Ray Stars in Chicago

O’Reilly Auto Parts Route 66 NHRA Nationals presented by Super Start Batteries, Joliet, IL, USA, June 28-30, 2013

story and photos by Tim Hailey compiled from releases from NHRA and others

Michael Ray (above) earned his second win of the season, third of his career, and 80th for Star Racing in Pro Stock Motorcycle by defeating former teammate Matt Smith in the final round. Ray used a near-perfect reaction time and powered his Soeverign-Star Racing Buell to a 6.986 at 191.29 to hold off Smith’s Viper Motorcycle Company Buell, which finished in 6.992 at 190.22. “Most people know that I rode for Matt last year and we do have a little bit of a rivalry,” Ray said. “When I moved to Star I think it was the best decision I’ve ever made. I’ve won two races so far and it was especially nice to beat my old crew chief. This was definitely a bit of redemption.”

Ray used a string of mid-6.9 second runs to defeat Epping winner John Hall, teammate Scotty Pollacheck and Hector Arana Sr. to advance to the final round. “After I won in Englishtown we wanted to keep the momentum going,” said Ray, who moved to second in the series standings with the victory. “Then we went to Epping and I got beat on a holeshot. I told myself coming in here that I’d either be red or perfect and I was solid on the tree all weekend.

“It was a huge win for our team! It was a big uphill battle for us this weekend, especially changing both engines late Saturday night. It was definitely a well-earned victory and was also great timing since S&S Cycle celebrated their 55th anniversary recently.”

“I was happy to get the 80th Wally for Star Racing and the second for our great Sovereign Racing sponsor, Jenõ Rujp. After struggling last year to get the combination established, it’s almost a weird feeling being able to win just by putting a good tune-up in the bikes and eliminating the little mistakes. At this point, our team has a great combination of horsepower, ability and opportunity,” Star Racing owner George Bryce said.

Following their No. 1 qualifying position at the previous event in Epping, N.H., the S&S Cycle-powered Sovereign-Star Racing team continued to post competitive numbers this weekend in Chicago. Ray’s fellow teammate Scotty Pollacheck held the No. 1 qualifying position until the final round of qualifying when he had engine problems. Pollacheck’s 6.929-second ET was still good enough to keep him in the No. 2 position going into Sunday’s eliminations, with Ray as the No. 10 qualifier.

“It was good to see the bike making some good, fast laps. That was disheartening that we broke an engine on the last session, especially after just getting back on the right track. After we put a new engine in for Sunday, it was nice to see it come out first round and run really well, though. That was definitely a step in the right direction,” Pollacheck said.

The team made the decision to swap engines in both motorcycles after the final round of qualifying, since the one in Ray’s bike had not shown the results they wanted and Pollacheck’s had been damaged during his last run on Saturday. Although it is not ideal for teams to try out a new engine during Sunday’s elimination rounds, the Sovereign-Star Racing crew was extremely happy with the results of their efforts. During round one eliminations against Andrew Hines’ red light and 7.032 pass, Pollacheck took the win and posted the second lowest ET of the round with his 6.935-second run. Ray also posted the third lowest ET of the round with his 6.945 pass to take the win against John Hall’s 6.999.

The Sovereign-Star Racing teammates advanced to round two, where they were scheduled to go head-to-head against each other. “Scotty and Michael went really fast first round with both new engines, so we just gave them a little tuneup for second round to let them duke it out and see who was faster. It was going to be a battle between two very determined individuals with two very fast motorcycles, and our guys were perfectly OK with whoever came out on top,” Bryce said.

Unfortunately, a loose oil line on Pollacheck’s motorcycle during the burnout prevented this Sovereign-Star Racing battle from happening. Ray went on to take the solo win with his 6.954/192 mph run, posting the second lowest ET of the round and a quick enough time to get lane choice over Hector Arana Sr. in the semifinals. “I wanted to see the potential of the machines and the drivers and the epic battle of who’s going to leave first and shift on time, but it was disappointing that we didn’t get to see that battle. I was really sorry that Scotty wasn’t able to get a shot at it, but he’s a real trooper. He just said that it was nobody’s fault, and we’ll do better next weekend,” Bryce said.

