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TAFC – LAS VEGAS REGIONAL 2021

Annie Whiteley wound up probably the most difficult year of her career right where it all began a decade ago, The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, trending in a positive direction for maybe the first time since the first race of this long season. When qualifying was complete, she didn’t just have low e.t. of the meet, she had low e.t., the second-lowest e.t., and the fourth-lowest e.t. – two 5.50s and a 5.51.

Running as close to the .40s as possible without actually running one, Whiteley claimed the top spot with a time of exactly five and a half seconds – 5.500 at 266.27 mph. The speed ended up second behind only the 266.48-mph charge of eventual winner Sean Bellemeur and the Bartone Bros. team led by Steve Boggs.

“Doug Gordon’s team really helped us with the clutch,” Whiteley said, “and I mean really helped us. It’s pretty unbelievable for somebody like them, a team that won the championship last year and just about won it again this year, to do something like that for somebody else, but that’s exactly what they did.”

In the first round against Alaska’s Ray Martin, like her one of the very, very few ever to win their first Top Alcohol Funny Car start, Whiteley drilled him on the Tree. She was out first by more than half a tenth, .080 to .131, and, despite coasting across the finish line at barely 210 mph, emerged victorious. “The blower belt broke,” she explained after narrowly advancing with a 5.71/211 over Martin’s fast-closing 5.75/252.

Sunday afternoon in the first pair of the semi’s, Whiteley’s luck ran out. Gordon put away No. 2 qualifier Terry Ruckman, 5.56/265 to 5.68/252, in the other pair, and she outran both of them – but, unfortunately for her, not the only one that mattered. She and Bellemeur, who locked up the national championship here last weekend, pre-staged simultaneously and staged almost at the same time, but the now three-time champ pulled steadily ahead of her for a 5.51/265 to 5.54/264 victory.

Whiteley’s final scorecard for the 2021 season: a win (Belle Rose), a runner-up (Martin on the Mid-West Drag Racing Series tour), three semifinal finishes (this weekend in Las Vegas and the Ferris and Tulsa MWDRS events), 11th place in the NHRA standings, fourth in the MWDRS, and a positively un-Whiteleylike overall win-loss record of 10-14.

PRO MOD – LAS VEGAS 2021

Laser-focused on the burgeoning Mid-West Drag Racing Series all year, Jim Whiteley simultaneously pieced together a successful season in his infrequent appearances on the NHRA tour. Whiteley, who barely missed winning the 2021 MWDRS Pro Mod championship, finished just outside the NHRA Top 10 despite skipping nearly half the races (5 of 11).

On his first qualifying run at the 11th and final event of this year’s NHRA series, the Dodge NHRA Nationals in Las Vegas, Whiteley’s sleek ’69 Camaro shook hard and coasted silently across finish line at 100 mph. Saturday afternoon in the second and third sessions, he pounded out two runs as close to each other as any two runs have ever been: .968-.970 at the 60-foot mark, 2.574-2.574 at 330 feet, 3.857-3.855 to half-track at 192.11-192.30 mph, 4.957-4.954 at 1,000 feet, and 5.886-5.882 at 242.06-242.36 mph across the finish line.

The first one, recorded early Saturday afternoon, put him eighth in the order, and the follow-up, recorded in the gathering gloom of dusk that evening, was truly a thing of beauty. Wheels up, charging hard through the middle of the course, it was, barley, his quickest pass of the weekend, but it still didn’t improve his standing in the final lineup. He wound up ninth in the final order, matched against teammate Brandon Snider in the bright sunlight of Sunday morning’s first round of eliminations.

Once again, Whiteley made his quickest run of the entire event, but Snider did him one better at both ends of the dragstrip. Whiteley cut a .042 light, but Snider nipped him with a slightly quicker .031, and when Whiteley picked up considerably from his best qualifying time (four-hundredths of a second and 2 mph, from 5.88/242 to 5.84/244), Snider picked up even more (four-hundredths and 3 mph, from 5.83/244 to 5.79/247) to win by a car-length.

“We’ve got some big plans for next year,” Whiteley said. “All kinds of plans. With all kinds of people and all kinds of cars. That’s all I’m going to say right now. But trust me, it’s gonna be good.”

