Nitro Pony

he La King’s Confectionery NHRA Top Fuel team returned to competition for the 2003 season at the Mopar Mile High Nationals in Morrison, Colorado. Plans are to run the entire “Western Swing” and with some luck many of the remaining races this season. The team consists of driver Mitch King, crewmembers Rick McMenemy, Ed Margaretich, Marshall Paysee, Dan Bridges, and Mitch’s ten-year-old son Jeffery. Highly respected drag racer Paul Smith has been hired to call the tuning shots for the team. The last event the team competed in was the 2002 O’Reilly Fall Nationals in Dallas. The gang and I were very excited about what lied ahead of us and we couldn’t wait to get our first whiff of nitro. This would be a trip I would never forget and that included some of the most bizarre happenings I’ve ever seen. Maybe that’s why they call it “Fool Racing.”

Tuesday July 15th Ft Worth, Texas

The adventure started out July 15th when Mitch, Jeffery, and Rick left Galveston Island, Texas in quite a hurry. Hurricane Claudette was moving into the area and the boys packed up and headed for Denver just before it hit the coast. I was picked up on the north side of Ft. Worth, TX at 2 A.M Tuesday morning. Mitch and Jeffery were in the big rig with Rick towing the “Bone Bucket” nitro fuel altered with our red Chevy dually. The fuel altered will run at the Nightfire Nationals in Boise, Idaho the weekend after the Fram Autolite Nationals in Sonoma. I threw my bags in the truck and hopped on board of a trip we now refer to as “The Nitro Pony.” As I said goodbye to my family Mitch said, “This boy is going to have a new respect for fuel racing when he gets home.” From then on I knew I was on the ride of my life. I immediately asked if he had any worries about the hurricane damaging any of his property or candy store in Galveston. “Man I packed up all the stuff that was important to me, bolted the doors, and took off. Everything I care about is with me right now,” he replied. As we counted down the miles to Denver, Mitch and I killed time by talking about the old days when he worked as the crew chief for Butch Blair’s “Fugowie” Top Fueler. He told me the good, bad, and ugly that eventually led him to where he is today and gave credit to all the many people who have helped him get this far. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing some of the stories Mitch told, some of which will never be repeated.

Wednesday July 16th Denver, Colorado

We pulled into Bandimere Speedway at 1 A.M. on Wednesday July 16th and parked the rig. After a few hours of rest at the hotel, Rick went to Denver International Airport and picked up Mike Smith, who would also be helping tune the car. After breakfast we headed for the track to get the rig parked in the pit area. As we pulled up we saw a Ford Mustang parked behind our rig. Alex Connaway, a seventeen-year-old nitro maniac from Nebraska, had arranged earlier to help Mitch in the pits for the weekend and sure enough there he was. We all introduced ourselves and walked behind the trailer to get out of the sun when we noticed something was missing. “Dude, where’s your car?” asked Mitch. We followed the tracks down the side of the mountain and finally saw Alex’s Mustang plowed halfway into a shack at the bottom of the hill. Alex hightailed it down the mountain to survey the damage and we immediately started cracking up.

It turns out Alex left his car in third gear and it gradually rolled down the side of the mountain. Luckily everyone spotted it on it’s way down and got out of the way. The only thing hurt was Alex’s Mustang, the shack, and all of our stomachs after all the laughter. “Here we go, this is the first rattle out of the box,” said Rick jokingly. We proceeded to set up our pit area for a thrash the following day and headed to eat at where else but Hooters. As we walked in our waitress immediately threw a fit because she was about to clock out and call it a day. After stuffing ourselves with Dr. Pepper and chicken wings we were all telling lies at the table, when Jeffery made a hilarious comment. As he was rubbing his fathers back, he looked up to our waitress and asked, “Can you give my daddy a back massage?” We all laughed hysterically, but she didn’t find us to be very funny. It turns out this was only her second day on the job and she had to put up with us after a day of hard work. “Welcome to working at Hooters,” Marshall said in response to her disgust. So after leaving our mark at the Denver Hooters we headed for the hotel and finally got some sleep.

Thursday July 17th Denver, Colorado

Thursday we thrashed in preparation for qualifying on Friday. Paul Smith and Ed flew in and arrived at the track around four o’clock. Paul came to Mitch with some interesting news. Apparently, Seattle native Brady Kalivoda had some sponsorship backing and was looking to rent a ride for his hometown race the following weekend. After gathering all the facts and talking with Brady, Mitch decided that they had a deal. This was the first day that I really began to realize what it took to be a crewmember on a Top Fuel team. I learned how to put on the front and rear wings, take body panels on and off, set up the pit area stations, and of course clean parts. I have been accustom to taking pictures of other people doing these things and it was very cool to be on the other side of the camera lens for once. Meanwhile, the NHRA chassis inspectors stopped by and pointed out to our attention that our chassis needed to be updated with some new safety bars that had to be welded on. Luckily, there was a welding shop right across the highway from the track so we immediately went over to see what could be done. We met Frank Peterson, who owns Lakewood Manufacturing and he said he could have it done by the next morning, which was Friday, qualifying day. Since he was our only hope we stripped the car down to almost nothing and towed it to his shop. Frank immediately got to work updating the chassis and we left his shop hoping for the best.

