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
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
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
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
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."