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DI Roundtable: Van Wagnen, Buck & Hachat Break Down Drag Racing Success Stories, Drama In Denver & More

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The Drag Illustrated team is back for its latest roundtable, tackling a number of important topics going on in the sport. From success in the PDRA and Donald Long’s Magic 8, to events thriving all over the country and the Bandimere family continuing the good fight, the DI team give us their thoughts as some critical matters in drag racing.

QUESTION: The two big events last weekend were Magic 8 and the PDRA event. What were your big takeaways from them?

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NATE: A few really interesting things happened at the PDRA race. In Pro Nitrous, Tommy Franklin lost in the first round after winning the first two races of the year, opening the door for Jay Cox to win his first Pro Nitrous race in around a year. Second, the GALOT Motorsports team has a grip on Pro Boost again. They were dominant in 2016, and while they haven’t dominated this year, they’ve been to all three finals this year: John Strickland got a win and a runner-up, and now Kevin Rivenbark has a win to go with his runner-up to Strickland at Darlington. Third, Johnny Pluchino is the real deal. He’s focused on Extreme Pro Stock this year after two Pro Outlaw 632 championships, and he just won his second race out of three events. It’s almost as impressive as Steve Furr, who’s now won all three races in Elite Top Dragster. There are some seriously strong players in PDRA right now.

I was at the PDRA race all weekend, so I have to admit I didn’t closely follow the Magic 8 race. From what I saw online, it was the Killin’ Time Racing show in Radial vs. the World. KTR teammates Stevie “Fast” Jackson and Marcus Birt qualified No. 1 and 2 and won and runnered-up, respectively. It’s no surprise, considering the brain trust and the equipment in that pit. It was also cool to see 2019 DI 30 Under 30 honoree Blake Copson get the win in X275.

JOSH: I think it’s safe to say Nate has the PDRA covered from every imaginable degree, but seeing Cox get his first Pro Nitrous win in a couple years was a lot of fun. It’s practically impossible for me to believe it’s been that long since he last won, but it makes things interesting in that class. It might not be apropos of me, but watching XPS got me excited to see Mountain Motor Pro Stock in the quarter-mile at Indy in a couple weeks. It just seems like that class is suited for the quarter-mile and Pluchino is a legit, young talent, there’s no denying that.

Not a single person should be surprised to see Stevie Fast win in Orlando and only really be challenged by Birt. He’s altered the entire landscape in that class in a year. As good as he was in RvW for years, he’s completely taken it to a new level, and only the car he tunes has shown the capability of keeping up. I also love that he’s not about to apologize for that success, even as many have gone running for the hills, or in this case, Pro 275. RvW is in fine shape, but if you want to win, you’ve got to reach Jackson’s level. He doesn’t need to lower his performance. Want to be the best? Well, try to chase him down.

Also, big kudos to master crew chief Jamie Miller, who tuned the likes of Copson and Eric Dillard to wins in X275 and Pro 275, respectively. That dude is mega-talented.

Johnny Pluchino (far lane) over JR Carr

WES: Pluchino winning in XPS, in my opinion, is a big story for several of the reasons outlined above. He’s a second-generation racer that is filled to the brim with piss and vinegar. This young man has a fire in his belly and passion for drag racing that, honestly, I haven’t seen in a long time. He lives for this, and it’s awesome to see him succeeding like he is. To take out JR Carr in the final round – a racer who seems to have the entire big-inch Pro Stock scene covered by a few numbers – was pretty damn impressive. It’d be rather understandable for most young racers to lose that race before it started, but Johnny delivered in a big moment that I think will be somewhat defining for him here in 2020.

While we’re talking Mountain Motor Pro Stock, let’s all agree that this category may well be the unsung hero of the PDRA. While car count wasn’t overwhelming in Virginia, the on-track product was strong. Maybe it’s just for we hardcores, but there’s really no weak spot in this brand of drag racing. From the lumbering tone of an 800-plus cubic inch engine changing pitch with each gear change to the grit and determination of the men and women involved…it’s a sweet, sweet thing.

I do wonder just how much quicker the Liberty transmission combination is than the Lenco. Anyone who has ever grabbed onto the input shaft of a Lenco and tried to turn it knows that it’s a real man’s game. You can spin a Liberty with your fingers. Is that what’s giving guys like Carr and Pluchino such a dramatic edge on the rest of the field? Will we see that separation between the transmissions produce a rule change? I don’t know, but I do find it interesting.

Switching gears here, I will say that as much as it probably sucked for Tommy Franklin to go out in the first round in Virginia, I think it may have been good for Pro Nitrous racing. He’s been such a dominant force in the category for so long, his success often seen as a foregone conclusion – even when there’s no such thing at this level of competition – it just felt like him going out early let the door open a little bit for someone else.

