Wow! If you didn’t attend this year’s version of the Northern Nationals at US 131 Motorsports Park in Martin, Michigan you missed out on an incredible race. Unfortunately, I was only able to attend the second of the two days due to a work commitment and even then, I feel a little cheated.
Fans pack the facility as a Michigan summer sunset sets the backdrop during the Northern Nationals.
This is a nostalgia magazine first and foremost so for the most part we will stick with that, but there was a little bit of everything here. And how do you know when you have a recipe for success with a race like this? When you can have hours of non-stop drag racing action that packs the stands, three deep along the fence, and nobody leaves! This event is too large to capture in a normal summary and if I gave round by round results it would turn into a novel. So rather I’m going to give you several short stories that encapsulate the event and tie them in with the photos from my Dad, my 9-year-old son (his are the shots from the stands), and myself.
Big Show Top Fuel-
First of all, since it is not related to nostalgia I won’t spend too much time on this. But US 131 booked in Dom Lagana, Larry Dixon, Pat Dakin, and Clay Millican to give the crowd a taste of big show nitro. Dom who holds the track speed record with a 338 mph blast a couple of years ago, again set the high-water mark for the event with a 4.56 ET at over 334 mph, not in 1000 feet, but in the QUARTER! Oh yeah-it was cool!
EXTREME TOP FUEL-
Now let’s get into Extreme Top Fuel. What’s Extreme Top Fuel you ask? Well it’s a nostalgia top fuel series that was the brainchild of AA/FD stalwart Jim Young. Jim has assembled a hardcore group of racers that not only compete, but put on a show for the fans. Want to take a guess as to how many were on the property? A very impressive 11 cars showed up. And not only did they show up, but they showed out as well putting on a professional show. The way the qualifying ladder works is that there are three rounds of qualifying (I missed the two on Friday) and the best two runs for each driver are averaged to decide the field. This puts a premium on making good runs. Saturday gave the teams one last shot at qualifying which would set the field and leave the top 8 remaing, with 3 rounds of eliminations. We’ll get to the winner in a little bit, that story is one that deserves it’s own sub story, as do the following:
LAST SHOT QUALFIYING-
These all could go under the premise of wild rides, but we’ll attempt to organize them a little more specifically. So we’ll begin with the 3rd round of qualifying and first up is newcomer Chris O’Reilly. I have positioned myself about half way down in the shutdown area, to get some chute shots (my favorites). Chris makes a strong pass in his new fueler, but as he crosses the finish line the car makes a move across the centerline, Chris wisely has the chutes out and tries to bring the car back into his lane, the left lane. As he does this and the chute hits, you can actually make out the right rear slick spinning and producing smoke while getting it back under control. Then to make things more difficult there was a fairly loud pop, which I can only surmise was the burst panel letting go. Still Chris was able to gather it up and safely get it shutoff.
Chris O'Reilly goes for a wild ride in his fueler. After crossing the finishline the car made a move from the left lane to the right. O'Reilly quickly got the chute out and fought the car back into his lane. But it wasn't easy.
Notice the tire smoke from the right side tire as he fights the car back into its lane.
So, if that doesn’t give you some pause before considering getting behind the wheel of one of these front motored behemoths maybe this will. Howard Haight, made the third attempt behind the wheel of “The Nitro Bandit” FED. Remember, I’m standing about halfway down the shutdown area. As Howard comes of the line you can tell he pedaled the car, it also doesn’t sound like it is at full song, but seems to grow more as he approaches the traps. Now I’ve been shooting down there long enough to know what it sounds like as a nitro car begins to coast and the fuel shuts off and the last little bit of cackling occurs as the car reaches for silence. That wasn’t happening in this case. Instead Haight was still accelerating, he had a chute out and it was pulling high in the air. In a matter of seconds, Haight is passing me and the comforting sounds of the car shutting down still are not being heard. As he passes the car begins to bounce and I’m thinking he is headed to the beach at the end of the track. Then within about the next few hundred feet he was able to close the throttle and bounce it to a stop before it got ugly.
Notice the throttle blades and the position of the chute. The throttle remains open as Haight zooms by.
Haight was eventually able to close the throttle while also bouncing the car to a stop.
Before I begin this story, I will preface this with where Holy Christmas came from. I’m borrowing or maybe only slightly stealing from NHRA Announcer, Brian Lohnes. A couple of years ago at Route 66 during a round of TAFC there was a competitor who shook the tires bad and lifted and for all intents and purposes handed the win to his opponent. Then at about half track his opponent ran into some trouble and the first driver being alert wisely got back into the throttle and drove around him in the last moments culminating with Brian Lohnes proclaiming “Holy Christmas.” My son cracked up at it and it has kind of stuck for us anytime we see something similar.
We had one of those moments during the first round of Extreme Top Fuel as Tim Cullinan matched up against one of the favorites, Jim Young in the battle of the green front engine fuelers. Both teams had made passes in the 5’s, but based on Jim’s performance over the last several years Young was one of the favorites for not just the round but the entire event. As the cars approached two hundred feet Young was out ahead of Cullinan, but then began to haze the tires and Cullinan shot past taking a commanding lead. Young didn’t relent and pedaled till he got his slingshot to stick. As they approached the 1320 stripe, it was Cullinan’s car that began to falter and with Young still legging out his ride, he was able to drive around Cullinan prior to crossing the stripe with a 6.10 @ 250 mph to Cullinan’s 6.31 @ 182 mph. My words don’t do it justice, but it was the roar of the crowd that let you know just how exciting the race was and the phrase Holy Christmas immediately came to mind.
