On the Road with Team Craig Racing
Nightfire Nationals - Boise
By Stephen Justice
It’s 4:00 a.m. Wednesday morning at the Craig residence in Campbell, California. We are about to leave for Boise, Idaho, and the 43rd edition of the Nightfire Nationals. Team owners, Mike and Kathie Craig, have invited me to be part of their Nostalgia Top Fuel Dragster crew for this drag race. The Nightfire Nationals is a four-day race, the showcase event of the year for the famed Firebird Raceway. It is also an NHRA Heritage Series event for Nostalgia Top Fuel Dragster and Nostalgia Funny Car .
Our armada of vehicles includes a Ford F-350 truck to haul the race car and a 40’ RV with a small trailer attached holding everything that could not be safely tucked away in the Chaparral trailer. We want to get on the road early enough to make the entire 666 mile journey to Eagle, Idaho (city in which the drag strip is actually located) before dark, and scurry through the East Bay before the commuter ants stampede. We stop in Stockton to pick up our driver, Rick Williamson, who takes over the controls of the RV for the duration of the trip.
A little background information on the Team Craig top fuel dragster. It is a ’07 Steve Davidson race car and was originally owned by Bill Schwartz and Brad Berger. The chassis was updated in 2009 with some additional tubing and safety features. Mike and Kathie purchased it from the former owners in 2011. Rick Williamson has been the dragster’s only driver and has logged approximately two hundred runs in it. It has been successful from the start; making five second runs from the get go. In its debut at the 2007 Governor’s Cup at Sacramento Raceway, Rick slotted it into the #2 qualifying position. Although the winner’s circle eluded them that day, the dragster has always been a daunting antagonist for the other competitors. A crowning achievement came in 2012 when Team Craig Racing won the California Hot Rod Reunion and placed second in the NHRA Heritage Series for the top fuel dragster class.
Boise sunset; Wednesday from the Flying J Truck Stop
We are once again rolling down the interstate. The trip to Boise is not a serpentine nor a convoluted route, nor a particularly dangerous drive. The route out of Sacramento on I-80 will take us through Reno to Winnemucca, Nevada, where we switch onto U.S. 95 north for the remainder of our mileage. We arrive at the drag strip just as day is slipping into night, missing the 8:00 p.m. entrance deadline by a few clicks of the clock. Anticipating this might occur, the five of us who made the trek that day, do a sleepover in the RV at the drag strip with the few other unfortunates who also arrived late. No matter, track personnel open the gates early Thursday and we are in by 8:30 a.m.
In actuality, the Nightfire Nationals is a gigantic sportsman race with a dash of nitro thrown in. Thursday’s schedule is devoted entirely to the sportsman classes—Bracketeer; Pro/Heavy; Sled/Bike; etc. We want to make a test pass Thursday, but track management says there will be no time for test runs Thursday or Friday. I thought this decision odd as most high profile nostalgia events (Famoso Raceway, for example) involving nitro cars provide time for testing. Our crew chief, John Russell, has to be content with two fire ups this day.
The bloom on the Nightfire Nationals flower seems to have lost a little of its fragrance. I was expecting something more than eleven nitro funny cars, seven top fuel dragsters, and five pro modifieds. The top fuel dragsters get a prime pit location along the main spectator midway and that allows easy access for the fans to interact with the teams. The fans that come to this race are from a very young demographic: teenagers; young adult couples; and families with young children. And, they love souvenirs. We go through almost all of our hero cards. Rick must have signed 200-300 cards, all with a personal note written to the recipient.
