Funny Car Nationals at US 131 Motorsports Park
by Mike Sopko
My alarm was set for 6:30 am, but I awoke sometime around 5 a.m. on Saturday, September 7th with butterflies in my stomach. It was no use trying to fall back asleep - I was too amped up, ready to be heading out to Martin, Michigan for the Funny Car Nationals. In my 32 years of life and attending drag races, it had been 20 years since I last stepped foot on the grounds that are touted as “the fastest track in Michigan.” I had been there twice previously as an 11 and 12-year-old, attending a Chicago-style Funny Car race (which usually fell after the Englishtown national event) between eight of the NHRA’s ‘big show’ cars. This time I was heading out to catch the next installment of the DRO AA/FC circuit as well as a show full of gassers, nostalgia alcohol funny cars, fuel altereds, jets, and the Lagana brothers’ top fueler.
As I cranked the radio and made the two-and-a-half hour trek around Lake Michigan to the track, I could not fathom why Dad and I had not been back in so long. Nearing the final exit I was met with a billboard advertising the event that featured on it the very funny car that Nostalgia Drag World’s own Rick Krafft drives. Just after the billboard the entire track came into view - a welcome sign that I had made it. Unfortunately, as I was exiting the highway to the track, I was also greeted by a Midwestern rainstorm that traditionally blows up out of nowhere. Really, two and a half hours of beautiful skies and just as I reach the track, downpour…UGH! Fortunately it did not last long; however, it was not the last time that the 30% chance of rain became 100% as Mother Nature tried at least a couple more times to dampen the chances of racing action. Each storm passed quickly and it managed to be warm enough that the rain evaporated from the racing surface almost as quickly as it fell. Finally after the last storm of the day subsided it was time for eliminations.
I was unable to attend Friday’s qualifying, but apparently conditions were ripe for the track to live up to its motto of being “the fastest track in Michigan.” Only eight funny cars showed for the DRO challenge so no bump was in effect. Leading the charge was defending DRO champ John Hale who looked to rebound from a disappointing DNQ at the World Series. The Texan ripped off a 5.73 at 261 only to follow it up with a 5.61 blast in the second session. His 259 mph pass in the second session was enough to back up his previous speed of 261 to set the DRO top speed record. Other funnies in attendance included DRO point leader and Michigan Native Shawn Bowen in the “Violater” Trans Am, Brian Stewart’s “Bear Town Shaker” Mustang, Bazz Young’s “Down Under Thunder” Camaro, Marc White in the “Flashback” Trans Am, Peter Gallen’s “Poverty Stricken” Monza, Ronny Young’s “Blue Max” Arrow, and Troy Martin back behind the wheel of his “Chi-Town Hustler” Omni.
I took my place along the guard rail, ready to shoot the first round action. First pair up saw Peter Gallen against Brian Stewart. In the Pennsylvania versus Minnesota battle Gallen came out on top with a 5.73 to Stewart’s 5.96. The next run paired Bowen against Bazz Young. The point leader left himself vulnerable with only a 6.02 pass, but it was enough to outpace Young’s 6.20. The next match up found Hale in his Mike Burkhart-tribute Camaro against the “Blue Max” of Ronny Young. Though I enjoy shooting the “Blue Max” Arrow, given the excitement of last night’s qualifying action I decided to focus across track (which makes it really interesting when the car in the near lane buzzes by and is not in your viewfinder) waiting for another spectacular pass from Hale. Perhaps it was good that I focused on Hale, because little did I know that would be my only opportunity to shoot his car as Young stepped up and delivered a 5.73 to Hale’s impressive, but not enough 5.80. This was clearly the upset of the event if not the season, and continued the roller coaster ride for Hale as he went from DNQ to #1 qualifier and record holder, to being out after the first round.
Though not as impressive by performance, the last pair of the first round was equally entertaining. In the White versus Martin matchup, Martin double-stepped it off the starting line and went up in smoke while in the far lane White was trying to wrangle his car back in the groove as it broke the tires loose and was skating around. Martin got back in the throttle and was on and off several times trying to get around White before the finish line. From my vantage point it appeared that he indeed had caught him; however, the win light glowed on the “Flashback” side. It seemed that Martin’s double-step was actually a red light, which was fortunate for White and allowed him to move on to the next round.
The semi’s pitted Bowen against Ronny Young and White against Gallen. This time I was prepared for another stellar pass from Young, but just as he passed me his tires went up in smoke and so did his chances of victory as Bowen took the stripe with a 5.90. In the next match up Gallen and White left together and in one of the best races of the weekend White took the win with a 5.77 to Gallen’s 5.83.
That set the final up for two of NHRA’s former top alcohol stars. Marc White, who previously had raced in TA/FC, escaped the first round and then laid down a solid semi final performance to have the lane choice in the final. Shawn Bowen, a past TAD and A/FD pilot, had come in as the point leader and was trying to offset the gains made by his closest competitor Hale, who had gained important points through his qualifying efforts. Bowen had stepped up his performance in the last round, but was more than a tenth behind White’s semi-final round effort. I decided to make my way about 250 feet down track in hopes of catching some flames from the headers. As they launched both cars appeared to be right together as I was able to keep them both in my view finder. White looked to be on a good pass, with flames shooting high and brightly out of the headers; however, as he passed me he again lost traction and Bowen, the Michigan native, took the victory with a 5.76 at 250 mph and change.
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