NHRA Divisional Events and Jeg’s Sportsnationals at New England Dragway
The Summer Of COVID may have been short, but there was still plenty of NHRA Divisional racing in Epping
Text and Photos by Billy Anderson
2020 was a season like no other for NHRA drag racing, particularly for the Division 1 Northeast Division Lucas Oil Schedule.
New England Dragway was scheduled to host the 4th Divisional of the season on June 19-21. However, following the completion of the NHRA Gatornationals Lucas Oil Sportsman portion, the engines fell quiet on the NHRA events as the pandemic tightened its grip on the nation.
The first three events of the divisional season were canceled, and the national event planned for Epping was also canceled, replaced with a Jeg’s Sportsnationals event.
In the midst of this, New Hampshire state regulations forced the delay of the track opening until May 30th. This did allow for the running of the scheduled LODRS on June 19-21, but t wasn’t until the week before the event that it was known whether or not spectators would be allowed to attend. In the end, the decision was made to allow spectators, but with such short notice many fans weren’t aware of that, and the stands looked pretty empty on the D1TV coverage.
In an effort to boost racer attendance at the Jeg’s Sportsnationals on the weekend of August 22-23, as well as to make-up for previously canceled events, a second Lucas Oil Divisional event was added to Thursday and Friday, August 20-21. Called a Sportsman Double Header, these have been completed to great acclaim in other NHRA divisions in the past.
Rather than cover each event separately, we will recap the results for all three events by competition category.
TOP ALCOHOL FUNNY CAR
Only the first LODRS event in June would have competition for Top Alcohol Dragsters and Top Alcohol Funny Cars.
Because of the uncertainty of the schedule for the year, New England Dragway was visited by two-time TAFC World Champion Sean Bellemeur of Placentia, CA behind the wheel of Tony Bartone’s Steve Boggs-tuned “Killer B’s Hussey Performance” ’18 Camaro. It was Bartone’s first appearance at the track since sweeping the Nostalgia Top Fuel titles at the New England Hot Rod Reunion from 2013 to 2015, as well as his prior divisional appearance in Top Alcohol Funny Car in 1991. Bellemeur qualified #1 with a 5.518, 267.64, to edge out Matt Gill’s 5.552, 267.64 mph.
While the “Killer B’s” did find their way to the Winner’s Circle, it was an unusual route for the Champs. After a round-one bye, a shaking, early shut-off 9.452, Bellemeur prepared to battle local favorite Fred Tigges. Tigges had qualified with a 5.679 and recorded a 5.698 in a round one win over Brian Gawlik. Unfortunately for the New England fans, Tigges left before the tree was activated, which hurt even more when Bellemeur shook the tires yet again, this time to an 8.889.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the ladder, Gill was making a case for himself by setting Low E.T. of each round, 5.588 and 5.627 in wins over Eastern Region heavy hitters Dan Pomponio and D.J. Cox, Jr.
They say that you shouldn’t give Steve Boggs too many cracks at the track, and he proved them right, as he found the right combination for the final. For his part, Bellemeur cut an electric (and self-admitted lucky) perfect reaction time to streak to a 5.538, 268.65 over Gill’s 5.567, 266.27 to win in his first appearance at New England Dragway.
TOP ALCOHOL DRAGSTER
The TA dragster field at New England Dragway was short but stout, and also showed that qualifying success doesn’t always translate to elimination wins. Warm temperatures led to tricky track conditions. As a result, Jackie Fricke struggled in qualifying but recorded a 5.329, 274.00 to defeat Tom Fox, Jr. in the first round.
The next two pairs produced side-by-side pedaling laps, with Dan Mercier edging out Josh Hart, 7.62 to 8.39, and Duane Shields, who never made it down the track in qualifying, using a 5.938, 255.92 to best top qualifier Rich McPhillips, Jr.’s 6.072. McPhillips’ qualifying lap was a stunning 5.238, 276.35.
Shields got the bye run in the semi-finals and finally made it down the track with a soft 5.500 at 267.53 mph. Fricke continued her streak with a 5.396, 270.27 that bested Mercier’s 5.665, 237.38.
The final was a very clean affair, with Fricke, the 2014 event winner, streaking to a 5.316, 274.83 to win over Shields’ competitive 5.380, 273.55.
Bryan Worner won two of the three New England Dragway events, which ultimately helped lead him to the 2020 NHRA Lucas Oil Super Stock World Championship.
Worner was victorious at the first event in June, winning six rounds total, with his toughest match seemingly against his twin brother Byron in the quarter-finals. Byron has had much success in Epping, winning the NHRA New England Nationals in 2019 and 2017, as well as the Divisional event in 2013, but that success transferred over to brother Bryan in 2021.
Bryan took the trophy at the June event when Jerry Hatch’s SS/EA ’70 Challenger fouled in the final, handing an easy win to Worner in the red SS/JA ’90 Camaro.
In the first August event, Worner stretched his undefeated streak to four more rounds, but in the fifth, semi-final round, he fouled out against Michael Iacono, who went on to take the event title over Anthony Bertozzi.
That final found both drivers running on the dial, with Iacono’s reaction time edge leading to a win by 0.019-seconds.
