Kentucky - Reporter's Notebook

Notes from Jim Luikens' Reporter's Notebook at the IHRA Banquet in Covington, Kentucky

IHRA officials and track operators as well as professional and sportsman racers all converged on Covington, Kentucky last week for meetings and the 34th Annual IHRA Awards Banquet Celebration. Several days of events actually kicked off on Thursday with a full day of meetings for the Hooters National Event track operators. That evening the prestigious President’s Dinner was held at the Marriott, one of the two hotels that would be used to accommodate the huge influx of IHRA guests over the course of the long weekend.

Friday morning the Mr. Gasket Pro-Am track operators convened for their annual meeting followed by a luncheon in their honor. The Summit Super Series track operators completed the meeting portion of the weekend by holding their annual meeting that afternoon. Friday night the festivities got underway in earnest with an awards ceremony for the Mr. Gasket Pro-Am Champions.

Saturday morning IHRA track operators and officials could choose from a full slate of seminars to attend. Concurrently another slate of seminars was held for the racers and those seminars were followed in the afternoon by bingo that featured racing-themed prizes. Finally, Saturday night it was time for the keynote event of the weekend, The Hooters Awards Banquet.

In a new twist this year a red carpet was laid down and Jim Marchyshyn interviewed the banquet attendees as they approached the Northern Kentucky Convention Center Ballroom. His interviews were simulcast on two giant screens inside the ballroom so that those already in attendance could see who was coming in and hear what they had to say. Aaron Polburn and Scooter Peako were introduced as the twin emcees for the evening to a spectacular laser light show. As spectacular as the introduction was, it paled in comparison to last year’s introduction, which included indoor fireworks.

These two gentlemen got the evening underway in earnest with the introduction of the Hooters World Champions. Because of the large Aruba contingent on hand the Aruba National Anthem was played first. This was followed by the Canadian National Anthem, which was sung by Grand Bend Track Operator Ron Biekx. Finally Joel and Carla Thompson, from US 131 Motorsports Park, sang the American National Anthem.

The evening’s special awards were interspersed with the presentation of the second through tenth points finishers in all eliminators. Pro Stock World Champion John Nobile was introduced as the Most Improved Pro Driver. He would be back later to give the longest speech of the evening when the individual World Champions were introduced one by one and allowed to say a few words. Interestingly Canadian Pro Mod driver Rick DiStefano, who’s still in the running for the 2004 Canadian Drag Racer of the Year title, was named as one of the runners-up for this award. Eddie Pauley was called to the stage to receive his award as the Most Improved Sportsman Driver.

In quick succession Abilene Dragstrip was named the Sportsman Track of the Year and Milan Dragway the National Event Track of the Year. Scott and Laura Gardner, from Cordova Dragway Park in Illinois, were named the Track Operators of the Year for their outstanding operation of a weekly race track. This was the second time that they have won the award, also being named the 1997 winners. Ralph Hester, from Florida’s Immokalee Regional Raceway, was named as the Promoter of the Year.

Tommy Levatino, Jr. then took the stage as the Sportsman Rookie of the Year. He was followed by Doug Foley, this year’s Professional Rookie of the Year. Doug won three events in his opening season of Top Fuel and has announced that next year his team will become IHRA's first two car Top Fuel team when Rick Cooper drives their second car. Ironically Rick himself was also a finalist for the award along with Pro Funny Car driver Jeff Burnett, last year’s winner at Edmonton in his first season on the tour.

Next, Mike Baker was named the IHRA In Search of Excellence award Winner. Mike, who won the award unanimously (on the first ballot) had been the butt of several video spoofs that had been shown earlier in the evening. In one hilarious clip he and Scooter Peako are depicted using a dart board to determine the amount of supercharger overdrive that the Pro Mod cars are going to be forced to use. In another the “Mike Baker Doll” was offered in a commercial similar to what you might see on late night television.

Doug Kuch (pronounced Cook), who had tuned the second and third place finishers in last year’s Top Fuel points chase was named the Crew Chief of the Year over a star-studded field that included two-time award winner Mike Kloeber and others. Aruba resident Jonathan Tromp won last year’s Summit “Box” World Championship with an amazing 39-1 season win record. Besides the big check from Summit, ring and iron man trophy he won a trip to Aruba (where he lives), a Worthy dragster and two Pit Pro bikes. In a surprise move, Jonathan's mother flew in from Germany unbeknownst to him for the awards ceremony.

Niles, Michigan resident John Hochstedler won the Summit “No Box” Championship with his Dodge Challenger. He amassed a 2004 win-lose record of 37-3 at nearby Osceola (Indiana) Dragway. He also won a trip to Aruba, a 2005 Pontiac G6 and a 540 cid Chevy engine to go along with his big check from Summit, diamond ring and iron man. No doubt the trip to Aruba will be more meaningful for him than Jonathan.

Next, each of the World Champions had their stint at the microphone with the aforementioned John Nobile delivering the longest speech. To close the evening the Drivers of the Year were introduced with Steve Furr winning the Sportsman honor and Mike Janis the Professional title. The last award went to the Sportsman of the Year with Top Fuel champion Clay Millican picking up that title over Carl & Donna Baker, Billy Harper and Steve Spiess.

Finally, no account of the evening would be complete without mentioning Bill Bader. Bill was called to the stage to receive the accolades of the assembled audience for all that he had done for the IHRA organization. With his family joining him on stage he took the time to hug every 2004 champion before delivering a few poignant remarks about his efforts in recent years. A standing ovation characterized how the audience feels about Bill.

With that we were dismissed to attend the VP Fuels After-Banquet Party in the Marriott Grand Ballroom, but not before we were reminded that it is less than one month until the first Pro-Am event of 2005.