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Rini, Tanner, Pluchino, Stewart, Essick and Whetstine Find Winner’s Circle at PDRA Northern Nationals

Tara Bowker photos

Just four weeks after Chris Rini scored his long-awaited first victory in Switzer Dynamics Pro Nitrous, the Professional Drag Racers Association (PDRA) veteran raced his way to the winner’s circle yet again Saturday night at the Summit Racing Equipment Northern Nationals presented by Penske Racing Shocks. Racing at Maple Grove Raceway, Rini squared off against three-time world champion Jim Halsey in the final round, running a 3.73-second pass at 202 MPH to get the win.

Along with Rini, the pro class winners were Preston Tanner in WS Construction Pro Boost presented by P2 Contracting and Ty-Drive, Johnny Pluchino in Liberty’s Gears Extreme Pro Stock presented by AED Competition, Daryl Stewart in $hameless Racing Pro 632, and Tim Essick in Menscer Motorsports Pro Street presented by AFCO. Essick’s crew chief, Dan Whetstine, earned his first victory in the PDRA’s new small-tire class, AFCO Super Street presented by Menscer Motorsports.

Sportsman event wins went to Joe Roubicek in MagnaFuel Elite Top Sportsman presented by US Rail, Phil Mollicella in Lucas Oil Elite Top Dragster presented by Laris Motorsports Insurance, Al Davidowski in MagnaFuel Top Sportsman presented by Vortech Superchargers, and Fred Denight in Lucas Oil Top Dragster presented by Laris Motorsports Insurance. Pennsylvania’s own Jason Amey won in Edelbrock Bracket Bash presented by COMP Cams, using a 5.133 on a 5.13 dial-in to beat defending event winner Joe Ithier and his 5.202 on a 5.20 dial-in.

In the PDRA’s Jr. Dragster classes, the event winners were Ethan Steding in Coolshirt Systems Pro Jr. Dragster presented by PRP and Hannah Sheppard in Classic Graphix Top Jr. Dragster presented by PRP. Steding, the son of Pro Boost standout Kurt Steding, cut a .003 light in his P2 Contracting ’20 Mike Bos dragster and ran a 7.96 to beat Katelyn Page’s 7.933, both on a 7.90 index. Sheppard qualified No. 1 and raced her ’22 Halfscale entry to the final round, where she posted an 8.926 on an 8.90 dial-in to win over Brynleigh Allen’s 9.071 on a 9.03 dial-in.

PRO NITROUS

Chris Rini had to wait several years to hoist his first PDRA “660 Man” trophy in Pro Nitrous at the Summer Shootout in July. He had to wait just four weeks to pick up his second one at the Northern Nationals, where he used a 3.73 at 202.00 in Bryant Marriner’s Buck-powered ATI Performance Products ’69 Camaro to defeat Jim Halsey and his off-pace 3.825 at 202.48 in the final round.

“I feel really good,” said Rini, who was just over four rounds behind Halsey in points going into the race. “The car’s making really good runs. The crew’s really working well together. We have good products, good sponsors. I’m trying to drive as good as I can. There’s some real tough competition out there. To win the first one was great. To win the second one’s even better. It moves us forward in points. Now we’re holding No. 2 solid.”

Rini qualified second before eliminating Rob Hunnicutt in the first round with a 3.827 at 201.31. He dipped into the 3.70s with a 3.765 at 202.48 to beat two-time world champion Tommy Franklin, who slowed to a 4.992. Rini then took advantage of a single in the semis, running a 3.726 at 202.52.

“I can’t thank [tuner] Brandon Switzer enough; one, for sponsoring the class. Two, for all the products that we run on the car that were made by him,” said Rini, who also thanked his wife, Emily, his team, his employees at Chris Automotive in New York and LR Auto Sales in North Carolina, as well as ATI Performance Products and Buck Racing Engines. “We’re just making good runs. We have reliable horsepower. We proved that we can run with everybody else. I took a year off, and it’s been a really good return. We’ve been so close all year. It’s nice to see it happening. The guys put in a ton of work. Win, lose or draw, they’re putting in the same work. To win just makes it that much sweeter.”

