TAFC – POMONA

At the season-ending NHRA Finals, for the first time all year, Jim Whiteley ran an NHRA national event without making it to at least the semifinals. He was stopped in a one-sided quarterfinal match against three-time Top Alcohol Funny Car world champ Sean Bellemeur, who closed out 2023 with his third straight victory.

In a way, Whiteley was fortunate just to be in the second round after careening through the shutdown area with no brakes following a first-round win over the last driver he’d ever want to race (but races absolutely all the time), wife Annie. “It’s not like I can’t get a car stopped with one parachute,” he said. “I’d like to think I could do it with no parachutes, but you can’t get it to a complete stop if you don’t have any brakes at all, and I had no brakes at all.”

Jim, who, just for fun, also ran his B/AA Cobalt in Comp Eliminator (and cut a near-perfect .002 light first round), ran just a thousandth of a second quicker than Annie in qualifying with a 5.447 for the No. 6 spot. Her seventh-best 5.448 is by far the quickest run ever to fall into the slow half of a TA/FC field, as a record eight drivers delved into the 5.40s.

In the last pair of the first round, Jim and Annie, like virtually every previous driver in the 12-car field, slowed from their qualifying times, but Jim managed to hold off her fast-closing 5.46 at 268 mph with a 5.49/258. That’s when the fun started.

While Annie’s Yenko blue “Shattered Glass” Camaro slowed to a safe, uneventful stop, Jim’s matching white machine rocketed ahead toward potential disaster. One of two chutes blossomed, but with no brakes he was destined to land in the sand trap. The packed sand slowed the car significantly, but not enough to keep him from nosing into the safety net. “A heim broke on the linkage to the master cylinder,” he explained, “and at that point there’s not much you can do.”

With minimal damage and all day to get the car back in shape for the under-the-lights quarterfinal round, Whiteley was more than ready for Bellemeur, but that race didn’t last long when he ran into trouble right off the line. Bellemeur, who had barely beaten him two weeks ago in the Las Vegas final, was long gone this time with a tremendous 5.39, duplicating his Low E.T. of the Meet qualifying time. “The blower belt broke,” Whiteley said. “I was never going to catch him anyway, so that just got two losses out of the way in one round.”

PSM – POMONA

Cory Reed and Joey Gladstone never made a run at the NHRA World Finals, where last year the team reached the final to lock up a second-place finish in the final Pro Stock Motorcycle standings. That was never the plan this time anyway – the team was at Pomona strictly to further rider Blaine Hale’s career, and they did.

“I don’t know why or what the deal is, but when I help somebody else reach a goal, the feeling of accomplishment is the same as if I’d done it myself,” Reed said. “Not riding would be harder if Joey or I really wanted to drive this weekend, but right now he has enough going on that doesn’t even care, and at this point neither do I. Blaine’s really coachable, and we just want to help him.”

With the 2023 championship long decided and Reed Motorsports’ focus squarely on 2024, the team concentrated on giving Hale, a former national event winner who made his team debut last month in Dallas, the best bike possible. Hale qualified 16th and drew the utterly unbeatable Gaige Herrera in an impossible first-round matchup in which the impossible nearly happened.

Herrera, who won the 2023 championship in a landslide with an incredible 50-4 win-loss record, qualifying No. 1 at 13 of 14 events and winning 11 of 12 finals, lurched off the line and was, for once, vulnerable. He stumbled to one of his worst runs of the season, a 10.89 at 77 mph that left him hundreds of feet behind Hale at the finish line, but Hale invalidated a sure win with a -.256 red-light.

“It’s too bad,” Reed said. “With his leathers on, Blaine’s probably 200 pounds, but it’s not like he’s lost out there. He’s not out of control or anything. Every time he gets off the bike, he’s like, ‘this happened here,’ or “the bike did this here.’ He knows what’s going on.”

As for his team rider, Gladstone, Reed said, “We’re both looking forward to next year. Joey’s my best friend in the world. Even last year, he was like, ‘Are you  sure you’re OK with me doing so good when you can’t even walk around yet?’ I told him, ‘When you’re riding the bike, I feel like it’s me on there.’ I get that much enjoyment out of it. We’ve got big plans for next year. Joey’s a winner. He’s not out here just to be out here, to be sixth or seventh or tenth in points. He’s here to win races and championships.”

