Great drag racing weekend ahead at Gateway

News-DemocratSeptember 27, 2013 

Since his group purchased Gateway Motorsports Park, owner Curtis Francois has made good on his promise to keep the track active with grassroots racing events that get fans and drivers involved on a variety of levels.

But when it comes to packing in crowds at the Madison facility, the main date on the calendar each year is the AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest National drag racing event.

"The NHRA event is very important to us," said Francois, whose crew has resurfaced the drag strip and is hoping good weather can create some record-setting runs this weekend. "It's a great chance to showcase a tremendous regional facility. Gateway was known in the past as a NASCAR facility and NHRA racing secondarily.

"We really want to see it be an equal and we think that the chance for the fans to interact with the drivers and the pits is unparalleled at an NHRA race. Every motorsports fan has their passion and certainly the NHRA has some very loyal fans."

Qualifying begins Friday and continues Saturday with the final eliminations set for Sunday. This is third of six races in the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship with several tight points races guaranteed to produce excitement.

"I want to thank Curtis for not only resurrecting Gateway, but also bringing it back at a great time of the year," said Funny Car driver Robert Hight. "We used to come here in the summer time and it wasn't really a great time of the year for drag racing. But now it's beautiful weather and it's a perfect time to have a Race for the Countdown."

One of the top battles is in the Top Fuel division, where Shawn Langdon and Doug Kalitta are tied atop the points race just two points ahead of Spencer Massey.

Langdon was the top qualifier last weekend in Dallas but lost to Kalitta in the finals as Langdon reached the finals for the ninth time in 20 races.

Langdon was wearing a Cardinals hat Thursday despite being an Angels fan growing up in California. He thrives on the late-season pressure of trying to bring home a championship for the Al-Anabi Racing Team.

"It's my first year up in the thick of things coming down to the last couple races, so it's been a little nerve wracking but we're having a lot of fun doing it," Langdon said. "I like the pressure. I'm the type of guy that wants the baseball in the bottom of the ninth inning. This is what I thrive on. Hopefully we can excel in those situations and hopefully we can walk away with the championship."

Langdon has driven his Top Fuel dragster as fast as 334.15 mph. He tried to describe the feeling or hurtling down the track at such an intense pace.

"It gets you in the gut, it takes your breath away," Langdon said. "You can't see anything other than what you're focusing on, so you really get that tunnel vision. When you're accelerating we get up to six Gs going down the race track."

That's some serious speed, something the majority of American drivers can hardly imagine.

"When you hit gas, there isn't anything even close to the amount of power than you feel in that race car," he said. "It will go up to 9,000 rpm just like that. We're going up to 100 miles an hour in under a second and we're covering 325 mph in 1,000 feet.

"It's an experience you won't get anywhere else unless you go to the track."

Defending Gateway Top Fuel champ Antron Brown is back to defend his title and is shooting for a second season championship. He's currently in eighth place.

Matt Hagan, Cruz Pedregon, Hight and John Force are in a tight Funny Car points battle that includes Jack Beckman and Ron Capps.

Beckman won at Gateway last season.

Erica Enders-Stevens is the defending Gateway champ in Pro Stock and will battle red-hot points leader Jason Line, who has a win and runner-up finish in the last two tour stops.

Hector Arana, Jr., is the Pro Stock Motorcycle leader.

Home track

One of the most popular drivers during each NHRA visit to Gateway is Springfield native Tim Wilkerson. Wilkerson has gone 50 events without a Funny Car victory and his home track could provide some magic for the Levi, Ray & Shoup Ford Shelby Mustang and its crew.

"We really do have a huge group of supporters in St. Louis every year," Wilkerson told "Some of them are the old original Wilk's Warriors from way back.

"On top of that, LRS brings so many people they have to rent a hospitality tent in addition to the space we have in our pit area, so all told, we're talking about thousands of people who are there to support our team, and that's pretty neat."

Royal ownership

Langdon is part of the Al-Anabi Racing team owned by Sheikh Khalid bin Hamad Al Thani. What's it like having an owner who also is royalty in the State of Quatar?

"I'm trying to get him to more races because he's been to two races and I've won both of them," Langdon said. "We're trying to get him out for the rest of the year. He's a great guy to work for, he is the ideal sponsor/team owner.

"His passion for the sport is great. He knows what it takes to win championships and he provides us with the winning tools."

Contact reporter Norm Sanders at 239-2454, or on Twitter @NormSanders

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