2016 NHRA AAA FINALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
KALITTA CAPS STERLING TOP FUEL SEASON WITH ANOTHER CLOSE VICTORY OVER TEAMMATE TODD - Forget the talk about Doug Kalitta’s NHRA Top Fuel rivalry with Tony Schumacher.
The Mac Tools Dragster driver is building a new one with his own Kalitta Motorsports / Toyota teammate JR Todd.
They have met only twice in a final round. But the first meeting, in May at Atlanta, produced the closest finish in NHRA history, with Kalitta winning by an incomprehensible margin of 0.0000 seconds. That 10-thousandths-of-a-second edge amounts to about one half of an inch on the racetrack and a much wider latitude of letdown.
In Sunday’s closing pass of the 2106 Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season, at the Auto Club Finals at Pomona, Calif., the Compulink timing system didn’t take center stage in deciding the victor. But once again, Kalitta nicked Todd and his SealMaster Dragster.
This time Kalitta’s advantage at the 1,000-foot stripe was 0.0087 seconds, or about four feet. Kalitta used a reaction time of .063 of a second to run a 3.745-second elapsed time at 326.63 mph for the $50,000 holeshot victory. He took advantage of Todd’s late (0.112-second) launch, and top-qualifier Todd’s outstanding 3.708-second, 327.90-mph pass – quickest of race day – couldn’t stop Kalitta.
By the time the gates opened at Pomona’s Fairplex for this 52nd version of the finale, a championship was off the table and Kalitta, Todd, and a handful of other drivers were eyeing second place. Kalitta grabbed it with his 42nd overall victory and fourth of the season. It was his first victory since he won three in a row this spring.
Steve Torrence finished third in the final standings, and Todd was fourth. Shawn Langdon and Brittany Force, who had chances to finish as runner-up, were fifth and sixth.
“I’ve been trying to win this thing for a long time,” first-time Pomona Finals winner Kalitta, who was runner-up in 1999 and 2013, said.
“The history for me, growing up watching Connie [uncle and team owner Kalitta] over the years, this was the first and last . . . This was huge for me and the team. It was cool that both of our cars got to run for the money. It’ll be good momentum for all of our teams, not with any championships but definitely some good runs.”
They include the soon-to-roll-out T.J. Coughlin dragster, as well as the Funny Cars of Del Worsham, Alexis De Joria, and Paul Lee.
The only real casualty of the showdown might have been the team’s trademark moshpit. With a double dose of gut-punching and pig-piling in store, the crew members, perhaps weary from their physical celebrations since February, didn’t stage one this time. Kalitta joked, “They probably were just confused because they were in both lanes and just weren’t sure where to do it. It’s a crazy tradition. Nobody’s gotten hurt so far, so that’s good.”
Kalitta led the standings for much of the season and never was any farther down in the order than third, said, “Any of these races, round by round, it’s tough. Anytime you can get a win, it’s a great accomplishment. Just to be able to win at the final race, to run the guys and beat ‘em like we did, I’m just real proud of Jim [crew chief Oberhofer] and all the guys.”
He said he congratulated Todd for defeating Brown following the semifinals and wished him a sfae race in the finals.
“That’s my typical deal,” the low-key Kalitta said. Then with a laugh, he said, “I’ll have to find a more intimidating way of approqching these guys that you run. Maybe that’ll help, too.
“It was a close race, for sure,” he said of the final round. “Their car has been running incredible. Connie did a heck of a job with that thing. He’s amazing, after all these years out here, tuning these cars.”
Kalitta said they had a 1964 Top Fuel car that’s a Cacklefest showcase car in their pits Saturday night and said his legendary uncle “was able to get some good stories out about what was going on with that thing. Just a beautiful car. So he’s had a good weekend.”
With Funny Car’s Ron Capps finally shaking the mantle of the NHRA’s most successful racer without a title the night before, Kalitta has inherited the dubious distinction.
“Yeah, I’m still on that list,” Kalitta said. “I’m sure I’ll hear about it all year again. I’m real proud of what we’ve accomplished.”
Todd was disappointed at not closing the Countdown with another Wally statue for the team that reached 10 semifinals or better in the final 13 races and the driver who advanced to a career-best six final rounds this year. But he found the positives in his situation.
“I believe we definitely had the car to beat all weekend. We just screwed up in the final on the starting line and let one get away,” he said. “It was a mistake [in lane choice because of the sun], but we can’t make any excuses. You’ve got go up there and be a pro and hit the gas on time.
“All in all, a good weekend for Kalitta Motorsports having both Toyota dragsters in the final, and that got us both in the top five in points,” Todd said. “We just wanted to come out of here with a trophy.”
What will have to sustain him through the winter is his though that “hopefully this is a sign of things to come for next year. The performance of the car over the last three races has really come around. It’s a shame we didn’t start off the Countdown the way we finished. I think we’ve definitely got a championship-caliber team here. And hopefully we’ll go out and win a handful of races before the Countdown next year and set ourselves up in a better position. We’ve been to a lot of semis and a quite a few final rounds.”
Todd seemed to measure his progress against that of three-time and reigning champion Antron Brown, who happened to be his semifinal victim Sunday.
“I don’t think our overall point position reflects the kind of season we had,” Todd said. “We stumbled at the beginning of the Countdown, and Antron got rolling like he did. It just makes it harder on the rest of us. You’ve got to stop him early. The way we finished the year, I like the direction we’re going for 2017.”
Kalitta marched to the final past Shawn Reed, Schumacher, and Shawn Langdon. Todd eliminated Troy Buff, Richie Crampton, and Brown. Susan Wade
TJ WINS FC POMONA TITLE, CAPS CAREER YEAR - With a possible NHRA nitro Funny Car world championship within reach, Tommy Johnson Jr. and his Don Schumacher Racing team had a couple of costly hiccups at Dallas and Las Vegas.
Rather than dwell on a lost championship opportunity, Johnson Jr. and his team regrouped and won the season-ending NHRA Finals Sunday at Pomona, Calif.
Johnson Jr., on a slim holeshot, beat John Force in the final round. Johnson Jr. clocked a 3.918-second elapsed time at 320.51 mph, while Force had an identical ET.
The difference was Johnson Jr. had a .041 reaction time compared to Force’s .046 light.
That performance allowed Johnson Jr. to finish a career-best second place in the final world standing – 52 points behind world champion Ron Capps.
Johnson also had a career-best three wins this season and this was his first win at the World Finals in Pomona.
“You’re disappointed you didn’t win the championship and I let Ron win this one, so I can have the next one,” Johnson Jr. said. “His team did a great job this season and you have six races (in the Countdown to the Championship) to really make no mistakes. We had a bad race or two in there and it was really frustrating because we knew we were better than that. We had fallen back to third and we wanted to go back to second, we knew we could get that. You want to finish strong and show them you’re there to contend. The guys just did a great job. We tested after Vegas and knew we had a good race car coming in here and we ran really well all weekend. They are digging hard, so you have to dig hard as well. I’ve always wanted to win this race I’ve won the Winternationals, and now you get two-and-a-half months to celebrate this win and it kind of sets the tone for the offseason. It was just a great day and a great year, not only our team, but all the DSR teams.”
The DSR contingent of Capps, Johnson Jr., and Matt Hagan finished 1-2-3 in the points.
During the 2015 preseason testing Johnson made headlines with what was the fastest nitro Funny Car pass of 3.874 seconds.
“You look at that run we made in testing and it’s kind of ho-hum, the class has come so far this season,” Johnson Jr. said. “We look back on that pass and it was the quickest in the history at the time and now you almost have to run that to get in the top of the field.
The performance of the Funny Cars has been amazing. It is so tough that if you can finish second out of all these cars, you have had a really, really good year. Obviously Capps was the best this season, but to be right behind him and ahead of all those others, I don’t know how you could be disappointed. The way the Funny Cars are running really puts an emphasis on the drivers. Now it’s like Pro Stock, the driver has to be there along with the car if you are going to have any shot at this.” Tracy Renck
ANDERSON WINS FINALS, TAKES SECOND IN POINTS - Greg Anderson is all about winning championships, but Sunday he had to settle for second place.
Anderson beat his Summit Racing teammate Jason Line in the Pro Stock final at the season-ending NHRA Finals, but when the day was done he lost the championship by three points to Line.
“I can’t cry,” Anderson said. “I did everything I could possibly do (Sunday) and the only thing I can kick stones about is that I didn’t do a great job of qualifying on Friday. I messed up on Q2 on Friday and I lost three points to Jason, and those three points were a big three points. It’s a bum deal, but you do the best you can and sometimes you make a mistake and I did on Friday and it cost me. It was still a great fight.”
