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Track Rescue in the Media

Written in Stone

First there was cold. Then there was fire. Then there was a warming trend and most importantly, there were lots of fans. Better yet, there must have been a gazillion fans that rolled through the gates at Rockingham Dragway for the traditional IHRA season-opener, the Holley Spring Nationals presented by Advance Auto Parts. There was thecarnage and destruction normally reserved for the latter part of the season, but when the final tally was added up - the event was a rousing success and quality opener for the 2002 season.


When the smoke cleared, there were some familiar faces in the Winner's Circle. Titles were taken home by Clay Millican(Top Fuel), Doug Vancil (Nitro Harley-Davidson), Jimmy Rector (Funny Car), Al Billes (Pro Modified) and Ron Miller (Pro Stock). In Rockingham, the Night of Fire is traditionally held on Friday evening, which is something that dates back to the Winston Invitational era and besides, it draws the most spectators. This year's version of the special opening night was special because the IHRA announced a new series sponsor with Hooters Restaurants. Also, announced was a special program for New York Mortgage company Lend-America to become part of the IHRA program by becoming the official mortgage company and sponsoring a $500 low elapsed time bonus for Pro Modified.

While those were jovial moments, there was the somber time when Alcohol Funny Car racer Billy Williams lost an engine and ended up running into the wall. Williams left the track unconscious and was taken to the local hospital, where he was put on a Life Flight helicopter and transported to the Carolina Medical Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. The longtime alcohol racer from Cleveland, Ohio, suffered broken bones and a serious head injury. Doctors reported that it would be several days after the accident before they could determine the true extent of his head injuries.

The cooler evening temperatures led to several colorful intake explosions and subsequent flash fires in the Pro Modified ranks. However, on Saturday evening, Pro Modified racer Harold Martin, suffered the most vicious of the four intake explosions. The Wixom, Mi.-based driver launched hard and appeared to suffer an intake explosion about the 100-foot mark. The car appeared to have the standard residue fire, but as the car rolled, it became completely engulfed in flames. As race fans sat on the edge of their seats helplessly watching the car burn feverishly, Martin emerged from the car. Martin was uninjured and emerged from the car by kicking the door out by the time the safety crew arrived on the stopped vehicle.


The Holley Spring Nationals also marked the debut of the Track Rescue Motorsports team as the new safety team and their job was not an easy one. Following the Williams and Martin accidents on the previous days, there was a scary moment on Sunday's first round of NOS Top Sportsman when Raleigh, North Carolina's Candyce Marsh suffered a violent transmission cooler explosion that engulfed the car in flames right off of the starting line. The second-generation driver was able to get out of the car just as the safety crew arrived on the scene. She went to a local hospital where she was diagnosed with burns on her forehead.

Even Top Fuel champion Clay Millican found himself sporting a few battle scars during the course of the weekend. During the third qualifying session, a blower drive shaft broke as the Drummonds, Tenn.-based driver was en route to what could have been the quickest run in IHRA Top Fuel history. Millican bore the brunt of the parts failure as a pulley struck him in the back. It cut his driver's suit and the seat belt as well. Millican went on to defeat Bruce Litton in the final round. Despite his mechanical failure, the defending World Champion claimed the number one qualifying position. Millican explained, "I guarantee you that it was a tough weekend and it certainly wasn't one of my better outings. My arm was hurting and we had the blower drive coupler break and the pulley whacked me in the back and I was probably tensing myself up worrying about whether it was going to hurt or not when I stepped on the gas. To be honest, I was just fortunate that crew guys were carrying the load. I had one of those weekends where our team had the quickest run in IHRA history going and let it get away because of a silly drive coupler. It hit me and cut my driver's suit and cut the seat belt. I was lucky that it wasn't any worse than it was. My arm is just sore and nothing was broken. I couldn't carry anything, so the guys just carried me." Millican defeated Grant Flowers in the first round and then Paul Romine in the semis. In both the semis and the finals, Millican appeared to skate around on the top end. What was going on? The ever-colorful Millican offered up his reasoning. "I was just looking for more television time for Werner," laughed Millican. "Actually the car dropped a cylinder on those runs and drove itself out of the groove. I just wasn't on it as good as I should have been today. My guys carried me through."

