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The latest update as of February 12, 2017
Final eliminations at the 57th annual NHRA Circle K Winternationals
After three days of in-and-out weather, the Southern California Chamber of Commerce worked it's usual magic for eliminations day at the Winternats, with beautiful sunny skies, warm temperatures and some seriously competitive racing in all categories. With a live television broadcast scheduled to start at 1:00 pm (PST) on the FOX Network, sportsman eliminations started at 9:30 with the pros waiting in the wings until the traditional 11:00 am kickoff.
That first competition round of the 2017 season produced only one remotely close match in Top Fuel (Shawn Reed vs Troy Coughlin) and what may become a regular event: a bye run for the low qualifier. The e.t.'s for the eight winners were closely bunched between Doug Kalitta's 3.69 and Steve Torrence's 3.75, giving hope for a much more competitive quarter-final round. Things were no better for the fuel funny cars as the closest encounter of the round saw Del Worsham pound Robert Hight by more than a quarter of a second. With six cars in the 3-second zone, the second round looked like a better bet for some side by side competition.
Pro Stock, despite it's lack of excitement - even after all the well promoted rules changes --- to be continued later today
The latest update as of February 11, 2017
Day Three of Qualifying goes off with... only a few hitches
While the day dawned with no further rain, the track drying process was long and tedious, dealing with the overnight accumulation on Parker Avenue, the infamous "weepers" on the top end, and the cool, cloudy weather, all working against the track crew. The scheduled 8:15 am start time morphed into a nearly noon race start, as the drying operation was briefly halted by a short, intense shower at 10:00 am, with the track nearly ready to rock at that point.
With that setback handled, the inevitable condensation of the schedule occurred, and the usual suspects found themselves on the chopping block: Top Alcohol and Comp Eliminator. With the Comp field seriously short of competitors (only 12 entries), and no alternates for either of the Alky fields, NHRA's decision to dispense with the final qualifying sessions for the three categories, and proceed directly to eliminations in the afternoon, was easy.
The professional qualifying sessions scheduled for 1:00 and 4:00 went off like clockwork, with minimal downtime and no further weather-related delays. The oildowns that keep happening, despite the best efforts of NHRA and the racers to eliminate them, occurred several times as the fuel cars went through their paces. The first qualifying round of the day, number three, produced two infractions each in Funny Car and Top Fuel.
The culprits ranged from the bottom-dwelling Terry Haddock, and part-timer Gary Densham, to world champions Matt Hagan and Tony Schumacher. Not the most auspicious season starts for those aforementioned frontrunners, but business as usual for the strugglers. It is to be noted that just one incident of "debris or foreign matter" deposited on the racing surface took place on Friday, that being the BIG explosion by Bob Bode that left a trail of trash from well past the finish line to the last turnout.
Both fields of fuel cars were lacking a surfeit of entries, with Top Fuel featuring just 15 cars for the 16-car ladder, and Funny Car having two alternates; Jeff Arend and Gary Densham, to keep up the appearance of a competitive field. Pro Stock fared no better, with just a single alternate and the bottom three qualified cars well off the pace.
The same lack of close competition prevailed in the fuel fields, as the top 12 cars in each category were relatively closely bunched, with the bottom quarter of the field well off the pace, and not showing any possibility of quantum performance leaps on race day. With few serious prospects waiting in the wings for the traditional East Coast kickoff to the season at the Gatornationals next month, it could be another year of short fields and a shrinking lack of competition until the second round of eliminations at most races.
As qualifying drew to a close in the late afternoon, the #1 qualifier in Top Fuel, Leah Pritchett, put down a very strong 3.672 for her career quickest pass, and the 3rd quickest in Top Fuel history. That run overshadowed the strong performances of Doug Kalitta, who ran a 3.697 on Friday, an even quicker 3.686 earlier on Saturday, and a strong 3.693 in the last pair of qualifying to slot into 2nd place behind Pritchett.
In Funny Car, the 2016 World Champion, Matt Hagan, put down a 3.840 at 330 mph on Friday, then bettered it by recording an ET and speed identical to his national record holding times - to the thousandth of a second and hundredth of a mile per hour - with an awesome qualifying closing 3.822 at 335.57 pass as dusk descended on Saturday afternoon.
After a full season of the new rules package in Pro Stock, with the mandated change to wheelie bars, the switchover to electronic fuel injection (from 20th-century carburetors), and rev-limiters, bigger and better things were expected from the factory hot rods in 2017. After a test session in Phoenix last week and two days of qualifying at Pomona, the consensus from this vantage point is that not much has changed or seriously improved.
The Elite Motorsport team made the biggest off-season moves, with the cessation of their Mopar sponsorship (and Allen Johnson must still be chuckling/fuming about that development) and the ditching of their Dodges in favour of the brand they've had success with for many years, Chevrolet.
