Will Ray Slay the Countdown?

Can Michael Ray’s Dallas win propel him to

an LE Tonglet-style surprise championship?

story and photos by Tim Hailey except where noted

Michael Ray celebrates his first NHRA win. Photo courtesy of NHRA

I have to admit I was shocked. My raceday was spent shooting the Good Guys vintage car event at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and when I checked the NHRA results late in the day I expected to see another Harleys and Hectors result. So scanning the headlines I see one of the winners posted as “Ray.” My first reaction was “Ray who?” quickly followed by “Holy shit! Michael Ray won! And he won in TEXAS!” … followed quickly by “How am I missing THAT party?!”

So once again, we’re shown why they run the race on Sunday, even though the year had so far seemed like raceday didn’t matter. Ray started his day against Sovereign/Star Racing’s Scotty Pollacheck—the inside of his leathers freshly cleaned from that finishline tire-off-the-rim save in qualifying. At the end of his final pass on Saturday, Pollacheck’s Buell began fishtailing back and forth at 190 mph after his rear tire deflated. The veteran racer was able to keep calm and kept his motorcycle under control as it crossed to the other lane behind competitor Karen Stoffer. “It was a little more excitement than I needed! I was fine, though,” Pollacheck said.

Scotty Pollacheck’s wild Saturday ride

“It was really scary for Scotty, but he was pretty busy afterward and didn’t have time to be shaken up about it,” said Star Racing owner George Bryce. “He switched channels pretty quickly to get the bike back to the trailer and get ready for Sunday. Luckily, we had enough spare parts to fix it for eliminations. I’ve been carrying spare wheelie bars in the trailer since 2005 and it’s the first time I’ve gotten to use them.”

A classic 8 vs. 9 match-up with Ray, Pollacheck missed the tree by -.007 and Michael was in round 2 against #1 qualifier Hector Arana Jr. “I knew Scotty was gonna be a good race,” said Ray, who was really putting the mojo on the other lane by this time, because H2 also redlit. Seeing his winlight on, Michael let out at the big end. “Hector going red against me second round was huge,” said Ray. “I think his bike creeped a bit and he did what he had to do. But when you beat the #1 qualifier coming out of the #8 hole, now everybody knows you have to watch out for that guy. What do they say in the Hunger Games, the only thing more dangerous than fear is hope? I had hope and they’d better get outta my way!”

Karen Stoffer and her Geico Suzuki NHRA Bike Photos

Working her way up the other side of the ladder was Stoffer and her Geico Suzuki. She met Jerry Savoie in round 1. Jerry was returning to competition after missing several races, and he qualified 7th on his ‘Busa-bodied bike, ahead of Stoffer in the #10 spot. Karen usually is the quickest Suzuki in the field, and to top it off she gave up the tree to Savoie. But her husband/tuner Gary was on his raceday game in E1 and Stoffer drove around for the win.

In round 2 she met up with none other than Redell Harris, who advanced out of 1 when Hector Arana Sr’s bike wouldn’t start. Clearly, the Arana’s fell apart on raceday in Dallas after qualifying 1-2. “Just goes to show you that in this sport, you need luck,” Arana Sr. said. “Bottom line.”

Hector Arana Sr. NHRA candid photos

The 2009 champ said the Buell fired easily Sunday morning before eliminations and was running fine. “We warmed it up, and everything sounded great,” Arana Sr. said. “It was purring like a kitten. It sounded awesome. That was it, and we got everything else ready to go to the starting line. I don’t know what to say because it’s really frustrating. The simple things can sometimes cause a problem.”

Harris was no match for Stoffer in their pairing, and Karen advanced to the semi. So we’ve got Stoffer and Ray in the semis with the Harleys of Eddie Krawiec and Andrew Hines, who between them had won every race this year. Surely, the novelty of this day is about to end and it will between Eddie and Andrew for the Wally, right?

