READING, Pa. (Oct. 8, 2012) – NTB/Service Central-backed Funny Car driver Johnny Gray has a way with Mondays, but getting to the final round of the Auto-Plus NHRA Nationals was just short of what Gray and his branch of the Don Schumacher Racing team really wanted: to win the event for Alex's Lemonade Stand in the car themed to raise awareness of and funds for the foundation.
Gray and his heavy-hitting team came to Maple Grove Raceway on a mission outside of the norm for a raceday weekend. The team wore black and yellow and campaigned the "Lemonator" body on their Dodge Charger R/T in support of Alex's Lemonade Stand (alexslemonade.org), a foundation created to raise money towards finding a cure for childhood cancer.
The foundation has funded over 250 research projects annually in the race to find a cure, and 9-year-old Mario Carpino, whose smiling face was featured on the hood of the racecar this weekend in Reading, has put forth major fundraising efforts with his family to raise money for the foundation since he was diagnosed with four inoperable brain tumors in December 2007. Gray and the Service Central team were honored to host the charismatic young man and his family in Reading.
"I've said it time and time again, but it is such an honor to get to drive this car and bring awareness," said Gray, who started the weekend on Thursday by visiting with kids at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "One of the greatest parts about this is getting to meet kids like Mario. For all of the folks who brought their kids out this weekend, I thank you. This experience has been one of the most fantastic things in the world. These kids have more heart and more guts than anyone I know, and their parents do, too. It's just unbelievable.
"I love drag racing, and being able to share it like this is really a special deal. I always look forward to coming back here and running this car, and I'm hoping and praying that my sponsor will let us run this Alex's Lemonade Stand car next year, too. It's just a blast, and to go extra rounds and see the kids grinning when you get back with the car – it's just huge."
Gray has historically done well when events are weather-delayed, and for the second consecutive season, he drove the Lemonator to the final round at Maple Grove Raceway on a Monday. Last season, Gray finished in the final to John Force Racing's Robert Hight, and this season, Gray forfeited the win in the delayed final to Hight's teammate, Mike Neff.
Although the weekend was cut just short for Gray and company, their impressive performance included a start from the No. 4 position – their best raceday start since the Brainerd event in August – and a semifinals run that broke Gray's career best record for speed with a stunning 319.45 mph blast.
After charging past a tire-smoking Bob Tasca in the first round with a 4.13 at 285 mph, Gray drove the Rob Wendland-tuned Lemonator to victory over troubled Don Schumacher Racing teammate Matt Hagan, 4.06 to 7.96. The semifinals set Gray up to race another DSR teammate and the new points leader and national record holder, Jack Beckman. Gray was off the starting line first with an incredible .069-second launch and clocked a crisp 4.026 that neared his own personal best e.t. (4.01) to win the round and garner lane choice over Neff in the final.
In the last round of the weekend, Gray was again first to leave the starting line, but at the hit of the throttle the tires stuck and stumbled on the racing surface. The team's collective dream of winning the race in honor of Mario, who had lodged his way into each of their hearts during the course of the weekend, went up in smoke.
"We really wanted to win this one for Mario and the Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation," said Wendland. "This was a tough loss to take, but it was really something special to spend time with the kids and families this weekend. It meant a lot to all of us.
"In terms of the race, there is an up side. What we learned here will make us better as a team. We reinforced that we have a car of championship caliber, and this team has every right to be in the Countdown."
Gray made a monumental move in the points standings at Maple Grove and jumped from the No. 8 position all the way up to 4th.
"Last weekend we had our sights set on finishing in the top 5," said Gray. "Now we're shooting for top 3."
Johnny Gray, NTB/Service Central Racing Dodge Charger R/T
Round one: Johnny Gray (4.138-second at 285.83 mph) defeats Bob Tasca III (4.249, 247.75)
Round two: Gray (4.066, 314.09) def. Matt Hagan (7.962, 89.00)
Semifinals: Gray (4.026, 319.45) def. Jack Beckman (4.025, 318.02)
Final: Mike Neff (4.030, 317.94) def. Gray (9.305, 77.88)
NHRA FULL THROTTLE STANDINGS
After four of six events in the Countdown to the Championship
(Unofficial through Oct. 8, 2012; DSR drivers in CAPS)
1. JACK BECKMAN 2,437
2. RON CAPPS 2,414
3. Mike Neff 2,383
4. JOHNNY GRAY 2,246
5. Cruz Pedregon 2,244
6. John Force 2,217
7. Courtney Force 2,216
8. Robert Hight 2,211
9. Tim Wilkerson 2,207
10. Jeff Arend 2,180
UPCOMING FULL THROTTLE EVENTS
Oct. 25-28, Big O Tires NHRA Nationals, Las Vegas
Nov. 8-11, Auto Club of Southern California NHRA Finals, Pomona, Calif.
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