TAFC – LAS VEGAS REGIONAL

It’s hard not to qualify for an eight-car show when only nine cars show up, and it’s really hard when you were No. 1 at the last two national events, including one just days earlier at the same track. But that’s the fate that befell Annie Whiteley’s luckless team at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, site of some of the truly great days of her 12-year Top Alcohol Funny Car career.

It wasn’t the tune-up – the car just ran mid-5.40s three times in a row here last week at the Nevada Nationals. And it was nothing mechanical, nothing that could be easily diagnosed through a routine parts inspection. It was the ignition, that invisible, delicate system whose complexities can be understood only through a piece-by-piece replacement of every component from the magneto to the coil to the spark plugs to every last connection.

“We never really did figure it out,” said Whiteley, who blew the tires off at the hit Friday afternoon in the first qualifying session. Three hours later in Q2, it was all systems go … until it wasn’t. Charging downtrack on an otherwise fine run until about half-track, the power suddenly cut out and she coasted to a harmless 5.87 at just 195 mph that kept her in the field (barely, in the No. 8 spot) until the next driver down the left lane three minutes behind her, Ray Martin, recorded a 5.73 and knocked her out of the field.

Martin blew the engine on that run and never returned, which gave Whiteley and crew chief Mike Strasburg one last chance. An aborted 6.31 at 164 mph left the “Shattered Glass”/YNot Racing/J&A Service entry on the outside looking in, but when Martin was unable to return for eliminations, Whiteley got a much-needed reprieve. It wasn’t a clear path to victory because she’d be paired with the No. 1 qualifier in the first round, but it at least it was one more chance to track down the mysterious electrical gremlin before Pomona.

It didn’t matter. Hamstrung by the same ignition problems that plagued the team all weekend, Whiteley was out of it early against Marshall, who, with a 5.47, would have been hard to get around anyway. “What the hell?” she said. “Sometimes, it just doesn’t go your way.”

PSM – LAS VEGAS

Joey Gladstone was never going to win the Nevada Nationals. He wasn’t there to win.

As a replacement rider for veteran Angie Smith, who crashed Sept. 30 at St. Louis, Gladstone was in Las Vegas solely to block for her husband, reigning world champion Matt Smith, who still has a microscopic chance to overtake unbeatable Gaige Herrera for the 2023 Pro Stock Motorcycle championship.

So when Gladstone had to roll out of the throttle and watch his opponent pull around him and drive away to victory, it was nothing he wasn’t prepared for. “Does it suck knowing you have to lose if you race a teammate?” he asked. “It would if you didn’t know what you were signing up for, but I knew. When someone like Matt Smith calls and asks you to drive a V-Twin for him, you say yes. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances are, you say yes.”

With far more torque and far less rpm than the Reed Motorsports Suzuki he rode to second place in the 2022 NHRA standings, Gladstone had an altogether different experience than what he’s become accustomed to. “Riding this Buell is taming an angry bull,” he said. “You’re really busy for that first eighth-mile, shifting five times in four and half seconds, and then you’re in high gear forever. It’s a rowdy beast, like a Pro Stocker with an extra shift.”

Gladstone was absolutely “on one” in Friday’s first qualifying session but had to click it and coast to a 7.19 at just 152 mph, and it more of the same later that afternoon when he put up an identical 7.18/151. After skipping the early Saturday session, he intentionally lifted early and then got back on it for an incongruous, ridiculous E.T. and speed of 9.05 at 194 mph.

“It’s impossible to know exactly where you’re supposed to shut off and where you should get back on it to get good data but not qualify too high,” Gladstone said. “One thing I do know: qualifying that bad on purpose pisses off everybody else. Who’s to say what I could have run all out? I probably could’ve been the No. 2 or 3 qualifier.”

Instead, the shutoff 7.18 from back in Q1 placed him 14th on the grid and set up a first-round match that couldn’t have worked out any better: perennial threat Hector Arana Jr, who qualified No. 3 with a 6.84. Arana cut a .010 light and nearly duplicated his qualifying time with a 6.85 but Gladstone left right with him and, like No. 14 qualifiers never, ever do, outran him with a 6.84.

In the quarterfinals, Gladstone faced Matt Smith Racing team rider Jianna Evaristo, who had never beat him, which, for him, meant just one thing: the end of the line. He produced another .011 light and was well ahead at half-track and still perilously close to beating her at the 1,000-foot mark when politely lifted and fell back with a 7.24 at just 146 mph while she scooted ahead for a winning 6.95/192.

“It’s all good,” Gladstone said. “Qualifying where I did kept Hector away from Matt, and losing to Jianna might help her make the Top 5. I did what I was here to do.”