As for the Magic 8 – and I’ve said this quite a bit before on the podcast and elsewhere – but I wouldn’t be surprised to see this format be something that Donald Long hangs onto long after we’re done talking about COVID-19. There’s some sort of underground, “Fight Club” feeling that these small, limited engagement shootouts produce, and I think a lot of people like it. Also, “Duck” has very, very little left to prove in drag racing. He’s known as one of the best promoters of all time, has been almost solely responsible for radial tire racing going from something of a filler category to a headlining, marquee attraction. So, why not put on events that are simply a whole lot less stressful? I wouldn’t be surprised to see him do one major race a year that is designed to draw a big crowd, and do several – at least 2-3 – smaller shootouts like this.

QUESTION: Events like Street Car Takeover and major bracket/sportsman races have had huge success this year, in spite of everything going on. How impressed have you been with that and does that bode well for the sport?

NATE: It’s really impressive to see racers flood the pits at some of these events. It’s really interesting when you think about the circumstances. For one, the cancellation of so many events has narrowed down the choices that racers have when they want to go racing every weekend or a couple times a month. For a long time now, car counts at races have been hurting because racers have so many options. Now, instead of seeing 150 or 200 racers show up at a race here or there, you’re seeing 400-500 racers piling into one race. It’s encouraging to see the sport still doing well despite the challenges it faces. I just hope everyone is willing to weather the storm, as it’s stretching on longer than a lot of people anticipated when everything was shut down in early March.

JOSH: Simply put, I think racers just want to race and they’re not going to be held down, especially as many of them – at least those whose business is involved in some aspect of the sport – are doing well during this time. I’ve heard from many people who are thriving and even enjoying record business during this public health crisis, and I think we’re seeing that at race tracks across the country.

Some ongoing restrictions have certainly hurt tracks in the so-called hot spots, and not having fans hurts, but a lot of these races weren’t fan-driven events in the first place. Racers have shown up in record numbers in a lot of cases, and that’s incredible to see and bodes well for the future. We’re seeing a massive abundance of racers of all ages just wanting to be at the track and that’s going to keep the sport alive and well. So many people deserve credit for keeping this wheel moving, too.

SCT has been a major success, and we’ve seen the likes of sportsman promoters everywhere powering through this to give racers somewhere to go. Donald Long has never had a summer event for radial cars before this year, yet he’s already had two, if for no other reason than to help tracks and keep racers interested and active. That’s a big deal and another reason why it’s been so cool to see the sport come together like it has during this pandemic.

WES: I hate what this coronavirus pandemic has done to our country and our sport, but I’m telling you…they’re not going to take drag racing away from us. I think a lot of people look at the struggles facing NHRA and the troubles they’re having and think that means drag racing as a whole is doomed, and nothing could be further from the truth. A lot of the issues NHRA has were starting to show themselves well before the second week in March. The big show is…well…the big show, and I don’t think that’s going to change in the immediate future. However, drag racing has been built on the back of grassroots, weekend warrior racers and as Josh and Nate have outlined above – they’re still racing for the most part.

I also think that here in 2020 and, hopefully, well into 2021, we’re going to see racers and race fans with something of a chip on their shoulder – determined to show up and show out in support of the the sport they love. The same way we’re never more patriotic than we are immediately following a tragedy that impacts the nation, I don’t know that anyone will ever feel more dedicated to doing their part to support drag racing than they do right now.

We’ll get through this together, and I’m not so sure we won’t be better for it.

QUESTION: Topeka was the latest NHRA race to get postponed. What’s your confidence level in these events actually happening later this year, and will NHRA race anywhere other than Indy in 2020?

NATE: I applaud the optimism involved in “postponing” a race rather than canceling it outright, but it’s hard to believe these postponed races will happen later this year. However, I still think there’s a chance a couple of races happen outside of Indy. From what I’ve heard, Atlanta is one of the only other race destinations with a clear go-ahead to hold its race. It’s status as an NHRA-owned track helps its case. I sure hope Bandimere Speedway gets the chance to hold its race this year, but the local officials have made it challenging for them to hold even a Wednesday night test-n-tune event. It will take some major changes to make a national event possible there, in my opinion.

JOSH: If it has to be Indy-only in 2020, I guess you power through it, but it’s a tough spot for NHRA to be in this year. Like we discussed, as good as it is to have racers participating in huge numbers at the sportsman or smaller levels, we need strong, viable professional racing to keep the sport in good standing among casual fans, or those who may only watch when it’s on FOX.

