Memphis Preview

HILL HOPES TO END SUNDAY SLUMP AT PENNZOIL NATIONALS In Eddie Hill's long and distinguished career in a variety of motorsports venues he's never seen anything like he and his Pennzoil Dragster team are experiencing this season. On the track...

HILL HOPES TO END SUNDAY SLUMP AT PENNZOIL NATIONALS

In Eddie Hill's long and distinguished career in a variety of motorsports venues he's never seen anything like he and his Pennzoil Dragster team are experiencing this season.

On the track Hill has produced career-best elapsed times and speeds. The performance of his dragster has never been better. On paper, Hill occupies the No. 11 spot in the Winston standings. Somehow, the math just doesn't add up.

Hill has consistently been among the top qualifiers this season in NHRA's Top Fuel category. However, come Sunday, Hill's Pennzoil machine suddenly comes down with a serious case of amnesia. Hill has suffered an amazing 10 first round losses and five second round exits this season. His best effort to date is a lone semifinal appearance at Sonoma, Calif.'s Autolite Nationals.

"It's been very frustrating, no doubt," Hill said. "When you look at the point standings, we're way up there in qualifying points, but frankly, we're embarrassed by our position in the Winston standings. We know we're a much better team than that. During qualifying we've run numbers as good as the winner does on Sunday, but we've had some little things plague us when we get into eliminations. We're just going to continue to work harder and hope for better luck on Sunday."

If there's one place where Hill hopes the good luck begins, it's the 11th annual Pennzoil Nationals presented by AutoZone, Oct. 8-11 at Memphis Motorsports Park. The $1.5 million race is the 19th of 22 events in the $30-million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

Hill, Top Fuel's oldest active driver, would like to win that race for obvious reasons.

"Anytime you can win a race that your sponsor has its name on is a good thing," Hill said. "I can't think of any better place to end our streak of bad luck."

Hill says his race day performance hasn't been due to any one factor.

"The hardest part to accept is when you know you have the best people in place, the best parts and you're capable of producing the performance and just don't get results," Hill said. "Even when that happens, you still have to maintain a positive attitude. It makes it difficult."

He just continues to look for positive answers to the situation.

"In 1992 we made seven final rounds and won only once," Hill said. "At that time we felt like if our luck evened out we'd be a contender for the Winston championship that season. It just wasn't meant to be. However, the next season we went to the finals seven times again, but that year we won six of them and earned the Winston championship. It's weird how things work out. I guess this season we're putting a lot of good luck in our savings account for another time."

While Hill remains focused on the task of earning victories, the 1993 NHRA Winston champion says it's going to be fun to watch the drama of the Top Fuel chase unfold in the final four races. He says the winner will be the team that can stay focused and handle the pressure.

"I think the biggest thing is avoiding the tendency of developing an attitude of being a little too conservative and racing not to lose instead of being aggressive," Hill said. "We almost did that in 1993 and it started to hurt us down the stretch. Fortunately we had a big enough lead that we held on and won the championship. But it's so close now that if a team doesn't go into the race with a win-at-no-cost attitude, it will be hard to compete with the level of pressure that will be there. It's going to be exciting to watch, that's for sure."

SKUZA HOPES TO BE JAMMIN' AT BEAL STREET IN MEMPHIS

Nearly three weeks after the big win, and Dean Skuza is still in awe.

It's a rare moment when dreams and reality collide. Skuza took advantage of his moment at the Pioneer Keystone Nationals in mid-September when he defeated childhood hero John Force.

Skuza will try to beat Force again if the opportunity should present itself at the 11th annual Pennzoil Nationals presented by AutoZone, Oct. 8-11 at Memphis Motorsports Park. The $1.5 million race is the 19th of 22 events in the $30-million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

However, no matter the circumstances surrounding the next time Skuza defeats the seven-time Winston champion, he'll always remember that Sunday afternoon in Pennsylvania.

"It was quite the victory," Skuza said. "I have mixed emotions, though. I mean, as a kid growing up I idolized John Force. After I beat him I was going crazy. At the same time, I looked over at Force and he looked somewhat disappointed and was putting his gloves into his helmet and there were no cameras around. I thought, man, I just beat my hero. Don't get me wrong, I love to win and that's what we're out here for, but there's still a little piece of me that is secretly a John Force fan."