“I had hope and they’d better get outta my way!” said Ray

No way José Cuervo. Krawiec has a horrible light against Stoffer’s razor sharp .009 and that 10 pound sandwich the NHRA slowed him with is not gonna let him drive around. “The coolest part of all was when I saw Karen beat Eddie on a holeshot and I thought ‘I have a shot to win this race!’” said Ray, who was second pair out in the semis. “I’ve never beaten Eddie, so I didn’t know what I had to do to beat Eddie. But me and Andrew have been back and forth all year, so I knew I could beat Andrew. I knew if could get to the 60 foot cone before Andrew, he wasn’t gonna drive back around me.”

Michael Ray, photo courtesy of NHRA

Ray put nearly 2/100ths on Hines and held him off to set up an unlikely final round. The Harleys are both out on holeshots, the Aranas self destructed, and it’s Ray and Stoffer for the win—the first final round without a Harley since Reading last year.

Ray had lane choice for his second final of the year. He put 1/100th on Stoffer at the tree and ran a 6.92 to Stoffer’s 7.02 for his first NHRA win, and it couldn’t have happened at a better place. Texas is the home state for Ray’s sponsors Javelina and Gruene Harley-Davidson dealerships, both owned by racing raconteur and benefactor Hal Gottsacker. Michael and his dad Paul also work at the dealerships. “Everybody was here!” said Michael. “It was crazy! My family, my co-workers—to win at your sponsor’s home race kind of solidifies your contract for next year!”

“It was great to end the streak!” said Ray

Ray was also heartily congratulated by the racing family he’s grown up with since he started out in AMA/Prostar’s 600 Supersport class 12 years ago. “John Hall and Chip Ellis and Michael Phillips, these guys that I’ve known since I was a snot-nosed kid, all came up to thank me. It was awesome.”

Those guys were probably also relieved to have the Harley’s win streak ended at 13—tied with Pro Stock Car’s KB Racing for the longest ever. “It was great ending the streak,” agreed Michael, who pointed out that his Matt Smith Racing/Viper Motorcycle’s S&S Buell is 100% ready for next year’s rules.

“Michael’s a great rider, he has a great team and he has a heck of a lot of luck here, so we had the cards stacked against us going in the final round,” Stoffer said. “Gary played a little with the fuel and cooled off the bike as best we could. It was a clean race, and Michael ended up winning. We would’ve liked to have turned on that winlight, but we’re definitely glad we could be there and participate in the final round. We slowed down progressively through the weekend. We did notice we were starting to lose a little vacuum on it. We’re definitely going to take that motor out, and we’ll have a new motor for St. Louis.”

““This was a HUGE accomplishment for Matt!” said Angie Smith

Ray had lots of thanks to spread around for his team’s performance. “I want to thank Uncle Hal and Rugger and the entire Gottsacker family,” said Michael. “I also want to thank my mother and father for their sacrifices, and my wife Jennifer for allowing me to fly away every week. And Viper Motorcycles for stepping up and allowing us to lean on our parts, so I can’t say thanks to those guys enough.”

“The Viper Motorcycle Company is very proud to be associated with Michael Ray, Hal & Rugger Gottsacker with Gottspeed Racing, and Matt & Angie Smith with Matt Smith Racing,” said Viper VP Colbert Seagraves. “All the hard work these two teams have put in all season paid off this past weekend with Michael’s first win and Matt’s first win as crew chief. We knew that Michael had what it takes to win as a rider and that Matt was an excellent tuner, so yes we were looking for the team’s luck to turn around and it just happened at the right time for Viper as we became more involved with both teams at the start of the Countdown.”

“I’ve got to thank Matt Smith,” added Ray. “What he’s taught me about how to be a racer on a Pro Stock bike is awesome. And he’s turning out to be a pretty close friend. The relationship we’ve built up over the last year has made us dangerous. Pro Stock Motorcycle needs to watch out for us over the next couple years!”

Angie Smith and Michael Ray NHRA candid photos

“This was a HUGE accomplishment for Matt because Michael is the first person he has crew chiefed to a WIN!” Angie Smith said. “It was a solid team effort. Michael has been riding excellent and he makes Matt’s job easy. But Matt did an awesome job tuning, and Mike Parsons, Mark Connor and I did our jobs on the crew. We knew it was just a matter of time before we got Michael back in the finals.”

