By Joe Buckles
TERRE HAUTE — The stage is set for drag racing’s premier event, the Mac Tools NHRA U.S. National at Indianapolis’ O’Reilly Raceway Park.
Often referred to as the “Super Bowl” of drag racing, the six-day event is slated to get under way today and run through the Labor Day weekend.
Success at the U.S. Nationals can often make a competitor’s year or for a select few — a career. The event carries a measure of prestige within the drag-racing ranks.
Qualifying for the event is considered an achievement within itself. To be fortunate enough to walk away at the end of the pressure-packed speed fest with one of the coveted “Wallys,” the name given to the winning Nationals trophy, is the ultimate goal of any drag racer.
It’s a feat one Wabash Valley racer accomplished a year ago, and he will be back to defend this week. A second up-and-coming Valley racer will be seeking the same at the U.S. Nationals.
Brazil’s Andrew Thomas was the class of the field in the NHRA Super Gas contingent a year ago when he pulled off a stunning upset to bring home one of the much sought after Wally’s to Clay County.
And while Thomas will be the first to tell you that in the highly-competitive world of NHRA drag racing, there’s little time to rest on one’s laurels, even a year later he has the right to savor his winning effort of 2007.
He recalls as a youngster how he and his dad would gather to watch the winners circle ceremonies at then Indianapolis Raceway Park dreaming of the day he might get a chance to compete in his sport’s biggest show.
“I grew up watching those guys race at IRP, seeing them get those trophies. To win one some 20 years later was a very special moment. Something I will never forget,” said the proud Thomas.
He now returns as the defending Super Gas class champion. A title history says is not one you might want to have at the Nationals.
Since the class was formed back in 1981 there’s only been two repeat winners. Thomas knows full well the challenges that lies ahead if he is to have any chance of defending his crown.
“There will be more than 160 entries in Super Gas. Anybody that pulls in over there has a legitimate shot at winning. The class is that competitive,” offered the driver of the VP Racing Fuels-K&N; Filters sponsored Race Tech 27 Ford Roadster.
“It’s a long, drawn out week. You’ve got to pace yourself. Still have some gas in your tank come Monday,” explained Thomas who will take to the quarter strip for the first of his practice runs this morning, but will not make his first qualifying pass till Friday.
“Monday is when they write the check. To get there is not easy. To be able to put yourself into the position to make that run Monday is worth all the time and effort we put into this,” Thomas said.
While Thomas has tasted the sweet success at Indianapolis, a young up-and-coming racer from Clinton has hopes of following in the same footsteps.
Jared Dreher of Clinton is no stranger to the NHRA winners circle having already posted Divisional event wins at Brainerd, Minn., and Valdosta, Ga.
Dreher has set his goals on becoming the second Vermillion County racer to win at the U.S. Nationals when he pilots his newly-built Top Alcohol Dragster at ORP.
Don Coonce of Cayuga won the modified crown back in 1976 and 1979, and Dreher would like nothing better than to share a U.S. Nationals Wally with his neighbor to the north.
Both Thomas and Dreher spent this past weekend preping for the Nationals by competing in regional events at Kentucky and Kansas.
Dreher Racing took the final tune-up to get the finishing touches on a new car, a move some might consider a gamble considering the importance of the Nationals.
The talented newcomer reports that the tests went well at Topeka and is optimistic as his team arrived at Indy early Monday morning.
“This sport is so competitive. You’re always looking for that extra edge. Sometimes you’ve got to go with something new. You don’t want to get in the position where we’re playing catch-up,” said Dreher, driver of the VP Fuels/White Construction/Reds Bar@Grill sponsored dragster.
“We were well pleased with the way the weekend went at Topeka. We qualified eighth quick so we feel we’re headed in the right direction.”
His approach to Indianapolis sounds more of a veteran racer than a relative newcomer.
“This is our biggest race of the year but you can’t allow yourself to get caught up in all the hoopla,” warned the personable racer.
“You’ve got to take it one step at a time. Survive from one run to the next. You have to approach it as just another pass when you pull up to the line,” Dreher said.
Dreher and Thomas will be joined by several area racers at Indy this weekend. Reed Hughes of Terre Haute and Todd Stillwell of Marshall, Ill., will run in Super Comp, Jesse Plant of North Terre Haute in Comp Eliminator, Travis Sturgell of Paris,Ill., Marion Stepheson of Williamsport and Allen Hollingsworth of Marshall, Ill., in Stock Eliminator, James Vester of Carlisle in Super Stock, Marty Thacker of Robinson,Ill., will join Dreher in Top Alcohol Dragster and Mike Morgan of Brazil and Dennis Dunlap of Paris will compete in the Stock class.
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• Winning effort — While there are no guarantees in racing, VP Racing Fuels will come home winners in all 16 classes Monday.
As the sole provider of racing fuels in NHRA drag racing their regional office based here in Terre Haute will take on the task of keeping the hundreds of racers fueled this week.
VP Regional Manager Tom Spain reports his staff is prepared to meet the challenge. The local contingent will spend the entire week servicing the teams at ORP.
Here’s wishing the best for all the area racers at the U.S. Nationals this week.
Joe Buckles can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org