Local drag racer adapts to change of rules

Without exception, every single racer’s pit area during the NHRA Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis has a story to tell.

In 2019, while driving their Chevrolet-bodied cars, star drivers like Funny Car winner John Force and Pro Stock winner Alex Laughlin may have swept most of the media headlines, but onlookers could not help but notice a rather unheralded effort from an unlikely source: Ernie Neal from Columbus.

Neal is no stranger to racing at Indy. He has campaigned a series of Super Stock race cars for many consecutive years. But for last year’s race, this wily veteran racer and team owner was certainly thinking outside of the box when he debuted a recently completed 1996 Chevrolet Caprice, and that car has a rather interesting background.

During the previous two NHRA Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, Neal had been the No. 1 qualifier for the event’s massive Super Stock eliminator class while racing a GT/N 2006 Chevy Cavalier, which had a single four-barrel 265ci engine.

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Over the past offseason, he was thrown a curveball by NHRA rules-making officials when they announced something unexpected.

“The last two Indy races we qualified No. 1 running at about .950 under our index,” Neal said. “But in January of 2019, for whatever reason, NHRA deemed that my Cavalier was no longer legal for the class. They informed me that there could not be any manual transmission cars for that engine/car combo. So in effect, I could no longer use that (for Super Stock). I wasn’t very happy about it. I knew I had built a very good engine program. So instead of just giving up, I began looking for an alternative. Find the right car for this engine.”

After some research, Neal confirmed the 1996 Chevrolet Caprice did come with a 265ci engine option. He located one in North Carolina, brought it home and began construction.

“I started this car about mid-May of last year,” Neal said. “I pulled the body completely off the frame so I could install a roll bar, and we did a bunch of other fabrication. We took a lot of weight out of the car. The stock ship weight for this car was 3,925 pounds, but we got it down to 3,535 (just above the NHRA’s minimum for SS/PA: 3,515 pounds), and I installed my 265ci mill.”

It represented a lot of work.

“Then just before coming to Indy, we did some testing at a local eighth-mile track but never ran it a full quarter-mile until we arrived in Indy,” he said.

Fast forward to last Labor Day weekend at Indy and not only did Neal win his class (SS/PA), he also sat on top of the Super Stock qualifying list (No. 1 in the 128-car field) for a third-consecutive NHRA Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals event. Neal’s best run was a 10.830 on NHRA’s 12.65 index, which is a mind-boggling 1.820-second sub-index run.

“I wish that NHRA had just left me alone with my Cavalier, but they didn’t,” Neal said. “But I’m pretty happy with our Plan B effort.”

For Neal, the amazing runs at Indy came in a race car that has only 9-inch tires and a manually shifted automatic transmission, both of which are not within his normal drag racing wheelhouse.

“I’ve always had stick cars and hadn’t used small tires for about 40 years or so,” he said.

Neal’s reputation and commitment to racing GM-branded drag racing cars is very multidimensional, too. In addition to this Caprice and also his Cavalier (which he plans to bring back with an L98 engine), his fleet includes an SS/I 1992 Corvette (driven at Indy by Robbie Draughton) and a 2005 Pontiac Sunfire (driven by his son Dave).

Neal also confirms he is working on a newly acquired ‘66 Chevrolet II, which should see the drag strip this season.

All-Star Sprint schedule changes

The Ollie’s Bargain Outlet All-Star Circuit of Champions presented by Mobil 1 scheduled for May 1 and 2 is postponed, announced series owner Tony Stewart.

Stewart made the decision in accordance with the stay-at-home extensions enforced in Ohio and Pennsylvania and the ongoing social distancing guidelines put into place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Lernerville Speedway event will now be contested on its previously scheduled makeup date of May 22. The program will kick off what is now a three-race weekend through the Keystone State, concluding with the two-day Bob Weikert Memorial at Port Royal Speedway on May 23 and 24.

All Star and Sharon Speedway officials are working together to find a suitable makeup date for the May 2 appearance.

Depending on the stages of the phased reopening of the economy, there is a likelihood additional events will be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tentatively, the All Star Circuit of Champions will open its 2020 championship point season with a trio of stops in Michigan and Indiana from May 15 through 17. The All Stars will kick off the weekend tripleheader with a Friday night visit to I-96 Speedway in Lake Odessa, Michigan, followed by back-to-back nights in the Hoosier State, including a Gas City Speedway visit and a Kokomo Speedway takeover.

This week in racing history

From 51 years ago this weekend, in 1969 at Brownstown, John Warner won the late model feature over Floyd Gilbert, Paul Crockett, Bob Fleetwood and Ezra Bastin.

From 40 years ago in 1980 at Brownstown, Ira Bastin won the late model feature race over Paul Crockett, Roger Absher, Bob Fleetwood and Steve Barnett. Tony Moore won the hobby stock main event over Daryl Herbert, Kevin Claycomb, Rodney Harris and Ray Weston.

Also, from this weekend in 1980, Dick Gaines won the sprint car feature at Haubstadt over Bobby Adkins, Rick Ungar, Bob Kinser and Mike Johnson.

From 30 years ago in 1990 at Brownstown, John Gill won the late model feature over Ray Godsey, Jim Curry, Kevin Claycomb and Lee Fleetwood. Earl Plessinger won the street stock feature over Mark Barber, Tom Seadler, Gary Green and Jeff Hehman.

Also, from 1990 at Bloomington Speedway, Joe Gaerte won the sprint car feature over Steve Kinser, Danny Lasoski, Doug Wolfgang and Rocky Hodges.

From 30 years ago this weekend, Kevin Briscoe won the sprint car feature at Haubstadt over Brian Tobin and Joey Nash.

From 20 years ago at Brownstown, Richie Hedrick won the late model feature race over Dennis Erb Jr., Marty O’Neal, C.J. Rayburn and Doug Ault. Todd Gilpin won the open wheel modified feature over Lee Hobbs, Matt Boknecht, Doug St. Myers and Josh Lucas. Matt Bex took the bomber feature over Robert Walters, Ray Godsey Jr., Bubba Woods and Larry Harris.