Home Of The Holeshot Win: Lights Out X Opens 2019 In Style
Photography by E3Xtreme
Donald “Duck” Long and his Duck X Productions promotion group have been talking about eighth-mile drag radial racing and how awesome it is for ten years now. After witnessing the insane racing action which took place this past weekend at the season-opening Lights Out X race down at South Georgia Motorsports Park, we’re inclined to agree with them. The beginning of the event can be considered the previous Sunday, when racers begin to arrive and get set up to compete in what is affectionately called Duck Week by its die hard faithful attendees. This won’t be a complete wrap-up of the entire event with all classes—simply the parts which stuck out to me as a longtime observer of the sport of drag racing. Check out the awesome photos from my buddy Damon Steinke over at E3Xtreme, too.
Radial Vs. The World
From the outset of this year’s event, it was clear that the flagship Radial Vs. The World class had taken yet another massive leap over the offseason. The class, which is contested at several events each year in addition to the three Duck X Productions races, had several racers sneak into the 3.60s last season, topped by Mark Micke’s incredible 3.67/221 mph blast at DXP’s Sweet Sixteen event in March. But the milestone was not easy to reach. Entering this year, I wondered how many racers would be able to make it happen especially at the first race of the year, when everyone is still working through their offseason changes to figure out what works and what doesn’t with respect to tune-up, torque converter, and gearing adjustments.
Despite non-ideal track conditions, Kevin Rivenbark of Galot Motorsports cracked into the zone in Wednesday night’s opening qualifying session with a 3.66 in his ProCharger-boosted, ProLine powered Camaro. This set the stage for what would be an epic battle between the top racers in the class. Rivenbark’s Camaro—essentially a Pro Mod on radial tires—turned out to be impressive and consistent as the weekend progressed. In that Wednesday night testing session, Rivenbark was the only racer to show any sort of strong performance as the cold weather prevented other racers from swinging for the fences.
Thursday’s conditions turned out to be far more conducive to insanity, and the racers in the class responded in kind. Tim Slavens’ steel-roof/steel-quarter-panel stock-appearing ’69 Camaro doesn’t look much different from any other ’69 Camaro you might see at the dragstrip… except for the fact that he turned everyone upside down with an insane 3.621 moonshot at over 217 mph. Rivenbark improved on his Wednesday pass with a 3.65, Alex Laughlin and Jeff Sitton both entered the .60s with Laughlin cracking off a 3.698 and Sitton turning in a 3.699. By the end of the session, the bump spot sat at an insane 3.990, with 32 cars under that number and 75 total competing in the class, although some of those were racers in classes like X275 who purchased RvW tech cards to get in some extra testing passes.
By the end of the qualifying sessions on Friday night, Rivenbark had taken back the top qualified spot with a 3.613-second blast—and the record, as you can see in the above video from Free Life Films. Mark Micke had improved to a 3.641, Mark Woodruff turned in a career-best 3.657, and Daniel Pharris and Sitton both improved to round out the 3.60s grouping at seven cars.
With all these cars in the 60s—and another 17 qualifiers locked solidly in the 3.70s—along with a final 3.899 bump spot for #32, five rounds of Radial Vs. The World brutality were coming right up, elimination-style. Bad weather was looming on the horizon for Sunday, so the Duck X crew pushed the racers to complete three rounds of eliminations by Saturday evening.
Four racers were left standing for the semifinals: Rivenbark, Daniel Pharris, Alex Laughlin, and Tim Slavens. Three of the four won their round three matchups with 3.66 passes. Rivenbark and Laughlin turned on the win light with identical 3.669s and Slavens did so with a 3.668; only Pharris turned in a slower pass of 3.68 in his win over Paolo Giust. This set the stage for two rounds of epic racing come Sunday morning.
Daniel Pharris squared up with Slavens in the first pairing and simply outmuscled him to the big end of the track, 3.698 to Slavens’ 3.709, setting one side of the final round. I was shocked to see Slavens end up on the losing side of that equation, to be honest. On the other side, Rivenbark had the clear advantage over Laughlin and proceeded to push the tree and leave .006-second early, turning on the red bulb and ending his record-setting weekend short of the big payout. Watching this happen left me with a sense of anticipation, as it seemed like Laughlin could just do no wrong.
