Holeshots, Records, And A Rebirth: The Shakedown Nationals Are Back!

More than seventeen years ago, New York-based drag racer Dave Hance had the brilliant idea to host what was then the season-closing drag racing extravaganza, bringing together the heavy hitters of the time to attack the dragstrip at the now-defunct Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, NJ for the event called the Shakedown at E-Town. The event quickly grew into one that became a destination for racers; the cool fall air in New Jersey promoted the record-breaking performances the Shakedown became known for throughout the racing world.

Then Hance stepped back after the first decade, passed the torch to Bill Bader at Summit Motorsports Park, and the Shakedown Nationals lived on in Ohio. For reasons unknown, it never had the same feel or success in Ohio, despite the amazing facility that is SMP. Early in 2019, Bader offered the event’s rights to Tyler Crossnoe and Tommy Franklin of Virginia Motorsports Park. As an attendee of several of the original events in NJ—and a serious fan of anything Tyler Crossnoe does—I put it onto my schedule immediately, because I had a feeling it would quickly make a return to its former glory. And boy was I right.

I arrived at VMP on Wednesday morning after a short drive down from our Philadelphia-area home base and was immediately impressed with the facility. I had never been there before, but had seen photographs from various events, and was looking forward to shooting there. After dropping my gear in the tower, I took a quick walk around the pits and ran into X275 racer Tim Dutton’s Camaro. I remembered seeing the car at the Sweet 16 2.0 event earlier this year but didn’t get a chance to chat with Tim there. After a short conversation—and a bit of drooling by me over the car’s cleanliness—and we hatched a plan to shoot it later on that night for a feature to be seen right here on Front Street over the fall.

Much back-and-forth drama occurred between several of the heavy-hitter Pro Mod and Radial Vs. The World racers, which was fitting given the fact that the Shakedown Nationals had its Pro Mod Vs. RvW Judgement Day battle scheduled for Friday night. The intent was to settle the score—once and for all—between these two classes, with the top eight racers from each class hashing it in a winner-take-all format for a cool $15,000 to split between them.  During the testing session on Wednesday, it was clear to me that everyone was in it to win it, with a number of the racers dipping into the 3.60 eighth-mile range with plenty of room to spare. With the final round of qualifying completed, 14 Pro Mod racers dipped into the 3.60s, with track owner Tommy Franklin’s 3.621 hit in his Musi-powered nitrous-injected 1969 Camaro at the top of the heap. The top seven RvW racers cracked the .60 barrier, with fellow nitrous racer Marcus “The Axeman” Birt dropping an incredible record blast on the fans, a 3.579-second shot heard ‘round the world.

With final qualifying complete, Crossnoe called out the Top Eight from each class, to pick chips numbered one through eight, designed to set the pairings. Once all 16 chips were picked, he called each number in succession, and if by some amazing stroke of luck—or was it fate?—Birt and Tommy Franklin each had the 8 chip. Anxious for this part of the event to begin, I switched out my lenses and headed for the better-lit side of the track, which just so happened to be the radial-prepped lane.

Despite all of the jaw-jacking headed into this showdown, by the fifth pairing the PM vs. RvW event was all over, with the Pro Mod side of the ladder taking wins handily, while many of the RvW competitors struggled to get down the track effectively.

But the marquee matchup of Franklin and Birt was the one I was waiting for: did the RvW Corvette have what it took to repeat its stellar performance from the third round of qualifying, or would Franklin take advantage of his home-track familiarity to stop Birt in his tracks?

Marcus Birt is on my side of the track. This pass answers the question. Birt’s nitrous-powered, Stevie Jackson-tuned flyweight Corvette is currently the baddest man on radial tires—and doorslammer of any type.

Something I neglected to mention earlier: Birt had quite the struggle during the first round of qualifying. If you look at the top photo here, you’ll see several pieces of debris on the track surface. Those are parts of Marcus Birt’s carbon fiber brake rotor, which self-destructed when one of the two parachutes failed to deploy correctly, dropping under the car and wrapping itself around the axle and rotor. Marcus is lucky that the car didn’t end up in the wall, although the team did have to perform some trackside surgery first to cut the damaged parachute from underneath, then repair the brakes and the body damage from the failure. All of this occurred in the first two qualifying sessions before he went out and crushed the record, so there’s that.

I think it was also during this session that Stevie Fast had a driveshaft U-joint explode and turn the inside of his car into a mess. The shrapnel destroyed the driveshaft enclosure and went through the door of the car, ending up in the stands. Luckily nobody was injured, and Stevie’s team was able to repair the car and continue to race.

In the final round of the RvW class, Birt faced off against Stevie—his tuner—and the pair combined for the first side-by-side 3.50s pass in RvW, 3.58 for Birt and 3.59 for Jackson, though Jackson won on Birt’s redlight foul. It was an amazing weekend for RvW action.

The Xtreme Racing Engines turbocharged powerplant of John Carinci powered him to a new personal-best and the Outlaw 10.5 class record of 3.782 at 209.75 mph, along with the top qualified spot on the ladder. Despite having the car to beat during eliminations, Carinci was tapped out in the final round by Nick Schroeder’s ’06 GTO, which scored a massive holeshot to take home the class win. It was a great showing for Quick Nick—who picked up the tenth he needed and more—on the starting line.

