TOPEKA, Kan. (May 23) -- With two national events behind the wheel of the NHRA's newest Pro Stock Pontiac Grand Am under his safety belts, veteran driver Mike Thomas believes he is closing in on a championship tune-up that will return him to his...
TOPEKA, Kan. (May 23) -- With two national events behind the wheel of the NHRA's newest Pro Stock Pontiac Grand Am under his safety belts, veteran driver Mike Thomas believes he is closing in on a championship tune-up that will return him to his rightful place amongst the sport's elite. He'll know just how far he and his award-winning Finish Line Racing Engines crew has come this weekend during the 13th annual running of the Advance Auto Parts NHRA Nationals at Heartland Park Topeka.
A 15-time winner in NHRA competition, Thomas finds himself trailing the lead pack in the extremely competitive Pro Stock category after he was forced to run the first six races of the season in a backup car. The predicament was unavoidable after a freak testing accident shelved the first 2001 model car he unveiled in early January.
Now the 48-year-old from Knoxville, Tenn., is playing catch-up as the season continues at its torrid pace with virtually no data on his new Don Ness Racecraft-built car.
"This season was going to be tough enough with the switch to the new body styles," Thomas said. "But trying to catch up in the middle of a stretch where we have six races in seven weeks is a real challenge. Still, this is what we have to deal with so we'll continue working towards closing the gap on the front-runners."
As most of the teams with new cars have discovered, the longer wheelbase and sleeker designs of the 2001 models call for drastically different set-ups throughout the racecars. Additionally, a new traction compound employed this year by NHRA track preparation specialists have made the surfaces of even the trickiest racetracks completely different from what they've been in the past, regardless of the weather conditions.
"The NHRA is definitely preparing the tracks differently," Thomas said. "We've always fought to find traction for these cars (which produce over 1,300 horsepower). Now, the data we're gathering is telling us the tracks are almost too tacky, especially down-track. The last run we made in Englishtown (N.J.) we were absolutely glued to the track. We're now looking for ways to free the car up just a little bit so we can properly apply all of the horsepower we're making to the track's surface.
"The weather looks good for this weekend. Even so, we'll have to hit it right Friday night to get in. The one-night-session format makes that round a do-or-die proposition."
Television networks ESPN and ESPN2 will carry several hours of the 13th annual Advance Auto Parts NHRA Nationals. Qualifying highlights will air from 5:30-7 p.m. ET, Saturday, on ESPN2. The elimination rounds will be broadcast from 3:30-6 p.m. ET, Sunday, on ESPN, with a rebroadcast from 1-3 p.m., Friday, June 1, on ESPN2.