Chuck Etchells and Jim Epler had each stated prior to the Checker's Schuck's Kragen Nationals that the renovations performed on the Firebird International Raceway surface would produce the quickest field in the history of the Funny Car division.
Chuck Etchells and Jim Epler had each stated prior to the Checker's Schuck's Kragen Nationals that the renovations performed on the Firebird International Raceway surface would produce the quickest field in the history of the Funny Car division. Their predictions came true on the first day of qualifying, as by the end of the second session, every one of the sixteen quickest qualifiers had recorded a four-second pass, a feat never previously accomplished with the "fuel coupes".
For their part, Chuck Etchells and Jim Epler made sure to contribute to this historic occasion. After battling to find traction on their first attempt, the Etchells Racing teammates were among the first to run in the evening time trial. Running first, Phoenix resident Jim Epler did not disappoint his hometown fans, powering the Chevrolet/Racing Champions/Matco Tools Camaro Z28 through the quarter-mile in 4.895 seconds with a top speed of 300.33 mph. This marked Epler's first four-second run of the young season, and placed him 6th midway through qualifying.
"Going into the run, I was a little concerned. Having to make that second run in two hours was tough, and we didn't get a chance to be as prepared as I'd like to be. Our team is still jelling, so we'll have to work on getting our speed up. But we did make it on time to get the run in.
"That was not a perfect pass by any means, but we'll take it. The Racing Champions/Matco Camaro Z28 left good, but at half-track, it hiked the front end and moved around quite a bit, and I shut it off a little bit early. After what happened in Pomona (where a engine failure caused extensive damage). I wanted to make sure everything was okay.
"The good part is we're definitely qualified now. It was great to see Chuck come out with an identical tune-up and run even a little bit better. Our game plan is working out, and we just have to focus on doing a better job in the pits. Tomorrow we'll work on our raceway combination, and we should be in really good shape on Sunday."
Running immediately after Epler in the left lane was team owner Etchells. In what had to be one of the most exciting runs of the day, Etchells wrestled the Kendall Oil/Matco Tools Camaro for every one of the 1320 feet, clicking the timers in 4.854 seconds, with a top speed of 305.08 mph. This slotted Etchells 2nd with two sessions remaining on Saturday.
"That run was a mess. Our Camaro left really well, and was running strong. But when it got to half-track, it picked the front end about a foot and a half in the air and started heading towards the centerline. I corrected it, but it wasn't coming back, and probably got within a foot of crossing the center line, to the point that I was about to shut it off. I had the wheels cut way down, and it finally came back, but went too far. Even so, it was a great run, and almost ended up No. 1. If it didn't do what it did, I'm guessing it would have been a 4.80 flat.
"I was real confident going in, because I watched Jim's car right in front of us, which was the first time I ever saw one of my cars run in front of me. (2001 marks the first year of Etchells Racing's 2-car effort.) Knowing our cars were basically the same, it made me feel pretty sure of getting down the racetrack and run as least as well as he did. It's a great feeling to have the Kendall/Matco Camaro in the second spot right now with Jim's car sixth.
"Obviously tomorrow we're going to work on keeping him in the top half of the field, although I don't think lane choice here is a factor. A lot of people are saying the right lane is better, but both our cars went down the left. The good thing is Terry Manzer, Larry Meyer, Mark Conyers and the entire Etchells Racing team can now focus on getting a good race day combination that will let us go up and down this racetrack. If we do that tomorrow, we should have a good day on Sunday."