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  • LIVING THE DREAM WITH JIM KELLY 1938-2015
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    Jeff Burghardt

    Sadly, obituaries are often cut-‘n-paste remembrances that appear in daily newspapers, and while they contain the nuts and bolts of an individual’s life, they rarely include the nuances of what made that person special. In Jim Kelly’s case the basics are these: He was born in Southern California on July 9, 1938 and passed away quietly at a friend’s house in North Las Vegas on Monday evening, May 18, 2015, losing his fight against cancer. During his almost-77 years Kelly became a highly regarded historian of drag racing through his exceptional photography. He was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 2003, an honor he richly deserved.

    In reality, that tells you very little about James E. Kelly. He was so much more than “just” photographer. He was a friend to so many people both in and out of our little world of drag racing. He was thoughtful in ways both big and small. If you were among his inner circle you’d long since lost the ability to be surprised at the little unexpected gifts he’d send, because those gifts would arrive sporadically and seemingly out of nowhere. He knew I thought Spiderman looked cool, so those mailings often included Spiderman-themed goodies. When there was a Vegas promotion involving the man in red and blue, Kelly was there to shoot photos for me of the character climbing up a hotel’s wall.

    A close friend of Kelly’s -- one of his former girlfriends who never stopped loving him, and by that I don’t mean in the romantic way -- tells numerous stories of the little gifts Kelly’d given her over the years -- including little presents for her son and her dog.

    When my girlfriend was ill Kelly sent me a heart-shaped cloisonné pin bearing her initials in gold against a red background. “Where did ya get that?” I asked. “Oh, just around,” he casually replied, quickly waving away my thanks. It was just the kind of thing Kelly did. Over the years she came to love him as did all of his old girlfriends, although it took her a good long while to “recover” after Kelly spent one Thanksgiving with us, consuming not one, but two bottles of blush wine before driving off in a snowstorm for Las Vegas – but he made it unscathed and unticketed.


    In something like 1972 we  — Don “Spendo” Johnson, Kelly and I — decided we should have a Funny Car.  Just another one of our grandiose plans that failed to pan out!

    We met on August 13, 1966 at Capital Raceway Park outside of Baltimore. The event was billed as the 1st (and ultimately last, unfortunately) Annual King of Kings Funny Car Invitational, and featured a then unheard of 10 blown cars competing on the same evening. I thought I was hot stuff because I was shooting for Dodge (covering the Gary Dyer-driven Mr. Norm’s Grand-Spaulding Dodge altered wheelbase ‘65 Coronet), but in actuality, I knew nothing. Kelly sensed that, and so did the guy he introduced me to, Jeff Tinsley (who would go on to become a photographer for the prestigious Smithsonian Institute). They and every other shooter on the scene made fun of me because I not only didn’t know what a strobe light was, I was shooting with flashbulbs, dropping the dead ones on the ground after each shot I’m embarrassed even thinking about it, but Kelly was cool, even taking me aside to ask some pointed questions about what I was doing and what I knew about photography and drag racing. My lack of knowledge was more than obvious.

    We kept in touch after that, running into one another at all of the major races, but Kelly’s generosity was evident even then. In 1968 he convinced AHRA president Jim Tice to hire me as the national event writer for Drag World, their in-house publication. We’d share a hotel room and while he processed film and printed photos in the makeshift darkroom he “built” in the hotel bathroom at every race, I wrote the stories (most of them awful, by the way-- the stories, not his photos.). We were off and running.

    Just by observing how Kelly dealt with the AHRA managers, and how he approached things when selling photos to the likes of Super Stock & Drag Illustrated, Drag Racing, Drag Strip, Popular Hot Rodding, Hot Rod Magazine and too many others to list here taught me volumes. As much fun as Kelly was having, he always treated photojournalism as a business. He taught me that as much as I might love drag racing, there was no point in spending the time and effort it took to do it if it didn’t produce enough revenue to make a living. He was the first one I heard say something like “The bank isn’t going to accept a photo credit in place of the house payment. You have to get paid for what you do.” He was oh so right.


    Yes, these are the kinds of Kelly photos you’d receive in the mail!  If he went somewhere, or did something special, you’d get a “record” of it.

    We spent a lot of hours and days in his Cadillac, cruising from race to race. When he discovered there was a Pontiac -- or was it a Buick or Oldsmobile? dealership in Maryland that, in his words, “is named after me,” we went hundreds of miles out of our way so he could scam one of those little metal things they stick on your car reading “Jim Kelly Buick.” When he produced a drivers license with his name on it they loaded him up with license plate frames and everything else they had with the name on it.

    He loved to laugh, and he loved practical jokes. Mike Brenner, who was then shooting for SS&DI (I think), shared a room with us at the Holiday Inn in Bristol in 1969. The mirror in the bathroom was surrounded by screw-in 100 watt bulbs, but when I left the room (a mistake I rarely made again), Kelly and Brenner replaced every bulb with giant screw-in flash bulbs. They then conned me into turning on the lights, but luckily for me, I was partially turned away when the lightning struck. Every bulb went off with a bang -- and every light in the hotel went out. The power surge literally melted a huge junction box that was located right behind the wall of our room. Within seconds the flash bulbs had been replaced with regular bulbs, and the three times the hotel staff knocked on our door asking if we’d done anything with the power, we played dumb. Power was restored some six hours later. Kelly spent most of those hours quietly chuckling.

