The Return of Nitro to US 131 Motorsports Park
2021 Northern Nationals
Words by Mike Sopko Jr.
Photos by Mike Sopko Sr., Mike Sopko Jr. and Michael K. Sopko
Drag racing fans that frequent Martin, Michigan’s beautiful US 131 Motorsports Park had to wait until the first weekend of August to get their long-awaited nitro fix. This year saw the return of many of the track’s special events including the NMCA/NMRA race in July, but no nitro until the Northern Nationals scheduled for August 6th and 7th. Unfortunately, a Midwest rainstorm cancelled racing on the 6th and the fans would have to wait just one more day for the return of nitro. Waiting for them on Saturday the 7th was a stellar field of big show nitro, front-engine top fuelers, two “big-pump” nostalgia funny cars, two nitro pro mods, with a side of jet dragsters, a jet truck, and a wheel stander that brought the fans out in droves. And when I say droves, I mean standing room only parking wherever they could fit cars droves. Best of all they were treated to a show they will remember for ages and one that emphatically marked the return of nitro and demonstrated the still rabid fan base for one helluva drag racing show!
The Craving of Drag Racing is Alive and Well in the Midwest!
A mere 234 miles separates US 131 Motorsports Park from Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio and both had their biggest events of the year on the same day. With just over 200+ miles between the facilities both tracks’ fanbases must overlap, yet both saw outstanding attendance as was highlighted by a Drag Illustrated social media post showing Arial shots of both facilities filled to capacity. Much has been said about the short fields seen in big show drag racing, but events such as these at Norwalk and Martin highlight the importance of these one-off events and the entertainment value that they possess.
Lions and Tigers and Pro Mods on Nitro OH MY!!!
I’ve always enjoyed a good Pro Mod event but seldom have had the chance to cover them because unless it’s out west they are not nostalgia specific and anymore the fields seem to made be made up of just as many modern Camaros as they do 60’s and 70’s Camaros. So, I’m happy to say that the first two nitro pro mods I have ever seen were of the nostalgia variety. One a classic ‘69 Chevelle (“Bad Attitude”) driven by JR. Sandlian and the other Scott Palmer’s ’53 Studebaker known as “Studezilla.” If you have never had the opportunity to see either of these vehicles and have tried to imagine what they must be like when they go full throttle, believe me they are gnarlier than you could ever imagine. Neither stayed under power for much longer than 330 feet, but those were a hairy 330 feet.
Dueling “Big Pump” Chevy AA/FC’s
So, everyone has their own idea of what Americana is to them. Maybe it’s apple pie. Maybe it’s baseball. Well, I’ve got another possibility to throw in the mix. Take the ‘62 Chevy II, World War II themed “Buzzy’s Nitro Bomber” funny car owned by Artie McElwee and driven by brother Mark lined up against Joe Haas’ red, white, and blue “American Way” ‘57 Chevy funny car. Add a large dose of nitro, with flames shooting up towards the roof line and speeds well in excess of 260 mph and it doesn’t get much more American than that….at least in my opinion.
McElwee was the first to hit the track in the early afternoon looking to get a baseline quarter mile hit. McElwee didn’t disappoint, refusing to lift despite having to manhandle it for the last 320 feet and ran a 5.73 at nearly 264 mph.
As the show began just before 7 o’clock it was the two nostalgia Chevy funnies lining up against one another. McElwee made another stellar pass keeping it in the groove and driving through the lights. Meanwhile in the opposite lane Haas was on a run, a run which was his “American Way’s” first quarter mile trek. On a pass that only could be described as “too good to lift” Haas ran through to what is believed to be the fastest pass by a ’57 Chevy bodied car on the dragstrip with a 5.63 at 289 mph.
Both cars had one more pass set for the evening and after a thrash in the Haas pit area, they took to the track under the lights. At the hit of the throttle both cars shot flames sky high, unfortunately for Haas he lit the tires before the 60 foot blocks. McElwee’s “Buzzy’s Nitro Bomber” fared better, but still had to lift early and coasted for the remaining length of the track to a 7 second time. Still both cars won the hearts of the fans and put on a great show.
Extreme Top Fuel Makes a Statement!
AA/FD owner, driver Jim Young brought out his Extreme Top Fuel organization to wow the Martin fans. So much so that there were several story lines from this class alone.