TAFC – LAS VEGAS NATIONAL 2021

With a promising performance at the penultimate race of a largely forgettable 2021 season, Annie Whiteley might just have turned the corner heading into the 2022 campaign. Plagued by one thing after another from the time she left Belle Rose, La., with a victory in the season opener, 2021 was the very definition of a down year. This second-to-last weekend of the season was anything but.

From a decent 5.60 at 263 mph on her opening hit, Whiteley got only quicker every trip back under The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway arch. She posted a significantly better 5.54/264 Friday afternoon and an incrementally quicker and faster 5.53/265 in last-shot qualifying Saturday morning for the No. 6 spot in the 16-car Top Alcohol Funny Car field.

That afternoon in the first round of eliminations, as she had on almost every other run, Whiteley laid down her best pass all weekend, leaving on former national event winner Kris Hool and outrunning him to boot. Her right-down-the-groove 5.52/265 wasted his aborted 9.65 at 113 mph and improved her all-time head-to-head record against the Wyoming veteran to a tidy 6-3. It wasn’t just her quickest run of the event; it was all 16 drivers’ quickest run of the first round, including championship contenders Sean Bellemeur (5.58) and Doug Gordon (5.66).

That night, immediately after the nitro cars wrapped up qualifying for Sunday’s race, Whiteley faced quarterfinal opponent Chris Marshall, who, like her, split his time this year between the NHRA and MWDRS circuits. They left, and her car, as if pulled by some giant magnet buried under the centerline, strayed inexorably to the right until she finally relented somewhere in high gear.

“It pulled me over toward the centerline, and I had to pull it back,” Whiteley said. “Then it did it again, and I pulled it back again, but when it tried to pull me over there again in high gear I thought, ‘Nahhhh … that’s enough,’ and shut it off.” Marshall collected the round-win with a 5.56/264, while Whiteley, despite clicking it early and coasting across the stripe at only 222 mph, still recorded a 5.64.

TAFC – LAS VEGAS 2021

Brandon Snider’s highly anticipated NHRA Top Alcohol Funny Car debut didn’t end in a storybook victory, but this weekend, for once, that wasn’t really the point. At the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals – the first time alcohol cars have ever raced four at a time – the stated objective for Annie Whiteley’s J&A/YNot team was to further develop their torque-converter setup, a goal more than achieved.

Snider, the former PDRA champ who came within a round of the 2020 NHRA Pro Mod championship, just got his Funny Car license and had never driven one to the quarter-mile. “I’d already done the four-wide thing in Charlotte, so that was no big deal,” he said. “It’s everything else that’s completely different. A Funny Car is harder to drive than a Pro Mod, for one thing. It’s fast. Sitting behind the engine, having that body dropped down over you – it takes a little getting used to. In a Pro Mod, you make tiny little corrections going down the track. This thing, you really have to crank the wheel to get the car to go where you want it to go. To a door-car guy, everything about a Funny Car is just wrong.”

Despite that, Snider laid down one quick, consistent run after another at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, four in all, beginning with a 5.608 at 259.06 mph in the second session that qualified him firmly in the middle of the field. He followed with a 5.555/261.57 and a 5.583/260.11 for the No. 5 spot and appeared to enter eliminations with a clear advantage despite having less experience in a Funny Car than anyone in the lineup.

Snider was the only Top Alcohol Funny Car driver with any experience on a four-wide Tree, but when the Tree dropped, it was he who left too soon with a -.176 red-light, invalidating his quickest, fastest run of the weekend and low e.t. of the quad, 5.554/262.54. Nick Januik (5.555) and Aryan Rochon (5.623) advanced, and 2017 NHRA champion Shane Westerfield joined Snider on the sidelines with a third-best 5.66.

“Nobody wants to red-light, but we still learned a lot this weekend,” Snider said. “People think a converter just won’t work in a Funny Car, but how hard has anyone ever really tried? It’ll work. Clutches have been around forever. We’re just getting started with this thing, and I think we can be more consistent than the clutch cars when the weather gets hot. By the end of the year, we might just be running all the way to the quarter-mile like them.”

