Annie Whiteley may have driven 270+ mph Funny Car for 10 years now, but with no clutch pedal to occupy her left foot and 12 things to do right before the Tree comes down, she’s starting all over. The YNot/J&A Racing team’s new torque-converter setup makes her feel, as the decal across her rear window attests, like a “STUDENT DRIVER” – at least on eighth-mile tracks like Xtreme Raceway Park.
“It’s bizarre,” Whiteley said of leaving off a trans-brake button. “With this converter, you realize right away that if you’re not staged first, you’re screwed. The whole time you’re up there, you know in the back of your mind how important it is to get in there first, and then after you roll in, there’s always three more things you have to do before you can leave: push the button, rev the motor, and let go on time. And it seems like right before you’re ready, the light’s coming on.”
Despite her unfamiliarity with the awkward new driving technique, Whiteley had what can only be termed a successful debut at the Xtreme Texas Nationals, the first race of the 2021 Mid-West Drag Racing Series. After just a handful of test laps to master the procedure, Whiteley drove to the No. 2 position behind eventual winner Sean Bellemeur with a 3.62 at 213.78 mph and advanced to the semifinals.
The routine isn’t just something Whiteley has to get used to – every run is harder for her than for everybody else because she’s the only one using a hand brake. Her left foot, the single most important part of cutting a good light for any clutch-car driver, now hangs idle, never called upon to do anything at any point of a run. “I know everybody else does it the other way, but no way am I using a foot brake,” she insisted. “I’d just jam on the brakes at the end of a run because when I get down there I’m so used to shoving in the clutch.”
Back at the line, instead of simply mashing a brake pedal with her left foot like everybody has to to stage, Whiteley’s right hand has to feel for the trans-brake button after she lets go of the brake handle – right when the Tree’s about to come on. Everything worked fine in qualifying and in the first round, where she cut a fine .047 reaction time in her first official race driving a converter car. Opponent Bryan Brown narrowly red-lighted, but she was long gone anyway with a consistent 3.64/212 that to back up her qualifying performance.
In the semi’s, Whiteley raced nemesis Chris Marshall, who, blinded by smoke when a driveline explosion filled the cockpit with smoke, banged Bob Miner’s car off both walls in qualifying. Nothing went right for Whiteley, starting when her visor fogging up before the race even started. “It wasn’t some little haze,” she said. “My mask was totally fogged up. At the last second, I flipped it up so I could see.”
Marshall got the jump, and Whiteley never did run him down. “The car was so hopped up, I had to pedal it,” she said. “Everything’s still new and I kind of got behind on my shifts. I hit the [shift] button, waited, and shifted again because the shift light wasn’t going out. It never did go out and I rolled out of the throttle a little before the finish line and still went faster than him. With this converter, you almost don’t even feel it shift. This converter is going to take some getting used to – I still don’t know if I like it or not.”