Gateway Nationals advance stories

WINSTON POINTS BATTLES GET EXTREME AT SEARS CRAFTSMAN NATIONALS MADISON, Ill. -- The chase for Winston championships will be seriously elevated as the NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series reaches the official halfway point of the season at ...

WINSTON POINTS BATTLES GET EXTREME AT SEARS CRAFTSMAN NATIONALS

MADISON, Ill. -- The chase for Winston championships will be seriously elevated as the NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series reaches the official halfway point of the season at state-of-the-art Gateway International Raceway near St. Louis.

Points races are intense in nearly every professional category with several drivers in the top-five only a handful of points out of first place. The midseason race will sound an alarm for drivers who are within striking distance but need several good finishes to make a strong run at the title. With only 11 races remaining on the schedule drivers will be able to evaluate their positions and develop an appropriate strategy for the remainder of the season.

Drivers in all five professional categories will be seeking a win at the second annual Sears Craftsman Nationals, June 25-28. The $1.7 million race is the 11th of 22 events in the $30-million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

Joe Amato, Ron Capps, Warren Johnson and John Smith are defending professional category winners of the race.

Amato, from Exeter, Pa., earned both ends of the track record at the new facility and defeated Gary Scelzi in a close Top Fuel matchup. Amato has been one of the hottest drivers on the circuit lately, recording back-to-back victories at Dallas and Englishtown, N.J., and has a newfound confidence in his team's summer setup. In addition to Amato, other drivers to watch include Winston points leader Cory McClenathan, Scelzi, and FRAM Route 66 Nationals and Pontiac Excitement Nationals winner Kenny Bernstein.

Capps' debut with new crew chief Roland Leong last year at this event produced magic from the start, as the duo combined their talents to defeat Cruz Pedregon in the final. Capps, from San Diego, has been strong so far in 1998, winning the season-opening Chief Auto Parts Winternationals in Pomona, Calif. and Castrol Lone Star Nationals in Dallas. Hoping to deny Capps' Copenhagen Chevrolet Camaro and return to the Winner's Circle will be Winston leader John Force, Pedregon, Chuck Etchells and FRAM Route 66 Nationals winner Whit Bazemore.

Duluth, Ga.'s Johnson used a holeshot to defeat Jim Yates in a very close Pro Stock final one year ago. Johnson and Yates are one-two in Winston points this season with a strong group of drivers looking for their second victory, including Jeg Coughlin Jr., Mark Osborne and Mike Thomas.

Smith, of Champlan, Minn., had a great weekend in Pro Stock Motorcycle defeating Angelle Seeling, Matt Hines and Dave Schultz to record his only victory of the season. Smith is currently third in the Winston standings, just behind Hines and Seeling.

A first-time Pro Stock Truck winner will be crowned. Larry Kopp, from Baltimore, Md., has been the driver to beat so far this season, recording wins at three of four races. In addition to Kopp, Chevrolet S-10 drivers to watch will be hometown favorite Jerry Haas and Summit Racing's John Lingenfelter. David Nickens and Bill Henderson lead the Team Mopar trucks, while Roy Hill and Sondra Sikes are the top Ford Ranger drivers.

SCELZI FEELS CONFIDENT FIRST VICTORY OF SEASON IS NEAR

MADISON, Ill. -- Defending NHRA Winston Top Fuel champion Gary Scelzi and his Team Winston crew aren't having the type of season that they did one year ago. In a dream season, the Fresno, Calif. driver and company marched to five victories and made an impressive 17 semi-final round appearances in 22 events. They soared to the Winston championship and Scelzi earned NHRA Rookie of the Year honors.

Now, turn the page.

After a season fueled by so much success, many would consider this season's effort somewhat of a disaster. Team Winston hasn't posted a single victory and has only advanced to one final round.

But as the team rounds the midseason corner there may be light at the end of the tunnel after all. Despite the rough start to the season, Team Winston has still managed to remain competitive. With one half of the races complete, the defending Winston champion is only 131 points behind leader Cory McClenathan. That could be bad news for the competition.

Just like a veteran slugger in baseball, Scelzi knows he has to keep going to the plate and swinging. Eventually he'll hit a home run. He hopes to go yard for the first time this season at the second annual Sears Craftsman Nationals, June 25-28 at the Gateway International Raceway, near St. Louis. The $1.6 million race is the 11th of 22 events in the $30-million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

"It's disappointing not winning races, but we're hanging in there," Scelzi said. "We've gained some ground in the last few races and moved into third in the Winston championship standings. We're within striking distance and that's what counts at this point of the season. The wins are going to come. The main thing is getting our consistency back. We have to continue to make it to the finals. If we can do that, we are going to get our wins. We've been working really hard and everything seems to be coming together. I think we're just right on the edge of breaking through with a win for Team Winston."

