NASCAR & Auto Racing

Fife’s Bucky Austin makes NHRA professional Funny Car debut

Fife’s Bucky Austin, nicknamed the “Northwest Hitter,” likely would have given his own debut performance as an National Hot Rod Association professional drag racer Friday a swing-and-miss grade.

In his first Funny Car qualifying run at the NHRA Northwest Nationals, the Steve Plueger-owned 2010 Chevy Impala he drove spat and sputtered going down Pacific Raceways before dropping a cylinder and slowing to a run of 4.922 seconds.

After a fast first day on a vastly-improved track surface, that wouldn’t get it done. Austin has work to do Saturday in two more qualifying rounds if he wants to get into 16-car eliminations.

But the numbers aren’t the best way to judge Austin’s effort. Something malfunctioned with the slide valve, which delivers fuel to the engine. That started a string of issues during the run, to which Austin minimized with heady judgment and quick reflexes.

“If I had kept my foot on the gas pedal, we probably would have had a big fire,” Austin said. “You have to do the right thing, and if you have any apprehension about driving these things, you shouldn’t drive.

“I was in control of it.”

Tony Schumacher (Top Fuel), John Force (Funny Car) and Allen Johnson (Pro Stock) grabbed the top qualifying spots after the first day.

This is certainly unfamiliar territory for Austin, who has built a reputation as an aggressive racer. He has captured 17 NHRA national-event victories, all in Alcohol Funny Car, including four race titles in Seattle.

This is a second-tier team running a limited NHRA schedule, so he can’t race all-out at the expense of the car.

“We can’t go out and beat Force, or Ron Capps and all of those guys,” Austin said. “We have to start in the 4.40-(second) range, and then run 4.30 and run 4.20. We are trying to take baby steps right now.”

Plueger and Austin have a bit of history. After Austin stopped racing on the NHRA Division 6 circuit full-time, Plueger — Force’s early-career engineer — asked him to drive his nostalgia Funny Car in the NHRA Heritage Series.

Austin won the points title in 2008, and placed second a year later.

So when the NHRA season started, Plueger, of La Mirada, California, was searching for a professional driver for events on the West Coast. He kept calling Austin, who politely declined the offer.

Finally three weeks ago, Austin agreed.

“He just kept calling me,” Austin said. “And, you know, I’ve lost 35 pounds, so I feel great. So I agreed to do it.”

Austin has agreed to race at stops later this season in Las Vegas (Oct. 30) and Pomona, California (Nov. 13).

PIT STOPS

Even though the track temperature was close to 105 degrees for the evening qualifying session Friday, the fields in Top Fuel and Funny Car largely improved their 1,000-foot elapsed times. Schumacher went 3.804 seconds to upend first-round leader Shawn Langdon, the defending race champion. And Force, a 16-time world Funny Car champion, sizzled in his 2014 Ford Mustang, going 4.085 ET. … As far as Top Fuel, .08 seconds separate Schumacher and the 12th-seeded Antron Brown (3.884 ET). “If I was going to spend money on a sport, I want to see a good race. And that is what (the fans) are seeing — the best racing I think NHRA has ever had,” Schumacher said. “They are seeing what Pro Stock was two years ago in the Top Fuel class. It is incredible.” … Johnson sits atop Pro Stock at 6.535 ET.

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