“Both these teams are capable of winning the NHRA PSM championship,” Seagraves added about MSR. “They work extremely hard and just need a little luck as both are in the hunt (Matt is tenth). Their success is really helping us to market the Viper Motorcycle Brand and allow us to showcase our very unique motorcycle.”

“We’re still there,” Arana Sr. piped in. “But we can’t keep making mistakes. We can’t keep having this electrical problem or whatever it is. Otherwise, it’s over.” H1 will be fifth in the points standings with four races remaining in 2012.

The next race is the AAA Insurance Midwest Nationals at Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Illinois, this weekend. Stay tuned to Eatmyink.com for results as they are available.

H2 Knocks off the Old Man for #1 in Dallas

Hector Arana Jr NHRA candid photos

Hector Arana Jr. claimed his second Pro Stock Motorcycle #1 of the season and ninth of his career with a performance of 6.852 at 195.34 on his Lucas Oil Buell at the AAA Texas NHRA Fall Nationals at the Texas Motorplex near Dallas. “I honestly did not [expect to improve],” said Arana Jr, who trailed his father going into the final session. “One of the guys was down there talking, and I said, ‘We’re not going to pick up. It’s too hot.’ Surprisingly we did, but if you look at my increments, everything finally came together.”

Hector Arana Sr NHRA Bike Photos

Hector Arana Sr. was second with a 6.862 at 196.24, followed by series leader Eddie Krawiec, who posted a 6.887 at 194.49 on his Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson. Charlotte winner Andrew Hines was fourth with a 6.892 at 194.10. And Chip Ellis made the big move to #5 on Harry Lartigue’s V&H Buell.

H2 will face Matt Guidera in the first round. Guidera qualified with a pass of 7.063 seconds at 188.36 mph. Arana Jr. has reached the semifinals in 10 of the 11 races this year, including the final round three times. “We’ve been very consistent on raceday,” Arana Jr. said. “Both my father and I have been able to go rounds. I’ve had decent, consistent lights, in the .020s. We’ve been on the negative side a couple times, but you can’t be afraid of the tree. It can be your friend, it can be your enemy. You can’t be nervous. You’ve got to do your thing and go for it.”

After using the engine “Gracie” – named after his mom – last year, Arana Jr. has been working with “Abigail” – named after his younger sister – this season. “Abby” has been a work in progress, but this No. 1 qualifying effort represents a step forward. “The very first time we ran her, the motor blew up,” Arana Jr. said. “I tried to run in Chicago, and the crank went bad in it. We always knew she’d run good, but we didn’t have good luck. Finally, we’re having good luck with this engine, and we’re getting faster and faster because we’re learning this new engine. We’re learning how to tune it and the different characteristics of what it wants.

“The engine changes our clutch program, so that’s why I was kind of struggling at the last race and this race. The clutch is different with each motor. Finally, it’s all coming together. Hopefully, we’ll have a great package for tomorrow.”

John Force raced to the $100,000 victory in the Traxxas Nitro Shootout, edging top seed Ron Capps in the final round of the lucrative specialty race that featured eight Funny Car winners from the 17-race regular season. Force powered his Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang to a performance of 4.218 seconds at 296.57 mph to hold off Capps’ NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger, who trailed with a 4.223 at 296.50. Force beat Jack Beckman and Jeff Arend in early rounds to advance to the final.

“It’s a great day and we won,” Force said. “The 100 grand goes to my employees. I don’t take any money. It’s not about that for me. It’s about winning for them and the fans and the sponsors. Traxxas putting up that 100 grand, it’s good for our sport. It’s good to have money out here that can subsidize teams, that can help teams, and anybody can win it, and I won it.”

John’s daughter Courtney Force earned her second #1 qualifying position of the season, with her Friday performance of 4.081 at 308.21 in her Traxxas Ford Mustang. She will race fellow rookie driver Todd Lesenko in the first round. “We’re going to have lane choice tomorrow, and that’s definitely where we want to be,” Courtney said. “It’s always good picking up the bonus points going into the Countdown to the Championship. We try to get every point we can because it’s all going to count in the end, but most importantly, we’re in the No. 1 spot and held it for three rounds. Going into race day tomorrow, I think we’ve got a good race car. This Traxxas Ford Mustang is showing in the heat, it can run when the track cools down, and I think we’re going to give everyone a run for their money.”