* Tight championship battle: While Scelzi is within striking distance of McClenathan, 131 points back, Joe Amato has inched very close to the McDonald's dragster driver's hold on the top spot. Amato earned victories at Dallas and Englishtown, N.J., and had strong semi-final showings at Chicago and Columbus to cut McClenathan's lead to 19 at the midseason break. Factor in a resurgent Kenny Bernstein, winner of the last two races and sitting fourth in the standings, and things could get interesting over the course of the final 12 races.

"We have kind of put ourselves in a bad position now that Amato has a chance to pass us for the points lead," McClenathan said. "It seems like we were counting points a little too early this year. There are a lot of races left and we need to go back, do our homework and try and keep this McDonald's dragster from smoking the tires."

* A little luck: One driver looking to break into the Winston top-10 standings is Pennzoil dragster driver Eddie Hill. Hill has been impressive during qualifying in the last two races, posting a career-best 4.595 second run at Columbus. Hill says all his team needs is a little luck during eliminations.

CAPPS RETURNS TO SCENE OF FIRST FUNNY CAR SUCCESS

MADISON, Ill. -- Ron Capps looks back at his first career Funny Car victory as the start of a winning relationship with legendary crew chief Roland Leong. It didn't take long for the two to combine their talents and put Don Prudhomme's Copenhagen Chevrolet Camaro into the Winner's Circle.

Capps and Leong return to the scene of that victory, the state-of-the-art Gateway International Raceway, June 25-28 for the second annual Sears Craftsman Nationals. The $1.6 million race is the 11th of 22 events in the $30-million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

However, this time around Capps and Leong will be working to improve their position in a tightly contested chase for the Winston Funny Car championship. Capps is currently fourth, a distant 132 points behind leader John Force in the Winston standings.

"Ever since Roland came on board, this team has been showing results," Capps said. "This team tends to do well when the weather conditions are hot and humid. Last year when we rolled into St. Louis we had a good feeling because we did well the race before at Columbus and the conditions were going to be similar. We had a strong tuneup for that event and everything came together. After that race we knew we could be competitive and we've been building off that ever since."

Capps, from Carlsbad, Calif., says he really enjoys the racing atmosphere at Gateway.

"I love the track," Capps said. "It's a real challenge when it's hot there because the car can drop cylinders really fast and then it becomes a chore to drive the car because it gets evil-handling. The track is sort of greasy anyway when the weather is warm and the car tries to move all over the place. You really have to be ready for the unexpected. It's definitely a driver's race."

After earning victories at the season-opening Chief Auto Parts Winternationals in Pomona, Calif. and the Castrol Lone Star Nationals in Dallas, Capps has positioned himself for the championship run, along with other two-time winners Cruz Pedregon and Chuck Etchells, and points leader Force.

"It's just awesome to be one of the drivers in the hunt," Capps said. "Cruz, Force and Etchells are all running good and to be right in the middle of that group going for the title is a lot of fun. This stretch of races coming up is going to be crucial in determining the champion. The team that can make it through the summer swing of races on the West Coast with the best results will be the one to watch. We should really know who has the best chance by Indy."

Capps has a unique philosophy about this unique Funny Car battle.

"It's sort of cool because I picture this Funny Car race like a four-way battle at Daytona," Capps said. "We're all right there, in position and we're drafting. We're all trading the lead right now and trying to get in the best position for the final lap. When we get to that final lap, I'd like to be leading."

While Capps has made impressive showings at the majority of races during the first half of the season, he says it was his performance on the days when things weren't clicking at their optimal potential that has kept him in the thick of the Winston championship chase.

"We're excited because we're still in the hunt and we've had some problems with dropping cylinders over the last several races," Capps said. "The thing is, we've managed to go rounds. It's just like in golf, you're going to have good days, but you're also going to have bad days. That's what makes a champion, making a strong effort even though you're having a bad day."

THOMAS LOOKING TO KEEP HOT STREAK GOING IN PRO STOCK

MADISON, Ill. -- There's a big smile on Mike Thomas' face these days.

And it's there for good reason. The longtime Knoxville, Tenn. racer has finally established himself as one of the top contenders in NHRA Pro Stock racing.

Thomas, driver of the Pennzoil Pontiac Firebird, broke through with his first final round appearance earlier this season at Houston's Pennzoil Nationals. Nearly one month ago he secured his first victory, a decisive final round win over current Winston points leader Warren Johnson. At Columbus two weeks ago, Thomas advanced to the semifinals before losing to eventual race winner Jeg Coughlin Jr.