This was Anderson’s eighth win of the season and the 86th of his career. The latter total put him in second place on NHRA’s all-time Pro Stock victory list one in front of the legendary Bob Glidden. Warren Johnson is top on the NHRA Pro Stock list with 97 national event wins.
“To break Bob Glidden’s record is fantastic,” Anderson said. “That’s something I never considered or ever wanted to think about and now that it has happened it is unreal. He (Glidden) is a hero of mine and idol of mine and I wouldn’t be here today without him. He helped create this class with guys like Bill Jenkins and Warren Johnson and Frank Iaconio all those guys, we wouldn’t have Pro Stock if it wasn’t for those guys, thanks so much to them. They paved the way and we are just trying to carry on as well as we can.”
Through the first 10 races of the season, Anderson and Line won all the races and the duo, along with their other teammate, Bo Butner, also collected all the qualifying bonus points.
“We said every race, they are going to catch us,” Anderson said about the competition. “Everybody learns from everybody else. Everybody pays attention to what goes on out there and the racers look at other racers and see how they do things. You know the technology is going to get around sooner or later and we were shocked it took as long as it did.”
However, Allen Johnson broke the Summit Racing victory streak at the Mile-High Nationals in July in Denver, and Anderson knew he and Line would be in a battle to capture a championship.
“The last half of the year the rest of the class got involved,” Anderson said. “For us to dig and regroup in the (six-race) Countdown when we had a no-point advantage from 700 or 800 points was amazing to come back. We had a great season, 16 wins between Jason and I out of 24 is not bad, that’s two-thirds. If you would have told us that 12 months ago I would have told you, you were crazy. We overachieved this year, and I can’t be sad, I can’t complain. I’m proud of Jason, he’s a great racer. I hired my own assassin, but that’s why I hired him because I knew he would be good. I knew he would be bad bone. I would have a whole lot of wins if it wasn’t for him, but it is still neat and it is all good for KB Racing. Ken Black is the hero of the year, he got 16 wins. We are looking forward to 2017, it is going to be tighter than ever, we know that.”
And, Anderson knows his Summit Racing team can’t let up in the offseason.
“That’s where the gains have to be made in the offseason,” Anderson said. “If you don’t make any hay in the offseason, then you are going to get left behind because you race every weekend or every other weekend and you don’t have that time for R&D during the season. You have to get it done in the winter time. You can’t go to the beach and goof off.”
Anderson acknowledged when he and Line went visited U.S. troops following the 2015 season, it changed their perspective for the 2016 campaign.
“A year ago at this time we got our tails whipped at the World Finals by Erica (Enders-Stevens). She was the champion and we had this new rule change coming up (with fuel-injection) that we weren’t looking forward to. We were dragging our lip, we were sad, we were pouting and complaining. We packed up from here and we went home and we made a trip to Kuwait and saw the soldiers and saw what they go through and what they do for us and it completely changed our outlook. We thought we had a problem and we didn’t even know if we wanted to race anymore with this fuel-injection deal and you go over there and see what these soldiers go through day-in and day-out, and the way they charge into the battle like that and we wanted to run away from it. We saw the way the ran into battle without even a second thought, we left there with a whole new attitude. We came home and said this is not a problem, changing to fuel-injection is not a problem it’s an opportunity that these soldiers have created for us to be out here and race, so we need to make the most of it.”
According to Anderson, he and Line will be making another trip to Kuwait a week from Sunday.
“We’re going to get that knock in the head and realize what’s important in life, and how great we have it over here because of those soldiers,” Anderson said. “You need that reminder every year.” Tracy Renck
SMITH WAITS UNTIL FINAL RACE TO EARN PSM VICTORY - Officially, Matt Smith won Sunday’s Auto Club Finals at Pomona, Calif., when money-round opponent Angelle Sampey had a foul start.
But maybe the biggest triumph of the day for the veteran racer from King, N.C., was his quarterfinal-round defeat of Harley-Davidson competitor and title contender Eddie Krawiec.
With Sampey eliminating Andrew Hines, the only other championship hopeful, in the previous pairing, Jerry Savoie claimed the crown. For Smith, he took glee in knowing he had prevented the Harley-Davidson racers from winning once again. Harley-Davidson is a keen rival for Victory, the manufacturer of Smith’s bike.
“To put Eddie Krawiec on the trailer and load him up and to tell him, ‘You know what? You can’t win the championship, because we just defeated you,’ that was big for us,” Smith said. “He has gotten me before when I was in the final round, and he beat me so we couldn’t get our first victory for Victory. Then we capitalized and won the race.”
Smith’s winning time and speed were 8.044 seconds and 117.34 mph. Sampey was two-hundredths of a second too quick at the starting line and wasted a 6.872, 195.87 effort.
Said Smith after scoring his first victory of the year, his 18th overall, and his second in this Mello Yello Drag Racing Series finale at Pomona, “We haven’t had the best season in the world. We’ve had a fast bike, but we’ve had a lot of electrical problems and transmission issues. We finally solved that about four races ago. It’s been good for us to be able to run as good as we have. The Lord was with us.
“I want to thank Victory for sticking by me and giving me this shot. To give them their first win in NHRA is huge,” he said. “I know we’ve got a couple of teammates next year going to be running Victory. I’m glad I had the chance to get it done first for them.”
Smith didn’t name names, but he said one male rider and one female rider will compete next season aboard Victory machines.
“I hope it’ll help me,” he said. “If they’re way faster than me, I’ll know I’m doing a lot wrong. If I’m faster, I’ll know I’m doing good.”
He ruled out technology sharing: “I’m not sharing nothin’ with them.”
His prediction is that “I think we’ll be good next year off the bat. We have big plans for next year: got a new body coming, new motor coming. Hopefully you’ll see us a lot more next year.”
Sampey was making her final start for Star Racing and longtime colleague George Bryce. She'll race with and serve as team manager for Cory Reed and their Team Liberty operation in 2017. Overall, the three-time champion said she was satisfied with her year-long performance as her comeback continued. She advanced to the final Sunday by beating Scotty Pollacheck, Andrew Hines, and Jerry Savoie.
“I beat the old World Champ second round and the new World Champ in the semis,” Sampey said. “I’m really proud of that. It was a good year, and I think it worked out well for everybody. I’m really happy we finished off the year this way. George and I shook hands and we’re leaving very happy with each other.” Susan Wade
FIELDS SET FOR FINALE AT POMONA
WENDLAND TESTING PAYING OFF – Rob Wendland said Friday he has Terry McMillen’s Amalie Oil “Extermigator” Dragster in test mode and “has some pretty good plans for the winter.”
But his hunches have paid off this weekend, as McMillen jumped in the opening-day order from 15th place to ninth, then settled into 12th Saturday.
“Since the Countdown began, we’ve had different clutch discs we’ve been trying to dial in for next year. And we’ve been working with different motor combinations, the ratio between compression and blower,” Wendland said.
Moreover, he has been struggling to figure out the quirky effects of weight distribution in this Don Schumacher Racing-built dragster and that his “other DSR car had a wider window of tunability. This is a funnier car.”
The single-car team has struggled with personnel migration to bigger teams this year, which hasn’t helped. For example, the team’s clutch specialist joined a Funny Car operation midseason. That didn’t sit well with Wendland, who expressed his displeasure to the other team owner in a lengthy conversation.
But countering that exodus was a bright spot for the Hoosier Thunder Motorsports team: the arrival of Kaylynn Simmons, a UNOH graduate from Jordan, N.Y. Her first race was in the spring at Las Vegas, and she has worked for McMillen fulltime since the July 7-10 race at Joliet, Ill. Simmons not only works on the car but she drives the hauler to the races.
Simmons also has an unusual nickname: “Bruce.” The crew gave it to her because her name, “Kaylynn,” sounds similar to “Caitlyn,” the name transgender celebrity Bruce Jenner chose when he became a woman. “She’s good with it,” crewmate Chaz Ownbey said.
And Wendland had a warning for other teams regarding his latest addition: “Tell all those other guys to stay the f--- away from her.”
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, SANTO JR. - No. 11 starter Wayne Newby, fresh from an East Coast Nationals victory in hometown of Sydney, Australia, a week ago, is hoping to deliver another triumph Sunday as a 23rd birthday present to co-crew chief Santo Rapisarda Jr. Newby’s first-round opponent in Sunday’s eliminations will be Steve Torrence.
