HOUSTON (April 1, 1999) - The NHRA makes its first stop of the 1999 race season in the Lone Star State for the O'Reilly Nationals on April 8 -11. A driver who has experienced tremendous success during the last two races at Houston Raceway Park...
HOUSTON (April 1, 1999) - The NHRA makes its first stop of the 1999 race season in the Lone Star State for the O'Reilly Nationals on April 8 -11. A driver who has experienced tremendous success during the last two races at Houston Raceway Park is Interstate Batteries Pontiac Firebird pilot Cruz Pedregon.
During the Winston championship tour's last two visits to this East Texas speedrome, Pedregon's Wes Cerny-tuned Firebird has left the event with the elapsed-time national record. Last March, Pedregon lowered the number to 4.819 seconds, and eight months later in November at the Matco Tools Supernationals, he reset the record again at 4.807 seconds en route to his 21st career victory. The 1992 Winston Funny Car champion now returns to Houston Raceway Park fourth in the points standings and looking for his first win of the year. He won the spring race here in 1992 and was runner-up in 1997.
"Obviously we'd like to go in there and pick up where we left off in November," said Pedregon. "Winning at that facility is always a tremendous accomplishment and during the past two seasons, our Interstate Batteries Firebird has been a real rocket ship there. So I think that racetrack may be a little more conducive to our kind of setup and what we're trying to do with the race car.
"We would like to get the elapsed-time record back, but in reality the No. 1 priority will be getting the win and moving up a little bit in the points standings. This season is just beginning, so we need to take advantage of every opportunity to accumulate points. The key will be to make a good run during the first qualifying session so that we're safely in the show. Then Wes (Cerny) will have the luxury of pushing the envelope a little bit to see what this Firebird will do. Sometimes the racetrack can be pretty good and depending on the weather and track conditions, the competition there next weekend should be outstanding."
After the Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway, Al Hofmann, crew chief Jimbo Ermalovich and the rest of the Hofmann Racing team stayed an additional day to work out the kinks on their Pontiac Firebird Funny Car in preparation for the O'Reilly Nationals. The veteran nitro competitor has experienced tremendous success at Houston including two wins (1994-95) and two runner-up finishes (1993, 1996).
"The testing session went really well," explained Hofmann. "We put on a bigger fuel pump that amounts to about four more additional gallons of nitro and that just means more power. We also changed the clutch around quite a bit to get the car through that spot on the racetrack we've been struggling with. The car seems to be running much smoother and I think we've found some direction - at least it's better than what it was. If we can't make this Pontiac Firebird run 4.90 or 4.85 consistently then it's going to be a long season.
"This is a new car and it will take a lot more power than any car I've ever raced. While testing at Gainesville we ran our quickest 60-foot times, and there is no way our old car would ever have come close to the .800 60-foot times we were running there."
Tim Wilkerson's JCIT Pontiac Firebird tested earlier this year at Houston, so he is hoping that will work to his team's advantage. At Gainesville, Wilkerson qualified in the No. 6 position and advanced to round two before bowing out of competition.
"We stayed at Gainesville Raceway after the Gatornationals and did some testing to see if we couldn't get this thing sorted out," said Wilkerson. "I'm pretty optimistic that we'll have this car running to where we need it to be when we get to Houston. ~
"This JCIT Firebird is very aggressive in a certain spot, it falls off the tire real bad and then it's real aggressive again. All of the testing that we did at Houston and Phoenix is starting to pay off though. The car's going down the track and that's all that counts."
Del Worsham will arrive in the Lone Star State with a new Paralax race chassis for their Checker Schuck's Kragen Pontiac Firebird. A one-day test session in Gainesville following the Gatornationals showed promising results. Worsham posted a 5.07 second elapsed time during the car's first practice lap and then followed that with a lap of 4.97 seconds at 303 mph. The chassis was built by Worsham & Fink crew member Grant Downing. Worsham enters the O'Reilly Nationals 10th in the Winston points standings.
"We've run a lot of different chassis over the last 10 years, including ones we've built ourselves," explained Worsham. "You learn a lot of things you like, or maybe might change, about each one. Working with Grant, we had a chance to build this one from the ground up, and it incorporates a number of things we've been toying with.
