Going into the 2001 NHRA Winston Drag Racing season, Chuck Etchells & Jim Epler knew there would be growing pains as Etchells Racing expanded to a two-car operation, and qualifying for the 41st AutoZone Winternationals proved just how steep the ...
Going into the 2001 NHRA Winston Drag Racing season, Chuck Etchells & Jim Epler knew there would be growing pains as Etchells Racing expanded to a two-car operation, and qualifying for the 41st AutoZone Winternationals proved just how steep the learning curve could be.
Making his return after two years, Chuck Etchells seemed immediately at home in his Kendall Oil/Matco Tools Camaro. However, even though Etchells was able to post a 4.952-second elapsed time on his second run, his team battled to solve a series of mechanical gremlins in his racecar. With his teammate Jim Epler facing not qualifying, Etchells elected to park his car for the final attempt and have his crew help repair the Epler-driven entry. Despite missing what turned out to be the quickest session, Etchells will enter Sunday's final eliminations in the 8th spot and will face Del Worsham in the first round.
"In the first session today, both cars did exactly the same thing, which we don't understand - they both dropped cylinders. Jim was in a different position. Realizing that he was No. 17 going in, he had to take it to the finish line trying to get it in the show. When he did that, it blew up and did a tremendous amount of damage.
"Even though my car did the same thing, and I knew it wasn't right and had a hole out, so I just shut it off rather than take a chance with it. We thought we had made two opposite moves with the two cars, so to have them react the same way is troubling going into tomorrow. They're not leaving the starting line, they're not reacting, they're not sixty footing, so that's a concern.
"We didn't run the Kendall/Matco Camaro in the last session because we only had seventy-five minutes to get Jim's car ready and it had a tremendous amount of damage. As with any new team, we have a couple of guys who are new, raw and green, so Terry (crew chief Manzer) and I talked about it and decided to park the Kendall car, which was solidly in the show, and put them over on Jim's car to try and get it fixed, and we didn't make it. Being a Monday morning quarterback, it might have been a bad call, because we made zero runs and got no additional data. We thought we made the right choice, because we're one team over here, and we wanted to get Jim in the show tomorrow, but in this case, it bit us.
"We run Del in the first round tomorrow. That's a good team and his teammate Frank Pedregon went 4.87 today, so there's no reason that tune-up won't be in Del's car tomorrow. The one saving grace is that we do have lane choice and in the heat of the day, it seems the left lane works better than the right. We're going to go up there and roll the dice, but the Kendall/Matco Camaro is going to have to respond. If not, we'll be on the trailer."
As his team owner indicated, Jim Epler's struggles continued on Saturday. After suffering a damaging blower explosion in the early session, the team faced a momentous repair. Joined by the crew from Chuck Etchells' car, the team worked furiously to return their car to race-ready condition. Looking to save time, Jim Epler was strapped into the car prior to leaving the pits, and the team decided to forego the normal engine warm-up in order to make the deadline. Unfortunately, just as the crew pulled out to head to the lanes, they were informed that their allotted time had expired and they would be unable to make their final attempt, thus depriving Epler of his final opportunity of making the field for Sunday.
"We had a problem in the third qualifying run, where we banged the blower and split our Camaro body. This forced us to do a lot of repairs, including to the clutch and fuel system timers, which caused us to miss the last session. At this point in the season, it's just not worth it to rush if we're not fully prepared. We would have had to run a 4.90 in order to qualify, and we did not want to go up there unless we were confident of doing it. This Racing Champions/Matco Tools team is going to make sure we're prepared and go make up for what happened today at the next event."
Epler also addressed his disappointment at not being able to participate in Sunday's final eliminations.
"I've been doing this a long time, and I've developed a little patience over the years. I knew it was going to be tough this year. There are a lot of good teams out there, and some of them are not going to qualify, including a few at this race. We just have to look at the big picture.
"Long term, I think we're going to be in good shape. Our team concept is still solid - our cars are working well together, and I was really hoping we could go round some rounds tomorrow to get some additional data. Personally, it's going to be a big disappointment not being in the Top Ten going into the next race because Phoenix is my hometown. But I've learned to be patient, and I know this Etchells Racing team will be okay."
Chuck Etchells also offered his assessment of the situation, displaying his trademark frankness.
"After our disappointing test session in Tucson, I stated that I felt we would be fortunate to qualify one car in Pomona. You hate to say it, but the reality is we are not ready to race two cars. I'm also not sure we're ready to race one car tomorrow, but we're going to give it our best like we always do. We owe it to our sponsors, Kendall Oil, Matco Tools, Chevrolet and Mighty Auto Parts. They are very important to us, and they compensate us well for doing this, and besides the last time I ran a race at this track I won, so we can't forget that."
-Jon G. Knapp