    In some ways it’s unfortunate that so many of today’s younger drivers never got a chance to meet Kelly, or witness the artistic merits of his sensational photography. I’m sure that Jack Beckman, who is a true historian of the sport, knows who Kelly was and what he did, but sadly, few others of the current generation are likely to know his name. What Kelly did was to chronicle history with a series of Nikon cameras. None of us thought we were doing anything that meaningful, but in reality, Kelly really was. He was creating images that would help spread the word about drag racing. His photos of West Coast competitors found their way into East Coast publications and vice versa. His memorable images of the AHRA Grand American Series helped make drivers like Hall of Famers “Mad Dog” Don Cook and “Kansas John” Wiebe into nationally known racers. He did the same for his close friends “TV” Tom Ivo and Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen. Not intentionally, probably, but nevertheless, Kelly helped make those racers familiar to fans from Coast to Coast. And, when he went to Europe with a team of American racers he produced the first really meaningful international media coverage the sport had ever received.

    Kelly made a surprise visit to the spring race in his home town of Las Vegas in April, where he was warmly greeted by the older shooters and ignored by the younger group -- until they found out who he was.  It was nice to see how many of them asked to be introduced.  It just demonstrated how important to drag racing his work had been, and the younger guys knew it.

    The only full time job I can ever remember Kelly having in publishing was with the old SS&DI operation, but that all ended -- badly, I might add -- after he had a falling out with management. Kelly jumped into his Cadillac and headed west -- with his company credit card still clutched firmly in his hand. For the next three weeks I’d receive calls from expensive hotels in exotic locations. “Kelly, they’re not going to let you slide on this. They’re gonna make you pay for this stuff,” I told him. “Ah, screw them,” he said. “They screwed me on the money they owed me, so I don’t care.” The trip culminated with a lengthy stop in the Penthouse suite of the old MGM Grand (now the Bally) in Vegas. I don’t remember how long he stayed but it had to be pricey, and yeah, ultimately he reached a settlement with the magazine and had to pay back half of what he’d spent, “But it was all worth it,” he grinned.

    We shared everything on our journeys -- until the fateful day 45 years ago when Kelly and his gorgeous companion were cruising down Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles on his motorcycle and a car turned in front of them.  They hit the car and flew over it, Kelly ending up with a broken leg and his companion with painful scabs in the most uncomfortable of places.  That ended the “sharing.”  For the next three months or more I not only had to carry all my gear, I had to carry his, too.  That also meant loading and unloading everything from the Cadillac and carrying it into the hotels we stayed at.  Kelly always did the check-in, and I swear he asked for upstairs rooms just to watch me struggling up to our room.

    When Pat Minick and the Chi-Town Hustler Dodge Charger began doing the monster burnouts that made them famous I called Kelly from my place in Chicago and told him how they were going to knock ‘em dead when they came to the Coast in October. I was there when they ran at Orange County for the first time, and after the first burnout the announcer told the crowd that I was the one who’d “invented” the big burnouts. It wasn’t even remotely true, but it was just one of those things that Kelly did for people. He wanted everyone to be famous for something, even “inventing” a burnout.

    I know this remembrance is out of chronological order, but I’m telling stories as they pop into my head. When we worked the AHRA race at Lions in 1970 and the two-speed exploded in “Big Daddy” Don Garlits’ car in the Top Fuel final I ended up with one of those once-in-a-lifetime shots. I told Kelly I had it (he was shooting further down track), so he processed that roll with his in the hotel bathroom. He made three prints; one for me, one for himself and one for Drag World. I have never figured out how that shot became so widely circulated.

    Kelly was always cynical about drag racing to some degree. He had little patience for those who felt themselves somehow superior to others, be they competitors or racing officials, and he was never afraid to say so. No matter how grim the situation, he’d find something humorous about it. I won’t go into the details, but after two absolutely horrifying scenarios I received cryptic, unenlightening phone calls in the very early morning hours from Kelly. In the first instance he told me a certain Top Fuel driver had been asking for me. I didn’t know the guy, particularly after Kelly hung an unfortunate nickname on him just before hanging up. I found out what the nickname meant later in the day, and it wasn’t pretty, but that was just Kelly. On another pre-dawn call he asked me if I was awake, then shouted the name of an obscure drag strip before abruptly hanging up. Later in the morning I saw the headlines on Chicago’s largest newspaper about a horrible accident in which 11 spectators had been killed at the track the day before. He just refused to take those situations as seriously as did others because, over all, Kelly was a realist. He understood as did few others that the dangers of racing are ultimately going to include fatalities no matter how hard we work to avoid them.

