Knowing they were at a distinct disadvantage before they ever pulled through the Bristol Dragway gates, the father-and-son team of Jim and Steven Whiteley fought the good fight at the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals. Both made the Pro Mod show, but when eliminations commenced, both got an unwanted reminder of something they already painfully aware of: supercharged cars like theirs will always be fighting with one hand tied behind their back when the altitude’s that high.
Jim’s immaculate ’69 Chevelle, tuned by supercharger authority Chuck Ford, ran a 5.96 to anchor the field, and son Steven Whiteley’s Cadillac CTS, tuned by Jeff Perley and already locked into the field before last-shot qualifying, improved to a 5.94 in that session to improve to the No. 12 spot. Jim, a huge underdog against No. 1 qualifier and eventual runner-up Shane Molinari, left first, as usual, but went up in smoke in low gear.
Steven, the second ranked driver in the J&A Pro Mod series, drew the toughest possible opponent in round one: reigning world champion Rickie Smith, who was undefeated in 2017, a winner in his only appearance since returning from back surgery. He cut a clutch a .047 light – the exact same light he had one week earlier in Englishtown in a must-win first-round matchup against the only driver ahead of him in the standings, Mike Castellana – but wily “Tricky Rickie” produced the second-quickest reaction time of the entire event, a .020, and outran Whiteley’s weekend-best 5.92 with a 5.86.
“Rickie can still pull out a light like that every once in a while,” Steven said. “That’s probably the quickest he’s ever staged against me – he’s not called ‘Tricky Rickie’ for nothing – but give him credit: he cut a great light. We could have beaten a lot of guys in that round with a .92 but not the guy we were racing.
“5.90s aren’t that great anymore,” Steven said, “but for a blown car at Bristol, they’re not too bad. You really can’t keep up with the nitrous cars and the turbo cars here on the mountain. That’s just the way it is. We get to Charlotte, we’re deadly. But here or Vegas – especially here – you know you’re at a disadvantage. To beat the turbo and nitrous cars, you have to outrace them. You have to be smarter than them, and that’s what we’ve tried to do all year: race smart.”