Former Top Alcohol Dragster world champion Jim Whiteley earned his biggest Pro Mod victory to date at the NHRA Springnationals in easily the wildest final in J&A Service Pro Mod Series history. While favored Rickie Smith was bouncing off both walls at Houston’s Royal Purple Raceway, Whiteley dodged Smith’s careening, out-of-control nitrous Camaro to win a race he didn’t even qualify for.
After getting into the field as an alternate for former Top Fuel driver Sidnei Frigo, Whiteley parlayed the opportunity into his first career Pro Mod final and first win, leaving on all four drivers he faced – usually by a lot. With his best reaction time of the event, .023, Whiteley opened a huge lead on Smith, the runaway early points leader who won the only other race this season, qualified No. 1 at this one, and hadn’t lost a round all year.
“It felt like a good light when I left, but I barely made it to the Tree,” Whiteley said. “I thought, ‘Well, that’s it – I lost,’ but now I’m glad it took the tire off. If I’d still been on the throttle, Rickie would have been into the side of me for sure.”
Smith’s car got up on two wheels, careened across the centerline into Whiteley’s lane, just missed clipping Whiteley’s car, then slammed into the wall in Whiteley’s lane while Whiteley, for the first time in his career, jammed on the brakes in the middle of a run. “I saw Rickie coming into my lane and realized I’d just won the race,” he said. “But I couldn’t really focus on that yet because I was still trying not to run into the back of him.”
The final was a fitting conclusion to a crazy, rain-plagued, crash-marred event – and the cars that crashed weren’t just any old cars. Of all the drivers in the massive 29-car field, the three who crashed were the No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3 qualifiers after the opening session – Smith, Frigo, and former Pro Stock racer Jonathan Gray.
Gray began the carnage when he banged into the wall beyond the finish line after his left rear tire exploded right as he completed a 257-mph that held up all weekend as top speed of the meet. Frigo suffered by far the worst crash, catapulting over the left wall and barrel-rolling through the grass and mud in the second qualifying session after nailing down the No. 2 spot on his only previous attempt.
Seeded into Frigo’s spot on the ladder and pitted against Pete Farber in the opening round, Whiteley took a huge early lead – .044 to .122 – and held on for a narrow holeshot win, 6.02 to 5.95. The margin of victory was an invisible 8-thousandths of a second. Another massive holeshot in the quarterfinals against Shane Molinari, .026 to .170, left Whiteley well ahead at the finish line despite their similar E.T.s, 5.92 to 5.96. In the semifinals against reigning series champ Troy Coughlin, Whiteley again was off the mark first, .031 to .044, and needed it for a close 5.92 to 5.93 win that set up the unforgettable final.
“We still need to get this thing running a little better,” Whiteley said of his flawless J&A Service/YNot Racing ’69 Chevelle, “and I really think we will. If I can stay this sharp on the starting line and we get the car running a little quicker, we can really do some damage this year.”