In the semifinals, Arana’s small advantage off the starting line was not enough as Ray caught up and then pulled away to take the win with a 6.971/192 mph pass against Arana’s 7.013/190 mph run. Ray’s pass was also the low ET and high mile per hour for this round.

During the final round against No. 1 qualifier Matt Smith, Ray had a nearly perfect .008-second light to give him the lead right away and then pulled away from Smith for the rest of the run. Ray posted a 6.986/191 mph pass to win the event against Smith’s 6.992/190 mph run.

In spite of the team celebration from winning another coveted Wally trophy, Pollacheck was also racing with a heavy heart over the weekend as he learned that Billy Hammon, a very close friend and employee of Pollacheck’s, had been killed in an accident. After hearing this news on Saturday, Pollacheck’s desire to claim a win became even stronger in order to honor his late friend. “Our thoughts and prayers are with Scotty and the entire Quality Tire family. We love them and are thinking about them. I’d be scared to race that guy next weekend; he’s going to be full of fire and emotion. I really think next weekend will be his weekend to win,” Ray said.

Teammates No. 2 Ray and No. 6 Pollacheck remain in the top 10 points standings for the NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle Mello Yello Series following their performances at the Route 66 NHRA Nationals.

Tony Schumacher raced to the Top Fuel victory in spectacular fashion Sunday as his U.S. Army dragster’s 8,000-horsepower engine exploded in a huge fireball when he crossed the finish line in the final round of the O’Reilly Auto Parts Route 66 NHRA Nationals. Matt Hagan (Funny Car) and Jeg Coughlin (Pro Stock) also were winners of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series event.

Schumacher’s fiery finish stopped the clocks in 3.930 seconds at 269.29 mph, but it was quick enough to hold off a determined Clay Millican, whose Parts Plus dragster trailed and the veteran driver remained winless in six career final round appearances. It was the third win of the season and the 72nd overall for local favorite Schumacher, a longtime Chicagoland area resident.

Schumacher powered past David Grubnic, Khalid alBalooshi and defending world champ Antron Brown to advance to the final round. In the final, Millican was actually ahead of Schumacher near mid-track, but Schumacher’s machine surged forward, the engine eventually expiring just as he crossed the finish line first. “It’s always great to have a hometown win here in Chicago,” said Schumacher of his fourth victory at Route 66 Raceway, located just south of Chicago. “It was a great day for Don Schumacher Racing with another double-up [Matt Hagan’s Funny Car win]. This is 37 times that we’ve done that, and it was personally gratifying with all the family and friends I had here this weekend.”

Going into the final with Millican, he was very aware of his record against drivers who are seeking their first wins. “When you look back in Top Fuel history, whenever anybody gets their first win, it’s against me,” said Schumacher, who regained the series lead with the victory. “Between Shawn Langdon, J.R. Todd, and everybody else, that is what has happened. But I told myself today that this is not going to be an ongoing trait. We’re going to stop it right here and now. I don’t care when or if Clay wins a race, but just not today. Not here at my home track where we have a chance to extend our points lead, which is going to be very valuable when we get down to Indy [the last race of the regular season].”

In Funny Car, Hagan extended his series lead with his third win of the season as he edged final round opponent John Force at the finish line. Hagan’s Magneti Marelli/Rocky Boots Dodge Charger posted a 4.605 at 315.34, while Force’s Castrol GTX Ford Mustang finished just behind in 4.113 at 304.80. “It’s so hard to get these wins, so I feel great to be here,” said Hagan, who had to knock of championship title contender Johnny Gray, defending world champ Jack Beckman and Bob Tasca III in earlier rounds.

