INDEPENDENT TEAMS FARE WELL IN OPENING EVENTS AS POWERade SERIES MOVES ON TO ST. LOUIS ST. LOUIS -- Some teams don't know they're hot. When Alan Bradshaw qualified No. 1 in Gainesville, his crew didn't believe it. It took a visit from an NHRA...
INDEPENDENT TEAMS FARE WELL IN OPENING EVENTS AS POWERade SERIES MOVES ON TO ST. LOUIS
ST. LOUIS -- Some teams don't know they're hot.
When Alan Bradshaw qualified No. 1 in Gainesville, his crew didn't believe it. It took a visit from an NHRA official, a trip to the media center for Bradshaw and a run sheet before they finally did -- and then the Vegas Fuel Top Fuel dragster team followed it up with another No. 1, in Houston, proving they weren't just lucky.
The 2008 season has been good to the one-car teams.
Six one-car teams -- at least one in each category - won in the first five races of the season alone, before Atlanta. The proverbial Goliaths might not be scared when they pull into St. Louis for the 12th annual O'Reilly NHRA Midwest Nationals, but they must be a little shaken. The event at Gateway International Raceway is the seventh of 24 in the nationwide NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series.
There's no swagger to independent team owner/driver Tim Wilkerson, of Springfield, Ill. He was almost apologetic after he broke a three-year losing skid in the final round of Las Vegas, denying AOL's Hottest Athlete of 2007 Ashley Force a historic first win. But win he did, and he'd like nothing more than to bring down the bigger teams in St. Louis with the small but strong staff he formed around car chief Jeff Jacobs and Rich Schendl.
"I've had the same group of guys the last couple of years," Wilkerson said. "I think that helps."
In all, Wilkerson has five fulltime crew members. To make it stronger, the team holds meetings to learn each part of the car and memorize each other's duties.
"No part of the car is unimportant," Wilkerson said. "We always try to be subject to criticism. I think we just spend more time, pay more attention to details in what we do. I think that shows in the way the car runs."
This season drivers who aren't usually quoted in winners' press releases are getting a bit more comfortable tossing out a phrase or two. There have been fewer "usuals" in the winner's circle, including Pro Stock's V. Gaines, who broke a six-year winless streak in Phoenix, and Matt Guidera, who earned his second career win there too, this time in front of a capacity crowd (his first was in Reading last year, where the finals were delayed until Wednesday).
Of course, some single-car entries that have been successful this season can hardly be called 'little.' Larry Dixon earned the Wally winner's trophy in Phoenix, too. Dixon has two POWERade Series world championships under his belt, so he's obviously not new to winning, but it was his first victory flying the colors of new sponsor U.S. Smokeless Tobacco. Dixon's former teammate Tommy Johnson Jr. competes for Kenny Bernstein now and Dixon has an alliance with Wilkerson.
In Funny Car, where more one-car teams have had success than in any other category, Tony Pedregon (Gainesville) and Del Worsham (Houston) have one win apiece entering St. Louis. Pedregon, the defending NHRA POWERade Series world champion, earned his after suffering a massive explosion at the season-opener in Pomona and Worsham's ended a two-year winless stint.
Dixon has felt more pressure from multi-car teams in Top Fuel, where he remains the only single-entry winner. And although he came into the season confident, the early win gave his expectations a validating boost.
"I think it's going great," Dixon said. "Since Donnie Bender took over tuning at the start of 2006, every season we've progressed, so from that standpoint...I think we did OK in 2006 and did better in 2007, and we started out even better than that in 2008.
"When you have a sponsor change like we did this year, they had an awful lot of equity in the Funny Car program. It was a big move for them (changing from Funny Car to Top Fuel). That puts pressure on you -- you go into every event trying to win. But when you do win, and early like that, it takes some pressure off of you knowing you were at least able to win once during the season. Getting that first win out of the year early on I guess lets everyone know we can get it done. I'm just excited to see how it turns out, with a new year and new points system. We're just trying to be in the thick of it."
SCHEDULE: Pro qualifying sessions are scheduled for 3 and 5:30 p.m. on Friday, May 2. Qualifying continues at 11:30 and 2 p.m. on Saturday, May 3 and final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday, May 4.
TICKETS: Tickets are available for the O'Reilly NHRA Midwest Nationals. Call Gateway International Raceway at (866) 35-SPEED (357-7333), or check out www.gatewayraceway.com
ON TV: ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise two hours of qualifying highlights at 9 p.m. on Saturday, May 3. ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise NHRA Race Day, a 30-minute pre-race show, at 11 a.m. (ET) on Sunday, May 4. ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise the race beginning at 7 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, May 4.
LUCAS OIL SERIES: The O'Reilly NHRA Midwest Nationals also will feature competition in four 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 a.m. on May 2, with eliminations starting on May 3 at 8:30 a.m.