If racing does indeed have a Cloud 9, Thomas is sitting right in the middle of it. He'll try to remain there with another strong performance at the second annual Sears Craftsman Nationals, June 25- 28 at Gateway International Raceway, near St. Louis. The $1.6 million race is the 11th of 22 events in the $30-million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

"This is great for me, the entire crew and the guys back at the engine shop," Thomas said. "This team has really jelled this year. This is the greatest group of people I've ever had together since I started racing in the early 1980s. Everybody gets along great and that's what it takes. Everyone working together has finally paid off. We've been persistent for five or six years in Pro Stock and the success we're having now couldn't be any sweeter."

Thomas says the key this season has been the combination of an exceptionally strong Jerry Bickel-built race car and the tuning talents of Rickie Smith, one of the most respected Pro Stock competitors in drag racing history.

"We've had a couple of problems getting down the track a little bit in the last couple of years but Jerry Bickel has outdone himself with this car," Thomas said. "If it gets loose, you can just move it a little bit and it stabilizes. We haven't had one problem since we jumped in it at the Pennzoil Nationals. Rickie does a great job reading the track and I have complete confidence in him. I never question his ability or judgment."

Pro Stock racing has emerged as one of the most competitive of all NHRA professional categories, with as many as 40 cars trying to qualify for one of 16 spots at each event. Thomas feels very fortunate to be in sixth place in the Winston standings at midseason, some 304 points behind leader Johnson.

The win at the FRAM Route 66 Nationals has given Thomas and his crew the confidence they need to set even higher goals. Even though Johnson has been extremely impressive during the first half of the season, posting four wins, Thomas feels like his team is capable of putting together a similar performance in the second half.

"The win in Chicago was the team's first and will be something that none of us will ever forget," Thomas said. "I've been saying all season that we can compete with anyone in our division and we finally proved it in Chicago. But I don't want to stop there. We need to keep on winning races. I'd like to win the next few races and make a run at the Winston championship. I think this car can do that."

HINES, SEELING DEVELOP NEW PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE RIVALRY

MADISON, Ill. -- In the late 1980s and early 1990s NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle featured the John Myers-Dave Schultz Show, as the two riders carried one of drag racing's most competitive rivalries to the limit at every event.

As NHRA moves toward the year 2000, Matt Hines and Angelle Seeling have strategically moved into position as Pro Stock Motorcycle's top two competitors. And the rivalry that is beginning to brew between those two competitors has the potential to be one of the greatest of all time.

The clash is one for the ages. Mr. Domination vs. Ms. Popularity.

Hines, riding for Eagle One, has burst on the scene with a killer instinct for winning races. His smooth approach to racing and powerful Suzuki GSXR has left many of his opponents struggling in his tailwind. Team Winston's Seeling has found herself signing many autographs and hearing tremendous response from the grandstand whenever she pulls her bike to the starting line.

Hines and Seeling have faced off in three final rounds already this season, with Hines claiming victory each time. There's a probability that the two will meet in a final round once again at the second annual Sears Craftsman Nationals, June 25-28 at Gateway International Raceway. The $1.6 million race is the 11th of 22 events in the $30-million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

Following Hines' most recent victory over Seeling at the FRAM Route 66 Nationals in Chicago, Hines said he was sorry if his victory disappointed the fans. He then vented some frustration by accusing members of Seeling's team of making him look like the evil villain in the plot.

"If the fans want Angelle to win that's OK with me, but her team tries to make it look like she's the only rider out here," Hines said. "I have fans, but I don't have the luxury of a full-time PR operation to make me look like a hero all the time. If you listen to the Star Racing Team all you hear about is how great the team is and how popular Angelle is. They try to make me look like the bad guy, but I don't see it that way. I like to think I'm a nice guy who's just trying to do my job and win a few races."

Seeling countered that the record speaks for itself. During the last two seasons, Hines has won an impressive 13 races, including the most recent Pontiac Excitement Nationals in Columbus, Ohio. She says the fans want to see a different face in the Winner's Circle.

"A lot of people do want to see me win," Seeling said. "I have a tremendous amount of fans come to me and tell me they're tired of seeing Matt win all the time. They want me to do something about it. Believe me, we're really working to change that."

Seeling has put together an impressive season so far, winning the Mopar Parts Nationals at Englishtown, N.J. and posting runner-up finishes at Richmond, Va. and Chicago. However, she'll have to continue that pace if she's going to pass Hines in the Winston standings. Following a second round loss to Antron Brown at Columbus, Seeling dropped several points to Hines, who won the event.