“I don’t think you could put together a tougher line-up,” Hagan continued. “We’re doing good things right now and we want to keep it up, but I want to stay humble. This is such a humbling sport. Things can change fast, so we’re just gonna keep doing what we’ve been doing.”

It was Force’s third consecutive final round appearance and the 15-time world champ has surged from 10th to third place in the last three races. Hagan said his adrenaline was overflowing for that final round with the NHRA icon. “John [Force] is tough so we knew we had to run well and that 4.06 in the final was stout,” said Hagan, who leads second place Cruz Pedregon by 106 points. “[Crew chief] Dickie [Venebles] and the crew have done a great job with this car. I just had to hang on and get it to the finish line.”

In Pro Stock, Coughlin raced to his second win of the season and fifth at Route 66 Raceway when he drove his JEGS.com/Mopar Dodge Avenger away from final round opponent Greg Anderson. Coughlin covered the distance in 6.603 at 209.85 while Anderson’s Summit Racing Equipment Chevy Camaro lost traction near mid-track and slowed. “When I let out the clutch, the car didn’t feel the best that it had all day, and by the time I got into second and third gear I was just cracking the whip on the thing as hard as I could,” said Coughlin, who moved into second place in the standings with the win. “I didn’t know that Greg was struggling next to me, but to see that winlight come on in my lane and to have such a huge win here feels amazing.”

Coughlin outran Bristol winner Rodger Brogdon, Jason Line and teammate and Epping winner Allen Johnson to get to the final. He says getting the victory here put a big yellow and black bow on an outstanding weekend for the entire JEGS operation. “It certainly didn’t hurt taking out one of the Summit cars [Anderson] in the final,” said Coughlin of his 54th career victory. “But I think that the big exclamation point is that this was the weekend of the JEGS Allstars, which is a huge, huge deal for the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series and all the Sportsman racers. We put a lot of effort into this weekend, and I think that’s been a little bit of the ingredient that has contributed to our success at this track.”

EARLIER: Smith Takes Over #1 at Joliet

Matt Smith (above) rode his Viper Motorcycle Company Buell to a 6.908 at 193.82 to claim his second No. 1 of the season and 20th of his career in Pro Stock Motorcycle at the O’Reilly Auto Parts Route 66 NHRA Nationals presented by Super Start Batteries. The 2007 world champ in the two-wheel category will meet defending world champ Eddie Krawiec in a high-profile first round match. “We’ve had top speed on every run, but we needed the 60-foot times to go with it,” Smith said. “This track is so good that we were bogging the bike, but I made a lot of changes to both my bike and (wife) Angie’s bike for the last run, and we ended up 1 and 2 for that session.”

Smith was proud that he helped wife Angie make the second-quickest run of the final session and qualify in the top half of the field, in the fifth position. “This track has a lot of teeth, and you need to get after it,” Smith continued. “You need to make a lot of changes, like gear and fuel, to take advantage of it. John [Hall, teammate] won last weekend, and I’ve been running really good lately, so we decided to work on Angie’s bike and try to see if we can get her in the top 10. She has a fast bike, and she made a good run that time. I’m excited about our whole deal.”

After opening Friday as the leader, Scotty Pollacheck dropped to second on his Sovereign Star Buell with a 6.929 at 191.24 and he will face Andrew Hines in the opening round. Hector Arana Sr. qualified third on his Lucas Oil Buell with a 6.930 at 193.32 and he will race 71-year-old Joe DeSantis in the first round.

Ron Capps led a parade of three-second Funny Car runs and claimed the No. 1 qualifying position. Morgan Lucas (Top Fuel) and Mike Edwards (Pro Stock) also will lead their categories into Sunday’s eliminations.

