KJ Jones Senior Technical Editor
December 1, 2006
Photos By: KJ Jones
Leo Johnson jockeyed Raggdoll Racing's flagship coupe to the Hot Street title, setting off a celebration we're sure could be heard back in the popular driver's hometown of St. Louis.

Horse Sense: "Night" racing (after 8 p.m.) at US 131 Motorsports Park goes down in near broad daylight during the summer. Martin, Michigan, is roughly 70 miles away from the imaginary line that separates the Eastern and Central time zones, and true nightfall doesn't set in until almost 10 p.m. Eternal light, indeed.

Racers, fans, and even a few dignitaries from Ford Motor Company converged on Martin, Michigan, to take another shot at getting the Toyo Tires NMRA Ford Nationals completed at US 131 Motorsports Park.

A mixture of rain, wind, and snow put a premature kibosh on the second running of the event in April 2005, and our Florida-bred editor, Steve Turner, scrambled back to warmer climates. Hopes were high that bad weather would stay clear of the Martin area during the '06 edition of the NMRA 'Stangfest at the beautiful, small-scale motorplex.

With clear skies, bright sunlight, and low-to-mid-80-degree temps, we had no doubt the race would run in its entirety, and every competitor was ready to prove that the NMRA's decision to reschedule the race to the middle of the summer was a good one. The racing action was exciting, despite relatively small car counts in some of the premier heads-up categories, with first-time (for 2006) finalists and first-time NMRA-event winners in several classes.

Unlike last year, where racers such as Manny Buginga, Charlie Booze Jr., and Gene Hindman were dominant points leaders in their respective classes at mid-season, the same can't be said about competitors in any category at the '06 season's intermission point, which tells us that thus far we have experienced some of the hottest, all-around 'Stangbanging competition and personal-best performances we've seen in a long time.

The madness at Martin was great from start to finish and we're willing to bet the remaining four NMRA events will be even better, as racers and race teams start making big moves toward earning championship jackets and rings.

Don Bowles introduced his new "Coal Digger" '06 'Stang at Martin. The Roush Industries-backed GT is a 9-second player in Modular Muscle, thanks to its Ford GT powerplant and Jerico four-speed transmission and the 67-year-old's driving skills. Don does kick the clutch pedal between shifts, which earned him low-qualifier honors in the always-tough class, with a 0.500 reaction time backed up by two other sub-0.520 lights, proving the double-zero was no fluke.

This awesome assemblage of the latest Mustang and Ford muscle was parked in the midway throughout the course of the weekend, and the Shelby GT 500s were occasionally tooled around the pits by NMRA honchos. Ford's Andy Benedict and John Torvinen also treated race fans to tire-blazing exhibition passes on Saturday and Sunday, that would have fared pretty well in the burnout contest if they had entered.

"We speeded it up a little bit," was the word from Tommy Sanders when asked about the readiness of his Motive Gear-sponsored '03 'Stang going into round one of Pro 5.0 eliminations. Tommy wasn't kidding. Despite a red-light start, driver Joe Morgan's 6.64/212-mph statement (the 6.64 was the lowest e.t. for the class at Martin) put the class on notice that the team's once-struggling big-block/nitrous combination is dialed and plenty capable of leading the Pro 5.0 pack.

Chicago's Darrin Carter rolled his highly anticipated, super-clean four-eyed hatchback onto the property at US 131 and had everyone asking, "Is that a show car or a race car?" Although Darrin's Pure Street debut was somewhat tempered by transmission issues, he was still able to break into the 10-second zone his first time out with the new ride, and he's optimistic that things will only get better with seat time.

While many teams had to put in overtime to fix broken race cars between Friday and Sunday (transmissions were high on the list of broken parts all weekend), the Halfacre brothers won the unofficial Best Thrash award for the Martin race. On Saturday, the intercooler in Jarrett Halfacre's Yellow GT-turned-LX exploded during the second round of qualifying, putting a huge split along a side seam on the tank and blowing a hole in the rear Lexan hatch panel. "It sounded like a gun went off inside the car," Jarrett said. By Sunday morning, the team had the 'cooler repaired and Jarrett proceeded to go three rounds before losing in the semis to John Urist.

