Schumacher claims seventh Indy win
With his seventh Top Fuel victory at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, Tony Schumacher also broke two of his own class records – most consecutive victories and most wins in a season – with a sixth straight and 11th overall and tied legendary Top Fuel racer Joe Amato as the class' most prolific winner with 52 career titles. Schumacher defeated Doug Kalitta to bring a dramatic end to the 54th annual Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at O'Reilly Raceway Park at Indianapolis. Robert Hight in Funny Car, Dave Connolly in Pro Stock, and Steve Johnson in Pro Stock Motorcycle each won drag racing's most prestigious event for the second time in their respective careers. Hight defeated Jack Beckman, Connolly took out Larry Morgan, and Johnson aced Andrew Hines.
The results of the event also set the final points standings for the Countdown to 1 playoffs, which will begin in two weeks in Charlotte and comprise the final six events of the season. Schumacher, Tim Wilkerson, Greg Anderson, and Matt Smith have the top seeds for the playoffs.
With the top seed in the Countdown to 1 long ago locked up, one might have thought that Schumacher didn't have much at stake, but the five-time NHRA POWERade world champ had plenty of motivation with records and pride at stake, and he drove it home with an exclamation point in the final, besting Kalitta easily, 3.91, 309.13 to 4.03, 299.86.
"I had to focus and be a machine because I was given a great race car," said Schumacher, who has won eight of the last nine events on the schedule. "We knew had a car that could go down a hot racetrack, and so it puts a lot of pressure on the driver, but you just have to suck it up. Then you get down to the final, and it's down to where you’re one four-second push of the throttle away from setting all those records, and you've only got one shot to do it; it's very intense. To set all of those records and do it while winning Indy is almost too much; you tend to lose track of the fact that you just won Indy.
"We struggled the first two days but there was no doubt Alan [Johnson, crew chief] was going to figure it out. We've done that a lot when we come to Indy; we struggle at the beginning, and then the track comes around. But we weren't a tenth of a second ahead of anybody today, so we had to limit our mistakes and make it difficult on those guys."
Schumacher reached his seventh straight (and eighth overall) Indy final and the 83rd of his dazzling career with a series of back-breaking passes and had low e.t of every round. After beating Bob Vandergriff Jr. in round one, Schumacher tied another of his records with his 22nd straight round-win by putting away Hillary Will, then defeated his teammate, two-time Indy winner Cory McClenathan, who red-lighted in the semifinals. Schumacher entered the final round with an unblemished 4-0 record against Kalitta this season.
Kalitta didn’t have a bad event considering he entered Indy not even sure he would make it into the Countdown to 1. The pressure eased somewhat after Morgan Lucas' DNQ locked Kalitta into the playoffs, but he no doubt was eager to erase the memories of a disappointing season in which he had won just 10 rounds in one fell swoop and do it in front of his sponsor and the event sponsor, Mac Tools. Kalitta raced his Oberhofer brothers-tuned rail past J.R. Todd in round one, then defeated Brandon Bernstein in a second-round pedalfest, 5.44 to 6.47. Kalitta then dispatched former Indy Pro Stock Motorcycle winner and tool-sponsor rival Antron Brown's Matco dragster, which smoked the tires in the semi's, to reach his 55th career final.
With 13 final-round appearances this season and 55 round-wins on his tally sheet, Schumacher now has his sights set on the remaining two records he does not yet own: Most final rounds in a season (14, by Larry Dixon, in 2002) and most rounds in a season (61, by Kenny Bernstein, in 2001).
Hight, winner of the U.S. Nationals in 2006 and runner-up last year, reached his third straight final round at the Big Go and won it for the second time with his Jimmy Prock-tuned Automobile Club of Southern California Mustang. Beckman gave it a valiant try in the final and was leading early, but lost any chance when his mount went up in smoke at about 600 feet. Hight, who experienced top-end woes of his own, collected his 11th career win, 4.31, 283.85 to Beckman's 4.43, 254.04.
“It’s been a weird, weird weekend,” said Hight. "We started out real good with my car on Friday. We clinched the No. 1 spot that day, then we proceeded to make five runs in a row that it smoked the tires at about the same spot, and that includes the first round. After the first round, I wouldn’t have bet on my team for nothing. Different things just kept biting us, and we would smoke the tires for a different reason. they kept giving us chances, and when you give Jimmy Prock enough chances, he’s going to fix it.
“When John [Force] came down to the other end after I won, he said, ‘You saved me.’ It’s tough because he’s not a good spectator. I feel bad when he’s not out there because it kills him. You can see why he’s a 14-time world champion: He loves this more than anything else, and he lives it, and this is all he really knows, so seeing him out today was tough. We’re all going to go test this week up in Michigan because, even though I won this race, I’m not real stellar right now, and we have this Countdown starting, and that’s our goal from here on out.”
After escaping a tire-smoking fate in round one when opponent Frank Hawley encountered ignition problems, Hight defeated teammate Mike Neff, 4.19 to 4.20, and the beat tire-smoking points leader Tim Wilkerson in the semifinals with a 4.35 after his engine soured on the top end.
