The third round in the 2002 NHRA Sport Compact Drag Racing Series brought racers and fans alike to Atco, N.J. on May 18th and 19th for what may have been the most competitive and entertaining day in the history of the sport.
The 2002 season has had a lot of close races, but never before has every class served up door handle-to-door handle racing like this. The level of competition at the Lucas Oil Products NHRA Sport Compact Nationals presented by Smirnoff Ice is truly a testament to the growth of the sport; not only are racers building more reliable and more powerful cars in the upper classes, driving skills are improving.
This class could possibly be the hardest in which to do well. Going fast is not a matter of turning up the wick and watching the boost gauge run higher. There is much more finesse involved; every little bit of horsepower gained could be the difference between advancing and loading up on the trailer.
First round action pitted Ken Scheepers and his old-school '79 RX-7 against Larry Kelley and his '69 VW Fastback. Kelley was having engine problems in qualifying, but limped his car to the line and even managed to get a head start on Scheepers. But it was Scheepers that would move to the semi-final as Kelley was forced to shut his car down when the engine let go.
Jesus Padilla and his tubbed-out '85 RX-7 was matched against Charles Lore and his '92 Honda Civic. This turned out to be a no-brainer for Padilla, not only did he smoke Lore off the line, he was also over two seconds faster at the finish. Padilla finished in 10.558 sec at 127 mph to Lore's 12.651 at 82 mph.
The Skunk2 Integra has been dusted off and brought out of retirement for 2002 and in the first two events proved the Integra and driver Tony Shagday were still a force. In the first round, Angel Valentin and his '85 RX-7 were able to get a small lead off the line over Shagday, but engine problems ensued and Valentin dropped off and Shagday motored into the semis.
The final run in the first round was a little comical, but easily understood. Tom Fujita driving his '87 Civic went against Jeremy Allen and his '92 Civic. Inexperience and adrenaline seemed to get the best of Fujita though. As Fujita was lining up to stage, Allen had already rolled into the first beam. Apparently, Fujita wanted to win really badly; he rolled through the lights without staging and took off, forgeting the staging rules. Allen's adrenaline must have been surging as well, he decided to give chase. Allen at least waited to see the first yellow light though, and a red light beats a "no stage."
It seems Shagday would have it easy for most of the day, but that doesn't mean he didn't go out and run some great numbers. What could have been a close match for both Shagday and Scheepers became a walk in the park for the Skunk2 Acura. Scheepers entered the first staging beam setting his car up for a hard launch, but problems ensued and Scheepers rolled through the lights. Rules dictate you cannot back the car up to try again. The light turned green for Shagday, who ran a 10.761 at 123 mph moving him into the finals.
Jeremy Allen had his work cut out for him running against Jesus Padilla. It was FWD vs. RWD and Allen would have to muster up something better than his best run of the weekend if he would have a chance against Padilla. Both competitors staged, but when the tree dropped, Padilla's Mazda launched past Allen's Civic and he never looked back. It was Allen's best run an 11.436 at 116 mph, but definitely no match for Padilla's 10.557 at 129 mph.
Final round pitted the top two qualifiers against one another-Shagday vs. Padilla; old school vs. new. This time Shagday was the underdog. Both competitors staged and Padilla's RWD launched past Shagday by the 60-foot mark. Shagday gave chase and was trailing Padilla by a car length, but Shagday was unable to reel in Padilla. It was very close, but the Wally went to Jesus Padilla and his three-rotor RX-7 posting a 10.577 at 128 mph against Shagday's 10.690 at 126 mph.
Toyota Supras were the weapons of choice filling half the qualifying field, but the RX-7 of Ari Yallon and Rotary Performance as well as the Talon of John Shepherd (2001 IDRC Champion) would have to be knocked out of the way if a Supra was to win the Wally.
Having beaten the Supra of Vinny Ten in the first round, Ari Yallon was matched against the Titan Motorsports Supra of Mark Mazurowski in the semis. The first NHRA Street Tire final in Gainesville brought these two together with Yallon beating Mazurowski off the line. Mazurowski qualified with a 9-second pass and wanted to show Yallon just what that looked like in the semis. Both competitors lined up in the staging area with Yallon creeping slowly into the first beam. Yallon's transmission problems in qualifying would plague him once again. Just as the tree turned yellow, Yallon's RX-7 crept out of the last staging beam, causing him to red light and give the easy win to Mazurowski.
