NHRA: Small Victories Keep Underdahl Going in Pro Stock Motorcycle
5 October 1998MILLINGTON, Tenn. -- While Matt Hines continues to be the undisputed winner of the war in Pro Stock Motorcycle, his competitors have learned to adapt by celebrating much smaller victories.
Take Greg Underdahl, for example.
The Minneapolis-based rider of the NCN Communications Suzkui is having his best season ever. No, he has no national event trophies to put on display. He doesn't have any national event records to boast about either. Despite the spotlight-stealing performances of Hines, Underdahl has quietly become the category's fourth-best rider.
He'll try to improve on that position at the 11th annual Pennzoil Nationals presented by AutoZone, Oct. 8-11 at Memphis Motorsports Park. The $1.5 million race is the 19th of 22 events in the $30-million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.
A victory at Memphis for Underdahl would be the biggest moment in his bike racing career.
"Our team has come a long way this season," Underdahl said. "We're making great strides and learning something new every time out. We've definitely got more confidence now. My new crew chief (Joe Labelle) has made a big impact. And it's just the two of us working on the bike. It makes for a long Sunday, especially when you get to the semifinals or final. One of these days we're going to win one of these things."
Underdahl made his first career final round appearance earlier this season at Englishtown, N.J., where he lost to Angelle Seeling when she posted a holeshot and followed it with a 7.28 second run. Other key learning experiences have been the three semifinal encounters with Hines. Each time Underdahl tried a different strategy, and each time came away on the losing end.
"I've qualified fourth a bunch of times this season and had to race Matt several times in the semis," Underdahl said. "He's tough. I think he's only made two mistakes all season. The rest of the time he's been winning races. That's hard to beat."
He says it's tough being the underdog.
"I don't think there's anything we can do about it," Underdahl said. "With his dad's (Byron Hines) tuning ability and his driving ability, it makes for a tough combination. He's young and he's going to be around for a while. I guess if you can be No. 2 in this deal you've won your own championship. I just don't see their team faltering."
Hines has won nine of 11 races to date. He's earned virtually every No. 1 qualifying position and his name is posted beside low elapsed time and top speed every weekend. In an attempt to improve his overall program, Underdahl joined John Smith, Brian and Ron Ayers, Tony Mullen and Gary Tonglet as riders who have purchased an engine from Byron Hines. Underdahl, like his peers, thought that would be the magical solution to catching the runaway team.
""Byron sold A-grade engines to each of us," Underdahl said. "The only problem is that it doesn't come with an instruction manual. Byron's got 30 years of tuning experience and that's basically the unbeatable factor. He knows how to tune the engine for virtually every condition imaginable."
With Hines' dominance, the question remains: What keeps his competitor's morale in check?
"We've all got close to him on different occasions," Underdahl said. "John (Smith) has been very close a couple of times. I ran a 7.33 at Maple Grove and was pretty close. We have the power to catch that team, there's no question about that. It's just a matter of finding the combination that can put all of that power into motion on a consistent basis. That's what we're working on."
Underdahl, who finished seventh in the Winston standings last season, says his focus for the remainder of the season is to hold his fourth place position over Dave Schultz, and possibly move ahead of John Smith, who sits 96 points away in third place.
"I'm out to win like everybody else," Underdahl said. "This is only my second year as a full-time rider. I need some work on my reaction times, and my riding can be a little erratic at times. I just need more experience on the bike. I know I can win a race. I've got a lot better handle on things this season."
Underdahl sees the Pennzoil Nationals presented by AutoZone as a race that will be ripe for the picking. If there's a place where a third rider can break into the win column this season, he feels like that's the place.
"Out of all the tracks, Memphis is definitely one of the tracks where an upset is possible," Underdahl said. "This is only our second year running there. Every team has a real thin notebook on that place, including Byron. That pretty much makes us all equal. Maybe we can get our first win at Memphis"