Both Erica Enders and Jeg Coughlin showed the change was paying dividends with top half (#6 and #7 respectively) qualifying positions. However, at the top of the heap, as always - or almost always - was the KB racing team of Jason (#1) Line and Greg (#2) Anderson, both just a couple of hundredths ahead of the next racers on the ladder. And those seemingly minute differences are what show up as a bumper-width victory at the finish line in Pro Stock competition.
The only appearance of the Top Alcohol cars on Saturday was for the first round of eliminations, slotted in between the professional qualifying sessions. Leading off were the Funny Cars and the fast West Coast cars of Shane Westerfield, with a winning pass of 5.457 at 270 mph, John Lombardo Jr., winning with a 5.47, also at 270 mph, and Doug Gordon, also at 5.47 and 270, set the pace in the opening stanza.
The other standout joining them in the quarter-final round was 2016 World Champion, Sweden's Jonnie Lindberg, carding the second quickest e.t. of the round at 5.458. In an interesting turn of events, Lindberg was competing in Jay Payne's TAFC, with his own car apparently parked, and his new ride, Jim Head's fuel flopper, waiting to debut at the Gatornationals.
And why would Lindberg be in Payne's car? The first reason reported was due to Payne's lingering shoulder injury, but Competition Plus reported today that Jay has been served an indefinite suspension of his competition privileges due to a number of "on-track incidents" in the recent past (possibly in his Pro Mod?). There's got to be more to this story than has been reported so far, and I'm sure we'll read all about it soon enough.
Getting back to on-track action, Canada's quickest (by a bunch) Blown Alcohol racer, Surrey's Shawn Cowie, showed his number one qualifying, and career best, 5.241 wasn't a fluke, by laying down a very solid 5.287 to take out Canada's quickest and FASTEST (285.83 mph) Injected Nitro racer, Edmonton's Don St. Arnaud.
Overshadowing that performance was THE quickest blown alky racer in the world, Oregon's Joey Severance, with a new low e.t. of the meet, a 5.236 to blitz Bill Litton's solid 5.31 effort. Also staying in the hunt was Garrett Bateman with a 5.288, while perennial blown contender, Chris Demke, redlighted away his chances. Going into the second round tomorrow, the eight remaining cars feature three blown and five injected entries, with the two quickest being of the supercharged persuasion.
And that's the Pomona report for Saturday. Next update will be tomorrow evening after (hopefully the weather gremlins have left town) a full day of eliminations at the LA County Fairplex.
The latest update as of February 10, 2017
And we're off to the races.... until the weather intervenes
8:30 PM (Pacific Time)
Day Two of the season-opening Circle K NHRA Winternationals was running smoothly until the weather window slammed shut just before 5:00 pm, halfway through the second qualifying session of Nitro Funny Car. With a handful of floppers and a full contingent of Top Fuel cars still waiting in the staging lanes, the decision to call it a day was made amid continuing rain showers and an increasingly marginal track temperature. An ominous sidenote to the official announcement was the sub-head of "Tomorrow Is Questionable".
A quick check of the Weather Network forecast for Pomona indicated a 40% POP (probability of precipitation) from dawn to dusk tomorrow, accompanied by temps that won't exceed 60 F during the day. Not exactly conditions conducive to harnessing the energy generated by very high-horsepower cars at the venerable Parker Avenue/LA Fairplex facility. And haven't we seen this scenario play out so many times over the 57 years that the event has been running?
The first time I attended the Winternationals, we had to endure near blizzard conditions all the way through southern Oregon and northern California, before hitting a major roadblock (snow-block) at the "Grapevine" leading into southern California. A nearly 200-mile detour out to the Pacific Coast and down through Santa Barbara eventually got us to the race on opening day. But the weather didn't let up entirely all weekend as unseasonably cold temperatures and intermittent rain made the entire event a very hard slog indeed.
This year's event might be another of those patience and endurance testing ordeals but we've seen marginal weather forecasts magically turn into decent and even stellar performance conditions more than a few times. Based on the numbers posted in all the classes so far, that could very well be the case again this year. But if the weather doesn't cooperate tomorrow, then Sunday's eliminations could be a real crapshoot with very little data for the tuners to work with at the beginning of the season.
With barely full fields in all the major categories, almost every racer in the pits will get to the first round, except for one unlucky Pro Stocker and two Fuel Funny Car racers. One of the well-sponsored racers in the latter cateogry, Cruz Pedregon, is currently outside the field with the distinct possibility of no more chances to get into the sweet sixteen. Over in Top Fuel, perennial hard-trier Terry Haddock was a no-show in the first, and only, qualifying session of the day. Not being ready to run in that opening session might well prove to be a $10,000 lesson for Mr. Haddock if the weather doesn't improve on Saturday.
There isn't enough time tonight to go through the qualifying performances but we'll be back at it in the morning and try to give our take on just who's running well and who isn't and what to expect for the balance of the event. Until then, a very big and heartfelt shout-out to Surrey BC's Shawn Cowie and the "Mundies Towing" team who sit atop the ladder in Top Alcohol Dragster with a career best 5.241 clocking in today's second qualifying session. Good on ya mates!
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