TAFC – LAS VEGAS NATIONAL

Jim Whiteley took out one of the top two Top Alcohol Funny Car drivers of the past half-decade at the Nevada Nationals … but, by mere hundredths of a second, not both of them. Paired against 2020-22-23 world champion Doug Gordon in the semifinals, he left first and ran quicker but fell just short of toppling 2018-19-21 champ Sean Bellemeur in the final.

“Almost got ’em both,” said Whiteley, who was side by side with Gordon in the Texas FallNationals final two weeks ago until a shaft in the driveline snapped near the half-track mark. This time, he was right in lockstep with Gordon for the length of the quarter-mile and emerged victorious, 5.45 to 5.45. Gordon was right there with a .040 light, but Whiteley came up with one of his best reaction times yet in a Funny Car, a telepathic .012, to win by three-hundredths of a second. It wasn’t even a holeshot – he ran quicker, too, 5.453 to 5.457.

The former Top Alcohol Dragster champion qualified just eighth with a 5.54 but roared to life in eliminations, whipping Ulf Leanders, who scored here six years ago, in the first round with an outstanding 5.47. In the second round, Whiteley faced wife Annie, who qualified No. 1 for the second race in a row, in the first of three straight rounds in which both he and his opponent were well down into the 5.40s.

Annie, who usually does great against her husband on the Tree, and Jim, who usually does great against everybody, laid down nearly identical runs – an event-best 5.45 for her and an event-best 5.44 for him. Following the 5.45-5.45 semifinal classic against Gordon, Jim set up for the final against Bellemeur, whose team, led by crew chief Steve Boggs, singled in the other semifinal after a member of opponent Bob McCosh’s crew was injured in a freak between-rounds pit accident and he didn’t show.

Bellemeur carried the front end, smoked the tires, and bounced all over the lane on his semifinal freebie but was back in championship form in the final with a 5.44 that nipped Whiteley’s right-there 5.45. “I thought that was another teen or at least a .020,” said Whiteley, who reacted with an otherwise excellent .034. “It was close but I could tell he got me. That’s two runner-ups in a row now. I used to do all right in finals [23-7 in Top Alcohol Dragster and 2-0 in Pro Mod], but we’re running better all the time and this car should run even better next year. There’s probably five more numbers [hundredths of a second] in it right now.”

PRO MOD – FERRIS

Steven Whiteley’s dreams of a Pro Mod championship came crashing down with a red-light start at the final race of the 2023 Mid-West Drag Racing Series season, but not before he’d pushed the title fight to the absolute limit. “We’re still holding our heads high,” said Whiteley, who came into this race just five points out of the lead. “We battled all year and overcame a lot. It was a hell of a comeback story, crashing at one race [Martin] and coming back to win the next one [Tulsa].”

At the MWDRS World Finals in Ferris, Texas, Whiteley and crew chief Brandon Snider clawed their way to the brink of overtaking season-long points leader Keith Haney, but with a near-miss -.013 foul start in the quarterfinals, it wasn’t to be. “I had that one in the bag,” Whiteley said. “I beat myself, took us right out of the race. I just pushed too hard, and I didn’t even need to.”

Whiteley matched his excellent 3.66 qualifying time with another 3.66 in round one that wiped out Mike Labbate and gave him a decided performance advantage over former series champion Aaron Wells in the second round, a round he absolutely had to have to take down Haney. “The car was hauling ass all weekend,” Whiteley said. “We were working hard all night to maintain lane choice, and I tried to string a few lights together to maybe intimidate Haney a little. All year, whenever we’d back up and play it safe we didn’t do as well as if we’d just kept getting after it every run, so Brandon got after it and I did, too.”

Whiteley invalidated what would’ve been a winning 3.66 while Wells, who eventually won the race, upsetting Haney on a holeshot in a wild final, mustered only a 3.88. “He had to pedal it, and that made red-lighting hurt even worse,” Whiteley said. “A .66 was a solid run, decent for the conditions and borderline good. It’s not like I had to have some perfect light to win that round; a .060 would have been more than enough.”

Compounding Whiteley’s frustration was that he made it all the way through the eighth-mile traps and well into the shutdown area without ever knowing he’d gone red. “I had no idea,” he said. “Half the guys on the team didn’t know, either. They were all celebrating back on the line, then someone came over the radio and said, ‘Hey, bud. Sorry, he got you.’ I was like, ‘What? He’s not even down here.’ I never saw him.”

