As hard as he tries, Phil Burkart hasn't been able to get a handle on the puzzling season of drag racing that has buffeted him and his CSK Funny Car team since February.
In a word, it's been spooky.
Burkart, who drives the blue Checkers Schuck's & Kragen Monte Carlo for the Worsham family, looked as if he was on his way to a career year when he was the runner-up at the season-opening Winternationals in Pomona, Calif., advanced to the semifinals at the next race in Phoenix, and suddenly found himself leading the POWERade points for the first time ever.
Then, the proverbial trap door opened.
Burkart went on a demoralizing losing streak in which he failed to win a round of eliminations until this past weekend when he advanced to the Mile-High Nationals final in Denver, losing to Robert Hight in the payoff round. The losing streak was so pervasive among Burkart and his teammates that they were turning to superstitious behavior to try to shake themselves loose.
"It hasn't been much fun around here since the beginning of March, and the guys made a conscious effort to change things in Denver," Burkart said. "Last year, it was a regular deal to play golf on Wednesday, but this year the guys got away from that as the losses kept mounting. They were all trying to beat the thing by working harder and harder,
and it didn't seem right to leave the track to go play golf.
"This time, [co-crew chiefs] Marc Denner and Chris Cunningham made it a point
to get the sticks out and play 18 holes in Denver. [Crew member] Seth Randall grew a beard, and said he wasn't going to shave until we won a round. Guys who are totally non-superstitious were trying to find new ways to do things, just to shake it up.
"Well, something worked but it probably wasn't Seth's beard or a new handshake. We finally just got what we deserved, and we earned every bit of that runner-up finish. Robert Hight was clearly the class of the field in Denver, and we would have needed an absolute career lap to beat him, but we felt very proud of what we did on the mountain. It's a tough place to race, and we won three rounds, beating three very good teams."
In fact, Burkart beat all-time NHRA national event winner John Force in the first round.
"It was like, OK, here's the greatest Funny Car driver of all time, so if you want to snap this streak you're going to have to beat the best," Burkart said. "When we beat him, I know I was pretty pumped up. Apparently the guys were pretty charged up about it at the
starting line, too. It got us on a roll, and the roll kept on going all the way to the final. It was a great day, but now we're set for Seattle and we want to take it one more step. We're ready to win."
Burkart will get his next chance to do that this weekend as the Western Swing continues at Pacific Raceways. For now, save the secret handshakes.
Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.