05
Oct

With the “regular season” of the 2011 NHRA tour in the books it was time for everyone to turn up the heat as the six race “playoffs” began at zMax Dragway near Charlotte, NC. The track referred to as the “Bellagio of drag strips” would treat us to a historically quick weekend!

In the below photo I couldn’t tell you the name of this bearded crew member for Bailey Whitaker but one thing I am sure of is which direction the wind is blowing!

Nikon D3s, 600mm, 640iso, f4, 1/1000th, Manual

The 10 eligible top fuel drivers for the Countdown to the Championship pose for a group photo prior to the first round of pro qualifying at zMax Dragway.

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 200iso, f5.6, 1/250th, Manual with SB-800 Flash

Ever tried to shoot a photo of a nitro car racing down track from behind? As you can see in the below photo of Jeff Arend rocketing down track, the heat waves make it impossible to get a clear shot.

Nikon D3s, 600mm, 1600iso, f4.5, 1/1000th, Manual

Below, Top fuel dragster driver T.J. Zizzo lifts the front wheels as he launches off the starting line during qualifying. Back in the day most dragsters did wheelstands like this. These days you have a better chance of seeing a unicorn at the track than seeing the big wheelstands of the proverbial “good ole days.”

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 1250iso, f4.5, 1/500th, Manual

After a brief rain delay (briefer than I was expecting as I was sitting at TGI Fridays having dinner when a friend texted me to tell me the track was dry) the weather and track conditions were perfect to potentially see some records fall. One of the first funny cars in the second session was Melanie Troxel (below) who would run a very quick 4.04 run. Once I saw her time I knew there would be a chance of seeing the first funny car sub four second run.

Nikon D3s, 400mm, 2500iso, f3.5, 1/400th, Manual

A few pairs later all in attendance would witness history as Matt Hagan would make a sensational run and the magic numbers would pop up on the scoreboard of a 3.995. It was cool to be there for this and even cooler that I shot him on the run. I would have been pissed if I had been following the other car instead of Hagan!

Nikon D3s, 400mm, 2500iso, f3.5, 1/400th, Manual

Below, top fuel dragster driver Spencer Massey races down track during night time qualifying at zMax Dragway.

Nikon D3s, 400mm, 2500iso, f3.5, 1/400th, Manual

For Saturday qualifying I spent most my day top end.

Below, Paul Ray Jr leans as hard as he can to get his bike off the wall in the shutdown area during pro stock motorcycle qualifying.

Nikon D3s, 600mm, 640iso, f5.6, 1/1000th, Manual

Below, NHRA top fuel dragster driver Antron Brown (left) races alongside Del Worsham during qualifying for the O’Reilly Auto Parts Nationals at zMax Dragway.

Nikon D3s, 600mm, 800iso, f5.6, 1/1000th, Manual

For the Charlotte race NHRA funny car driver John Force (below) would run a special paint scheme in honor of those lost in the terrorist attacks of 9-11.

Nikon D3s, 600mm, 800iso, f6.3, 1/1000th, Manual

After his historic run the previous evening, Matt Hagan was on a mission to run another quick time to back up the 3.99 for a new record (and the 20 important bonus points that come with it). When you are trying to set the world on fire with quick times, sometimes you only set yourself on fire…

Nikon D3s, 600mm, 640iso, f5.6, 1/1250th, Manual

Nikon D3s, 600mm, 640iso, f5.6, 1/1250th, Manual

With this season being the 60th anniversary of the NHRA they have brought out some of the sports legends at all the races. At Charlotte legendary driver TV Tommy Ivo would be on hand, below.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 800iso, f3.5, 1/6400th, Aperture Priority

Below, top fuel dragster driver Morgan Lucas takes a moment to reflect as he sits alone prior to the first round of eliminations. After starting the season off with a win in Pomona things have progressively gone downhill for Lucas. Hopefully he will get things turned around soon.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 800iso, f5, 1/1600th, Manual

To see more photos of Morgan as well as the other Toyota Racing drivers please check out my weekly Toyota photo blog.

Below, NHRA funny car driver Jim Head (near lane) races alongside Johnny Gray during the O’Reilly Auto Parts Nationals at zMax Dragway.

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 320iso, f6.3, 1/2500th, Manual

At the last pro mod race in Indy, driver Eric Dillard would bring home the wally in the newest car from the R2B2 racing stable, a badass turbocharged Mustang. At Charlotte they would have Leah Pruett in the car, below.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 640iso, f2.8, 1/500th, Manual

Below, the R2B2 crew reacts as Pruett launches the car off the starting line in the semi finals. Pruett would win and advance to her first final round in the Pro Mod series.

Nikon D3s, 400mm, 500iso, f5, 1/1250th, Manual

Antron Brown looks concerned as he prepares to climb into his Aarons sponsored dragster, below. By the end of the day that concerned look would be long gone!

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 640iso, f2.8, 1/640th, Manual

Below, pro stock driver Steve Kent (near) races alongside Mike Edwards in his awesome looking Charter sponsored car.

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 320iso, f6.3, 1/1600th, Manual

Final round time!

First up would be the finals for Pro Mod featuring the first all female final round. I know that as a member of the media I am not supposed to root for particular drivers but with my pal Leah in the final I was really hoping she would pick up the win and prove she belonged in the car. In a close race she would pick up the win.

At the top end she was a happy camper as she climbed from the car.

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 100iso, f8, 1/250th, Manual with SB-800 Flash

Following all the photos and TV interviews I was able to congratulate her, below.

Photo by David Griffin

In pro stock bike the winner would be Eddie Krawiec, below.

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 100iso, f8, 1/250th, Manual with SB-800 Flash

In pro stock it would be a face we hadn’t seen in the winner circle for awhile as Kurt Johnson would pull the upset victory over heavily favored Jason Line, who red lit.

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 100iso, f7.1, 1/250th, Manual with SB-800 Flash

Matt Hagan would close out his dream weekend by defeating Mike Neff in the final to win. Oh and he did back up that 3.995 for the new National Record!

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 100iso, f5.6, 1/250th, Manual with SB-800 Flash

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 100iso, f8, 1/250th, Manual with SB-800 Flash

In top fuel it would be Hagan’s Don Schumacher Racing teammate Antron Brown picking up the win. After he climbed from his car, Antron ran to Hagan to celebrate, below.

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, 100iso, f6.3, 1/250th, Manual with SB-800 Flash

Below, Antron Brown waves to the fans during the trophy presentation on the starting line.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, 100iso, f2.8, 1/200th, Manual with SB-800 Flash

After I finished shooting all the winners circle stuff I would bust out my softbox setup and do a few quick portraits.

First up was Leah Pruett…

Nikon D3s, 24-70mm, 1000iso, f8, 1/250th, Manual with Alien Bee Strobe

Nikon D3s, 24-70mm, 1000iso, f7.1, 1/250th, Manual with Alien Bee Strobe

And then I would finish my weekend of shooting with funny car driver Matt Hagan

Nikon D3s, 24-70mm, 1000iso, f5, 1/250th, Manual with Alien Bee Strobe

Nikon D3s, 24-70mm, 1000iso, f5, 1/250th, Manual with Alien Bee Strobe

That wraps up race one of the Countdown to the Championship. Up next is Dallas!

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