(“Nitro Hemiologist” Rick McMenemy and Mike Smith in Denver)Friday July 18th Denver, Colorado

Friday morning we picked up the car and were very impressed with how well Frank had made the updates to our chassis. Mitch elected to skip the first session of qualifying and we had a ton of work to do to get ready for the second session that afternoon. Alex and I did basic grunt work, Rick went to work on the blowers and rockers, Dan was mounting some brand new Goodyear tires, Mitch was working on the motor and making sure we all knew what we were doing, and Paul and Mike Smith were in between our pit and Terry Haddock’s Funny Car pit, who they were also helping. After hard work from the crew we got the car ready for the second session and warmed it up in the pits. The car hadn’t been fired since Dallas of last year so we were all a bit nervous. Everything went as planned and after changing the oil and plugs we towed the car to the staging lanes. Clouds were building over the mountains and dusk was settling in as we towed the car to the staging lanes.

(Mitch ready to warm-up the car in Denver)As the funny cars were wrapping up with only one pair left, a slight drizzle started to come down from over the mountains. The drizzle turned into a rain shower and we immediately took shelter under the tower since we were the first pair of Top Fuel cars to run. Once the fans and track personnel realized there would be no more racing for that evening, everyone headed for shelter from the wind and rain. The power then went off at Bandimere Speedway and we had no choice but to tow the car down the track because all the other teams were in a traffic jam heading back up the staging lanes. So we headed down the track in the wind and rain and suddenly the crowd started roaring. We were being cheered like we had just set the world elapsed time record. As rain poured down and lightning struck the fans went crazy which put big smiles on our faces as we headed for our pit. We threw all our equipment in the trailer and called it a night.

Saturday July 19th Denver, Colorado

In the first session on Saturday our car shook the tires severely and Mitch was forced to lift. Luckily, there were only sixteen top fuelers on the property so we took our ten-second qualifying elapsed time and prayed for the best in round one against the number one qualifier Larry Dixon. Mitch beat Dixon the year before at his national event debut in Houston and I’m sure everyone on the Miller Light crew remembered that. “The Nitro Pony can throw you off at any second so you’d better be ready,” warned Mitch and with Paul Smith on our side we felt like we definitely had a chance. Brady flew in that morning to check out the car and get comfortable in the seat. I was excited to see Brady, who I had done some photography work for in the past. He liked the operation and was clearly excited about being able to race the following weekend in his own backyard. Mitch, Marshall, Dan, Alex, and I went and watched the final qualifying session from the top of Terry Haddock’s Funny Car trailer. The crew had already serviced the car for first round and the completed a few extra sets of heads as well as a few racks of pistons. We killed some time at the track letting the crowd clear out and went to the hotel to get plenty of rest for what we hoped to be a long day tomorrow.

Sunday July 20th Denver, Colorado

Sunday we woke up bright and had breakfast at IHOP, then got to the track and double-checked everything in preparation for our battle with Dixon in round one. After we were forced to switch lanes we fired up the car and Mitch did the normal routine. Unfortunately, Larry ran low elapsed time of the event easily defeating us. We felt the wrath of Dick Lahaie and the defending world champions, but our feelings weren’t hurt. We had qualified at our first race in almost a year and hurt nothing on the car all weekend. After stuffing the NHRA officials and our race friends full of salt water taffy from La King’s all weekend we dropped Marshall, Dan, Ed, and Rick off at the airport and the rest of us headed for the hotel.

