For Annie Whiteley’s YNot/J&A Racing Top Alcohol Funny Car team, the rescheduled “Spring” Nationals started poorly and only went downhill from there. Contested a week after the Fall Nationals because 2020, the first qualifying session was a disaster. A shelled rear end ignited a chain-reaction of mechanical chaos, starting with a dropped valve and ending when the freewheeling, over-revved engine eventually couldn’t take any more.
“I don’t know about this place,” Whiteley said of Houston Raceway, which has always been kind to husband Jim Whiteley but never to her. “We’ve never had any luck here. I blew a tire one year and it just about ripped the whole back end off the car. I ran the final round in the rain one time, and it wasn’t the first time that weekend I’d gone down the track in the rain on the windshield.”
The already abbreviated 2020 COVID-19 two-shot qualifying format was compromised further by biblical rains Friday afternoon that shut everything down for five hours, and, with half the drivetrain from the fuel pump to the wheelie bar trashed in the opening session, Saturday morning represented Whiteley’s only other opportunity to get a spot in the top half of the field.
The conditions were ideal: 59 degrees with a track temp of 78 degrees. All four cars in front of her ran 5.40s, and Whiteley managed a safe but still fast 5.52 at nearly 269 mph for the No. 6 position in the 10-car field. Then, right when everything already wasn’t going right, the car wouldn’t start first round. “Things happen to us at Houston that don’t happen anywhere else,” she said. “We’ve had a switch go bad and shut the car off. We blew the transmission up here one time, and that’s the only time that’s ever happened anywhere. Whenever we get here, it’s always something.”
Just as first-round foe Jay Payne was halfway back from the burnout, Whiteley’s engine came to life and she rushed through an abbreviated burnout to keep from interrupting his notoriously fast routine. In Payne’s 900th round of national event competition – the most in alcohol racing history and 22% more than the second-most experienced driver, Frank Manzo – what could have been a classic battle of seasoned veterans was over almost immediately. Whiteley’s car practically jumped off the ground, leaving her no choice but to click it and granting Payne safe passage to the quarterfinals with an ordinary 5.57/265. “I don’t know what it is about Houston,” she said. “Sometimes I think God just doesn’t want us to come back here anymore.”