Photos by Blair Alderton and David Fudge
Jason Rupert Conquers the 41st Firebird Ignitor
On the western side of the country, the Big Three in the world of nostalgia racing include the March Meet, Pepsi Nightfire and the Hot Rod Reunion. Emerging as another standout stop for the NHRA Hot Rod Heritage Series is the oldest major drag racing weekend in the Pacific Northwest. For 41 consecutive years, the NAPA Auto Parts Ignitor has established itself as a haven for the nitro fraternity.
Former Ignitor champions include prime time players like McCulloch, Ruth, Bonin, Densham, Leong and other highly recognizable and famous drivers and owners. In fact, it was none other than Don “The Snake” Prudhomme who won the inaugural Ignitor back in 1971 with his Hot Wheels ‘70 ‘Cuda.
One of the staples of the Ignitor throughout the course of the past four decades has been nitro, be it Top Fuel, Funny Cars or Fuel Altereds. Track General Manager Bill New has long believed that this revered fuel has helped maintain and elevate the spectator count from the ‘70s through today. “We live, eat and sleep for nitro cars,” exclaimed Firebird’s founder and 44-year promoter of events outside Idaho’s capital city of Boise. “Not only do we love the essence and feel behind AA/Nitro Funny Cars, but so do our spectators. Whether we’re talkin’ about John Force racing here back in the day or Jason Rupert today, who won his first Heritage Funny Car title this spring, we’re confident this fuel has helped to attract and entertain the fans over the years at both our season opener and Nightfire every August.”
One of two key stops at Firebird this season, the Ignitor, presented by Dan Wiebold Ford, reenters the AA/Funny Car arena after showcasing both the Fuel Dragsters and the Fuel Altereds throughout the past decade or two. Nearly a dozen floppers took a shot at the eight-car open eliminator this year. Following two qualifying cracks in very cool and breezy conditions (with temps topping out at 51°F for the day and a windchill of 45); it would be second-generation standout Jason Rupert grabbing the headlines with a 5.87-247.70 to nail down the pole. Mark Hentges came within a whisker of the top spot with the Bucky Austin-tuned Arrow at 5.89-238.41. The field was rounded out by: Brett Harris, 5.98-244.43; Dennis LaCharite, 6.01-242.84; Twig Zeigler, 6.02-230.23; Mark Sanders, 6.08-220.96; Roger Garten, 6.08-232-55; and Steven Densham, 6.09-226.35. John Hale, Steve Rajcic and Todd Lesenko all fell short of their anticipated performance.
In eliminations, Rupert nailed down Low ET and Top Speed of the meet in the opening round. He ran 5.86 at 250.62, a new track speed record to dispense of the Densham Teacher’s Pet Camaro, which slowed to 8.41. Hentges downed the War Horse Mustang in a 5.90-234.19 to 6.12-236.03 battle. Zeigler then surprised everyone with an over-the-top 5.89-244.63 to eliminate the Back in Black GTO, which trailed at 6.06-245.49. In the final pairing, Harris drove the Nitro Thunder Trans Am to a winning 6.09-230.59 to edge out the Mr. Explosive Nova, as Sanders carded a 6.11-235.91 in the closest round of eliminations.
In the semi-final heat, Hentges just clipped Harris, 5.88 to a 5.99, and Rupert drilled Zeigler in a 5.95 to 6.14 race to set the stage for the final.
With multi-time Ignitor-winning car owner (during his reign in Alcohol Funny Cars) Austin, making all of the tuning calls and lane choice regarding Bucky’s Plymouth Arrow, Hentges looked like he might be the favorite, especially after the team finished runner-up at the Pepsi Nightfire last August. But Rupert left little to doubt, tearing off a 5.90-244.03 to drive around a down-on-power 6.06-226.92 by Hentges to collect his first Heritage Series AA/Funny Car title and take over the early point’s lead in the series. The 39-year-old SoCal welder will not quickly forget winning his first Nitro Funny Car title, along with a coveted 60th Anniversary NHRA Wally trophy at the Firebird Ignitor. The victory will also be long remembered by his parents Frank, driver of the ‘60s era Eagle Electric Top Fueler, and his mom Brenda.
Competition Eliminator: Rob Harrison, N. Vancouver, B.C., ‘05 Escort, J/Altered
Super Stock: Jackie Alley, Eagle, ID, ‘69 Camaro, SS/DA
Stock: Mick Alley, Eagle, ID, ‘69 Camaro, AA/SA
Top Sportsman: Jake Neibauer, Billings, MT, ‘63 Corvette
Top Dragster: Mike Henderson, Tacoma, WA, ‘07 Mullis
Super Comp: Brian Preszler, Kennewick, WA, ‘08 TNT
Super Gas: Steve Williams, Loma Linda, CA, ‘63 Corvette
Super Street: Travis Ringguth, Grande Prairie, Alberta, ‘86 Camaro
Sportsman Motorcycle: Al Omond, Surrey, B.C., ‘97 ZX7
Super Pro: Jon Riedel, Arlington, WA, ‘99 Dragster
Pro: Paul Nicolosi, Nampa, ID, ‘67 Nova
Heavy: Rose Shaw, Boise, ID, ‘78 Volare