    When Kelly is mentioned to drag racing’s most well known competitors and builders, his name brings a smile to their faces. That he built life-long relationships and friendships with the likes of Tom Ivo, Shirley Muldowney (who he introduced me to in 1969), Tom McEwen, Drag Racer Magazine editor Pete Ward, parts manufacturer Sid Waterman and so very many others should come as no surprise. His outgoing personality, professionalism and obviously sincere love of drag racing was evident to everyone he came in contact with. And he never forgot those friendships despite the passing of years or career changes. He remained close with his old high school buddy Don Gregory – who took him to his first drag race (slightly after the invention of the wheel), just as he did with Don Prieto, who got him into the car hustling business, providing vehicles for media evaluations, about three decades ago. If you were Kelly’s friend you were friends for life. And, when you really think about it, the best of all of those little gifts and goodies Kelly was always sending your way was that friendship. It’s something I’ll never forget.

     

     

    The act of cutting and pasting articles from this publication to a message board is a clear copyright violation as is pulling photos to post on social media sites. All articles and photography published in CompetitionPlus.com are protected by United States of America and International copyright laws unless mentioned otherwise. The content on this website is intended for the private use of the reader and may not be published or reposted in any form without the prior written consent of CompetitionPlus.com.

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  • MONSTER EXECS LOVE BOSS FORCE - BUT HAVE VAUDEVILLE HOOK READY
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    John Force wasn’t allowed in the room, wasn’t even invited. More precisely, he was specifically not invited.

    In a previous visit with Monster Energy marketing point man Mitch Covington and his boss, Force excused himself from the discussion and instructed his two youngest daughters and the Monster representatives to lock the door behind him. He said that would prevent him from barging back into the room and dominating the conversation.

    It certainly amused Covington (who did say, “John has a slight tendency to do all the talking”) and Sam Pontrelli, Monster’s senior vice-president of marketing.

    “We were rolling on the floor, laughing,” Covington said of their three-plus-hour meeting at Yorba Linda, Calif. He said Force is “a super guy” and a “sweet guy” and said he “laughs 24/7.”

    But as well as Force’s storytelling has served him in the past, as much as his deal-closing skills have helped him build a drag-racing empire, he found out they can’t always weave magic. Sometimes other people can be more effective just by being low-key and genuine.

    John Force had approached the Monster Energy marketing executives before and come up empty-handed. That didn’t stop daughters Brittany and Courtney Force from forging a deal themselves, one that secured the elusive full-season funding for Brittany’s dragster and benefitted the rest of the four-car John Force Racing team.  

    “[Covington] said, ‘Force is always pitching, always wanting big money, always saying he’s the best,’ ” the 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion said. In his voice was a hint of annoyance, not so much jealousy but maybe rather an uneasy feeling that his reliable entertainment shtick wasn’t enough these days, that it smacked of a worn approach.

    It might have hurt his feelings a little when he learned that Covington told Brittany and Courtney Force, “If you want to come pitch us, come without Pops.” Force said, “He made it clear: Don’t bring your dad in here.” But John Force chose not to pout about it but instead to find a useful message in it.

    “I learned a lesson from that – and I’m a pretty good salesman,” he said. “But we’re in a different economy. Money ain’t falling out of the sky, and it ain’t hanging on trees.  . . . My girls went in there of their own approach. Never talked money. Talked about how they want to win someday, to be champions. It was that that sold the bosses at Monster Energy. They said, ‘We like the attitude.’ ”


    Monster Energy's Mitch Covington with Brittany Force

    His pride was bruised a bit when he learned his advice and warnings to his daughters didn’t hold water. He had told them not to expect success with their first attempt, especially with Monster. With his own proposal, he said, “They were very polite, very gracious. And I left. Didn’t get the call I wanted from them, but I moved on.”

    Covington, actually giggling as he recounted the story, said it went like this:

    “As soon as [the Force women] walked out of the office, my phone was ringing. It was John: ‘How’d my little girls do? How’d my little girls do?’ I said, ‘Man, your little girls killed it. We’re going to do some business, man.’ He said, ‘Really? I told ‘em you’d kick ‘em out.’ ”

    Daughters 1, Dad 0.

    But Force said he isn’t keeping score.

    “Am I proud of them? You bet,” he said. “I’ve already gifted this company over to my family – to Robert, my oldest daughter Adria, my [other] girls. They basically own the majority of it. I did that about four or five years ago. We’re looking at the future.”

    Besides, he said, he has to consider a variety of angles in the course of conducting his business.

    “I have to wear three hats. One, as a father. You worry sick about them getting hurt. Two, as a driver. You want to beat them because you want to win. Three, as an owner. You want any of your teams to win,” John Force said.

    He should take heart in Covington’s explanation of why Force’s pitch yielded nothing and two years later Brittany’s and Courtney’s succeeded. Timing played a large part. And though he admittedly likes to tease John Force about his eccentric style, Covington said, “We actually do like John representing the [Monster] brand, because he’s such a legend in the sport. I went to a race to check it out. The crowd was eating their hot dogs, eating nachos, pretty laid back. But all of a sudden, they announced a guy named John Force was coming to the line. They all stopped what they were doing to stand up and go to screaming, ‘John Force!’ So we were drawn to John Force all along.”

    He said of Force, “He lives and breathes racing 24 hours a day, I can tell.” When the two first met, at Pomona, Force learned Covington’s role at Monster Energy and ushered him to the starting line for the ultimate sensory experience. “Man, he talked nonstop,” Covington said. “He had to stop to get in his car and go race. I said, ‘This guy’s hilarious.’ He pitches 24/7, no question about it. I thoroughly enjoyed his pitch.”  