Overall, Whiteley and Snider went 21-5 (.807) for the season. “It was a fun battle all year,” Whiteley said. “Between Brandon and I, we wore Haney’s ass out a few times, but hey, he did a good job – not that that makes red-lighting any less bitter. It was a weird year – weird, but good.”

TAFC – FERRIS

For the second year in a row, Jim and Annie Whiteley met in the Top Alcohol Funny Car final at the Mid-West Drag Racing Series World Finals, where last year Jim secured his first win as a Funny Car driver. Annie lost traction, just like last year, but this time it didn’t cost her the race – Jim had even bigger problems in the other lane.

“I haven’t smoked the tires like that in probably five years,” Annie said. “I came completely off the throttle and thought, ‘What the hell was that?’ But then it was like, ‘Wait a minute … Why isn’t he driving away from me?’ and I got back on it.”

The snout on Jim’s converter gave up, knocking him out of the race. “It was charging hard,” he said, “but it gave up right before the gear change, just went ‘bam-bam-bam.’ I got on the brakes when it let go because at first I wasn’t sure what was going on. They got down there to tow me off and the car wouldn’t move; it was locked up. We had to put the car on dollies to get it off the track.”

Jim qualified No. 1, and Annie was No. 2, which set her up with a semifinal match against No. 3 qualifier and former NHRA Division 2 champion Mark Billington in his first race back from a big crash earlier this season. Billington put up a good fight with a solid 3.72 at 206 mph, but Annie left on him, .075 to .084, and put him away with a superior 3.69/213 to advance to another final.

With nearly identical .015 and .018 reaction times, husband and wife both were more than ready when the Tree flashed green. “For some reason – it’s not like I’m not trying just as hard against everybody else – I always do well against Jim,” Annie said. “It blew the tires off and I thought I was out of it, but out of the corner of my I realized I was catching him so I got back on it and ran it to the end. If was funny, actually. The first shift light didn’t come on until I was at the eighth-mile – right where the second one usually comes on.”

PSM – DALLAS

Cory Reed’s Precision Service Equipment Pro Stock Motorcycle team was all over the place at the Texas FallNationals, with three different riders on three different bikes on two different teams: Cory aboard Michael Phillips’ two-valve machine, teammate Joey Gladstone on recently sidelined Angie Smith’s Buell, and returning veteran Blaine Hale on the Suzuki usually ridden by Gladstone.

All three qualified for the field, and Gladstone made it all the way to the semifinals before bowing out to many-time world champion Eddie Krawiec, who made his first run ever in the 6.60s, a 6.69, to beat him. Hale, who won the Mile-High Nationals in Denver 20 years ago from the No. 16 qualifying spot, was on the bump again here, but facing the dominant Gaige Herrera in round one, there’d be no miracle finish this time.

“We just want to see what our stuff can do,” said Reed, whose team won three races and wound up second in the final standings last year with Gladstone on the bike. “You have a good year like we did and don’t do much early the next year and all of a sudden everybody thinks you don’t know what you’re doing. People in the pits … they’re definitely going to doubt you. They’re going to talk. But we’ve been making good progress for a while now. Can we outrun Gaige? Not necessarily. But we’re a lot faster than what we’ve shown.”

As for Reed himself, he was Krawiec’s first victim, dropping a first-round match when Krawiec’s mighty Vance & Hines team was, for once, actually vulnerable with just a 6.85. Reed, who spun off the line on his first qualifying run and posted a perfect .000 reaction time on his second, drilled Krawiec on the Tree with a clutch .028 light but slowed to a troubled 7.13 at only 167 mph for the loss.

“Mike really wants to see if we can make this two-valve deal a little faster at the next few races,” Reed said. “I’m only 140 pounds right now. By next year, I won’t be able to make the two-valve weight break anymore. 570 pounds with me on it? It’s crazy that we could even think about doing something like this.”

TAFC – DALLAS

As championship scenarios played out all around him, two-time world champion Jim Whiteley unleashed one all-time-best after another at the Texas FallNationals in the finest outing of his NHRA Top Alcohol Funny Car career. He qualified higher than ever before (No. 3) with his best run ever (5.456) and ran better than that one round after another in eliminations, wiping out a past national event champion every time down the track.

