Schumacher, Hight, W.J., Phillips win at Midwest Nationals
Tony Schumacher, Robert Hight, Warren Johnson, and Michael Phillips collected wins at the AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals after a wild and wacky day of final eliminations at Gateway Int’l Raceway. It was Johnson’s first Pro Stock win in more than four years.
The seventh stop of the 23-race NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series was packed with upsets in both Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle and a busy day for Jeg Coughlin, who reached the final in both Pro Stock and Top Dragster. Coughlin was shooting for both his 50th career Pro Stock win and to become the first driver since Pat Austin in 1992 to win in both a Pro and Sportsman class at the same event; Austin accomplished the rare feat in Topeka in 1991 and in Phoenix in 1992, winning both in Top Fuel and Top Alcohol Funny Car.
Coughlin, at the wheel of brother John’s JEGS dragster, completed the first leg of his impressive quest by winning the Top Dragster final. Coughlin left little room for Mallori McCullar-Rodgers, cutting a .010 light and running a 6.600 -- dead-on his dial – to force her to break out. It was Coughlin’s second Top Dragster win, on the heels of a win four years ago at the 2006 JEGS Cajun SPORTSnationals, and the 63rd of his career, but his milestone 50th Pro Stock win would have to wait as Coughlin’s Pro Stocker stunningly broke a rocker arm just off the line in the Pro Stock final against Johnson, who collected career win No. 97.
Johnson, the winningest driver in Pro Stock history, hadn’t been to a final round in almost three years -- since the 2007 event in his Atlanta hometown – and hadn’t been to the winner’s circle in more than four – since the 2006 Phoenix event – and worked his way to the final round, the 151st of his career, in bizarre fashion. Not noted of late as a great starting-line driver, W.J. nonetheless beat Ron Krisher on a 6.68 to 6.66 holeshot in round one then got past trouble-plagued Allen Johnson in round two with a 6.69 to earn a semifinal date with the untouchable points leader, Mike Edwards, who had run 6.62 (low e.t. of the meet at the time) and 6.63 in the first two frames. Edwards’ Penhall Pontiac, however, would not fire for their semifinal duel, and a grateful Johnson soloed to the final round with a 6.66.
"Everybody I raced did something wrong and I was just cruising," said Johnson who had just one round-win in six previous races this season. "I've had a few strokes of luck once in a while before but never three times in a row. That's phenomenal. I guess I woke up on the right side of the bed this morning.
"I still realize that we're not where we want to be, performance-wise. We're down four or five hundredths, but we can fix that. Other racers have stepped up, but sooner or later we'll get back on top. I had to rely on luck and other people's mistakes. We'll still take it. There is no such thing as a bad win."
Independent of his sizzling five-round winning performance in Top Dragster, Coughlin’s JEGS Cobalt ran a steadily-improving string of runs, beating Erica Enders with a 6.66, Greg Anderson with a 6.63, and Greg Stanfield with a 6.607, low e.t. of the meet, in the semifinals to reach his 79th Pro Stock final and his second of the year following his victory in Houston as the prohibitive favorite against Johnson. Coughlin’s former teammate, Dave Connolly, was the last driver to come close to winning in both divisions, scoring a win in Super Comp and a runner-up in Pro Stock in Seattle in 2004.
The Top Fuel final featured a pair of second-generation drivers in Schumacher and Doug Kalitta who’ve spent their entire great careers in the class, but the win went easily to Schumacher, 3.84 to 4.04, to pull the reigning season champ to within 92 markers of the points lead.
"I was talking with Mike [Green, crew chief] in the lounge today and he said, 'Every time we back it down, we get in trouble.' He went for it and made some nice runs,” said Schumacher. “If you look back, a lot of these races are won in the second round and semifinals by putting up a stout run and keeping lane choice in the late rounds.
“We got beat in some really good races this year. It seems like our biggest hurdle is in the second round and we do pretty well after that. This was a great win. We outperformed everybody we raced and got a lucky break against Pat [Dakin, against whom he hazed the tires].”
It was a get-well weekend for defending world champ Schumacher, who entered the event languishing in fifth place with just one prior final-round appearance – a win in Gainesville – to his credit this season. “The Sarge” got the U.S. Army dragster back to the final – the 97th of his career – by defeating Scott Palmer, Dakin, and arch-rival Larry Dixon. In what was the 62nd meeting between the two world champs, Schumacher won for the 34th time and reached the final on the strength of a 3.86 to 3.93 conquest.
Kalitta reached his fourth final of the season and the 62nd of his career by wheeling the special-edition Rocky Boots dragster to early victories over Steve Torrence and Antron Brown – Brown had upset low qualifier Cory McClenathan in round one – then ending Brandon Bernstein’s second straight semifinal outing in the Copart dragster with a 3.92 that was punctuated by an engine-consuming fireball, making plenty of work for Kalitta Motorsports team prior to the final.
Hight, whose first Funny Car championship defense had gotten off to a tough start with just four round-wins in the first six events, picked a great event – one sponsored by the parent of his sponsor, the Automobile Club, to turn it around. Hight defeated Beckman for the Wally, the 15th of his career, on a 4.14 to 4.20 count and now sits sixth in points.
“It’s been an unbelievable week,” said Hight, who also threw out the first pitch Wednesday night before the Cardinals vs. Braves game at Busch Stadium. “The timing for this was perfect. I wanted to come here and win and give a trophy to the folks at AAA of Missouri. They have supported us all along but I’ve never had much luck here.
“We’re starting to turn it around. We’re not that far off. John [Force] has been killing them and we duplicated his car. Actually he duplicated mine. We just had a lot of little things go wrong. We stayed here real late last night and went back to our old combination from two three years ago and it worked.”
Hight’s Automobile Club of Southern California Mustang zipped past Dale Creasy Jr., boss John Force, and Ron Capps with a improving sting of 4.23, 4.16, and 4.15 to reach the final, the 27th of his career.
Beckman, a winner earlier this year in Phoenix with the Valvoline/MTS Charger, got back to the final, the 19th of his Funny Car career, by trailering Tony Pedregon, homestate favorite Tim Wilkerson, and Gainesville runner-up Bob Tasca III with a trio of 4.2-second passes. Beckman now sits in third place but could have gone to second with a final-round win.
After a day of upsets, the Pro Stock Motorcycle final pitted Phillips against first-time finalist LE Tonglet, but it was Phillips who collected career win No. 4, using a 6.92 to drive around Tonglet’s clutch .001 reaction time and 7.00 in what was the first all-Suzuki final round since the 2006 Reading event.
“It is my best performance," said Phillips. "Rodger [Brogdon] bought me a new engine and that’s big. On the first couple of runs I didn’t get a handle on it. Craig Treble sent me a clutch but I wasn’t going to use it but after I made a couple runs in qualifying, I decided to put it in. After a couple of passes I got it tuned.
“LE’s motorcycle is my old bike. That’s the one that Eddie Murphy rode. I told him I can’t let you beat me on my old piece. That kid didn’t cut me any slack. He’s a good rider and he’s gonna be tough. Now that the Suzuki guys have bigger engines, it’s going to be real competitive this year. It’s not just going to be the V-Rods and the Buell’s. Now, we can all make a statement.”
Phillips wheeled his The Racers Edge Suzuki to his 10th career final and his second of the year – he finished third in the Four-Wide Nationals final but, as such, did not receive runner-up status – by racing past David Hope and former world champs Matt Smith and Eddie Krawiec with runs of 6.98, 6.97, and a 6.94 that earned his final-round lane choice against Tonglet. NHRA.com