By Todd Milles The News Tribune
KENT — Every time drag racer Ron Capps lands in Seattle, he gets a bit nostalgic.
It was 1995. He was a National Hot Rod Association rookie — and 30 years old. He was driving for a Top Fuel team nobody expected to soar in Seattle, and at the Northwest Nationals.
Driving the Roger Primm-owned dragster, Capps captured his first career professional title in a rain-delayed event. And the win jump-started Capps’ fine career in the NHRA.
Under a record heat wave, and track temperatures reaching 125 degrees Saturday, none of the racers were able to eclipse the first-day top qualifying marks in Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock.
Entering today, Spencer Massey (Top Fuel, 3.837 seconds), Capps (Funny Car, 4.119) and Allen Johnson (Pro Stock, 6.554) will be No. 1 seeds for eliminations at Pacific Raceways.
With each passing race, it seems like this sport becomes more diverse — at least in the age groups represented near the top of the elimination-round ladder.
Johnson is 52, and has been the class of Pro Stock the past two months. He was 37 when he ran his first NHRA race in 1996.
Capps is a young 47, and one of the model pitch men of drag racing — a descendent in grit and showmanship of the golden-era stars in Don “The Snake” Prudhomme and Kenny Bernstein.
And Massey, 29, is part of the new blood in the sport — on the long list of talented 20-something drivers ready to stake their claim as drag racing’s next star.
How do they all co-exist?
As Top Fuel driver Antron Brown put it, drag racing is a “next-generation” sport — as long as the newer drivers pay attention to what their predecessors have accomplished.
“A lot of people can talk about the championship, but it is the ones who go out and do it … who deserve the respect,” said Brown, who is 36. “You have to be a student of the sport. You can’t be a young gun and think you know everything in this sport, because you won’t be here tomorrow.”
The top of the NHRA points standings are dotted with 20-something racers. Massey was tied with Brown for the Top Fuel lead coming into this week — with Steve Torrence (29 years old) fourth, Morgan Lucas (28) sixth, and Shawn Langdon (29) seventh.
Courtney Force (24), the daughter of 15-time NHRA champion John Force, is the sport’s fresh new face to market. She is also seventh in Funny Car points.
Then there is Vincent Nobile, who might be the brightest rising star in this era. He is 20, and has won twice this season in Pro Stock. Erica Enders (28) is also an up-and-comer, and won her first professional race last month in Chicago.
And no class has more of them than the Pro Stock Motorcycles, who do not visit Pacific Raceways. Andrew Hines (29), Hector Arana, Jr. (23), Michael Ray (27) and LE Tonglet (22) sit in the top eight in points.
“It is a changing of the guard. Those (veteran) guys have come out and been ambassadors for the sport, and they are kind of stepping away right now — whether it is by choice or just the way things pan out,” Torrence said. “It is a really good thing for the sport … that new blood is coming in.”
Don’t tell Capps the proverbial finish line is in sight. When he walks around the pits in Kent, he is reminded of that magical day in 1995. He feels like a rookie all over again.
“In the car, I think I am as good as anybody coming up, and I push myself to be … because I know there are younger guys that are going to come gunning for you,” Capps said.
“But racing now is a cakewalk compared to what it used to be. … I learned real quickly you had to know your place, and I respected who I needed to respect.
“It is a different era now. But it doesn’t scare me.”
Most of the contending teams experimented with their hot-weather car setups in anticipation of today’s expected 92-degree heat — and track temperatures well over 130 degrees. … The biggest mover Saturday was Bob Tasca III in Funny Car, who went from 16th to 11th in the field with his run of 4.213 seconds in the early qualifying session. … Kapowsin’s Ron Smith had a qualifying day to forget in Top Fuel on Saturday — a did-not-start and a track oildown. Still, he is the No. 16 seed, and will face Massey. “You’ve got to watch out for guys like that,” Massey said. “We don’t want anything to happen for him to be a spoiler.” … Seattle’s Brady Kalivoda has been in the pits this week, and is expected to drive for Warrior Racing in Top Fuel at U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis — the Super Bowl of the sport — on Labor Day Weekend.