PSM – LAS VEGAS 2021

At the Four-Wide Nationals in Las Vegas, for the first time since his 2016 Rookie of the Year campaign, 28-year-old Cory Reed upset one name after another to reach an NHRA national event final. There, the former motocross star took out two of his three opponents – Scotty Pollacheck and Steve Johnson – but in a four-wide final, just as in any traditional one-on-one duel, only one driver ultimately emerges victorious.

In two preliminary rounds under this unique, divisive format, you don’t actually have to win – you can be second and still advance, which was perfect because in both the first and semifinals rounds, Reed finished second. He left a lofty list of accomplished riders in his wake: many-time national event winner Karen Stoffer in the first quad and former teammate Angelle Sampey and reigning national champion Matt Smith, who have seven championships between them, in the semi’s.

“I’m back,” Reed said after one of the finest outings of his still-young drag racing career. Powered by the vaunted Vance & Hines conglomerate, he muddled through three qualifying sessions with somewhat uneven results (7.07/191, 7.13/187, and a ninth-best 7.03/191) but came to life on race day. “I want to win. That’s the goal, that’s everything. And when I got to that final, I really felt like I was going to win.”

Smith had everybody covered in the first round with an outstanding 6.88 at 196.87 mph, but Reed left on him so badly he almost beat him to the stripe with a 6.98/192. (Stoffer’s strong 6.92/192 was voided by a foul start.) In the semi’s, Pollacheck got there first with a 6.93/193 but Reed was right on his wheelie bar with a 6.97/191, well ahead of highly favored Sampey’s 7.07/162 and Smith’s troubled 7.72/128.

More confident than ever, Reed let the clutch fly in the final round, but instead of a .017 light like he’d had in the opening round, his reaction time came up .049. “I didn’t cut as good of a light as I could have,” he said, “because the whole time I was thinking, ‘Don’t red-light, don’t red-light.’ “When I let go of the handle, the bike just didn’t get up and go. The clutch didn’t separate like it should – it didn’t flash. For whatever reason, it didn’t grab.”

Pollacheck red-lighted, Johnson broke, and suddenly there was just one rider between Reed and his first major NHRA title: his pal, Oehler, who outran him, 6.91/194 to by far Reed’s best run all weekend, a 6.94/193. Even with a perfect reaction time, there was nothing he could’ve done. “Losing sucks, but I can’t really complain,” Reed said. “This was a good weekend. “I totally thought I was going to win, 100 percent. I thought I had it.”

TAFC – LAS VEGAS REGIONAL 2020

At The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the final race of a trying and largely unfulfilling season, Annie Whiteley wrapped up 2020 with a dispiriting first-round loss to outgoing Top Alcohol Funny Car world champ Sean Bellemeur.

The four-time TAFC Regional Champion (2013-14 in the West, and 2018-19 in the Central) never made a representative run all weekend. Whiteley, a many-time Vegas winner, posted an OK .974 60-foot time in Friday afternoon’s opening qualifying session but had to lift and slowed to a 12.47 at 66 mph, eighth in an eight-car field and the only one not to get to the finish line under power. Under the lights in Q2, she made it further downtrack but ultimately had to back off the throttle again and coasted to an 8.77 at 120 mph to enter eliminations on the bump for the first time in years.

Whiteley’s weekend came to an unceremonious, abrupt end not far off the line in the first round. Bellemeur, who had more than a tenth on the field going into last-shot qualifying with a 5.48/268 and ran in .40s in the only other qualifying session (combined .40s for all other teams: 0), claimed a lopsided victory. The 2019 series champ was long gone with a with a winning 5.50/269 in the left lane while over in the right, Whiteley’s suddenly stubborn, uncooperative machine refused to respond to crew chief Mike Strasburg’s between-rounds adjustments. Again she was forced to lift almost immediately, slowing to a 9.23 at 106 mph and winding up an up-and-down season on a decidedly down note.

“Too much wheel speed,” Whiteley said. “It’s been that kind of year.” She closes the door on 2020 second in the Central Region standings behind returning veteran Bob McCosh and sixth the national rankings. It wasn’t the best season the YNot/J&A Service team ever had, but in the end Whiteley qualified No. 1 four times (all in the first half of the year), racked up three final-round appearances and a win (at the 2020 opener in Belle Rose, where she’s still never lost), and finished with a 12-12 win-loss record, including a respectable 10-9 mark in NHRA competition.

