Despite qualifying in the lower half of the field, Sunoco/Matco Tools Camaro Z28 pilot Chuck Etchells and Racing Champions/Matco Tools Camaro "shoe" Jim Epler entered Monday's final eliminations of the U.S. Nationals with high hopes. With the ...
Despite qualifying in the lower half of the field, Sunoco/Matco Tools Camaro Z28 pilot Chuck Etchells and Racing Champions/Matco Tools Camaro "shoe" Jim Epler entered Monday's final eliminations of the U.S. Nationals with high hopes. With the combination of warmer temperatures and a bright sun beaming down on the racetrack, they knew the driver would play a vital role in the success of their team. Under these conditions, the racing surface would become increasingly treacherous as the day wore on, negating the advantage of the higher horsepower cars while favoring the more experienced drivers. The key, however, was to make sure and survive the first round, not an easy task for either considering the opposition.
Sporting a bright red paint scheme honoring the 35th Anniversary of the legendary Camaro, it seemed almost scripted that Epler would open the defense of his 2000 U.S. Nationals title against the leader of the rival Blue Oval team, John Force. Epler upheld the honor of the Bow Tie Brigade by dispatching the ten-time Winston Champion, gaining the advantage at the start and using a solid 4.958-second, 305.98-mph run to claim the upset victory.
Epler had little time to celebrate, however, as he would next face Frank Pedregon, winner of the Big Bud Shootout the day before. Unfortunately, in an encounter reminiscent of the 1999 U.S. Nationals final (where Pedregon edged a tire-smoking Epler), the Phoenix, AZ resident's hopes of repeating quickly evaporated, as his race car lost traction almost immediately at the start.
"I always try to treat running John like he's just another competitor, but there's no denying the significance of beating him, especially when we're taking out the flagship of Chevrolet's and Matco Tools biggest competitors. Of course, this match-up took on even extra meaning because we were carrying the 35th Anniversary Camaro paint scheme. We stuck to our game plan of just going down the track, going 4.95, while he got out of the groove and smoked the tires. The key was not beating ourselves, which a lot of guys do against Force.
"We had lane choice for the second round against Frank (Pedregon) and felt pretty confident going in. We did find something in the engine between rounds that we feel had been slowing us down in the first 330 feet. Although we thought we had fixed, it unfortunately dropped a cylinder and smoked the tries. We're going to test both mine and Chuck's car tomorrow to work on some things that will hopefully get us up to where we need to perform in the low 4.80 - high 4.70 range. For now, I'll just have to console myself by taking my 35th Anniversary Camaro SS convertible for a drive."
Etchells' assignment for the opening round was almost as tough as his teammates', as he would be facing veteran Gary Densham in another Force entry. However, Etchells was denied the chance of duplicating Epler's success, as his "fuel coupe" suffered an apparent mechanical malfunction at the starting line, forcing the Putnam, CT native to shut his car off almost immediately and allow his opponent to drive on for the uncontested win. The Etchells crew descended on their racecar immediately upon its return to the pits, trying to find the root of the problem, but was stymied when no failure was readily detected.
"I felt what I thought was a harmonic vibration during the burnout, but still tried to race because Gary could always red-light or smoke the tires, and I didn't want to just give it to him. But at the hit of the throttle when the lights went green, the car responded by jumping up in the back, vibrating so hard that it blurred my vision through the windshield. I shut it off because I didn't want to blow it up, and since I saw Gary driving away with no sign of tire smoke.
"We came back to the pits and took the car completely apart. I stood there while they disassembled it. They checked every part, and found absolutely wrong. It's one of those strange things - I know I wasn't dreaming. Either way, we're going to stay and test tomorrow to not only make sure everything is okay, but to get as much information on running this Sunoco/Matco Camaro as we can. Our next race is in Reading, which is close to Sunoco's headquarters, and we want to make sure and put on a good show."