In the sport of NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing, Cory McClenathan has been there and done that.
He's been on fire, flipped upside down and walked away from spectacular wild rides. He's won races at just about every track on the circuit and chased the world championship title into the sunset many times. He knows what a good hot rod is supposed to feel like just by easing into the throttle.
He can also tell when all the pieces are in place for a very good race team to become great.
So that's why he's excited about the opportunity in front of him in 2009.
McClenathan has embraced a new crew on his 7,000 horsepower FRAM Tough Guard dragster, led by co-crew chiefs Phil Shuler and Todd Okuhara, and they are quickly hitting their stride. In just five events they have produced two final round appearances, allowing McClenathan to display the driving form that has led him to 30 victories in 53 final round appearances and four second-place championship points finishes during his 18-years behind the wheel.
"They make this FRAM car go down the track," McClenathan said. "It will go from A to B all the time and it can run with everybody else. And everybody realizes that."
Even with all that experience, past success and strong early season performances McClenathan is sometimes overlooked as one of the favorites in his category. However, hardcore fans and his opponents know that McClenathan is always a major threat to win.
That's especially true at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Southern Nationals, April 16-19 at Atlanta Dragway, where the intense and focused driver has had much past success. Antron Brown, Ashley Force Hood, Mike Edwards and Andrew Hines are the defending winners in their respective categories at the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series event that will be televised on ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD.
McClenathan, the top qualifier at this event one year ago, is a three-time winner at the popular Georgia drag strip. His last win here came in 2004. He also posted victories in 1995 and 1998.
"There's something about going to a track where you've done well that excites you," McClenathan said. "We've had a good time there, we've always done well there, qualified well, won a lot of races there. You feel a lot more comfortable going to a track that you've had a lot of success at."
After racing to runner-up finishes this year at Gainesville and Houston, McClenathan is hungry to finish the deal and give his former Funny Car tuners their first victory in Top Fuel. He's also looking to improve on his fifth place points position in the NHRA Full Throttle Countdown to the Championship.
"These guys are jelling very well," McClenathan said. "You'd never have thought two races ago that these were all Funny Car guys working on a Top Fuel car. They're adapting very well. They've had help from [DSR team manager] Lee Beard, but Todd and Phil run this car. They run it the best and the safest way they can. They make me feel very at home, very comfortable in this race car. So, I'm excited."
And McClenathan is ready for the long haul. A second-place points finisher four times previously, he knows what it takes to contend for a championship. This season, he hopes to get the job done and finally put that No. 1 on the side of his dragster. He doesn't expect one car to run away with the title this year like Tony Schumacher has done in recent seasons. His competitive fire burns red hot and he likes his chances.
"I think you're going to see different winners this year," McClenathan said. "You're not going to see one team winning six, seven, eight races. That's just not going to happen. This year you're going to see a lot more parity in the class than we've had in the past two years.
"It will definitely make it interesting for the fans, interesting for the race teams and it's going to come down to the best tuner/driver relationship. The more the tuners and the drivers communicate the better the teams will be each and every weekend. And it's going to get tougher as we get along."
Schumacher has already won back-to-back races, and Larry Dixon has proved that his new Al-Anabi Racing team is going to be a major threat to the title. Rookie Shawn Langdon has shown great potential in his Dixie Chopper/Lucas Oil dragster. And, meanwhile, defending race winner Brown has led the point standings and Brandon Bernstein has also posted two runner-up finishes. And you can't forget about Pomona winner Doug Kalitta and another promising rookie, Spencer Massey.
It's a crowded playing field with a heavy list of favorites that can sometimes make a well-decorated veteran driver feel like - well, an underdog.
A confident McClenathan thrives in that role.
"I find that kind of funny, actually," he said. "Every time we come up they know we're a car that's to be reckoned with. They know they have to beat us because 90 percent of the time we're going to go from A to B. I truly believe that we're definitely the underdog here. If we weren't, they wouldn't be forgetting about us. At the same time it's one of those things where it's fun to kind of slide in underneath the radar and jump up and surprise some of these guys. And that's exactly what we plan on doing. It's funny to listen to them talk about Larry Dixon, Tony Schumacher, Brandon's right in there with them, and Antron. It's funny because they forget some of the other players, such as ourselves. They certainly know that we can go out there and run the numbers."
And in NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing it is all about the numbers - from the winning elapsed times to the final point standings in the Countdown to the Championship. McClenathan feels like his Don Schumacher-owned team has the talent and resources to compete at the top level and produce the numbers it takes to win races and championship titles.
"At times it's kind of fun to fly underneath the radar, but that's only going to happen for so long, because this FRAM Tough Guard car is going to stand up and start showing its muscle," McClenathan said. "Pointswise they'll figure it out pretty soon if they haven't already."
In Funny Car, Force Hood will try to defend her event title with a little more confidence as she recently claimed her second race victory with a win in Houston in her Castrol GTX Ford Mustang. However, in order to do it she'll need to hold off red-hot Ron Capps, current points leader and winner of three races this season in his NAPA Dodge Charger. Rookie Matt Hagan advanced to his first final in Las Vegas and is hungry for a win. Others to watch include 14-time world champ John Force who is a seven-time winner at Atlanta Dragway. Two-time world champ Tony Pedregon has won this event three times.
Warren Johnson has raced to five Pro Stock victories at his home track, his last win here coming in 2003. Greg Anderson also has proven that he has the right combination for the Georgia track with three victories in his Summit Racing Pontiac GXP. One of the hottest drivers on the circuit is Edwards, the defending winner who has claimed three No. 1 qualifying positions this season in his very quick ART Pontiac GXP. Vegas winner, defending champ and current points leader Jeg Coughlin, who won this race in 2000, also seems to be hitting his stride in his JEGS.com Chevy Cobalt. Other past Pro Stock winners here that are included in the favorites this weekend include Allen Johnson, Kurt Johnson and Larry Morgan.
While Hines is the defending winner in Pro Stock Motorcycle, the two winners so far this season are a couple of veterans - Hector Arana and Craig Treble. Points leader Matt Smith has been fast on his Schumacher Racing-owned Nitro Fish Ultimate Gear Suzuki and currently leads the point standings, but hasn't came through with a victory yet. He'll be battling the others, along with rookie Douglas Horne, two-wheel showman Steve Johnson and defending world champ Eddie Krawiec for the Atlanta win.SCHEDULE:
Pro qualifying sessions are scheduled for 3 and 5:30 p.m. on Friday, April 17, and 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 18. Final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday, April 19.TICKETS:
Tickets are available for the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Southern Nationals by calling NHRA at (800) 884-NHRA (6472) or via ticketmaster.com.ON TV:
ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise two hours of qualifying highlights at 6 p.m. (ET) on Saturday April 18. NHRA Race Day, a 30-minute pre-race show, will air at 11 a.m. (ET) on Sunday, April 19 also on ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD. ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will feature three hours of eliminations coverage at 7 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, April 19.LUCAS OIL SERIES:
The Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Southern Nationals also will feature competition in five categories in the NHRA Lucas Oil Series, where the future stars of the NHRA Full Throttle Series earn their racing stripes. Lucas Oil Series qualifying begins at 9 a.m. on April 16. Lucas Oil Series eliminations begin at 8 a.m. on April 17.Source: NHRA