    But the timing simply wasn’t optimum.

    “When we talked with John initially,” Covington said, “he had a lot of other sponsors and he didn’t really have a good, clean place to put our logo. We could have shoved it in there somewhere, but he didn’t have a good place. When we opened negotiations back up this year with the girls, that wasn’t the case. He had some really good real estate to sell. That was really important, because we want our car to look a certain way. Brittany’s car afforded us to do that.”

    So it wasn’t Force’s over-the-top manner. Covington said, “John’s a bull in a china shop, but that’s what makes John Force John Force, what makes him who he is. We embrace that.

    To prove the point – and poke a little fun at Force, too – Covington said he plans to have Force speak at Monster Energy company functions.

    “We’re going to get a big hook, a vaudeville hook,” Covington said. “We’re going to tie a rope around his waist. When he gets about 30 minutes over his allotted time – and there’s no way we can expect him to stay in any allotted time – we’re going to get the biggest guy we’ve got and have him jerk on that rope.”

    He laughed like a junior-high-school boy plotting a harmless practical joke on a buddy.

    Force already might have gotten his chain yanked. But the Monster saga was more of a case of “Brittany is a good fit for our business situation,” in Covington’s words, rather than “John Force isn’t an ideal match for Monster.”

    Covington said Brittany Force’s suitability “became obvious” when they were seated next to one another at a wedding-related dinner.

    “She was committed to winning. She was dead-serious about drag racing. I sat by her at dinner, and she wasn’t talking about ‘girl stuff.’ She was talking about racing: how she wanted to win, how she loves her dragster.

    “I realize that she could have been pitching me,” he said, “but at the same time, she went about it in a very professional way. She speaks well. She’s a cute girl. There’s not much to not like about the situation with Brittany.”

    Brittany Force is happy for the support but more importantly, she said she liked promoting a product she believes in.

    “Their lifestyle matches right up to the lifestyle of a drag racer,” he said. “It's an extreme sport.  It just goes hand‑in‑hand.  It really seems to work out.

    “More than anything it's funny, because, I mean, since I started competing out here in the Top Fuel car in the professional ranks, my guys since day one have stocked their coolers with Monster.  We've always had it in our pits. It's something we've loved. It's just what we drink. We got pretty lucky to be teamed up with Monster.”

    And “Pops” is, too.

     

    The act of cutting and pasting articles from this publication to a message board is a clear copyright violation as is pulling photos to post on social media sites. All articles and photography published in CompetitionPlus.com are protected by United States of America and International copyright laws unless mentioned otherwise. The content on this website is intended for the private use of the reader and may not be published or reposted in any form without the prior written consent of CompetitionPlus.com.

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  • HARTMAN DISCUSSES HIS NOSTALGIA AA/FC
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    Racing has been in Richard Hartman’s blood since he was a baby.

    Hartman’s father Virgil, sister Rhonda Hartman-Smith and brother-in-law John “Bodie” Smith all raced.

    Not to be left out, Richard piloted his family’s nitro Funny Car in 1988 and as the driver he finished eighth in the NHRA point standings in 1990 and ninth in ’91. He also was the sixth Funny Car driver to join the Castrol 4-Second Club in 1996.

    In 1998, Hartman left the cockpit and started tuning cars. He was the crew chief for Terry McMillen’s Top Fuel dragster from 2008-2014 and this season he is working on the crew for Tim Wilkerson’s nitro Funny Car.

    Now, he’s also driving again as he is behind the wheel of an alcohol Nostalgia Funny Car.


    Richard Hartman, left, and Tim Wilkerson at Atlanta.

    “This is really a project I started and that’s what I was planning on doing this year, and I wanted to race with my dad again,” Richard said. “So, I put the car together and he and I are tuning it together, and it is just something we can go do as a family and have fun with. The car turned out awesome, I couldn’t be happier. Greg Porter painted it and it’s just immaculate. I don’t even really want to race it, it is so beautiful, but J. Ed Horton, Phil Hartman, and Don Lynch, they did a fabulous job with it, putting it together and it is just a lot of fun.”

    Richard’s Nostalgia Funny Car is a 1969 Camaro and it is named “Running Wild.”

    “A ’69 Camaro has been my dream car,” Richard said. “I’ve always wanted one since I was in high school and I was never into street cars too much and I don’t like the beaters and I couldn’t afford the expensive ones. This way I could have my ’69 Camaro finally, and it’s a Funny Car, what’s better than that? The name Running Wild, the first Funny Car I ever drove was named Running Wild, and every car my dad and I had together was named Running Wild, so we just continued it on.”

    Richard acknowledged he’s going to attempt to play it smart when he’s driving this Camaro.

    “I’m trying not to be too stupid in how I drive it because it is too cool of a car to do anything stupid with, but it is a race car and I pedaled it a couple of times there (at Paducah, Ky.) and we had a good time. We took it there (to Paducah for a Nostalgia Funny Car race) and made some initial hits, but the track was sketchy, and it didn’t go quite as planned, but we had some fun and we didn’t hurt anything and the car did what it is supposed to do. We just need to do a little bit better job tuning it. We just never tuned with some of the parts that we have and we just have to learn them.”