With Josh Ledford and Jamie Miller collaborating on the tuneup and chassis setup for the Joe Copson-owned Outlaw 10.5 Corvette (which we featured previously), Blake Copson broke into the 3.70s in Outlaw 10.5, scoring a 3.794 personal-best pass in the quarterfinals.

The man, the myth, the driving force behind the Shakedown Nationals name. It was great to run into Dave Hance and his family on Saturday. Dave and I go way back to when he used to race in the NMRA, and it’s been a while since I’ve seen him. He’s still as passionate as ever, though.

This big boom for Brian Chin during the quarterfinals ended his Outlaw 10.5 weekend thanks to a broken transmission. He has a personal-best 3.914 to rest on heading into the fall, though. His car is always so clean and catches my camera lens like few others.

Fun fact: Pro Mod eliminations saw eight holeshot victories through five rounds of racing. That’s pretty intense. Final round winner John Strickland captured the holeshot win over Jay Cox with a .008-second reaction time and 3.673 ET to Cox’s .054/3.666 blast.

Jim Howe, Jr. and Andy Manson were men on a mission in Limited Drag Radial. Right out of the box they were half a tenth better than anyone else on the property; Manson qualified at the top with a 4.058 and Howe stopped the timers at 4.068 in the eighth-mile. At the end of the event, they had run through the rest of the LDR field to meet up in the final round. There, Howe pulled out the holeshot win by .015-second at the stripe—or four feet and five-eighths of an inch at 184 miles per hour.

After winning the Yellowbullet Nationals just a few weeks ago (where he qualified number one), then qualifying at the top of the ladder here at the Shakedown Nationals, Charles Hull thought he was on top of the world. And then there’s Ron Rhodes. He missed the first qualifier after deciding to go to the race on a whim, after his weekend at Yellowbullet was cut short due to a sticking relief valve in the oil pump—coincidentally, in a race against Hull. Here in Virginia, the tides turned as the pair met up in the final round. I was atop the timing tower watching, soaking in the sights and sounds as the event came to a close. I saw Hull’s crew from KBX Performance frantically scrambling around the car, then watched Rhodes ride off into the sunset for the $7,500 win. Afterward, Hull explained that a loose electrical connection at the firewall shut the car down and cost him the race.

There was a ton of intense action in DXP235 this weekend, too. Martin Connelley (top) became the first racer to crack the 5-flat barrier, knocking down 4.988 at 142 mph during the testing sessions. But when it came time for qualifying, he slowed up a bit to card a 5.03 and top the ladder. The top five qualifiers were all bunched up: Connelley, Dave Fiscus’ 5.051 (impressive in his six-cylinder Grand National), Jason Martin’s 5.061, Jonathan Insley’s 5.067, and Jason Riley’s 5.085 pass set the top half of the ten-car field.

Despite having what appeared to be the car to beat, Connelley turned on the dreaded redlight in the semifinal against Insley’s nitroused Mustang, setting up the final round between Insley and Fiscus. The Grand National left first—and hard—but on the top end, Insley powered around before the stripe to take home the win with a 5.037 to Fiscus’ 5.147.

I can’t forget the battle that happened in the Ultra Street class. Rodney Ragen (you might remember him from this Front Street article, Brian Keep, and perennial favorite Joel Greathouse all went 4.60 in qualifying: Ragen with a 4.600, Keep with a 4.602, and Greathouse with a 4.607. Come elimination day, Greathouse and Ronny Rhodes cut through a tight field to end up in the final round together. Remember all of those holeshots I was talking about? Despite Rhodes stopping the timers with a 4.600 on a .053-second reaction time, seasoned driver Greathouse reacted in .034-second and crossed the stripe with a 4.610 pass to win the event by nine slim thousandths of a second. Now that’s tight racing!

Other Shakedown Nationals winners included Glennie Buckler in No Clock Small Block, Terry Logan in Top Sportsman, Greg Showns in Super Pro, Brian Marko in 8.50 Index, Jamie VanCleef in 5.00 Index, and Marc Chambliss Jr in 5.49 Index.

I managed to capture Crossnoe for a couple of minutes this week as he was traveling from one track to the next, and he was still on a high from the events of the weekend.

He explains: “The Shakedown Nationals definitely exceeded my expectations. I knew it would be a solid event, but I never expected what happened. From the amazing performances by the racers on the track, to the fans in the stands, the entire event was over the top. A jam-packed vendor midway that will grow in the future gave the racers support and the fans something to look at. No Limits Karting let the casual race fan jump behind the wheel of a go-kart and have some fun. Smooth’s cookout brought in racers and crews on Thursday night for a great meal on the house and fun stories. Plans have already started for 2020’s edition, with more fun activities off the track and plans to refine the on-track activities to be even better. I have to give a huge shoutout to my team at Virginia Motorsports Park and PDRA for working their tails off for this event. It wouldn’t have happened without those key people in key positions!”

I’m ready for next year.