Local race fans traveling to Norwalk this weekend will get to witness a historic event.
No, not the NHRA making its inaugural stop at Summit Racing Equipment Motorsports Park — although that’s the top reason many will make the trek west.
Fans will get to see one of the 17 events that lead up to the racing circuit’s first-ever postseason.
“They actually have a Countdown to the Championship this year,” said Dave Connolly, a pro stock driver from Elyria. “They changed the points system a little bit to try and bring the drama down to the last races of the season.”
The NHRA has combined the postseason format of several sports to make its first playoffs seem special. After 17 races, the top eight cars in the points race advance and the points will be staggered from the top down. The eight cars will race in four more events, then the top four cars move on, the points are staggered again and the final two events determine the world championships.
“It’s a unique format,” said Jeg Coughlin, Connolly’s teammate. “It’s a little different than our counterpart there with NASCAR. I think it’s going to bring the drama that we’ve seen occasionally in drag racing. That down-to-the-wire, world championship run on the line.”
In NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup, 12 cars make the postseason cut, have their points staggered and compete for the championship over the final 10 races. NHRA’s playoffs also resemble other sports — such as the NBA, MLB and NHL — where there are series or rounds that teams have to advance through to make it to the “finals.”
“To be honest with you, I was kind of against it when they first came out with it,” Connolly said. “Now, Greg Anderson has been dominating the class so he’s way out there with the points and if it was just the standard format, I don’t think anyone would catch him. He’d probably almost have the championship wrapped up, so it’s definitely working in our favor this season.”
Anderson — who has won the pro stock world title three of the last four seasons — leads the pro stock division with 954 points, Coughlin is second with 753 (201 back) and Connolly sits third with 660 (294 back).
“Anderson has gotten off to just an outstanding start,” Coughlin said. “He’s won five of the first 10 events and has a 200-point lead. It equates to a 10-round lead and that’s quite a lot of lead to eat up. There is enough of the year left to be able to do that in the typical points format.
“But looking at the way the Countdown to the Championship starts at the U.S. Nationals (in Indianapolis), that very insurmountable lead will be narrowed down to a very small lead between No. 1 and No. 2 and I think that’s going to set the stage for a great last six races.”
Coughlin vividly recalled one season where there wasn’t a lot of drama in the last few events.
“In 2000, I won the pro stock world championship,” he said. “I think I won six out of the first 10 races and got out to just an unbelievable points lead, and ended up winning 12 races out of 22 and had it locked up about four or five races before the end of the year.
“The drama for us was exciting because we’re winning, but the drama for the fans and for the other competitors was like, ‘We’re running for second place.’ That’s not real fun for TV and that’s not real fun for the fans.”
But with the new playoff format, drama becomes an every-race component because drivers are battling for position at the top and drivers are battling in the middle just to make the cut.
“We still have seven races left until that final-eight cut,” Connolly said. “A lot of guys in the eighth, ninth and 10th positions are battling it out. That helps those teams get more exposure instead of constantly focusing on the No. 1 guy all the time. It’ll be better for all the sponsors.”
The biggest payoff should come for the fans, drivers and tracks at the end of the season as the new format nearly guarantees excitement that is rarely seen in the sport of drag racing’s final events. Coughlin said the top fuel class last season gave fans a preview of what they could see from all the divisions this year.
“The top fuel world championship was really one of the last championships to be decided,” he said. “It literally came down to the final round with the U.S. Army Tony Schumacher car. If he wins the round, he wins the race. If he wins the round and sets a national record in the final, he not only wins the race, sets a record but also is the world champion — and that’s the only way he can do it.
“I’ll be damned if they didn’t stand up to the test and go out, win the final round, set a national record and regain the world championship. That drama was something that only Hollywood could script.
“That was very exciting not only for their team, but for all the onlookers and for the whole sport in general. That was a prelude to what kind of finishes we could see this year.”
Both Connolly and Coughlin, who also hails from Ohio, are in good positions for the postseason, and have been getting stronger throughout the season.
“If you look at Dave and I, we’re really getting some momentum going,” Coughlin said. “I think we’re going to make a good run at the Countdown to the Championship. We are competitors at heart and have been in situations like this before where it’s a winner-take-all situation.
“We can’t let any of this momentum stumble at all between now and the first cut.”
Contact Shaun Bennett at 329-7137 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHAT: Summit Racing Equipment Nationals
SCHEDULE: 8 a.m. — gates open; 4 and 7 p.m. — pro stock qualifying; 5 and 8 p.m. — top fuel and funny car qualifying.
FOR INFO: (419) 668-5555.