- Bill Stephens
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NORWALK, Ohio -- One week following the tragic death of Scott Kalitta during Funny Car qualifying in Englishtown, N.J., the NHRA POWERade drag racing series traveled to Norwalk, Ohio, for the second Summit Racing Equipment Nationals at Summit Racing Equipment Motorsports Park.
It was hoped that getting back into the flow of the next national event would hasten the healing process and create the kind of competitive distractions that help racers tighten their focus on the job at hand.
Norwalk more than delivered. Take these examples:
Water beneath the racetrack seeped upward onto the racing surface on Friday, causing delays and finally a postponement of the professional qualifying sessions, which had been partially completed.
Two Funny Car drivers were disqualified from the event on Friday -- an extreme rarity in the NHRA -- after the cars of Gary Scelzi and Melanie Troxel were found to have illegally secured ballast.
In the 24th K&N Horsepower Challenge for Pro Stock, which was held as part of Saturday's qualifying program, points leader, No. 1 seed and heavy favorite Greg Anderson was beaten by Alan Johnson -- winless in 2008 -- in the $50,000 final round on a holeshot by virtue of Johnson's perfect (.000) reaction time.
Pro Stock Motorcycle was won by a racer who had never before won an NHRA national event -- after 18 years of trying.
Following last week's emotionally draining accident that claimed Kalitta's life, Top Fuel's Doug Herbert, whose two young sons were killed in a traffic accident shortly before the 2008 season, won the race on Sunday, beating Brandon Bernstein in the final on a holeshot -- the second consecutive final round Bernstein has lost in that manner.
And thus Herbert made his first appearance in an NHRA winner's circle since his victory in Reading, Pa., last year. To do so in the aftermath of Kalitta's death as Herbert pursues his first POWERade championship in the middle of his "For My Boys" campaign brought added drama and meaning to his Norwalk performance.
"We call this season the For My Boys Tour, and today I really felt like I had Jon and James riding with me in the car," said Herbert, whose outstanding .018-second reaction time and run of 4.636 seconds at 311.70 mph nipped Bernstein's quicker and faster 4.611/313.58.
"We lost one of our heroes last weekend when we lost Scott Kalitta, and I can't help but think that maybe he was up there with Jon and James pulling for us along with my old friend Billy Williams [the late Pro Comp racer], whose wife Dianne was at the races today with us.
"We said at the beginning of the year we plan on winning the championship in their honor, and today we took one more step in that direction."
For Bernstein, the second straight holeshot loss in a Top Fuel final round might have been much more demoralizing had it not come at the hands of Herbert. When Bernstein climbed from his dragster at the top end of the track, he immediately walked to Herbert and greeted him with a congratulatory embrace.
Funny Car's winner in Norwalk was another driver who has battled through his own episodes of adversity in 2008: reigning champion Tony Pedregon. Twice this year, he has been victimized by frightening explosions that heavily damaged his Q-Horsepower Chevrolet. But this weekend, the two-time champion battled past points leader Tim Wilkerson, Jim Head and Ron Capps -- and John Force Racing's Robert Hight in the final round -- to win his third race of '08 and move to second in the Countdown standings.
In the payoff round, Pedregon used a 4.882/306.26 to trip up Hight's 4.903/304.74.
"We knew we had a tough opponent in the final round -- it always is anytime you race a Force car -- and my crew chief [Dickie Venables] really nailed it for the conditions," Pedregon said. "We expected a tough race, and they were right there. Just to reach the winner's circle at any race is good, but this one puts us right back in the game, and I think every race from this point on is going to be very important.
"I am dedicating this win to Scott's kids and his wife. I think it's important that everyone out here wants them to know we care about them. I think the time coming up we'll use to regroup and heal, and we'll never forget him."
Anderson missed the $50,000 winner's share in the K&N Horsepower Challenge on Saturday but wasn't about to miss the national event honors in Pro Stock at his sponsor's race, at a venue bearing his sponsor's name. One week after his win in Englishtown, the three-time champion was on his game again on Sunday, hauling down Mike Edwards, teammate Jason Line, Greg Stanfield and Larry Morgan on his way to his category-leading fourth win of the season as he continues to lead the points.
Morgan left too soon against Anderson in the final, fouling out and missing out on his first win of 2008.
"We got 'er done and made amends for last night [when he finished runner-up in the K&N Horsepower Challenge] and racked up some precious POWERade points and got a little bit of money to go with it and probably made our sponsor fairly happy, too," said Anderson
. He added that he would love to have the No. 1 spot heading into the Countdown to 1 after the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals on Labor Day weekend. "It's worth 20 points. That's really the goal. We haven't done too well up until the last couple of weekends. We've got a great race team, and we've kind of been getting shown the way home this year, but it looks like we're making a recovery."
Hector "The Hammer" Arana debuted in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis in 1990. Since then, he has entered at least one race in every successive NHRA season for the past 18 years. He had advanced to only two final rounds during his lengthy career -- both coming in 1997 -- before finally achieving his dream of scoring a national event title on Sunday, defeating Craig Treble in the final round, 7.027/187.60 to 7.061/187.83.
Arana dropped reigning champion Matt Smith, No. 1 qualifier Ed Krawiec and Gainesville winner Matt Guidera in the other three rounds of eliminations.
"I have to thank Forrest and Charlotte Lucas [Arana is sponsored by Lucas Oil] for believing in me and believing I could do this job," Arana said. "I never gave up, and my crew guys never gave up, and I've met a lot of wonderful people who have given me a hand over the year and never stopped trusting in me, and I'm glad I was able to do it.
"It's an awesome, awesome feeling, and it hasn't sunk in yet, but it feels great to accomplish what I've been working for all these years."
And he accomplished it at a national event that will be remembered for at least as many years.
Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN.com.
For a sport still in mourning over the death of Scott Kalitta, the NHRA event at Norwalk, Ohio, put the focus back on the track. And what a memorable event it was, writes Bill Stephens.