The 2016 racing season is in the books. The older I get, the faster these events, weekends, and seasons seem to go by. It’s funny; I race a whole lot less than I used to, and yet as I look up in December, I wonder where 2016 went! As I look back on our racing season, I can’t help but think it’s been an incredible year. In reality, it’s been an incredible 4 years. Think about it for a minute… In 2013 I won the NHRA Super Comp World Championship: the highlight of just about any racers career. A year later, I took the stage in Hollywood again, this time as the Super Gas champ. In 2015, I managed to put together a run for the ages: in a stretch that lasted from August into October, I won every single time I staged in NHRA Super Comp. For 29 rounds that included winning the U.S. Nationals, 2 more national events, and a divisional race, I never saw a winlight in the opposite lane. It’s a crazy run, one that I’m not sure had ever been accomplished prior, and I honestly doubt will be duplicated in this day and age. And this season, while we didn’t have any real success on the NHRA tour, I enjoyed an incredible year along the big buck bracket tour; highlighted by the series championship (and the second place finish in another entry) within the DragRaceResults.com Ultimate Series. All the while, I’ve been able to enjoy almost all of that success alongside the people that I care most about: my wife left her job to be a stay-at-home Mom, and she and our son Gary have been by my side every step of the way: from Brainerd, MN to Las Vegas, NV. It’s been an unbelievable time and to be honest, it’s pretty amazing when I step back and think about it all.
When I started this column back 17 years ago, I never dreamed I’d enjoy this level of success. In that age, this was a timely method of keeping you all; my friends, competitors, and fans up to date with what was going on in my world. Today, social media diminishes that impact to an extent. Now you can keep up with what we’re doing on a weekly (sometimes daily, or hourly) basis by following us on social media. But On the Road still provides a unique opportunity to tell the finer points of the story (in over 144 characters), so I still love to write these (and I plan to make more regular installments in 2017), and I hope that you enjoy reading them. Social media is also a great place to let me know what you think about this column, and all that we’re doing really. Interact; whether you’re praising my work or giving me down the road – I enjoy the feedback.
In picking up where we left off… After a summer that was largely spent away from the race track (at times by choice, and often because we couldn’t seem to dodge the rain drops), we made what’s become an annual journey to Brainerd, MN. We left early enough to spend a day at the Mall of America. We’ve done that for the past couple years. My wife loves to shop (shocker, huh?), and little Gary digs the roller coasters and rides. Plus there’s easy, convenient parking for the rig and good eats (those keep me happy), so everyone wins.
Once we got to the track, Tommy Phillips and I hosted our final Super Seminar of the 2016 season for a small, but eager and active crowd. As usual, the seminar was a blast; thanks again to everyone who attended, and to the staff at BIR for accommodating our request.
Racing action started ominously. We were parked on a dirt road, about as far from the race track as possible (in an area that I didn’t even realize was part of the property). Following our first Super Comp time trial on Thursday, I looked at the sky. There was weather on the way, and I could see the clouds forming, but all accounts were that the wet stuff was over an hour away. So I went ahead to the staging lanes when Super Gas was called for their first session. That was a bad call. I ended up in the worst spot possible: when the skies opened I was literally dead in the middle of the staging lanes: four rows of cars to the left, the right, in front, and behind. By the time I turned the car around and pointed for the dirt road, I was completely soaked (it was the first time I was wishing I had a S/G car with a roof)!
To make matters worse, I knew I was returning to a trailer where two beautiful, and immaculately prepared dragsters were sitting outside in a muddy monsoon. By the time we got loaded up, Jessica and I were both dripping wet; despite our efforts to dry everything, our seat pads, helmets, and fire suits were still moist on Sunday! Ewww!