"We always liked building our own cars because we could do this sort of thing, but as our program has grown we just haven't had the time. So, with Paralax building this one, it was like we built it ourselves, but Grant did the work. We've seen Grant's work since he joined the team in 1997 and we had complete confidence in him."
At the Mac Tools Gatornationals, Dale Creasy Jr. ran a career-best elapsed time of 5.049 seconds in the Mad Magazine Pontiac Firebird which was good enough for the No. 13 qualifying position. After three races, the Creasy team will continue a strategy of running their race while daring the competition to beat them.
"The Mad Magazine Pontiac Firebird really had a good weekend at Gainesville," said Creasy. "We came off the trailer and ran our career best at 5.04. We didn't know what to expect on Sunday so we left it alone and we were just outrun. We're not going to change our game plan for any specific opponent - we're going to race ourselves and make the other guys beat us. If this car can get down the track every Sunday, I'm going to win some races. If we can get a little bigger fuel pump, that should get us into the four-second range. Our pumps are a little outdated, and if we can get some more fuel in the car we'll be running much stronger."
In Pro Stock...
GM Goodwrench Service Plus Pontiac Firebird driver Warren Johnson will arrive in Houston with an additional advantage that his opponents will loudly testify he doesn't need - momentum! Johnson's performance at the 30th annual Gatornationals was nothing but remarkable with the "Professor of Pro Stock" leaving Gainesville Raceway with his 73rd career victory and his first win of 1999. Mike Stryker was named crew chief of the race. In addition to the win, Johnson was No. 1 qualifier for the event, and set the new national record in elapsed time at 6.866 seconds and top speed at 201.37 mph in the second round of eliminations. He earned 138 points for his weekend at Gainesville, the most possible, and moved into third place in the points standings, two points out of second place and 37 points out of first. Johnson is defending champion at the O'Reilly Nationals and also won this event in 1990 and 1994.
"I wouldn't say that I'm in the groove, but at least I know where the groove is," said Johnson. "You get 20 bonus points whether you set the elapsed-time record by a thousandth of a second or by a tenth of a second. Those points are the equivalent of one round win, and those are awful tough to get these days.
"It surprised me to set the record on that run because the tires shook and the car made a right turn. If it had been a straight run, I might have buried the record. This car should be able to run 6.70's if we get similar track conditions in Houston or Richmond. After those races, we get to the hot part of the season. During the summer we battle the elements and Mother Nature dictates how much power we can make."
After qualifying fourth and advancing to round two at the Gatornationals, Splitfire/Peak Pontiac Firebird driver Jim Yates is fifth in the points standings. Yates' Firebird hit a sub-6.90 second elapsed time of 6.897 seconds in his round two win over Greg Anderson. He has never won at Houston, but was runnCeer-up at the O'Reilly Nationals in 1995.
"Our goal is to get the Splitfire/Peak Pontiac Firebird qualified at each race and then win as many rounds as we can when we get qualified," said Yates. "It's going to take us a little while to turn this engine program around into something that can compete with Warren (Johnson). He's had a lot of time with this DRCE engine and Gainesville was only our second race with it, so we can't expect to run as good as he runs. But give us two or three more races and maybe we can close that gap and make a run at him for the championship.
"We just can't give up too much spread at this stage of the season. We have to stay as close to him as we can. He's the man to beat and you can't take anything away from him. He's top speed and top qualifier at every race and every round. You have to go after Warren if you want to win this thing. Hopefully we won't give up too many rounds before we catch up with him performance-wise."
Mark Pawuk and the Summit Racing Firebird team was another program that stuck around Gainesville Raceway for extra testing. Pawuk hopes their performance after the race carries over to Houston for an improved finish. Pawuk won the O'Reilly Nationals in 1992.
"We tested a new car on Monday after the Gatornationals and it was pretty fast," explained Pawuk. "We ran 6.90 at 200.89 mph during the first run and then unfortunately, we struggled a little bit after that. The guys took the car to Atlanta and have been running it some more there. It almost has 100 runs on it but we want to be sure it's going to be competitive before we put it in a race situation. We may run two cars in Houston and if we do, Greg Anderson will drive the second car.