(Mitch in first round against Larry Dixon)Monday July 21st Denver, Colorado

Monday morning Mitch sent Mike Smith and Tommy Tijerina, who works on Tim Wilkerson’s Funny Car crew, in the big rig towards Seattle. Mitch, Alex (who would be staying on the road with us through Boise), Jeffery, and I were in the dually and headed for Boise to drop off the altered. That night we had quite an encounter with nature. We were taking a scenic route to Boise driving on Highway 30 through Logan, Utah. We noticed many “Deer Crossing” warning signs as we were driving, but no one ever thinks it will happen to them. The signs actually sparked up a story session where Mitch told us of the many times he had played chicken with horses and cows when he was younger. The sun was setting and the temperature was in the mid sixty’s. We were all enjoying the scenery and as we rounded a corner, with seventeen-year-old Alex behind the wheel, Mitch spots a monstrous deer in the middle of the road. “Deer!” yelled Mitch and Alex immediately slammed the brakes. “Honk!” instructed Mitch and Alex did as he was told and mashed the horn. The deer perked up with his eyes bulging and took off across the street back into our lane. The tires on the trailer were locked up and we were just along for the ride. Amazingly, we missed the deer by less than two feet and everyone took a huge breath. Jeffery and I were white knuckled in the back seat and Alex’s eyes were wide open with panic. Of course, Mitch started laughing being the comical man that he is and we all had a good laugh once we realized we were all still alive. We grabbed a bite to eat and made it to Boise at three in the morning and dropped off the altered.

Tommy and Mike were in the big rig, which needed to be in Seattle Tuesday afternoon so it could be lettered with Brady’s sponsors Lucas Oil, Mac Tools, and Nitro Fish. Well it turns out it would be about a day late due to many reasons. A combination of wrong turns led the rig to end up in Portland, Oregon. Also, the rig blew two tires and the alternator died as well. These all combined to a huge delay in the arrival of the dragster and without Mike and Tommy’s hard work it may not have made it in time.

Wednesday, we met up with Brady at the vinyl shop and got to work. They got about one third of the job finished Wednesday and came out to the track Thursday to finish the rest. Wednesday night we decided to make guys night out. Mitch, Tommy, Alex, and I went to eat at the Marina Park Grill in Kirkland, Washington. With beautiful women everywhere, the sun setting in the distance, and some of the best shrimp I’ve ever tasted it was a night I will always remember.

Thursday night as the car was still being lettered; Mitch, Alex, Jeffery, and I went to Seattle International Airport and picked up Dan and Marshall. “So where is the hotel?” asked Marshall when he got in the truck. “Buddy, we’re going back to the track. They are still putting the vinyl on the car,” answered Mitch. “So it’s another night of sleepless in Seattle huh?” replied Marshall. After having to find a security guard to unlock the main gate, we finally left the track Friday morning at 3:30AM.

(The new decals still being applied late Thursday night in Seattle)Friday July 25th Seattle, Washington

Friday morning we unloaded the car and got ready to run the second session that evening. The car looked almost like a Bruce Litton twin and Brady was heavily anticipating his run. Many members of Brady’s family and friends were stopping by our pits to talk to him. It was very cool to meet everyone and get to be involved in the whole thing. After warming up the car we headed for the staging lanes. We were the first car up for the second session of Top Fuel. Brady was strapped in and ready to rock and roll. Mitch and Marshall fired the car and Brady rolled up to do his burnout. Everyone immediately noticed something was wrong as he blazed the hides. A massive amount of oil had been strewn across the left lane of the track during the burnout. The track was finally cleaned up and then oiled down again by the next car. The entire session of qualifying was then called off due to the track’s noise curfew.

(Self Explanitory)The culprit of our problem was the O-ring in the oil filter. For unknown reasons, it had failed and oil was strewn everywhere. It was a 7,000 horsepower oil geyser. Mitch had oil down record of zero since he began racing in Top Fuel and always took pride in that. Our heads hung pretty low as we headed back to the pits, but we knew tomorrow was a new day and we had work to do.

Saturday July 26th Seattle, Washington

Saturday it seemed Brady, Mitch, and the crew had a new attitude. Many people came over to our pit and made it clear that there was nothing to be ashamed about after last night’s oil down. “That’s drag racing, it has happened to everyone out here,” said one supporter.

(Brady Kalivoda just before his last qualifying attempt in Seattle)

Hoping we didn’t repeat last night’s fiasco we warmed up the car and towed the to the lanes for the third session of qualifying. The burnout went well and the car launched hard, but just before half-track the blower belt snapped and the car lost power. We towed the car back to the pits and the crew thrashed and had just finished when the first call for Top Fuel went out.

(Mitch and Marshall ready to crank the car with Brady behind the wheel)With one shot left we headed for the staging lanes for the fourth session. Brady was paired with Paul Romine and both cars were not in the field. This being Romine’s sponsor’s race and Brady’s hometown there was tremendous pressure to get in the field. Brady ran the best sixty-foot time the car has ever run, and the fifth quickest of the session. It was looking to be a great pass that would get the car solidly in the field. At half-track a hole went out and Brady lifted. Romine was on fire as he crossed the finish line and he made the field, but we did not. We all were disappointed to not qualify. It was a very dramatic and a somewhat exciting weekend filled with mixed emotions that changed by the hour. Even though we missed the field and our weekend ended a little early, I still enjoyed myself and I’m sure everyone else did too. “That’s drag racing bro,” Mitch said as we headed to the hotel Saturday night.

