Sat, 30 Nov 2002, 11:41 AM
The Year In Review….Competition Eliminator.
By Bob Frey
Photo copyright 2002 Auto Imagery, Inc.
Saye and Wally Parks
When someone loses a really big event, it seems like such a cliché to say
that he (or she) "has nothing to be ashamed of." And, as much as I hate
clichés, I have to apply that little saying to Don Stratton, this year’s
runner-up in Competition Eliminator. Don, who finished second to the champ, Mike
Saye, gave it his all during the entire season and he came up just a little short in
his bid for a repeat title. Mike Saye, of course, was just a tad better this year
after finishing second to Don a year earlier. To the best of my knowledge, this is
the first time that the same two drivers have finished in the top two spots in the
final Comp Eliminator national standings in consecutive years. When you look at the
roster of drivers who have competed in this class, and when you look at those who
have won the championship, that is quite an accomplishment and both Mike and Don
should be extremely proud of their records. As a matter of fact, even with the likes
of David and Bo Nickens, Jerry Arnold and Andy Manna, Sal Biondo and Steve Johns,
all recent Comp national champs, it’s hard to find a driver who won the title one
year and even made the top ten the next season, all of which makes Mike’s and Don’s
past two seasons even more impressive.
As is the case in all of the sportsman classes,
it’s tough to judge who is in the lead in the points during most of the season. That
’s because of the way the points are structured and the fact that a driver could
come out of nowhere, put a couple of good races together at the end of the season
and grab the championship (see Super Gas this year). That was not the case in
Competition Eliminator, where it appeared fairly certain from about the middle of
the season that it would be either Mike or Don who would wear the crown at the end
of the campaign. Of course there were other drivers in the mix, including Larry
Pritchett and Steve Ambrose, both of whom made a run for the title. For his part
Larry only missed by twenty-six points, making this the second time in his career
that he’s cmae close to winning the national championship. He lost out only two
years ago to Jerry Arnold, and you’ve got to think that he’ll be right in the mix
again next year. Steve Ambrose, Scott Tidwell and Mike Farrell also had an outside
chance at catching the leaders coming down the stretch and all should look back on
the year 2002 with fond memories.
The fact that these two drivers battled it out for the title shouldn’t come as a
real surprise. Mike put a national win on the board early in the year, winning the
MAC Tools Gatornationals, and he appeared headed toward another championship bid.
But then, oddly enough to those of us who watch the points, Mike disappeared from
the scene throughout most of the middle of the season. When he didn’t race in
Brainerd, a race that he attended last year, we began to think that maybe he had
given up the chase. By the time he resurfaced in Memphis and won the O’Reilly
Midsouth Nationals, the defending champ, Stratton, had run off about four divisional
event wins and won a national event. In fact, Don won the national event at Maple
Grove just days before Saye returned to action in Memphis. When I congratulated Mike
at the Lucas Oil Sportsman Racer’s awards ceremony he told me that he and his
partner, John Clark, had a game plan and they stayed with it during the entire year.
"We wanted to run early, put some points on the board and then wait and see
what the other guys did, and then come out knowing exactly what we had to do,"
he told me. Good planning, guys.
As fate would have it, the 2002 season championship came down to the AAA Club of
Southern California Finals for the second, consecutive season. And, fate would play
a big part in the overall look of the final event. With the heavy rains that hit the
track, the schedule was shortened for virtually every class, professional and
sportsman, and it affected the way qualifying ended up in the Comp class. When the
rain hit, it virtually ended all of the qualifying, including the Comp Eliminator
class, and that meant that several drivers who weren’t in the field, wouldn’t get a
shot at qualifying, and it also meant that the top qualifier, Jeff Taylor, would
have a bye run in the opening round, before going on to face the winner of the
Stratton – Jeff Gillette match. In essence, Taylor wouldn’t have to push his car
and, possibly, get an index adjustment going into his match with Stratton, who beat
Gillette. And, since Don needed to go rounds to catch Saye, that was a decided
disadvantage for him, and a plus for Mike. I ran into Don as he was coming to the
race control room to talk with Graham Light (NHRA VP of Racing Operations) after the
announcement was made that qualifying was over and the fields were set. He was,
obviously, upset with the decision, but I assured him that the NHRA folks had
labored over it at great length before making the official announcement, and I knew
for a fact that the Comp class was one that they looked at extensively before they
finalized the plans. "You can go in and talk to them," I told Don,
"but I don’t believe they’ll change the decision. They thought long and hard
about it and I believe they’ll stick with it." Don, wanting to plead his case,
as he rightfully should, went in and had his conversation with Graham, but the
decision stood. In Don’s mind, of course, that free run for Taylor basically decided
the title, and when Jeff ran .65 under the index to beat Don’s .57 under in round
two, the championship chase was, in fact, over.
When you realize how close Don came to repeating as the Comp champ, you have to feel
for him and his situation. He would have become only the second driver to win the
class championship in consecutive years, joining the great Coleman Roddy (1983 &
’84) on that very short list. Still, as I always say, in the interest of fair
reporting, let’s take nothing away from the champ, Mike Saye. The former Super Stock
World Champion did everything he had to do to secure his place in history, including
win a couple of national events, a few divisional titles and win more rounds than
anyone else in the class. The soft-spoken, hard-driving gentleman from Division 2
will carry the number one into battle next year, and he should be very proud of it.
And, as that little saying goes, Don Stratton has nothing to be ashamed of for
finishing number two. Both drivers had great years and both should contend for the
title again, next year.
A few final thoughts….there is still some talk going on at the NHRA offices about
running a Competition Eliminator Class Nationals some time and somewhere in the near
future and I’d love to see it. Indy would be a good place, since most of the hitters
will be there anyway. Imagine the best Comp cars in the class going head-to-head to
see who has the best machine in each class. No handicaps, no index hits, no
penalties, just first to the finish line gets the win and the bragging rights. Let’s
do it!!…A tip of the cap to Lucky Snyder for his great season. As I look back on
the past few years, I have to think that Lucky is probably the most improved driver
in the class and he has made his car one of the most competitive. Of course I’m
still waiting for a Tom Snyder-Lucky Snyder final round at some national event…The
A/ND certainly gave us some great
moments this year, didn’t they? Wayne Ramay and Dean Carter with those pair of 7.10
runs at the Finals certainly showed what those cars and teams are capable of doing.
Mark my words, a six-second run for those boys is not far away, the only questions
is, who will be the first one to do it?….And I have to admit that before the end of
the year I really didn’t know what a AA/AM class car was, let alone who had the best
one in the country. Well, I do now. It’s a blown, altered car that runs on methanol,
hence the "M" designation in the class name. And Jirka Kaplan has the best
one in the country, any country, for that matter. The runner from Alberta, Canada,
ripped off a stunning 6.51 at the end of the year to raise more than a few eyebrows.
To show you how strong that is, he holds the record at 6.55 and the record for the
conventional, gas burning blown altered cars is 6.98. You gotta love that methanol,
don’t you?….And with Jeff Taylor stepping up to Pro Stock next year, that will leave
a lot of national event titles up for grabs as well as a few on the divisional
level. That is, of course, unless he decides to run both classes in ’03.
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