Litton, in his first year of carrying the Lucas Oil livery on his dragster, pointed out that the changing weather conditions made it tough to master the racing surface. "It throws you for a curve, but you have to really get used to is the new tires," explained Litton. "We are having to run new tires that haven't been run before. It is a shot in the dark and we have to work our way through it. As the weekend went along, we learned a little bit more. We are a few passes away from being where we really want to be. The cold weather is something that we didn't expect. We expected that in Canada. We got the cold weather here. Maybe it will be warm in Canada. We may have fallen short, but we were proud of our outing. We're a little behind, but we'll make it up."


The Screaming Eagle Nitro Harley-Davidson winner Doug Vancil took the tough road to get to Rockingham, and we mean that literally. Just 200 miles outside of his shop in Albequerque, New Mexico, his rig burned up a front-wheel bearing and was forced to park until a replacement part could be shipped in overnight. When the part didn't arrive, the defending World Champion rented a U-Haul truck and drove 1,600 miles straight through to make it in time for qualifying. "My first thought was to get to Rockingham and get the show-up points," confided Vancil. "I felt if we could do that I would be happy. But, then I said, if we could just qualify, I'd be happy. It just kept falling into place from there." For Vancil, a broken transporter, blown engine and hitting the wall on a run wasn't enough to repel his determined effort to reach the winner's circle. To make matters worse, the weather was not always conduscive to the Nitro Harley-Davidsons. Vancil recalled his weekend by saying, "The weather was interesting. I hit the wall. In the first round, I tore the motor and the tranny up. Every one of the other Harley racers helped me to repair my bike. In that round, we beat Johnny Mancuso and I hit the wall in the shutdown area. Someone was looking out for me that pass." The Vance & Hines-sponsored rider went on to defeat Ray Price, who was competing in his 65th birthday tour. Price had a few of his own gremlins. "We were just really happy to do as well as we did after hurting a motor on Wednesday testing. We worked our butts off fixing the motor and we were proud to just get in the finals at Rockingham. Rockingham is a tough track for me. I love it and all, but it is tough for me to do well here. It's the first time that I have ever been in the finals here. To do as well as we did was great. "Dougie deserved to win," Price continued. "He struggled as hard as I did to make it to the final. For he and I both to make it to the finals is just fantastic. I wish I could have won, but that's okay…we are going to have a 65th year birthday celebration all year long."

Whether it was two wheels or four, three of the five final round professional combatants had to overcome either physical or mechanical adversity. In Funny Car, a last minute piston change proved to be the right medicine for Jimmy Rector and his Holbrook Performance-sponsored Funny Car. Rector used the confidence of a newly repaired engine to get the best of defending World Champion Mark Thomas in the final. Thomas encountered some problems of his own and fouled. Rector was exactly where he wanted to be on Sunday afternoon and that was in the winner's circle.He added, "We shook the tires a lot on raceday. In qualifying, we went a 5.76 and a 5.81, but once the heat got on the track, we were shaking the tires. The 5.84 in the first round could have easily been a 5.80. The last past, I shifted off the mark, but lucky for me Mark had already red-lighted. "The sun gets down on the track and it does weird things. The sun comes right down on the track here at Rockingham. We had a good weekend and there were a lot of cars that never ran into the 5.80s. It was a perfect weekend except for hurting that piston in the semi-finals." Thomas tried to play a game of bluff on the starting line, but it just didn't work out. He explained, "I feel like that we had the better hot rod in the final. I allowed myself to get shook. I always used a tach and a shift light my whole life and when we started the car up for the final, it didn't work. When I went to stage, I convinced myself that I could still listen pretty good for an old guy. I left in second gear besides red-lighting. So I was all messed up. I felt that we could have won that thing pretty easy, so you can't say much. Jimmy won it... congratulations to him but we are leaving here number two in points. Last year we left number nine. I feel good and we didn't hurt a part all weekend. I'm getting back in the swing of things and that makes it pretty fun."


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