NHRA: Career-best season thus far has driver and blind crew chief/team owner dreaming of championship

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The Permatex/Follow-A-Dream Top Alcohol Funny Car driven by Todd Veney and owned by Jay Blake in action earlier this season. (Photo courtesy Follow-A-Dream Racing)

When Jay Blake said prior to the season that 2015 could be the best season ever for his Follow-A-Dream team, it was a prediction based upon hope and optimism.

But following this past weekend’s Lucas Oil Route 66 Nationals in Joliet, Il., Blake’s prediction is coming true in reality and performance.

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Driver Todd Veney (Photo Courtesy of Follow-A-Dream Racing)

Blake and driver Todd Veney are on the team’s biggest roll ever. They’ve won three of their last five Top Alcohol Funny Car races – at Richmond (Va.), Lebanon Valley (Pa.) and a week ago at Norwalk (Ohio) – along with semi-final finishes at Maple Grove (Pa.) and this past Sunday at Route 66.

“We are definitely on a roll,” said Blake, whose team is based out of Marston Mills, Mass. “Things have really come together, the team has never given up and has worked really hard and it’s finally showing us promise and happiness.

“We’re very excited to be No. 1 in regional points and No. 2 in national points and it’s July, so things are good. We’ve made some changes and adjustments, and all the little things we did just all came together at the right time and it’s happened.”

Veney, of Indianapolis, is ranked a career-best second in the national TAFC standings, just 10 points out of first place.

“I’ve never been part of a team where we’ve had top speed at half the races we’ve been to this year,” Veney said. “Doing 264 mph consistently is really getting with the program.

“This car can make a lot of power. … There’s a lot of really good cars (in TAFC) that have never gone that fast, so it’s nice to be part of it.”

Compared to where the team was after the first few races of the season, its overall fortunes have done a complete 180-degree turnaround.

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Crew chief and team owner of the Follow-A-Dream race team, Jay Blake (Photo courtesy of Follow-A-Dream Racing)

“I never really thought of it as a slow start, things happen,” Veney said. “We had breaks in some of the races we’ve won that we couldn’t have counted on. If just one of those wouldn’t have happened, then we wouldn’t have won.

“We lost in the first race to a guy who, after he got out of his car, and he said, ‘I can’t believe I beat you. I don’t know what to say.’ I just shook his hand and said congratulations.

“Then, we broke something at Charlotte, so we never even came and ran in the first round – so it’s not like we got beat there. Something that should never break broke; we couldn’t fix it in time. And there’s been five races since then and we’ve won three of them.

“So, I don’t look at it as a slow start. Things happen to everybody. … The last five races have been real good. If we get some breaks in the next (national event), we could be No. 1 (nationally).”

The team has six races left and is hoping its good luck of late will continue all the way to its first-ever NHRA TAFC championship, something Blake has been chasing for well over a decade.

“This is a very, very humbling sport,” said Blake, who is the only blind crew chief and team owner in a major motorsports series in the U.S. “You can win one weekend and not qualify the next. One of the great things right now is Todd is doing a great job and has a lot of confidence in himself and in the race car.

“When he’s up there, that gives him peace of mind to relax and do his job. That’s a big part of it, plus the team is feeling great. We always felt we had all the pieces and just have to hope the breaks go your way and you have to be prepared. We’re prepared and we’re just going for it.”

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Cadillac, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

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But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


PRACTICE RESULTS:

Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds