As they arrived at Gainesville Raceway for Saturday's final eliminations, teammates Chuck Etchells and Jim Epler realized they were both facing a monumental challenge in first round. Chuck Etchells, as the sixteenth and final qualifier, would...
As they arrived at Gainesville Raceway for Saturday's final eliminations, teammates Chuck Etchells and Jim Epler realized they were both facing a monumental challenge in first round. Chuck Etchells, as the sixteenth and final qualifier, would line his Kendall Oil/Matco Tools Camaro Z28 against defending Funny Car champion John Force, while Motley Crue/Matco Tools Camaro driver Jim Epler, as the 11th qualifier would be facing the NHRA's most recent winner in Tommy Johnson Jr. In each case, their task would be furthered complicated by not having lane choice on the tricky Florida quarter-mile.
Running first, Etchells' day ended before he had a chance to mount a serious challenge. Although he was able to gain a slight advantage at the starting line, his lead quickly evaporated in a cloud of tire smoke as his car lost traction almost immediately.
"We did not attempt either of the test runs yesterday due to the major sponsorship situation we are currently involved with. Instead, we tried to focus on Jim's car, figured we could use whatever information we obtained as both cars are set up identically. Quite frankly our car was on a good run, and it just ended up being a hair aggressive. We know we were really close, because Terry made some adjustments to Jim's car after our run, and he had the quickest pass of the day. If it has stayed stuck, we had a very good chance of putting John (Force) on the trailer.
"Right now we're behind the 8-ball. I know this team is smarter than we've shown so far, but when you're fighting a battle behind the scenes that no one can see, you're bound to have a problem, because a lot of these teams are really good, with strong budgets to match. That's the difference right now.
"I feel very bad about it, because we have some fine associate sponsors such as Matco Tools, Chevrolet, Mighty Auto Parts, Sherwin-Williams and Farm, who've been with us a while. They deserve better than this, and it's up to us to find a way to do that. We're going to keep fighting, trust me."
Jim Epler benefited from running after his boss, as crew chief Terry Manzer made some critical adjustments to Epler's Camaro prior to it run, which produced immediate results. Despite racing in the less-preferred right lane, which only produced two winners in the nitro categories in the first round, Epler stunned his opponent by rocketing down the track in 4.912 seconds with a top speed of 310.48 mph, which was the quickest and fastest pass of eliminations in Funny Car. However, the run proved to be costly, as Epler suffered a blower explosion as he crossed the finish line, causing an inordinate amount of damage, including a flat tire, which delayed the team's return to the pits.
"That run was smooth until the very end! What's important is that the right lane looked almost impassable, but we were really helped by Chuck's car going out first, so we could see what happened to it. Terry Manzer then made an adjustment, backing it down a percent on the nitro and took a little flow out of the clutch. As a result, where Chuck smoked the tires, we went right down the track. That's the advantage of a two-car team. Unfortunately, right in the lights it had a big bang, which did a lot of damage to our Motley Crue/Matco Tools Camaro."
Battling the 75-minute time between-round time limit, the Etchells crew scrambled to complete their work in time for their second round encounter with Dean Souza. One key area that had been affected what the computer, which did not provide data from the outstanding run, further complicating the crew's tuning the car for the second round.
As Epler rolled to the line, his race car had a completely different look, as the damage to his Motley Crue/Matco Tools Camaro body forced the team to use the body from Chuck Etchells' car. Once again, Epler's car left well, outrunning his opponent in the early stages. However, just as it seemed that Epler would reach the semi-finals for the first time this year, his race car lost traction, allowed Skuza to drive by for the win.
"The blower explosion really hurt us as far as coming back for the second round. We had a lot of areas with some amount of damage, and the guys did a great job getting me back on the starting line. It made a good move at the start, and was ahead at the 330-foot mark and half-track, but just smoked the tires.
"Even so, we can take some positives away from this weekend. We beat a very good car and driver in the first round in Tommy Johnson Jr., and made the best run of eliminations. He not only won the last race, but also made a pretty respectable run himself, which, based on our test results, should have been enough. But that just shows you how tough it is out here. We went out and did well, and that bolstered the spirits of everyone on the team. Now we just need to carry the momentum from here to the next race, and keep building from there."