The NHRA season opener at Moroso Motorsports Park in South Florida proved to be one of the most memorable in the event's history.
Unfortunately, it was an experience some would rather quickly forget. The amount of accidents, breakages and mishaps were uncommonly high but the likes of Stephan Papadakis, Ed Bergenholtz, Paul Efantis, Ron Lummus and Shawn Hillier all enjoyed favorable results leading each to the winner's circle.
When you come to Florida, hot temperatures and a glaring sun are expected but instead the first day of qualifying started off with a massive downpour. But as one of the locals put it, "This is Florida, we'll be racing by afternoon." And sure enough the sun peered through the clouds and qualifying commenced. Well almost. With a strong Puerto Rican presence, rotaries of all types of models and configurations pummeled the staging lanes. As luck would have it, the high pitched wankel engines had a hard time keeping themselves together or keeping it straight down the track and several accidents and oil downs occurred pushing qualifying back even further.
Because of this only two qualifying rounds were run on Saturday and the all-important third round was pushed to Sunday morning, which helped the racing action as warmer weather and better track conditions prevailed. The All-Motor class picked up right where they left off last year running flat 10-second passes. Topping the qualifier list was none other than '04 All Motor champion Jesus Padilla and his '85 Mazda RX-7 running a 10.081 @ 132 mph. Just a fraction behind him, 10.083 @ 130 mph, was newcomer Shawn Hillier driving the Skunk2 Racing '04 Acura RSX. The VW powered '69 Fastback of Scott Kelly rounded out the top three with a 10.23 @ 128 mph. It's noteworthy that seven of the 10 qualifiers were all in the 10-second range proving how competitive this class has really become.
Next up came the Hot Rod class where the Turbo by Garrett Sunfire of Ron Lummus clicked off the only sub 8-second pass, 7.99 @ 182 mph, of the weekend in Hot Rod shooting him straight up to the top of the qualifying list. Gary Gardella's new Ecko Apparel-sponsored Chevy Cobalt ran consistent low 8-second passes, good enough for second qualifier. The always-likable Kenny Tran put his Quaker State Honda Civic in third place.
The Modified Class had a nice surprise: Ali Afshar showed up with a completely stock, 300 mile, off the dealer lot, '05 Subaru STi and had all the necessary safety equipment installed to be able to run in the class. This left many scratching their heads but as Afshar put it, "My drag car isn't ready and to qualify for the POWERade Series event in two weeks you need to run at this event so we did what we needed to do." And we all commend Afshar on his determination to race no matter what. Afshar was unable to make the top eight qualifiers but Lucas Oil's Paul Efantis in the Toyota Solara proved why he is last year's champion setting the pace with a mid 7-second pass. Two local heroes, Carlos Perez in his Mazda RX-7 and Luis Ferrer Jr. in a '98 Toyota Celica made their mark by qualifying second and third respectively.
The Pro FWD class was missing two time champion Nelson Hoyos; his new drag car is not yet complete so the door was left wide open for someone else to take top spot. Jason Hunt and his '03 Saturn Ion did just that by qualifying first with a 7.92 @ 187 mph. The ladder was completed with the Mazda6 of Ed Bergenholtz running 8.76 @ 161 mph and Marty Ladwig's off-pace 12.32 @ 72 mph. It's obvious that Ladwig has been plagued with problems in his new Chevy Cobalt ride as he failed to make a single pass under full power.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Matt Hartford's Summit Racing twin turbo'd Chevy Cavalier laid all 1,600 force fed ponies down the entire 1/4 mile track to a 6.54 @ 212 mph! The mph was a potential NHRA record but Hartford was unable to back it up in eliminations. Ara Arslanian's new HKS 3.4L stroker equipped Toyota Solara was right behind Hartford with a 6.64 @ 202 mph, good enough for second spot. Matt Scranton's Ride Revolution-sponsored Toyota Celica made its way into third with a 6.77 @ 207 mph. It wasn't all good news though. T&T Motorsports' Celica was attempting to make a final round qualifying pass when the car lost control and B-lined for the wall. After some amazing aerial acrobatics and a huge dust cloud, the driver walked away but the same can't be said for the car, which is a total write-off.
