Football Takes Over Sports Scene

John Gilbert

Pretty much everybody in Northern Minnesota is a Minnesota Vikings fan, but in the days before the Vikings were born, the same fans were ardent backers of the Green Bay Packers. The Vikings earned their dedicated fans, and some of them turned the Packers into a huge rivalry.
   Others, including me, want to see the Vikings win and follow them closely, but we still hold some allegiance to the Packers. I can recall the Packers coming to Public Schools Stadium for an annual training camp game when Tobin Rote was the quarterback, and later came Vince Lombardi’s glory years at the Packers helm. Watching Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor, and all the rest of the Packers made autumn fly by for many years, and you can’t just shed that following because the Vikings joined the NFL.
   The Packers showed up for their first two exhibition games this summer, but that’s about all they did. They got drubbed, and Packer fans were quick to laugh it off as only an exhibition. Then they got thumped again last weekend, and the same Packer loyalists are kissing off that loss, too. But is there cause for concern?
   Aaron Rodgers, the Packers star quarterback, will be fine, but there are questions about whether the Packers, who went all the way through last season before displaying a glaring inability to prevent other teams from scoring, were huge favorites to show all was well in their second exhibition game, but instead, they were soundly whipped again, this time by a Cleveland Browns team that was ranked No. 30 to the Packers No. 1 in the new NFL ratings. There still is no evidence that the Packers can stop foes, and this weekend might be pressure time for the Pack.
   If they don’t show some semblance of powerhouse football, they could be headed for one of those seasons where league parity is such that a team might go from nearly perfect to finding it difficult to win. It happens.
   The Packers concern might not be so evident if it weren’t for the Minnesota Vikings, who are not expected to be contenders this season. A disappointing first-exhibition loss fit the preseason plan, but the Vikings bounced back with a very impressive second exhibition game. Everyone from second-year quarterback Christian Ponder to the rookies showed up well in whipping the Buffalo Bills last Friday. Adrian Peterson, meanwhile, is sitting out and will only make things better for the Vikings when he comes back. That victory not only pumped up hopes for the Vikings to be something more than an also-ran -- but it also showed that the Packers two losses, and apparent lack of concern over those losses, might be troubling.
   This might be one of those years when sports fans Up North can’t wait for football to get going. It’s been a tough year for the Minnesota Twins, and the Milwaukee Brewers haven’t been much better, with both out of contention since about the Fourth of July, and locally, the Duluth Huskies had moments of excitement, and finished with a couple of great crowds to see their final chances to make the playoffs fall short. One late-summer baseball highlight is the sensational play of the Little League tournament going on at Williamsport, Pa. These 11-12-year-olds put on a fantastic show of baseball fundamentals and execution under pressure game after game on ESPN. I just wish they’d move the fences back to that comparatively routine fly balls by the bigger kids wouldn’t turn out to be cheap home runs.
   As August sailed along too quickly toward the end of summer, the annual National Hot Rod Association professional drag-racing show at Brainerd International Raceway could be counted on to provide its usual area highlights, particularly in the Pro Stock category, where the series has been fairly well dominated over the years by first Warren Johnson and then Greg Anderson and teammate Jason Line -- all of them from Northern Minnesota.
   Johnson, from Mackinen, owns 97 NHRA championships, while his former crew chief, Anderson, from Duluth, won four in the last decade, and Line, from Wright, has won two since forming a partnership with Anderson. But all three ran into misfortune or faster racers last Sunday, and it was a record-shattering woman driver -- Erica Enders -- who drove away with the championship.
    Meanwhile, NFL exhibition season has started, and college football is just about to get underway. In Northern Minnesota, fans care some about the University of Minnesota, although the heavy-duty annual optimism and promotion for the Gophers has dulled the fervor over the last 40 years. Maybe Marquis Gray can make coach Jerry Kill’s Gophers become a focal point this season, but it’s doubtful.
    That means those of us in the Duluth area can once again rally behind the UMD Bulldogs. UMD should be outstanding again, as the program retains what has become an annual showcase of how college football should be played. And after incredible success in league and playoff performances, quarterback Chase Vogler is back for his senior year as the best running quarterback in the Northern Sun Conference, and an alert and talented leader who also has developed into a formidable passer. Vogler has known only league championships and post-season play in his three seasons, and he should be even better as a senior leader to take the Bulldogs to more glory.
    In case the Bulldogs aren’t enough to satisfy area football fans -- and perhaps make up for the possibility of disappointing seasons for the Vikings and the Gophers -- we also have the St. Scholastica Saints, who have quickly developed into an impressive Division III program almost as if to supply a supporting back-up for the Division II Bulldogs. Hopefully that will mean the Saints can lure some large crowds on those weekends when they’re at home and the Bulldogs are either on the road or playing at a noncompeting time.

