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Published on 09/06/2018

Six Days in Indiana: The Story of the U.S. Nationals

WORDS:

DAN HODGDON

PHOTOS:

ANDREW LARSON and MATT BEST

For most, Labor Day Monday is a day of rest. For drag racers, it represents the pinnacle of their sport: final elimination day at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals. It is the culmination of six days of effort. When it’s over, only a select few get to celebrate. Perhaps that is why the sense of excitement and nervous anticipation is so palpable on Monday morning.

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Published on 09/06/2018
racing, events
WORDS:

DAN HODGDON

PHOTOS:

ANDREW LARSON and MATT BEST

Six Days in Indiana: The Story of the U.S. Nationals

For most, Labor Day Monday is a day of rest. For drag racers, it represents the pinnacle of their sport: final elimination day at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals. It is the culmination of six days of effort. When it’s over, only a select few get to celebrate. Perhaps that is why the sense of excitement and nervous anticipation is so palpable on Monday morning.

These racers, whether in the Pro ranks or Sportsman categories, like to talk about how humbling their sport is. Nowhere is that more apparent than at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis, where even making it to Monday is an accomplishment.

Just off Highway 136 in Brownsburg, Indiana, adjacent to a cornfield and within a stone’s throw of a residential neighborhood, lies this most hallowed of grounds. It is a no-frills facility; what draws people to the track is what happens on the quarter-mile stretch of asphalt -- or in just 1,000 feet for Top Fuel and Funny Car competitors. In 2018, a total of 853 cars across 14 categories compete in category and class eliminations.

Pro Stock driver Greg Anderson, who pilots the red Summit Racing Chevrolet Camaro SS for KB Racing, embraces the challenge. He has won the race known as “The Big Go” six times to lead all active Team Chevy drivers.

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"I've been coming here a long time,” he says. “I came here with Warren Johnson as a crew chief, and I would say I've been here every year since 1987 – and sporadic years before that. Since 1987, I have not missed one.

"I have a lot of racetracks I love, but this is my favorite one. It's the magnitude of this race, the pressure, it's all that's involved. It just ratchets the intensity level up tenfold. A lot of people don't like that about this race, but I love it. I love coming here and competing and knowing that it's going to take a he-man effort to win. I've had good success here, but I think it's because I embrace the challenge. I love it."

This year, Anderson advances to the semifinal round in sweltering conditions before falling to eventual event runner-up and fellow Camaro driver Jeg Coughlin Jr. Nineteen-year-old Tanner Gray claims the category win in his own Camaro SS, cementing his place as one of the top drivers of his generation.

Anderson has been coming to the track for years before Gray was born, but even his time at the event only represents about half the years the race has existed.

"I love coming here and competing and knowing that it's going to take a he-man effort to win." - Greg Anderson

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It celebrates its 64th anniversary in 2018, having been contested just northeast of downtown Indianapolis since 1961. It was originally held at Great Bend Municipal Airport in Great Bend, Kansas, in 1955 and was known as “The Nationals.” It then moved to Kansas City the following year, then to the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds in Oklahoma City for two seasons, and again moved to Michigan and Detroit Dragway for the 1959 and 1960 runnings.

Meanwhile in 1958, a group of 15 Indianapolis businessmen purchased a 267-acre farm and invested in a new racing facility. Their intention was to design a 15-turn, 2.5-mile road course and ultimately decided to incorporate a quarter-mile drag strip into the long straightaway of the design. The first race took place in the fall of 1960 and the following year the U.S. Nationals moved to the facility. Since then it has been the sight of some of drag racing’s most historic moments.

That history is honored in 2018 with many competitors sporting famous paint schemes from the sport’s colorful past. At the Chevrolet Performance display throughout the weekend many famous names also sign autographs for fans who form massive lines to meet their idols.

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Conspicuously parked among the late-model Corvettes, Camaros, crate engines and accessories is the C3 Corvette Funny Car driven by the late Tom “Mongoose” McEwen, one of the most colorful personalities in drag racing’s unique history. Mongoose even is named the event’s grand marshal, and before eliminations begin on Monday his helmet takes a ride down the track on the deck lid of a late-model Camaro.