PRO MOD – LAS VEGAS 2020

At the Dodge NHRA Finals, the end of the line for Pro Mod drivers every year but this year for all the pros, too, Jim Whiteley lined up against theoretically the toughest possible opponent and definitely the last one he wanted to see lose, YNot teammate Steve Jackson. But with absolutely everything on the line for defending NHRA Pro Mod champion “Stevie Fast,” locked in a down-to-the-wire battle with incoming points leader Brandon Snider for the 2020 championship, Jackson is exactly who Whiteley got first round.

To intensify what already would’ve been an epic showdown, Whiteley, the No. 8 qualifier (5.836) in a short but stout field, and Jackson, surprisingly just fifth in the order with a 5.788, had a couple friendly side bets going: $100 for the best reaction time head-to-head, and another $50 for supertuner “Philbilly” Shuler if Whiteley’s car got into the .70s. In the end, everybody won.

Whiteley and Jackson staged almost simultaneously, the Tree flashed, both were way more than on time, and “Stevie Fast,” who would have lost it all with anything slower than a 5.773, stayed alive with a 5.770. Staring down the most pressure imaginable, he came through with a clutch .011 reaction time, but Whiteley outdid him with a near-perfect .005 only to be edged out in the lights by four-thousandths of a second, 5.770 to 5.780. Anything less than a .015 reaction time, and “Stevie Fast” would have been done. “I wasn’t messing around up there,” he said.

“Neither was I,” joked Whiteley, who matched Jackson stride for stride and shift for shift the length of the quarter-mile: 2.53-2.53 to the 330-foot mark, 3.79 at 196 mph to 3.79 at 196 mph at the eighth-mile, and 4.86 to 4.86 to 1000 feet. At the top end, the superior aerodynamic characteristics of Jackson’s late-model Camaro trumped the early ’60s “aero package” of Whiteley’s split-window Corvette. With equal power under the hood, Whiteley could only look on helplessly as Jackson crept incrementally ahead in the final quarter of the course, 248.48 mph to 246.71.

From there, Jackson got the best of a winner-take-all second-round match with Snider and went on to the event win, his third this season, and a second consecutive NHRA championship. Whiteley locked up his first Top 10 finish as a Pro Mod driver and first since he retired from Top Alcohol Dragster with seven in a row, from 2007-13 – and not just Top 10s. All seven were Top 5s, including back-to-back championships in 2012-13. “Next year, that car’s gonna run better than ever,” Jackson said of Whiteley’s’ old-school hot rod. “You just wait.”

PSM – LAS VEGAS 2020

Cory Reed never really got going at the 2020 NHRA Finals, which, for the first time since way before he was born, wasn’t at Pomona. With California locked down by the state’s draconian COVID-19 restrictions, Las Vegas, long the penultimate event of the season, became the Finals.

It was a disappointment by any name and over early for Reed, who, until now, hadn’t lost in the first round in his abbreviated 2020 campaign. The second-generation racer barely made it off the line in the opening qualifying session and rolled to a stop not far downtrack while in the other lane teammate Joey Gladstone, who’d made the first final-round appearance of his young career two weeks earlier in Dallas, charged to a 6.89 at 195.56 mph to assume an early qualifying lead he didn’t relinquish until the final pair went down the track.

“My front brake was locked up,” Reed said. “I could tell right away that something was wasn’t right, but I’ve never had this exact thing happen before, so I didn’t know what it was.” Stuck in the first pair in the only remaining session because teams run in the inverse order of how they performed in the first go, he stumbled to a 7.31 at 190 mph but at least got a time up on the board. Meanwhile, Gladstone backed up the 6.89/195 with a mirror-image 6.90/195 and headed into eliminations in the No. 3 spot, a career best that had him qualified higher than championship contenders Scotty Pollacheck and Andrew Hines.

Gladstone advanced to the quarterfinals, but Reed, 16th in a 16-bike show, had no chance in the first round opposite top qualifier Eddie Krawiec, who paced the field with a 6.81 and took him out with a 6.90/196. “It wasn’t our day,” Reed said. “It’s cool – we’ve got better things ahead, and I’m really looking forward to next year. But that front brake held me back all weekend.”