     

     

    The act of cutting and pasting articles from this publication to a message board is a clear copyright violation as is pulling photos to post on social media sites. All articles and photography published in CompetitionPlus.com are protected by United States of America and International copyright laws unless mentioned otherwise. The content on this website is intended for the private use of the reader and may not be published or reposted in any form without the prior written consent of CompetitionPlus.com.

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  • BOGACKI EARNS FIRST JEGS ALL-STARS APPEARANCE
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    Two-time NHRA World Champion Luke Bogacki checked another accomplishment off of the short list of career goals that the 33-year-old is yet to accomplish behind the wheel of NHRA sportsman drag racing vehicles at last weekend’s NHRA Division 3 Cavalcade of Stars in Norwalk, OH.  

    There, despite falling in the second round of competition in both his K&N Filters-backed Super Comp dragster and his Racing RV’s-backed Super Gas Corvette, Bogacki clinched a berth in the prestigious JEGS All-Stars event, to be held in conjunction with the NHRA Route 66 Nationals near Chicago, IL July 9-12.     In addition to competing in Super Comp and Super Gas in the national event, he will represent the North Central Division in the Super Gas category of the JEGS All-Stars. 

    The JEGS All-Stars is a unique event in which the highest points earners in each sportsman category from all seven of NHRA’s geographic divisions (plus the defending event champion) converge to compete against one another for top honors.  In addition to the individual prizes, every participant will also be representing their home division, as a team championship is also rewarded.     

    Despite having won 5 previous division titles in addition to his two recent national championship crowns, this will mark Bogacki’s first appearance in the JEGS All-Stars competition. 

    “I’ve watched the JEGS All-Stars event as a spectator in years past,” said Bogacki.  “It’s an awesome event – only the best of the best are invited. Plus I’ve seen the way that the folks at JEGS treat the participants; the All-Stars are pros for the weekend.  Being a part of the event has always been a goal of mine, and I’m extremely honored to participate and to represent the North Central Division.” 

    Bogacki will be joined on the Division 3 team by a talent laiden roster that includes Marty Thacker (TAD), Jared Dreher (TAD), Andy Bohl (TAFC), Chris Foster (TAFC), David Billingsley (Comp), Brina Splingaire (S/Stk), Steven Dziorny (Stock), Ray Connolly (S/C), Scotty Reinschield (S/St), Lester Johnson (T/S), Christopher Carrico (T/D) and blockers Greg Kamplain (Comp) and Jerry Albert (T/S). 

    The fact that the JEGS All-Stars event will be contested at Route 66 Raceway has to excite Bogacki as well, as that facility has been the source of great success for his team in recent years.   In 2013, he won the Super Comp category at the Division 3 LODRS, then followed with a Super Gas LODRS win in 2014 before earning top honors in the same category at last year’s NHRA Route 66 Nationals. 

    “Chicago has been good to us lately, but there’s no ‘home track’ advantage to be had in a setting like the JEGS All-Stars.  Take a look at the qualifiers – there’s so much experience and success in the field – I don’t think there’s any way you can say that anything would give one racer an advantage over that crowd.  It’s going to be a great race, and if we ran it 8 different times, we’d probably have 8 different winners.  It’s a huge accomplishment just to qualify for the JEGS All-Stars, and I’m excited to be a part of the Division 3 team.” 

     

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  • McMILLEN MAKES UNIQUE INVESTMENT IN HIS CREW
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    Terry McMillen already had a bittersweet experience when he tried to invest in his NHRA Top Fuel team’s future.

    He had poured an extravagant amount of time, energy, and good faith in a young car chief who appeared to be the heir apparent to the cockpit of his Amalie Oil/UNOH Dragster. Different expectations and ambitions bubbled to the surface and the longtime racer and his protégé parted ways in three years ago at the Heartland Park Topeka race.

    That set McMillen back a bit. But he soldiered on, trying somehow to focus simultaneously on winning elimination rounds, lining up marketing partners, and pondering the NHRA’s need to develop new, young mechanics into tomorrow’s leading crew chiefs.

    That’s a hard task to accomplish, and McMillen found himself making not as much progress as he had hoped by the close of the 2014 season. He had yet to make the Countdown to the Championship, despite noble runs at it. He had run through 11 – massively expensive – superchargers and detonated about a quarter of a million dollars in parts last season alone.

    Again he reached a crossroad. The status quo surely would have put him in the poorhouse eventually, perhaps sooner than he imagined it might. So he couldn’t go through the same motions and expect different results, he figured.

    He concluded that he needed to do something bold. And he did. Steeling himself against the respect he had for his crew members and the fun times and hard work they had shared, he made a choice that he said was the toughest he ever had to make. He let them all go.

    He knew a clean sweep would be risky, would alienate some of the people he had been closest to, and would make him feel like Scrooge right before Christmas. But the way he saw it, he had no choice.

    "So I said a prayer and went with my gut," McMillen said when he cut ties with his entire crew during the past offseason. "It was probably the toughest decision I've ever made in my life – and scary, too. My crew is like my family. I spend more time with these guys than I do my family, and they’re some of the best guys I’ve ever worked with in my life. But like any other business, there are tough decisions that have to be made. This was by far the toughest of my career."

