The following is a guest column from Championship Racing Network's Matt Nicholson. You can follow along with his weekly program each Saturday morning live on YouTube or at CRNradio.us.
A few weeks ago when we had back to back weeks of guests from the NHRA, first week being Matt Schiess, engine specialist for Lex Joon Racing, and the second week being the pilot himself, Lex Joon, it flipped my switch to “bright” to make it to an NHRA event. I had planned in June to go up to the Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol, but sickness came into play and I couldn’t go.
I still was dead set on making it to one this year. The tough part being deciding which one. NHRA isn’t very prevalent in the Southeast much anymore, outside of Charlotte, Gainesville, and Bristol, because Atlanta is no longer operating.
So after talking with Schiess a lot, he pretty much had me convinced to experience Indianapolis for the US Nationals at IRP.
After the interview with Lex, I had it made up in my mind that Indy it would be. First NHRA race, to be at a crown jewel event for the series?? I would be absolutely insane not to take advantage of it.
A good friend of mine, AJ, got me setup with media credentials for the entire event, which I IMMENSELY appreciated him doing when he didn’t have to.
He wanted it to count for me as well. I was taking one for the team, because logistics wouldn’t allow Steve to make it with me, which I really hated he couldn’t. All while doing the show on the road this past Saturday, I was running through my mind what to expect, I had never taken part of an event in drag racing of this magnitude. EVER.
Upon arriving in Brownsburg, at IRP, around 3:45PM on Saturday, I was notified that the media parking credential I had was parking areas staged inside of the iconic IRP OVAL. That was a shock! While getting out, I knew one of the Nitro classes was on track, just didn’t know which one. Turned out to be Funny Car. My initial thoughts were “my gracious, what a sound!?". 11,000 horsepower engines were shaking my vehicle, and I was parked 200 yards from the strip. I made darn sure to have my earplugs in my pocket, because I didn’t feel like having to go back to Alabama deaf.
While walking down the concourse over to “Nitro Alley”, where the Top Fuel and Funny Car teams were staged, the essence of nitro methane fuel, didn’t just slap me in the chin, it downright threw a haymaker to my face. All I could think was “wow, unreal.” I started up one alley, passing the likes of the TSR paddock, the Schumacher racing paddock, Kalitta, Jim Head, Antron Brown, Cruz Pedregon, Mike Salinas, and other paddocks while on my way to find the area of Lex Joon. Every pit was busy because the drivers were mingling and signing stuff for the fans, all WHILE THE CARS WERE BEING WARMED UP! That made an INSTANT impression on me.
I am not accustomed to seeing accessibility like that in NASCAR. Finally, I got over to where Lex and his team were, and was able to get very close to the car. being able to stand less than 8 feet from an 11,000 horsepower engine warming up was insane. It will shake the hairs on your head, and then some. Now the nitro fumes, was exactly what Schiess described to me: Like being in a gas chamber for about 30 seconds. He would know because he is ex military. Those fumes set my eyes on absolute fire, and I could feel my lungs burning to no end. Last thing I wanted to do was get sick as a dog in the first 30 minutes there, and still had 2 full days to go.
So off to the media center I went to find AJ. He met me outside and said “come on, we’re going to the line.” Instantly I said lead me there chief, because the “kid in a candy store” mentality awoke in me.
Made it down there to see the start of Q2 of Top Fuel. Schiess said to us on the show it’s like getting hit in the chest when they launch. Boy was he dead on. When Mike Salinas and Will Smith launched for their runs, I felt myself become very, VERY wide eyed. I had never in my life heard and felt something like that. Best way to describe hearing that first run up close for me was “insane”. After staying up there for a few runs, little did I know I was about to cross paths and link up with two hometown family members, that I had zero clue I would run into. While talking to them for a bit, because I hadn’t seen them in many years, I told him I would like to meet Don Schumacher, because they are close friends. I had remembered that from a past time we had talked. He had said that Don wouldn’t be there the rest of the weekend, but he would take care of me on Monday.
....I’m going to fast forward to Monday, because Sunday was a pretty calm day just being between the media center and Lex’s paddock area. Getting to talk to Lex on Sunday was a treat, because he was every bit of a spectacular guy to talk to in person as he was when we interviewed him.
He left a high impression on me, being very hospitable and great to talk to, all coming after I had made connection talking to Allie, the Media Relations Director for NHRA, and Allen Rhinehart, the voice of the NHRA. Allen gave me some really good advice that I am going to take and combine it with what Steve, Matt Coulter, Grady, and Dan Lockemy have taught me about broadcasting and PA work in motorsports.
