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DI Roundtable: ‘Mountain Man’ Wins Pro Nitrous, Force Family Double-Up, Staging Duels and More

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The Drag Illustrated Roundtable is back this week with some in-depth analysis and opinions on the newsmakers, hot topics and trends in drag racing. This week’s roundtable lineup – Editor-in-Chief Nate Van Wagnen, Design/Production Director and COO Mike Carpenter, Senior Editor Josh Hachat, and, of course, Founder and Editorial Director Wes Buck – discusses PDRA Pro Nitrous shakeups, Force family domination and a staging duel at Topeka, and more.

Want to join the conversation? Share your opinions in the comments on our Facebook page. Looking for more on these topics? Subscribe to the Drag Illustrated YouTube channel for full interviews from the latest newsmakers on the Wes Buck Show.

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There were some big upsets and shakeups in Pro Nitrous at the PDRA Maple Grove race over the weekend. First-time finalists Mike Achenbach and Ed Burnley met in the final round, with Achenbach winning. How important is it to have new winners in a class that’s been pretty much dominated by the same 3-4 guys for the last couple seasons?

NATE VAN WAGNEN: That was huge. There was a buzz in the media center at Maple Grove when everyone realized we’d have a first-time winner after Jay Cox, Jason Harris, Jim Halsey and Tommy Franklin lost in the first round. We were guaranteed a new, exciting storyline after a season of mostly reporting who Halsey beat to win his umpteenth Pro Nitrous race. Halsey himself mentioned in a Facebook comment after the race that this was the first time since early in 2019 that a driver other than Halsey, Franklin or Cox won in Pro Nitrous. There’s no doubt that win was a huge shot in the arm for Achenbach and his team, especially after fighting through adversity all weekend. I’m sure the runner-up finish also energized Ed Burnley. I think the race overall gave a lot of the other Pro Nitrous teams hope that it’s still possible to win against the big dogs.

MIKE CARPENTER: It’s absolutely critical. This is a class that is suddenly struggling when it comes to car count, for one reason or another. A series of unfortunate accidents at the events throughout the season have been particularly unkind to the nitrous cars. The fact is that it’s difficult and expensive to compete in Pro Nitrous, bottom line. I tend to think seeing underdogs have success may draw out an extra car or two at the next stop on tour. Burnley especially has been at this a long time and it was great to see him make it to the finals, and Achenbach really showed a lot of resolve battling back from a minor crash and a nitrous fireball to win the event, not to mention the fact that he is returning to competition from a pretty severe crash last year.

JOSH HACHAT: Anytime someone who has the nickname “Mountain Man” gets the win, I’m declaring it a great weekend. On top of that, new winners are always a good thing. I’m all for dominant winners and I’ve praised the run guys like Halsey, Steve Torrence and Matt Smith have been on. But that’s only one singular dominant name. If it’s 1-2 guys duking it out and always winning, I don’t mind it and, in fact, I welcome it. That puts an entire field chasing after that and that hunt is always fun.

But when it’s 3-5 teams simply winning over and over again, that’s when it becomes monotonous for me. We’ve seen it when it’s just JFR and DSR trading wins between their 4-6 Funny Car teams in the past and that just doesn’t have the same appeal to me. Having an underdog win is huge for the class and the sport. With things wavering a little in Pro Nitrous, as least as far as participation is concerned, I think you need things like Achenbach winning to inject a little life in the class. Like Nate said, you need to know you can at least have a chance to compete with the big names and Achenbach helped provide that.

WES BUCK: With Jim Halsey having been in something like three-quarters of the Pro Nitrous final rounds that have taken place over the course of the last few years, I don’t think anything could be more important for the PDRA or their headlining nitrous oxide-injected eliminator than some fresh faces in the winner’s circle. Not only is it encouraging for the frequent flyers who’ve found themselves on the outside looking in the last few years, it’s also likely to inspire action amongst the nitrous racers who operate outside the PDRA – many of which likely felt they didn’t have what it would take to compete against the likes of Jim Halsey, Tommy Franklin and Jay Cox.