Force later said that he was proud of the youngster from Brecksville, Ohio.

"I was excited for Skuza," Force admitted. "He's a future champion. Austin Coil (Force's crew chief) asked me why I was so happy for him. I told him that was me 10 years ago. That kid had so much energy when he beat me it was amazing to watch. That's how I acted years ago when I finally beat Snake (Don Prudhomme) and (Kenny) Bernstein. He's going to have a big future in this sport."

For Skuza, the future is now. He says winning just makes him hungrier. He's ready for more.

"Winning races can cure anything," Skuza said. "It's great medicine. We're a little upset that it took us most of the year to get a win, but we'll take it. I think we learned some things that will help us get some more victories and finish the season really strong."

Dual crew chiefs Lance Larsen and Ron Swearingen have worked tirelessly all season to develop a consistent combination for Skuza's Matco Tools Dodge Avenger. Skuza says at Maple Grove everything they had down on paper came to life in his nitro-burning machine. They're excited about their chances at Memphis Motorsports Park.

"I think the car is running a lot better now and we have gained so much data that we can adapt the car to any kind of conditions," Skuza said. "At a track like Memphis it can get a little loose at the top end. That's no problem. The main thing is that we're all in the same boat. We've all got to go down the same quarter-mile."

A self-proclaimed alternative rocker, Skuza also enjoys traveling to Memphis for other reasons.

"A lot of people ask me what my favorite event is and I have to say Memphis is one of them," Skuza said. "There's so many cool places to go there, great restaurants and of course great nightlife at Beal Street. That's where I go every year on Sunday evening to unwind. I stay there until someone tells me to leave the next morning. It's a great place."

It'll be an even better place if he can earn a victory there.

"If I win the Pennzoil Nationals I'll be jammin' on Beal Street for sure," Skuza said. "Tell everyone to come on down 'cause I'm buyin'."

RACE IS ON FOR SECOND PLACE IN WINSTON PRO STOCK STANDINGS

The figures aren't official just yet, but as far as Kurt Johnson is concerned, his father Warren can start clearing a spot on the mantle for a fourth NHRA Winston Pro Stock championship trophy.

He's officially thrown in the towel and raised the white flag on his pursuit of a Pro Stock title, at least for this season. His father's outstanding year-long performance has been simply too powerful for anyone to mount a late rally with four races remaining on the NHRA schedule.

With that little bit of business settled and out of the way, Kurt can begin to focus on his task at hand: holding on to the No. 2 position.

With tough competition from Jeg Coughlin, defending Winston champion Jim Yates, and distant threats Mark Osborne and Mike Edwards, the younger Johnson's claim to the title of second-best won't come easy. Johnson, driver of the AC Delco Chevrolet Camaro, moved into second place for the first time this season following his victory at the Pioneer Keystone Nationals in Reading, Pa.

A victory at the 11th annual Pennzoil Nationals presented by AutoZone, Oct. 8-11 at Memphis Motorsports Park could go a long way in putting some much needed distance between Johnson's hold on the second spot and his host of challengers. The $1.5 million race is the 19th of 22 events in the $30- million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

"It's a pressure situation all the way," said Johnson, who holds the Pro Stock track elapsed time record of 6.967 seconds at Memphis Motorsports Park. "It might go down to the final round in the final race, side-by-side -- who knows?

"Taking over second place at the Keystone Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway was a good start to holding on to it. That was an important victory for us and we got to beat our closest competition for second place, Jeg Coughlin. That means a lot."

Johnson, of Lawrenceville, Ga., admits that he's put in a lot of time this season to be competitive in a category that has at times featured nearly 50 cars trying to qualify for 16 starting spots.

"It's a lot of hard work," Johnson said. "It's just a combination from front bumper to back bumper on one of these things. Every inch counts these days. If you don't have your car completely ready to race when you go to the starting line, you're going home. It's that simple. Pro Stock is just so tough."

Johnson, who also earned a victory at Madison, Ill.'s Sears Craftsman Nationals this season, says he's looking forward to competing at another race track that sits along the fabled Mississippi River.

