Chuck Etchells and Jim Epler entered the fourth and final qualifying session of the Lucas Oil Products NHRA Nationals in the unenviable position of having to crack the top sixteen necessary to make Sunday's final eliminations on their last attempt.
Chuck Etchells and Jim Epler entered the fourth and final qualifying session of the Lucas Oil Products NHRA Nationals in the unenviable position of having to crack the top sixteen necessary to make Sunday's final eliminations on their last attempt. The Etchells Racing teammates' task was made even more difficult by the fact that for the eighth time in ten races the Funny Car division had set a new mark for the quickest field in its history. On the positive side, their chances of making the race were enhanced by extremely favorable weather conditions. Ironically, the pairings found Etchells and Epler making their attempts simultaneously.
Etchells' hopes were dashed from the moment he hit the throttle as a major mechanical malfunction with the engine caused a large explosion and a flash fire, which blew the latch holding the Sunoco/Matco Tools Camaro's body in place, causing it to violently hinge open to release the pressure. Although Etchells was not hurt, his best effort from Saturday morning of 4.968 seconds with a top speed of 300.53 mph fell shy of earning the Putnam, CT native a spot on the eliminations ladder.
"I believe I summed it up properly in my interview after the explosion when I said we stunk the place up this weekend. However, you have to keep in mind that we had essentially parked that car for two or three races, preferring to focus on Jim's car while we resolved our sponsorship issues. Fortunately, that paid off tonight, allowing his Racing Champions/Matco Camaro to be out there on race day. When you look at the final qualifying order, there a lot of quality cars including Tommy Johnson Jr. and Al Hofmann who didn't make it. After everything we've been through over here, for Jim to get in ahead of those guys is a tribute to that team.
"The sponsorship problems we've had are well documented, and we continue to make progress. Although the crew has not finished their analysis, tonight's problem seems to have come from a simple mechanical failure with a brand new part, so it's not like we did not have the right parts or did not use them properly. Without that malfunction, I think we not only would have run better than Jim, but we would have out-qualified him as well.
"Our efforts have been somewhat hampered by a delay in getting new parts. If we have the proper parts inventory, our intention is to take the Sunoco/Matco Camaro and test in Indy next week, making as many runs as possible. We need to get this program on track, and to do that we need to run the car. You can't sit idle for a month and a half and expect to go out and set the world on fire right away. We made Sunoco aware of that when they came on board, but even so we need to move forward and we will."
After suffering mechanical maladies of his own on his first three attempts, Epler took full advantage of his last run to post a 4.894-second elapsed time with a top speed of 306.81 mph. This placed the Racing Champions/Matco Tools Camaro 15th heading into Sunday's action, and set the stage for a first round encounter with No. 2 qualifier Dean Skuza.
"It was kind of fun lining up opposite Chuck for that last session. It was the first time we've ever run together in qualifying and we knew it was a do or die situation. As soon as I left, I saw his body fly up and knew it was then up to me. Fortunately, we made a nice smooth run. That was the first time I've run the 2001 Camaro body past the lights, and it has so much down force that it had the front end off the ground at the finish line, which made it really hard to drive. Fortunately we didn't hit anything and we were able to get the Racing Champions/Matco Camaro in the show, and as close as these fields have become, anyone who qualifies can win.
"We were also glad to get in for Racing Champions and Matco Tools. They each have an extremely large presence here this weekend, and this is the first time Racing Champions has assumed the major sponsorship of the race car, and from what I understand everyone in the suite was going crazy during our run, and they're really excited that they will have their car in the show tomorrow."