NHRA: Hill and Thomas Lead Pennzoil's Charge
20 September 1998READING, Pa. - The four exceptionally competitive qualifying sessions of the 14th annual Pioneer Keystone Nationals proved that the fall portion of the 22-event National Hot Rod Association schedule has officially arrived. The pleasant, racer-friendly environment of Maple Grove Raceway allowed plenty of movement in the standings in each round as drivers fought to put themselves in position to earn a championship on Sunday.
The conditions were obviously favorable for two of the three Pennzoil-sponsored drivers that made the trip to the Keystone State. Hall of Fame legend Eddie Hill used Friday's opening round to qualify the Pennzoil Dragster for its 35th consecutive race while Pro Stock challenger Mike Thomas drove the Pennzoil Pontiac into the NHRA's most competitive final group with a sub-seven-second, final-round lap. Unfortunately, success eluded former Keystone champion Bruce Allen as he fought traction problems throughout the event.
The final outcome of each Pennzoil driver's qualifying sessions is explained below.
Eddie Hill, the Top Fuel pilot of the Pennzoil Dragster, proved to be one of the most consistent drivers in his class with a pair of impressive runs down the quarter-mile strip in Rounds 3 and 4. Hill covered the track in 4.642 seconds and 4.650 seconds on Saturday to back-up his event-best Friday afternoon pass of 4.639 seconds at 298.50 mph.
"This car has been so consistent that I feel like we should be reporting a dial-in time to the tower," Hill said with a laugh. "It's like a bracket car. Running so well in the first round really gave us a chance to fine-tune the engine set-up. I'm tickled that the engine is this strong and durable. I credit Pennzoil motor oil for giving us such fantastic engine life. I know a lot of crews out here would give anything to get as much life out of the engine as we do."
Hill, who is 62-years-old, will face Connie Kalitta, 60, in the first round of Sunday's elimination racing. Kalitta's best time was a 4.696-second pass at 292.01 mph. "He owes me," Hill said. "He's knocked me out the last few times we've raced each other. Plus, he should show some respect to his elders. In all seriousness, we are pretty confident in the car especially after it has run so well this weekend. We would love to win this event and we have to beat Conrad first."
Mike Thomas, the Pro Stock driver of the Pennzoil Pontiac Firebird, saved his best for last when he tripped the timing lights in 6.990 seconds at 196.80 mph on Saturday afternoon. The final-round heroics moved Thomas from the 16th to the 14th spot on the elimination ladder and sets up a first round race with No. 3 qualifier Mark Osborne, who posted a 6.950-second, 197.54-mph lap. Thomas has a 2-1 record against Osborne this season.
"Talk about stressing out," a breathless Thomas said after his final round. "I knew we were close to getting bumped. I wasn't quite sure where we were in the standings so I just got after it. As it turned out, this was the first time that the car really accelerated all the way through the lights.
"When we blew the engine in Indy it threw some other parts out of whack, least of which was the ignition system. We really didn't have it fixed until this afternoon. During that last lap, the ignition was good but we didn't have the clutch set to match it. Now, we know exactly how to get the most out of this car and I think we'll be as fast as any car out there tomorrow. I need to earn some points so I plan on winning some rounds."
Bruce Allen, the Pro Stock driver of the Outlaw Fuel Additives Pontiac Firebird, missed the final cut after two sub-par passes on Saturday. He opened the day with a down-track tire spinning pass in Round 3 and nearly hit the wall in the final afternoon session and was forced to shut off his engine and coast through the lights. Allen's best trip came on Friday night when he ran a 7.049-second, 195.35-mph lap under the lights. He finished in 26th place, five-hundredths of a second slower than the time run by the final qualifier.
"Normally I would have shut the car off sooner than I did in the final round but I was too mad to quit," Allen said. "The right tire started spinning and the car jumped to the right. I still tried to drive through it but I just couldn't do it. It was so frustrating to have another run where we couldn't get the tires to hold the track. We're all upset right now.
"This has turned into one of those weekends that you just want to black-out of your mind. We'll fix the car and do what we have to do to be competitive, but I'd just as soon forget this race. The disheartening part of all this is that we're working so hard. In the past, we've had times where every move we make is the right one. Now it feels like every move we make is wrong. I think it might be time to take a longer look at our back-up car. It's newer than this one but we just haven't got a lot of data on it. Something has to change."
Allen has qualified for eight races this season and has recorded 10 elimination round wins.