Andrew Hines had every reason to sleep well last Saturday on the eve of his sixth NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle series championship.
All he had to do to put his name in the record books in a tie with his class’ late, great Dave Schultz, Pro Stock icon Warren Johnson, and two-nitro-category legend Kenny Bernstein was win in the first round of the Auto Club Finals at Pomona, Calif.
But how daunting that seemed to the veteran motorcycle racer who leads the bike class with 56 victories.
That was peculiar, for in this 15-race season, Hines had won seven of the first nine races. By the time the last race of the year rolled around, he had eight victories in 10 final rounds – and in three of the other five events he had semifinal finishes. He had reached two final rounds in the Countdown, winning at Charlotte. He had led the standings from start to finish, save one week (after Reading). And he was riding a 266-race qualifying streak that dates back to June 2003. He started the year by resetting the national elapsed-time record at 6.720 seconds at Gainesville, Fla., and no one could top that.
Everything seemed to be in the bag for the Vance & Hines Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson Street Rod racer. His always-pushing-him teammate Eddie Krawiec, himself a four-time champion for the Vance & Hines team, and surging Suzuki rider Karen Stoffer had been eliminated from contention by the end of qualifying. The only rivals who had a chance against him were No. 2-seeded Jerry Savoie, the 2016 champion, and No. 3 seed Matt Smith, the three-time and then-current titlist.
And why should Hines have worried? In running his elimination-round record to 44-7, he had lost in the opening round just one time.
Still, Hines couldn’t get any rest. He awoke at 5:30 race-day morning “overthinking, thinking of all the bad things that can happen,” he said.
“Couldn’t shut my brain off,” he said.
So he decided to text someone, as if he were on the game show “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” and was using his phone-a-friend option.
“First person I texted was Jason Line,” Hines said. He said he knew the three-time Pro Stock champion is an early riser. He said he contacted the KB Racing driver and Countdown contender, “just trying to bounce some ideas off him.”
Even so, Hines said, “All the bad stuff played out in my head, and I probably was just thinking too negatively the whole time. And I capitalized on the negatives.” It’s just some quirk that shows up at Pomona, and he said, “It’s really annoying.
“I put my team in such a bad situation with being stressed out all day. Those guys deserve way better from me on a final race day,” he said. “I do really good all season long. At Pomona, I tend to struggle if I’m leading. If I’m chasing somebody, I’m hungry. I’m ready to go get it and whup ’em. But if I’m the leader, it seems like it’s come back to bite me a few times.”
So that Auto Club Raceway angst had set in about six hours before he would be ready to pull up to the starting line. It was such a peculiar wave of stage fright, of sorts, that washed over him. And the negatives got the better of Hines, 36, who had raced professionally for about half his life, since he was 19. And up rolled 22-year-old rookie Jianna Salinas, who had struggled her entire rookie season. She had won just two rounds, persevered through six failures to qualify, and took a tumble from her bike at Chicago. Everybody figured Hines had this one, right? He didn’t. He red-lit for the third time in seven races, by .135 of a second.
That sent his psyche into a tailspin. He said, “As of [that precise moment], I would not have thought I’d be giving a championship speech [Monday] night, the way Matt Smith’s bike was all weekend, the way he was last year, the way Jerry has had that resurgence on his Suzuki through the Countdown. I just chalked it up to ‘We’re done.’”
Hines alternated between wanting “to go stick my head in the gas tank of the truck” and calculating whether he still could earn the championship by a thread. Here was the season-long dominator being dominated by fear and anxiety: “I was putting all my money on Hector Arana Jr. and Steve Johnson. Ryan Oehler had a chance to take out Matt Smith second round – he’s had a fast bike here this weekend. The way Steve ran through the Countdown, I’m like, ‘He’s my darkhorse. If he wins this race, it doesn’t matter. He lost to Jianna. It was absolutely insanity . . . agony on my part, agony of the team. I get back to the pit area and they’re trying to lift me up.” But he said he was “not anything happy.”
Moreover, his young son, Declan, was upset about his father’s distressing turn of luck. Hines said he told him, “You need to be strong so I don’t feel this so bad.”
But Hines couldn’t stop his feelings of woe. He said he was ready “to hurl my guts out” when Smith prepped for his semifinal run [which he lost to Salinas], then thought before the final, “Jerry’s got this thing sewed up,” as he sat in his pit, surrounded by his team, family, and friends. But Salinas – the one who had cruised on while he sat shattered by a championship presumably lost – actually preserved his title for him.
Thanks to her final-round victory as Savoie’s Suzuki went impotent when he most needed it to perform, Hines survived what he called “the atrociousness of our class.” Admittedly that included his own showing and the collapse of the top three ranked racers – to one unassuming young lady whose grit carried her through an emotional day she never will forget. She walked away with the Wally trophy, her shiny first, and Hines walked away, grateful to survive and put a 13th series championship trophy in the past 23 years in the Vance & Hines shop at Brownsburg, Ind.
And he finally was able to get a decent night’s sleep.