“Nothing to report,” Rapisarda said following Jr. “The car went down the track without any drama and came back with no damage. That’s always a good sign.”
On his fourth and final qualifier, Newby laid down a 3.819-second, 315.64-mph pass, but he relied on his previous 3.766, 326.79.
“We had a small issue in wearing the clutch out and that in turn slowed the car down. We were expecting to go quicker. We also dropped a cylinder around half-track as well,” Rapisarda said. “The team is confident going up against Torrence. The pressure will be on Torrence. He drives for one of the top teams in the Mello Yello series. We have a night to think about what we need to make the car to run faster.”
TATUM’S EDUCATION CONTINUES – Tripp Tatum, one of six candidates for the Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award given to the sport’s top rookie, will open eliminations from the 14th position in the Lagana family’s Nitro Ninja Dragster.
He said even before the event began that brothers Dom and Bobby Lagana planned “to run it harder than he’s ever run it before with me. That’s exciting to me. He said, ‘Look, we’re going to try to run it even harder than we did first round [in Las Vegas]. It was running the best numbers it has ever run until it started hurting itself. We’re going to continue on from there and see what we see.’
“It goes to show what those guys can do,” Tatum said. “I know they can run with any of them. We just need to work on taking those steps and doing it the right way. For me, especially. They’re so smart about making sure they go in small increments and keeping everything safe and happy.”
Tatum will square off against No. 3-qualified Shawn Langdon in Sunday’s first round.
The rookie recorded a career-best 3.771-second elapsed time during qualifying at the previous event, the NHRA Toyota Nationals in Las Vegas, and was on pace to run even quicker in the first round of eliminations before a parts failure led to a fire-inducing engine explosion. The fireball was a new chapter in Tatum’s continuing Top Fuel education. He handled the situation calmly.
“When it let go, it let go pretty good. It didn’t bother me too much in the cockpit, other than the fact that it blew up a lot of parts. It got my firesuit pretty good on the neck and shoulders. You just get it stopped, move closer to the wall, and assess what happened. It’s one of those deals. That’s just nitro racing.”
Tatum, who earned his license upgrade from Top Alcohol Dragster to Top Fuel after the Las Vegas event last fall, is taking advantage of the opportunity to compete twice in a two-week span after attending events this year that were scheduled months apart. He enters his fifth and final race of 2016 in full stride.
“I noticed in between the Indy test session and Indy that it helped me considerably. I don’t feel like I’ll need to shake the rust off when I get back in there in Pomona. I’m sure they’ll put something in there to run a low-.80 to get down the racetrack and then step it up pretty good on Friday night. That’s exactly what they did with me in Vegas, and it worked out well.”
The Nitro Ninja team receives support from Lucas Oil, Tom Stephens Racing, Steve-A-Ritaville, and Capco Contractors and is equipped with a crew that includes longtime nitro tuner John Stewart, Bob Szelag, Steve Giordano, Tony Gonsalves, Jake Sanders, and Don Lynch.
“We’ll make the next small little step and try to qualify a little better to get in better position for first round. We’ve done nothing but move forward and make positive steps. I’m trying to keep an open mind, listen, and learn.
“I definitely wish we could keep on racing, but I’m excited to sit down and work on stuff for next year. Hopefully, it will be bigger and better things. Working with those guys is a great experience, and it’s been a great learning experience as a whole.” – Brad Littlefield
LUCAS FAMILY TO PARK ITS TOP FUEL OPERATION – The Auto Club Finals at Pomona, Calif., signals the end of the NHRA season, but this time it’s the end of the Morgan Lucas Racing (MLR) Top Fuel team.
Lucas on Friday night informed his team, which features popular driver Richie Crampton and crew chief / car builder Aaron Brooks, of the decision to disband the Brownsburg, Ind.-based organization at the conclusion of this weekend’s race. “Everyone has been graceful about the news,” he said.
He promised, "We are going to retain our involvement with NHRA Sportsman Series and race sponsorships. For us, I think it is obvious to fans, that we are involved in the sport whether the team is running or not."
MLR is the second Hoosier-headquartered Top Fuel team this year to cease operation. Bob Vandergriff Racing did so in April after primary benefactor Josh Comstock died suddenly and his oil-and-gas-industry firm cited economic woes for declining to continue funding the dragsters of Dave Connolly and Leah Pritchett.
The Lucas Family’s choice – one which part-time driver Morgan Lucas said “has been ripping at my gut” – resulted from a combination of factors.
Two are increased corporate commitments for Morgan Lucas at Lucas Oil and a possible cabinet position with President-elect Donald Trump for his father, Forrest Lucas. The elder Lucas has served on an agriculture advisory committee for Trump, and his name has been mentioned as candidate for Secretary of the Interior.
“"It's been ten years of a lot of highs and lows," Morgan Lucas said. He characterized the decade as "a lot of successes and a lot of failures . . . Established a good team, a very competitive team at times.” He said, “There are a lot of changes going on in my life and my father's life, a lot of things happening within the company. It's just time to move on from team ownership.”
Performance, which has fallen off this season, played a role, but Lucas said, “On a 50/50 scale, that might have drawn a bit. I'm not going to say that didn't influence a little bit. I'm not going to say that was the basis for this. I think there were a lot of factors that went into this.”
Lucas said, “Richie is an amazing driver, and Aaron is an amazing crew chief. It just wasn't our year this year. When you have to make decisions like this ,sometimes it’s convenient to blame it on performance. There's a lot of things that added into this decision.
"A big component is there are a lot of time demands. Sometimes something has to give,” he said. “And for us, looking at the big picture, as much as it hurts and affects the people on this team, we have the confidence that the talent level of the people on this team [means] they will be able to land on their feet. We will do everything we can to help them make that transition.”
Not insignificant, too, is the rise of multicar teams, an evolution that ultimately handcuffs even a well-funded operation such as MLR.
“We are a single-car team. We are trying to compete against multicar teams. One of the teams has eight cars. They get eight times the runs that we do every session. They have eight times the information, and it is hard to compete against something like that. It's hard to find additional funding for our cars in this situation,” Lucas said. “I'm not faulting them, because they do an amazing job. But when you look at where the sport is, that money was coming out of my dad's pocket to run both of these cars. That's 3.5 million dollars plus. That adds up. What I am trying to say is it all adds up. It's not a 2D decision; it's multi-dimensional.
“It was easily one of the toughest things I have had to deal with in my life," he said, “This is a tough and grueling decision. It's something that has been ripping at my gut. I feel like I have lost six pounds in the last week. I have [loved] and will always love every member of this team. They have given me some of the best wins of my life and some of my best experiences in life, outside of my family.
"I can't thank Lucas Oil and all of the employees enough for all the things they have done to allow us the opportunities to do this . . . Geico, for the years they gave us to come out and compete . . . Mac Tools has been with us since Day One - phenomenal company and phenomenal products . . . Toyota and Andre Jackson have been like family to us. He's just one of those guys always there to give a hug when times are good and bad. He's just a really good person and a great ambassador for the brand.”
He said he can’t forget the fans: “I can't thank the fans enough for the support they've given this team over the years. I hope they don't lose faith in Lucas Oil products, because at the end of the day, we still have a passion for drag racing. It's just going to be translated in a different way.”
Said Lucas, “I hope sponsors don't look at us pulling out as a sign because it's not. The sport is healthy, and the sport is good. It's just for us, we have saturated this market. We would like to continue with this market. We need to find ways to expand into other areas.”
The political element to Forrest Lucas’ already loaded agenda is something he and wife Charlotte and son Morgan are pondering.
"You could say it is because of that, but at the end of the day, my dad is heavily invested in Protect the Harvest,” Morgan Lucas said. “If he were to get that cabinet position, which at this point is an idea or notion, that could add a lot of time constraints. But the business is growing. We are constantly trying to find a way to add to new markets, trying to find new ways to get that out there.”
Although Lucas has competed only sporadically in the past three seasons, he said the part-time experience requires preparation, which saps time from his business obligations.
"In order for me to get a foothold inside the business, with also my family life, my focus has to be going towards this even though I am not driving. I still spend a lot of time thinking and preparing and getting in shape, trying to stay sharp when I get into this car. It does take time to do this stuff. It's not like jumping on a bike. You have to stay sharp to be in one of these things [dragsters]. I like to win. I don't like to lose."
Lucas is pragmatic.