Beckman, winner two weeks earlier in Reading, reached his third straight final round and the 10th of his career in flawless fashion with Don Schumacher's Valvoline/Mail Terminal Services Dodge, easing past troubled opponents Ashley Force, NHRA U.S. Smokless Showdown winner Cruz Pedregon, and Melanie Troxel, all of whom smoked the tires. His 4.25 semifinal victory over Troxel prevented her from becoming the first female Funny Car racer to reach the Indy final and earned Beckman lane choice over Hight.
Connolly won his second straight U.S. Nationals Pro Stock title and denied Morgan his third by driving around Morgan's better leave yet won going away. Morgan got the better light, .031 to .044, but Connolly ran him down to win his 20th Pro Stock Wally, 6.743, 206.04 to 6.797, 204.70.
"Words can't even explain the feeling of winning Indy back-to-back," said Connolly. "It's incredible. It was just our day to be honest with you. We didn't make the best of runs, but thanks to the man up there, we picked up this win . We missed the first five races of the year, and then we came back, and things are just clicking. I have the same great team I did last year, and we're like a big family. The team chemistry is there, and I think that's the key to our whole team, getting along and having faith in the guys we have. Cagnazzi has done an excellent job, down to the in-house chassis program and the engine program, everything's just well in place, and I'm the lucky guy who gets to let the clutch out on Sunday.
Connolly, who began the season five races late and faced an uphill climb to the make the top 10 for a berth in the Countdown to 1 playoffs, reached his sixth final round in the last 12 races and in the process climbed to sixth place in the regular season's final standings. Connolly guided his Charter Communications Cobalt past Warren Johnson – eliminating "the Professor" from playoff contention and sealing Greg Stanfield's invitation to the Countdown to 1 – low qualifier Allen Johnson's Dodge, and, in a crucial semifinal match, Kurt Johnson on a 6.72 to 6.71 holeshot. Had K.J. defeated Connolly, he would have passed Greg Anderson and assumed the points lead.
"I [almost gave] up that final round," admiited Connolly. "I was .040, and I knew when I let the clutch out I was late. The bracket racer came out in me, and I kept looking over to the left because I knew I was late on the Tree and the car blew the tires off, so I kept looking over there, but I didn't see that Dodge stick its nose out. When that win light came on, I was shocked. We made a huge gain in the last four races getting to four finals, and I'm excited to be in sixth position. I was looking to be in the top 10 and to get those extra points, those important points can be useful. We have a long stretch ahead of us, and we think we have a shot."
Morgan was gunning to become the 29th driver to win the U.S. Nationals at least three times, having won it previously in Super Stock, in 1984, and Pro Stock, in 1989. Morgan reached his 31st career Pro Stock final and 40th overall by racing his Lucas Oil Stratus to holeshot wins in two of three rounds, beating Jason Line, 6.71 to 6.66, in round one and Mike Edwards, 6.73 to 6.72, in the semifinals, sandwiching those victories around a second-round conquest of rookie Rickie Jones.
In what was a stunning result, Johnson got left at the Tree by Hines' clutch .009 to .030 holeshot but had the power to run down the vaunted Harley rider's machine in the lights to win by just .008-second, 7.034, 189.79 to 7.063, 187.63, for his second Indy crown. Three years ago, Johnson didn't get to celebrate his big win on Labor Day as an electronics glitch initially gave the win to Matt Smith. The decision was reversed the next day, and Johnson got to celebrate belatedly and not in front of the throngs of Indy fans.
"I don't win many races, so to say that I've won Indy twice is pretty special. I've also won Gainesville, which is like the Coca-Cola 600 in NASCAR, and obviously Indy is our Daytona 500. When I won this race the first time, there was no love, but I still sign all my e-mails with 'Steve Johnson, U.S. Nationals champion.' That's how important this deal is.
"All I did today was my job. I let go of the clutch and kept the bike straight. My light sucked, but it was good enough to win Indy. I never saw Andrew, but I guess they missed the tune-up, that's all."
Johnson, who won the U.S. Nationals in 2005, reached his 13th career final and second this season aboard his Mark Peiser-tuned Snap-on/WyoTech Suzuki by racing from the No. 5 spot past red-lighting Joe DeSantis, Gatornationals champ Matt Guidera, and defending Indy champ Craig Treble and earned lane choice for the final round by a hundredth of a second with his 7.10 clocking against Treble's 7.17.
Despite 15 career wins, 26 previous final-round appearances, and three world championships, Hines had never been to the final round of the U.S. Nationals but cleared that blemish by beating two of the field's four qualified females, Peggy Llewellyn and Angie McBride, then took down upset-minded Mike Berry in the semifinals, 7.11 to 7.20. His first Indy win, however, will have to wait for another year.
By winning his first-round match against Michael Phillips, Matt Smith, who fell in round two to Treble, clinched the top seed in the Countdown to 1.
Lucas Oil Sportsman titles went to Bill Reichert (Top Alcohol Dragster) and Steve Cohen (Super Comp), each of whom won the U.S. Nationals for a second time, as well as Von Smith (Top Alcohol Funny Car), Doug Engels (Comp), Bob Dennis (Super Stock), Mitch Truman (Stock), Mike Ruff (Super Gas), and Mike Castellana (Pro Mod).