Next up was the '93 Supra of Marko Djuric and the '91 Talon of John Shepherd. Track favorite John Shepherd had pulled 9's out of his car beating Jeff Elliot in the first round, but Djuric was also up to the 9-second task. And when the tree went green, Shepherd was left holding the bag at the line as Djuric cut a good light and blasted past Shepherd. Shepherd was looking to catch him by the end, but Djuric had a new personal best run, crossing the finish with a 9.802 at 143 mph to Shepherd's 9.932 at 147 mph. This was the first all 9-second showdown in the Street Tire Class, a testament to the rapid evolution this division is experiencing.
The final round was Supra vs. Supra; Mazurowski vs. Djuric. With both Toyotas capable of single-digit passes, the crowd knew this was going to be close and they were right. One green light later and Djuric got the jump on Mazurowski by two car lengths. Both cars were on the march with Mazurowski hot on the heels of Djuric. Door to door both cars approached the traps, but at the 1000-foot marker, Djuric's turbo took a dump, billowing clouds of smoke like a mosquito fogger. Fortunately Djuric had enough momentum to hit the traps before Mazurowski. Who cares about blowing a turbo when you win, right?
Not right-Djuric who had finished in 9.725 at 135 mph was disqualified, as the car did not meet NHRA requirements. It seems the Supra's only form of chassis protection was a simple four-point roll bar, which is required of cars running 10.00 to 11.99 seconds. Cars faster than 10.0 seconds require a six-point roll cage. Djuric was warned after his 9.80 in the semis that another 9 would result in a DQ. His only way to win was to run a 10 and still beat Mazurowski. It wasn't to be and Team Titan got the win.
The quarterfinal round started by matching the Venom Civic of Bruce Mortensen against Sav Leone and his IMPO Performance-sponsored Civic. Leone qualified tenth and knew he would need a little luck if he was going to knock the number two qualifier out of the race. One green light later it was all over for Leone. By the time Leone dumped the clutch, Mortensen was past the 60-foot marker. To top that off, his IMPO Performance Civic was misfiring halfway down the track. Mortensen finished with an off-pace 10.146 at 153 mph to Leone's 11.479 at 128 mph. Jojo Callos and Andrew Bermea were the next competitors out of the gate, but this was an easy round for Callos. Bermea not only was late off the line, but also broke. Jojo was running his typical 8-second pass and moved into the semis.
Having beaten Kenny Tran in an earlier round, Mike Crawford and his PhatRidz Dodge Neon looked to slam the door on Jennifer Williams and her Inline Pro Honda. This is Jennifer's first year running the Hot Rod Class, having made her way through the ranks of bracket classes. Both cars left the line at the same time, but every time Jennifer shifted gears, the automatic transmission of Crawford's Neon kept him moving forward. At the trap, she was ahead by two car lengths. Crawford finished with a 9.453 at 151 mph to Williams' very respectable 9.594 at 147 mph. Be sure to watch for Jennifer Williams at future events.
The last pairing in the quarterfinal matched Lisa Kubo against newcomer to the import scene, Marty Ladwig, driving GM Racing's 2002 Sunfire. Ladwig is going to have to step up his game if he is going to play with the big boys. Ladwig was first off the line with a good reaction time, but it was the pure horsepower of Kubo's Civic that blasted her past Ladwig as she finished in 9.306 at 157 mph to Ladwig's 10.233 at 129 mph.
Saying the semi-final rounds were exciting is the understatement of the event. First up was the Venom Civic of Mortensen against Crawford's FatRidz Neon. First out of the gate was Crawford with Mortensen close behind. Both cars were surging toward the finish neck and neck, but good driving technique and a few extra ponies helped Mortensen inch past Crawford and move into the finals for the third time this year.
