At the 67th annual NHRA U.S. Nationals, the seventh and by far the most prestigious event on the 11-race 2021 NHRA Pro Mod tour, versatile Jim Whiteley powered into the quarterfinals for the third race in a row. He made it into the field on just a single qualifying attempt – everybody did.

For the first time in the history of the sport’s biggest race, qualifying consisted of exactly one session – not just for Pro Mod, but also for Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock, and Pro Stock Motorcycle. Whiteley made the most of the rain-shortened format and did it under particularly difficult circumstances: not a single car ahead of him had made it downtrack under power, and one of them, supercharged door-car veteran Rick Hord, crashed hard into both walls right in front of him.

Putting it out of his mind, Whiteley cruised to a smooth 5.90 at 243 mph that propelled him straight to the top of the provisional grid and eventually settled him into the sixth spot on the ladder. That pitted him against perennial contender Khalid alBalooshi, the third third-ranked driver of 2020, whom he absolutely drilled on a first-round holeshot in Denver and who qualified 11th here with a 6.25/236 mph.

Whiteley, focused this year on the burgeoning Mid-West Drag Racing Series, where he’s led the Pro Mod standings for much of the season, was making just his fourth NHRA start of 2021, having skipped Atlanta, Charlotte, and Brainerd. Again, he overwhelmed Balooshi in a lopsided wire-to-wire first-round win. Balooshi was more or less on time with a respectable .068 light, but Whiteley had a decided edge with a .038 and moved on with his best run all weekend, 5.89/240, trailing smoke across the finish line.

Docked 5 points for an oildown infraction even though what little oil spilled was confined to the return road, Whiteley faced teammate and reigning series champ Steve Jackson, who seems to race him every other weekend, in the quarterfinals. There, a promising outing ended with a whimper when Whiteley’s beautiful Yenko/SC Camaro sat motionless as the Tree came down.

Handcuffed by mechanical problems before he ever staged, Whiteley rolled into the beams in the unlikely event that experienced “Stevie Fast,” the defending U.S. Nationals champ, red-lighted or crossed the centerline. He didn’t, of course, advancing uncontested with a 5.81 at 246 mph. “I knew we were done before we rolled up there,” Whiteley said. “The whole solenoid popped off, and there was no way I was going to try to make a run like that. It sucked – especially after everybody had worked their asses off all weekend.”