"All good things come to an end,” he said. “Drag racing, like any other sport, is fickle: It can be great now and horrible later. That's just what it is. You’ve got to ride the wave while you are up on it. You try to get back up on it when you can. I cannot say that I never thought it wouldn't happen. I just didn't know when. I never stopped being passionate about the team, because I care so much about the guys on this team that when something like this happens it sets you back a bit."
He said he hoped his passion for fielding the Top Fuel team wouldn’t wane when he stepped from the cockpit on a fulltime basis.
"I had hoped everyone would retain the passion and see the marketing value that came from it,” he said. “I was very excited to see the increased numbers of the FOX broadcasts this year. Regardless, when the car ran well, we still didn't get the TV time. When it didn't, we didn't get the TV time. The show was focused on certain people at times. That made it really hard to get that exposure we needed to get that cost per impression in a good zone. It was one of those decisions we had to make. I applaud NHRA for building a show that was interesting for the fans.”
Charlotte Lucas said, “We were spending way more money than we were getting advertising out of it.”
Those, he said, represent a big unknown.
“What people don't realize is that Lucas Oil is a diverse company," Lucas said. "My dad has been good at trying to expand things. We have investments in a lot of areas. It's not like that money is going to be in a slush fund and we will use it somewhere else. Three-and-a-half million bucks is a lot of money to any company. That's a lot of money to Geico, and they are a multi-billion dollar company. You have to look at the reality of the situation.
"We don't know what is going to happen with the economy of the country and of the world,” he said. “Sometimes you just have to be smart."
Neither Morgan Lucas nor his mother, Charlotte Lucas, could predict whether MLR might make a comeback or under what conditions that might happen.
"I can tell you that I am open-minded,” Morgan Lucas said. “A lot of fans ask me if I am ever coming back full time. The way I look at it, John Force is 67, and he's still throwing down. That guy is a shining light to someone like me who is 32. I still have a whole 100-percent of my life to go. [As] my kids get older, they might want to take a crack at it. I don't know. I'm open-minded about it. I love this sport. I'm not saying I'm not going to drive anything. I just don't see a Top Fuel car in the foreseeable future.”
Charlotte Lucas said she told him, “If you want to get a kick out of it, I’ll let you drive my car. It won’t go as fast. My car’s sitting right there in his shop, so he can go play in Division 3 all he wants. He told me he would be my crew chief. So maybe one week he can drive and the next week I can drive, something like that. It’s something where we can bring [Morgan and Katie Lucas’ sons] Hunter and Austin [along] and a have a lot of fun with it.”
GOOD, BUT NOT GOOD ENOUGH - Del Worsham has relished every moment this weekend wearing the No. 1 on the side of his DHL-sponsored Toyota. And for at least for one more day, no one can take it off.
Next season is a different story.
"I’m sad about it but we just didn’t have the fastest car," admitted Worsham. "We didn’t earn it, we didn’t win the most races and win the most rounds and didn’t have the best car in the Countdown. I can deal with it. When we did, we were and now that we’re not, we’re just not going to be champions so try again."
This season, while strong, was nowhere near the caliber of performance which led to Worsham earning the No. 1 designation. Last season at this race, Worsham clinched his fourth victory in seven final rounds. This year, Worsham has only won once in five final rounds.
"Whether under the radar or above the radar, we won the most races with the most consistent, fastest car," Worsham lamented. "This year wasn’t the case."
Worsham won the 2011 Top Fuel champion, but the veteran drag racer who made a Funny Car has entry level vehicle said last season's title was the icing on what has turned into a remarkable career.
"To win in a Funny car, which is what I set out to do originally, it was the first thoughts of ever being a champion were always in a Funny Car," Worsham said. "It never occurred to me in a Top Fuel dragster. It was very satisfying. It was gratifying. To come over here and work with Nicky Boninfante, Jon Oberhofer, and Connie Kalitta and his teams and build this car into what it was, build it into a championship car, besides just driving it, getting to be a part of it was amazing."
And this is an experience peeling off a No. 1 cannot erase. – Bobby Bennett
PEDREGON PUBLICITY MAGNET – If nothing else, Funny Car owner-driver Cruz Pedregon has brought the sport a boatload of “earned media” – free advertising. His frightening but classic wheelstand two weeks ago at Las Vegas in the Snap-on Toyota, with which he took much of a winning eliminations pass while airborne, nearly has taken on “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” status.
He said, “We’d love for all the attention that wild ride created to remind NHRA fans of how exciting this sport really is. My brother, Tony, is one of the announcers for FOX Sports, and to go back, watch the broadcast, and hear him and fellow announcer Dave Rieff talk about the run and watch it over and over again, from outside the car, makes me realize how fortunate we are to have re-engerized those who love the sport, maybe brought in some new fans, and had it all end well.”
The car from last weekend will be on display in Pomona this weekend as part of the “50 Years of Funny Car” recognition.
“The chassis was bent, so we brought in a new one. I’m so grateful I was able to keep the car in check, everyone is OK, and I’m ready to get car down the track - with all four wheels on the ground.”
Car chief Chris “Warrior” Kullberg, said, “It’s been interesting to see all the coverage and interest in that outrageous ride. But, as a team, it meant we had work to do in a pretty quick amount of time to get the Snap-on Toyota ready to get back out on the track. It’s been a real team effort, and we’re excited to get back to the state where it all started for Cruz.”
Pedregon had said at Las Vegas that he would speak with NHRA officials before Pomona about the practice of using laid-back headers. Following the incident, he indicated the headers were the source of the problem. However, he assessed the situation and recognized that the Camry was experiencing a host of troubles that day.
“He isn’t going to bring it to NHRA’s attention. He doesn’t think it’s 100 percent the headers’ fault,” team manager Caleb Cox. “We had some aerodynamic problems with the body. The first qualifying run, it was tripping the beams for being too low. We had clutch trouble. The body was just hanging too low.”
MEMORABLE MEDIA-ROOM VISITS – Infinite Hero Foundation Jack Beckman will remember his No. 1 qualifying performances here – if not for the fact his 3.825-second lapsed time was second-quickest in class history, then for his special guests.
He brought son Jason with him Friday, and while Jason isn’t quite as talkative as his father, he stole the show.
Asked how he felt about his dad’s outstanding performance, Jason Beckman said shyly, “Well, it feels good just to have my dad run well and stuff . . .” But Dad wanted to encourage him to speak more freely, so he urged him, “Just say whatever you’re thinking.” That was his first mistake.
“What did you feel like up in the stands when you saw the scoreboard come on?” Jack asked Jason.
“Well, I wasn’t in the stands,” the boy answered.
“Wait a minute!” Jack asked. “Were you playing video games?”
“Maybe . . .” he replied.
A little more emboldened because of the round of laughter that drew, Jason said, “When I saw it on my grandma’s phone, I thought, ‘Well, at least he’s No. 1 for once.’ ”
His chagrined father’s only retort was, “Go to your room.”
When Beckman retained the top qualifying position, he returned to the press room – without his son.
“Jason is unavailable for interviews. He has a hockey game,” Beckman announced happily.
Just as happily – sincerely happily – he introduced his latest guest: “Jungle Pam” Hardy, the famous and still-fabulous-looking back-up girl for the late “Jungle Jim” Liberman. The flamboyantly entertaining Liberman’s James Dean-like legacy once again is being celebrated during this finale to the Funny Car 50th Anniversary.
At Beckman’s invitation, “Jungle Pam,” now 62, backed him up once Friday and twice Saturday.
“I thought it would be bitchin’ and she said yes,” Beckman said.
He said he needed to run the idea past his Don Schumacher Racing crew chief Jimmy Prock, and Beckman said he approached Prock with some trepidation. But Prock replied, “Yeah, that’d be cool. What’s she going to wear?”
“Jungle Pam” said, “Jack has given me the most wonderful drag-racing experience I could have ever asked for. Drag racing still to me is the ultimate high. Just is. This is better than sex!”
She said her greatest moment in drag racing was Liberman’s victory in 1975 at Englishtown, N.J.: “Winning the Summernationals in ‘75 was total validation of Jungle’s ability and perseverance.”
DIFFERENT POMONA VIBE – When Aaron Strong arrived here at Auto Club Raceway in February for the Winternationals, he was overwhelmed. He wouldn’t have made the season-opening race at all, were it not for the generosity of Richard Freeman. The Elite Motorsports owner provided an engine for Strong, who had blown up the only two he had during testing at Phoenix.
This time, Strong was in a much better position, armed with season-long sponsor A&J Furniture Manufacturing and a victory, not to mention serious consideration for Rookie of the Year honors.
