NORWALK, Ohio --
A grand total of 178 drivers from a remarkable 28 states and two Canadian provinces converged on Rockingham Dragway last month to take part in the inaugural Tournament of Champions, but persistent rains and cool temperatures forced the postponement of the event to a later date.
Still, the unfavorable conditions at Rockingham didn't stop the nearly 400 sportsman racers on the property taking their final shot at qualifying via the Sportsman Nationals from sounding off about the incredible number of big name drivers that are a part of the IHRA's end-of-year championship tournament and how eager they are to get this race underway.
"At first I thought the IHRA was nuts with this TOC deal, but as the season wound down I really thought this is going to be awesome," said Hot Rod driver Chip Johnson. "If you can beat the top 30 or so racers in a 'shootout style' format then you truly are the champion,"
Johnson qualified for the tournament via his championship in the Raiders Division on the Summit Pro-Am Tour.
Simply put, the IHRA Tournament of Champions is a collection of all national event winners, Champion System Sportsman Nationals winners, Summit All-Star winners and all drivers who finished in the top three in their respective Summit Pro-Am Tour divisions.
A grand total of 245 spots are available for the tournament, with that number shrinking via multiple event winners and drivers who qualified in more than one class. Drivers may only fill one spot in a respective class, but multiple event winners can ultimately shrink the size of the field in their favor.
When it all adds up the most dominating drivers from a given year are put onto a ladder and are forced to battle it out to determine a true champion by doing exactly what the drivers live to do - race.
Blais qualified thanks to a victory at the Amalie Oil North American Nationals at New England Dragway in September.
A breakdown of the drivers who attended Rockingham to participate in the Tournament of Champions shows a unique divide of exactly 71 drivers both north and south of Virginia and east of the Mississippi River. A total of 36 drivers represent states west of the Mississippi.
By state it is no surprise that North Carolina has the most drivers qualified for the Tournament of Champions with 31 participants. Texas is a distant second with 18 drivers and Ohio is just behind with 17 drivers. Virginia, Maryland and Florida also have double-digit drivers in the TOC. The remainder of the top 12 are Pennsylvania, Michigan, Louisiana, New York, Oklahoma and Illinois.
Gulitti has two national event wins this season and also garnered TOC qualifying victories at the Summit All-Star race in the spring and by finishing second in the Renegades Division on the Summit Pro-Am Tour.
Gulitti is the definition of how the Tournament of Champions can benefit a driver as he slowly whittled the Top Sportsman field down to only the elite of the class. And one of those drivers Gulitti will be facing when the event is rescheduled - his own brother.
"I think overall the TOC is a great concept. In my opinion this would have been the best sportsman race ever," said Top Sportsman competitor Bob Gulitti. "I hope the entire group can be assembled again because, again, the best of the best were there.
"In my opinion a true champion would have been decided from this group of obviously talented racers. I am proud to have earned a spot and look forward to my opportunity."
Bob Gulitti qualified via a third place finish in the Renegades Division.
Fast forward nearly a year later and the mood in the pits has drastically changed.
"From talking to the drivers I have been overwhelmed by support for the format. Whether from those who couldn't afford to travel the entire circuit or from those who traveled to Rockingham and saw the level of competition they would be up against, the mood has clearly changed," said Skooter Peaco, VP of Race Operations. "We knew that this format would save drivers money and create an all-star tournament the likes of which drag racing has never seen, but even I was a bit overwhelmed looking in the pits and seeing all of the national winners and champions in one spot competing for a true championship.
"I never expected 100 percent of the competitors to like it, but I am shocked at all the support it got in its first year."
As for the event itself, Peaco admits that Rockingham presented a situation that was beyond anyone's control and that a few tough decisions had to be made to ensure the safety of the drivers and the fairness of competition.
"I wanted to take this time to apologize to the drivers for an event that clearly did not measure up to IHRA standards. There were many things that were out of our control at Rockingham and tough decisions had to be made.
IHRA has announced that the Tournament of Champions sportsman runoff has been rescheduled for the Rockingham Nitro Jam event April 30-May 2 at Rockingham Dragway.
"I asked for competitor feedback on this rescheduling issue knowing there would be many different opinions on this. After reviewing the hundreds of emails and phone calls we received from drivers in the tournament we decided that running the event in the spring, while not ideal for everyone, is the option that satisfies the most people," said Skooter Peaco, VP of Race Operations. "The competitors felt very strongly that this event had to be run and decided on the track as originally scheduled without reverting back to a point system or drawing names. Second, after looking at the locations of the drivers in the tournament, Rockingham continues to be the logical place for this event to happen given where the competitors live and given that it isn't so early in the season that Northern racers are not ready.
"Sportsman racing is what the IHRA is all about and that will continue to be our focus in 2010 and beyond."
Either way, Rockingham proved that the Tournament of Champions is one of the most exciting events
in drag racing today and will continue to provide a stage for drivers of all levels to compete for
national glory and a coveted IHRA Championship Ironman.