    But McMillen will be 61 years old at the end of August. He has grown sons and a lively little one, Cameron, zooming up on age two. And like it or not, he knows he has to plan for the organization’s future. And despite fresh knees, he knows not everything has a surgical rescue, and if he’s going to build the record he dreamed of he has to start posting quicker progress.

    He always had tried to keep up with the latest and most affordable new key parts for the dragster. Drag racing’s Little Engine That Could always needed a little more coal for the furnace, always needed to chug faster to keep up with changing technology.

    But McMillen tried another bold move. This past winter, he concentrated more on personnel than he did on parts. He did buy an updated hauler and move into a 20,600-square-foot shop at Elkhart, Ind., after considering a move to Indianapolis. He hired former Don Schumacher Racing tuner Rob Wendland as crew chief and made a huge investment in his crew.

    He added two extra fulltime mechanics and has a total of seven: Duane Doffing, Cole Fergen, Robert Knudsen, Ben Lacher, Chris Newton, D'Andre Redfern, and Cody Yeager. Lane Gortney is his intern from sponsor University of Northwestern Ohio.

    But the unique part of his plan is centered on a project four miles away from the shop.

    McMillen purchased a four-bedroom house for his team’s use. It’s complete with a two-and-a-half-car garage stocked with the company van to get them to work.

    His is not the only case of a racing team owner making such a non-traditional investment. World of Outlaws team owner Dennis Roth has done so. And Jimmy Carr, race director for Tony Stewart Racing, lives in one of two apartments at the WoO sprint-car team's shop at Brownsburg, Ind. The other is open to crew members as needed. But McMillen is the lone team owner in drag racing to provide official team quarters.

    After a start to this Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season that has seen more encouragement than backsliding, McMillen said, "We're a team on the move right now. I really believe we've put ourselves in a position to win rounds and hopefully get into that top 10. We have to start moving. Every team's getting better. We're all gaining momentum. We've got to gain momentum plus."

    Veteran NHRA crew chief Johnny West and even part-time Funny Car racer Jeff Diehl have pitched in early on to help guide the team.

    "We're just finding a rhythm," McMillen said a quarter of the way through the schedule. "We're about ready to turn the corner. We're not hurting parts. It's been a little more fun."

    He might have wanted to take that back after a failure to qualify at Houston, adding insult to injury after the air conditioning went out in the hauler on the hot, muggy Baytown weekend.

    However, he bounced back at Atlanta with a semifinal finish, beating Dave Connolly and Clay Millican but losing to Antron Brown, whom no one could stop that race day.

     

     

    The act of cutting and pasting articles from this publication to a message board is a clear copyright violation as is pulling photos to post on social media sites. All articles and photography published in CompetitionPlus.com are protected by United States of America and International copyright laws unless mentioned otherwise. The content on this website is intended for the private use of the reader and may not be published or reposted in any form without the prior written consent of CompetitionPlus.com.

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  • THE COMPETITIVE NATURE OF LEAH PRITCHETT
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    Days before her memorable runner-up finish at the NHRA Summit Southern Nationals, Top Fuel racer Leah Pritchett was already knee deep in competition with her fellow racers. Pritchett wouldn't call her need to compete a curse, but it's a good habit she just cannot shake.

    Nor, does she want to.

    Pritchett competed in a spin-off, a stationary bike competition, against members of the drag racing community in a charity event to benefit a Make-A-Wish Georgia.

    "I'm gonna be honest, my calf muscles are hurting, and I know there are a few drivers out there with soreness too," said Pritchett, days after the competition.

    Torque and rpm determined point values, and at the end of the event the highest cumulative score determined the champion.

    "Yeah, Bob Vandergriff blew us all out of the water," Pritchett admitted. "He's a great athlete and had over 500 points. No one in the class even came close."

    Dave Connolly was second amongst the drag racing fraternity with 390 points.  Matt Hagan was next at 288 with Pritchett in fourth at 280.


    ALMOST HAD IT ... PRITCHETT SCORES FIRST TF FINAL

    Leah Pritchett has yet to win her inaugural NHRA Top Fuel race.

    However, Pritchett, who made her Top Fuel debut in in 2013, was ever so close to that accomplishment at the Southern Nationals.

    Pritchett advanced to her first career final round, only to get upended by 2012 world champion Antron Brown at Atlanta Dragway.

    Brown clocked a 3.887-second time at 310.48 mph to defeat Pritchett’s 4.202-second run at 260.41 mph. (Article continues below photo)

    "I don't know if I could have spun any harder than I did but if someone had told me I was only eight points behind Matt, I might have been able to," Pritchett said. "It would have been neat to beat the Hulk."

    Pritchett did finish ahead of Shawn Langdon, Morgan Lucas, Richie Crampton, Tommy Johnson Jr. and Steve Johnson.

    "Every once in a while they would show the standings, and you'd spike up a bit, just to get up there in competition," said Pritchett. "

    The 45-minute competition netted $25,000 for the charity. The average amount to make a wish come true is $9,000.