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John Force’s Camaro SS Funny Car is part of the display as well, but Force, perhaps the most famous drag racer of all, is still behind the wheel of his 10,000-horsepower, nitro-fueled machine at age 69. He has won the race four times, but these days his daughters Courtney and Brittany grab just as many headlines. Neither have stood in the Lucas Oil Raceway winner’s circle as race winners yet, but older sister Ashley has won the race twice in Funny Car, while teammate and brother-in-law Robert Hight has won it three times.

Brittany Force, the 2017 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Top Fuel champion, speaks of looking forward to making her own memories behind the wheel at the track. However, she also has fond recollections of her family’s success.

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“I have a picture in my trailer where I’m out here and I have a pacifier in my mouth,” she says. “So I’ve been coming since I was a baby. This is the biggest race on our circuit, my dad’s been racing here forever and he’s won multiple times out here. I remember standing in the winner’s circle with him. So this is a special place. It’s a place that you definitely want to win, not just because of the history behind it and everything that’s built around the U.S. Nationals, but because of what I’ve seen my dad accomplish here. There are so many memories here with my family. To be in that winner’s circle and making my own would just be outstanding.”

She tells a favorite story of her dad winning a race at the track and a car firing up while the family was taking pictures. She was only four or five years old, but vividly remembers covering her ears and bursting into tears at the noise.

“I’ve never missed this race,” she says. “Ever.”

“I’ve never missed this race. Ever.” -Brittany Force

 

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For drivers like Force, the U.S. Nationals not only represents the most prestigious race of the year, but also creates added pressure as it is the final chance for competitors in the Pro categories to qualify for the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs. Only the top 10 in the season-long points up to this weekend in the season have an opportunity to take the championship title in November. At Indy, there is also a special point-and-a-half scoring system in play, providing even more incentive and pressure for drivers who are on the bubble.

This year, Courtney Force takes the No. 1 spot in Funny Car heading into the Countdown, defending Funny Car champion Hight is third and John Force is ninth. All pilot a Camaro SS. Brittany Force meanwhile will start her Countdown from the No. 8 position in her Chevrolet dragster.

It is not only the Pro drivers who feel pressure, however, as Sportsman racers at Indy look to gain points and wins in their own championship battles, and need to do so against literally dozens of cars competing in the same category. Qualifying for Sportsman racers begins on Wednesday, who then compete in class and category eliminations until a winner is crowned on Monday. It is a grueling week, which necessitates days off from work and a great deal of travel just getting to and from the track.

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Still, the event also provides an opportunity for a lot of fun, something COPO Camaro driver James Reed takes advantage of each year. Reed competes in Stock Eliminator and is one of 45 COPO competitors on hand in 2018. They take part in Factory Stock Showdown, Super Stock or Stock, and nearly all attend the COPO owners’ dinner on Wednesday evening and participate in the COPO parade on Friday.

Reed has been coming to the event as a fan since he was in grade school, and regardless of his success, makes it a point to stay through the weekend with his family. He even hosts a fish fry in the campground each year for friends and anyone that stops by. This year he fries 50 pounds.

“It’s nice to see everybody we only see once a year when we come to Indy, people that live all over the country, we all come here every year,” he says.

He also estimates that approximately 100 people attend the 2018 edition of his fish fry, something he has made an annual tradition for 15 or 20 years.

“Everybody that I know from the track, everybody that I know in the campground, everybody knows that I have a fish fry,” he says.” We camp right on the very front every year and we’ve camped in the same spot for 25 years. So everybody knows. Every time they see me in the first couple of days of the week, [they ask] 'what day are you cooking the fish?'"

“It’s nice to see everybody we only see once a year when we come to Indy." - James Reed

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Kevin McHugh, a longtime Sportsman racer, former Pro Stock team owner and current COPO owner with his wife Mary has been a fixture at the U.S. Nationals even longer. He’s been coming nearly every year since 1967. This year, the McHugh Racing team competes in Super Stock with driver Steve Szupka.

“The pits are certainly busier now,” McHugh says. You’ve got the bigger rigs compared to when we used to tow in with a pickup truck and an open trailer. So it’s grown quite a bit.”

For McHugh, the competition intertwined with camaraderie is what has kept him coming back for so many years.

“I always love Indy,” he says. “We have a lot of racers from around the country that we know of or speak to through email or through telephone calls, and now we get to see them out here. This is kind of like the best of the best come and it’s where we get to meet our competitors and our friends.”

"You’ve got the bigger rigs compared to when we used to tow in with a pickup truck and an open trailer." - Kevin McHugh

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