Tim Wilkerson was second in his Levi Ray & Shoup Mustang with a 4.089 at 302.75 and was followed by Beckman, who posted a 4.109 at 303.98 in his NextGen/Valvoline Dodge Charger. Series points leader Capps will start sixth as he goes for his second straight playoff win and Shootout winner Force will try to win his eighth Texas Motorplex title from the No. 10 starting spot.

Shawn Langdon captured his third consecutive #1 qualifying position in Top Fuel, as he posted a 3.827 at 322.34 in his Al-Anabi Racing dragster. “That run was just [team manager/tuner] Alan Johnson magic,” Langdon said. “This morning, he came out and pretty much said that he wasn’t worried about getting in the field – he wanted to go to No. 1. It was fortunate that we were in the right lane in the right conditions, and it stuck to put us No. 1 by two-thousandths of a second. Our main objective for the second run was to get a good setup tomorrow. I think we accomplished that today.”

Langdon will meet Scott Palmer in the opening round as he goes for his second straight playoff victory. “I think the mojo is going good right now,” Langdon said. “This is the third No. 1 in a row, and we had a good race when we won in Charlotte. We’re looking to keep the car in the winner’s circle; that’s the main goal.”

Series points leader Tony Schumacher was second with a 3.829 at 320.13 in his U.S. Army dragster and Doug Kalitta was third in his Mac Tools dragster with a 3.836 at 322.34.

Allen Johnson raced to a career-best 10th No. 1 qualifying position of the season in Pro Stock, powering his Team Mopar Dodge Avenger to a track record performance of 6.550 at 211.99. Johnson will meet Warren Johnson in the opening round.

“I can remember my first one like it was yesterday, and you wonder if you’re ever going to get another one after that,” Johnson said. “It’s a really good feeling. It’s been a great year for our Mopar Dodge Avenger qualifying No. 1 so many times. We’re hitting on all cylinders. We have a consistent strategy right now of trying to make good, clean, safe runs every time right now without pushing it.”

Three-time season winner Erica Enders was second in her GK Motorsports Chevy Cobalt with a 6.557 at 210.57 and Charlotte winner Jason Line was third in his Summit Racing Chevy Camaro with a 6.559 at 210.64.

Earlier: Aranas Take Over in Q2 at Texas Motoplex

Proud as he was, Lucas Oil Buell rider Hector Arana Sr. couldn’t let his son Hector Jr. sit on top of the Pro Stock Motorcycle chart in the second qualifying session for the AAA Texas NHRA Fall Nationals at Texas Motorplex on Friday. Arana Sr. grabbed the provisional No. 1 qualifying spot with a pass of 6.898 seconds at 195.11 mph that edged his son by .001 seconds.

“My earlier run was pretty much almost perfect,” Arana Sr. said. “When I saw Hector run an .89, I said, ‘Wow. An .89? What does this kid have that I don’t have?’ Then I made my run, and I heard the .89 and I took No. 1 for now. I was pleased.”

Most importantly, the Lucas Oil Buells remained 1-2 with nearly identical passes in Q2, as Arana Jr.’s run was 6.899 seconds at 193.63 mph. And though the two Buell XB9R’s are similar, they aren’t identical, including the tune-up. “His style, my style, the bikes, everything is a little different,” Arana Sr. said. “We try to get as close as we can but it never works out that way. Each motor is different and wants its own tune-up. The weight of my son and the way he rides is different from me, so the clutch is always different. We can’t really share that much information.”

But they still work together very closely. “The advantage is I know his setup, he knows mine, so we can watch each other’s and see what happens on the starting line,” Arana Sr. said. “Hopefully, I’ll be the last one to run so I can take advantage of that.”

If he holds on to the No. 1 after two more sessions Saturday, the pole would be Arana Sr.’s fifth of 2012 and 22nd of his career. He also has an impressive streak of qualifying fourth or better in 17 consecutive races. “I definitely feel happier,” Arana Sr. said. “We have more momentum going, especially with the second run. We picked up the pace a little bit. I’m pleased. The track has been great. I think we can get even more aggressive tomorrow.”

