BRAINERD, Minn. - Holidays are meant to relax and fulfill. That's precisely what vacationers want from a visit to the heart of Minnesota's beautiful lake country. Over the years, the Pennzoil stable of professional drag racers have descended on...
BRAINERD, Minn. - Holidays are meant to relax and fulfill. That's precisely what vacationers want from a visit to the heart of Minnesota's beautiful lake country. Over the years, the Pennzoil stable of professional drag racers have descended on the area with a different mission - winning the annual Champion Auto Stores Nationals. The driver's visits generally require a lot of work with absolutely no time for recreation. Yet, they always seem to leave town as satisfied as a carload of sunburned tourists.
The reason for all the smiles is a simple one - Team Pennzoil usually does extremely well at Brainerd International Raceway. As a group, the four drivers in attendance for this year's race have notched an impressive total of six national titles and 11 final-round appearances at the event. "We've always had a great time in Brainerd," Team Pennzoil patriarch Eddie Hill said. "The conditions are always great, both at the track and at the lodge where we stay. Going to Brainerd, with its tall trees and beautiful lakes, is a lot like going home for me. It looks just like where I grew up in East Texas and the people always treat us like we're a part of their family. We genuinely love it there."
Hill's sentiments are echoed by all of the drivers in the Pennzoil stable. Here's a brief summary of each driver's thoughts of the city, their past successes at B.I.R. and the current status of their individual teams.
Eddie Hill, the pilot of the Pennzoil Dragster, has certainly enjoyed his share of success on Brainerd's super-smooth, quarter-mile strip. Hill collected the event title in 1993, virtually assuring his Top Fuel Championship that season. "I'll never forget that particular win," Hill said. "Not so much for the win, but for the surprise we had coming to us. I remember finishing up all of the responsibilities at the track and finally getting back to our lodge. It was pretty late but, all by themselves, the folks that run the place had put together this huge celebration for us. It was quite a shock and really touching that these people cared so much about us. We've never stayed anywhere else."
In '96 and '92, Hill reached the final round of eliminations before settling for the runner-up trophy. "The car has always loved that track," Hill said. "This year, we're running so well that everyone from our fellow drivers to the media is noticing how consistent we've been. They're saying it's our time. This would sure be a nice time to win one." Hill is one of only five Top Fuel drivers to have qualified for every race in 1998, extending his current streak to 32 straight events. He has qualified in the upper half of the field in nine of 14 races this season and has occupied one of the top four spots in five of the last six events.
Bruce Allen, the driver of the Outlaw Fuel Additives Pontiac Firebird, also has prospered in Brainerd. Allen is a three-time champion (1990, '89 and '87) and a three-time runner-up ('91, '86 and '85) at the raceway. "It was an unbelievable stretch we had," Allen said. "It was almost bizarre. No matter what we did, we'd go to Brainerd and absolutely fly."
A perennial top 10 Winston points earner, Allen has struggled through the first half of 1998, qualifying for only half of the 14 National Hot Rod Association events thus far. However, the inconsistency is a problem he appears to have overcome. Allen recently logged his ninth elimination round win of the year at the circuit's last stop in Seattle. "For awhile there we were really scattered, trying to solve problems none of us had seen before," Allen said. "After a lot of testing, I think we're finally back on track.
"Now we have more potential to do well because we're able to focus our direction. We have another testing session scheduled before we arrive in Brainerd which I think will really boost our confidence level. Brainerd's been good to us in the past. For several years we could do no wrong. I'd like to resurrect that. It would be nice to win this thing."
Mike Thomas, the driver of the Pennzoil Pontiac Firebird, is the most anxious member of Team Pennzoil to get behind the wheel again. Although he's the only member of the team to have never tasted success in Brainerd, there is every reason to believe he will this year. At the NHRA's last event in Seattle, Thomas once again showcased his exceptional power by blistering the track in a jaw-dropping 6.916-seconds to finish the qualifying sessions in second place. But a first-round, reaction-time loss during Sunday's elimination racing sent a disappointed Thomas home before he had a chance to improve on his current No. 5 spot in the Winston points standings.
"Seattle forced the entire crew and I to spend this down-time before Brainerd refocusing on our goals and eliminating distractions," Thomas said. "I'll tell you, there hasn't been a whole lot of relaxing going on. We have all stayed very busy cleaning, checking and working on every single part of this car until everything is perfect. One thing is for sure; we will definitely be the most-prepared team at this race.
"Obviously, the engine's running great. I expect us to do really well in Brainerd. Quite frankly, I expect us to win. We have the power to dominate this race. I love the track at B.I.R. It's one of the best - if not the best - track we race on. It's very smooth and there's always a lot of traction. I think that plays right into our hands. We'll be ready to go."