Jim Epler has had his ups and downs as a funny car driver since he strapped himself into one for the first time five years ago.
All drivers do.
But ever since the NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., in March, Epler has gone into what could be the biggest slump of his short career.
This weekend at the AHRA World Finals at Spokane Raceway Park, Epler hopes to reverse his frustrating run and salvage his season for the remaining six events on the NHRA tour.
“The season’s been a disaster so far,” Epler said. “I need to turn it around right now.”
After reaching the semifinals of the first two races of the 1995 season and securing a fourth-place position in the points chase, Epler started having problems in his car’s clutch, a problem for many funny car teams this year. That was solved after the crew for his Rug Doctor Oldsmbile found a factory defect in a small part within the clutch.
Then, after a first-round loss at the Northwest Nationals in Seattle last week, Epler’s crew chief, Johnny West, discovered that a baffle in the fuel tank wasn’t opening and closing properly.
West then went back and looked at the computer readouts from the last 20 runs the car made and found out the problem was present in all of them, depriving the engine of fuel.
They now have that fixed and believe they are close to regaining the edge that made Epler the first person to go 300 mph in a funny car.
Part of the turnaround can be attributed to Larry Meyer, an accomplished top fuel crew chief who led Cruz Pedregon to the 1992 NHRA funny car title. Meyer joined the team last weekend in Seattle.
“You need somebody to come in and give you a different perspective,” West said. “Larry has definitely done that.”
This weekend’s World Finals also provide a good testing ground.
Since this race doesn’t count in the NHRA points standings, Epler is free to try new things without risking valuable points. Epler is in a tight battle to qualify for the final spot in the Big Bud Shootout that coincides with the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis at the end of August.
The Shootout pits the top eight drivers in the NHRA points standings, with the winner taking $100,000. Epler is currently 10th, just 20 points out of the eighth spot with one race remaining, next weekend in Brainerd, Minn., before Indy.
“It’s hard when you don’t run good because I have people to answer to like everyone else,” Epler said. “I got sponsors that want results.”
Epler has won two NHRA events. His first win came at the 1992 Winter-nationals, when he upset current World Champion John Force, earning Epler the “Upset of the Year” award from National Dragster. His other win came at the 1993 Winston Finals.
Mike Ranny took the No. 1 spot in top-fuel dragster qualifying, covering the quarter-mile in 5.61 seconds at a speed of 260 mph. Craig Smith of Odessa was second with a 5.73.
In top-fuel funny car, John Force continued his dominance in the division by running a 5.58 at 266 mph. Gary Densham was second at 5.65.
Top alcohol dragster provided the closest competition of the day as Chris Denison of Spokane qualified No. 1, edging Bryan Dawdchuk by one thousandth of a second. Denison ran a 6.579 to Dawdchuk’s 6.580.
In top alcohol funny car, Mitch McDowell is currently No. 1 with a time of 6.55 at 222 mph.
Pro qualifying continues today at 1 and 8 p.m.
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