The start of the NHRA’s “Countdown to the Championship” got off to a rocky start Sunday after track and weather issues forced a halt to the final day of the NHRA Carolina Nationals.
According to NHRA officials, problems with the racing surface at zMax Dragway – coupled with a brief shower that drenched the track and sent spectators racing for cover – prompted them to call off competition for the day.
However, two drivers told the Observer that those problems, along with low track temperatures – in the high 80s, compared with 110-plus degrees earlier in the week – were responsible for driver Vieri “V” Gaines wrecking his Pro Stock car during an elimination-round race against Allen Johnson.
While Gaines walked away from the wreck, it caused an hour-long delay as workers attempted to correct the problems. The 20-minute shower then made that work moot and moved NHRA officials to consider alternatives.
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“There’s no secret we had some challenges this weekend,” said Graham Light, NHRA’s senior vice president of racing operations. “But the first-round performances in the Fuel cars (Top Fuel and Funny Cars) showed that’s it’s certainly a good race track, and a safe race track. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be sending cars down the race track if it wasn’t safe.”
Instead of returning to zMax Dragway on Monday, Light said that the elimination rounds for the four professional divisions – Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle – would be completed as part of the qualifying rounds at next week’s NHRA Fall Nationals in Dallas.
“Logistically, it just didn’t work,” Light said. “The teams are having to pack up their transporters, go over 1,000 miles to get to Dallas and get set up in time for next weekend ... that’s just too much of a logistical challenge.”
The Top Fuel and Funny Car divisions had completed their first elimination rounds, while the Pro Stock division was halfway through its elimination round when Gaines’ wreck occurred. Light said NHRA officials were considering letting the Pro Stock division start over with its elimination round at the Texas Motorplex because of the track problems at zMax Dragway.
This weekend’s NHRA Carolina Nationals was also the first race in the six-event Countdown to the Championship, which Light said presented its own logistical challenge.
The first four events are held on consecutive weekends, then there’s a two-week break before the final two races in Las Vegas and Pomona, Calif.
The one good open weekend in that schedule would have been Oct. 11-12 – the same weekend as the NASCAR races at Charlotte Motor Speedway, right across N.C. 49 from zMax Dragway.
“We looked at the option of coming back here after Redding (Pa. on Oct. 2-5) ... that’s off the table too,” Light said. “We’ve never run up against a Cup race in the same market on the same weekend ... we just aren’t going to do it. It would be suicide.”
As Gaines, 67, approached the finish line at full power, his Dodge cut hard left. Gaines appeared to overcorrect to the right, sending his car sideways. It flipped over and barrel rolled four times before coming to rest on its wheels.
“All of a sudden ... man, it went around on me so fast I never had a chance,” Gaines said after climbing from his wrecked race car. “I don’t know what happened; it was just gone.”
However, two drivers said that Gaines’ wreck brought to a head problems that had been occurring all weekend with the racing surface, both in the rubber that had been laid down to give the dragsters additional grip, and the concrete track itself.
“The track was absolutely fine until the eighth-mile mark, then it was like driving on ice,” said Pro Stock driver Greg Anderson, whose KB Racing team is based in Mooresville. “It’s been bad all week, but (Sunday) it was 10 times worse. The temperatures went down, and the Fuel cars make all that power and downforce, and they were pulling it up.”
Said Pro Stock driver Shane Gray, whose Gray Motorsports team is based in Denver, N.C.: “It was kind of a perfect storm. “I actually said that (Saturday) – that this was a perfect storm for someone to crash a car. I knew it was going to be bad when I was doing my burnout.”