Phoenix: Teams gearing for a celebration of speed in Arizona

CHANDLER, Ariz. -- When optimum atmospheric conditions combine with a 6,000 horsepower nitro-burning vehicle, the recipe is guaranteed to produce a festival of speed. No wonder NHRA's powerbrokers of high performance are counting the days...

CHANDLER, Ariz. -- When optimum atmospheric conditions combine with a 6,000 horsepower nitro-burning vehicle, the recipe is guaranteed to produce a festival of speed. No wonder NHRA's powerbrokers of high performance are counting the days till they make their annual visit to Firebird International Raceway.

National records in three professional categories may be in jeopardy at the 17th annual Checker Schuck's Kragen Nationals presented by Pennzoil, Feb. 15-18 at Firebird International Raceway, as teams tune their machines for levels of performance not yet seen by fans and observers of NHRA's Winston Drag Racing Series.

The setting has the potential to produce the next memorable moment in NHRA history, as Top Fuel teams race to become the first to produce a run quicker than 4.50 seconds under the 90 percent nitromethane rule.

It seems to be a trend that's becoming very fashionable these days.

Everyone remembers Gainesville in 1992 when Kenny Bernstein became the first to run 300 mph. No one has forgot Eddie Hill's tremendous 4.99 second run in Texas in 1988 when he became the first in the fours. In 1998 fans stood in awe when John Force ran 4.787 seconds in his Castrol GTX Ford Mustang, the first run quicker than 4.80 seconds in Funny Car. Tony Schumacher joined the milestone club, shattering the 330 mph barrier with an amazing 330.23 mph blast in his Top Fuel dragster in '99 in the Valley of the Sun.

Team Winston driver Gary Scelzi, who holds the national elapsed time record at 4.480 seconds, set back in '99 when teams powered their machines with 100 percent nitro, leads the charge among Top Fuel drivers ready to achieve the milestone. Yankee dragster driver Mike Dunn, who recorded the three quickest runs of 2000, Miller Lite dragster driver Larry Dixon, five-time Winston champion Kenny Bernstein and Schumacher were all running extremely quick at 2000 season-opener two weeks ago in Pomona, Calif.

Schumacher, Force, and Jeg Coughlin Jr. are the defending champions in their respective professional categories at the $1.8 million race, the second of 24 events in the $50 million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

Schumacher, from Park Ridge, Ill., knocked off Bob Vandergriff in the Top Fuel final one year ago. The U.S. Army dragster driver heads a group of race favorites, including Scelzi, Bernstein, Dunn and Joe Amato's new driver Darrell Russell, winner of the season-opening event at Pomona Raceway.

Yorba Linda, Calif.'s Force defeated Ron Capps in the Funny Car final as Capps lost traction at the start and watched as Force captured his first of 11 wins on the year. Force is the defending NHRA Winston champion and is seeking a record-breaking 11th Winston title overall. Capps, Tommy Johnson Jr., Whit Bazemore, and Scotty Cannon all hope to be the one to dethrone the legendary Force.

NHRA Winston champion Coughlin, from Columbus, Ohio, defeated Mark Pawuk last season to take the first of 10 Pro Stock wins on the year. Coughlin won six of the first seven races in 2000 and jumped out to an early points lead that he never relinquished. In 2001 he will have to hold off five-time Winston champ Warren Johnson, Pomona winner Kurt Johnson, Ron Krisher and Jim Yates, among others.

SCHEDULE: Pro qualifying sessions are scheduled for 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. on Feb. 16 and Feb. 17. Final professional eliminations start at 11 a.m. Feb. 18.

TICKETS: Tickets are available for the 17th annual Checker Schuck's Kragen Nationals. Call Firebird International Raceway at (602) 268-0200, or call Ticketmaster for ticket information.

ON TV: ESPN2 will televise two hours of elimination coverage of the Checker Schuck's Kragen Nationals at 6 p.m. (ET) on Feb. 18. ESPN will televise one hour of early round eliminations at 2 p.m. (ET) on Feb. 18. ESPN2 will televise two hours of qualifying coverage on Feb. 17 at 9:30 p.m. (ET). ESPN2 will televise NHRA Heat, a 30-minute event preview show, on Feb. 8 at 6 p.m. (ET).

-NHRA-

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Series NHRA
Drivers Jeg Coughlin , Larry Dixon , Mike Dunn , Kenny Bernstein , Kurt Johnson , Warren Johnson , Whit Bazemore , Ron Capps , John Force , Joe Amato , Gary Scelzi , Scotty Cannon , Bob Vandergriff