as often as the Texas weather, and right now, the top three in the standings are separated by a mere 63 points. The outcome of this extremely close title race will be determined during the last three events of the year beginning with the O'Reilly NHRA Fall Nationals at the Texas Motorplex on Sept. 21 - 23.
"It really is coming down to these last three races," said CSI Racing team owner Charlie Schafer. "If you're a fan of good competitive drag racing, you're going to love this. If you have one bad weekend, it's not going to completely eliminate you from the race, but it won't make it any easier, either. Our goal is to be in the finals and in the winner's circle at all three races."
The recently completed U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis on Sept. 3 saw CSI Racing/Matco Tools Chevy Cobalt driver Jason Hunt make his fourth NHRA final-round appearance of the season. Hunt also set a new national elapsed-time record and moved back into first place in the Pro FWD standings.
"Going into the first Indy we had the points lead, we lost it there and then we got it back - things are jumping around that quick," said Hunt. "This is exciting to us but it's stressful too, and we wouldn't be doing this if we didn't love it. This group we have, we spend way too much time together, but we really enjoy each other's company and we're all striving toward the same goal - to win the NHRA Xplod Pro FWD championship. This is fun."
First place is familiar territory for Hunt and Schafer. The Matco Tools Chevy team proved early on they would be in contention for the 2007 championship by grabbing onto first place in the standings at the beginning of the year with a season-opening win at West Palm Beach (Fla.) The CSI Racing team then recaptured the lead following their third victory of the season at Las Vegas on July 14, lost it to Ladwig following the first Indy eliminator on August 19, and then took back the lead from Ladwig two weeks ago at the U.S. Nationals.
"We've been working toward certain objectives," said Hunt. "We're not touting that, but we're not going to let the rest of the pack run away from us either. Our goal is to be consistent. When you win rounds, by the end of the year, good things will happen to you. That's what we've been trying to do. The track was very good at Indy and that allowed us to apply all the horsepower from our turbocharged, four-cylinder Ecotec engines. Look at all three Chevy Cobalts running at the top of the Pro FWD standings. There are slight differences in each of them - we all have different tune-ups, but all three were pretty doggone close at Indianapolis. I know those guys will bring their "A" game to Dallas, we'll bring ours and we'll see what happens. It should be fun again."
The three Ecotec-powered Chevy Cobalts driven by Hunt, Ladwig and Gardella were remarkably close at Indy, and all three had an opportunity to set a national e.t. record and claim the precious 20-point bonus that goes with it. However, it was Jason Hunt, who didn't have the quickest time of the weekend (qualifying in the No. 3 position with a 7.190-second run), who was able to back up his time with another run within one percent as required by the NHRA to establish the national record.
"We felt like we left a little on the table at Indy," said Hunt. "In the final against Gary we actually had a block crack on us that put oil on the clutch, and obviously, the racecar's just not going to run as good when that happens. We felt like we let one slip away, not taking anything away from Gary, though. Gary is running at the top of his game and he's beat up on us pretty good here recently, but we feel like we have what it takes to win the championship. Indy, though we lost in the finals, was a good weekend for us. We set the national e.t. record, we went there in second place and left in first place. We know what we have to do over the course of the next three events. It's just a matter of executing and staying at the top of our game."
Already this season, the national e.t. record in the Pro FWD category has been reset four times; three times by Ladwig and once by Hunt. The all-concrete racing surface of the Texas Motroplex and the cooler, fall-like conditions of late September have the CSI Racing team chomping at the bit to get their Ecotec-powered Cobalt back on the track in the Lone Star State.
"With the POWERade Series racing there that weekend, the Texas Motorplex will probably be the best-prepped racetrack we've raced on, along with Indy," said Schafer. "We're definitely looking forward to it and like any race, a lot of the on-track performance will be determined by the weather. We've been there when it's been hot and nasty, and we've been there when it's rained and been cool. The track may give us the opportunity to set the performance bar a little higher and that should make it fun.
"Of course, being out front, everyone has to focus on you a little bit. But my attitude has always been we don't necessarily race the other lane, we race the track. If we do our job in our lane, then we'll come out on the winning end. That's how I look at. We have all of the maintenance done, we're waiting for one motor to come back and it's being shipped straight to Dallas. We have two bullets ready to go, everything is loaded on the trailer and now we have to wait for Friday before we can race. That may be the hardest part."
Marty Ladwig is a racer who knows the Texas Motorplex well, and over the years the Lucas Oil Chevy Cobalt driver has made his share of runs down the fast, all-concrete quarter-mile. In fact, the long-time resident of nearby San Antonio was the No. 1 qualifier in HOT ROD at this venue in 2003 when he raced for the GM factory team, so it should come as no surprise that this is one race Ladwig is looking forward to.
"It's kind of like a home race for me," said the two-time NHRA HOT ROD champion (2003-04). "Dallas has traditionally been very, very fast and we could quite possibly see the kind of record-breaking times you saw at Indy. It's always a great racetrack, and if the weather cooperates we should be able to go as quick, if not quicker, at Dallas as we did at Indy. We're definitely looking forward to that.
"The qualifying sessions for Pro FWD are about as good as you could ask for. We get to run early on Saturday morning, then we come back Saturday afternoon, and we're the last ones scheduled that evening. Saturday is going to be a big day for Pro FWD at the Texas Motorplex. We have some data from testing there earlier in the year and from when we ran there with the GM factory team. We're pretty confident going in and we'll be ready."
So far this season, Ladwig has won two NHRA national events and advanced to three finals. On three different occasions, his Ecotec-powered Chevrolet has set the Pro FWD national record. First in April at the Virginia Sport Compact Nationals in Richmond, in May at the NHRA Sport Compact Springnationals (both races in which he won) in Englishtown, N.J., and at the Indy NHRA Sport Compact Nationals in Indianapolis where he was runner-up to Gary Gardella.