A view from the bridge. Here's a rare look at the action inside NMRA Race Control tower. Dr. Jamie Meyer (left) and Tim Johnson (center) provide commentary on the racing action, while Race Director Gene Bergstrom choreographs the entire event via two-way communication with the NMRA staff.

Three-time Pro 5.0 champion crew chief Chris Tumpkin found himself in the seat and behind the wheel of Trilogy Motor-sports' blown and nitrous-injected '03 Marauder, on a mission to make his first-ever 10-second pass. It's hard to believe one of the main shot-callers for Donnie Walsh Jr.'s 6-second 'Stang had never driven anything quicker than his low-11-second Capri, but Chris easily recorded the new personal-low e.t. and probably has his sights set on running in the 9s now. He jetted to a 10.86 in a first-round breakout loss in Bracket 1.

Pro 5.0
If we said, "Tony Bischoff," what would be your immediate response? If you said, "He's one of the top Ford race-engine builders in the country," you'd be only half correct. At Martin, Tony proved he's also a pretty good driver, as he jockeyed his '01 big-block/nitrous Mercury Cougar past David Hance and Chuck DeMory en route to a final-round showdown with Donnie Walsh Jr. "I started off the weekend thinking I had a small chance of winning the race, but after qualifying [number two behind Donnie] I felt my chances were better," Tony said. He can credit his own BES horsepower and three stages of Speedtech nitrous for helping secure the victory, as he needed all of it to overcome Donnie's holeshot (0.407 to 0.454) and drive around the defending class champion.

Pro 5.0
Team Walsh's quest for an unprecedented fourth NMRA Pro 5.0 points title took a turn for the better, despite not winning the Martin event. Thanks to a 6.68/207 low-qualifying effort, coupled with Michael Hauf's first-round exit and a convincing win over Bert Kelkboom in round two, Donnie regained the Pro 5.0 points lead, which, next to winning, is the best thing that could have happened for the team in its home-state race.

Super Street Outlaw
John Urist captured the Pole position for the 10-Inch-Tire Freak Show and never looked back. John's consistent 7.50-something e.t.'s (7.51 in qualifying at US 131) and record-setting, 190-plus-mile-an-hour blasts have been the talk of Super Street Outlaw since the second race of the season, and he certainly didn't disappoint the crowd at Martin. In a dramatic, come-from-behind, final-round win over Billy Laskowsky (John was way late with a 0.544 reaction time to Billy's 0.424), John managed to get his Nitto Tire-sponsored 'Stang to the finish line just ahead of Billy, with a 7.60 at 188 mph.

Super Street Outlaw
Billy Laskowsky's many seasons of frustration took an abrupt change for the better at the Toyo Tires NMRA Ford Nationals, when the popular SSO racer carded an off-the-gas 7.52/184 during Friday's test-and-tune session and followed it up the next day with a 7.60/188 qualifying effort that earned him the second spot on the 11-car ladder. "We made a few upgrades to the motor for a bit more strength and decided to run it out, and it all just finally came together," Billy said of the landmark pass. He also cites extensive testing to improve eighth-mile performance as one of the reasons for the great showing in Michigan. Wins over Mike Trimandilis and Ed "Fluffy" Imhoff cleared the way to Billy's final-round appearance with John Urist, which was a victory in its own right, as Billy's ProCharger-blown 'Stang had been running with a cracked block throughout eliminations.

EFI Renegade
Aaron "The Shark" Stapleton and his support crew from Sutton High Performance made it two in a row for NMRA final-round appearances. The team was runner-up at Maple Grove, but this time they closed the deal with a win in Renegade at US 131. "I wanted this win badly," he said. The victory rounded out a performance trifecta for the Sutton '05 Mustang. Prior to winning on Sunday, Aaron qualified the car first out of 13 'Stangs, and he also eclipsed the class mile-an-hour record with a 160.1-mph trap speed during Saturday's qualifying sessions.

