Due to freak wet-weather conditions, the opening event of the 2003 NHRA sport compact season in Las Vegas was cancelled and rescheduled for July 25 and 26. Mother Nature continued to mess with the racers when they turned up in Sin City for the rerun. On Friday morning, high winds and unheard-of rain pelted the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but the weather cleared in time for the action to commence that night.
The qualifying sessions on Friday night involved a few upsets and plenty of action. In the All-Motor Class, championship leader Ken Scheepers looked to have the pole sewn up with the RX7.com Mazda until Scott Mohler in his Dodge Neon beat him in the final session with a 10.657 against a 10.676. Jesus Padilla claimed third place, followed by Leslie Durst in her Honda and Scott Kelley in this VW.
The Hot Rod Class was a packed field. Not surprisingly, Marty Ladwig claimed pole position with an 8.736 at 164.49 in the Pontiac Sunfire, followed by Mike Crawford in the Neon with an 8.964. Gary Gardella posted a 9.017 to claim the third spot and behind him was Lance Ho Lung and J.J. Olsen in fourth and fifth, respectively.
Team Quaker State driver Kenny Tran was looking for the tune-up and ended up in sixth but was confident his performance would improve. "Norwood is confident he has got a handle on the conditions now," Tran said. "The altitude, along with the weird humidity has played havoc with everyone, that's why the times are a little off. I guess we will find out when we go into eliminations if we are on target."
The 2003 season has seen a great battle in the Modified Class between Team Venom's Jimmy O'Connor and Cesar Febus in his old-school 300ZX. So far, Febus seems to have the upper hand, but in Las Vegas, Jimmy O'Connor clinched the number one position with a flying 8.194 at 164.75 mph in the Venom Supra. Febus was close behind with an 8.223 at 165.99, setting up another two-way battle for the "Wally."
The Pro FWD class has been an interesting class to watch this year, as several new cars have been debuted with great results. At the end of the day Chris Rado was the top qualifier. He proved to the doubters that his radical Toyota Celica has what it takes to win, he just needs to fix the transmission problems that have plagued the World Racing team this year. After posting an 8.462 at 176.21 mph Rado was a happy camper. "I know we've got what it takes to be winners in this class," he said. "We're making more than enough horsepower, but we're having trouble with the shifting mechanism on our Fortin transaxle. Some of the other teams seem to have a handle on it and we just need to find out what they are doing right. Shaun Carlson is helping us out and I am confident he'll figure out where we are going wrong. All the same, it's great to be on pole and I couldn't be happier."
Dr. Charles Madrid claimed the second spot with teammate Ed Bergenholtz in third. Championship leader Nelson Hoyos qualified fourth, but the GM team is hard at work so he will still be a threat in the eliminations.
Meanwhile, the rear-wheel-drive ground-pounders were putting on a show for the Vegas crowd. 2003 has been a great year for Ara Arslanian and his Streetglow-backed Bullish racing squad so far. Ara had a few problems in Vegas but managed to squeeze into the field in the final session with an 8.074 at 157.96 mph.
George Ioannou took the other Solara to the top spot with a 6.954 at 202.73 mph. In second place was veteran Abel Ibarra behind the wheel of his K&N RX7. Ibarra ran a 7.129 at 193.96 mph and Stephan Papadakis clinched the third spot with a 7.196 at 195.08 mph.
Despite wacky weather conditions, eliminations turned up a few shocking results. The first upset in the All-Motor Class came when championship leader Ken Scheepers was beaten in the second round by Jeremy Lookofsky. Scheepers was slow to react with a .743 light and Lookofsky capitalized on that to win with a 10.978 at 123.19 mph.
Lookofsky was beaten in a semifinal race against Jesus Padilla, while on the other side of the ladder, Scott Mohler dispatched Leslie Durst in a great race where Durst post a 10.526 against Mohler's winning 10.506.
The final round was not a good one for the current champion, Jesus Padilla. He lit the red, leaving Scott Mohler to win with a 10.708 at 129.97 mph. Mohler gained valuable ground in the points chase against Ken Scheepers and was happy to claim a Wally for the Mopar squad.
"I really needed a win and luckily, Ken was out early in the event. Now I need to continue this into the next couple of events. Then we will have a real battle for the championship," said Mohler.
The Hot Rod Class was again the scene for some great racing. The first shock of the day came when championship leader Marty Ladwig took a hard left turn into the wall at the 60-foot mark in his first round appearance. A ball-joint had snapped and Ladwig was a passenger as the Pontiac Sunfire ground to a halt against the concrete. Ladwig was un-hurt, but this loss opened the door for his championship rivals, Mike Crawford and Kenny Tran, to gain some points on the GM team.