Before we get to the finals, here’s a bit of perspective for those of you who have been living under a rock. As a professional race car driver, Alex Laughlin also drives the Speed Society NHRA Pro Stock Camaro, which is powered by a 500ci naturally-aspirated engine. Just one week prior to Lights Out, he went to the semifinals at the Winternationals at Pomona, where he lost to Jason Line. There is a very large difference between driving a clutch-assisted, manual-shifted slick-equipped Pro Stocker and an automatic trans, screw-blown Hemi car equipped with radial tires… and Laughlin just took it all in stride. With tuners Frankie Taylor and Jeremy Parsley in his corner he had the necessary power to win.
On the other side of the ladder, Daniel Pharris is no stranger to winning himself. He’s won heaps of money in several different classes behind the wheel of his own cars and Andrew Alepa’s killer Corvette, which has won several races with him behind the wheel. In fact, he spent the weekend at Lights Out in his own Mustang—which was powered by the twin-turbo powerplant from Alepa’s Corvette for this race. Let’s not forget the Lexus he races in Limited Drag Radial also. Pharris embodies the definition of a wheelman.
Did you happen to notice the title of this story? Here’s where it comes into play for the first time, as Laughlin chopped down the tree with a .004-second reaction time to Pharris’ .015 light. Not a huge margin by any stretch, just eleven milliseconds. But when you consider the fact that it takes 300 milliseconds to blink your eye, it’s a big deal. It’s an even bigger deal when the quicker guy on the tree—Laughlin—runs .004-second slower through the traps, tripping the lights with a 3.694 to Pharris’ quicker 3.690. The end result? A margin of victory for Laughlin of 75 ten-thousandths of a second, or 26 inches at 211 mph. That’s simply insane… I can’t even wrap my head around it, even after taking a few days to let it sink in.
With such a massive focus on Radial Vs. The World at this event, it would be easy to overlook the rest of the classes, but the action in X275 was just as tight. Several new cars and rebuilt cars with new combinations debuted at the event, and when qualifying was complete, 56 cars sat on the ladder. Several well-known names were at the top of the 32-car field. Shane Fisher was in the top spot, with Eric Moore, Manny Buginga, Charles Hull (in his new-to-him-but-old-to-him Mustang), and Shane Heckel rounding out the top five qualified cars.
You know it’s a tough field when former event winners like Ron Rhodes and Lights Out 9 winner John Keesey have to grind it out to get into the top 10 qualified cars. Once eliminations rolled around, though, the usual suspects did their thing and made it into the money rounds. By the end of Saturday, the four quarterfinal pairings included Fisher and Keesey, Charles Hull and Brendan Mills, Eric Moore (last year’s X275 Series champ), and Buginga, the 2017 NMRA Street Outlaw champ who was in X275 trim for the very first time in his career.
It was a stout field of hitters, whittled down further on Sunday when Hull sent Mills back to New Jersey by simply outrunning him. In a battle of heavyweights, Rhodes faced off against Moore and took his nitrous-injected Camaro on to the semifinals on—you guessed it—a holeshot. Rhodes’ .015/4.446 package snuck by Moore’s .076/4.431 quicker pass.
Another battle of heavies ensued between teammates of sorts, when Bennett Racing Engines-powered Keesey faced off with Bennett Racing Engines-powered number-one-qualifier Shane Fisher in a battle of turbocharged fury. Keesey’s front end started to come up as the power poured on, which forced him to lift, but on the other side of the track, Fisher had his own issues and also had to lift, handing the win to Keesey. The last pairing of the quarters found Buginga dressing down Texan Joe Johnson, driving around him on the big end with a 4.40 to Johnson’s 4.45, despite getting drilled on the tree by .026-second.