Soon after the Celica's mishap, a spectacular accident at the end of the drag strip saw a local rotary roll numerous times in mid-air causing a stoppage of the racing action. Thankfully the driver was uninjured.
When everything seemed to settle down, the Pro RWD class round one eliminator seemed to go off without a hitch, well almost. The last pair to run were AEM-sponsored Stephan Papadakis in his Honda Civic and Ride Revolution's Toyota Celica piloted by Tirso San Juan. After Papadakis smoked the tires, San Juan seemed like he was in for an easy victory but at mid-track the Celica got out of the groove and San Juan tried to pedal it out but to no avail. The car picked up like a paper airplane and landed on its roof skidding past the finish line. San Juan walked away but his car didn't. That meant Papadakis would advance to the next round.
This turn of events seemed to spark the AEM squad as the Civic made easy work of Henry Garcia's '99 Lexus in round two to meet up with Matt Scranton in the finals. Riding the high, Papadakis was unstoppable and blew the tires off Scranton with an impressive 6.54 @ 210 mph straight into the winner's circle. Scranton's pass was by no means slow but 7.01 @ 191 mph wasn't enough on this day.
The Pro FWD final saw Jason Hunt's Saturn ION versus Ed Bergenholtz' Mazda6. Both cars took off hard. Hunt seemed to have a slight lead but at mid-track he suffered a shredded front slick, which pushed him past the centerline while Bergenholtz cruised to an 8.56 @ 162 mph pass and the victory. The crowd went absolutely wild. This is Bergenholtz' first ever Wally. His brother Ron was so overwhelmed he fell to his knees and shed some tears of joy. A big round of congratulations goes out to the entire team. These guys have been working extremely hard as a team with little to no funding and have finally beaten the big dogs.
Paul Efantis made easy work of Ken Scheepers' new Mazda RX8 which stalled at the line in the first round of eliminations. In round two, the gorgeous looking Lexus GS300 of Justin Humphreys proved to be a serious competitor in Modified and gave Efantis a serious run for his money. In the closest race of the weekend, Humphreys laid down a 7.379 @ 184 mph but Efantis' Solara tripped the lights at a fractional quicker 7.373 @ 189 mph! The crowd loved every second of the side-by-side race and gave the GS300 some serious props for such an impressive run. The final was also a close one as well. Efantis looked clean mid-track against Ferrer Jr. but Efantis got out of the groove and still managed to somehow pedal the car back to victory with an 8.02 @ 135 mph versus 8.16 @ 158 mph.
Despite Kenny Tran's valiant effort to knock out Gardella's Chevy Cobalt and take on the venerable Sunfire of Ron Lummus in the Hot Rod finals, it wasn't meant to be. Tran's Civic gave it its all but came up short running an 8.33 @ 172 mph to Gardella's 8.23 @ 171 mph. This made for an all GM final. Gardella seems to have grasped driving the Cobalt's hydromatic transmission just fine but would it be enough to take down the fastest man in Hot Rod? Both the Sunfire and Cobalt left the lights like bats out of hell. From afar they looked dead even. The timing lights illuminated. Gardella ran his best pass of the weekend, an 8.18 @ 173 mph. Would it be enough? Not today. Lummus was slightly better running an 8.11 @ 175 mph. Nevertheless, Gardella must be pleased with his first NHRA outing in the Cobalt but Lummus looks unstoppable right now; the Sunfire hasn't shown any signs of weakness.
The 10-car All-Motor field dwindled down to two finalists. Jesus Padilla, a man of many victories, is considered a veteran in the All-Motor class. The other, Shawn Hillier is a rookie driver in search for his first Wally. As the Skunk2 Racing Acura RSX lined up against the rotary powered Mazda RX-7, a sense of old school versus new school technology came to mind. The RSX sported Honda's latest K-series engine while the RX-7 represented Mazda's tried and true mechanically fuel injected rotary.
As the light lit green, the veteran Padilla got the whole shot as the RSX trailed not far behind. It seemed like Hillier's Acura had more juice as it chased down Padilla and took the lead right before the finish line running a 9.95 @ 135 mph to Padilla's 9.98 @ 132 mph. But as everyone had their eyes glued at the end of the racetrack only a few noticed that Padilla had red-lighted giving Hillier his first Wally. Regardless of the red light the race was definitely a crowd pleaser as was the entire race weekend.