DRAG-RACING
INTRICACIES

   The state Senior men’s amateur baseball tournament’s first weekend prevented me from getting up to Brainerd to watch the NHRA meet, and if I had gone, I would have anticipated Greg Anderson and Jason Line would be magically sliding on through to win a few rounds and maybe even the Pro Stock championship.
   The Summit race team switched from Pontiacs to Camaros this season, and they have not been as dominating while trying to sort out the Camaros, even though the body design is not that big an obstacle as it might sound like, since they’re still running virtually the same engines and drivetrains.
    The problem is more the incredible competition Anderson and Line face, week after week. In Pro Stock, where drivers actually have to drive and shift to beat their foes in the opposite lane -- rather than hitting the throttle and hanging on, the way the Top Fuel and Funny Car nitro drivers do.
    Erica Enders, who had won the last race coming in to BIR, had qualified quickest in Pro Stock with a quarter-mile run of 6.550 seconds, at 210.50 mph, in her Chevrolet Cobalt. The speed, remember, is great for show, but it is the elapsed time that wins. Even then, the timers start when your car leaves the starting line, and if you don’t time the lights closely enough, your opponent can get enough of a head start to beat you even if you have a quicker elapsed time.
   That may sound confusing, but it isn’t. Just think about it as you leaving two-tenths of a second slower than your foe, then beating that foe by one-tenth. That would mean you would have a quicker ET but still lose. One-tenth of a second is a significant margin in drag racing, but is just as significant if you gain it at the starting line as at the finishing elapsed time.
   So Enders had a 6.550 fast-time in qualifying, while second-fastest qualifier Allen Johnson’s Dodge Avenger clocked 6.560 -- a mere one-hundredth of a second behind -- at 210.87 mph, which was faster than Enders ran on her fastest qualifying run.
   Further dramatizing how close the class is, Kurt Johnson, the talented son of Warren Johnson, the “Ol’ Professor,” wound up the 17th fastest qualifier with a 6.652-second run. That was just a heartbeat behind No. 16 Shane Gray’s 6.645-second run, and only one-tenth of a second (actually 0.102-seconds) behind top-qualifier Enders.
    Paired up 1 vs. 16, 2 vs. 15, etc., Enders ran the meet’s best elapsed time in a 6.542-second burst to take out No. 16 Shane Gray in the first round. Jason Line, who was No. 9 at 6.590, ran a 6.592 first round to beat Ronnie Humphrey’s 6.622 in the first round. But Greg Anderson, loading up with power as well as homestate adrenaline, spun his tires hard at the start, fractured something in his transmission, and went up in smoke to coast through the lights at 12.950, losing to the 6.599-second run of Mark Martino. Warren Johnson ran a strong 6.593 at 209.23 mph, but lost to Ron Krisher’s 6.590 at 209.43 in one of the closest races of the day in any class. Losing by 0.003 equated to about 4 feet as the two flashed across the finish.
   That left Jason Line as the only remaining Northern Minnesota hope in Pro Stock in the second round, but it was Line’s luck to run smack dab into Erica Enders in Round 2. Line ran a solid 6.595 at 210.64, and his strong top speed was one of the best of the day, but Enders beat him to the finish line with a 6.545-second pass, hitting a slightly lower finishing speed of 210.31. Enders couldn’t duplicate her first two runs after that, but she didn’t need to. Here 6.561 at 210.28 beat Larry Morgan’s 6.631 in the semifinals, then Enders ran a 6.565 at 210.05 to beat Allen Johnson, who smoked his tires and coasted through at 14.495 in the final.
   Very impressive consistency for Enders, who became the first woman to win a title in one of the three pro car categories at BIR since Shirley Muldowney in 1968, and she set her own record by winning her second straight Pro Stock championship.
   Exciting as the Pro Stocks are, there were plenty of spectacular runs in the nitro classes. Morgan Lucas rose from No. 4 qualifier to win Top Fuel. To win it, he had to run a 3.788-second blast, hitting a track record 327.90 mph, to beat Khalid alBolooshi, who had a 3.773 run at 322.81 mph. Lucas then had to survive incredibly close races in Top Fuel, with a 3.812/323.19 semifinal to beat top qualifer Tony Schumacher’s 3.819/322.42 -- a margin of seven-thousandths of a second -- and then came back to beat No. 2 qualifier Antron Brown with a final-round 3.818/316.90 to Brown’s 3.831/313.80.
   And in Funny Car, John Force charged through the field to gain the final, but the legendary Force, who drives BIR’s strip like he owns it, had trouble in the final, losing traction to settle for a 6.663 whiloe Ron Capps ran a strong 4.134-second charge at 304.05 mph.
   If you’ve ever been to BIR for a pro drag show, you know how exciting it can be and how amazingly close these times were. If you haven’t been, try to catch a taped version of the race on satellite or cable, and, better yet, make plans to go there next year. It’ll be a highlight of an already too-short summer.