Halsey qualified No. 1 for the third time this season in his Switzer-tuned, Fulton-powered “Daddy Shark” ’68 Camaro. That gave him a first-round bye run, which the three-time world champion used to run a 3.794 at 203.80. Halsey recorded a 3.746 at 204.79 to overcome Wes Distefano’s .060 holeshot advantage and 3.823 pass in the second round. An all-Maryland semifinal pairing followed, with Halsey and Fredy Scriba both cutting .044 reaction times. Halsey pulled ahead, though, winning with a 3.702 over Scriba’s 3.792.

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PRO BOOST

Brother-sister duo Preston and Lexi Tanner won PDRA Jr. Dragster world championships together in 2016, and now they’re competing for world championships together in the pro classes. Just two races after Lexi earned her first win in Pro 632, Preston raced to victory in Pro Boost for the first time in his screw-blown “Sweetheart” ’15 Corvette. Tanner used a slight holeshot advantage and a 3.665 at 204.11 in the final round to defeat Todd “King Tut” Tutterow, who beat Tanner in the final round at the Doorslammer Derby earlier this year.

“This win means everything,” said Tanner, who also reached the final round at the recent Summit Racing Equipment ProStars special event. “It means not giving up on the people who surround you and believing that you can win and just keep digging. That’s what we kept doing.”

Tanner’s career-best weekend started on Friday when he qualified No. 1 for the first time. He kicked off eliminations with a 3.722 at 204.35 to beat Scott Wildgust, then left on James Beadling to win on a holeshot with a 3.701 at 203.68 over Beadling’s 3.688 at 204.32. Tanner then singled his way to a 3.684 at 203.19 in the semis to meet Tutterow in the final.

“That dude’s a living legend at this point,” who thanked Tutterow’s Wyo Motorsports for providing the team’s horsepower, along with tuner Jeff Pierce, crew member Chad Crawford, parents Andy and Missy, sister Lexi, and supporters like M&M Transmission, G-Force Race Cars, Manhattan Collision Centers, and Talbert Manufacturing. “Just to go up against him or even get a round win, let alone a race win against him, it means everything. For our team, it just shows that we can hang with him and hang with the best.”

Tutterow, who has two wins this season in his screw-blown P2 Contracting/FTI Performance ’20 Camaro, qualified third. He used a 3.735 to beat Kevin McCurdy in the first round. The veteran driver and tuner then met up with P2 Racing teammate Kurt Steding, who went red, forfeiting a 3.703 to fall to Tutterow’s 3.707. Tutterow earned lane choice for the final round with his 3.67 at 207.11 victory over Rob Cox and his 3.723.

EXTREME PRO STOCK

While western Pennsylvania isn’t exactly around the corner from Johnny Pluchino’s home base on Long Island, Maple Grove Raceway is the 2020 Extreme Pro Stock world champion’s home race on the PDRA tour. He had a cheering section full of family and friends on hand to see him win his third race of the season in his father’s Kaase-powered $hameless Racing/Strutmasters ’13 Mustang. Pluchino pedaled his way to a 4.308 at 171.79 in the final round to beat defending world champion Chris Powers, who lifted to a 5.265 at 95.00.

“It’s extra special to win in front of family. I’m just glad to put a smile on everyone’s face,” said Pluchino, who also has two Pro 632 world championships to his name. “I’m extremely appreciative that they came out and supported us. It takes a family that supports you to be able to go do these things. I love them all and appreciate them. We’re going to take one hell of a winner’s circle picture.”

There are still two races left in the season, but Pluchino’s first-round match had serious championship implications, as he had to line up against points leader Tony Gillig. Gillig left first with a .005 reaction time, but he had to lift, allowing Pluchino to pedal on to a winning 4.781 at 163.33. Pluchino then played defense, holding off No. 1 qualifier JR Carr and his 4.502 at 172.04 with a 4.228 at 174.53. Carr was third in points behind Pluchino going into the weekend.