Capps posted the first three-second Funny Car run in Route 66 Raceway’s history and it proved to be quick enough to hold on to the top spot. His track record performance of 3.988 seconds at 320.28 mph in his NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger earned him his first No. 1 qualifying position of the season, 15th of his career and first at this track. “I really didn’t think it would hold since we ran so early in the session,” said Capps, who will face Bob Bode in the opening round as he looks to earn his second win of the season and second victory at the state-of-the-art track just south of Chicago. “It was a great run. I thought (Matt) Hagan or (Jack) Beckman would go quicker than that, but we’ll take it. I’ve been hit or miss at this place, so maybe we can get one tomorrow. It’s great for the fans to have two night sessions. Funny Cars racing at night; it doesn’t get a lot better than that.”

There were four three-second runs in the final qualifying session. In addition to Capps’ run, Bob Tasca III (3.988, second), defending world champ Beckman (3.983, third) and Del Worsham (3.999, fourth) all broke the four-second barrier.

Saturday’s top qualifier, John Force, posted a career-best time of 4.010 at 316.67 in his Castrol GTX Ford Mustang that was good enough for fifth best. Epping winner Courtney Force was not qualified going into the final session, but she powered her Traxxas Mustang to a performance of 4.042 at 315.78 to qualify in seventh place.

In Top Fuel, Lucas claimed his first No. 1 qualifying position of the season with a track record time of 3.737 at a speed of 322.19. It was Lucas’ ninth No. 1 of his career and he will face Terry McMillen in the opening round of eliminations as Lucas looks for his first victory at this event. “This was really big for our team,” Lucas said. “I was thinking while I was sitting in the car before the run that I would be happy with anything in the 3.7s because of the way we had been running lately and also because our car doesn’t always respond well to night time tune-ups. Afterwards, we had to see if it would stick. And when Tony [Schumacher] made his run, I was sweating it out, especially when [announcer] Alan Reinhart paused before giving out the last digit. We’ve made a ton of changes to our car, and hopefully things are starting to turn around for us. I have to thank everyone on our team for all their hard work and great efforts.”

Hometown favorite and three-time Route 66 winner Schumacher was second in his U.S. Army dragster with a 3.738 at 324.12 and will open against Australian David Grubnic, while Bob Vandergriff will start third in his C&J Energy Services dragster with a 3.742 at 324.28 and will meet rookie Brittany Force.

In Pro Stock, Edwards used a track record performance of 6.542 at 210.64 to claim his category-leading 10th No. 1 qualifying position of the season and 51st of his career. A two-time winner at Route 66 Raceway, Edwards will face local favorite Steve Spiess in the first round. “We made some good calls and made another good run and it was a great job by all my guys,” said Edwards of his fourth No. 1 at Route 66 Raceway. “It was a phenomenal job by the guys at the engine shop. We came here with a totally different combination and it looks like it runs really good. It’s so hard to do that in this class and to continue to do it. I can’t believe that’s 51 number ones for me.”

Defending world champ Allen Johnson was second in his Team Mopar Dodge Avenger with a 6.556 at 209.56 and will meet Steve Kent in the first round, while four-time Chicago winner Jeg Coughlin qualified third in his JEGS.com/Mopar Avenger and will race Bristol winner Rodger Brogdon in the opener.

EARLIER: Pollacheck leads at Joliet

Scotty Pollacheck and Sovereign Star Racing getting it right at Route 66

If Scotty Pollacheck’s leading time of 6.929 at 191.24 on his Sovereign Star Racing Buell holds, he will earn his first career No. 1 qualifying position in Pro Stock Motorcycle at the O’Reilly Auto Parts Route 66 NHRA Nationals presented by Super Start Batteries. “We hope that will hold up because we really need a good weekend, especially after last week,” said Pollacheck, who qualified fourth at Epping but was upset in the first round by No. 13 qualifier Steve Johnson. “Michael [Ray, teammate] has had a great bike, but we’ve had some gremlins with mine. Hopefully we have them exterminated. I think we do have some left over. That wasn’t a perfect run, so maybe tomorrow we can run quicker.”