If that wasn't close enough, the Callos-Kubo race was just flat out amazing. Kubo was able to get half a car length on Callos when the light turned green, but the Castrol Syntec Acura was hot on the heels of Kubo and gaining. It wasn't until the 1,000-foot marker that Callos was able to pull past Kubo and not just take the win, but also set a new national record of 8.825 at 161 mph. Kubo finished with her best time as well, a 9.140 at 158 mph but that was just not enough.
The final started a little late as the track was oiled down by Marko Djuric when his turbo let loose. Jojo Callos and Bruce Mortensen stepped up to the line to see who had the goods; one was a fast pass away from the big money. But when the light turned green, things got ugly. As soon as Mortensen dumped the clutch in the Venom Civic, the engine gave out completely and started spewing oil.
In fact, just about every last ounce of the motor's lifeblood ended up on the track. Callos would earn the win but slowed toward the finish when his engine started smoking.
The Modified Class has turned into a clash of late-model, front-wheel drive vs. old-school rear drive. Every racer has his own idea of just how to go fast but in the end it usually comes down to horsepower and good driving technique. A little luck can help as well.
First up was Steven Thomson and 2001 NHRA Modified champ Carlos Gonzalez. Thomson didn't make the field, qualifying ninth; however, Christian Rado's World Electronics Celica broke a valve spring seat during qualifying. Unfortunately for Thomson, his nerves at the line got the best of him as he red-lit by just 0.44 of a second. It was not to be Thomson's day.
Next up was Jose Mendez driving an older Toyota Corolla against Luis Torres Maldonado in a Mazda rotary. The Pan American effect was in full swing; fans in the stands were quick to choose the side of Mendez' piston instead of Maldonado's rotary. Maldonado's Mazda fouled out at the start and piston fans were quick to add a humiliating "boo" to the proceedings. (Just remember: What comes around goes around.)
Crowd favorite Stephan Papadakis was next in the burnout box against Nelson Hoyos driving the GM Racing Chevy Cavalier. Hoyos, you may remember, is the owner of the low 7-second yellow Ford Focus featured in a past issue of Turbo. Nelson is stepping in for Stephanie Reaves while she recovers from a recent back operation. Any ideas of a fairly close race were snuffed when Hoyos' car stopped accelerating just before the 330-foot marker. The culprit-a $10 throttle pedal. Papadakis motored to the win, finishing with an 8.513 at 170 mph.
The last showdown in the quarterfinals was Marcos Acosta against the new Venom Supra of Jimmy O'Connor. As you may remember, O'Connor had shattered his leg while testing the Venom Tundra toward the end of the 2001 season. His injuries have not healed as quickly as expected and instead of moving successful drivers out of the Hot Rod Civic or Pro Tundra, Venom expanded its racing program with a Modified entry-a Supra. In fact, the car was purchased eight weeks prior to this event and finished by Paralax Race Cars just in time to ship it to Jersey.
Team Venom was happy to take the number two spot on the grid with an 8.210 at 163 mph. But this was just not to be O'Connor's day as the 2JZ-GTE gave way just before half track, giving the easy win to Acosta who finished with a 9.380 at 147 mph. It was great to see Jimmy behind the wheel again.
A lot of friendly smack talk has been exchanged in the past between racers Stephan Papadakis and Carlos "Steph killer" Gonzalez, but the semi-final round would be the proof in the pudding as to who would reign for the day. When the tree dropped, it was all about Papadakis getting the jump. Gonzalez came charging hard and it looked like he might even be able to pass, but the top-end power of Papadakis' AEM Civic was enough to keep Gonzalez at bay. Papadakis finished with an 8.473 at 172 mph to Gonzalez' 8.265 at 162 mph. Steph's super quick.502 reaction time against Carlos' .850 was the difference.
The second pairing in the semis was Jose Mendez and Marcos Acosta. Once again it became a piston vs. rotary showdown. This really was a close race as both racers left at almost the same time; Mendez had a .526 to .583 reaction advantage. The cars were neck-and-neck the entire 1320 with Acosta seeming to gain just slightly toward the finish, but the slight lead Mendez took at the start was just enough to get his bumper to cross the finish first. Mendez finished with a 9.014 at 145 mph to Acosta's 9.209 at 149 mph.