To be honest, I think there’s even more to it than that. There’s also the belief system that unless you own a drag strip like Halsey and Franklin and can seemingly test-at-will (which doesn’t happen nearly as much as one might presume), you don’t stand a chance. I think seeing some lesser-known guys like Mike “The Mountain Man” Achenbach and Ed Burnley making their way to the money round in what is inarguably one of the most competitive doorslammer categories in the world can only be seen as positive.

And let’s be honest…Achenbach’s path to the aforementioned money round was as difficult as I believe any racer has experienced in recent history. A run-in with the guard wall and ensuing fire, then a massive nitrous backfire that sent the hood scoop skyward, and he still finds himself holding the Happy Gilmore-sized check in victory lane? It’s without a doubt the feel-good movie of the summer so far, and it’s gonna take a whale of an endeavor to top it.

For the record and as a side note, Ed Burnley may be lesser known than Halsey, Franklin and Cox, but he’s without a doubt one of the “real ones”. As soon as I saw his name on the qualifying sheets at Maple Grove, I knew he’d be a problem for everyone involved. That’s a racer’s racer, and as encouraging and exciting as it was to see him make a deep run on elimination day…I’d be lying if I said I was shocked or totally surprised. Has to be said.

Brittany and John Force winning Topeka together was the first time a parent and child won together at the same event in a pro class. Were you surprised by that stat?

NATE VAN WAGNEN: I guess I didn’t realize John and Brittany hadn’t won together before. Given the performance level of both teams, that’s a little surprising. But there are so many stars that have to align for a double-up like that to happen, so maybe it shouldn’t come as such a surprise. But as hot as those teams are lately, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them pull off another double-up soon, maybe as soon as this season.

JOSH HACHAT: This was fun to see all the way around. In some of the behind-the-scenes stuff, you could see John muttering, “Come on” to himself as Brittany staged her dragster. His celebration afterwards – turning his hat backwards and getting right next to Force’s cockpit as she turned off the return road – was truly exceptional and it meant a great deal to Brittany as well. She’s been an incredible trendsetter for the Force family in ways none of them will ever be able to replicate with her venture into Top Fuel, and that’s pretty cool to see.

I’ve said it several times, but maybe she’s the one to challenge Torrence this year. We’ve had attempts from people like Antron, Leah and now Force, but nobody has been able to offer it over an extended period of time. Force has the quickest dragster in the class and if this team has consistency figured out, it could be a thrilling duel down the stretch.

MIKE CARPENTER: I was actually pretty surprised by this stat, as I was almost certain that John himself had already performed this feat with either Ashley or Courtney. Besides the Forces, of course, drag racing is usually a family affair and there are a ton of parent-child combos that are capable of pulling this off. But maybe what’s stopped it from happening until now is that the parent and child tend to compete in the same class – Warren and Kurt Johnson, Billy and Steve Torrence, and Hector Arana and Hector Arana Jr. are just a few that come to mind off the top of my head.

WES BUCK: Thoroughly surprised, honestly – especially if you consider how many second-, third- and even fourth-generation racers exist in our sport. Sometimes it seems like if it weren’t for the sons and daughters of drag racers we wouldn’t have any at all. That said, it’s hard to believe there’s never been a time when father-and-son or father-and-daughter have put their hands on a Wally on the same day.

What I enjoyed most about the whole affair was seeing how genuinely excited John Force was. His reaction in the shutdown area, going on about “double dipping” and smiling ear-to-ear all the while was a legit Kodak moment. As a father of a daughter myself, the moment tugged at my heart strings pretty hard. I can’t imagine sharing a moment like that with my little girl, and I appreciate the opportunity to see the stars and moon align for John and Brittany.

The Mid-West Drag Racing Series returns this weekend after a long summer break. What are you expecting out of this race at SRCA Dragstrip?

NATE VAN WAGNEN: These teams have had all summer to prepare for this race, so they’re going to be fired up and ready to go. However, just because the series has been off all summer doesn’t necessarily mean the racers have been off. A number of the Top Alcohol Funny Car teams have been following the NHRA trail – Sean Bellemeur is coming off a win in Topeka in a brand-new car – and some of the Pro Mod teams have dabbled in other series or independent events. SRCA is a new track for the Mid-West series, but Top Alcohol teams have been racing there for years and have shown that the track is capable of holding down some solid numbers.