Hector Arana Sr. qualified second on his Lucas Oil Buell with a 6.930 at 193.32 and Matt Smith was third on his Viper Motorcycle Company Buell with a 6.937 at 193.82.

John Force kept his recent hot streak going. Tony Schumacher (Top Fuel) and Mike Edwards (Pro Stock) also were qualifying leaders in their categories at the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series event.

Force, who won at Bristol, Tenn. two weeks ago and was the top qualifier and finished runner-up at Epping, N.H. last weekend, was the quickest in the 8,000-horsepower category during a rain-shortened day of qualifying at the state-of-the-art dragstrip just south of Chicago. NHRA officials were forced to cancel one of the day’s two scheduled qualifying sessions due to early afternoon rain showers.

Still riding the momentum from his success at the past two events, Force covered the distance in 4.035 seconds at 314.02 mph in his Castrol GTX Ford Mustang to lead the qualifying order.

“Anytime you come to Chicago you usually have killer conditions and after old [rookie Chad] Head went out there and ran 4.05 we knew it was there,” said Force, a three-time winner at this track who has moved from 10th to fifth place in the series standings in the last two weeks . “Anytime you run good you’re excited and I ain’t had a car that runs like this for a while. Mike Neff [crew chief] and the crew did a great job.”

If the performance holds through Saturday’s final two qualifying sessions (4:15 and 7:15 p.m.) it will be the 143rd No. 1 qualifying position of the 15-time champ’s legendary career. Sunday’s eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m.

Force says with the right conditions Route 66 Raceway’s first three-second run in the Funny Car category might be possible. Matt Hagan holds the track record at 4.022 seconds.

“Now, tomorrow, we’ll push it because we made a good run tonight,” Force said. “Then, you might see a three.”

Series leader Hagan was second with a 4.040 at 317.19 in his Magneti Marelli/Mopar/Rocky Boots Dodge Charger and defending world champ Jack Beckman qualified third in his Valvoline/MTS Charger with a 4.043 at 313.15.

Hometown favorite Schumacher, from nearby Long Grove, Ill., led Top Fuel qualifying with a performance of 3.772 at 325.45 in his U.S. Army dragster, edging out Doug Kalitta for the top spot by virtue of his faster speed. Kalitta qualified second with an identical time at a slower speed of 322.34 in his Mac Tools dragster.

“We were actually a bit conservative on the run because we knew we had to make it down the track just in case we have rain tomorrow,” Schumacher said. “But if we don’t have any problems with the weather, the conditions could be even better on Saturday because it will be a couple of degrees cooler. I’m sure that a 3.77 won’t hold for No. 1 tomorrow. But having run the 3.77 on our first pass, that gives us the luxury of going all out on Saturday, and that’s what we plan to do.”

Top Fuel series leader Shawn Langdon qualified third in his Al-Anabi Racing dragster with a 3.789 at 325.92 and Brandon Bernstein, who sat out the last two events recovering from back surgery, was fourth in his ProtectTheHarvest.com/MAV TV dragster with a 3.794 at 323.04.

In Pro Stock, series leader Edwards is in position to earn his 10th No. 1 of the season and 51st of his career as he drove his Interstate Batteries/I Am Second Chevy Camaro to a quick pass of 6.602 at 208.68.

“We made a nice run and feel like we might have been a little bit soft in some areas,” Edwards said. “We didn’t know how many runs we were going to get so we just wanted to get down the track. The conditions will be better tomorrow so we’ll see a lot of changes. I think it will be quite a bit better.”

Defending world champ Allen Johnson was second in his Team Mopar Dodge Avenger with a 6.614 at 208.68 and his teammate, four-time Chicago winner Jeg Coughlin, was third overall in his JEGS.com/Mopar Avenger with a 6.615 at 209.36.

Defending event Pro Stock winner Erica Enders-Stevens, who made history at this event last year by becoming the first female to win an NHRA Pro Stock race, qualified fourth in her Cagnazzi Racing Camaro with a 6.620 at 207.75.