This final followed the liberal track oiling of the Venom Civic. By the time workers finished cleaning the racing surface the sun was gone, the lights were on, and the track was cold. Both cars tried their best to warm their tires but with temps dipping into the high 50s, the cold track was quick to cool tires. Mendez cut a fantastic light (.449). The Corolla pulled away but slowed to run an 11 and change at the finish while Papadakis seemed to have engine problems and could not give chase.
It is obvious the Pro Class competitors are really stepping up their game as seven out of the eight qualifiers posted 7-second times. And it should only get better as the thirst for speed is drawing competitors from other classes to step into the realm of tube-frame, high-horsepower cars.
For example, Ara Arslanian of Bullish Motor Racing was competing in the unibody class last year with his streetable Toyota Supra. This season he has come out blazing with not just one, but two mirror-image Toyota Solaras with identically prepared Supra powerplants.
New to import drag racing, but a legend in his own right, John Lingenfelter has decided to join the ranks of Pro Import Class cars with his Summit Racing-sponsored Sonoma truck. He is running a turbocharged Ecotec four-cylinder and has no problem keeping up with the pack. Orlando Torres, driving a Mazda RX-7, was first to try to shut Lingenfelter down, but when the light turned green, Torres' Mazda pulled left and out of the groove, forcing him to shut down early while Lingenfelter walked into the next round.
Piloting the Venom Racing Tundra, Grant Downing was up to the task of taking names and kicking ass. First up to the plate Rafael Rolda and his Toyota Corolla. Little did Rolda know that Downing is probably the only import driver that is licensed to drive a Top Fuel Funny Car. All that experience was seen as Downing cut a .473 light, launching him past Rolda, who was having problems of his own back at the line. Downing moved into the semis with an impressive 7.397 at 185 mph.
With less than 10 total passes on his Toyota Solara, Ara Arslanian was looking to knock the tube-frame Duttweiler-prepped twin-turbo V6 Cougar of Manny Cruz out of the way. Ara qualified with a 7.712 pass, which is good for a brand-new car. But it was obvious that bugs still need to be worked out when Ara was slow to launch. Cruz, who made it into the field when the 300ZX of Jorge Lazcano broke in qualifying, posted his best time of the event an 8.240 at 159 mph to Ara's ailing 7.980 at 162mph.
Driving the other Bullish Motor Racing Solara was George Ioannou, who was able to better Ara's time in qualifying. Ioannou would have his work cut out for him when he was set against Jose Torres and the Siguel Racing Mazda RX-7. As the light changed to green, Torres bogged off the line and Ioannou took full advantage of the mistake, blasting his way to the finish with a personal best of 7.227 at 186 mph to Torres' 8.211 at 175 mph.
Opening the semifinal round were George Ioannou against John Lingenfelter. This was definitely the upset of the day. All of Lingenfelter's experience was not enough to beat the 1.049 60-foot of Ioannou and the Bullish Solara, and even though Lingenfelter was able to hold even, he was not able to gain ground on Ioannou's 7.439 at 186 mph. Lingenfelter finished with a 7.546 at 187 mph.
Second in the semi were Grant Downing and Manny Cruz, but this was over before it started. During the burnout Cruz was leaking fluid; he was forced to shut it off and call it a day. Downing, however, did not take the easy way out and made a full pass, which gave him the win for the battle of the trucks with a 7.316 at 187 mph.
The final should have been close, but these two cars ran right after Papadakis and Mendez. Again, the temps were dropping and the track was cold. Ioannou was able to get away from Downing early on and Downing dropped out of the groove. Ioannou shut down early when he realized the finish was close and Downing was nowhere to be seen. Ioannou took home the win for the Bullish team, an achievement for such a new car.
At Atco, the Toyota Tundra of Craig Paisley and Toyota Celica of Matt Scranton and Turbonetics were the only Pro V8 racers on hand. Wanting to at least put on a good show, Paisley and Scranton ran each other in qualifying. But when it came down to the pass that counted, Paisley had problems. After both vehicles did long "pro style" burnouts, Paisley was shut off behind the line. The Celica made a single pass, got loose after the 60-foot mark and Scranton tried his best to get back in line. It was an easy way to collect a third consecutive NHRA win for Scranton and Turbonetics.