TAFC – LAS VEGAS REGIONAL 2019

In her 17th and final start of 2019, Annie Whiteley won her third race of the season to lock down yet another Top 5 finish in the NHRA national standings. The J&A Service/YNot Racing driver established top speed of the meet, as usual, and came out on top of one of the toughest fields in Top Alcohol Funny Car history with her sixth career final-round appearance at the fabulous Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and sixth win.

“I don’t know what it is about this track,” she said. “I always say that, I know, but there’s just something about this place and Sonoma.” Qualifying began with a thud when she blew the tires off, but, after a subsequent 5.52 at 268.60 mph (top speed of the meet to that point) run, she entered eliminations fifth on the final grid, paired against a driver who has more lifetime appearances than anyone in alcohol racing history (even Frank Manzo): Jay Payne. He clocked a 5.523 on his final attempt to move around Whiteley by one spot, but that just meant that he had lane choice – they were already 4 and 5 and destined to meet anyway.

When the Tree flashed, Whiteley was out first and made the third-quickest run of the entire weekend, a 5.500 at 269.67 mph (top speed of the meet) to hold off his right-there 5.56. That set up a semifinal match with the most feared driver in Top Alcohol Funny Car, back-to-back world champ Sean Bellemeur, who was sidelined by, of all things, a stuck throttle on the burnout. “I was just putting it into reverse when I heard this weird revving sound as he went by me,” she said. “He kept rolling down there and it hit me: ‘We just won the semi’s – we’re in the final.’ ” The resultant bye couldn’t have come at a more opportune time – after the .50-flat in the first round and another .50-something run in the final, she blew the tires off at the hit and coasted across the finish line at a speed that wouldn’t have gotten her a speeding ticket out on I-15, 74 mph.

In the final against Brian Hough, who’ll finish second in the championship standings this year, Whiteley blasted off the line right on time and came out on top in a close race, 5.54 to 5.56. “I told myself, ‘Relax, relax, relax,’ before I went up there, and I did,” she said, “I thought, ‘You know you can do it, so just do it.’ My clutch pedal is fixed now, and I am too. I’ve never been much of a gambler, but I guess in Vegas I’m lucky. I have no clue why we always run so good here – maybe I just save all my luck for the race track.”

TAFC – LAS VEGAS NATIONAL 2019

Mired in the toughest stretch of her eight-year career just as the year winds down, Annie Whiteley bowed out early at the Dodge NHRA Nationals. In her penultimate start of 2019, at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where she’s enjoyed more success than at any other track (and more than any active Top Alcohol Funny Car has had anywhere on the circuit), Whiteley was out after a single round of eliminations.

Qualifying got off to a rough start when the YNot/J&A Service team, Las Vegas winners in both regional (many times) and national competition, blasted the tires just off the line for an abbreviated 9.12 at 119 mph and followed with an equally disappointing 8.75 at 109. Closing in on another Top 5 finish in the national standings but perilously close to not even qualifying, Whiteley and crew chief Mike Strasburg came through Saturday morning in last-shot qualifying.

Stuck in the first pair of that high-pressure session because of how far down on the grid she was at that point, Whiteley stepped up dramatically when it mattered most with a clutch 5.47 at more than 270 mph to skyrocket to the No. 5 spot. That should have assured her an imminently winnable first-round match with an opponent well down in the final order, No. 12. Instead, as has been the case a disturbingly disproportionate amount of the time this year – especially lately – she had to race someone who never should have qualified that low, pre-race favorite Chris Marshall, who, in three qualifying attempts, mustered a best of just 5.59.

In the first pair of the first round under the lights Saturday night, Whiteley drilled Marshall, consistently one of the best leavers in Top Alcohol Funny Car, with a reaction time literally twice as good as his – .076 to .152 – but blew the tires off and looked on helplessly as he sped away to a winning 5.46/265 while she coasted to a losing 13.54. “The guys had a whole new clutch pedal for me for this weekend and I really felt good up there,” she said. “I feel a lot more comfortable now, like I’m more in control, and I knew I had a good light, but when you go up in smoke in low gear there’s not a whole lot you can do.”

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