ETCHELLS LOOKS TO CELEBRATE THE FIFTH ANNIVERSARY OF HIS HISTORIC RUN WITH ANOTHER MAGIC WEEKEND IN TOPEKA Putnam, Conn., September 24, 1998 - It was precisely five years ago, on October 1, 1993, that the names Chuck Etchells and Heartland Park...
ETCHELLS LOOKS TO CELEBRATE THE FIFTH ANNIVERSARY OF HIS HISTORIC RUN WITH ANOTHER MAGIC WEEKEND IN TOPEKA
Putnam, Conn., September 24, 1998 - It was precisely five years ago, on October 1, 1993, that the names Chuck Etchells and Heartland Park Topeka were forever linked in the annals of the National Hot Rod Association's Winston Drag Racing Series. For on that day Chuck Etchells blasted through one of the biggest barriers in the history of the Funny Car division. By posting an elapsed time of 4.987 seconds during Friday's qualifying session at the Kansas quarter-mile, Etchells became the first "fuel coupe" to break into the four-second range. As the Kendall Oil/MaMa Rosa's Pizza/Superwinch Camaro Z28 pilot returns to the site of this tremendous achievement for next weekend's Part America Nationals, he looks for history to repeat itself and return to the Heartland Park winner's circle.
"To this point in time, that day absolutely remains the highlight of my racing career," reflected Etchells. "It is a milestone that can never be broken. The only accomplishment I think could surpass it would be winning the Winston championship. We haven't done that yet, but that's what we're working on going into Topeka!"
Taking a closer look back at Etchells' situation five years ago makes his achievement even more remarkable. For example, 1993 marked the team's first full year of competition on the NHRA circuit. The sponsorship budget under which they operated was extremely limited, amounting to less than half of their current support, even when adjusted for today's economy. New parts were a luxury not seen on the Etchells "flopper" that year, with the majority of their arsenal consisting of used pieces purchased from Top Fuel standout Joe Amato. Although many anticipated seeing a Funny Car make a four-second run that year, the man most expected to accomplish the feat first was John Force. In fact, Force was so confident that he not only convinced his sponsor to post a reward for the first person to record an elapsed time below five seconds, but also matched the figure with a donation of his own. Through it all, Etchells remained in the background, quietly matching his rival's performance.
"There was initially no reward for breaking into the fours," explained Etchells. "But John (Force) couldn't bear the thought of not having some sort of carrot out there for doing it. He had already gotten close, and had half-track numbers that showed he could get it done. That's when he convinced Castrol to put up the money, and they returned the challenge by having him cover half of it. In the meantime, I knew our car was fully capable. In fact, we had one run at Englishtown earlier that year where we ran a 5.01 after knocking the blower off at 1100 feet. I guess John and everybody else forgot about that one. When we ran the '. 98 at Topeka, our numbers up to half-track were identical to that other run. Who knows - if the fuse hadn't been too short, we might have run the 4 in New Jersey!"
Most competitors felt on October 1, 1993, that the five-second barrier would fall that day, as key conditions were in place. First, the event was being held at Heartland Park Topeka, which has long been one of the fastest tracks on the NHRA circuit. In addition, temperatures had remained cool, and were ideal for speed. The last variable would be the racecars. With veteran crew chief Tim "The General" Richards (who came over to the Etchells team from Amato's organization following the untimely death of pit boss Maynard Yingst earlier in the year) turning the wrenches, Etchells was among the few given a chance by the railbirds. Ironically, Force would have first shot, as he had drawn an earlier spot in the qualifying order. But his run was slowed by a brake malfunction, reducing him to a spectator, and hoping the mark would stand until his next attempt. This set the stage for Etchells, and he responded. 4.987 seconds later, his name was in the history books.
"There are two things I'll always remember about that day," stated Etchells. "First, in the opposite lane was Gary Bolger driving the Creasy family car. Gary, who's now retired, was probably one of the best drivers to ever sit in a Funny Car, but never received any real credit for it. I'll never forget his being in the other lane. The other memorable moment came after everything was over and we were back in our pits. Tim Richards was inside the trailer, tapping his foot and chuckling as only the General does. Then he said "I don't believe it, old blower number 32. That blower was never any good on Joe's car." When I asked him about it, he showed me how it was scored on the back of the case. Apparently, Tim had sold that blower to Maynard the year before, and that ended up being the one we ran on the car when we went 4.98!"
Crew chief Richards, who continues to work his magic on Etchells' machine in 1998, has his own recollections, and puts the accomplishment in perspective.
"Basically, we weren't trying to do it, but it was something we were fairly close to, and knew we could do. When the weather took a pretty good turn for the cool, everything fell in place. Force went out, and I knew there weren't too many other cars besides us who would have a shot at it. What I find most amazing is that five years later there still would not be sixteen cars to have run in the fours. If you had told me that back in 1993, I never would have believed it. That's a pretty strong statement on what we did, because I don't think you'd find that anywhere else."
The Etchells team returns to Topeka in 1998 on another mission, and looks for a repeat of the results from that weekend five years ago. Although there are no barriers to be broken, a return to the winner's circle would be just the ticket for Etchells pursuit of the Winston championship. With the number of races remaining dwindling, the Etchells crew realizes the time has come to mount their final charge. The performance is there, as evidenced by the last two races. It is their job to make sure to take advantage of it, from the first qualifying session through the final elimination round.
"Topeka has always been a good track for us, and we couldn't be coming back at a better time," said Etchells. "Right now we have a huge gorilla on our back, and we're looking to throw him off in a big way. We've had magic moments at Heartland Park before, and it's really important that we win the Parts America Nationals. For us to remain in the points battle, we have to make things happen in the next two races. With that in mind, I can't think of a better anniversary present that this Kendall Oil/MaMa Rosa's Pizza/Superwinch Camaro Z28 team could give ourselves than the winner's trophy!"