By JUDY BRINKMANN
For the Republic-Times
The NHRA MelloYello Countdown to the Championship made its stop at Gateway Motorsports Park this past weekend. Three days of non-stop drag racing sights, sounds, the smell of nitro fuel and souvenirs galore.
Madison, IL was the third stop in the Countdown, with four more events to determine the Champions of each category Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycles.
After the AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals, the points leaders in Top Fuel are Shawn Langdon, Doug Kalitta, Spencer Massey and Tony Schumacher; in Funny Car the top five are Matt Hagen, John Force, Jack Beckman, Robert Hight and Cruz Pedregon.
In the Pro Stock division, Mike Edwards, Jeg Coughlin Jr., Jason Line, Erica Enders-Stevens and Shane Gray are the top five and in Pro Stock Motorcycles Matt Smith, Hector Arana Jr., Hector Arana Sr., Michael Ray and Eddie Krawiec round out the top five points leaders.
In its second year of ownership by Curtis Francois, Gateway continues to make improvements to the track, the grounds and accommodations for the racers, the media and most of all, the fan experience.
Friday and Saturday, the fans had ample opportunity to watch their favorite drivers on the track and in the pits. NHRA is the most fan friendly sport, allowing open access to the drivers and their teams with no extra charge to admission.
Sunday topped off the experience as fans were led by Robert Hight walking the length of the drag strip and back. The pits are open to the public and the drivers are accessible all three days, signing autographs and posing for photos, for what seems to be hours on end. Fans are reminded on Sunday however, that the drivers have a job to do and if they don’t give you an autograph, they’re not ignoring you, just focusing on the job at hand.
And what a job they had, with optimal track conditions Friday and Saturday then on Sunday with cooler temperatures, track records and personal best times and speeds were bound to be set.
The drivers that did not take home a Wally, were certainly disappointed, but the fans and the drivers on stage in the Winners’ Circle were all smiles at the end of the day. Antron Brown won in the Top Fuel category, making it two years in a row that he’s taken home the Wally from Gateway. John Force, a 15 time NHRA Champion in Funny Car collected his 136th Wally on Sunday. Erica Enders-Stevens drove her Pro Stock Chevrolet Camaro to the Winners Circle and like Antron, made it two years in a row that she has won at Gateway. Matt Smith rounded out the field; solidly holding on to 1st place in the countdown for Pro Stock Motorcycles.