"This was the whole reason behind building this new Chevy Cobalt - to set records," said Ladwig. "We knew it would happen if we could put the whole package together and run as well as we have. It's definitely what we had hoped for, and when you look at what we have accomplished it's been a great year for us racing-wise. We've been able to show that we can run as well as anybody else, and we've proven that we can get the job done, even with our small team. In the long run we're hoping that in the future that will help us when it comes to procuring more sponsorship."
After a disappointing first-round loss at the U.S. Nationals, where Ladwig's Chevrolet was certainly fast enough to challenge for the event win, the San Antonio resident is in second place in the Pro FWD standings. With 15 career NHRA national-event victories, he's looking forward to the upcoming race at the Texas Motorplex and the opportunity to erase a 22-point deficit with Jason Hunt.
"The competition has been really close this year," said Ladwig. "Everyone has stepped up their game and it seems like at every event someone is setting a new record. The competition has been very tough and hopefully we'll be able to come out on top. There's not doubt now that these next three races will decide the championship. I probably have the least amount of pressure of all the teams. We don't have a large team or a large budget and we're doing the best we can, but we can't make any more mistakes. Whoever ends up winning this championship will have earned it."
Gary Gardella's quest to get back into the NHRA Pro FWD championship battle has picked up steam over the last four races. Arguably the hottest competitor in the category during the second half of the year, the Red Bull Chevy Cobalt driver has managed to claw his way out of a hole that began with round-one eliminator losses at the season's first two events at West Palm Beach (Fla.) and Richmond (Va.). Four consecutive final-round appearances and two straight wins at Indianapolis (including the 53rd annual Mac Tools U.S. Nationals) have breathed new life into Gardella's championship hopes.
"I wish we could have started out as strong as we're running now," said Gardella. "But that always leaves next year. We'll have a whole season under our belt with this Chevy Cobalt, a car that's been down the racetrack, and we won't be starting out from scratch. At the beginning of the season we learned so much, and that's what happens when you build a new car and run it every week. During the off-season we'll know not to make some of the simple mistakes that we made at the beginning of this season.
"We're right on the border line of being able to win a championship and it could go either way. I can't goof up, I can't lose on a holeshot , everything this team does needs to be done correctly. We're certainly pleased with how fast the Red Bull Chevy Cobalt is running, but our consistency needs to improve if we're going to stay in the race for the Xplod championship. The car's going fast, we just need a little consistency. I think that will help us as we go forward at these last three races."
A lifelong resident of New Jersey, Gardella may want to change his mailing address to Indianapolis after the incredible two weeks he recently spent in the Hoosier State. In addition to winning back-to-back races at O'Reilly Raceway Park, the Red Bull Chevy Cobalt driver earned No. 1 qualifying honors at the U.S. Nationals and set low e.t. of the meet with a career-best run (and the quickest time in Pro FWD this season) of 7.156 seconds. The U.S. Nationals was an event unlike any other that Gardella had experienced during his drag racing career.
"Winning the U.S. Nationals felt like I had won the Super Bowl," said Gardella. "We put pictures from the race on our Web site, and one of the pictures shows us coming back down the return road after the win. I didn't know how the crowd was going to react to the Pro FWD cars being out there, and I was a little nervous because there were so many people there. They all started yelling and cheering. I was holding up the Wally and it was great. We got such good feedback from the U.S. Nationals, I mean, the fans loved it, we put on a good show and I was answering questions all day long about the capability of these cars. To have three Pro FWD cars running in the 7.10s at the greatest drag race in the world is pretty phenomenal, and the best part about it is that they were all Ecotec-powered Chevy Cobalts.
"We wanted to test after Indy, but we hurt motors, turbos, different parts on the car, and time wouldn't allow it. This was a good opportunity for us to regroup and enjoy the U.S. Nationals victory. We wanted to work on our 60-foot times because I felt we were so far off there. We ran 7.15 seconds even after posting a 1.25-second 60-foot - that's bad. Our 60-foot times should be around 1.17 and we've run 1.18 on a bad track. We'll try to get back to the basics a little bit, but the car is serviced and ready to go, and we're making some changes on the exhaust manifolds; we're changing the location of the waste gates to help the engine breathe a little better."
Like his other two Chevy Cobalt counterparts battling for the same Pro FWD title, Gardella is looking forward to the series' visit at the Texas Motorplex and sees the potential of another record-setting weekend at Dallas. Gardella will try to erase a 62- point gap with standings leader Jason Hunt while continuing to put pressure on second-place Marty Ladwig.
"We're enjoying the pressure-cooker atmosphere of these last three races," said the 2007 U.S. Nationals champion. "Even though we were running quicker elapsed times at Indy, I still wanted to cut better lights. I wanted to do my job, and lately, when I've been under serious pressure, I've been cutting great lights. I want to show my team that I can step up for them when I have to. I don't feel a lot of pressure, though, because I'm confident that if everybody on this race team does their job, then we can win the championship.
"I can't wait to get to Dallas, but at the same time it's coming too fast. I want to race today, but we have so many things going on with the race car right now that there aren't enough hours in the day. We just got one motor back, we finished assembling that and we made some minor, minor changes on the racecar. We're working on consistency. I'm not looking to run some crazy number. Then we still have to assemble two more motors, so the pressure's on us. We're running a little bit behind, we hurt a lot of parts at Indy, so we're just taking it a day at a time. The rig's leaving on Monday so we'll work through the weekend to make sure everything is ready."
-credit: gm racing