Competition got off to a great start; by mid-morning on Saturday we had all three entries: my K&N Filters Dragster, Jessica’s American Race Cars Dragster, and my Racing RV’s Corvette still in competition heading into the quarterfinal round in each respective category. It went downhill from there. Jessica lost in the quarterfinals with a bad lamp. I was super proud of her – it was her best performance in a national event and very fun to watch! A couple pairs later, my friend and eventual event winner Austin Sharpe dispatched me in the same category. The Super Gas quarterfinal and my impending matchup with Tommy Phillips got bumped back to Sunday morning.
There, we left the starting line together, and just as my car was about to kick off the throttle stop, it labored. Before I could pull my foot off the accelerator, the throttle stop opened… Then, as the one and only Anthony Bertozzi would say, “That bitch blew up.” That was the end of that.
In conclusion: 3 entries in the quarterfinals (visions of grandeur and multiple Wally’s)… 0 entries in the semi-finals. 1 blown up bullet. 3 soggy helmets.
On the way home, I decided that the best way to improve our spirits was a good meal. Somewhere in MN, I made an exit for a Red Lobster (Jessica’s favorite). Let’s just say that the parking lot wasn’t designed for our Racing RV’s toterhome and Team K&N trailer! By the time I realized that, it was a little too late to do much about it. It was pretty dicey. Thankfully, no vehicles or individuals were harmed in the creation of this story. A few curbs, tires, and bushes are a little worse for the wear; and had there been a fire (or a fire marshal present) while we enjoyed dinner, it wouldn’t have been a good deal. Thankfully, once we finished our meal, the parking lot cleared out enough that I was able to get back on the road without issue. Just the way I drew it up (just ask my wife)!
I recruited my father-in-law Jack to come with us to Bowling Green, KY this following weekend, because I always con him into joining along for the fun stuff. All we had to do at BG was remove the blown up engine in the vette and replace it with my brand new bullet from Huntsville Engine. I’m pretty proud of the new all-aluminum SR20 598, to hear about the details check out the video here: https://www.facebook.com/pg/lukebogackimotorsports/videos/?ref=page_internal.
No big deal, right? It was only 98 degrees (it felt like 118). The project nearly killed us… Thanks Pop!
The weekend didn’t get much better from there. I missed on the converter and fought the ‘vette. I managed to advance to round 3 (holding a solid tenth) before showing that I wasn’t really good enough to overcome the inconsistency. In SC, Jessica and I both went a couple rounds, but nothing special. Jess and Jack headed home for a few days, and I pointed the rig North for the “Big Go.”
Indy didn’t start out well. I changed transmission and converter twice before I ever made a run (my fault; long story). Big thanks to Carl Watts for the use of his trailer and his help on the second go round! Then I turned it red in the opening round of Super Gas, and Jessica lost a tight race to Al Kenny in Super Comp. In my K&N Dragster, however, I got things rolling and felt pretty good about my chances for back-to-back Indy Super Comp titles (which has never been done, btw). I advanced to Monday’s final eliminations for the third time in four years. Monday at Indy is indescribable. It’s electric. It’s friggin awesome to be a part of!
When I let go of the switch in the semi-final round, my first thought was “That guy (in the other lane) can’t win!” I was .005, my opponent was .030. I was wrong. When my car kicked off the stop, it developed a slight miss that quickly turned into an exaggerated pop. I honestly don’t remember if I lifted or it shut off; prior to the 1/8th mile. The dream came to an abrupt end at the hands, of all things, of the bolts on the drive mandrel (that bolts to the balancer) sheering off. The crank trigger wheel came loose, and the belt for the mechanical fuel pump (and vacuum pump) were slung off.
While it was incredibly poor timing, I have no one to blame but myself. Checking those bolts is part of my regular, weekly procedure (which, in fact, I performed again on that day – Monday morning). Except the week prior to Indy, and certainly that morning, I failed to put a wrench on those bolts. The result was that after a second consecutive national event of driving pretty much “lights out,” I returned to the trailer on a tow rope. Not the way I drew it up!