Worner won three rounds of the Jeg’s Sportsnationals before the rains came. The event was completed at Maple Grove Raceway, where Worner defeated Bill Kennedy in the final, again on a foul start.
Two wins and a semi-final finish greatly contributed to Bryan Worner’s first-ever national title.
Top Dragster was the headline event at the August divisional race and Jeg’s Sportsnationals, where Mike Coughlin, member of the nationally known Jeg’s team, made his first-ever appearance at New England Dragway. Coughlin was a solid competitor, but it was Al Kenny and Debbie DiGenova who found the most success in 2020.
Kenny parlayed his August divisional win to the NHRA Division One title. In that final, he took out Lauren Cultrera in the final round when she fouled. Kenny went out in round two in the June event. In the Jeg’s Sportsnationals he lost in round two to Kyle Cultrera, who exacted a little bit of revenge for his sister’s defeat from two days before.
DiGenova has had a strong history at New England Dragway NHRA events, winning the NHRA New England Nationals in 2017 and 2018, and the Divisional event in 2017.
In the June event, Debbie battled all the way to the final round, only to lose to Nick Meloni in a very tight race, by 0.006-seconds.
At the August divisional, Debbie lost to Lauren Cultrera in the quarter-finals, which set up Cultrera for a historic win at the Jeg’s Sportsnationals.
DiGenova won four rounds at New England Dragway to face off with Vince Musolino in the final. The rains came and delayed that final round until October at Virginia Motorsports Park. When DiGenova defeated a fouling Musolino in that final round, she recorded the 300th national event win by a woman.
Peter D’Agnolo was the star in Comp Eliminator, winning both divisional events at Epping in his D/SMA ’10 Cobalt, helping him earn the 2020 NHRA Division One championship.
At the June event, D’Agnolo’s semi-final holeshot win over former World Champion Frank Aragona, Jr. was a high point, earning D’Agnolo entry into the final, where he beat a fouling Lee Zane.
The August event was somewhat déjà vu when D’Agnolo defeated the same two opponents in the final two rounds. This time around, Aragona fouled, and Zane was just overmatched in the final.
In the Jeg’s Sportsnationals competition, Zane was able to exact some revenge, defeating D’Agnolo in round one. Zane fell in the quarter-finals, as Aragona was able to go all the way to the winner’s circle, defeating Jay Schoenberger in the rain-delayed final at Maple Grove Raceway.
Top Sportsman had varying results over the three events. Ron Riegel’s ’68 Camaro won the June event, defeating Eric Cabral’s ’41 Willys by 0.01-seconds.
Jeff Brooks’ ’51 Henry J won the August event over Larry Willard’s ’57 Bel Air.
The Jeg’s Sportsnationals was won by Craig Munroe’s ’71 Duster over John Benoit’s ’15 Corvette.
Stock Eliminator also produced a varied list of successes, with six different finalists in over the three events.
Long-time New England competitors paired off in the June final, with Bob Letellier’s ’14 Camaro winning over a fouling George LaBelle.
The August divisional came down to a heads-up final between Lenny Williams and Tom O’Loughlin in their F/SA entries. Williams had the horsepower advantage in his ’71 Buick, running a 10.960, 119.27 to O’Loughlin’s ’68 Chevy that ran an 11.289, 116.62.
The Jeg’s Sportsnationals was won by Thomas Fletcher, defeating Bubba Linke in the final.
Jamie Madison scored in June, to win his first-ever NHRA Northeast Division One event, defeating Shawn Fricke in the final.
Amanda Boicesco won the August divisional race, which helped catapult her to the Divisional Crown. She defeated Mike Bodnar in that final, using a 0.016-second package, forcing Bodnar to break out by 0.001-seconds.
The Jeg’s Sportsnationals winner was Walter Olt over Deb Moses.
The most significant pairing in Super Gas was actually a round-two pairing of the Jeg’s Sportsnationals between veterans Iggie Boicesco and Chuck Rothermel. Rothermel fouled, handing Boicesco the win. However, at the top end, Rothermel’s engine blew and the car got out of control and flipped over several times. Rothermel walked away from the incident, but the nearly one-hour clean-up delay was essentially the amount of time that could have been used to complete the Jeg’s Sportsnationals in Epping.
When it came to results, there were again six different finalists in Super Gas. Ray Sawyer won his eighth divisional at the June event, defeating eventual divisional champion Justin Lopes in the final.
The August final was won by Tennessee’s John Labbous, taking an easy win over Rich Price in the final.
The Jeg’s Sportsnationals was won by Jason Kenny over Jerry Pierce.
Local favorite Brian Sawyer found his way to two Super Street final rounds in the three races at Epping. For the June event, Sawyer made the final but unfortunately lost to Keith Mayers on a holeshot.
The August event was won by Taylor Iacono over Jack Webster.
Sawyer came back for the Jeg’s Sportsnationals and took the win over Iacono by 0.012-seconds.
Despite a challenging year, New England Dragway was able to host two NHRA Northeast Divisional events, a first for the facility, as well as the first-ever Northeast Jeg’s Sportsnationals. Overall, it was a pleasant ending to what could have been an even worse year.