“When we were here in February, I think the whole class was kind of worried about the fuel-injection. Our team was really paranoid, because we didn’t know which team would be fast and if the car was going to start,” Strong said. “We’re coming back to Pomona in a different boat, thankfully. We had that huge Seattle win this summer, and now we’re coming back to Pomona with a more confident setup compared to nine months ago.”
The former Comp Eliminator driver said he didn’t allow himself time to imagine that he would have such a productive season in his first year in Pro Stock.
“We weren’t daydreaming after we hurt the motors in Phoenix. It was kind of a headache. We weren’t daydreaming about what could happen. We were just going, ‘Oh, what are we going to do now?’ ” Strong said.
His association with Freeman, he said, “was a handshake deal, nothing firm, no agreement. We made one run in Phoenix, came here and ran. We were happy with how we ran. We qualified 12th. It was the best we’d qualified to date. We went to three races in 2015 and qualified 15-16th spot at those races. We definitely were happy about performance from the get-go.”
Then he got a primo gift: His sponsor decided to keep coming back.
“At first they just wanted to come out for this race. Then they decided to stay on for another race, at Las Vegas. The relationship grew, and they decided to stay on for the rest of the year even before we won the Seattle race. Now it’s a big deal for them – and for us, too,” Strong said.
The Wally statue he earned for them at Indianapolis flew home to Seattle inside his backpack and made the rounds to his Northwest associate sponsors.
“Now it’s with its other brothers – It spent a week in the kitchen area, on the countertop. Then it went to the garage,” Strong said. “I won the Finals a couple of years ago in Comp Eliminator. I value both of them, but one’s a pro one.
“We’re hungry to get another one,” he said. “We kind of went into a slump after that. We ran really good at Indy. We lost in Round 1 to Jason Line by like 15-thousandths [of a second]. It was a good race.
But this time Strong also came here with a Chevy Camaro plagued by gremlins. After his spike in performance, he said, “we gremlins in the car at St. Louis, Dallas, Vegas . . . So now we’re trying to rule some stuff out at this race – especially before wintertime. That way we won’t be sitting there, scratching our heads for three months.”
He arrived at Pomona early Wednesday “to go over the car and throw the kitchen sink at it.” He said, “We found quite a few things wrong. It could be them [the gremlins]. I just need to get on my end a little more. The motor has been good. The gremlins are in the car somewhere.”
He said, “The car got beat up in the trailer. Unfortunately, the leveling valve in the trailer went bad. So that means the air bags don’t fill up with air. When the trailer’s not filled with air, it’s really rough. So it beat the car up going to a couple of races like Dallas and Las Vegas. You see the cars in the staging lanes and going down the track. But the cars have a whole life besides that: in the pits, in the shops, in the trailers. There’s a lot of things that can beat up a car.”
Freeman still supplies Strong’s motors. “I own these two motors that I have from Richard, and they freshen them. I service the motors,” he said. He also said Greg Stanfield still is his crew chief. “I don’t like the revolving door of people coming and going. I build relationships and stay with a core group,” Strong said.
As No. 14 qualifier, Strong will race No. 3 Greg Anderson in the first round of Sunday’s eliminations.
“We figured out what was wrong with the car, but I do think we underachieved during qualifying,” Strong said. “We didn’t qualify where we wanted, but we do have some left in it for Greg tomorrow.”
Greg Anderson got to fantasize. “It's down to the final round, and it's you and Jason [teammate, points leader, and Countdown emesis]. What do you have your pocket for good luck?” somebody asked him.
Said Anderson, “I've got a lot of stuff in my pocket. Every race I've got medals from soldiers. I've got a good luck charm from my wife. I've always got something in my pocket. There's always going to be what I consider a lucky something in my pocket. I usually have a medal or something taped to the dashboard in the race car, and if people tell you they're not superstitious when it comes to things like this, they're probably lying.
“I will try anything. I'll take anything. I'll take a chance on anything that could possibly help me,” he said.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
HARLEY DUO MEETS VIPs – Five-time champion Andrew Hines often is the “celebrity” in the Pro Stock Motorcycle pits, but he hasn’t forgotten the time he wound up on stage with Jay Leno, automotive enthusiast and at the time host of NBC’s “Tonight Show.”
Recalled Hines, “Being a champion and racing for Harley, I was invited to the Love Ride in California years and years and years ago, and I got up on stage with Jay Leno. That was a very cool deal – except he did make fun of me because I was wearing shorts that day and my legs are pretty darned white because wearing pants and leathers all day long. We don't get a chance to get a tan. So I got a national celebrity there cracking jokes on you. I think that counts for being a champion. I was up on that stage.”
Eddie Krawiec, his Vance & Hines Screaming Eagle Harley-Davidson teammate, said the VIPs he has met are the NHRA’s fans.
“I don't want [that] to sound like a cliché, but it's amazing everybody we get to meet throughout the year. A lot of fans and a lot of people that swing by the trailer, it's just -- we have the most unique fan base, being supported by Harley-Davidson. Somebody that's great, getting to hang out with: Willie G. Davidson and others [from the company] that come to the track is just something that's really special, and it's not because we won the championships. It's just because we're part of a big, great team. I mean, the category itself right now is just phenomenal, and all the fans that we have that stand behind us. I do think some of that is because we've won championships, but the fans that come out to the race and stand behind us and cheer us on is just awesome.”
What he marvels at is seeing “one guy that's a die-hard Harley guy that looks like he's ready to rip your head off at the back of the rope standing next to this lawyer in a suit that's just happy to be there. So it's just unique.” He said, “But the one thing that does make it extra-special for us is we get to go overseas every year and go visit the troops with Summit Racing guys. To be able to be a part of that with Jason Line and Greg Anderson and do Operation Appreciation is something extra-special and something that I hold close to my heart. So definitely to see all the troops and everybody is something special to me.”
DNQS – The seven spectators Sunday from the Pro Stock Motorcycle class will be Karen Stoffer, Chaz Kennedy, Jim Underdahl, Luke Crowley, Gunner Courtney, Scott Bottorff, and Lance Bonham. Anchoring the field of 16 is Angie Smith. Rookie-of-the-year candidates Melissa Surber and Cory Reed will start eliminations from the ninth and 13th spots, respectively. Surber will race Steve Johnson, and Reed will line up against Andrew Hines.
While JR Todd and Doug Kalitta marked the first time since the Dallas 2014 race that they have started Nos. 1 and 2 in the Top Fuel order, three others – Scott Palmer, Terry Haddock, and Steve Faria – missed the cut.
Todd’s track-record 3.680-second elapsed time is tied for fifth-quickest in Top Fuel history.
SAVOIE SHAKES UP PRO STOCK BIKE POINTS, WHILE CAPPS EXTENDS FUNNY CAR LEAD, AND TOP-QUALIFIER LINE KEEPS ANDERSON AT BAY
2ND PLACE UP FOR GRABS – At stake this weekend is second place in the final standings. Just 72 points separate No. 2 Steve Torrence and No. 6 JR Todd. In between are Doug Kalitta, who trails Torrence by only 11 points; Brittany Force and Shawn Langdon who are separated by a single point and 47 and 48 points, respectively, behind Kalitta. Todd is 72 points out of the second spot. “Although we did not get the ultimate trophy this season, the Mac Tools team still has a goal of finishing strong. We are less than one round out of second in the standings and we would like to get that spot this weekend,” Kalitta said. He led the standings for much of the spring and summer and never has been worse than third all year.
BOOKENDING TRENDS – No. 2-ranked Steve Torrence can become the 17th pro racer, the ninth in Top Fuel, to open and close the season with a victory and just the sixth to do so in Top Fuel. He won the season-opening Circle K Winternationals here in February, and he has momentum going for him this weekend. He won the most recent race, at Las Vegas. Shawn Langdon won the Pro Stock trophy at both Pomona races in both 2015 and 2013. Tony Schumacher accomplished the feat in 2004, and Gary Scelzi did it in 2000. Mike Dunn did it in 1999, 10 years after Gary Ormsby (1989). Also in the 1980s, drivers who did that were Darrell Gwynn (1986) and Shirley Muldowney (1983, 1980). The other Top Fuel racer who did it was Don Garlits, in 1975. In Funny Car, Don Prudhomme won the opener and finale in 1975 and 1976, Bruce Larson did it in 1989, and John Force followed suit in 2010 and 2002. Pro Stock’s Bob Glidden is the only one to win both the first and last events four times (1975, 1978, 1979, 1989), but fellow Pro Stocker Greg Anderson did it three times (2004, 2006, 2008). Doing it from the Pro Stock ranks, as well, were Darrell Alderman (1991), Warren Johnson (1993), and Jeg Coughlin (1999). Some of those achievements became complete in October of that year at Irvine, Calif., or Ontario, Calif. The first season finale at Pomona was in 1984.
