Blazing a trail: Whiteleys enjoy championship success in 2012
For Grand Junction drag racers Jim and Annie Whiteley, topping 2012 is going to be tougher than it was to, well, beat Jim and Annie Whiteley in 2012.
A veteran of the National Hot Rod Association, Jim Whiteley blazed an impressive trail to the national title in the Top Alcohol Dragster class of the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, coming one round away from a perfect season.
He also claimed a regional title, as did Annie in her rookie season in Lucas Oil Funny Car, making them the first husband and wife to win NHRA regional or divisional titles in the same year.
And although Jim Whiteley did not win his final race of the season, he posted blown-alcohol record times several times during that November weekend. The final mark of 5.178 seconds in the semifinals of the Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals in Pomona, Calif., was selected outstanding run of the year by National Dragster magazine.
Indeed, 2012 was a good year for the Whiteleys and their race team, YNot Racing.
Now, Jim and Annie are a couple of weeks away from heading to Las Vegas to start testing for their first event of the 2013 season, a return to Pomona for the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals on Feb. 14.
They hope to make 2013 better than 2012, and that’s going to require more of what staked each to success last year: a good car, a good engine, a good crew, and the one element every veteran driver knows makes or breaks most title aspirations — good luck.
Finally, a national title
Luck means a lot. Ask Joe Severance of Portland, Ore., who has been involved in drag racing since 1978 and owns the car his son, Joey, drives in Top Alcohol Dragster. He said they were in position, as was Jim Whiteley, to win the national points title two seasons ago. Then, in the second-to-last race of the season, the rear end of the Severance’s car broke.
Bad luck. No national title.
“Oh boy, yeah,” was Joe Severance’s answer to whether a little luck is needed.
“You’ll go for years with bad luck, then have a year of good luck, and then have years of bad luck again,” he said.
At age 50 and with 20 years of competitive racing under his belt, Jim Whiteley knows. He finished second in the national points standings twice and third once before winning the championship in his sixth season of racing in Lucas Oil Top Alcohol Dragster. Just a little more luck in those other years would have put him over the top.
He shrugged off the disappointment each time and went back to work, believing his time would come, although he had to ward off the occasional doubt.
“Winning the national championship was a dream for several years now,” Whiteley said recently while sitting in his office at J&A Services, a Grand Junction-based, oil-and-gas-industry-support company that he and Annie own.
“We had come close. I was beginning to wonder if it would ever happen,” Whiteley said.
The breakthrough, according to his crew chief of the past five seasons, Norm Grimes, was the accumulation of many years of hard work. And he added, “Please understand there is a great deal of luck that plays in the results.
“We had a lot of luck this year, some good, some bad. The good far outweighed the bad.”
Randy Meyer, who finished fifth in the Top Alcohol Dragster national title chase last year, has been a national champion, and he buys into the luck element, too. No matter how good the car, crew and driver are, everyone needs a little of it.
But Meyer, who resides in Kansas City, Mo., wanted to make one thing clear about Jim Whiteley’s success last season: “They didn’t just get lucky and win it once like some people do. They worked hard,” Meyer said. “He didn’t luck into anything this year. He earned everything he got.”
Meyer marveled at the way Jim Whiteley and his team consistently delivered winning results from the beginning of the season to the end. Severance said the same and added maintaining season-long success the way Whiteley did “is very, very hard to do. It’s harder than you can imagine, really.”
Capturing the national championship was satisfying for Jim Whiteley, but he’s not prone to overstatement. Rather, he matter-of-factly said, “Me and my crew accomplished what we wanted.”
Focusing on the Funny Car
Now, Jim Whiteley will try to win a second consecutive national title, and in the spirit of aiming high, he speaks of trying to get that perfect season he just missed last season. It’s not impossible, but it’s rare.
Beyond that, he’s more excited about what might await Annie during her second season in Funny Car after she blew past modest expectations that proved to be too low for her inaugural season. In addition to winning the West Region title, she placed fourth in the national point standings.
“It was very unexpected,” said Annie, who is 41 and raced in the NHRA Summit Racing Series before taking the step up to Lucas Oil Funny Car last year. “Our goal was to do well in national (races) and maybe win one regional. We won five regionals, and I was the runner-up at two nationals.”
Rick Jackson, the owner of the car driven by Tony Bartone, who placed second nationally in Lucas Oil Funny Car, called Annie Whiteley’s first-year success astounding.
“I didn’t have any of the success in the first year that she had,” said Jackson, adding he has fielded a Funny Car for the past 15 years. “She had a race car that was a top-five qualifier and a car to be reckoned with every race she went to. … Roger Bateman has done a phenomenal job preparing her.”
Bateman is Annie Whiteley’s crew chief, and Grimes also lauded him for the way he guided Annie in her rookie season, pointing specifically to the timetable the two set and strictly followed, demonstrating “patience, probably more than most people have,” in a sport where no one can ever do things as fast as they’d like.
“In this business we all subscribe to the philosophy that if a little is good, a lot is better,” Grimes said. “Roger took an approach to grooming Annie that I’ve not seen before. … Even though her learning was ahead of the curve, they stuck to the pace they set.”
The expectations for her second season will be greater, and Jim Whiteley predicts his wife will win two national events.
Just winning one would be an accomplishment, as he said, “There are many, many people out there who have raced 20 years and never gotten a national win.”
So, winning two this year? Bet on it, her husband says.
“They have everything they need to win a national,” Jim said. “If anyone in town wants to bet, give me a call.”
Of course, the ultimate dream would be for Annie and Jim to win national titles in the same year, but Annie only acknowledged it when asked, and she tempered it with, “It was hard enough to do it with just one car, much less two.”
Or, as Jim eloquently summed up the sport: “It’s still unpredictable. You can go from hero to zero in no time.”
But, with a little more good luck ....