So Monday about 9:45 I get a message from one of the family members saying “meet us at the DSR hospitality area”. My radar went off and I headed that way. Bo, one of my family members, said here in a few minutes I am going to introduce you to Tony. He was referring to Tony Schumacher, 8 time NHRA World Champion! I instantly under my breath said, and in my mind went into Tom Brady “LETS GO” mentality. The “lets go” meter went to about the halfway mark. After finding out he was having a debrief session with his CC, we went to walking, Bo and myself. Bobbi, my other family member, stayed back at the tent with others she was good friends with, like Tony’s wife, Summer. Bo proceeds to tell me that “we going to go talk to Matt Hagan.”
The let’s go meter inched up a little higher.
Got to talk to him, along with his dad, who is very well known in motorsports in Virginia. He didn’t have to say, but I could tell he was going to make this one really count for me, after I told him this was my very first NHRA event. Then he says out of nowhere, we are going to find Bob. As in Funny Car pilot Bob Tasca III. The meter creeps up a little higher again, this time being touching what Id say is about the 13/16 full mark. Bob was busy and couldn’t come out, so he took off and said let’s go talk to Billy and Steve. I instantly thought “wait a minute, I know he isn’t walking me over to where I think we are going!” Sure enough It was…..walking into the paddock area of Team Capco Contractors to talk to Billy Torrence and Steve Torrence.
Now the glass had officially shattered in the meter.
Billy and Steve were not busy and took alot of time to talk. Judging from the conversation and how nice they were, you would have thought we had known each other for 25 years. The conversation could not have been better. The real treat was getting to talk to “Mamma Kay”, Billy’s wife and Steve’s mother, whom both said to me “she runs the show”, To which I laughed hysterically. She talked more about driving a McLaren vs. a Corvette, to which she then said she prefers her Porsche. I couldn’t find any words to say to that. After they graciously took a photo with me, we worked our way back to the tent to eat a bite. Now the racer in me came out big because although I wanted to talk to Lex and the team alot more than I got to, they were there to do a job and I didn’t want to disrupt mindset any, because they were one of 25 cars trying to get into a 16 car field, at the biggest drag race on the planet, and I was going to fully respect that with them being a part time team in a massive field. I love the underdogs, and the Never Quit mindset they have. This Top Fuel field at Indy went down as the fastest field in NHRA History. The track record was broken twice, just for reference, in ET and Speed. When we got back, Tony was available and was very gracious to talk. I got invited to join them at their private table behind the tent, to which ended up sitting with Bo, Bobbi, Tony, Tony’s wife Summer, his uncles, Bob and O.D., and Joe and Cathy Maynard, the owners of Tony’s new team, Maynard Family Racing.
Getting invited to come by Schiess, then getting to mingle with the group at Lex Joon Racing was pretty big for me. But getting to mingle and talk to Lex, Tony Schumacher, Matt Hagan, Billy Torrence, and Steve Torrence altogether..I have to rank the conversations 1a, 1b, 1c, 1d, and 1e because it would be hard to rank any one over the other, because all the conversations were outstanding, and then some.
The past few weeks in my personal life haven’t been the greatest, I am not afraid to admit that. But I feel like the Good Lord put me up in Indy this weekend for a reason. Just to show me there are good times to be had within struggles. I have needed something like this for a while now, and it has exceeded my expectations. The pomp and circumstance of the biggest drag race in the world is 10 times more exciting live, than it is on television. The overall accessibility of the NHRA is extremely impressive, from driver meetings all the way to being very close to the racing action. Ended up making in person connections with Allen Rhinehart, Lex Joon, Matt Hagan, Billy Torrence, Steve Torrence, Momma Kay Torrence, Tony Schumacher, The extended family of Don Schumacher, and Joe and Cathy Maynard. To anyone that has never seen the NHRA Live, I recommend you do it at least once. It is eye opening, in more ways than one.
To Matt Schiess: Thank you for talking me into coming to the US Nationals and introducing me to Lex Joon and the NHRA. It was incredible to experience the biggest drag race on the planet, under the team’s wing.
To Bo and Bobbi: Thank you for doing what you done for me in Indy and helping me make these added connections that I never thought I would have gotten to do, ever.
To the NHRA: YOU WILL SEE ME AGAIN, SOON. Because I am going to say it this simple: I was SOLD after seeing my first run down at most iconic dragstrip in the world.
Now, which Dragway is next…………STAY TUNED.