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Friday, April 26, 2013
Live TV spices up Houston event

By John Oreovicz
ESPN.com

Perhaps the most significant aspect of this weekend's O'Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Spring Nationals isn't what might happen on the track at Royal Purple Raceway near Houston.

It's that fans watching from home will be able to see it on television.

In a rarity for drag racing, ESPN2 plans to present five hours of live coverage from Round 6 of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.

Saturday's two-hour program from 3 to 5 p.m. ET features the final round of qualifying for the NHRA's four professional categories -- Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle.

A three-hour block Sunday (2 to 5 p.m. ET) will kick off with tape-delayed highlights of the first two rounds of eliminations, followed by live coverage of the semifinal and final rounds, including the 40-minute "short time" turnaround between races.

There are several reasons why drag racing is rarely televised live, but the main one is the lack of a time-certain schedule at events.

Unlike circuit racing, where a practice or qualifying session set for a certain amount of time is rarely delayed or rescheduled, the way a day at the drag races unfolds is almost completely determined by what happens on the track.

Major incidents such as engine blowups or crashes require significant cleanup time that can delay the proceedings for up to an hour. That unpredictability of the schedule lends itself to an edited highlights format for television.

Matt Hagan
Matt Hagan is coming off a victory in Funny Car and hopes to keep it rolling this weekend in Houston.

The broadcast is likely to put pit reporters Gary Gerould, Jamie Howe and John Kernan in the spotlight as they explain the frantic effort that goes into essentially rebuilding the 8,000-horsepower, nitromethane-fueled engine between rounds.

There's also plenty for play-by-play man Dave Rieff and analyst Mike Dunn to discuss about the racing on the track.

Through five events, the 2013 season has been wide open, with only two repeat winners -- Tony Schumacher (Arizona and Las Vegas in Top Fuel) and Allen Johnson (back-to-back Pro Stock wins at the Gatornationals and Vegas).

While there have been plenty of individual winners, the big winner as a whole this year is Don Schumacher Racing. DSR eclipsed the 200-win milestone at the Gatornationals, and the Brownsburg, Ind.-based superteam is dominating both Nitro fuel categories.

DSR drivers Tony Schumacher, Antron Brown and Spencer Massey have each won events in 2013 to rank 1-2-3 in the Top Fuel standings. In Funny Car, Matt Hagan, Johnny Gray and Ron Capps are all in the top five in points with event wins.

With four final-round appearances in five events, Schumacher is off to one of the best starts of his career -- which says a lot when you're a seven-time series champion.

"This isn't my first good start," Schumacher said. "I just think we've got the right people, and we've all been in place long enough now to really understand each other. It's going to be hard to beat us. We've been performing at a pretty high level, being in six finals in the last seven races [including the final two of 2012]. We're producing tremendous power, and no matter what the guys throw at the car, it just keeps getting down the track.

"When you are having success, you can't wait to get to next race. Houston is the middle race of three weekends in a row, and we're ready to go right now. We're running really strong, and we're getting some good luck too. Last year, we were running pretty well and it seemed like we kept having bad luck. We're just hoping to keep the good breaks going in Houston."

Hagan emerged from a victory drought of almost two years to claim the win in the four-wide event at Charlotte last week. The 2011 Funny Car champion finds himself back atop the points standings, but with just 90 points between him and teammate Capps in fifth place, it's the tightest championship battle in the series.

"We're leading the points and have a race win under our belt five races in, and we're going to enjoy that," Hagan said. "Getting a race win is special, and you have to make sure you just don't push it to the side. We want to be humble, but we're going to enjoy it. I have to give all of my guys a big pat on the back, especially the ones that stuck with us through the winter when we weren't sure what we were going to do this season."

Mike Edwards took Pro Stock honors at Charlotte, boosting him to the top of the standings over Johnson, who is 84 points back despite taking two event wins.

Hector Arana Jr. is two-for-two in Pro Stock Motorcycle this year, scoring triumphs at the Gatornationals and the four-wide Nationals.