As the sponsored Top Fuel car of event sponsor CatSpot, Scott Palmer has a little extra weight on his shoulders. He’s been there before, back when O’Reilly was his car sponsor and also sponsored a handful of NHRA national events, but this time feels very different to him.
“Back then, we were just a car in the staging lanes, not a competitive car, and I don’t think a lot of people expected much from us,” he said. “Now we’re a top 10 car and that means we need to run like one.
“I’ve struggled a little bit with my lights and part of that is in my head. Steve and Billy Torrence have been helping me a lot with my driving. You’ve gotta remember, I’m a guy who’s raced in defense my whole life. Racing offensively takes a different mindset and I’m going to figure it out. We’ve got a car that runs strong and it’s time for me to step up.”
Palmer, who made the Countdown to the Championship last season, sits eighth right now with three events to go, and as good as he’s running, he’s not taking anything for granted.
“I feel good but it’s not solid yet because Indy is points and a half,” he said. “We’re only nine points ahead of [Richie Crampton and [Mike] Salinas is only like four rounds [78 points] behind us in 11th. We’ve got a better car than we did last year, but so does Salinas and Richie.
“I enjoy the pressure; I really do,” he added. “But I can also tell you that once the car starts, I don’t feel any more pressure than what I put on myself. I probably put more on myself than I should and that can be a problem because you can try too hard and do something that hurts
“I put pressure on myself because the car runs so well and I enjoy knowing that Tommy (Thompson, founder of CatSpot) will see us running well. I’ve seen people in my 15 years out here get a sponsor and never improve their performances so my goal here is to become a respectable, competitive Top Fuel car that can win races and I think we’re there now.”
The destruction of Steve Torrence’s dragster and, with it, his championship hopes, last year in the Countdown playoffs event in Dallas taught the team that they need to have a race-ready backup dragster in the trailer. The Capco team began running its backup chassis in Denver and will run it through this weekend to ensure that if it’s needed, it’s completely ready to go.
“We found out the hard way last year that no matter how closely you try to build your cars, they’re never the same,” said crew chief Richard Hogan. “Even if the crash didn’t destroy so much of our control systems, you just can’t start all over with a new chassis. These chassis, especially the ones from [Morgan Lucas Racing] are almost identical, but you can’t make two cars exactly alike down to the control systems. The electronics are so dialed into the specific car that it’s hard to just transfer it from car to car. It’s better to have a complete second car ready to go and tested, so that’s what we’ve been doing.”
The team’s primary car, which won in its last outing in Epping, is being front-halved and will return to action in Brainerd; a third complete car awaits in the shop in Brownsburg, Ind. The backup car did not win in its first two outings, but Hogan has a lot of confidence that it can.
“You never know when you’re going to need to bring it out,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be because of a crash. The car could get damaged in the transporter or even going through the pits. You could knock the front end off going into the sand or grazing the guardwall. You just never know, but we know we could put this car back into service at any time with full confidence.”
West Coast fans may be puzzled to see West Coast Funny Car mainstay Gary Densham on the entry list in Seattle after not racing last weekend in Sonoma -– which is much closer to his SoCal base –- but there’s a logical (and financial) explanation.
Densham, who was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame earlier this year, has been in the Northwest with his son, Steven, and their good-running Nostalgia Funny Car for the last several weeks.
“I try to get as many races for the dollar as I can,” he explained. “Some of my crew lives up here and some in Southern California, so there’s always places for them to stay in either place, but not in Sonoma. It’s a long ways down to Sonoma from here so it just made more sense to keep the car here than drive down then turned around an come back.
Densham even got to drive the nostalgia car at the event last weekend at Pacific Raceways and, showing that he still knows how to drive, he reached the final round, where he lost.
“Driver error,” he conceded.
There’s a significant different between that car and his normal Funny Car. The nostalgia car runs a quarter-mile, with good runs down into the 5.70s as opposed to three-second passes to 1,000 feet in his Mello Yello car.
“They’re really louder, too; they run those engines to 10,000 rpm in the lights” he said. “Our car doesn’t even have the header cutouts or spill plates or other aerodynamics like a lot of cars. It’s even got a manual shifter still. It’s probably the most nostalgic of the nostalgia cars.”
After this weekend, Densham will head to Brainerd to run the event there as a favor to a longtime crewman whose home is in the area but won’t go on to Indy.
“I already rationalized that Brainerd is on the way home,” he laughed. “That’s drag racer geography for you.”
Funny Car rookie Richard Townsend had a bit of a rough go last weekend in Sonoma, making contact twice with the guardwall in his fan-popular Nitroholic Toyota -– the second time ending up clouting the wall just before entering the sand trap — just another curve in the learning road.