BONUS-POINT LEADERS – Steve Torrence led the Top Fuel contingent in bonus points with 122 as the event opened. No one else is in triple figures. Doug Kalitta followed at 81, and newly crowned champion Antron Brown had 70. Tony Schumacher ranked fourth at 65, and Brittany Force was next at 60.
A VICTORY IS POSSIBLE – Tony Schumacher has no “Run” to scheme for, no championship on the line this time, but the U.S. Army Dragster driver has a goal: his 83rd Wally trophy. He said, “The kind of adversity we’ve faced this season is half the battle. It’s all about getting through the adversity, keeping us on the track and winning races. We may not be able to go out and win the championship this year, but we can change the direction of other stuff. So now the goal becomes going out with a win. We’ve just got to go out and make that happen so we can spend the winter remembering that we know how to win. I’m also proud to say there’s not a team out here that tries harder.”
He said he’s enjoying watching his colleagues enjoy those moments he has enjoyed so many times.
“You know, it’s always nice to once in a while enjoy someone else’s good fortune,” Schumacher said. “We’re an awesome race team with an incredible winning record, a championship heritage. Having won championships, we can really enjoy someone else’s championship efforts, because we know every little thing that goes into winning them, just what it takes to earn it. Capps is another of our DSR brethren, and he’s on the verge of clinching his first championship that’s been long overdue.
“As for what we expect this weekend, it’ll be business as usual,” he said. “We are going to try and win the race. We’re well aware of the points situation and the fact we can leapfrog a lot of people between us and second place if all goes well. That would be all well and good, but we’ve first got to go in with the mindset of trying to win this race. The points will take care of themselves, as they always do. If you’re not No. 1 at the end of the season, it really doesn’t matter where you end up, does it? It’s all about winning. This is the best time to win because, if you don’t, you really have a long wait until you get your next chance.”
EAGER TO WIN HERE BUT GEARED FOR 2017 – JR Todd said he and his SealMaster Dragster team “may have peaked a little early,” with a victory at Sonoma among three final-round appearances in a four-race stretch this summer. But he said, "Once the championship was out of sight, my goal has been to finish in the top five. That would say a lot about our organization, having both dragsters finish inside the top five.” Doug Kalitta had a comfortable third-place lead as the weekend opened. Todd began the event in sixth place, just 14 points out of fourth place. Todd’s team, he said, “is made up of mostly new guys or guys in new spots, so I'm really happy with the direction and performance of our hot rod.” With renewed sponsorship from SealMaster for 2017, Todd said he’s eager for his next trip to Pomona – for next year’s Winternationals. “Having SealMaster back for 2017 takes a huge load off, and it's great to have SealMaster and all of their franchisees back with us. I'd like to think that we are a key in helping their company grow, and in turn they are for sure a major key in us going after the 2017 Mello Yello championship. We have our work cut out for us, but we have already tested some things for next year so that we can hit the track running when we unload for the Winternationals. I’m excited about 2017." He also was excited about registering the class’ top speed in Q1 at 324.36 mph.
STILL ADJUSTING TO TIME ZONES – Australia’s Wayne Newby hasn’t had time to celebrate his victory at home in Sydney in the East Coast Nationals last weekend. He hardly had had time to catch his breath. Newby and the Rapisarda Autosport International team have traveled about 15,245 miles and competed in three major drag races within three weeks.
“It’s been a tough couple of weeks,” team owner Santo Rapisarda said. “I’m very proud how my boys Santino and Santo and the crew have handled the pressure of racing and all the travel involved. Over the last three weekends, we have raced in Las Vegas, then Sydney, and back to America. I think, altogether we have raced five times in the last seven weeks.”
And Newby has taken it all in stride. He jumped from 13th place to seventh in the provisional order Friday. His 3.766-second elapsed time (at 326.79 mph) is his quickest on a 1,000-foot course, and it came in idyllic conditions with a nearly perfect track and air temperature.
“Awesome run,” an elated Newby said minutes after returning to the RAI pit. "The car got the wheels up in the air off the line then settled and took off. The car got to the right slightly at the bottom end and I had to drive it. The boys and the crew were brilliant and gave me an amazing race car. I think if there was another night run, the team would have been able to give me a car to run faster.”
Crew chief Santino Rapsarda said, “That was one of the best runs ever for the team over a 1,000 foot. At one stage we were second in the field, but the track continued to improve and the pro teams took advantage of the conditions. Seventh . . . we’ll take that. Wayne was brilliant on the light with a .055-second reaction time. We had a quick look at the engine after the run, and it looks like we haven’t done any damage. That’s always a good sign.”
Earlier in the day on a track with the temperature nudging 110 degrees, Newby clocked a 5.410, 124.56. “We overstepped the mark,” Santino Rapisarda said. “The car was on the edge and spun the tires just before the 330-foot mark.”
RAI has raced at the U.S. Nationals and at all six Countdown events. Newby drove in all but the Reading and Dallas events. Larry Dixon spelled him at those two, as Newby had to return home to tend to business.
Rapisarda said, “The Pomona meeting is one of the most popular meetings on the calendar. There is usually a lot of Aussies in the crowd, who come over for the Vegas meeting, do some shopping, have a holiday, then stay on for the Pomona meeting. We want to put on a good show for the fans, who really get behind the team.”
Just as an aside . . . Newby is the only Top Fuel driver on the property who can say he has driven his dragster at a speed of 530. OK, that’s in kilometers per hour, about 329.33 miles an hour. It was Newby’s speed when he defeated fellow Sydney resident Peter Xiberras on a holeshot in the finals of last week’s event at Sydney.
PROFESSOR X – Shawn Langdon, driver of the Red Fuel Powered by Schumacher / Sandvik Coromant Dragster, has a new nickname. The 2013 champion got it from Antron Brown, who, as it turns out, Langdon inadvertently aided and abetted in his championship run this season.
“I'm going to start calling him Professor X,” Brown said, “because he studies everybody, what they do, how they do it, their motion, how they stage their car, and their characteristics at the racetrack, and he uses it for his advantage. That's what makes Langdon so good: he is a student of the game. I've always done it, but he breaks it down to a whole other level that I never even thought about doing it, and he's really helped step up my game in that aspect."
Langdon said he’s looking for a rebound from a Round 1 defeat at Las Vegas. “We've had a really great season, and I couldn't be more proud of this team and how we turned our season around after five first-round losses at the start of the year. I feel like we can really rebound this weekend. It would mean a lot to us to move up to second behind our teammate Antron. That would be a great way for Don Schumacher Racing to end the season in Top Fuel. We were able to close the season last year with a win. It would be nice to repeat that this weekend. I've been fortunate to win at my home race a few times, and it's special each time."
He won the Auto Club Finals in 2013 and 2015, and he has won the season-opening Winternationals here twice.
Langdon will start Saturday qualifying from the No. 4 position.
BROWN STILL STRATEGIZING – Antron Brown doesn’t have to count points anymore this season. He has his third championship in hand. But that doesn’t stop him from calculating what more he can do. After all, he said, “We have nothing to lose.”
“When we come to Pomona, I can tell you one thing, that when we race at certain races, we race strategy,” Brown said. “We race the racetrack. You look at your competitors and you try and look and see what you need to run to win that round. That gives you the best percentage value to win that round. That’s what everybody does in statistics, and we go in there and we go, ‘All right, we need to run this.’
“Well, Pomona, the cool part is that we’re going to go out there and we’re going to run hard, and the good part is we have nothing to lose, and we can go out there and we can try to rotate the Earth,” he said. “We just hope the Earth goes with us so we can actually make some world record-setting runs and have some fun with it. And then on race day, we’re going to race to win. We’re going to push a little harder than we normally push, but we’re going to push because you have to now to win a round of racing, whoever you race, because all these cars are running so good. Everybody, every team out there is capable of breaking a world record at any given time if the conditions yield it. So, you have to go out there and run and make those runs. You have to go out there and give it your best shot so you can go there and have a shot at winning the race. You can make it to the finals, but to get there, you have to get through some serious competition.”