“This weekend is another step in the direction we’re looking to go here,” Pluchino said. “At the end of the day, we ran like sh*t, but we got it done. That’s all that matters. We had to run the guy in the lane next to us and we beat them every time. This was I think the trickiest event I’ve ever been to. I’m not sure why, but it really gave us some fits. To be holding this trophy at the end of the weekend, I’m just extremely grateful. Thank you to my team, my dad, and my partners. This is such a team deal. We have two events left for the ultimate goal.”

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Powers, who hails from nearby Carlisle, started race day from the third spot in his Chuck Samuel-tuned Sonny’s Racing Engines ’21 Camaro. His 4.139 at 175.73 over Dave Hughes was the second-quickest pass of the first round. He left on No. 2 qualifier Elijah Morton, whose low E.T. of eliminations 4.112 at 175.73 wasn’t enough to get past Powers and his 4.149 at 174.66 in the semis.

PRO 632

About a month after winning in Pro 632 at the Summer Shootout, Daryl Stewart returned to the winner’s circle with his HRE-powered Chassis Engineering ’17 Camaro. Stewart and tuner Clayton Murphy stepped up for the final round against points leader Amber Franklin, firing off a 4.196 at 168.64 to drive around Franklin and her 4.223 at 168.01. His final-round performance was also good for low E.T. of eliminations.

“This win means a lot,” said Stewart, who thanked Murphy, crew members Chris Boudreau and Johnny Smith, and engine builder Daryl Hameetman. “I don’t know where we are in points because we missed a race, but it gives us something to shoot for at these last few races. We’ll have some time off, so that will be nice for everybody. Hopefully we’ll come back strong. I just barely beat [Amber] just now. She tree’d me. That was the worst light I had all weekend, but she got me there.”

The Jupiter, Florida-based driver made steady improvements all day after qualifying No. 2. He used a 4.239 at 168.24 to beat Gary Hood in the first round, then a 4.211 at 168.37 to eliminate Brian Clauss and his 4.276. A 4.206 at 168.49 in the semifinals gave Stewart the win over No. 3 qualifier Alan Drinkwater, as well as lane choice over Franklin by just .001.

Franklin, also a two-time winner this season, qualified fourth in her Musi-powered “OG Jungle Rat” ’69 Camaro before running a 4.272 at 168.26 over Chris Sweeney, who couldn’t start up for their first-round race. The past Pro Jr. Dragster world champion posted a 4.245 to beat Stu Beaden’s 4.414, then stepped up again to a 4.207 to knock out low qualifier Walter Lannigan Jr. and his 4.221 in a side-by-side semifinal match.

PRO STREET

Defending Pro Street world champion Tim Essick has gone winless since his season-opening win at the East Coast Nationals, but the Maryland native bounced back with a well-timed victory at the Northern Nationals. In the final round against Bill Lutz, Essick grabbed a solid holeshot advantage and ran a 4.06 at 187.68 in his ProCharger-boosted “Brown Sugar” ’18 Mustang to hold off Lutz and his 4.026 at 190.86. Moments later, Essick’s crew chief, Dan Whetstine, picked up the Super Street win to get the team’s first double-up victory.

“I’m so happy for Dan,” said Essick, who’s raced with Whetstine for over 20 years. “To have both cars in the winner’s circle is one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments. I can wish for it to happen again, but I’m so happy he was able to get there.”

Essick qualified fourth, setting up a big-time matchup with points leader Ty Kasper in the opening round. Essick left the line first and won with a 4.303 at 185.66 over Kasper’s 4.567 at 162.53, taking the points lead back in the process. He then stepped up to a 4.237 at 186.69 to beat No. 1 qualifier Nick Agostino and his 4.78 at 151.90 to move on to the final.

“Coming into this race, we lost our points lead and it was really a lot of pressure,” Essick said. “This is a pivotal deal. To have Kasper first round and have it play out like it did just swung it the other way. It’s been such a back and forth. It’s close competition, and it just goes to show any combo and any car can win it.”

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Lutz qualified third in his supercharged “Big Boost” ’67 Camaro before posting low E.T. in the first two rounds, a 4.154 at 188.25 to beat Joe Thomas and a 4.181 at 188.60 to defeat newcomer Eric Pagliughi in the semis.