Martin and Boise-
Before going into detail on this heading let me first explain what Extreme Top Fuel is. Extreme Top Fuel is a group of heritage series legal front engine dragsters that mainly reside in the Midwest. What was so interesting about the timing of this event was that there was also a NHRA heritage series points race occurring Boise, Idaho on the same weekend. Now obviously traveling distance can have an impact on car turnout, but what was interesting was that on this weekend there were 17 AA/FDs competing. 6 in Boise, but a remarkable 11 fuelers coming from Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Georgia, and Oklahoma all descending onto Martin’s 1320.
The original plan had the 11 fuelers making three attempts to qualify for an 8 car field. However, a finicky rain storm kept the cars in their trailers on Friday evening. So instead of making a one-shot qualifying session, why not give people more of what they want and turn it into a Chicago-Style event? Which is exactly what they did, making two passes at 2 and 6 o’clock, and then bringing back the quick 4 for the finals. More on the results here in a minute.
So All You Have to do is Drive Straight, How Hard Could that Be?-
Have any of you ever tried to explain drag racing to your non-drag racing friends and heard this statement? I think we probably all have. Now let’s take in consideration that with all drag cars the more power you give them the less straight they want to go. Then let’s consider what a front engine fueler is like. You’re looking at approximately 3,000 horsepower on nitro, with skinny 12-inch rear tires, and a driver straddling the rear end with his/her feet hugging the clutch. Just looking at a slingshot, I don’t know if they were ever intended to go straight. Rather they were designed to go as quick and fast as possible, and it was up to the driver to keep them between the wall and the yellow stripe going down the middle of the track. Easier said than done. Furthermore, as it has been explained by many a racer, fan, and journalist- yes, we want to see cars go fast and race, but we don’t want things to be predictable. We want to see cars that must be driven, and we want to marvel at the passion and guts of the drivers that get behind the wheel. In the world of motorsports, drag racing may be the most unpredictable of them all and the AA/FD’s lived up to that billing. Within the Extreme Top Fuel group we saw outstanding sub 6 second performances, a new track record, but we also saw the demise of many a timing block as driver’s fought to keep something that doesn’t want to be controlled under control. Sure, nobody wants to hit the cones (or blocks-since when was the last time they were cones anyway), but when it does inevitably happen it also makes you realize just how much of a handful these vehicles can be and just what it takes to make them look like they are going straight.
Return of Shawn Bowen and the “Violator”
The last time nitro was run at US 131 Motorsports Park Shawn Bowen was competing against Jim Young in the final when disaster struck. Just past half track his front engine fueler made a hard left smashing into the guardwall and careening down the rest of the track while Jim Young took the victory. Linked here is the article, pictures, and coverage from that event.
Not only was this event the return of nitro, but it was also the return of Shawn Bowen and his new “Violator” AA/FD. The 2 o’clock run on Saturday was its maiden voyage and the Bowen team didn’t take it easy and put the new chassis through its paces clocking a 6.04 at 225 mph. I don’t know that many teams could come out with an untested car and make a lap like that straight out of the trailer. Bowen continued his successful “breaking in” of the car making it to the final as the second quickest car of the day. He saved his best run for the final as he ran a stout 5.93 at 245 mph, but came up short as Young won the event on a holeshot.
Hats off to the Young Gun!
As I mentioned at the beginning not only does Jim Young own and drive his own Young Guns AA/FD, but he is also in charge of the Extreme Top Fuel group keeping front engine dragster racing alive and well in the Midwest. On top of that he not only tunes his own car but can often be found at neighboring pit areas helping to tune the cars of others.
Young was in the first pair of AA/FDs to make a pass down the track on Saturday afternoon. Shortly thereafter it became clear as to why he was in the first pair, as he could be seen running through the staging lanes still in his firesuit to lend a hand to those teams he was helping. Oh yeah, and it should also be mentioned that first pass he made in the middle of the day with the sun on the track was a new track record at 5.68. Young made another solid pass in the second round and lined up for the final against Bowen. Young who won this year’s National Hot Rod Reunion in Bowling Green, Kentucky left first and was on another stout pass when the car gave up just after 1,000 feet and yet still coasted to a holeshot victory of 5.97 at only 178 mph.
Nitro was back in a big way, and it packed the stands, fences, and pits at US 131 Motorsports Park. Kudos to all involved from the track staff to the racers and teams for an outstanding show that left everyone marking their calendars for the 2022 Northern Nationals.
See you at the drags,
Mike Sopko Jr.