The NMRA Finally Finds The Groove At The Grove

For the better part of the last 30 years, Maple Grove Raceway has hosted an all-Ford event, designed to cater to the Mustang hobby that flourished in the area throughout the late eighties and well into the new millennium. With other famous tracks in the area like Old Bridge Township Raceway Park (Englishtown) and Atco Raceway, as well as the legendary street races down Front Street in Philly and across New York City and Jersey, many consider the Northeast to be the epicenter of the Mustang scene.

As I look back fondly, it’s clear that the landscape has changed quite a bit and has matured into a more structured, albeit concise market. The Fords-only race has remained popular, thanks to a partnership with the NMRA that began back in 1999. However, in recent years, the weather has been an influential factor in the success of this event, with several rainouts dampening the festivities. A schedule change for 2019 turned things in the right direction, and The Grove was inundated with Blue Oval beasts for the NMRA Ford Motorsport Nationals.

The aforementioned weather woes became so prognostic that it was a running joke that the NMRA Maple Grove race would be rained out. In response to the repeated climatic challenges, the event was moved back to late June where it had historically taken place. This seemed to do the trick, as it wasn’t until Saturday evening’s final round of qualifying where Mother Nature came rolling in fast and angry.

Jake Green was beginning to prep the track for heads-up qualifying when ProMedia General Manager Rollie Miller, advised his staff over radio that a large storm system was rolling this way and would ultimately end the night. The starting line crew went into overdrive to get things going as quickly and smoothly as possible.

“The tension in the staging lanes to get the cars down the track was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. We could see these massive dark clouds and wind picking up, and we just wanted to get our runs in,” said Modified Street racer Eric Bardekoff.

As the storm tore through, it violently ripped up all the sponsor banners hung along the bleachers, and the temperature dropped what felt like a good 20 degrees. With a commendable effort from the track crew and alert drivers, Street Outlaw, Renegade, and Modified Street classes were able to wrap up their final Q3 passes as Limited Street took to the track.

The improved weather meant that conditions had become advantageous to engines that depend on natural atmosphere to make power. Only one naturally aspirated car races in Limited Street, Former Factory Stock champion Mike Washington, who wheels the infamous Pure Evil notchback Fox body Mustang, which is the quickest naturally aspirated, Coyote-powered car on the planet. Everyone cheered on in amazement as the car—with an engine capable of turning 9,500 rpm—screamed through the traps to an incredible 8.77 elapsed time, crossing the stripe at 153.93 mph. This pass informally set the new naturally aspirated Coyote record.

Sadly, for Washington, all of the passes in Limited Street Q3 were tossed out because the final car in the class was not able to run before the rain hit and his tires touched the burnout box. A quick look through the rulebook forced Rollie’s hand, and he was left with no other choice but to repeat the third qualifying session for everyone in the class to ensure fairness. Without the killer conditions on Sunday, Washington was unable to duplicate his feat. In addition, Factory Stock and Coyote Stock also ran final qualifying on Sunday morning before eliminations kicked off.

All eyes turned toward Renegade driver, Haley James, who was poised to make some magic this weekend. As the season has rolled along, Haley’s competitors have felt the wrath of her incredibly skilled driving and knowledgeable team, which prepares her car for domination at every event. Entering the weekend, they were so far ahead in points over the other cars that they could mathematically lock up the championship with a win at Maple Grove, or by setting the class record—and of course, this team drove from New Mexico to do both!

I caught up with the James family on Saturday after reading a post Haley made on Facebook about needing a new MSD box. Dwayne James—her father and crew chief—advised me that he knew nobody would have the part, so he went ahead and wired around the problem, with his absurd knowledge of the MoTec engine management system used in the car. But that wasn’t the worst of their problems. Haley explained that during qualifying, the air shifter went out on the transmission, and she had to resort to manually shifting the turbocharged Coyote to get down the track. But the team’s follies of Maple Grove didn’t start or end with the broken air shifter and faulty MSD box.

“After St. Louis, John [Urist] told us he wasn’t planning on coming to Maple Grove which was only three weeks later. He owns the semi rig and hauler, so I knew we needed to figure something else out if we wanted to get the car across the country,” Dwayne explained.

So he went into a friend’s dealership near their home in Albuquerque, New Mexico and made a slick upgrade from his Dodge pickup to a newer, more-capable Cummins model that could handle the long trek. Under strict advisement from his crew, a black trailer was the only logical choice to transport the “B-Team” Mustang; Dwayne ordered everything he could from the Summit Racing catalog and local hardware store to get the necessary straps and tools they would need to go racing. Just two and a half weeks after the previous race in St. Louis, he was ready for some coffee and a long drive to Pennsylvania.

The team was met with adversity from the start, but they powered through it and managed to figure out the track conditions, positioning Haley as the number-two qualifier and earning the fastest speed of the class during qualifying. Sadly, no celebratory Bud Lights were cracked open by the team this weekend. On what would be her final pass of the race, one of the timing chains broke.

Haley still won that race, but the ensuing carnage forced the team to pull the plug on what had been a promising weekend. She was unable to make the call to the lanes for the semifinals and conceded the pairing to Bob Zelenak. He then headed into the final round, where he lost to Chip Provenza—a longtime NMRA racer himself, making his return to the series. Provenza normally races in the Ultra Street class, held at drag radial-style events held up and down the eastern seaboard, and Renegade offers a virtual crossover class to those racers.

While it’s hard for Haley to be in high spirits after losing the opportunity to lock up the championship that weekend, it would be hard to consider anyone else winning the Edelbrock Renegade class this year in NMRA. Haley has more than proven herself as a winning driver and the crew behind her continue to demonstrate to everyone that they are able to meet any challenge to get the win—unless it’s a broken timing chain and you don’t have a replacement sitting around.

The chain has “been the same one since 2014, so she did us good,” joked Haley, and her father alluded to showing up big at the next race at Route 66 Raceway at the end of July. I wouldn’t be surprised if Haley has a fancy Super Bowl ring after that event—one of my favorites—where we get to see the NMRA face off against the NMCA.

Moving the event back to late June appears to be the redeeming quality for the Ford Motorsport Nationals, and I hope it picks up more momentum going into 2020. You never want to lose an event due to weather, and especially not one that is so historic for the Northeast region.

After the event there were loads of social media posts thanking the NMRA for the smooth event and, at least for this author, it was the most fun I’ve ever had at the track. The NMRA is a fun family to be welcomed into, and they sure do know how to cook and stock up on beers. Anytime you get a full, safe weekend of great racing, it’s always a big win for everyone involved. See you next year, Maple Grove.