HIGHT, BECKMAN EXPLAIN HOW MENTAL EDGE CAN WIN OR LOSE RACE BEFORE IT BEGINS AS POWERADE SERIES HEADS TO SEATTLE KENT, Wash. -- Jack Beckman describes the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series as the "Top Gun" for race car drivers. Its ...
HIGHT, BECKMAN EXPLAIN HOW MENTAL EDGE CAN WIN OR LOSE RACE BEFORE IT BEGINS AS POWERADE SERIES HEADS TO SEATTLE
KENT, Wash. -- Jack Beckman describes the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series as the "Top Gun" for race car drivers. Its categories are the fastest motorsports contests in the world; where extremity runs headlong into a deep pool of stubborn talent.
And it's where, as rookies soon find out, being just 'good' doesn't always win.
Most of the focus in the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing is, naturally, what happens during a run -- the four-point-something-seconds-plus between the green light and a win light.
But what happens before that?
For drivers, another few seconds, the ones on the starting line, are perhaps equally important. The seconds when holding on too tight can push you over; when drivers strive to do what is, essentially, remarkable.
They...clear their minds.
Consider this: A driver has step-by-step instructions that must be followed with precision before each run. In front of a live audience. On national television. On a scale of nerves? Imagine making your wedding vows during your first driver's test. It could be a little like that.
Somehow, at least for Beckman and Robert Hight (who is, incidentally, nicknamed "Top Gun"), it isn't. Instead, clear minds yield focus.
"I take a deep breath, put the visor down and stare at the pre-stage bulb," said Beckman, driver of the Valvoline/Mail Terminal Services Charger R/T. "At that point you want to be as focused as you can be. No need to be tense or intense; just focused."
The NHRA POWERade Series comes to Seattle for the 21st annual Schuck's Auto Supply NHRA Nationals July 18-20, at Pacific Raceways. It is the 14th of 24 events in the Series, and near the end of the regular season of the Countdown to the Championship. Beckman (Funny Car), Tony Schumacher (Top Fuel) and Dave Connolly (Pro Stock) are the defending winners of the race, which will be televised on ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD.
Burn-outs, staging and starting line behavior, like almost everything about drag racing, are strategic. From the length of a burn-out to how long it takes each driver to stage, each choice is the result of a decision made in advance, or a mistake. A new driver takes time to think each step through, Hight said. A veteran does it by intuition.
Mistakes and variations -- and even time itself - are what drivers want to avoid.
"The more you do it, the more things kind of slow down; the more things can go through your head," said Hight, driver of the Auto Club Ford Mustang. "I think it's bad. That's why I try to keep my mind occupied. Since I know everything that's going on in the car, I'm always constantly looking at the oil pressure, making sure the fuel level is where it needs to be, that I have the right amount of fuel going in the motor. Keeping my mind occupied with what's going on right now (with the car). After you've done this a while, you just done things (by memory). It gives your mind an opportunity to start wondering and being nervous, things that are negative. I try to keep my mind busy until it's time to stage and step on the gas."
Once the crew chief and team make final adjustments, they're left behind.
"As a fuel driver, there isn't anything you can do to make that car run quicker than the tune-up, but there are a lot of things you can do to slow it down, if you make mistakes," Beckman said.
The starting line process begins well before each car noses onto the track. Hight walks the track in advance. Beckman roams up to see the action like a "big kid" fan with no restrictions. Others listen to music with earbuds, do breathing exercises or sit in their tow vehicles until the last second before each run.
Some ask for advice or use others as inspiration. Hight's walk down the track to check where the groove is and test the traction with his foot was inspired by former fuel driver-turned-ESPN2 personality Mike Dunn.
"At times, when you get up to the pro ranks, with some people, there's a lot more ego there," Beckman said. "It almost reminds you of 'Top Gun,' like flight school. Everyone likes to think they have a great handle on this. I don't mind talking to other drivers to get input. Gary Scelzi has been an unbelievable help to me, because he's been there. If anything else, he's been there to help me deal with the emotional part. It's not just the mechanics, it's the emotional part."
Both Hight and Beckman prefer to be around other people, with their teams and other drivers. Others prefer to go it alone.
"We try to make it fun," Hight said. "We're serious, but we still have some fun...I don't want to be left alone and be in my own little world. I want to talk to everybody. We pay attention to what's going on (on the track), listen to the NHRA announcer and our team radios when our crew chiefs and other drivers make their runs, and when one of our drivers wins, we're celebrating back in the two vehicle. The (crew) guys are in the staging lanes, double-checking themselves. It's a business, but we all have fun doing it."
The "edge" is not definable; something you feel or do but don't see. It's the split-second moment between now and unknown. Keeping that edge, they say, is about focus.
I think, for anybody who is at the top of their profession, that last edge is always mental," Beckman said. "In an athletic sport, physical conditioning will get you on-par with the average participant, but the mental (aspect) will always get you that extra edge."
Hight and Beckman are two of the cars to beat in Funny Car heading into Seattle. Despite being one of the hottest talents on the circuit, Beckman, who posted a runner-up finish last weekend at Denver and cracked the Top 10 for the first time this season. He is now in the hunt for a spot in the Countdown to the Championship, when the top 10 drivers in each field will compete for the NHRA POWERade Series world championship titles. In 2007, Beckman won in Denver and Seattle for an almost-sweep of the historic Western Swing. Others to watch include Hight's team owner and father-in-law John Force, who made a remarkable recovery in 2008 after a late-season accident in Dallas last fall. John's daughter Ashley became the first woman to win an NHRA event in Funny Car in Atlanta and she remains a car to beat, along with independent owner/driver Tim Wilkerson, a surprise category leader who has won four times this season, including last weekend in Denver.
Schumacher, the five-time and defending NHRA POWERade Series world champion, remains the man to beat in Top Fuel as evidenced by his sixth win of the year last weekend in Denver. However, David Powers Motorsports' teammates Antron Brown and Rod Fuller are ready for the challenge of trying to dethrone him. Don't count out upstarts Brandon Bernstein and Hillary will or veterans Cory McClenathan and Larry Dixon.
In Pro Stock, Greg Anderson has emerged as the mid-season leader with Kurt Johnson and Anderson's KB Racing teammate Jason Line right behind him. The Cagnazzi Racing duo of Jeg Coughlin and young Connolly are in the mix too.
* SCHEDULE: Pro qualifying sessions are scheduled for 3 and 5:30 p.m. on Friday, July 18. Qualifying continues at noon and 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 19 and final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday, July 20.
* TICKETS: Tickets are available for the Schuck's Auto Supply NHRA Nationals. Call (253) 639-5927 or check ticketmaster.com for details.
* ON TV: ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise one hour of qualifying highlights at 8 p.m. ET on Saturday, July 19. ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise NHRA Race Day, a 30-minute pre-race show, at 11 a.m. (ET) on Sunday, July 20. ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise the race beginning at 9 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, July 20.
* LUCAS OIL SERIES: The Schuck's Auto Supply NHRA Nationals also will feature competition in eight categories in the NHRA Lucas Oil Series, where the future stars of the NHRA POWERade Series earn their racing stripes. Lucas Oil Series qualifying begins at 9:15 a.m. on July 18, with eliminations starting on July 19 at 9:15 a.m.