Professional and sportsman racers alike all dream of winning drag racing's biggest event of all, The U.S. Nationals, held each year at O'Reilly Raceway Park just outside of Indianapolis, Indiana.
Super Comp racer Don O'Neal
Don O'Neal at O'Reilly Raceway Park
For that dream to come true, first you need to make it to the final, which is much easier said than done during an event that is spread out over many days, in different weather conditions and for a sportsman competitor, more rounds than any other NHRA National event the rest of the season.
Super Comp racer, Don O'Neal had competed in the three previous U.S. National events, and while he had some success during each of those attempts, was never able to make it to the later rounds on Monday.
2010 would be a different kind of year for O'Neal, as the active duty Sargent First Class (SSC) took on one of the most competitive fields of Super Comp racers with discipline and much preparation.
O'Neal posted perfect light in the opening round, a nearly perfect .001 reaction time in round two and continued to slightly better each of his opponents at one end of the track of the other as each round came and went, knocking off class heavy hitters such as Tommy Phillips.
"After we got put on the ladder, I would like to think I had some good preparation for each of my opponents as we went along," reflected O'Neal. "I was certainly lucky in come of the situations that I was in. And I told several other racers that I didn't drive very well. I just drove a little better than the guys beside me. I just made less mistakes than they did."
"Every run I came back and I was like, I messed that up and I messed that up," continued a very humble O'Neal. "I'm very happy about the outcome of the weekend, but not from the stand point that I can sit back and say I drove an awesome weekend. I didn't drive great, but I got by."
Watching his side of the ladder, O'Neal could see his chances of making it to Monday rounds increase. An accomplishment high on his list after the last three attempts.
"To many people, this may sound like the dumbest thing in the world," he paused. "But I have gone out every year on Sunday night and have never been able to make it to Monday. Sunday night when Jeff (Serra) and I had our little staging duel and we had a good time, we know each other real well, but after I won I was so excited in the shutdown area, making it to Monday than I think honestly I was about being in the final."
Like any other racer, O'Neal knew to run each round as it came and not to get ahead of himself, but one could not help to notice that by making it to Monday he was only one round away of earning a single into the final of the U.S. Nationals.
The quarterfinal just might have been O'Neal's lucky round. After uncharacteristically missing the tree, his opponent, Cory Baker, threw away a .006 light when taking well over a tenth at the stripe. When the numbers came up on the board, Baker's huge 8.831 breakout allowed O'Neal to easily to earn the semi-final bye with his 8.917.
Sargent First Class Don O'Neal, in his U.S. Army/K&N clad dragster, became the first active duty solider to ever compete in a final at a NHRA National event and to do so during the "Big Go" makes the accomplishment just that much more notable.
When the final round came, O'Neal would find his final round opponent to Troy Coughlin, Jr.
"Honestly for the final, I had spent more time pondering a strategy against TJ," confessed O'Neal. "I'm not taking anything away from the rest of the Coughlin family, but that's Jeggie's nephew and Jeggie can dial a car. I'm sitting there thinking, I don't just have to beat TJ, I have to beat Jeggie and on top of that, Kenny Underwood. You've got people over there with a combined total of over sixty years in racing experience."
"I was banking on the track being fast, as is usually is for an NHRA National event final," he continued. "It went the opposite direction and there went my strategy and at the same time, he was playing with the same deck and just came out better than I did."
"It was awesome. It was Indy," said the first time U.S. Nationals Super Comp Runner-Up. "What else can you say."
With a race that goes on for almost an entire week and eight rounds, Don O'Neal was not only mentally prepared for the quest, but so was his dragster and fully equipped with protection from K&N Engineering for the long haul to the final.
"I use it all," said O'Neal. "From the breather filters, to my K&N oil filter and I love my carbon fiber dragster scoop. Plus I just recently I added a K&N cold air intake to my dually. I picked up some awesome fuel mileage for my truck and more."
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