Our race starts on Friday with Q1 scheduled for 7:30 p.m., followed by Q2 and Q3 on Saturday at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., respectively. The first gunfight with real bullets will not go off until 4:30 p.m. Sunday. My job is all about the nitro. I have to make sure the nitromethane/methanol percentage is dead on and clean of any particulate or sedimentary material. That, and fill the tank, drain the tank, drain the lines, and so on. Friday’s run is in the left lane and our first encounter with the “Boise Bump”. We will follow Terry Cox in the “Cheetah IV”. The “Cheetah” makes a hard move to the right at about mid-track, crossing the center line, and an automatic DQ. We suffer a similar fate. After a 1.030 60 ft. time (best of the session), the car moves so hard to the right that the run cannot be saved. In the end, no one got down the left lane in Q1. Although we are a little shorthanded at the Nightfire Nationals, this is a very experienced crew and servicing the race car is not affected. However, it requires an incredible amount of work. It is not until 11:30 p.m. Friday that we are able to put the dragster to bed; four hours after Q1.
This Chaparral trailer has some history behind it. It was once the trailer used for the Blue Max funny car
Saturday morning and we are all back at the strip before 9:00 am. It is supposed to be mid-90s today and hotter Sunday. It is humid, too. It tries to rain midday, but ends up being no more than an annoying shower lasting about thirty minutes duration. Still, we have to go through the entire routine of covering up the dragster, tools, and equipment, and then, setting up shop again. Q2 is just around the corner. We fire up the dragster about an hour before our scheduled run. Nothing better than hearing the guttural, primordial rhythms of a nitro motor awaken; drag racing’s favorite serenade. Last minute details are completed and Team Craig Racing heads for the staging lanes. We are in the right lane this time. The goal is to put ourselves in the top half of the field in order to have lane choice for eliminations. Well, we accomplish that and more. Rick runs 5.874-250.97 for the provisional number one position. The only other dragster into the fives is Jimmy Young, close at 5.879. Back in our pits, we discover we broke a rocker arm in #7 at 900’, which definitely cost us some additional hundredths in elapsed time. The call is made by our crew chief to swap out the engine, causing a major thrash, but we get it done in time for Q3. Though back in the less esteemed left lane, it is almost dusk and conditions are ripe for some quick times. We are in the third pair with Jim Murphy. In front of us is Jimmy Young driving Steve Harwood’s ex-“Nitro Thunder” car. Jimmy takes the Neil & Parks dragster to the number one position with a 5.809. That bodes well for us. The only question is whether the track will hold all the power we plan to throw at it. It takes less than a second for the answer. Seven tenths of a second into the run, the car lights the tires and the run is done. The last car to run in Q3 is Tony Bartone. I watch the run from the end of the track and it looks real quick. Tony jumps ahead of us, too, with a 5.839 and a whopping speed of 261.17. We are a little bummed out, but at least we will be in the top half of the field and have lane choice for Sunday.
Sunday dawns hot and calm. It is going to be a scorcher. We have more than enough time to prepare our Steve Davidson dragster for round one at 4:30 p.m. We are paired against our old nemesis Champion Speed Shop. If we get around Adam Sorokin and the team from South San Francisco, we will get the Tony Bartone/ Ron August Jr. winner. Engines fired, Rick steps out of the water box first. But, it is a very tepid burnout, barely smoking the tires. The slicks look dry as if there is not enough water in the box for a healthy burnout. Both cars stage; both bulbs are lit. Sorokin, known as a real talent on the Xmas Tree, will be difficult to beat off the line. Rick leaves first, but before the green light. Adam records .033 RT, but shuts off when the car makes a hard move to the left. We lose to a 6.081 on a red light. The ride to the end of the strip is pretty silent and glum; probably the same as for any team after it has lost and knows the race is over for them.
Ironic as it may be, we actually improve our position in the NHRA Heritage Series point standings despite going out in round one. We came into the Nightfire Nationals tied for ninth place, and leave in sole possession of fifth place. With only one race left on the schedule, the California Hot Rod Reunion in October, Tony Bartone has all but wrapped up the title. Team Craig Racing will be back in action in a few weeks for Saturday Night Nitro at Autoclub Famoso Raceway. The team will also be at the same facility in October for the CHRR. If you go to either of these events, please stop by and say hello.
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Nostalgia Drag World - text and photos by Stephen Justice Fast and Furious Photography
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