    "The lights, go out and the music comes on and the instructor tells you what torque to put your stationary bike on and what rpm to maintain," said   

    "I was asked how did I do by a fellow competitor, and I responded, 'All I know is I beat Shawn [Langdon]. If I can't beat them on the track all the time, I can at least get them off the track."

    And on Sunday in Commerce, Ga., she nearly got them all on the track. - Bobby Bennett

     

     

    “We had a couple of great runs throughout the weekend,” Pritchett said. “This season so far we have been a very consistent car, and we’ve always been looking for that little bit of a break in eliminations and getting everything right on the track,” Pritchett said. “These past two weeks since our last race in (April 24-26 in Houston) we have been very meticulous about the details in our car and we changed our setup a little bit.”

    Pritchett qualified No. 3 with a 3.792-second run at 321.81 mph in her Gumout/Dote Racing entry. Then, she made an impressive march to the finals, ousting Chris Karamesines, J.R. Todd, and three-time world champion Larry Dixon before coming up short against Brown.

    “We came out rolling (with the changed setup) with a lot of confidence,” Pritchett said. “Being consistent as we’ve been instills confidence in our team and myself. It has been a while since Vegas of last year that we went to the semifinals, and it is a euphoric state that we get in (by winning rounds). That’s what I love. What my team is feeling, how positive they are. This will not be just my first Top Fuel win, it would be my team’s first Top Fuel win, my crew and my team owners and for my crew chief Doug Kuch.”

    Pritchett acknowledged how tough it is to get to Victory Lane in Top Fuel.

    “The struggle is real,” Pritchett said. “I feel like we definitely wanted to win this time (against Brown) and now after being that close now we really want it. I don’t think we could want it any more. I just get to drive the car and do the best that I can, but our results have been the product of intense attention by Doug Kuch and Rob Flynn and the entire crew. We had zero mistakes this weekend and we’ve actually pretty much had zero mistakes the whole year, and that’s a lot to say because we are a part-time team still. We’re running 18 races of 24 and we don’t have a full-time crew. Half of our crew is full-time, and half of it is part time. I think we definitely exceeded a lot of people’s expectations, but not quite our own because our expectation is to win, and we are really close to that.”

    In the finals, Pritchett lost traction early, but she wasn’t about to click off.

    “I was definitely not lifting,” Pritchett said. “When it comes to Sunday, my pedal is to the metal. I got out there, and I immediately saw Antron about 60-feet out. I knew he got me a little bit on the light, and I saw him pulling away and then we were going up in smoke and I caught it. It was a really good pedal job and I could still see him right there and my car hooked back up and then I could feel it push a gasket out and I could feel the motor was eating itself alive, but you never know. Antron could’ve pitched a belt or something, so you stick it.”

    Pritchett is no stranger to winning – she won the 2010 NHRA Hot Rod Heritage Racing Series in a Funny Car and most recently she won three times in NHRA’s Pro Mod Series.

    “We definitely didn’t luck into getting into the final round, but it takes a little bit of luck,” Pritchett said about her performance at Atlanta. “My theory behind that is that you have to be prepared to receive the luck. You have to be at your best all of the time, and if somebody happens to mess up next to you, you still need to go make that run.” - Tracy Renck

     

     

    The act of cutting and pasting articles from this publication to a message board is a clear copyright violation as is pulling photos to post on social media sites. All articles and photography published in CompetitionPlus.com are protected by United States of America and International copyright laws unless mentioned otherwise. The content on this website is intended for the private use of the reader and may not be published or reposted in any form without the prior written consent of CompetitionPlus.com.

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  • WJ OKAY WITH PLAYING THE SPECTATOR ROLE
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    Warren Johnson has been there, done that when it comes to Pro Stock. This is why he’s not sweating his role as spectator this past weekend at the NHRA Summit Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway, the closest venue to his Sugar Hill, Ga.-based shop.

    “It’s really not tough being a spectator,” admitted Johnson, the winningest NHRA Pro Stock driver. “I’ve [raced] for quite a while, so this is just kind of a rest. It’s not like I haven’t done this before and I get all excited about it.” 

    During Friday’s first Pro Stock session Johnson was standing on the starting line watching his friends and former foes navigate the Atlanta Dragway racing surface.

    “I never really got that excited about the actual racing, when I did do it, because it was how I made a living,” Johnson added.

    Johnson categorized his spectator role as, “I’m just an observer.”

    Johnson, as a proven winner, understands he could easily find employment as a crew chief but says he’s not looking presently to tune for anyone. 

    “Yeah, that would be a role better suited for KJ (son Kurt Johnson), he’s more of a people-person than I am,” Johnson said with a smile. “I’d probably rip someone’s throat out if they screwed up.”

    Johnson shrugs his shoulders at the way Pro Stock has advanced since he was part of the class's formative early years. 

    “We used to drive our trucks to the track, work on the cars and drive back to the shop,” Johnson said. “Now they just fly in. You have your right lug tightener and your left lug nut tightener. That’s fine if that’s what it takes to put the show on.”

    Given his druthers, and a healthy budget, Johnson believes he’d be better off putting a young driver behind the wheel and shaping them into the driver he needs.

    “You’d be better off having a younger driver to get what you need done,” said Johnson. “But, like I told Jeggie [Coughlin] one day, you’re only as good as you were.”