"There's no question that Matt is running awesome right now," said Seeling, who trails Hines by 187 points. "But nothing lasts forever. Team Winston works too hard for the luck not to come onto our side sooner or later."

She hopes that luck comes sooner, rather than later.

"I'm always looking forward to the next race," Seeling said. "It's a chance to look at what we did wrong during the last race as we try to improve. Hopefully, we'll make another final round at St. Louis, but we have to keep looking at it one round at a time."

HAAS LOOKS FORWARD TO GETTING FIRST WIN AT HOME TRACK

MADISON, Ill. -- About 25 miles down the road from Gateway International Raceway sits one of drag racing's most noted chassis craftsman's shop. Many years ago, when Fenton, Mo.'s Jerry Haas launched a race car building career, competing in a professional category race in his hometown was little more than passing thought.

These days, the driver of the Haas Racing Chevrolet S-10 Pro Stock Truck spends quite a bit more time thinking about performing in front of friends and family.

"When they built the track in St. Louis it was like a dream come true," Haas said. "I never thought I would see a track like that built so close to home in my time. It really pumped me up when they built it. It's been great for the community."

While one dream was answered, one dream still remains: A victory in front of the hometown crowd. Haas will attempt to win his first Pro Stock Truck race at the second annual Sears Craftsman Nationals, June 25-28, at Chris Pook's two-year-old quarter-mile dragstrip that sits just across from the banks of the mighty Mississippi River. The $1.7 million race is the 11th of 22 events in the $30-million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

Haas has made many laps on the track, and says it's already becoming one of his favorites.

"The track is over a year old now so it should be well-seasoned," Haas said. "The track is so smooth, it's like racing on glass. We've tested there this season and there's no problem with it. The owners put in some additional concrete and it seems to be what all of the tracks are eventually going to, 500 feet of concrete. That seems to keep all the cars really hooked up so when you get it in high gear it doesn't seem to move around so much."

Haas and fellow Chevy teammate John Lingenfelter were the dominating twosome during last season's preliminary run of Pro Stock Truck exhibition races. However, another Chevy driver, Larry Kopp, has moved to the front this season by winning the last three races.

Chevrolet S-10 drivers hold three of the top four spots in the battle for the Winston championship. Kopp has the national elapsed time record at 7.635 seconds, and Haas owns the national speed record at 176.70 mph. While Dodge Dakota and Ford Ranger drivers have made some noise in the early part of 12-race season, Chevrolet has been leading the way.

"The Chevy teams have worked hard during the last year to get to this point," Haas said. "During the exhibition season last year, even though we got beat a couple of times we were testing for this season. We knew that this was what we were running for. Unfortunately, we didn't get to test before the season-opener at Houston and got down there and had a lot of little problems that hurt us. We did some testing and came back at Atlanta and ran a lot better. Larry is a little bit ahead of us, but we've had some gremlins to overcome and we're gaining on it every race. The performance gap was tightened at Atlanta, Englishtown and Chicago, and we got the speed record. This deal is getting really competitive and to be involved with it is something I've always dreamed about."

His prediction for the Sears Craftsman Nationals: No question, the Haas Racing Chevy will visit the winner's circle. He feels confident about his team's chances when temperatures rise.

"We should run real well there because we seem to have a better barometer for the hot and humid conditions," Haas said. "I think you'll see us running in the high-7.60s there."

SEARS CRAFTSMAN NATIONALS GENERAL INFORMATION

* Schedule: Pro qualifying sessions are scheduled for 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. June 26. Qualifying continues at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. June 27. Final professional eliminations start at 11 a.m. June 28. Pro Stock Truck qualifying sessions will be held at noon and 3 p.m. June 25. Pro Stock Truck eliminations will begin at 11 a.m. June 27. Federal-Mogul competition starts at 10 a.m. June 25. * Tickets: Tickets are available for the Sears Craftsman Nationals. Call Gateway International Raceway, (888) 827-7333, or Ticketmaster for ticket information. * On TV: ABC will televise one hour of tape-delay coverage on July 5 at 3 p.m. (CDT).

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Series NHRA
Drivers Antron Brown , Mike Thomas , Matt Hines , Jeg Coughlin , Kenny Bernstein , Warren Johnson , Whit Bazemore , Ron Capps , John Force , Joe Amato , Gary Scelzi , Larry Kopp , John Lingenfelter , Chuck Etchells , Cruz Pedregon , Cory McClenathan , Don Prudhomme , Chris Pook , Rickie Smith , Jerry Haas