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McClenathan Hopes New Car Brings a Repeat Performance

The second half of the National Hot Rod Assn. season begins this weekend at the Mile High Nationals in Denver, where Anaheim’s Cory McClenathan will try to repeat his performance of last year that made him one of the hottest drivers in drag racing history.

It was in Denver a year ago that McClenathan unveiled a new Top Fuel dragster for Joe Gibbs’ team and won the first of four consecutive races. He eventually finished second overall.

McClenathan, with four victories this season, is leading the Top Fuel points standings, which puts him in an unusual position.

“I’ve hardly ever won a race until the second half of the season,” McClenathan said. “It’s been a great season.”

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And this is where it could turn. McClenathan is unveiling a new dragster at the same race he did a year ago.

Though McClenathan says teams change cars so often “it’s not that big a deal,” he sees the significance of replacing one of the greatest cars in history and turning it into a backup, albeit “a pretty good backup.”

“My only anxiety is that 90% of new cars run really well, but 10% just don’t work, period,” McClenathan said. “I’ve never been in that situation, but you always wonder, ‘What if?’ ”

McClenathan’s four consecutive victories last season and wins in 19 consecutive rounds tied NHRA records. He called the old car, built by Murf McKinney, “a masterpiece.”

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In it, McClenathan won 10 times and finished second twice, and had wins in 53 rounds over 22 races. It was the first dragster to top the 320 mph barrier, and it set two national speed records, 321.77 mph last year and 322.92 this year in Phoenix.

It also made 159 runs, and crew chief Mike Green said, “we don’t like to run a car more than 120 runs. But when we reached that number [in April] it was still winning races and we decided to postpone the change.”

But in recent races, McClenathan hasn’t advanced past the second round in the dragster.

“There comes a time when you ask, is it helping us or hindering us, and we felt it was time to make a change,” McClenathan said.

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Racing in Denver creates problems because of thin air, but McClenathan said, “luckily we have a tuneup from last year so we feel pretty comfortable” about debuting a new car while at the same time trying to defend the Mile High championship.

And the cars are going faster than ever. It makes McClenathan wonder where the edge of the envelope is, “but the next season, we go faster.”

“It seems even when we’ve been restricted, [engineers] always found a way to make them go faster,” he said. “Ten years ago, they restricted [us] to certain types of gears and everyone found a way around it.

“Crew chiefs sound like mad scientists sometimes, but if you don’t do that, you’re not going to keep up with the pack.

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“I think we’ll [eventually] see well into the 340s before we have any real big problems; 325 mph is a little bit away. But every time they find a way to make it go faster, they find a way to make it go safer too.”

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NHRA Funny Car points leader John Force of Yorba Linda lost in the first round (like McClenathan) at the Sears Craftsman Nationals in Madison, Ill., on June 28. It was only the third time this decade that Force had three first-round losses in one season.

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Bobby Schwartz has won the last three Speedway scratch main events, including two of the season’s more prestigious races, the first Jack Milne Cup and the Speedway Fair Derby.

“Winning the Jack Milne Cup was one of the best nights ever in Orange County,” said Schwartz, in his 25th season of racing speedway motorcycles. “It’s very special to win an event that pays tribute to a pioneer of speedway, and to be the first person [whose name is] on it, I’m sort of immortalized too.”

Schwartz took home the perpetual trophy, Sonny Nutter’s bronzed straw hat, after winning his fifth Fair Derby title Saturday night. Nutter was a rider in the 1970s. Schwartz defeated defending world champion Greg Hancock, Chris Manchester, John Aden and Charlie Venegas in the final.

“Those are all pretty young riders, and here I am--I’m going to be 42 next month,” said Schwartz, who won his first Derby title 20 years ago. “It’s a great honor to have my name on the trophy more than anyone else who has ever raced speedway.”

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Schwartz took first, ahead of San Bernardino’s Charlie Venegas, San Juan Capistrano’s Brad Oxley, Newport Beach’s Josh Larsen and Mammoth Lakes’ Chris Manchester.

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Speedway will be dark the next two weeks while the fair continues its run at the Orange County Fairgrounds. Speedway begins its summer season Aug. 1 with the Summer Season Opener. The card features the speedway bikes as well as Midgets and Pee Wee 50cc races.

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The most vicious off-road course on the Laughlin/SCORE series schedule will be featured Saturday in the 27th running of the Fireworks 250 in Barstow. Jason Hatz, 21, of Laguna Beach is among the locals who are series point leaders.

Hatz is in first place in Class 1-2/1600, for single or two-seat VW-powered vehicles with a maximum engine displacement of 1600 cc; with 45 competitors, it is the largest class of competition.

Other local drivers who lead are Orange’s Darren Skilton in Class 3, Lake Forest’s Doug Siewert in Class 7S, Costa Mesa’s Jerry Penhall in Score Lites, and San Clemente’s Johnny Campbell in Motorcycles Class 22.

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When Newport Beach’s Max Papis scored two points with an 11th-place finish, and Arnd Meier scored one point by finishing 12th, it meant every driver in the CART Championship Series who had competed in seven of the first nine races had scored a point. In 1997, it took all 17 races, and in 1996, it took 14 of 16. There are 19 races this season.

With his 12th place finish in Sunday’s Grand Prix of Cleveland, Papis has scored points in consecutive races.

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Orange’s Robby Gordon, allowed by Rancho Santa Margarita-based Arciero-Wells Racing to compete in the NASCAR Winston Cup event June 28 at Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma, donated five percent of his $24,765 prize money to The Hospice of Denver. Gordon finished 37th (suspension) after qualifying 18th.

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