Mon, 14 Dec 2009, 10:26 AM
I Sat at the Lucky Table
By Bob Frey
Photo copyright 2009 Auto Imagery, Inc. & Robert Grice
James McNeal and crew celebrate win.
The old expression in drag racing goes something like this, "If you want to win a race you need
some luck along the way." That may not be the exact expression, but you get the idea. Sometime
during the course of eliminations most drivers will get what they consider a lucky round. Their
opponent breaks, or they break-out but the other guy breaks out more, or they leave a little too
early but the other guy left even earlier, or they foul while the opponent crosses the center line.
Yes, most racers will agree that luck plays a part, sometimes a big part in the outcome of a round
or a race. James McNeal, the Summit Racing Series Super Pro national champion, admits that he got
lucky in Pomona when he won the title. "We went to the banquet that Summit put on for us on
Thursday night and I sat at the same table as Tibor Kadar who also won a championship. What are the
odds that two guys who never met each other, from two different divisions, would sit at the same
table and then go on to win the race? I guess it was just my weekend and it all started when I sat
at the lucky table."
Division 4 Super Pro final,
Austin Williams vs. James McNeal.
Now I believe in luck as much as the next guy but I really think James is down-playing his role in
the championship. After all, to even get to Pomona he had to earn the right to represent Paris
Drag Strip, his home track, in order to go to Dallas for the division championship. Then he had to
win the Division 4 Super Pro title, and that took eight rounds, and then he had to beat the Pro
champion in a special run-off, and that was another round, and then he had to win three rounds in
Pomona. Doesn't sound lucky to me, it just sounds good. "I've been racing for a while now," James
said, "and I've had a little bit of success, but nothing like this." What James also has besides
success is the support of his wife and family as he races and wins on a local and now a national
level. "I've been married to Johnna for twenty years and she has always known that I love drag
racing and she is very supportive of it." I guess the fact that James took her to the U.S.
Nationals in Indy for their honeymoon should have been an indication to her of what was to come. "I
was lucky to have her and my one son, J.D., with me in Pomona to share the experience. It was a
very special weekend."
James and Johnna McNeal
Like so many racers who compete at their local tracks, the opportunity to win and then go to Pomona
is the proverbial carrot that's dangling out there. "I've come close before and I won the division
Race of Champions a few years back but I've never earned the right to go to Pomona, so you can
imagine how excited I was this year." And if you think he was excited before he got to California,
you should hear what he says about the week that he spent there. "It was just a wonderful
experience. I can't say enough about what the Summit people did for us and how they treated us.
>From the minute we got there we were treated like stars. They parked us all together, had the nice
banquet for us (the one where he sat at the lucky table), had someone come over to us and let us
know when it was our turn to run and things like that." Another thing that made the week special
for James was the fact that the fans were so nice to all of the Summit racers. "They didn't know we
were just regular racers, most of who were there for the first time. They came over, asked about
our cars and were really interested in what we were doing." James took advantage of that to let
some youngsters sit in his dragster and that made a lot of new friends for him and the Summit
teams. "You could have thrown a baseball from my trailer and hit John Force's trailer, that's how
close we were to all the stars. Like I said, it was special." Gee, I wonder if somewhere out there
today John is saying that he could have thrown a ball and hit James McNeal's trailer?
McNeal vs. Tom Williams
For James, the attraction of drag racing came at a very early age. "I went to my first drag race
when I was sixteen and I'm forty-four now. I remember seeing that first pair of cars leave the
starting line with the wheels in the air and I was hooked." Well, hooked for a while. James raced
and did very well at his local track, but after a while he decided he wanted do something else so
he sold all of his equipment. "After two weeks I knew that I had made a big mistake and I bought
another car and I've been racing even more ever since then." The car he races now is a beautiful
2002 dragster built by Denny Nelson and it features a 582 cubic inch engine, a Powerglide
transmission and a B & M converter and James says that it makes about 1,000 horsepower. He also
said that he thought he might be at a little bit of a disadvantage when he came to Pomona. "Most of
the racing that I do is on the eighth-mile, so I had a few adjustments to make when I got to the
track." One thing that he noticed was that the car wasn't running at the top end of the track the
way he wanted, but he knew he could compensate for that. "My goal for the weekend was to not beat
myself. I can make the car work the way I want so all I had to do was focus and not make mistakes."
During the first few time runs James admits to watching the other racers put some good reaction
times on the board, but says that he wasn't worried about it. "I was a little slower than they were
but I knew when it came time for eliminations and the adrenaline kicked in that some of those
double-zero lights I was seeing would turn into red lights." And that's exactly what happened. In
the first round, in the four classes, five racers fouled out, including James' opponent, the
Division 2 champ, Alan Ackles. In round two against D-7 winner Carl Cannavo, James won on a
double-breakout (lucky?) and that set up his final round encounter with Tom Williams. When James
won that race with a better reaction time and a pass that was closer to the dial-in he was the
national champion. Now that's not lucky, that's good.
With trophy in hand, James headed home where he was greeted with a ticker-tape parade. OK, so maybe
there wasn't a lot of ticker tape but there was a parade and a big celebration. "Everyone in town
knew we were going out to California and the local paper did a big story when we left and a nice
follow-up when we came home. The civic groups and everyone were very supportive and we were in the
Christmas parade and the television station did a nice story on us. Like I said, it was a great
experience, a once in a lifetime experience." After saying that, James thought for a moment and
then added, "Actually, I'd like to do it again, so I hope it's not a once in a lifetime
experience." The way he ran this year, and with a little luck, there's a good chance that James
will make a return visit to Pomona. Now if only they'll have that same seat reserved for him at the
Following the race James said, "I would like to thank Shawn Bishop for all of his help and I'd like
to thank the Lord for the opportunity to race and for all the safety that I have enjoyed."
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