Tran responded by taking out veteran Myles Bautista in the first round and raised his performance level to beat Gary Gardella in round two with an 8.823 at 164.43 mph against a 9.166 at 123.38 mph.
Meanwhile, Crawford had a solo pass in the first round and lined up against the Arospeed Civic of "The Bear" Bermea in the second round. Unfortunately, Bermea trashed his transmission after the burnout and Crawford ran a gentle 10.654 to cruise into a semifinal match-up against Tran. Lance Ho Lung was flying as well. His second round race saw him run an awesome 8.576 at 167.82 mph to take out J. J. Olson. In his semifinal race, Ho Lung ran another 8.5-second pass to beat Venom's Bruce Mortensen and claim his final round spot against the winner of the other semi.
The Tran vs. Crawford semi was a thriller. Tran got the early advantage with a .508 light against Crawford's .535 and from that point Crawfords's Neon was chasing down the Quaker State Honda Civic. At the line, both cars stopped the clocks with an 8.906, so Tran took the victory thanks to the holeshot. "That was a little too close for comfort," Tran said. "I could see Mike creeping up out of the corner of my eye and I didn't have any idea who had won until I picked up the timeslip.
The final was another reason for the Quaker State crew to celebrate Tran's razor sharp reactions. Tran left with a .428 against Ho Lung's .611. From that point it was all Tran as the Quaker State car pulled away from Ho Lung's ailing Civic to take the win with an 8.650 at 166.29 mph.
The Modified Class was basically a two-horse race with Venom's top qualifier Jimmy O'Connor and Cesar Febus the only real contenders at Las Vegas' strip. The final round was anticlimactic. O'Connor couldn't race due to mechanical problems, leaving Febus to make a solo pass to take the win. Febus did not disappoint the fans. His 8.608 pass at 172.17 mph had the crowd on its feet and cheering as Febus claimed yet another 2003 win.
The Pro FWD Class was another mechanical breakage-fest. First to go was top qualifier Chris Rado in the first round. After completing his burnout, Rado's transmission refused to engage a gear and he was pushed back. His opponent Jerold Rhodes also had a glitch after the burnout so both cars eliminated themselves in a weird double loss.
Next to fall was Shaun Carlson. He failed to show for his second round race against Charles Madrid. Madrid ran a gentle 12.421 to claim a final round place.
Nelson Hoyos Finally found an answer to clutch problems that had kept him off the pace and ran a good solo pass in the semi. His 8.480 at 180.43 mph was the best e.t. of the weekend for the GM team.
Breakages played a role in the final as well. Madrid was unable to stage his CRX, so Hoyos ran another solo pass. Hoyos didn't take it easy and posted an awesome 8.404 at 181.69 mph on his way to claim yet another victory and consolidate his championship leading position.
The first round of Pro RWD action was the scene of some great performances. In a veterans match-up, Adam Saruwatari took out Abel Ibarra when Ibarra's RX-7 slowed at the big end. Saruwatari posted a 7.700 at 184.02 against Ibarra's 8.613 at 147.75 mph.
Steph Papadakis crept closer to the landmark 6-second, 200-mph club when he busted off a 7.009 at 197.31 mph against Grant Downing in the first round.
The Streetglow double-act of Ara Arslanian and George Ioannou put on an awesome side-by-side show as both Solaras ran in the two hundreds. Arslanian took the win with a 7.017 at 200.20 mph against Ioannou's 7.135 at 201.13 mph. In the semis, Steph Papadakis lined his AEM Civic up against the NSX of Adam Saruwatari. Papadakis had too much for Saruwatari as he blasted to the win with a 7.680 against an 8.143.
In the other semi, Ara Arslanian lined up against Matt Scranton in his Turbonetics Celica. As the tree dropped Scranton's motor broke and he just managed to roll through the lights. What should have been an easy win for Arslanian was ruined when Ara lit the red light and threw away an easy victory.
Matt Scranton was unable to make it to the line for the final but Stephan Papadakis had plenty of excitement in store for the fans. When the tree dropped, Papadakis launched hard and straight. His time came up on the scoreboard and the fans went nuts-Stephan Papadakis had finally joined the exclusive ranks of the 6-second, 200-mph club, with an amazing 6.900 at 200.56 mph.
Papadakis was smiling from ear-to-ear as he picked up his well-deserved Wally. "Wow, I can't believe that we have finally done it," he said. "That was an awesome pass and now we know we can compete with anyone in our class. I am ready to celebrate tonight."
The Las Vegas event was a great one, despite iffy weather conditions. The fans came out in force and the stars of the NHRA Sport Compact Series gave them a large helping of top-flight racing action.