SUPER STREET

Dan Whetstine was one of the first drivers to sign on for the PDRA’s new 28×10.5-inch slick-tire class, AFCO Super Street presented by Menscer Motorsports. His efforts were rewarded in just the third race for the class, as he stepped up to a 4.789 at 154.23 in the final round to knock out No. 1 qualifier Ron Rhodes. Rhodes, who beat Whetstine in the final round at the last race, slowed to a 6.452 at 91.54. It was the first PDRA win as a driver for Whetstine, who’s been a part of Tim Essick’s success in Pro Street and its predecessor, Outlaw 10.5, as his crew chief.

“I’m very grateful. Tim does so much for me personally. I look good because of him,” said Whetstine, who also thanked his wife, Michelle, crew guy Tim Savoy, and sponsors UPR, Billet Atomizer, and ProCharger. “I’m just a lucky guy. I have a really good core of people around me. No one works harder on my program than Tim Essick. I try to give him the same amount of effort in his program as mine. We have a great relationship. It’s a relationship where no one keeps score. That’s rare, and I’m very lucky.”

Whetstine qualified third in his ProCharger-boosted ’91 Mustang and opened eliminations with a 4.80 at 155.12 to win against Matt Schalow and his 5.153. Another pass in the 4.80s, a 4.831 at 154.79, followed in the semis to beat No. 2 qualifier Scott Marshall and his 5.087.

“We’re starting to get a handle on applying some power,” said Whetstine, who also thanked Mark Menscer for supporting his program and sponsoring the class. “Today, we just kind of nicked at it here and there. We found a suspension issue in between races, and that has really allowed us to start putting some power back into the car. I’m pretty happy with how things are working out. I’m just happy PDRA has a class for us to race in. The family atmosphere is second to none, and the exposure is second to none.”

Rhodes, who picked up his second No. 1 qualifier award in his small-block nitrous ’68 Camaro, ran a 5.165 at 116.38 on a first-round single. He then recorded low E.T. of race day, a 4.707 at 152.00, to win over Blake Denton, who couldn’t get fired up for their semifinal match.

TOP SPORTSMAN

California’s Joe Roubicek, who entered the race No. 2 in Top Sportsman points, snuck into the Elite Top Sportsman field in the No. 16 position and made the most of the opportunity. His Sonny’s-powered ’68 Camaro was consistent throughout eliminations, running a dead-on 4.19 in the final round to defeat Vonnie Mills and her 4.173 on a 4.11 dial-in in her Sonny’s-powered “Show-N-Tell” Camaro. It was Roubicek’s second consecutive win, as he won the recent Summit Racing Equipment ProStars race in Top Sportsman.

Al Davidowski caught a break in the Top Sportsman 32 final round, where opponent Ken Langlois went .001 red on his 4.342 on a 4.34 dial-in pass in his ’63 Corvette. Davidowski then also went red in his ’10 GXP before breaking out with a 4.193 on a 4.20 dial-in to get the win.

TOP DRAGSTER

Phil Mollichella took the Elite Top Dragster trophy back to West Chester, Pennsylvania, after taking down a handful of championship contenders. He lined up against defending world champion Pete Maduri in the final round, laying down a 4.144 on a 4.14 dial-in in his ’11 Miller dragster to turn on the win light. Maduri in the Bauer family’s ProCharged Dynabrade ’17 Chrome-Worx dragster ran a 3.767 on a 3.73 dial-in.

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The Top Dragster 32 final round was decided on the starting line when Tisha Wilson went red by .002 in her Kannapolis, North Carolina-based ’01 Undercover dragster. New Jersey’s Fred Denight posted a 4.186 on a 4.18 dial-in in his ’06 Quay dragster for the win.

The 2022 PDRA world championship season will continue Sept. 29-Oct. 1 at PDRA DragWars presented by Pro-Fab at GALOT Motorsports Park in Benson, North Carolina.

This story was originally published on August 14, 2022. Drag Illustrated

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