"Our old car feels like a dinosaur compared to the new one. It runs real fast to 60-foot and then it doesn't seem to have that extra momentum to run to the finish line. The new car is aerodynamically superior on the back half and if we can combine the good qualities in both race cars, we'll have it made. We have plenty of power, and good motors to fall back on when we need them. But we've been struggling on race day and if we're going to be in the points chase this summer then we'll have change that. I've got a bunch of hungry, enthusiastic guys on this program and if anyone can make it happen, they can."
Century 21 Pontiac Firebird driver Tom Martino picked up his first career win at Houston back in 1997 and he's hoping for a little bit of that same magic this year. He was runner up at the Matco Tools Supernationals last Fall and the Pro Stock Super Bowl in January.
"Over the last few years, we've been fortunate to run well at Houston Raceway Park, and that is a trend we're looking to continue next weekend. Historically, you'll see some big numbers put up at this race track due to the combination of a fast track and good weather conditions.
"In the last three weeks, we have focussed on getting our primary Century 21 Firebird ready, something we were unable to do before for several reasons. We've made some drastic changes to our setup, and so far our test results seem to indicate we're headed in the right direction. We won this race in 1997, and we were the runners up here last October and at the Pro Stock Super Bowl in January. Our goal for this race is to run competitively and hopefully put ourselves in a position to win."
Another driver performing well at this juncture of the season is Dynomax Pontiac pilot George Marnell. Marnell's Bob Ingles'-powered Firebird is currently fifth in the Winston standings after qualifying in the top half of the field at the first three races of the year.
"The Dynomax Firebird is running extremely well at this time and I'm hoping we can keep it going for the rest of the year," said Marnell. "We've done a lot of testing this season at Houston and have a lot of data that we can work off of once we get there. Every team and every driver will have to be at their best because it's going to take at least a 6.95 to make the field. Slipping in any qualifying session may keep you out of Sunday eliminations.
"The fact that we've been able to maintain our consistency this season is a tribute to the hard work of Bob Cave (crew chief) and teammates Bill Smith and Marcus Svensson. They've done a tremendous job with the setup on the race car and when that happens, it makes driving a lot easier."
Pennzoil Pontiac Firebird driver Mike Thomas was runner-up at last year's O'Reilly Nationals. He's looking forward to a return to Houston, the site of his sponsor's world headquarters and where he will try to improve by one round on last year's performance. Thomas has been besieged by mechanical problems and has logged just one elimination round in three events this year.
"I can think of three reasons why I must win this race," said Thomas. "Pennzoil's headquarters are in Houston. We need a big jump up in the points. And I really want to finally show everyone what these Finish Line engines are capable of doing. If we can duplicate the run we had in January (6.845 seconds at 200.17 mph), it would be a fantastic lift for our team. I think we can do it.
"After not qualifying in Gainesville we decided to stay a few extra days to figure out what went wrong. It turned out to be the rear end, and when we replaced it we immediately improved by a tenth of a second. In a class where the No. 1 guy is usually only a few thousandths of a second ahead of the No. 16 guy, that's a lot of ground to make up. We will test some more before Houston and we should be ready to go."
Bruce Allen, the driver of the Outlaw Pontiac Firebird, is a two-time runner-up at the O'Reilly Nationals (1990 and 1997) and has spent the two weeks since the Gatornationals preparing a brand new Don Ness-built Firebird at the Texas Motorplex in Ennis, Tex., with promising results.
"This car is real nice piece of machinery," said Allen. "But right now it's like anything else that's new - it shows a lot of potential but it might just be a pile of tubing and sheet metal. It will be nice to match it up against everyone else to really see how close we are to the best cars in the field. I'm anxious to get down there and race.
"Houston is one of the best places to truly measure a car. The track is so smooth and consistent and it very rarely changes over the course of a race weekend. That means that we can work on adjusting the car and not worry about what needs to be done to stay with the track. That should prove to be a big advantage for us as we dial-in this new Firebird.
The O'Reilly Nationals at Houston Raceway Park in Baytown, Tex., on April 8 - 11, is the fourth race on the 22-event NHRA Winston Championship tour. It can be seen on TNN on Sunday, April 18, beginning at 12:00 p.m. Eastern.