     

     

     

    The act of cutting and pasting articles from this publication to a message board is a clear copyright violation as is pulling photos to post on social media sites. All articles and photography published in CompetitionPlus.com are protected by United States of America and International copyright laws unless mentioned otherwise. The content on this website is intended for the private use of the reader and may not be published or reposted in any form without the prior written consent of CompetitionPlus.com.

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  • DRAG RACING HALL OF FAME JOURNALIST JIM KELLY PASSES
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    Hall of Fame photographer Jim Kelly of Boulder City, Nev, lost his fight with cancer, passing quietly in his sleep on Monday evening, May 18.

    Kelly was under hospice care and was comforted in his final hours by his daughter, Carol Kelly Jarnigan, and life-long friend, Pete Ward.

    A memorial service will be announced shortly.

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  • DID YOU MISS LAST NIGHT'S WFO RADIO?

     

     

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    Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Southern Nationals Winners Edition featuring Antron Brown, Tim Wilkerson, Jason Line, and Hector Arana who all stop by to discuss winning the massive NHRA event in the ATL. The voice of the NHRA Alan Reinhart breaks down the event and host Joe Castello gives his perspective on the race.

     

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  • NO RUST TO BE FOUND IN JEGGIE'S DRIVING
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    Jeggie Coughlin stepped away from Pro Stock driving at the end of 2014. Unfortunately for the bracket racer community, he didn't step away from winning. 

    Coughlin, while competing in the K&N Spring Fling 5-Day event at Bristol Dragway, scored a victory in the Friday event. The win propelled the six-time NHRA champion into a tie for the overall point lead but he later lost the high ranking in a run-off. 

    "They're the pinnacle of today's big-money bracket races," Coughlin said of the event. "The promoters, Kyle Seipel, and Pete Biondo, do a real nice job, and I had high hopes of winning one of their races in my career because of the sheer prestige. I've been fortunate to win a lot of great races over the years in both the NHRA and the bracket racing worlds, and to get to Bristol and have that kind of success was really nice."

    The Spring Fling events, the brainchild of veteran bracket racers Seipel and Biondo, attract nearly 400 of the best bracket racers in the country. These races crown a new winner each day after an average of nine to ten rounds.

    Coughlin pulled double duty with two cars in Bristol,  a JEGS.com Chevy II wagon, and a JEGS.com dragster. The Chevy II has been a consistent car for Coughlin, but Wednesday it began to drop off elapsed time.

    Coughlin and team mechanic Randy Bishop worked to solve the puzzling performance loss. With help from veteran racers and friends Kenny Underwood and Jeff Maggert and father-in-law Al Kenny, they spent long hours trying to diagnose the problems, but it still wasn't right the next day.

    "We ended up working again to midnight, 1 o'clock," Coughlin said. "We changed transmissions and had some trouble there, and we were fortunate to have FTI help us to fix the transmission I'd been running and put it in Friday morning. We barely made first round."

    After a long thrash, Coughlin was in the final pair of cars down the track in the first round, and he was fortunate to be there.

    "The Friday race almost didn't happen," Coughlin said. "We weren't really planning on making the Friday race with the wagon, and as things would go, we got a couple of really good races to start the day and it grew from there."

    The car was performing better, and Coughlin was able to zero in on his dial-in. Meanwhile, he kept winning rounds. His round-best reaction time in the seventh round earned him a bye to the semifinals of the 10-round race.

    Coughlin's semifinal opponent, Don Tipton, had a wire come off the transbrake button and essentially lost control of the on-board electronics and had trouble staging, giving Coughlin a win to the final. 

    There, against multi-time bracket champ Tracey Guffey, luck fell Coughlin's way again. Guffey's transmission must have been too hot, and when he staged the car and set the transbrake, the car backed out of the beams, so he had a nearly impossible time staging his car. 

    When Coughlin left with a green light, the race was essentially his as Guffey was launching in second gear.

    "It was very challenging getting started the first couple rounds, and it was odd coming down the stretch with my opponents having trouble," Coughlin said. "To be able to hoist the $20,000 check and the coveted Spring Fling custom trophy was enough reward for all of our hard work.

    "With all we'd been through the previous two nights and that morning, it was quite a thrill. I feel privileged to have been able to win this race."

    The wagon performed well enough throughout the week to tie Tommy Cable for the points lead after Sunday's event. Cable, though, was able to inch out a run-off win to clinch the points win.

    "I was .001 on the Tree and ran .019 under my dial, and he was .016 on the Tree and ran .01 above his dial," Coughlin said. "Just got to the finish line a little bit too soon."

    Coughlin's dragster ran well, too, reaching the fifth round twice and the third round twice in the five races.

    "We were making some noise, and the car was running extremely well," Coughlin said. "But for some reason the wagon was the one turning the win lights on." 

    Coughlin made 43 runs between the two rides over the course of the event.

     

    The act of cutting and pasting articles from this publication to a message board is a clear copyright violation as is pulling photos to post on social media sites. All articles and photography published in CompetitionPlus.com are protected by United States of America and International copyright laws unless mentioned otherwise. The content on this website is intended for the private use of the reader and may not be published or reposted in any form without the prior written consent of CompetitionPlus.com.

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