By the time the semifinals rolled around on Sunday afternoon, everyone was ready to get it on. Ron Rhodes, who is nearly unbeatable in the same Camaro he bought when he turned 16—and likely has thousands of laps on it over the years—jumped the line .002-second early against Buginga and ended their race before it began, sending the first-time X275 competitor to the final round. Buginga, who is a never-rest kind of guy who doesn’t settle for second-best, spent the two weeks prior to this event in Florida wearing the wheels off his Mustang to ensure it would go down the track successfully. In his semifinal win against Rhodes, Buginga also dipped into the 4.30s for the first time during the elimination rounds, signifying that the power he needed to win was there.
On the other side, Hull and Keesey—also Bennett Racing Engines teammates out of the KBX stable—had to battle it out. Keesey’s luck finally ran out; despite gaining the holeshot and being out front for much of the run, he tells us he had an oil pump failure which scrubbed off ET and MPH, making the win easy for Hull.
Final round, Buginga vs. Hull. What do you think happened? Manny chopped down the tree and beat Charles over the head with it, getting off the line in .021-second to Hull’s .072 reaction time. It mattered—a lot—because Hull got to the finish line quicker, 4.409 to Buginga’s 4.416. The margin of victory for Buginga was .044-second, or about two-thirds of a car length in front at 160-plus. The top two classes at the event won on holeshots. I’ll say this… it was certainly fun to watch, especially since the racing action is always so close.
The Other Classes
So we’ve talked about the two attention-grabber classes in RvW and X275, but I have to say that Limited Drag Radial is my favorite class at the moment—and I’ll tell you why, if you’re still here and paying attention. LDR is what I envision to be the ultimate “street car” class. These guys are out here competing in a variety of different chassis, from Justin Martin’s stunning ’72 Nova, to the modern Lexus RC-F of Daniel Pharris, to Shane Stack’s flame-emblazoned ’86 Monte Carlo, to a wide variety of Mustangs and Camaros. And we can’t forget the Tooth Jerker ’69 Dart of Lyle Barnett.
The rules are simple: just three pages long, with all four combinations (naturally aspirated, nitrous, single/twin turbo, and supercharger) well-represented. The cars still look like real cars, as original-appearing body panels must be used and are in fact a staple of the rules package. No full tube chassis are allowed, and since the racers have to maintain the factory wheelbase we don’t have any cars that look squashed or stretched hitting the track in LDR.
Sunday’s eliminations came down to the top four qualifiers: Martin’s twin-turbo Nova, Chad Henderson’s fuel-injected nitrous machine, West Coaster Norman Chang’s twin-turbo Mustang, and Stack’s twin-snail Monte Carlo.
Chang fouled out in the first pair against Henderson, and Stack treed Martin and outran him to the big end, setting up the final round. Despite earning a .030 advantage on the tree, Henderson had to lift when the nose of his Grand National started climbing towards the sky, while Stack rocketed to the finish line in a scant 4.118 seconds at over 180 mph. Stack starts the LDR season off right with a killer win against some tough competition!
Ultra Street is always full of killer competition, but I was most impressed—as I usually am—by the exploits of Joel Greathouse, racing under the KBX umbrella. I’ve known Joel for what feels like forever, and during that time he’s competed across a number of classes and in several cars. The red Mustang he’s driving these days in Ultra Street is always a threat to win on race day, and Lights Out was no exception. With KBX’s Justin McChesney doing his thing on the tuneup, Greathouse qualified first, reset the class record, then proceeded to run through the competition, beating guys like Alton Clements, Mike Thompson, and Brian Keep to take home the win. He’s like a buzzsaw, and he’s never, ever rattled by the things going on around him. He just gets behind the wheel and drives.
Full Final Round Eliminations Video Above, Courtesy of our friends at SpeedVideo
I could keep going on and on about all of the awesome stuff that happened at Lights Out X, but I suspect you’ve checked out by now. With several other full race classes on the property, it’s clear that Donald Long and the Duck X Productions team are doing something right. Just look at the starting line and the stands in the video below. I’ll be attending their next race in March: Sweet 16 2.0. Stay tuned right here to Front Street for more!
Heads Up Class Winners:
Radial Vs. The World: Alex Laughlin
X275: Manny Buginga
Limited Drag Radial: Shane Stack
Ultra Street: Joel Greathouse
DXP235: Danny Niceley
Outlaw 632: Jim Aldous
Pro 275: Dr. Dan Boyles