STILL SCRAPPING – Leah Pritchett, carrying the FireAde banner at this final race of a wild first full Top Fuel season that has had her with three different teams and five different sponsors, said clearing those hurdles was her personal championship. But she’s a gritty racer, with the No. 1 qualifying position at Reading and No. 2 tarts at Dallas and Las Vegas as evidence. She wants every scrap she can get. The title is out of reach - Antron Brown claimed it two weekends ago. But she’s just 32 points away from fourth place and is looking for a Wally statue to match the one she earned in February at Phoenix. "Antron had such a great year. He and the Matco team deserve it, but we want to move up one, two, or three spots in the standings. Another Wally to end the year would be the perfect way to start the offseason and get ready for next year." Pritchett got started Friday with a fourth-best run (3.797 seconds, 314.46 mph) run that blew a body panel from the FireAde Dragster. She moved up to third in the evening, one place behind Steve Torrence, the driver for whom her husband Gary works as clutch specialist.
BANNER YEAR – This has been an unforgettable season for Matco Tools Dragster co-crew chief Brian Corradi. The day before the Houston race opened, he became a grandfather for the first time. Son Nick and daughter-in-law welcomed daughter Nora in Medina, Ohio. This summer, Corradi saw his Cleveland Cavliers earn the National Basketball League championship. Then this fall, his American League Cleveland Indians took the Chicago Cubs to extra innings in the seventh game of baseball’s World Series. Those two championship series couldn’t have hurt business for Corradi, who owns several Master Pizza restaurants in Northern Ohio. His freshest topping to the performance pizza was Antron Brown’s NHRA Top Fuel championship – their second consecutive and third overall together – at Las Vegas two weeks ago. And Friday, the Matco Tools team claimed the provisional No. 1 qualifying position in their first run with a 3.735-second elapsed time.
CAPPS ENTERS WITH LEAD FOR FIRST TIME – This weekend is the first time Ron Capps has come into the final event as the points leader. He has finished No. 2 in the standings four times, but he wasn’t in the lead at the outset of the AAA Finals in any of those four instances. This is the first season a national-record scenario won’t play into championship calculations – the NHRA opted this year not to award a 20-point bonus to a driver leaving an event with a fresh national elapsed-time record.
In 2012, Capps arrived at the Finals 23 points behind DSR mate Jack Beckman and lost by an NHRA-record two points. (He improved from No. 15 to No. 1 in qualifying and set the stage for a title run. All he had to do was last one round longer than Beckman. However, Beckman clinched as Capps lost in the semifinals.) In 2005, Capps was within two points of DSR colleague Gary Scelzi when eliminations started but came eight points short. He lost in the quarterfinals – under the old format that was two years before the Countdown playoff system was introduced. Five years before that, in 2000, Capps vaulted to No. 2, but he wasn’t considered a contender in the old system, as he was ranked third and 397 points off the pace. In 1998, Capps entered Pomona 91 points behind John Force, who clinched the championship when he won in the first round.
Capps said before the event began that he is “definitely a little bit looser going into Pomona than we were going into Vegas.” He said that when he stayed on at Las Vegas for the SEMA Show, people shouted to him across the parking lot, “Hey, this is your championship!” But he said, “It’s by far not over. We still need to get there and do our business and clinch it. I've seen some pretty miraculous things happen at Pomona over the years, and we definitely don't want to be one of those statistics. A lot of people are saying it's sewn up, even on our team, and I just keep holding my hand out going, ‘No, stop, stop thinking that way.’ ”
Before the event opened, he said, “We need to keep [his advantage] above 80 points to be realistic and know that we're going to for sure clinch without having any pressure of having something go wrong on Sunday. And if we gain those qualifying points and match Hagan's team or gain more of those qualifying points than they do, we'll keep it above 80, and I say above 80 because then they have to go 100 to pass us, and that's more than what's there for Sunday at Pomona. If they gain the points and out-qualify us and get it below 80, then we obviously have to win first round to clinch it, but you just don't know. You don't want to assume anything.”
The day ended with Capps 89 points ahead of Hagan. Capps earned three bonus points in the first session and none in the second. Hagan blanked in his bonus-point chances Friday. (Beckman picked up a total of four Friday. Tommy Johnson Jr. and John Force each earned two, and Robert Hight picked up one.)
“Our NAPA team has been aggressive all year, and that's why we're in the position we are,” Capps said. “[We] ran a 3.883 in the hottest part of the day, then we smoked the tires because he stayed aggressive. We'll be the same way tomorrow and Sunday."
Capps can clinch the championship by ending Saturday with an insurmountable lead of 81.
Capps eclipsed Jack Beckman’s year-old track elapsed-time record in the opening qualifying session by one-thousandth of a second at 3.883 seconds.
BETTER SAFE THAN SORRY – The second half of the season has been one big pain for Alexis DeJoria. And it’s ending with one big headache.
“I underwent a series of cognitive tests, and the doctors diagnosed me with a full-blown concussion that required me to step away from the seat for the time being,” she said following her qualifying accident at Las Vegas. “It takes two weeks for these symptoms to subside, and even then, because of the trauma from the concussion, it would be unsafe for me to race this weekend. To go out and get behind the wheel of a 10,000-horsepower race car with its high G-forces and the possibility of tire shake would just be too traumatic for my head in its sensitive state. I’ve never been a quitter and never will be, but I must accept my fate and sit this last race out."
Veteran Funny Car racer Jeff Arend is filling in for DeJoria this weekend.
DeJoria qualified ninth two weeks ago at Las Vegas but gave first-round opponent Courtney Force (her close friend she referred to as “my girl Courtney”) a free pass in the first round of eliminations, opting not to compete Sunday. DeJoria banged into the wall during the third overall qualifying session that Saturday but came back in the final session (losing traction and cutting off the engine early). Neither she nor her team provided details, although she still is healing from a broken pelvis she suffered in July at Sonoma. Following qualifying at Las Vegas, DeJoria said, “During Q3 we made a really good run – I got a bonus point and top speed, but then my parachute got sucked up underneath my Patrón Toyota Camry and wrapped around the rear end. I lost brakes, couldn't stop the car, and somehow my left tire was wedged into the body so I couldn't steer it, either. The malfunctions were like a domino effect. In that moment, everything that could go wrong did go wrong, and there I was, just headed for that wall again. I hit the wall pretty hard, but overall I was fine. It rung my bell a little bit, but my body felt fine. That says a lot about all of the changes they made to my seat after Sonoma. After Q3, we brought my car back to the pit, pulled the back-up body out, and were able to run the same chassis for Q4. I'll be ready for tomorrow [Sunday].” In a tip of the hat to team owner/airline owner Connie Kalitta, DeJoria tweeted from Austin, Texas, that next Monday afternoon, “I really do have the best boss! Thank you for getting me home safely, Connie!”
DSR STREAK SNAPPED – Don Schumacher Racing’s 2016 total number of victories remains 25, after a recent Las Vegas race that broke a streak. It marked the first time in nine races that none of the four DSR Funny Cars was in the final round. Bookending that streak were Funny Car finals, at Denver in July and at Las Vegas two weeks ago, in which John Force defeated daughter Courtney Force for the trophy. Before that Denver race, DSR had a seven-race string of final rounds that featured at least one DSR driver.
LITTLE BIG POINTS – A big part of Ron Capps’s Countdown strategy has been accumulating “little” points. Coming into Pomona, they have provided the equivalent of more than three rounds of racing, almost a victory’s worth. He started this final race with 87. Courtney Force has earned the next-most, 69 points. Jack Beckman, who just set his sixth track record at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, was third with 66. Del Worsham was at 63.
MOONEYES THROWBACK LOOK – Shige Suganuma, the owner of Mooneyes USA for the past 25 years, is part of two drag racing traditions: that of the rich lore of NHRA action at Pomona, as well as that of the late Dean Moon and his distinctive hot rod designs. He has a standing date with Jim Dunn Racing to display his sponsorship on its Dodge Charger Funny Car at both Auto Club Raceway at Pomona race, the Winternationals and the Finals. The Japanese businessman and friend of Moon said he’d love to have a Mooneyes logo spread all over the car that John Hale drives at every race but that the company – which manufactures valve covers, camshafts, and fuel tanks among other race car parts – is a small business. At this race, the unique Pan Sumi-designed Mooneyes livery honors the front-engine Mooneyes dragster that Dante Duce first drove in 1963. “I’m so happy to see it,” Suganuma said, quick to mention that the real dragster – the original that’s depicted on the Funny Car body – is on display in the Car Corral. Mooneyes also has a booth on the Manufacturers Midway. The fancy-looing Charger gave Hale a wild Q2 ride with a downtrack wheelstand. “It came up pretty high, and it came down pretty hard, too,” Hale said after climbing out of the car. Hale is 15th in the tentative order.