EFI Renegade
Scott "Swill" Lovell capitalized on big-time vacancies on his side of the ladder and once again ended up in the Renegade final after handily defeating Chris Van Guilder. Zoop Zellonis was not able to make the call in round one, nor was Jay Mingolelli in round three. In the money round, despite beating winner Aaron Stapleton at the tree (0.421 to 0.442), a lack of traction proved to be the Swill team's nemesis and had Scott using a lot of racetrack in an effort to catch the Sutton Ford car after it went by him and drove away.

Hot Street
Bangin' Bob Hanlon is the other "new face" who made it to the final in Hot Street. Bob is far from being "new" to the class, as he's one of the pioneers of Hot Street, so his appearance in the Martin final was a refreshing change from Charlie Booze Jr. versus any other competitor that had become the norm over the last two seasons.

Hot Street
Leo "Pretty Boy" Johnson had to be the happiest man on the property when the Toyo Tires NMRA Ford Nationals finally came to a close, as three of his Raggdoll Racing Mustangs appeared in finals at the Martin race and two emerged victorious. Leo piloted his '91 LX coupe to the Hot Street win with bracket-style consistency, in the form of nearly identical 9.06 defeats over a mega-late (0.600) Andy Schmidt and Mike DeMayo in rounds one and two respectively. He then enjoyed a bye into the final, where he outmuscled Bangin' Bob Hanlon's wheels-up stick 'Stang to the stripe with a 9.05/152 to a losing 9.11/150.

Drag Radial
The NMRA has a new "Johnny Lightning" in its ranks, and this one drives a Drag Radial car. Lightning-quick reaction times are becoming a trademark for John Kolivas this season. His triumph in the Martin final against Jason Lee marked the second time this season (a 0.423 got him the win over Mauro Vitale in the season opener at Bradenton) that he's used a holeshot to capture the gold in the super-tough Drag Radial category. "Jason and I had similar e.t.'s in the semis, so I knew that this final would be decided at the tree," John said. "Jeff [crew chief] and I decided to leave the tune-up alone and focus on getting out first, and we just hoped he didn't break off a number on us." John's 0.425 reaction proved to be the difference in this contest, and it also moved him within striking distance of the points leaders.

Drag Radial
Jason Lee capitalized on points-leader Chad Doyle's 0.115 red light, then dispatched Mauro Vitale in round two and eventually met John Kolivas in the final round of Drag Radial. Despite having a slight performance advantage over John's turbo '95 Cobra, Jason's first-gen Fox fell about a car-length short of overcoming a reaction-time deficit and having the final's outcome go his way.

Real Street
Longtime Real Street competitor Jim Breese made the show with a 10.16/number-five qualifying shot, but fell to Bruce Hemminger in round one.

Real Street
After having to sort out clutch issues, such as swapping a disc and cable, and enduring the pain of a badly cut finger during the course of the race weekend, a win would have been more to Brian "Hollywood" Meyer's liking instead of a second-place finish. The reigning points champion even took a stab at deep staging to get the extra reaction-time edge in his final against Bruce Hemminger and, with a 0.409 to Bruce's 0.448, it appears the tactic worked. But getting the second notch in Raggdoll Racing's belt at Martin was not to be. With the runner-up, the reigning class champion snagged a 350-point lead over Tim Matherly going into the second part of the season.

Real Street
In a surprise move, Bruce "Almighty" Hemminger drove his own Real Street 'Stang into the 9-second zone (9.99 in qualifying) and to victory in the first event run with the widely debated new rules in place. Bruce is unofficially the lead lobbyist for rule changes in Real Street-nitrous-jet sizes being one of them-that he feels will help improve parity between supercharged and nitrous-injected cars and hopefully encourage others to race in the class. It seems unbelievable that Bruce fared so well in a car that was mothballed for more than a year, but great tuning calls, with help from Billy Glidden via cell phone, a near-perfect chassis setup and 60-foots in the low 1.30s, and killer reaction times proved the man to be unstoppable as he made his way from the top-qualifier spot to the final. He came out on top in a classic nitrous-versus-supercharger duel with runner-up Brian Meyer.