We don’t want to be in a state of relying only on racers to keep the sport moving forward. Fan interest has to grow, though in the case of 2020, staying the same may be viewed as growth. As for future races, I think Atlanta has a good shot to happen. NASCAR has had – or will be having – fans in limited numbers in Texas, Bristol and Daytona, and why couldn’t NHRA follow suit? That would possibly allow for fall races in Houston, Dallas, Bristol and, fingers crossed, Gainesville. All are large enough facilities where you could still draw well and comply with local regulations. Though, you would have thought that would have been the case in Topeka, which is as spread out as any facility out there.

It certainly doesn’t look good for Brainerd, Maple Grove, Vegas and Pomona, so maybe Topeka can happen later in the year. And, hey, I’m fine with a fall race at Indy in ideal conditions and why not wrap up the year in Gainesville in late-October or early November? That might be a cool way to end what is surely the most bizarre year in NHRA history.

WES: I want to also say that it doesn’t get any more spread out than Heartland Park Topeka. As much as I love that facility, my feet and knees dread my annual visit to God’s country.

Anyway, I’m typically the most optimistic person in any group I find myself, but I’m having a hard time allowing myself to believe any of these postponed events are going to happen. Of course, I’d love for them to, but only if it represents an opportunity for success for everyone involved. What I don’t want to see is a bunch of track operators or race promoters “taking one for the team”. I know it sounds great and it will make for an awesome Facebook post – you know, forging forward with no opportunity or upside – but what do they say about the road to hell? Paved with good intentions? Yeah, I thought so.

Earlier this year when Keith Berry and Russell Miller made the decision to move forward with WOOOSTOCK at Darlington Dragway, chalking any financial loss up to an advertising/marketing expense for future years, I supported it. Being amongst the very first races to happen after the world essentially stopped turning due to coronavirus, in my opinion at the time, was going to help them elevate the status of WOOOSTOCK forever. It was a power play; an opportunity they seized.

At this point, though…where there’s no real end in sight and most tracks aren’t able to host a crowd that will generate a profit – I don’t want to see people putting themselves in a bad spot for the sake of being a hero or taking a stand or whatever else. I’m not saying we should all just lay down, wave the white flag, find a safe space and cry until we feel better, but there’s no sense in destroying whatever foundation a track, business, race team or whatever else might have built over the course of the last however many years (or decades) just to say you did it.

QUESTION: The Bandimere family has stood strong through some trying times. What do you make of the situation in Denver?

NATE: It’s been inspiring to see the Bandimere family fight for their right to stay open as the Denver area’s only active dragstrip. And they haven’t been alone in their fight. They’ve developed a fiercely loyal racer base, and that group has stood behind the family since their troubles began a month ago. It sounds like the county health officials are finally starting to work with the Bandimeres to come up with a plan that works for both sides, which is definitely good news. I hope things continue to trend in the right direction.

JOSH: Wouldn’t it be magical if September or October rolls around and we’re having the annual NHRA event at one of the finest facilities in the world? It’s certainly would be what the Bandimere family would deserve after the countless headaches they’ve had to endure during this summer.

I won’t dig too deep into this, but not allowing fans at the Denver track – or any in great numbers – while other “events” get to congregate en masse is wrong, at best, and a total case of hypocrisy at worst. It’s been incredible how professional and classy the Bandimere family has been through this, though it’s no surprise to anyone who has spent any amount of time around them. They’re as good as it gets in any regard, and that dignity has been showcased for the country to see.

That in of itself should mean things going their way, and like Nate said, I hope it happens. They deserve our full support and the strength of our racing community has been on full display during this. Legions of fans and supporters have backed the Bandimere family in their fight to stay open and continue to bring fans into their facility, and I hope it doesn’t let up.

WES: I’m proud of Sporty and the gang. I hardly know what else to say. Well, I know exactly what I want to say, but it’s hard not to get myself worked into a tizzy over the whole deal, so I’m trying to exercise some restraint. The fact that our tax dollars are being wasted by judges, government officials and whoever else laboring over what is or isn’t happening at Bandimere Speedway makes me want to vomit. There’s hardly any telling how many millions of dollars have been pumped into the local economy based on the business conducted at Bandimere Speedway for nearly seven decades.

I’m not saying the Bandimeres deserve special treatment, but you’d certainly think they’re due a little bit of understanding all things considered.

Personally, I cannot wait to get out to Bandimere Speedway this year. Whether it’s for a Take it to the Track night or the Mile-High Nationals or our own Main Event 2020 – I love those people, I love the facility, I love the community and I will always be rooting for them.

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