BUDDS CREEK, Md. — This year has not been kind to John Hale.
A perennial favorite in the nostalgia Nitro Funny Car class for some time, Hale came into the season looking to seriously contend in the IHRA’s all-new Nitro Jam Drag Racing Series championship program.
Instead, Hale found himself in a situation very unfamiliar to him and his crew. DNQs, oil downs and an overall lack of consistency left Hale without even a single round win through four races and a disappointing sixth place in the championship standings.
But on Saturday night, that all changed.
With a complete overhaul of his nitro-fed ’69 Camaro between IHRA’s last race in Rockingham, N.C., and this weekend, Hale finally found the consistency that had been missing. In front of a crowd eager for the return of nitro, Hale drove the “Mike Burkhart” tribute nostalgia Nitro Funny Car to the win at the 20th annual IHRA Nitro Jam President’s Cup Nationals at Maryland Int’l Raceway.
“These past few months have been very frustrating for myself and for my team. I often tell people, you may lose your job, your house may burn down, you may wreck your car, but the people that rebound from adversity the quickest are always the most successful,” Hale said. “I just made it my goal to rebound from this, get this thing off my back, and win a race. And that is exactly what we did here this weekend.”
Joining Hale in the winner’s circle at MIR was John Konigshofer, who pulled the upset bid in Mountain Motor Pro Stock for the second race in a row, Mike Scott (Nitro Harley), Don Blackshear (Nitro Altered) and Elaine Larsen (Jet Dragster).
Sportsman winners during Saturday’s Summit Racing Equipment Pro-Am Tour presented by AMSOIL race one were Kathy Gallo (Top Sportsman), Bobby Spence (Top Dragster), Kevin Clark (Super Stock), Bill Bricker (Stock), Jake Milstead (Quick Rod), Keith Mayers (Super Rod) and Robert Robertson (Hot Rod).
Hale beat IHRA’s own three-time champion Peter Gallen in the final of Nitro Funny Car on a day that saw the entire field turned upside down when current points leader and top qualifier at every race this season, Jason Rupert, failed to make the field. With Rupert out, Gallen and Hale jumped at the opportunity, qualifying first and second Saturday afternoon.
With the door open, Hale whittled the field down via wins over Tim Boychuk and Mike McIntire Jr., while Gallen took out Greg Jacobsmeyer and Mike Smith, setting up another epic final round between two of the top Funny Car teams in the country. With an Ironman on the line, Gallen got the jump at the line in the “Poverty Stricken” ’77 Vega, but quickly went up in a ball of fire while Hale pedaled in the other lane, taking the stripe with a 6.319-second pass at 237.05 mph. Gallen limped across the line with a 10.817, 84.95.
“Pete is such a great driver. He has a great race car and is capable of putting down some solid numbers. I was a little surprised that he took the left lane, I was ready for our car to do something goofy in that right lane and it did when we smoked the tires. I just happened to slap the pedal and recover it and cross the finish line first,” Hale said. “For once luck was on our side.”
After the race, Hale gathered with his team and thanked each one of them for believing in him despite the trying start to the year.
“I have to say that my crew stuck with me through all of the hurt motors, spinning tires, oiling the track and not qualifying. They never once hung their heads. Now we are going to celebrate together,” Hale said.