THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH – REPRINT

Finally, someone speaks the truth about what it takes to strap oneself into a 6,000-horsepower top fuel dragster capable of turning a quarter mile in 4.5 seconds.

“The more I think about it, I must have a loose nut somewhere,” Cory McClenathan said, laughing, as he prepared to come to central Ohio this week for the Pontiac Excitement Nationals at National Trail Raceway.

No one was laughing three weeks ago when McClenathan’s dragster bowed up, then broke right behind the driver’s compartment near the end of a qualifying run in Bristol, Tenn. The violence that ensued – his car tumbling, hitting the wall and sliding hundreds of yards before coming to a stop, with fire all around – was a sight to behold.

And then, there was McClenathan’s view.

“Within half of a second I went from getting ready to pull the chute to being completely inverted looking down and seeing the front wing scraping on the ground,” he said. “That is your first indication that, ‘Man, I am really high in the air here and not really sure exactly what’s going to happen.’

“Things happen so fast that you just don’t have time to even make an adjustment or anything more than just hang on. That first hit when it hit the wall and broke in half, that was probably the worst hit. After that it was just a matter of waiting for it to slide to a stop so I could get out of the car.”

He got out on his own, remarkable in itself.

“After watching the video over and over again, I feel very fortunate to have been able to pretty much walk away from the thing unscathed,” McClenathan said.

It was a testament to the required safety devices and gear, he said, referring to the HANS (head and neck support) device and Simpson helmet and firesuit he was wearing, and to the construction of the driver’s cockpit.

“That is what saved me, by far,” McClenathan said.

He climbed back into a hurriedly prepared new car two days later.

“It was something I had to do,” McClenathan said. “Maybe it was a little too soon, especially two days after, but at the same time I felt better the more passes I had. Going into Columbus I will be back, hopefully, to my normal self.”

The car won’t look the same this week, that’s for sure. Normally decked out promoting his primary sponsor Fram, this week it will sport the bumble bee yellow and black of Jeg’s Automotive. It will be the first time since 1981 that a top fueler in full Jeg’s regalia will hit the strip.

In keeping with that, Jeg Coughlin, former top fuel driver, founder of Jeg’s and patriarch of what became a drag racing family, will do a symbolic warm-up of the car Friday afternoon before the first qualification pass.

“I’m looking forward to that, and not only because of what Jeg’s means to this sport but also because of the charitable foundation their family supports that aids cancer research,” McClenathan said.

As for tightening that “loose nut” in his head, McClenathan, 43, said that’s beyond hope. But with 29 top fuel national event wins, sixth most in NHRA history, he’s not totally nuts.

“I watched the replay of that crash way too many more times than I should have, probably, but at the same time, we were watching to try to figure out what went wrong, and what can we do to make everything structurally stronger,” McClenathan said. “Maybe the next person won’t be as lucky as I was. It’s a tribute to the NHRA Powerade series and their rules and regulations that I was able to walk away.”

He had no trouble mashing the gas two weeks ago in the first round of eliminations of the Southern National at Atlanta. Facing Tony Schumacher, he ran a 4.56-second quarter mile with a top-end speed just over 330 mph.

“The problem was, Tony ran 4.44, I think the third-quickest run ever,” McClenathan said. “But maybe our luck is about to change.”


tmay@dispatch.com

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