First Ever Lukeys

By Jim Luikens

Although it seems like it just began in some respects, next week is the final IHRA National Event of the year. With that in mind I thought that this would be a good time to review the 2004 IHRA season. And, in the spirit of the Emmys and the Oscars, we’ll also hand out the first-ever “Lukeys” for some noteworthy accomplishments during the 2004 season.

The IHRA Top Fuelers had a season in 2004 like nothing ever seen before. Last year ten-car fields attempting to qualify for the eight starting spots were the norm, except at Norwalk where a 16-car field was contested. Despite greatly increased competition the overall result is the same again this year, with Clay Millican locking up another IHRA world title early.

This season began strong for the fuelers as an unheard of 20 Top Fuelers showed up in San Antonio for the first event. Admittedly, four of them were injected nitro cars that were excited to be able to run with their supercharged brothers. It didn’t take long however, for the injected drivers to realize that the playing field had changed since last year. None of them qualified for the event and, in fact, no injected car has qualified at any IHRA event this year.

Keith Stark
Keith Stark was the last of the injected cars to join the party when he made his Top Fuel debut at the Virginia event. His 5.31 second qualifying run there stands as the low elapsed time of the year for any injected car. When it became evident that it was not possible for an unblown car to qualify for Top Fuel, Keith undertook a secret development program to investigate the use of nitrous oxide on his Top Fueler.

Encouraging test results caused him to petition the IHRA to allow him to demonstrate the viability of a nitrous-on-nitro combination. While running his new combination at the national event in Milan, at his own expense, he performed well enough to convince the IHRA tech officials that the combination was at least viable and wouldn’t oil the track every time a run was attempted.

Like a lot of things in drag racing, the early results were just encouraging enough to give hope. Once he began to apply serious pressure the weak links exposed themselves one by one, leading to disappointing short term results while always holding out the carrot of better times ahead. Ironically, Keith’s best elapsed time of the year (5.31 seconds) was turned before he began his nitrous odyssey. He remains committed to the concept, however, and so does the IHRA. Expect to see Keith at Rockingham with new pistons as he continues this ongoing saga.

Mike Janis
Last year Mike Janis skipped the Edmonton race and yet finished a close second to Mitch Stott in the Pro Modified World Championship. Even a first round loss at Edmonton would have been enough to snare the title for him if he had chosen to travel northward. When he chose to skip Edmonton again this year I had to wonder if he was a glutton for disappointment. However, he has already locked up his second Pro Mod title (to go with the one that he won in 2001) so he must have had the right plan all along.

The never ending debate in Pro Mod is the supercharged versus nitrous engine debate. Each side will tell you why they are the persecuted side, but I’ve got news for you. Last year, a supercharged car won the world championship and the top 10 finishers in P/M points were evenly divided with five of each engine combination appearing there. After an early season rules change that some felt would be disastrous for the supercharged cars we now find ourselves at the same point this year. Amazingly, with one race to go there are five nitrous and five supercharged cars in the top 10 just like last year. So much for a lack of parity.

The first of the pro championship battles that is yet to be decided can be found Funny Car. Mark Thomas sprinted out to an early lead when he won the first four events of 2004 but defending F/C World Champ Rob Atchison has slowly reeled him in. With one race to go they are separated by just 18 points out of a combined total of more than 2,000. No one
John Nobile
else is in the battle so these two will settle it at the Rock.

An even tighter chase remains in Pro Stock where the lead is only 10 points. John Nobile leads fellow New Yorker John Montecalvo, 781 points to 771 points. If they both show up, and I expect them to, they should put the battle out of reach for anyone else and decide it among themselves. There are some mathematical possibilities for Brian Gahm and Elijah Morton but most likely one of the J & J boys will be the new P/S world champion.

And now, without further ado, here come the first-ever Lukeys. May I have the envelopes please:

Rookie of the Year: Doug Foley. This NHRA ex-patriot started quietly but has now claimed three iron men in his first season of Top Fuel competition.

John Montecalvo
Most Improved: Rick DiStefano. This 26 year-old driver has come from nowhere, both literally and figuratively, to currently stand in second place in the Pro Mod points.

Best Engineered: Keith Stark. No one doubts that Keith can make an untried and unproven combination competitive, but can he do it before his money runs out?

Best Paint: Eddie Ware. His 1941 Willys Pro Modified sports one of the most beautiful paint schemes I’ve ever seen. It can basically be described as torn carbon fiber, an oxymoron in itself. The effect however, is stunning and the color choices are ideal.

Most Improved Event: Milan. After the disappointments of last year Bill Kapolka and crew vowed to be better prepared this year. Were they ever!

Most Disappointing Event: Edmonton. After a long tow and border hassles the racers faced the most inhumane weather and pit conditions imaginable. To add insult to injury the sun finally came out at 9:00 on Sunday night just as the Sportsman racers were about to begin their eliminations. With it setting just beyond the shut down area the racers were forced to wait one more hour until it was dark enough for racing to begin. Probably the only event ever to be sun-delayed in the history of racing.

Hard Luck Award: Jeff Burnett. Jeff won the event at Edmonton and then spent several weeks and most of his winnings trying to reenter the USA due to an immigration snafu.

Sportsman of the Year, Peter Lehman. How anyone this young and this successful remains humble is beyond me. Instead of being the 800-pound gorilla of the pits he is a genuine nice guy, always eager to help his fellow competitors.