The "Holy Christmas" run as Young and Cullinan swap the lead multiple times before Young finally takes the first round win.
We’ll save the rest of Top Fuel for the culmination of the article.
FUNNY CAR THUNDER-
Diggers and slingshots weren’t the only blown and nitro engines on the property. There were several funny cars including 6 BB/FC’s, and the nitro nostalgia floppers of Artie McElwee and John Lawson. Also making some shakedown passes was former nostalgia funny car racer Mike McIntire, in his big show “McAttack” flopper. Not to be outdone by the nitro floppers there was a tough field of the alcoholic variety including Steve Timoszyk, who may have the baddest nostalgia alcohol funny in the country with his “Detroit Tiger” tribute Monza. Timoszyk routinely made passes in the 6.20’s after doing the longest burnouts of the event! Whether it was nitro or alcohol, the roar of the crowd was again the metering stick that indicated the flames, smoke, and speed was a hit!
The "King of the Burnouts" during the Northern Nationals, Steve Timoszyk smokes the tires of his Monza past half track.
Perhaps the meanest and nastiest race cars ever to be created by man, the fuel altered. The two versions of the species present were a blend of nostalgia flavor with contemporary performance as evident by the large supercharges, 6-foot-tall flames, and top fuel style wings. Both altereds wheeled by Troy Martin and Gary Krause respectively made passes in excess of over 270 mph.
George Krause with the throttle wide open during the Northern Nationals at US 131 Motorsports Park.
This will segue right into another over the top moment. During the final fuel altered pass of the evening under the lights Gary Krause staged his “Moonshine Express” Coupe again Troy Martin in the “Drastic Plastic” Anglia. At the hit Krause took off while Martin initially carried the front wheels but then soon unloaded the rear tires causing the header flames to even reach higher. Meanwhile Krause streaks down the track at more than 275 mph with the escape hatch exiting the body from the force of the speed. However, most of the capacity crowd’s attention was drawn back to Martin, who in an effort to save the pass got back on the throttle. When doing so the car swung violently around nosing into the left side barrier which then spun the car around 180 degrees with the wheelie bar and rear of the car making contact with the wall. The car then leaned hard on the left side and tried to go over, but the headers kept it from teetering further. Martin was able to bring the car back under control and coasted for a little while before coming to a stop. Fortunately, Martin was okay and the car is repairable.
"Drastic Plastic" just begins to break traction as the front end seettles and the rear end climbs. Notice the intesity of the flames as the tires begin to spin.
Troy Martin is able to gather "Drastic Plastic" back up after making contact with the wall twice.
NITRO IRON MAN-
You know what’s something you don’t see to often at an event? Somebody competing in both a nitro dragster and nitro funny car. Sure, there have been pros that have dabbled in some sportsman classes and obviously there are sportsmen that can compete in multiple classes, but rarely are there events where a competitor can compete in two premier nitro categories. Veteran wheelman, Shawn Bowen did just that. Not only did he compete behind the wheel of his own nostalgia top fueler, which by the way was one of the hardest launching AA/FD’s I’ve ever witnessed, he was also driving one of John Lawson’s nitro funny cars. Bowen would routinely make a sub 6 second pass in either and then come right back up to the lanes in his driving gear to get behind the wheel of the next vehicle. Again, just another intriguing part of this year’s Northern Nationals…..but it didn’t stop there.
Shawn Bowen in one of the hardest leaving front engine fuelers I've ever seen.
Shawn Bowen driving one of John Lawson’s nitro funny cars.
Did you catch the last segue there? That’s right the wildness of the evening was not yet over. You hang around this sport long enough and document it, you see some wild and to be honest scary things. Many of us have seen numerous fires or crashes, yet we never become desensitized to them and it is never a comfortable thing to see. As documenters of the sport we live to catch the moments both good and bad, but we also empathize with those that put their heart and soul into what they do only to see some of that fall to pieces. Additionally, it is a part of the appeal, that these daring men and women are willing to get behind the wheel and compete.
Troy Martin in Tom Motry's "Drastic Plastic" gets some air after making contact with the wall.
Not long after we were all beginning to come down from the excitement of the “Drastic Plastic” incident we had the Top Fuel final. Again, there were 11 quality cars on the property, but even early on it was clear the favorites were Jim Young and Shawn Bowen. Bowen who as I had said was doing double duty driving had just returned from making a pass in John Lawson’s “Quickdraw” flopper. Young was also doing double duty as organizer of the Extreme Top Fuel contingent and owner and competitor in his own right. It truly was a pick’em race and one that was a great conclusion to the nitro extravaganza. I had Bowen in my lane and Dad was shooting Young in his lane. The cars left together and were neck and neck the majority of the way. Towards half track Bowen’s car seemed to be drifting towards the centerline and then all at once the car pitched to the left and towards the wall making contact around 1000’ at about a 45-degree angle. The rear of the car immediately snapped towards the wall slamming the left headers, canard, and tire against the barrier. Initially we could not tell where Bowen was on the track from the debris and dust that had kicked up. Meanwhile Young secured the lead and victory crossing the finish line with a 5.94 @ over 231, while Bowen still crossed with a 6.83 at nearly 122 mph. The crowd held their collective breaths until they heard that Bowen was emerging from the car under his own power, no doubt a testament to the car they built. Hopefully the car will be repairable on some level, and they will be back out again.
There were several things that could be gleaned from this race-the Northern Nationals is a CAN’T MISS EVENT, nostalgia drag racing is alive and well, especially with the groups of nitro and alcohol funnies, altereds, and the Extreme Top Fuel teams, and fans will still come in droves to see them.
Hope to catch you at the next one,
Mike Sopko Jr.