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The latest update as of January 30, 2011

The 2011 drag racing season is underway with the first IHRA event of the season finishing last night at Palm Beach International Raceway in south Florida. Concurrently with the IHRA (sportsman) racing, the first of nine NitroJam drag-racing flavoured entertainment specatcles was presented.

Yes, it looks like drag racing, with Top Fuel cars, nitro Funny Cars, injected nitro dragsters, even some Fuel Altereds, jet dragsters, jet funny cars, jet trucks and a wheelstander. But it's certainly not drag racing - at least in the traditional, open competition sense. In the continuing evolution of what was a professional drag racing sanctioning body (the IHRA) into a "strictly for entertainment purposes" promotion, the 2011 version of NitroJam began it's travelling roadshow at Palm Beach.

Differences in this year's offering are numerous, starting with the Top Fuel show. Downsizing from the four cars (and five or six at two events last year) to only two cars this season was the obvious change. At least the wide disparity in performance potential among the four cars that "competed" in 2010 has been removed, with Bobby Lagana Jr. and Bruce Litton providing the nitro-tainment this season. And they put on an excellent exhibition at Palm Beach, with seven of the eight runs in the 4-second zone and all being over 300 mph. Very impressive quarter-mile numbers for a season opener.

However, I came away from the weekend wondering just how long it's going to take Mr. Lagana and Mr. Litton to go stark raving mad from having to "race" each other four times an event for nine events this year - with no one else (except maybe in Edmonton or Grand Bend) to relieve the boredom of lining up against each other every pass. Will they end up resorting to fire-burnouts, high-speed chicken, or some other madness just to liven things up before the season ends?

While the IHRA portion of the show proceeded, with seven eliminator categories, plus three E.T. brackets, the other booked-in NitroJam classes appeared on the all-concrete stage at Palm Beach. Similarly to the downsized Top Fuel show for 2011, the Pro Fuel dragsters were reduced to a four-car exhibition this year, with last year's top dogs, Bill Evans and Michael Manners leading the way. Booked in to fill the "field" were last year's fourth place finisher in the "standings", Robin Samsel, and local racer Cherissa Smallwood.

Much like last season's performances, the A/Fuel - Pro Fuel cars had trouble laying down the big numbers they've been promising since the class began in the NitroJam format, with Manners turning the only 5.3 runs, including a best of 5.33, while Evans put up the big speed of the weekend, at 272 mph. Samsel and Smallwood brought up the rear with best efforts in the 5.6's. With the closest pairings being nearly a quarter second apart in performance and most "races" seeing one car smoke the tires and/or drop multiple cylinders, the show aspect was somewhat lacking.

Two new additions to the circus..... show (sorry, that was a cheap shot, but just too easy to resist) this season are the four, count 'em, four, Fuel Altereds and the Nitro Harleys. With some "brand names" in the altered portion of the show, namely "Pure Heaven", "Pure Hell", "Rat Trap" and "Super Nanook" in attendance, the wild and woolly short-wheelbase, nitro guzzlers from the annals of drag racing history certainly put on their expected show. Lots of wild, out-of-shape, tire-smoking pairings were the order of the weekend, and when the smoke cleared, Chris Bennett's "Pure Heaven" took home low e.t. and top speed at a very strong 5.93 and 235 mph. Not without a cost however, as three rods broke on that run and he was unable to come back for the final run on Saturday night and a weekend sweep.

The Harleys provided a total of five riders, with a local racer adding to the four-bike show, and they did produce some solid low 6-second passes with speeds as fast as 220 mph, but it's difficult to tell at this distance just how much impact the bikes had on the crowd. And speaking of crowd, just how many fans were in attendance at Palm Beach? Despite reports that the "place was packed on Friday night", the photos I've seen from the event indicate otherwise. In the background of shots of the Funny Cars and Top Fuel cars running, there appear to be an awful lot of empty seats near the starting line.

Saving the best for last, the nitro Funny Car show is off to a better start for 2011 than last year's version. Adding Paul Romine's "Man o' War" and Mark "Mr. Explosive" Sanders to the mix has upgraded the show substantially. And those two cars swept the show, with Sanders' Florida debut on Friday night being a winning one, while Romine took the honours on Saturday. Last year's series champion, Steve Nichols, was hardly a factor on either night, but Peter Gallen rocked the joint with his very quick and very fast, 5.72 at 250 mph on Saturday night.

Friday night's season opener saw John Dunn bang the blower on a burnout, and several cars leave a trail of oil and/or parts on the track, leading to some serious downtime and putting the hurt on the NitroJam claim to offer a "fast-paced show with minimal downtime and continuous entertainment". And Saturday's effort wasn't much better in the downtime respect, but upped the entertainment ante with Dunn "improving" on his blower backfire of the previous night, with a full-on explosion that launched the body high into the air. By the end of the first round there were only five of the eight cars left standing to contest the consolation and championship rounds.

Overall, the funny cars put on a great show for the fans, with numerous 5-second runs (nine), mostly over 240 mph (eight times) and lots of strong burnouts and enough excitement from the breakage to overcome the consequent cleanup time.

With Competition Plus (the online magazine) bowing out of IHRA-NitroJam coverage, it's been left to the fine folks at Drag Race Central, specifically the ironic, sardonic and curmudgeon extraordinaire of drag race reporting, Larry Sullivan, to carry the news to the masses. Check out his reports on Drag Race Central and look out for the embedded humour in the otherwise "just the facts" recitation of the numbers. Best line of the weekend from Mr. Sullivan was the sub-head for one report "Even The Jet Truck Sprung a Leak" to explain the long delay in reporting on the first round of the pro cars.

For anything more than the numbers and short descriptions of on-track happenings through Drag Race Central, the folks at SpeedZone Magazine have scooped everyone with reports and pictures from Palm Beach already posted on their website. The Friday reports and photos were up Saturday morning, a Friday foto gallery has already been posted and an exclusive interview with "Mr. Explosive" (Mark Sanders) is on the homepage already. Great work Dean and Pat (Welsh).

That's all for a lazy Sunday morning - first day off since I got back from Mexico nearly three weeks ago. With the sun shining and the day getting on, I'm outtahere for now. Maybe I'll start ranting a little about the whole NitroJam thing later today, but for now, it's one show in the books, and enough plusses to outweight the minuses. Next stop for the roadshow: Baton Rouge in just three weeks time. Stay tuned for that one.

To see previous updates go to the What's Old page