Annie Whiteley was doing fine at the NHRA Fall Nationals, right up until she wasn’t. Half of the quickest side-by-side race in history at the Texas Motorplex in 2017, still the fastest Top Alcohol Funny Car driver of all time (276.18 mph) in 2018, and survivor of a nasty sand-trap crash here later that year, she was gone early this time.
Heading into final qualifying, Whiteley was No. 2 on the provisional grid with a 5.51, second only to the 5.47 of eventual winner Doug Gordon. But one good run gets you only so far, and when she failed to improve in the pivotal third and final qualifying session, other teams did step up – way up.
With invaluable assistance from Sean Bellemeur’s crew chief, mechanical genius Steve Boggs, Aryan Rochon ran a career-best 5.47 for the No. 2 spot; 2017 world champ Shane Westerfield made his best run all season, another 5.47, for No. 3; and Matt Gill, who joined the ranks of national event champions earlier this year in Atlanta, slipped ahead of the J&A Service/YNot Racing team’s 5.516 and into the No. 4 position with a 5.510.
It just served to push Whiteley from No. 2 down to No. 5 and made surviving the first round of eliminations that much more unlikely a proposition. There wasn’t a single pushover in the entire field (every team in attendance ran at least a 5.50-something), but drawing perennial top-three driver Brian Hough first round called to mind what happened here two years ago: Whiteley qualified in the top half of the field, got stuck running Hough first round, and lost.
This was different – neither one of them ran any good. Hough’s crew chief, multi-talented Jonnie Lindberg, acutely aware of just how fast Whiteley’s car might run, had his car way too hopped up, and Hough stumbled downtrack to a backpedaling, off-pace 5.88. Problem was, Whiteley’s car leaped off the ground the instant she swapped feet and swung a hard left, leaving her no choice but to lift. With plenty of time to think about what might have been, she was left to idle downtrack to a 12-second time with “5.88” and the win-light shining on the scoreboard in the other lane.