The worldwide Coronavirus pandemic that’s brought the sport and the whole country to its knees this year also served to make Indy, in a weird way, somehow bigger than ever. In addition to being drag racing’s most sought-after prize year after year, Indy also represented what many top sportsman drivers consider an honor equivalent to a national event title: victory in the prestigious the Jeg’s Allstars event. For Annie Whiteley’s J&A Racing/YNot Racing Top Alcohol Funny Car team, both races ended in disappointment; she was gone after a single round of eliminations in both, after qualifying high, as always, for both contests.
Limited to just two shots to qualify by the condensed schedule, Whiteley qualified seventh – good for most drivers, but not for her. She’s qualified in the slow half of a national event field only once in her entire career – and barely, 9th – and had lane choice once again at the U.S. Nationals, where she’s a three-time runner-up. A 5.54 at 269.78 mph (top speed of the event) in the team’s immaculate Yenko blue Camaro set up a first-round race early Sunday morning with veteran Dan Pomponio, who won four national events from early 2013 to early 2014 but none since.
Whiteley, who had won 80 percent of their previous matchups, pre-staged, revved it to the moon, rolled into the staged beam, and waited. And waited. And then waited a little more. Having the shortest clutch leg in Top Alcohol Funny Car has always been a competitive disadvantage, but never more so than this weekend. When the RPMs had been up there up for so long that the car was about to start creeping, she pushed her clutch foot in a little harder to keep from rolling through … and that’s right when Pomponio staged.
The former Super Gas racer, who’d been at high C for nowhere near as long as his diminutive opponent, let it fly a particle of a second after the light turned green, while Whiteley was hanging on for dear life, trying to keep from red-lighting more than she was trying to knock down the Tree. In the end, reaction times were immaterial; her car blew the tires off at the hit.
“I don’t know how long I sat there, but it was a long time – four or five seconds – which was weird because I don’t think Dan’s never done that to me before,” she said. “He usually rolls right in. Same thing with DJ [Cox, her opponent in the Jegs Allstars race a day earlier.] It didn’t matter – the car didn’t make it down the track anyway. The clutch wasn’t what we thought it was. [Crew chief] Mike [Strasburg] had it way more aggressive than he wanted it, and we never had a chance.”