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NHRA rivals keep things friendly, off the strip anyway

If there's going to be anything remotely close to North Carolina vs. Duke or Clemson vs. South Carolina at this weekend's National Hot Rod Association Carolina Nationals, it's in the Pro Stock division, the place where drag racing rivalries live.

These days, the line separating Pro Stock's most interesting rivalry is marked by Interstate 77 as it heads north out of Charlotte through Mooresville.

Three-time champion Greg Anderson and his teammate, 2006 champion Jason Line, base their team a few miles east of the highway near the Mooresville Dragway.

Just on the other side of the bridge at Exit 36 is Cagnazzi Racing. That's where Jeg Coughlin Jr. and Dave Connolly are based, and last year Coughlin beat Anderson by 44 points to win the Pro Stock title, the first time since 2002 Anderson or Line hadn't won it.

"We're out there in the sticks and they're in the high-rent district over there," Anderson joked.

Going into this year's Countdown to One, the NHRA's six-race playoff that begins this weekend at zMAX Dragway at Concord, Anderson is the No. 1 seed 30 points ahead of Kurt Johnson. Coughlin starts the Chase third, 40 points back, with Line fourth.

Connolly starts the playoff sixth, but could be the division's hottest driver. He didn't race in this year's first five events as Cagnazzi sought sponsors. But since returning, Connolly has won three times and rolled up a 24-9 record in eliminations. He won the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis two weeks ago, his second win in three races.

"Sure, there are rivalries," said Anderson, whose five victories this year give him 56 for his career. "And the strongest one we have right now is with the Cagnazzi teams.

"They kind of molded their team in what we built in our team. In a way that's a compliment and it's exactly what they should have done. ...We kind of created our own worst enemies and now it has come back to bite us some, I guess. But we wouldn't work as hard as we do every day if we didn't have that. ...The harder somebody digs on you the harder you reach down and try to dig back. That's the way it works in every sport."

Cagnazzi took his share of the sale of his family's business in New York City and went drag racing. He came to Charlotte to see a NASCAR race, and when he saw the stock-car teams' private jets parked at the airport in Concord he said he realized that somebody was doing OK in racing in this part of the country.

So he and his family moved south and set up shop, using business acumen and a passion for racing to lay the foundation on which he has built a top-flight team.

"No question about it, we still look at Greg's team as the bar," Cagnazzi said. "Our team looks at everything they do. For us, we're trying to strive to being better than the best competitor out here. Whether we're successful or not, that's what we strive for."

Anderson and Cagnazzi might be friendly rivals, but they agree on a lot of things about Pro Stock racing in the NHRA Powerade Series.

"A few years ago we called Pro Stock 'three men and a truck,' " Cagnazzi said. "You had Warren Johnson and (his son) Kurt who did their own engines and a couple of others. But the rest got a car from one guy and some parts from this guy, whatever the latest trick of the day was they had to have it. The vendors had a field day because they would go around and say, 'I have my widget on so-and-so's car and he just ran quickest last week.' And everybody with three men and a truck had to have that widget."

"There's still some of that out here. But it has changed, I think, because Greg's team and our team evaluate all the changes that we make and understand what they do and how they affect the performance of the car."

Anderson said Pro Stock once was simply all about who could build a faster motor.

"There used to be one team that paid attention to detail and worked from the rear to the front of these race cars and looked at every aspect it takes to make them faster," Anderson said. "It's not like that any more.

"There are so many things you have to scratch on with these things. I would like to think we got a grasp on that first. But where you had one team five years ago that did that, the next year you had two teams and the next year you had five. Now you have 15 or 20 teams that are absolutely full-bore. It's the same thing that happened in NASCAR. The competition just went up."

Cagnazzi and Anderson also agree there's good reason for them to have their teams located in NASCAR country. Anderson needs to look no further than Line, who was working for Joe Gibbs Racing's stock-car team when he came to work for Anderson. Now, Line has 15 NHRA wins and a championship and helps his teammate battle Cagnazzi's teams and the Johnsons for Pro Stock supremacy.

"I hate to publicize it and say it was the best move I could have made, but it was," Anderson said. "I am a little bit shocked there haven't been more people who've moved there. I don't think there's a better place to be."

Cagnazzi said Anderson was quick to capitalize on the technological aspects of being in the Charlotte area. Cagnazzi sees huge business benefits, too, and says the new $60 million drag strip built by Bruton Smith reinforces that.

"We talk about who sets the bar in Pro Stock, this track sets the bar for facilities," Cagnazzi said. "Having the premiere track in the world in our backyard helps us reinforce why we're here and what sets us apart from everybody else. It's extremely important. It's exposure for us and for our partners."

Now, Cagnazzi said, there's one thing left to do.

"It will be disturbing if one of us doesn't win," he said of his and Anderson's teams. "I would hope at the end of the day it's one of our two teams. It really is our home race. We really want to go out there and do well."

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