That time of year, there’s no rest for the weary. After a quick stop at home (and a new balancer), we were Southbound to Memphis for the Moser Engineering Great American $50,000 Bracket Race. I was fired up about this event for a few reasons: 1.) bracket racing had been really good to me thus far in 2016. 2.) We were set to host the annual American Race Cars Shootout in conjunction with the event (a race I coordinate in which the winner takes home a $25,000+ American Race Cars dragster!), but most of all 3.) It provided me just my second opportunity of 2016 to drive my favorite race car: our RacerSwag Vega.
In fact, the first round of competition in the Vega, I posted a .001 package (it’s like a riding a bicycle)! Unfortunately, it went downhill from there. I went a few rounds on the weekend, but nothing spectacular in the Vega. In Friday night’s King of Memphis event, I drove my K&N Filters dragster to the final round before turning it red to Johnny Bracket Racing (that’s Johnny Ezell). In the $50k, I was driving pretty well and had both cars in with 20 cars remaining. In the span of 9 minutes, I put down a .015 package in the Vega and a .016 package in the dragster. Not only did those lead me to the trailer, they weren’t even close to turning on the win light!
That evening, Slate Cummings won the American Dragster Shootout, knocking out Clint Dishman in a marquee final round.
We went to Gateway (St. Louis) for the NHRA national event. We were there. That was the highlight. NEXT.
Back to Bowling Green:
After years of prodding from chassis builder Charlie Stewart, I decided it was time to bracket race our Racing RV’s Corvette. That’s the truth. From day 1, Charlie urged me to bracket race the ‘vette wide open. My argument was simple. “Why would I do that? I have a Vega (that I love). I have dragsters (that should be better bracket cars)! Why would I bracket race my Corvette?” Like a great many things in my life in retrospect; boy was I an idiot!
I tested on Thursday at I-57, basically just to make sure that I didn’t make an idiot of myself at Bowling Green. I wasn’t sure what to expect out of the ‘vette. I knew if I could make it to 100’, I’d be fine; it always drove great. But I had no idea what it would do leaving the starting line wide open. I went 4.89 on the first hit… And I came back to the trailer grinning from ear to ear. It’s a damn Cadillac; and it’s the most fun I’ve ever had in a race car. I should’ve listened to Charlie years ago!
Don’t believe me? I took it to Bowling Green for the Tenn-Tuck event. In the first round of Friday’s $10k, Ken Jones put a .009 package on me. In Friday night’s $5k “Little Bucks” race, it went 4.92 eight rounds in a row; straight to the winner’s circle. Did I mention that I’m an idiot? After four years of refusing to race the car wide open, I won the first day that I entered it! The best part? Every time my win light came on, I was JACKED! Not even so much because I won, but because that meant that I got to go back and do it again! Had I realized the car would be that good, or half that much fun, I’d have done this years ago!
It just got better. I didn’t enter Saturday’s $10k in the ‘vette (that was the one day I committed to driving my K&N Filters Dragster). In Saturday’s $5k “Little Bucks,” I won again in the Corvette. A cold front had blown in, and that night I was locked on 4.84. If it doesn’t come through in the text, guess what? 4.84 in a buggy is FUN! Sunday, I jumped in the $10k and advanced all the way to the final before losing to Josh Baker. For those keeping score; I lost the first time I staged in the ‘vette on Friday. And I lost the last time I staged on Sunday… But boy it was hell on ‘em in between (22 straight round wins)!
Just when I think the story can’t get any better, well, it did. I came into the final DragRaceResults.com Ultimate Series event in Huntsville leading the overall points standings by a fairly significant margin (I think I was 7+ rounds ahead) in my K&N Filters Dragster. I was also 7th in points with Jessica’s American Race Cars dragster, within striking distance of a top finish. As difficult as it was to park the Corvette after the incredible weekend in Bowling Green, I had done really well in the two dragsters at the previous DRR events, and elected to “Dance with the girl(s) that brought me.” It ended up being a good call.