“We had made some changes to the air-line system in the car, but – my mistake – we didn’t check out our safety system. For the first time we put the parachute button on the steering wheel and I started relying on instead of a handle like I’ve always had. When they didn’t come out I didn’t want let go of the brake handle to go to the manual levers. Then I went over a bump and it kicked me sideways about 18 inches right before the sand trap. I didn’t want to turn it too hard and roll into the sand.”
Exacerbating the problem he had in Sonoma, the increased downforce created by the better bodies and 300-plus-mph speeds of the Mello Yello Funny Cars is also greater than Townsend’s former ride in a 250-mph nostalgia Funny Car; consequently, the faster car doesn‘t steer as well.
“It’s a really big difference, and because Lance [Larsen] crew chief has this car running 300 mph all the time, it’s something I’m learning. I had a lot of other drivers come up and tell me they had experienced the same thing, and remember to always get the ‘chutes out first. NHRA told me never to be afraid to put out both parachutes. I didn’t want to do that sometimes because we’d end up on the track, but NHRA told me they’d be happy to come get me everything.
“First thing we did when we came here was to run all of the systems with the body on it to make sure it works, then I spent about 10 minutes in the [cockpit] with my eyes closed to get used to doing it old school. I’m gonna be swiping the levers like before. It’s really changed our priorities. Before, our first goal was to always make the car fast; now it’s to have a safe car. It gives me a lot of confidence as a driver, too.”
“It’s all part of the learning process for us; fortunately we got away cheap,” he said. “We didn’t hurt the car badly and I didn’t get hurt.”
Townsend, a frontrunner for the Auto Club Road to the Future award as the season’s top rookie, will finish out his inaugural season in Dallas, Las Vegas, and Pomona.
“Unless we win this race,” he said, elbow-nudging the reporter. “Then we’ll go to Brainerd and Indy.”
The CatSpot NHRA Northwest Nationals marks a significant anniversary for Pro Stock racer Matt Hartford. It was after this race last year that he stopped getting his power from Pro Stock icon Warren Johnson – he was the only one still using the multi-time world champ’s skill – and went a different route. He finished out 2017 with Gray power under the hood but after they couldn’t come to terms on a deal for 2018, he went with the powerhouse Elite team.
The impact of the change has been almost immediate and obvious. Earlier this year he won his first Pro Stock race, defeating engine “teammate” Erica Enders in the final in Houston and, despite missing five raced due to financial considerations and his important role at Total Seal, Hartford already has nine round wins this season, three times more than he accumulated in the previous two seasons and more than double his career total.
He’s 12th in points but because he missed that handful of races, a spot in the Countdown field is pretty much out of reach.
“Coming into the Western Swing I thought we still had a chance, but we needed Jason [Line] and [Deric] Kramer to have a couple of bad races, and they’ve had really good races. That kinda put an end to those hopes.
“But missing five races and even if you lost first round, that’s still 160-something points, which would have made a difference for us. If we had gone to all of them and won a round or two, I think we’d be eighth or ninth right now.”
Although he hasn’t won a round the last two races, he’s ready to start adding to his career-best season.
“We’ve stunk the last few races, but we’re going to fix that,” he said. “It’s not like it’s the first time we’ve been out here beating in the fire to do well, but at least we’ve seen the other side now.
Hartford’s Chevy is bannering local machine company Rottler on its sides this weekend. Rottler has a strong relationship with Total Seal, supplying all of the company equipment that does its cylinder-sleeve honing.
It’s a true sign of the parity and tough competition in Pro Stock that Drew Skillman, who won four times last season, is winless this year, but he’s also got good company in former world champ Jason Line, also still looking for his first winner’s circle visit this season. Skillman at least has tasted victory, winning in his FS/A Mustang Stocker in Denver, but the Pro Stock Wally continues to elude him since his big win last year in Indy.
“Pro Stock is just so fricking hard,” he admitted. “It can be a nightmare. We have all the power we need, but if you miss anything, it makes a huge difference. You miss the clutch by a couple of grams or miss the shock adjustment, it just sucks. You can have a really great car one weekend and then not touch it and it sucks at the next race. It’s the most frustrating thing I’ve ever done.”
If there’s good news, it’s during this part of the mid/late season that his team normally excels. He won this race last year and then won Indy and was runner-up in Dallas.
“We’ve just been in a slump, which happens,” said Skillman, who has won just one Pro Stock round in the last three races. “But right now, I feel like we’re really close. We usually suck at the beginning and at the end of a season, so this is our time.”