"We feel pretty good about our chances at Memphis," Johnson said. "We enjoyed running there last fall. It's a completely different track now that we race there later in the year. I think you're going to see some really great performances. Hopefully, one of them will be a winning performance by our AC Delco Chevrolet Camaro."

Interestingly, the younger Johnson has only raced his dear old dad two times this season. Both times he came up on the losing end. He wouldn't mind getting a couple of shots in the closing races to even that score, too.

"I want to race him head-to-head to see what we can do against him," Johnson said. "He's obviously the one to beat right now. He's going to win the Winston championship."

SMALL VICTORIES KEEP UNDERDAHL GOING IN PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE

While Matt Hines continues to be the undisputed winner of the war in Pro Stock Motorcycle, his competitors have learned to adapt by celebrating much smaller victories.

Take Greg Underdahl, for example.

The Minneapolis-based rider of the NCN Communications Suzkui is having his best season ever. No, he has no national event trophies to put on display. He doesn't have any national event records to boast about either. Despite the spotlight-stealing performances of Hines, Underdahl has quietly become the category's fourth-best rider.

He'll try to improve on that position at the 11th annual Pennzoil Nationals presented by AutoZone, Oct. 8-11 at Memphis Motorsports Park. The $1.5 million race is the 19th of 22 events in the $30-million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

A victory at Memphis for Underdahl would be the biggest moment in his bike racing career.

"Our team has come a long way this season," Underdahl said. "We're making great strides and learning something new every time out. We've definitely got more confidence now. My new crew chief (Joe Labelle) has made a big impact. And it's just the two of us working on the bike. It makes for a long Sunday, especially when you get to the semifinals or final. One of these days we're going to win one of these things."

Underdahl made his first career final round appearance earlier this season at Englishtown, N.J., where he lost to Angelle Seeling when she posted a holeshot and followed it with a 7.28 second run. Other key learning experiences have been the three semifinal encounters with Hines. Each time Underdahl tried a different strategy, and each time came away on the losing end.

"I've qualified fourth a bunch of times this season and had to race Matt several times in the semis," Underdahl said. "He's tough. I think he's only made two mistakes all season. The rest of the time he's been winning races. That's hard to beat."

He says it's tough being the underdog.

"I don't think there's anything we can do about it," Underdahl said. "With his dad's (Byron Hines) tuning ability and his driving ability, it makes for a tough combination. He's young and he's going to be around for a while. I guess if you can be No. 2 in this deal you've won your own championship. I just don't see their team faltering."

Hines has won nine of 11 races to date. He's earned virtually every No. 1 qualifying position and his name is posted beside low elapsed time and top speed every weekend. In an attempt to improve his overall program, Underdahl joined John Smith, Brian and Ron Ayers, Tony Mullen and Gary Tonglet as riders who have purchased an engine from Byron Hines. Underdahl, like his peers, thought that would be the magical solution to catching the runaway team.

"Byron sold A-grade engines to each of us," Underdahl said. "The only problem is that it doesn't come with an instruction manual. Byron's got 30 years of tuning experience and that's basically the unbeatable factor. He knows how to tune the engine for virtually every condition imaginable."

With Hines' dominance, the question remains: What keeps his competitor's morale in check?

"We've all got close to him on different occasions," Underdahl said. "John (Smith) has been very close a couple of times. I ran a 7.33 at Maple Grove and was pretty close. We have the power to catch that team, there's no question about that. It's just a matter of finding the combination that can put all of that power into motion on a consistent basis. That's what we're working on."

Underdahl, who finished seventh in the Winston standings last season, says his focus for the remainder of the season is to hold his fourth place position over Dave Schultz, and possibly move ahead of John Smith, who sits 96 points away in third place.

"I'm out to win like everybody else," Underdahl said. "This is only my second year as a full-time rider. I need some work on my reaction times, and my riding can be a little erratic at times. I just need more experience on the bike. I know I can win a race. I've got a lot better handle on things this season."

Underdahl sees the Pennzoil Nationals presented by AutoZone as a race that will be ripe for the picking. If there's a place where a third rider can break into the win column this season, he feels like that's the place.