On Friday, I advanced to the quarterfinal round of the $25K in my Team K&N machine before losing to Randy Scheuer (who went on to win). That late finish all but locked up the championship. I also advanced to the fifth round in Jessica’s car, moving a little bit closer to a strong points finish in it.
In the motorhome that night, I joked with my wife: “What I need to do, is just win the $50k tomorrow in your car, so I can finish first and second in the points.” I didn’t realize that’s nearly what would happen.
I failed to win a round in my K&N Filters dragster on Saturday, which left the door cracked for my pursuers for the series championship. But lo and behold, I did advance to the final round of the $50k before turning it red to Nick Ross. How red? Real red! When I let go in the final, I was -.001, but apparently I didn’t want to take a chance of turning it green, so I bumped down to -.013. Sweet!
Obviously, that was a great day in more ways than one. We won a bunch of money. The runner-up pushed me into a tie for second place in the series points standings. And it always feels great to go rounds against some of, if not the, toughest competition on the planet. The one downer was my failure to win a $50-grander. It’s one of the things on my racing bucket list. With that race, I’ve now been in four $50k-to-win final rounds. I’ve yet to win one (bridesmaid to Scotty Richardson at the inaugural World Footbrake Challenge, Brian Newport at the Ultimate 64 in 2010, and Gary Williams at the Great American Bracket Race in 2012).
Sunday was tense, as Thomas Bell and I battled it out for the top spots. When he lost in the opening round, it locked up the series championship for me. I won first round in both cars, putting me a round ahead for second place. After buying back, we matched one another round for round until he finally bowed out in round 5. I advanced to the quarterfinals in Jessica’s car before losing to eventual winner David “Bird” Jones. When it was all said and done, in the 2016 DRR Ultimate Series, we had won two $25,000 races, runner-upped in a $50,000 race, earned a complete rolling American Race Cars Dragster as the points champion, and a complete 598 cubic inch Oakley Motorsports engine for finishing second. That’s not a typo (I’m still trying to process it myself). I didn’t have a need for the car or the engine (both incredible pieces, by the way), and sold them both in short order. When it was all said and done, we won six figures… In three weekends at Huntsville along the DRR Ultimate Series.
I think it goes without saying, but I want to give a tip of the cap to Scott, Nicole, and Megan Lemen, along with TT and Angie at Huntsville Dragway and everyone who had a hand in the DragRaceResults.com Ultimate Series. Where else could an average guy earn that type of cash and prizes in three weekends? It was, without question (in my opinion) the best series of events for the racer of 2016. While they enjoyed a decent and loyal crowd, I hope that more racers support this series in 2017 and beyond. I’d urge everyone to do so: it’s the best deal in bracket racing today.
Eventually, I had to come back down to earth. As much as I’d have preferred this incredible run to last one more week, the 2016 Million Dollar Race was a humbling experience. The best finish that I could muster was a 7th round loss in Friday’s $25,000 event. After making pretty sensational runs in my K&N Filters Dragster I made a boneheaded mistake; wasting what was without question the best car on the grounds and losing to a run that should never beat me that late in the race. I staged knowing that I could go low 4.52, on a 4.52 dial-in. I told myself, if you can kill three thousandths, there’s NO WAY you’re going under. What do I do? Kill 3 HUNDREDTHS… to get a few thou behind. Brilliant!
In the big show, I entered both dragsters, but was done by round four thanks to Ron Lane and Stephen McCrory. The Million is my other bucket list feat; maybe someday. Not in 2016!
Southern Footbrake Challenge:
I gotta admit, I was really looking forward to our trip to Holly Springs, MS the week after the Million for the Southern Footbrake Challenge for several reasons. For one, I’ve spent a lot of time in that area, and looked forward to catching up with some old friends. Two: we talked Jessica’s sister into coming and racing (she had a good year racing locally). Her husband and their 5-year-old son Kyler came along. Three: we put Jennifer’s truck in the trailer with… the Vega! So I got to race it for the third time all season.
