Big Florida event debuts bikes amid other drama
The Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., remains one of the NHRA's premier events. With the motorcycles making their season debut and big questions in the other three professional classes, it should be as fun as ever, writes Bill Stephens.
Although not a national event that compares with the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis or the Carquest Winternationals in Pomona, Calif., on the drag racing Richter scale, the AC Delco Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., is truly one of the NHRA's big prizes on the POWERade tour.
This weekend, the 38th running of one of the sport's oldest and most revered events will convene at Gainesville Raceway with the season's annual debut of the Pro Stock Motorcycle class providing one of the key story lines. But since the previous national event three weeks ago in Phoenix, there have been noteworthy developments throughout the other three professional classes, which will be rolling into Gainesville for their third national event of '07.
Here's a look ahead to some of those stories.
Tony Schumacher is winless. Doug Kalitta is winless. Brandon Bernstein is winless. And with last year's top three Top Fuel drivers looking at two shutouts to begin the 2007 season, who have been the biggest headline makers in the class so far?
Hot Rod Fuller and J.R. Todd.
Fuller leads the points after his second consecutive victory at the CSK Nationals in Phoenix. Todd, last year's rookie of the year, was the Pomona winner, but what will make him the focus of attention in Gainesville will be the absence of his veteran tuner, Jimmy Walsh, who was hired away by Kenny Bernstein after the Phoenix event to tune Bernstein's Monster Energy Dodge Funny Car.
Top Fuel is a class enveloped in the indecipherable. Why is four-time champion Schumacher such a nonfactor after two races, not unlike his 2006 start? Why is Kalitta failing to capitalize on Schumacher's tepid start when preseason pundits forecast that he and Tony would dominate the spotlight? And can Fuller maintain his steady performance with a team that is still without a long-term primary sponsor?
But this weekend, the aftershocks of Walsh's departure from Todd's precocious operation will be front and center. Funny Car owner/driver Jim Head will be offering tuning assistance for Todd, as will Johnny West, who was released by Bernstein before Walsh's hiring. Does all of this sound like a puzzle waiting to be solved?
Two races into 2007, it's hard to identify any discernable patterns in the Funny Car class. There have been two winners -- Gary Scelzi and Tony Pedregon -- and many of last year's primary players are off to lukewarm starts.
Of course, Kenny Bernstein's '07 start has been even cooler than lukewarm. Two straight DNQ's and a race car unwilling to respond to adjustments. That resulted in a major change to his tuning team, and with Jimmy Walsh now in charge, it's apparent that Bernstein will be looking for substantial improvement at the track where he first broke the 300-mph barrier in his Bud King dragster.
But one fascinating pattern has begun to take shape in the class, and it revolves around the searing performances of Robert Hight. In the first two races of the year, he has roared to the two quickest elapsed times in NHRA Funny Car history in his John Force Racing/AAA Mustang. Pedregon was credited with a new national elapsed time record in Phoenix, 4.659 seconds, but only because Hight was unable to back up the 4.636 he had run in qualifying to officially set the standard. All this after Hight's incredible, but also uncertified, 4.646 blast at the previous race in Pomona.
John Force and his daughter Ashley will continue to make waves in the media despite less than exceptional performances on the drag strip so far this year. Ron Capps has yet to show any real consistency, and Scelzi was off pace in Phoenix after his Pomona victory. Funny Car is still a class sorting itself out, but if atmospheric conditions are favorable in Gainesville this weekend, big horsepower might be the key to winning the Gators.
And if that's the case, Hight would appear to have the upper hand.
If you're looking for a wide-open free-for-all in this year's inaugural season for the NHRA's Countdown to Eight points system, Jason Line and Greg Anderson will need to feel some real heat, real soon. Kurt Johnson's unexpected victory in Phoenix was the product of a superior reaction time in the final round against Line. No driver was able to outrun the Team Summit duo in Phoenix, nor did anyone post better numbers than the current and former POWERade champions in Pomona.
A familiar picture.
Obviously, six other racers will fill out the Countdown qualifiers through the year's first 17 events, but to keep Line and Anderson from building up a tidal wave of momentum, Pro Stock as a class will have to start changing the performance barometer soon. That means a warning shot on the e.t. clocks will have to be fired by someone other than the two drivers of the Summit Racing Pontiac GTOs this weekend. And it's been a while since that's happened.
Pro Stock Motorcycle
Last year, the fast starts by three-time champion Angelle Sampey and U.S. Army/Schumacher Racing teammate Antron Brown gave early signs that the quest for parity in the bike class might have shifted away from the Harley-Davidsons and Buells and tilted more in favor of the venerable Suzuki nameplate.
That feeling was a bit premature.
By midseason, Andrew Hines had moved into the points lead on his "Screamin' Eagle" Harley V-Rod, and championship No. 3 was soon in hand. So, as we begin the 2007 PSM season, the operative question is will it be another title season for the American brands?
The Gainesville entry list is populated by H-D or Buell-built hardware, but they are still outnumbered by teams campaigning Suzukis. All of last year's major players are back, and a host of newcomers will be making NHRA debuts, not the least of which is Ed Krawiec, who fills the seat at Vance & Hines Racing vacated by GT Tonglet, Hines' former teammate.
H-D vs. Buell vs. Suzuki. Reigning champs vs. former champs. Veterans vs. rookies. All the ingredients are there for a piping-hot battle for the 2007 POWERade championship. Predictions are essentially moot as the first event of the bike season gets down to business this weekend.
The fun is just beginning.
Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.
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