JOSH HACHAT: The cool thing about this race is because of the location, it’s going to draw an entirely new demographic of MWDRS fans and participants. It’s a fanbase that’s never seen a Pro Mod show like this, while the series noted they’re drawing Top Sportsman competitors from the Colorado area, and a number of first-time Pro Mod participants. That’s already made the move to a new track a success and with reports of a stellar track surface, we could be in line for some great racing this weekend in Great Bend. 

WES BUCK: First and foremost, let’s give a round of applause to the owners of this joint. I’m told they dropped somewhere in the neighborhood of two-million-dollars updating and improving this historic facility, and I appreciate that – as should the entire drag racing community. To think there are people willing to invest that kind of dough into a drag strip in rural Kansas should be enough to have any racer feeling grateful, especially those that will frequent the track.

Secondly, I’m happy for Keith Haney and the Mid-West Drag Racing Series – all their racers, sponsors and fans. I grew up in the Midwest, and I know what it’s like to feel like all the “cool stuff” is happening out on the East Coast or in the deep South. I remember the nearest heads-up race being about five hours away (way South) and that racing being several years behind what was happening in the doorslammer drag racing hotbeds of Texas, Georgia and North Carolina. To see what the Mid-West Drag Racing Series is becoming in this part of the country, the caliber of cars and level of competition – it’s encouraging and exciting at the bare minimum. There have been many failed efforts to bring some sort of traveling, points-earning series to the Midwest over the years for classes like Pro Mod. It’s a real victory to see these guys and gals having the opportunity to race at nice facilities, for good money and in front of good crowds right in their own backyard (for the most part).

Lastly, from what I understand this is a track that has never before seen near-unlimited heads-up doorslammers like they’re about to see with MWDRS Outlaw Pro Mod division. That should make for a fun weekend for racers and fans alike.

Another major happening in Topeka was the staging duel between Mason McGaha and Bruno Massel that ended in a super rare double DQ. What was your reaction to the staging duel and then the double DQ ruling?

NATE VAN WAGNEN: I was flying home from Maple Grove when this staging duel happened, so I didn’t get to see or hear about it until a few hours after it happened. I thought it was pretty cool. Anything that adds a little excitement in Pro Stock is good, in my opinion. I wasn’t especially surprised to see the double DQ. There are a handful of different ways that could’ve been handled, and I can understand the arguments for just about all of them. I was standing on the starting line when Justin Kirk and Elijah Morton had a 3-minute burndown in Extreme Pro Stock at a recent PDRA race. Around halfway through, PDRA chief starter Kyle Lang set the switch down and pulled up a cooler to sit down between them. The fans loved it, and it made for a fun video. But I can also see why NHRA handled it the way they did.

MIKE CARPENTER: It’s no secret that I love a good staging duel (don’t call it a burndown!). It can bring an unexpected twist to an otherwise routine round of racing, and I wish they happened more often. The casual fan may not be aware of what’s going in the pits or inside the helmet when one of these duels develops, but usually they are chock full of strategy and/or built from a rivalry. We’ve seen a ton of classic staging duels at all levels of the sport, with probably the most iconic one being Warren Johnson vs Scott Geoffrion during the final round of the 1994 Slick 50 Nationals in Houston. I went back and watched this one and a handful of others, and my takeaway is that a staging duel CAN go too long.

Most of the classic duels lasted 1-2 minutes before they finally staged. Sunday’s showdown between Massel and McGaha neared the 4-minute mark with no end in sight. With safety being the primary concern of the starter, I would have liked to have seen him step in after 1-2 minutes and back the teams off for a short cool down and stern lecture before firing them back up and hopefully racing. After 4 minutes and with the pressure of a live TV schedule bearing down, the starter really was left with no choice other than the one he made. The cool thing about staging duels is that no two are the same, and they’re always handled differently due to the fact that everything is left to the complete discretion of the starter.

JOSH HACHAT: A staging duel will always get people talking and this one certainly did that, with opinions ranging all over the place. It was definitely a cool thing to see, but four minutes, I was more than ready to have them race and I have absolutely zero problem with the decision made in this instance.

The duel definitely brought people to their feet and had people excited, but by nearly four minutes, I’m not sure the level of enthusiasm was there. They had made their point by nearly four minutes of staying there, and I’m one of many who believed it had been long enough. The hooting and hollering at the track had died down by that point and we wanted to see the end result.