In retrospect, it wasn’t as fun as what I’d had in mind; not because Jed, Steve, and the SFC staff failed to do a great job – they did! And not just because I didn’t win (let’s be honest: I had Footbrake’d once all season. I felt like I could hold my own, but I didn’t expect to win). But it’s difficult to enjoy yourself when you get your brains beat in for 3 days. And that’s what I did!
Admittedly, I’m not the best Footbrake racer in the world. Especially in 2016, when I don’t get to do it very often. But I feel like I’m competitive. And in Holly Springs, I drove just about as well as I’m capable of driving. I was red a couple times. I was .030 once. Other than that, I had what I would consider to be competitive reaction times. My car was awesome. I drove the finish line as well as I’m capable. I lost far more rounds than I won. Seemingly everyone in the other lane was .015 or less total. I’m not exaggerating: the packages laid down in the lane beside me at Holly Springs were comparable (or tighter) than the packages laid down in the lane beside me the week prior at the Million. The Footbrake crowd is NASTY! My best performance of the weekend (double entered, I might add), was a round three appearance. Jennifer didn’t fair much better. We enjoyed the trip, and the boys had a blast, but whew – what a beat down!
After a couple of days at home, we loaded up the whole rig for what I figured would be our last event of the season (it wasn’t quite, see below): The World Series of Bracket Racing. The event was an absolute marathon for us, and not just because there were 500 entries on the grounds. We made the race even more of a marathon than it had to be. We’ve had Gary in a really cool program at our local high school. He and about a dozen other pre-K kids go to the High School for class once a week. It’s administered by a high school teacher, and several high school students who are interested in going into education. Well, Gary has class on Tuesday’s and Thursday’s, so we decided we’d take him to school on Thursday, and then hit the road.
It’s about 800 miles from Carterville, IL to Darlington, SC. And we lose an hour. And, as I’ve mentioned before, I get more OCD with every passing year; so rolling into the facility without a stop at the nearest truck wash was out of the question. We parked at about 2:30AM Friday morning. Thanks to Racing RV’s sponsorship of the event, we had a great parking spot: on the pavement, right next to the staging lanes. While it was a sweet spot for racing and visibility, It was also an awful parking spot for sleep. The races got started at 9 the next morning. With the exception of a few blissful hours of silence each morning, they did not stop until about 3 AM on Monday morning (with 500 entries and three races in three days, there’s just not much option but to race around the clock). Fatigue was definitely a factor (I was saying that seemingly a week later)!
Jessica and I both went a bunch of rounds in Darlington; we paid the tab but that was about all we could muster. I think I lost fifth our sixth round in one of the two cars (I drove the K&N Dragster and the Racing RV’s Corvette all weekend) each day, but they all kind of ran together to be completely honest! Jessica made nice laps, and went several rounds. Then, on the last race and the last day of the season… On her way to the staging lanes for round 2 her car dropped a valve. The irony is that we had already purchased a set of BRODIX SR20 Cylinder Heads, Jesel rockers, and Wiseco pistons for that motor – that was the planned winter upgrade. So, on one hand, it didn’t hurt anything that we didn’t already plan to replace. That part is good. On the other hand… I did intend to sell those heads, rockers, and maybe even pistons. So much for offsetting costs. Plus, she was driving awesome, and the race paid $25,000-to-win, so the implied costs have to be considered as well.
After the long ride home on Monday, we were content to call it a season. The Racing RV’s unit that we were using had been sold, so we returned it to the Dayton facility that week for some updates and final clean up. But, I soon realized that I had a couple motors that needed to go to Huntsville Engine. I had about a half dozen transmissions and converters that needed to go to BTE for freshen ups. And I had several carburetors and fuel pumps that I traditionally have the guys at APD go through each offseason. All of the folks I needed to see were going to Huntsville for the MVP $50,000 race. So I loaded up the team K&N machine for one last hurrah, and a massive parts delivery!