Arana Sr. is gunning for his first victory of the season and hopes to take advantage of a rules change that began this weekend for the Harley-Davidson team, which had 10 pounds added to their bikes. “I believe we have to take the opportunity now and see if we can come up with a win and grab some points,” Arana Sr. said. “(With) those extra 10 pounds, they might not have the perfect tune-up or the clutch combination yet. We need to take advantage of this situation.

“It could give us a chance of knocking them down, stopping the winning streak they’re on. We need to take advantage of this opportunity this weekend. It’s important for me to grab a win.”

Eddie Krawiec at speed NHRA Bike Photos

The first round of eliminations looked a lot like the rest of the season, with Eddie Krawiec leading Andrew Hines in a Harley 1-2 despite the 10 pound sandwich NHRA laid on them this week.

Andrew Hines with Wally and son Declan NHRA candid photos

Courtney Force raced to the qualifying lead in Funny Car. The 24-year-old rookie driver powered her Traxxas Ford Mustang to a leading time of 4.081 seconds at 308.21 mph and if her performance holds through Saturday’s two qualifying sessions (11 a.m. and 2 p.m.), it will be the second No. 1 qualifying position of her career.

She was pleased to make two solid runs as her team is gearing up for the $100,000 Traxxas Nitro Shootout tomorrow. The lucrative Funny Car all-star race was rescheduled for this event after it was rained out twice in Indianapolis earlier in the month. Force, the fan vote-lottery winner for the No. 8 starting spot, will face top seed Ron Capps in the first round of the Shootout.

“I think that so far today we’ve proved that we have a good race car, and we can run it in the heat during the day and we can run it when it cools down a little bit at night,” Force said. “We’re hoping that the 4.08 stays tomorrow. I’d be so excited and so proud to get my second No. 1 qualifying position in my rookie season. We wanted to stay in the top half of the field, that was our main goal today so we can just focus on the Traxxas Shootout, going in and getting that 100 grand tomorrow.”

Tim Wilkerson was second in his Levi Ray & Shoup Mustang with a 4.081 at 308.21, Jack Beckman was third with a 4.109 at 303.98 and defending event winner Cruz Pedregon was fourth with a 4.129 at 288.39 in the Snap-on Tools Toyota.

In Top Fuel, series points leader Schumacher was quickest with a 3.829 at 320.13 in his U.S. Army dragster. If his effort holds through the end of qualifying it will be his fourth No. 1 of the season and 71st of his career.

“That was a great run,” said Schumacher, a five-time winner at the Motorplex. “I’ve always said that we’re a good high-pressure team. How do you get any more high-pressure than that? Friday night qualifying is what’s going to set the field. It was 90 [degrees] today, and it’s going to be 90 tomorrow and 90 on Sunday. We went up there in a situation where we should be cautious because we weren’t in the show. For Mike [Green, crew chief] to go up there and do what he did, that’s pretty gutsy. Those qualifying bonus points are going to make a difference. On the first run, I was a little disappointed that we didn’t get any. I won a championship by two points [in 2009]. It makes qualifying pretty exciting.”

Doug Kalitta was second with a 3.836 at 322.34 in his Mac Tools dragster and J.R. Todd was third with a 3.839 at 317.34 in his Total Equipment and Service dragster. Charlotte winner Shawn Langdon was 16th in his Al-Anabi Racing dragster after two sessions.

Allen Johnson moved into position to claim a season-best 10th No. 1 qualifying position in Pro Stock, powering his Team Mopar Dodge Avenger to a 6.568 at 211.43.

“Building up those little points in qualifying is what we’re shooting for, and we did that today,” said Johnson. “This is a great track with a great, flat surface and a lot of traction. I can’t say enough about my crew. Everything is perfect right now. We’re running on eight-and-a-half cylinders. The car is consistent, and we’re looking for more of the same tomorrow.”

Charlotte winner Jason Line was second with a 6.586 at 210.54 in his Summit Racing Chevy Camaro and three-time season winner and Houston native Erica Enders was third with a 6.586 at 210.41 in her GK Motorsports Chevy Cobalt.

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