When neither one of them gave any indication there was going to be any movement, the right decision was made, in my opinion. After listening to starter Brad Hardy describe it a couple days later, I believed it was the right call even more. Could he have been a touch more demonstrative in urging them to stage? Sure. Could he have sent them back, made them stay in their cars and had them run at the end of the round? Also a viable option. But I have no problems with Hardy’s decision.

WES BUCK: A fantastic moment for drag racing that I believe wasn’t handled exceptionally well.

It’s incredible how polarizing moments like this are. I’ve seen wildly varying opinions on the situation – the staging duel itself, the decision to disqualify the competitors, etc. – but I believe drag racing needs way more of this. Why? Because it’s polarizing and opinions vary wildly! Ten years from now there will hardly be a soul that remembers who won in any category at the 2021 running of the Menards NHRA Nationals in Topeka, Kansas, but no one who follows the sport of drag racing will forget this nearly four-minute-long staging duel between Bruno Massel and Mason McGaha.

For the record, I completely respect NHRA Official Starter Brad Hardy’s decision to shut these guys down and wave them out of the beams. It was clear as day that neither driver was going to budge and after this amount of time at idle it’s impossible to ignore the safety implications. Honestly, these NHRA Pro Stock cars are equipped with two-gallon fuel cells, so I don’t think there was a lot of life left in this moment regardless. But having already waited almost four minutes, with the fans in the stands on their feet and cheering, the teams behind the cars cheering and clapping…how can we possibly think it’s acceptable not to have a drag race?

It’s was like watching one hour and 45 minutes of a two-hour movie. I take this stuff so seriously that it’s almost silly, but I was quite literally sick to my stomach watching those guys climb out of their cars and that moment evaporate.

Personally, I’d have shut them off, backed them out of the beams and let each driver know that we’re going to try this again and they’ve got no more than 30-seconds to get staged and race or they’re getting bounced. There is the issue of the cars probably running out of fuel, but after all this time spent, all this obviously positive energy and well-knowing that this moment will be the talk of town for weeks to come – you really need to do whatever it takes (within reason) to get a race off.

Again, though, I understand that competitors can’t be allowed to think they can just ignore the officials on the starting line – especially the stater. It sets a dangerous precedent and undermines the power and authority of what has historically been an extremely significant and central character in the story of drag racing.

The big takeaway – in agreement with most the gang here – is that these staging duels can apparently go too long. I’m under the impression that NHRA recognizes this, understands this was a bit of a ball-dropping, and will be trying to put a policy or rule-of-thumb in place to prevent this from happening again. After maybe two minutes the drivers are backed out and told DQ follows if they don’t stage within 30-seconds?

I’m not totally sure what the answer is, but it’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen so much chatter about anything related to NHRA drag racing as I have this deal in Topeka. That tells me all I need to know.

It’s looking sparse for Pro Mod in Brainerd, with only nine cars on the entry list and rumors persisting it could be even lighter than that. How does Pro Mod turn around this free fall?

NATE VAN WAGNEN: It’s definitely concerning to see so few cars on the entry list. I think it’s a “perfect storm” situation. Car counts in NHRA Pro Mod have been down pretty much across the board this season, plus the Brainerd race can be a tough draw for the lower budget, part-time teams. A quick check of the entry lists for the other classes confirms  this. The Canadian border restrictions are keeping a couple cars away. Plus, there are at least a couple guys who are so frustrated with the latest rule changes that they’re sitting this one out. Add all that up and you get less than a dozen cars on the entry list.

I think the class can recover from this, though. The next race is the U.S. Nationals, which always draws one of the biggest car counts of the season. There are only 12 cars on the list so far, but I’m sure it will fill up over the next few weeks. Charlotte, another favorite race for Pro Mod, is coming up right after that. So I think you’ll see decent car counts to close out the season, but something will need to happen over the offseason to get the car counts back to where they were a couple years ago.

MIKE CARPENTER: It’s hard to believe that this is where we are in regards to NHRA Pro Mod compared to just a few years ago. This class always seems to be rising or falling, never staying predictable too long. It’s just the nature of the beast when you have four (ok, three) engine combinations vying for supremacy. After several years of relative parity, we’re back to the situation where one of the boosted combinations is dominant.