Huntsville (One last time):
Jessica had some business commitments at home, so Gary and I loaded up in my trusty (that’s code for 300,000 miles) Ford duallie and headed south! While we had a great time, my season long success at Huntsville did not continue. In the $50k main event, I advanced to the final 13 cars. When my car hit the tires alongside Todd Senseney that round, and my light turned green, I thought “I can’t lose!” Just like at Indy, I was wrong! My .004 reaction was trumped by his .003; and his .007 package was too strong. End. Of. Season.
We left the track and made the 5 mile drive to Huntsville Engine, where we tugged the motor out of the K&N machine. 300 short miles, and one stop at Cracker Barrell later, little guy and I were home safe and sound (and my wife feared it couldn’t be done)!
Sportsman Drag Racing Podcast:
That’s a wrap on the 2016 season. It was incredible and it was fun. For the most part, it was incredibly fun. Now that offseason is here, I’ve turned my attention to a handful of off-track, racing related projects. Not the least of which is the Sportsman Drag Racing Podcast, which Jared Pennington and I launched in late November. The show provides a weekly look at all things sportsman racing: we talk about the biggest stories and issues in our sport, and we shine the spotlight on several of the rock stars of our sport in weekly interviews. Jed and I are having a lot of fun with the podcast, and thus far it’s been extremely well received. If you haven’t already, subscribe to the Sportsman Racing Podcast on iTunes (don’t worry, it’s completely FREE):
It’s that time of year; we’re all already thinking about what’s next. I’m looking forward to 2017, and as far as I know all, or least the vast majority of the manufacturers and people that play a huge role in our success will be back onboard next season. But regardless of whether they are or not, I want to recognize their efforts for the past year – our marketing partners make our success possible and enable me to live the life I’ve always dreamed of, alongside my family every step of the way. Obviously, these folks wouldn’t be involved if we didn’t provide significant return on investment, but their support, generosity, and above all belief in our program never fails to humble me. I would hope at this point that you’re all familiar with our major marketing partners: K&N Filters, the title partner on my S/C Dragster; Racing RV’s, the title partner on my S/G Corvette; American Race Cars, the title partner on Jessica’s S/C Dragster; and RacerSwag, the title partner on my under-utilized Vega. Our associate partners don’t get as much recognition as they deserve. In 2016, those partners included: Watts Auto Diesel Service, Advanced Product Design (APD), JEGS, Bill Taylor Enterprises (BTE), Renegade Race Fuels, Mickey Thompson Tires, Ellis Trucking, Accelerated Graphics, AirTek, Flo-Fast, ThisIsBracketRacing, and Todd’s Extreme Paint. These are all incredible companies that we believe in. You should too. Contact them whenever you’re in need of their products or services (for parts, in most cases we’re a direct dealer – so you can get them direct through me as well).
For us, I have no significant offseason plans for our K&N Dragster or Racing RV’s Corvette; they’re both pretty new/fresh, and I was really happy with their performance. Jessica will have a new ride for 2017: a breathtaking American Race Cars dragster, dripping with chrome and the incredible attention to detail of Todd Zeller and his team at Todd’s Extreme Paint. The car is almost done at American, then it goes to Todd to work his magic. We hope to take delivery and begin final assembly in early February. To keep up with the build, follow us on Facebook and Instagram.
Probably the biggest news of our offseason is that I’ve decided to give the Vega the 2017 season off. When it returns to the track in 2018, I actually plan for it to be… Wait for it… Presentable! I love my Vega, and I feel like it’s a race car I’m going to keep for the rest of my career. Currently, I don’t have much opportunity to race it anyhow, so if there was a ever a time to give it a complete overhaul, this is it. We’re in the process of stripping it down, doing some long overdue updates, upgrading several parts and components, powdercoating, painting, etc. Crazy, huh? It’s time. I’m going to blog about the Vega Resurrection, so keep an eye out for links to that in an upcoming column here and on our social media accounts.
Thanks again for reading, merry Christmas and Happy New Year everyone!