Tonglet looks for repeat, turning point in Chicago

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

by Kelly Wade

Something completely unexpected happened in defending Full Throttle Pro Stock Motorcycle champion LE Tonglet's world last week at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals in Norwalk, and the second-year competitor is looking forward to putting the unpleasant memory behind him. There is probably no better way to do so than by returning to Route 66 Raceway in Chicago, where he earned his first victory last season and began a true charge for the championship.

The circumstances at the recent Norwalk event offered a challenge for every team in attendance – persistent rain completely obliterated the first day of qualifying, necessitating the abbreviation of qualifying to just two sessions Saturday and leaving little time for finding the right tune-up.

For Tonglet, though, every run down the track at Summit Motorsports Park was going to be more than just helpful, it was critically necessary as he and his tight-knit crew – including father Gary and brother GT – got the handle on new engines for his Nitro Fish/Tonglet Racing Suzuki.

Fresh off of a first-round loss in Englishtown, where they had problems in qualifying and bowed out in the first round with a borrowed powerplant, they were eager to see an improved outcome, but the loss of half of the expected pre-eliminations passes was a tremendous blow that resulted in the first nonqualifying effort of Tonglet's young career. His 7.09 was two-hundredths from the cutoff.

"Every season has its ups and downs, and we're going through a pretty bad down right now," said Tonglet, who was out of the gate at the first Pro Stock Motorcycle race of the season in Gainesville with a semifinal finish, qualified No. 1 at the next two events, and won in Atlanta.

"We knew we were going to be fast at the beginning of the year, and then we got some new motors, and we've just been struggling with the setup. That's the main thing we have to work on, getting the new motors dialed in, and we really needed all four of those qualifying sessions in Norwalk. That rain screwed us up really bad with my bike, but we got lucky getting GT's bike qualified."

GT was also racing for Nitro Fish in Norwalk; it was his second event of the season aboard a brand-new Suzuki, and he qualified 16th and scored an upset win over troubled No. 1 qualifier Hector Arana Jr. in the first round before David Hope put a 6.99 on the scoreboard to top his 7.02.

Though LE and GT have very similar rides, the individuality of each engine means that they learned a little, but not much, from the elder brother's pair of race-day runs. However, heading into Chicago for the O'Reilly Auto Parts Route 66 NHRA Nationals, Tonglet is lifted by the recollection of last season's course of events at the welcoming stadium-style facility just outside of the Windy City.

"That's a really cool track, and I like it a lot because that's where we got my first win," laughed Tonglet, who had been to one final round – at the national event in Madison, Ill. – prior to scoring in Chicago.

"It's really going to boost our hopes up to go back there. Qualifying will be our main goal, but we have to try to repeat from last year."

Last season's emotional Chicago ride for the Tonglet family began with a start from the No. 4 position for LE aboard their basic orange Suzuki emblazoned with flames but naked in terms of sponsorship. The Metairie, La., rider tucked away a first-round win over Wesley Wells with a 6.99, used a 6.96 to beat David Hope, then improved to halt Angie Smith, 6.92 to 6.95.

In the final round, after a five-hour weather delay that pushed the closing act to an under-the-lights completion, Tonglet squared off against veteran rider Steve Johnson and posted a 6.93 at the top end to better his opponent's 6.96.

The victory in Chicago put Tonglet back in the top 10 in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series standings, and he made his home there for the rest of the season with Nitro Fish backing helping him carry on.

The then-20-year-old competitor had enough points to withstand a few early exits after his win and burst into the Countdown with a title at the prestigious Mac Tools U.S. Nationals presented by Lucas Oil in Indianapolis followed by three wins in four consecutive final rounds and a semifinal finish at the season closer at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona. It was just what he needed to take home that beautiful championship trophy as well as the Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award.

"Qualifying wasn't even a question after the way the season went last year, but Norwalk brought us back to the reality that it's really tough out there," said Tonglet. "You can't take this lightly, and it really does bring you down emotionally, but it just makes the next win that much better.

"Hopefully, Chicago will be good for us again. I'm hoping it will be the turning point that brings us right back on top."

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