"Out of all the tracks, Memphis is definitely one of the tracks where an upset is possible," Underdahl said. "This is only our second year running there. Every team has a real thin notebook on that place, including Byron. That pretty much makes us all equal. Maybe we can get our first win at Memphis"

PATTERSON FINDS NEW CHALLENGE IN PRO STOCK TRUCK CATEGORY

Todd Patterson had it made in the shade in NHRA's Competition Eliminator. With over 20 national event victories, as well as part ownership in the family's engine- building business that produced some of the most competitive small-block engines for the popular sportsman category, things were good for Patterson, a native of Augusta, Kan.

But as the old saying goes, it's really hard to leave well enough alone. Patterson needed a new challenge. That challenge came along this season with the introduction of NHRA's newest professional category, Pro Stock Truck.

"We were fortunate to enjoy some success in Competition but were looking for a bigger challenge," Patterson said. "The timing was right to move into Pro Stock Truck."

Patterson will continue working on a new winning legacy at the 11th annual Pennzoil Nationals presented by AutoZone, Oct. 8-11 at Memphis Motorsports Park. The $1.5 million race is the 19th of 22 events in the $30-million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

Patterson, who is still after his first national event victory in the truck category, says the new class immediately opened doors for drivers like himself who couldn't otherwise afford to compete in a professional category.

"As a kid growing up I'd go to national events and my dream was always to drive a Pro Stock car," Patterson admitted. "The opportunity just never presented itself like it did in Pro Stock Truck. Right now I'm perfectly content in Pro Stock Truck. I think it's a great category with a lot of potential and there's no doubt the fans love it."

After taking a couple of laps in a seven-second, 198 mph Pro Stock car, Patterson says while there are differences in the two types of machines on paper, the feel is basically the same.

"The truck feels just a little more stable than a Pro Stock car because of the larger wheelbase," Patterson said. "But as far as the difference in feel when I'm sitting in the truck I really can't say that there is one. It just feels like a race car. There's quite a difference in horsepower between the two, but when you're in the truck traveling down the quarter-mile the sensation feels just as fast. You still have to be able to react and get the truck from point A to point B. It'll definitely get your attention."

Patterson's best finish this season was a runner-up effort at Sonoma, Calif.'s Autolite Nationals. With only three events remaining in the 12-race Pro Stock Truck season, Patterson's goals are evident.

"The first goal is to put the truck in the Winner's Circle," Patterson said. "Then we want to win a Winston championship. We may not be able to get the championship this year, but we certainly have a few more shots left at getting a victory. That's where our main focus is right now. Then we can take what we learned this year and go for our second goal next year, winning the Winston championship."

While a slow start hurt his chances of gaining the coveted inaugural Pro Stock Truck championship, Patterson says he and his team have learned valuable lessons along the way. He's currently fourth in the Winston standings, 252 points behind leader Larry Kopp.

"From the beginning of the year we've been behind," he said. "The truck we have is basically one that was used last season during the exhibition runs. It was one of the first ever built. We're getting a brand new truck and we hope to have it ready for Memphis. By then we should have most of the kinks worked out of it and feel like we've got an even better chance at winning."

PENNZOIL NATIONALS PRESENTED BY AUTOZONE GENERAL INFORMATION

* Schedule: Pro qualifying sessions are scheduled for 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. (CDT) Oct. 9. Qualifying continues at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Oct. 10. Pro Stock Truck qualifying begins Oct. 8, with sessions at noon and 3 p.m. Pro Stock Truck eliminations start at 11 a.m. Oct. 10. Final professional eliminations start at 11 a.m. Oct. 11. Federal-Mogul competition starts at 10 a.m. Oct. 8.

* Tickets: Tickets are available for the Pennzoil Nationals presented by AutoZone. Call (901) 358-7223 for ticket information.

* On TV: ESPN2 will televise two hours of same day final round coverage Oct. 11 at 6:30 p.m. (CDT). ESPN2 will also show a 90 minute NHRA Season Review Oct. 9 at 4:30 p.m (CDT).

Be part of something big

Write a comment
Show comments
About this article
Series NHRA
Drivers Matt Hines , Jeg Coughlin , Kurt Johnson , Dean Skuza , John Force , Ron Ayers , Todd Patterson , Larry Kopp , Don Prudhomme , Greg Underdahl , Mike Edwards