NHRA: Etchells Narrows the Gap at the Fram Route 66 Nationals
4 June 1998JOLIET, Illinois - The one quality that every participant searches for over the course of the 22-event NHRA Winston Drag Racing season is consistency. If a team is to consider itself a true contender for the championship, they must be able to exhibit the same high level of performance week in and week out. At this past weekend's inaugural Fram Route 66 Nationals in Joliet, Illinois, Chuck Etchells and his Kendall Oil/MaMa Rosa's Pizza/Superwinch Camaro Racing Team continued their season-long string of first round successes and advanced to the semi-finals for the sixth time this season. This showing allowed him to gain valuable ground in the points standings on many of his rivals who suffered earlier-round defeats. Facing Whit Bazemore, Etchells was able to gain a one hundredth of a second lead at the start. However, he was immediately slowed by a mechanical problem, which allowed his opponent to drive by for the win.
"I was going to shut if off after the burnout," explained Etchells. "I knew something was wrong when we lit the motor. I tried to communicate with the crew, but they didn't know what I was saying. I saw them look at the oil pressure gauge, and I figured if there was oil pressure it might be okay, so I staged, but the car still wasn't right. I made up my mind to shut if off, but thought I would give Whit (Bazemore) every opportunity to make a mistake and give us the win. He didn't, and my ticket got punched."
Qualifying provided the usual challenge, as many teams struggled to gain traction on the untested Route 66 Raceway surface. In his first attempt on Friday afternoon, Etchells claimed the provisional top spot with an elapsed time of 5.031 seconds. He also recorded a small piece of history at this beautiful new facility, as his top speed of 305.98 miles per hour was the first run made over the three hundred mph mark by any NHRA vehicle. Even though their attempts to improve on this effort were foiled by high heat, humidity and a slippery track, and placed them seventh for Sunday's final eliminations, the Etchells team gained valuable information with every pass, allowing them to formulate a plan of attack for Sunday. Lane choice, as always, would be crucial. In the first round, Etchells grabbed the lead at the start by over seven hundredths, and never looked back, using a 5.036 elapsed time to defeat Gary Densham. In the next round, Etchells virtually duplicated his initial run in eliminating Jerry Tolliver. However, lane choice for his semi-final matchup with Bazemore would belong to his adversary, whose own second round run was a mere seven thousandths of a second quicker.
"Looking at the ladder this morning, I wasn't overly optimistic after qualifying," stated Etchells. "We had one decent run that was soft and two tire-smokers. I figured we'd show up, do the very best we could, and see what happens. All in all, it ended up being a pretty darn good day for the Kendall Oil/MaMa Rosa's Pizza/Superwinch Camaro team. We gained ground on John (Force), and picked up some points on the guys behind us. We made it to the semi-finals, and you can't be too disappointed when you do that. We're going to pack up and head to Buffalo, where we have a match race next weekend. After that, we'll be after these guys again in Ohio!"
In Sunday's final, Whit Bazemore powered past a tire-smoking Del Worsham to earn his first win of the season. The NHRA now heads east for the Pontiac Excitement Nationals at the National Trail Raceway in Columbus, Ohio June 11-14.
Funny Car Points Standings (as of 5/31/98): 1.J. Force - 705, 2. Chuck Etchells - 644, 3. C. Pedregon - 610, 4. R. Capps - 591, 5. T. Wilkerson - 532, 6. T. Pedregon - 519, 7. W. Bazemore - 475, 8. R. Anderson - 410, 8. A. Hofmann - 384, 10. D. Skuza - 375.
Big Bud Shootout Points (as of 5/31/98): 1. J. Force - 2295, 2. R. Capps - 2105, 3. Chuck Etchells - 2020, 3. T .Pedregon - 2020, 5. C. Pedregon - 1890, 6. D. Skuza - 1870, 7. W. Bazemore - 1820, 5. A. Hofmann - 1815, 9. R. Anderson - 1730, 10. G. Densham - 1690.