Whiteley, who won Dallas in both of his Top Alcohol Dragster championship seasons (2012 and 2013), and wife Annie, an integral part of what’s still the quickest side-by-side race in Top Alcohol Funny Car history (5.376-5.382 here in the 2017 final), paced a star-studded field Thursday afternoon, tied atop the early leaderboard with identical 5.510s. Jim went on to record a career-best 5.465 in Q2 and an even better 5.456 in last-shot qualifying, and Annie blew everyone away with a 5.438 for the No. 1 spot in Q3, outrunning even title contenders Doug Gordon and Sean Bellemeur.

Annie was right on time in the first round and sped to a smooth 5.453 but was blindsided by No. 16 qualifier Christine Foster, who came up with an incredible, out-of-nowhere 5.431 – low E.T. of the meet to that point and the best run of her life by more than a tenth. Then, in the very next pair, Jim assumed low E.T. with a 5.418, freight-training Chris Marshall’s 5.634, and in the pair after that Bellemeur made the second-quickest run of all time, a 5.359, to claim Low E.T for good.

Under perfect track and weather conditions again in round two, every full run by every winning and losing driver was in the 5.40s, including Whiteley’s 5.442 against Norwalk winner Bob McCosh’s otherwise excellent 5.488. Bellemeur and Gordon both ran 5.40-flats, with Bellemeur losing on a holeshot to Kyle Smith’s 5.425 and Gordon clinching his third national championship on Matt Gill’s foul start.

With a holeshot semifinal win over Smith, who fell despite a fine .042 reaction time, Whiteley moved into his first NHRA national event final since the 2018 Springnationals in Houston, where he won Pro Mod, and first ever in Top Alcohol Funny Car. “Kyle runs good and really knows how to cut a light,” said Whiteley, whose near-perfect .010 reaction time made for a 5.439 to 5.421 win. “I knew I had to have a good one, but I damn sure didn’t know that was a .010.”

Whiteley was right there in the final against Gordon until his car shelled the rear end around half-track, slowing him to a hapless 6.226 while Gordon shot ahead to a winning 5.414. “The 60 [foot time] was .919,” said crew chief Brandon Snider, who knows a thing or two about getting torque-converter cars off the starting line. “If it made it, that would’ve been about a 5.38.”

PRO MOD – TULSA 2

Steven Whiteley pulled off one of the biggest wins of his Pro Mod career at the Throwdown at T-Town, resurrecting his once-dwindling championship hopes with a narrow semifinal win over yearlong points leader Keith Haney and a crucial final-round decision over Blake Housley. “That,” said Whiteley, whose last race, at Martin, Mich., ended in a crash, “was big.”

Just when it seemed he was out of contention for the Mid-West Drag Series title, Whiteley thrust himself back into it, scoring in the unfamiliar confines of father Jim’s ’63 split-window Corvette. “It’s just messed up, trying to drive a different car like this,” he said. “They’re both Tommy Mauney cars, yeah, but everything’s in a different position in this car. You’re laid back more in the seat, it’s narrower, the trans-brake button is in wrong spot, the pedals are longer … nothing is where it should be.”

As big an obstacle as that clearly was – and as tough as it was to push aside the anxiety from crashing the last time he went down the track – it didn’t keep Whiteley from victory. He and crew chief/co-driver Brandon Snider overcame early qualifying struggles to qualify No. 1 with a 3.63, breezed through the first round, and trounced Tony “Sandman” Williams in the second, 3.64 to 5.88, to set up what he termed “the round of the year,” his semifinal showdown with Haney.

“That was just an awesome race,” Whiteley said. “Three-thousandths of a second in the lights.” He was quicker than Haney off the line and quicker and faster downtrack (barely), moving first by a thousandth of a second, .064 to .065, and outrunning Haney by two-thousandths, 3.617 to 3.619, with a massive top-end charge, 209 mph to 205. Haney was first to the 330-foot mark, 2.41 to 2.43, so it was only in the last few hundred feet that the J&A Service/YNot Racing team’s aging Corvette prevailed.

“This thing was running 209 mph all weekend,” Whiteley said. “209 is pretty mean for a door car. I mean, ’63 Corvettes aren’t the most aerodynamic cars out there, you know? The track was really cooling off for the final and groove was getting tight, so we made sure the track was prepped the same as it was for the semi’s and stayed aggressive with the tune-up. We didn’t back it off at all – just sent it – and hoped the car would run the same as it did.”

It ran exactly as it had a round earlier, another 3.61 at 209 mph, to stop Housley and give Whiteley new life in the championship chase. “I’m still not used to this car,” he said, “but I don’t have the luxury of having everything just the way I want it anymore. We’re trying to win a championship. At some point, you’ve got to just get in and go.”

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