(The La King’s / Lucas Oil gang who made Seattle one race I will definetely never forget)

Sunday, Monday, Tuesday From Seattle to Sonoma

Sunday Mitch made an agreement with Lucas Oil, Mac Tools, and Nitro Fish to leave all the stickers on the car at the race the following weekend in Sonoma. With our new relationship with them, and Mitch back in the drivers seat, the team was pumped up and headed for Sonoma on Monday morning. Mitch, Jeffery, and I were in the dually with Tommy and Alex behind us in the big rig. Dan and Marshall flew back to Texas that morning and wouldn’t be able to come to Sonoma to help out in the pits. Luckily, Seattle residents Todd Gibbs and J.J. Jakeman were coming down to help thrash in the pits. Todd and J.J. had helped out in Seattle and Mitch knew they would be a great help for us since we would be without Dan and Marshall. Martin Blake, a long time friend of Mitch’s, was also coming to Sonoma to do the bottom end. It looked like we would be able to make it all happen in Sonoma. After a safe and deer free trip to Sonoma we were all ready to go check out California.

Wednesday August 1st San Francisco, California

Wednesday morning after dropping off the rig at Infineon Raceway the whole gang, along with Mitch’s girlfriend Ava who flew in Tuesday night from Texas, headed for downtown San Francisco. We all enjoyed seeing Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Chinatown. We cruised down Fisherman’s Wharf and shopped at Pier 39. It was the first “fun day” we had enjoyed since the trip on the “Nitro Pony” began. That night Tommy, Alex, Jeffery, and I had a great time playing cards well into the night. We also got some more good news regarding our crew; Rick was going to fly in Thursday morning. Nitro Rick “The Hemiologist” is a crucial part of our team since he straps Mitch in the car and services the blowers amongst many other jobs. Mitch felt a lot more comfortable knowing Rick would be there to help out.

Friday August 3rd Sonoma, California

Thursday morning Ava and I picked Rick up from the airport and that evening Todd and J.J. flew in. The entire team was very impressed with Infineon Raceway and looked forward to a nitro filled weekend of Top Fuel racing. Thursday night we all crammed into one hotel room and had big lie telling session. Some of the stories I heard that night will never be repeated and probably will never be topped. The car was almost ready to run and we finished it up Friday morning. In the first session the car dropped a cylinder at 2.5 seconds, Mitch stayed in it for a while and finally clicked it at 3.5 seconds coasting to a 5.14. The track temperature dropped twenty degrees from the first session down to eighty-five degrees. Paul and Mitch checked the run on the computer and made some clutch adjustments for the second session. We ran short of time between rounds and unfortunately didn’t get to warm up the car before the second session. We were paired against Rhonda Hartman Smith in the second session. The burnouts went trouble free and the cars were staged. Our car immediately dropped a hole on the left side and labored to a 5.18. The crew thrashed Friday night until at least midnight and we were on the bump of the eighteen-car field heading into Saturday.

Saturday August 4th Sonoma, California

Saturday morning Mitch decided to skip the third session of qualifying to make sure that everything was right for our final chance during fourth session.

(Mitch strapped in the car before Saturday’s qualifying)

We all had our fingers crossed as Mitch staged the car. The ground shook as 7,000 horsepower went to work. The car put a hole out at halftrack and Mitch kept it matted clicking off a 4.860 at 285 mph. Unfortunately, we missed the field by four hundredths of a second. To miss the field by that little totally bummed the team out, but we weren’t going to let it keep us down. We still had the same motor in the car we had in Denver and had damaged very few parts in three races. This was only the third event with Paul Smith on board and with a good showing at Sonoma we look forward to the rest of the season. A weekend full of fun and nitro is a good weekend for us, whether we win or lose.

The “Nitro Pony” proved to be quite a ride for everyone involved. For me, the ride started in Ft Worth, Texas early on a July morning and ended a day sooner than I had hoped for on a sunny afternoon in Sonoma, California. On our adventure on the NHRA “Western Swing” we made new friends, had tons of fun, and smelled nitro from morning till dusk. After learning what it takes to be a crew member, eating at the same places each night all weekend, and witnessing all the things it took to run a Top Fuel car I definitely have a new respect for fuel racing. This has been the best summer of my life and the La King’s Confectionery Top Fuel team will be rocking and rolling at many more of the 2003 NHRA events. The team will debut a new paint scheme at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in Indy. This weekend we plan to get noisy in Boise with our fuel altered and then I will fly home to start my sophomore year at the University of North Texas. My ride on the “Nitro Pony” was a very memorable one and one that hopefully every nitro maniac will experience.