I think the multiple attempts to limit turbos and now ProChargers electronically just don’t work. Mechanical limitation is where it’s at in my opinion, and I think we saw that with NHRA’s revision to their recent rule change, where they raised the rev limiter back to 10,000 RPM and further limited the rear gear. I don’t have the answers and I’m glad I’m not a rule maker, but it sure is concerning to see the flagship Pro Mod series suffering in a big way, and I’m hopeful it’s not too little, too late and the ship can be righted over the winter.

JOSH HACHAT: It appears to be in dire straights at the moment. Like Mike said, maybe that’s just the cyclical nature of this class. One minute it’s rolling right along and there’s relative peace between the power adders, and the next you’ve got the entire class disagreeing about everything.

It’s safe to say the decision to allow ProChargers into the class hasn’t worked nearly the way we all hoped and expected. I’m not here to say it was a mistake to have the power adder, but it certainly hasn’t created even more parity in the class. That was the original goal and the end result – again, not solely the fault of that particular power adder – has been the complete opposite.

This isn’t a solution that’s going to be solved in the next few races or by a few rule tweaks, that’s for sure. Judging by the entry list in the coming races, the class is due for a major overhaul. I almost wonder if not racing the rest of the year and going for a complete reset for 2022 would be a better option. That’s probably a bit extreme, but something major needs to change for this class to turn around next year. The potential of NHRA Pro Mod is far too good to have single-digit cars at any race, but that’s where we are and everyone involved in the class needs to work together to get out of this mess.

WES BUCK: This is certainly a disastrous situation, perhaps for no one more so than the incredibly loyal and passionate fanbase of Pro Mod drag racing. The show they’re about to get in Brainerd, along with the show they got in Denver a few weeks ago, is nothing short of tragic. I don’t think there is a class in drag racing that has the cult-like following of Pro Mod and for a situation like this to exist – especially after some real glory years for the E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series – is simply unacceptable.

I don’t know that we have enough space here to identify all the issues at play here, but we can certainly name a few of the driving forces behind a field of potentially eight cars in Brainerd for the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals. First off, we’ve had something like four rule changes this year – two of which came within a few days of one another. The ProCharged cars had an obvious performance advantage last year and headed into 2021 there was nothing done to reel them in and at least create the illusion of parity amongst a class that designed to create close competition amongst supercharged, turbocharged and nitrous oxide-injected doorslammers.

Incredibly, while the performance edge of the ProCharger cars was completely ignored to start the season, NHRA decided to institute a manual shifting rule that was celebrated by fans for the most part, was widely despised by active NHRA Pro Mod racers with a few exceptions. The combination of making the cars more difficult to drive and harder to tune, coupled with a known-and-acknowledged performance advantage for one combination was something of a perfect storm – a real recipe for disaster.

On top of that, NHRA recently increased the entry fee for this category while simultaneously reducing the payout (only paying winner and runner-up). They also chose to bring the category to a couple new markets for 2021, including the infinitely challenging Bandimere Speedway in Denver (at nearly 10,000-feet of altitude) and this weekend’s race in Brainerd which, admittedly, might be one of the coolest stops on the tour, but is still located in freaking Minnesota (not really convenient for anyone, especially the primarily East Coast-based Pro Mod contingent).

I could go on, honestly, but I’ll just say that I hope they’re able to turn this ship around. In the fall of 2019, NHRA Pro Mod was – without question – the hottest thing in drag racing. More cars than they could handle and essentially a waiting list of high-level competitors eager to join the fold. Today, we’re looking at back-to-back races with less than 10 cars on the property. It’s a fall from grace that I don’t think we’ve ever seen before in drag racing.

Here’s the good news, though: it’s rumored that as many as 25 teams have either committed or expressed real interest in returning to action at the NHRA U.S. Nationals coming up in a couple weeks. NHRA feels strongly they have the cars – including the ProCharged ones – extremely close performance-wise following their latest rule revision.

If I’ve learned anything about this deal is that things change quickly, and we’re only as good as our last race. NHRA Pro Mod will look like a train wreck for the next two weeks, but if there are 20-plus cars in the pits at Indy…these low moments for the series will quickly be forgotten.

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