When the smoke literally had cleared from three qualifying sessions on the unfamiliar Yellowstone Drag Strip quarter-mile, Annie Whiteley, No. 1 qualifier at virtually every race she’s been to all year, pulled it off a fourth straight time with both ends of the track record: 5.633 at 263.26 mph – two-hundredths quicker than No. 2 qualifier Brian Hough and nearly 5 mph faster than any other car on the grounds.
Several of the nation’s premier Top Alcohol Funny Car teams converged on the farming community of Acton, Mont., 675 miles north of the YNot Racing/J&A Service team’s Grand Junction, Colo., base and smack dab in the heart of Big Sky Country. With all the other sportsman teams on hand, drag racers accounted for two-thirds of the population of the town of Acton (which counts just 183 souls for 51 weekends a year) for two long days of racing before almost everybody headed east for the biggest race of the year, the U.S. Nationals.
It truly was an all-star cast, with five of seven entrants former national event champs: Whiteley, Hough, points leader Doug Gordon, back-to-back U.S. Nationals runner-up Chris Marshall, and veteran Kris Hool. Even the Nos. 6 and 7 qualifiers – former nitro driver Steve Macklyn and newcomer Doug Schneider – dipped into the five-second zone at the high-altitude (3,800 feet) strip.
As the No. 1 qualifier in a field with an odd number of cars, Whiteley was the deserving recipient of a bye in the first round, where she was out of the gas early and coasted into the semis with an abbreviated 15.75 at just 65 mph. For Whiteley, who dominated the season-opener in Belle Rose, La., where she’s never lost a round in her life, and reached the final four in her other two regional starts this year – in Gainesville, Fla., and Denver – the weekend came to a premature end in the semifinals, where again she encountered traction woes immediately, rolling to a 10.55 loss to Marshall’s steady 5.72.