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Mon, 8 Sep 2003, 12:47 PM

Notes from Jim Luikens' Reporter's Notebook
By Jim Luikens

At the 49th Annual Mac Tools NHRA Nationals:

CLERMONT, Ind. -- Pro Stock Rookie Dave Connolly is carrying the colors of his engine builder, and legendary Pro Stock competitor, Bill Jenkins. Dave's unsponsored Bullet Motorsports Cavalier is painted to resemble the fabled Grumpy's Toy Chevrolets of years past in a one race deal. Dave, who was born three years after Bill hung up his helmet, never saw da Grump behind the wheel. Dave is also one of four rookies that are making their US Nationals Pro Stock debut.

Tony Schumacher was another car that featured a special paint scheme. It was an unusual "desert camouflage'" paint scheme in all soft tones and pastel shades of the usual camo paint. He qualified sixth with a 4.534 and went on to win the race that was better than Bob Gilbertson's luck. Bob debuted his second special Jungle Jim tribute paint scheme but was not able to crack the Fuel Funny Car starting field.

Pro Stock Car, as usual, was the most hotly contested Pro eliminator. 46 competitors attempted to qualify for one of the sixteen starting spots. Pro Stock Bike was second with 37 riders followed by 25 Top Fuelers and 22 Fuel Funny Cars. 24 Pro Modifieds were on hand for the first weekend but only 16 came back for the rain date because of a competing race at Epping, New Hampshire on the second weekend.

Of the 16 Pro Mods that returned, one was nitrous injected and the remaining 15 were supercharged. Going into the final qualifying session Rickie Smith, in the lone nitrous car, was leading the 15 blown cars with a 6.226 elapsed time. Unable to improve his time in the final session he was bumped to third when two other drivers recorded quicker 6.22s. Tim McAmis ended up number one with a 6.223 and Fred Hahn claimed second with a 6.224. Von Smith rounded out the top half of the field with a 6.228 meaning that the four quickest cars all recorded 6.22s.

A perfect example of the way racing is done today is the new entry of Scott Kalitta. Sponsored by Jesse James and his West Coast Choppers firm it made its debut here by qualifying second with a 4.502. Equally impressive was their souvenir trailer that easily matched the more established teams with an endless assortment of memorabilia for sale.

Top Fuel Rookie David Baca was the low et qualifier after the first weekend of competition with a track record 4.503 seconds. Driving a car that carried the special colors of Hunter's Hope, a fund-raising charity, he improved during the second weekend to an even quicker 4.499. This run was the quickest ever in IRP history and held up for the Top Fuel pole.

It was announced here that another charitable organization, The Darrell Gwynn Foundation, will be recognized by the National Hot Rod Association. Such recognition means that it will receive internal and external marketing and media support from the NHRA. In a related Gwynn item Darrell 's new biography went on sale here.

Angelle Savoie was particularly pleased to reclaim the number one Pro Stock Bike qualifying position in the final session. After winning it the first weekend she continued to hold it during the early rounds of the second weekend. However, in the fourth session it was taken from her by Andrew Hines on his Harley-Davidson. Angelle thought that Andrew and his crew did a little too much celebrating of that accomplishment and rubbed it in her face. As a result she was double pleased to reclaim it in the final round. In a massive understatement she said that, "She learned years ago that if she wanted friends at the track, she would have to bring them with her."

After running a plain black, unlettered Firebird body throughout qualifying, Dean Skuza showed up for the first round with his "Meatloaf" Firebird body. His first round opponent was Tony Pedregon, the previous day's winner of the Budweiser shootout. Dean's 4.94 was quick enough to beat a tire-smoking 5.49 and ruin Tony's chance at a double up bonus for any driver that can win the shootout and the next day's eliminations.

When Tony Pedregon lost in the first round it opened the door for number two in points Whit Bazemore to gain ground. Unfortunately Whit was also upset in round one by the much lower qualified Cruz Pedregon. Cruz's 4.887 held off Whit's quicker 4.886. A jubilant John Force was seen vigorously hugging Cruz's wife behind the starting line after the upset win.

When Brandon Bernstein came to Indy for the first weekend he was still wearing the neck brace that we have seen him in since his return to the track after his accident earlier this season. But for the second weekend he returned minus the brace. It's good to see his recovery continuing.

No truer example of the difference between the first weekend and the second could be found Saturday night. Doing the later rounds of Sportsman eliminations the smell of burning wood wafted over the racetrack. It came from the campfires in the campground just to the west of the track. During the first weekend you would have been hard pressed to light your kindling due to the monsoonal rains.

Next year will be the 50th Anniversary of NHRA's Big Go and a memorable time is planned. The 50th Anniversary logo was previewed for the crowd during Sunday's preface festivities. Next year 's event will be held from September 1 through 6 and will include festivals, concerts, car shows and much more. A special tent was set up here to register previous US Nationals winners. Every previous winner, along with his or her car if they still have it, is invited back.

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