IMPRESSIVE FOR SIXTH PLACE – For a driver who is in sixth place, 173 points behind the leader who has all but been coronated, Del Worsham has some impressive stats to show off. He has advanced to seven semifinal rounds or better in the past 10 races. But it won’t be the same for him as it was last year, when he seized the Funny Car championship after two decades of trying. And it won’t be the same as when he wrapped up the Top Fuel championship in 2011. Worsham, one of only three NHRA racers ever to earn series titles in both nitro classes (along with Kenny Bernstein and Gary Scelzi), also has victories here in both classes. He won this race in 2001, 2003, and 2015 in a Funny Car and in 2011 in a dragster.
"Auto Club Raceway has been very good to the DHL Toyota team recently, so we are focused on finishing the season strong,” Worsham said. “It has been a solid season, but we would love to get another win to end the year."
He’s second in the Funny Car class with 19 first-round wins this year and has one victory, in August at Brainerd. He began the weekend trailing fifth-place John Force by 14 points and leading seventh-place Courtney Force by 39 points.
WILL HE DO SOMETHING BIG? – Tommy Johnson and the Don Schumacher Racing Make-A-Wish Dodge team stayed in Las Vegas to test nearly two weeks ago, and by all accounts it was successful. In Johnson’s eyes, that means the car performed better than it did in eliminations the day before. "The numbers we ran on Monday gives me a lot of confidence going into the last race, knowing that we should be able to do something big." And the rest of the Funny Car class knows that Johnson and crew chief John Collins, both from Ottumwa, Iowa, are a dangerous duo when they’re aiming to “do something big.”
Johnson had used the Countdown to leap into the class’ elite tier, winning at Reading and reaching the finals at the first three playoff events. His fortunes cooled off slightly, and he started this weekend in third place with a 38-point advantage over fellow DSR driver Jack Beckman. DSR is on the verge of nailing down the first four spots, and Johnson, it appears, will be the lone one of the quartet without a championship to his credit.
The longtime and well-respected racer said, "We'd certainly like to have a shot at the championship which, I guess we do but we don't. Realistically, we don't," Johnson said, knowing all Capps has to do to eliminate him this weekend is qualify. "It's still been a great season, and I think we want to go out and try to do our best to win this last race and at least finish second and show that we were there to contend for the championship."
He and his team have finished third in each of the past two years. But a victory Sunday could move him past Matt Hagan for second place.
RACE REPRESENTS RENEWAL – During John Force’s career, he has earned an NHRA-record eight victories at this Pomona season-ender in 14 final-round appearances. The last time he did so was in 2010, monumental not because he overcame a 38-point deficit on the final day of the season to capture his 15th Funny Car championship. What made it particularly poignant for him is that it signaled he still could do it after missing the 2007 edition of this race while recovering from what many predicted were career-ending injuries that September. He had not just his body but also his mind right and proved to himself, to his sponsors, to his fans, and maybe even to non-believers that he was fit for the fight he so loves.
“I came in to that race knowing I had to get two more rounds than [Matt] Hagan. When he went out in the first round, I knew I had a chance. We got to round wins we needed for the championship and we went on to win the race. Big Daddy [Don Garlits] sent me a letter after that race, and I have it framed on the wall in my shop. Doctors told me I might not walk again, but I knew I could get back into the race car. And we have won a couple more championships since then. And I want to keep winning championships,” Force said. “My office is that race car, and when I get inside that PEAK Camaro, I know what I need to do.”
Should Force win the race, he will have recorded his 70th round-win at the finale at the Fairplex. Since his 2010 feat, Force has raced to three final rounds here.
WELCH BACK TO SPONSORSHIP DRAWING BOARD – Brandon Welch and his Chuck Beal Racing / Auto Anything Monte Carlo team opted to sit out the opening qualifying session Friday. “We want to save on parts. We’re starting to get to the bottom of the parts barrel,” Welch said. He said the biggest problem for his independent team all year has been the ability to acquire data. “We have a decent amount of data by Q4, but by then it’s too late,” he said.
But Welch’s bigger news Friday was that Auto Anything will not return as sponsor of his Chevrolet in 2017, although the company’s marketing executive assured him he and the team exceeded expectations. The decision, he indicated, was not drag-racing-related. The happy news, Welch said, “Thankfully we have the budget to run a half-dozen races next year.”
Welch, a candidate for the Automobile Club of Southern California’s Road to the Future Award given to the NHRA’s top rookie, will have to put his marketing expertise back to work. He has an MBA in marketing from San Diego State University and learned what he called “the mechanics of large sponsorships” while working with the National Football League’s San Diego Chargers.
EXPERIMENTING WITH CLUTCH SYSTEMS – Tim Wilkerson said he already has been testing clutch set-ups and analyzing what he can do differently to improve his program in 2017. So he said he’s hoping a strong finish will give him a clue about where to start shaping his new plan.
“I’ve been happy with how the Levi, Ray & Shoup Mustang has been running lately, and I think we have a good chance to go rounds on Sunday,” Wilkerson said. “I’ve never won at Pomona and I would really like to check this one off my list. That would be a great way to end the season.”
The ninth-place owner-driver said, “As a class, Funny Car has had a great season. Several records have been broken, we’ve had several different drivers win, and now the points battle is coming down to the very last race. It is very exciting.”
HIGHT LISTS POSITIVES – Auto Club Chevy Camaro driver Robert Hight as checked off a few to-do boxes on his 2016 list, although not all of them.
“When you start the season, I think you want to get some wins early and get locked in to the Traxxas Shootout, which we did,” Hight said. “Then you want to be consistent throughout the season and get a spot in the Countdown. We did that, and we got to the final round of the Traxxas Shootout for the third year in a row. The Gatornationals win and Traxxas Shootout runner-up were positive steps. We came into the Countdown with a lot of confidence and just didn’t capitalize. We have done some things well in the Countdown with our qualifying, but we need to get wins. We will focus on Pomona and then as soon as that race is over, we’ll take some time off and then start getting ready for 2017.”
Said Hight, “I think we have made a lot of progress on the performance side of things. I think we have a race car that can win races. This Auto Club Camaro team really worked well together this season, and I am looking for a strong finish. This is a home track race for me, so I’ll sleep in my own bed and have lots of friends and family [here].”
CATCHING UP – "Those guys at KB Racing have been the class of the field this year, but I think we really closed the gap on them,” Shane Gray, recent Las Vegas winner and driver of the Valvoline/Nova Services Chevy Camaro, said. "It was a new era of Pro Stock with EFI and the other changes, and they did the best at adapting to the new rules. We feel like we're right there now as well, and we've been showing that lately, especially in Vegas." Gray was one of seven Pro Stock racers who finally solved the equation, too. Allen Johnson was first to break the KB/Summit Racing chokehold, in late July at Denver. Since then, Drew Skillman has won twice (at Brainerd and Dallas), and Aaron Strong (Seattle), Chris McGaha (Indianapolis), Alex Laughlin (St. Louis), and Vincent Nobile (Reading) have one victory apiece. Perhaps this stat means nothing, perhaps it’s telling, but with the eight victories that went to non-KB racers, the runner-up was a non-KB driver five of eight times. Nobile was the runner-up twice in those five situations.
GREEDY – KB/Summit Racing’s Jason Line (141), Greg Anderson (139), and Bo Butner (109) have hogged most of the class’ qualifying bonus points, with a combined total of 389 at the outset of this event. Shane Gary, with 44 points, and Vincent Nobile, with 43, led nine others scrambling for the statistical scraps. Drew Skillman has 20, Alex Laughlin 19, Erica Enders and Allen Johnson 7, Chris McGaha 3, and Matt Hartford 1.
POMONA SPECIAL – The Houston and Dallas venues are home tracks for two-time and outgoing champion Erica Enders. But she has a special association with Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, for three separate reasons:
"Some of the biggest moments in my drag racing career have happened at Pomona, going all the way back to my Jr. Dragster days when we hauled our little dragster all the way from Houston just to race here," Enders said. "Now that dragster is on display at the Wally Parks Museum, and I always go and visit her when we're in town. It's a great chance to reflect for a minute on how far we've come.”
Said Enders, "I remember as a teenager coming here and enrolling in Frank Hawley's Drag Racing School and earning my Super Comp license on this strip. That was a huge deal for me; kind of signaling my transition to 'big' cars.
And who could forget her appearance here two years ago? She won’t. "Of course, we came in here and won this race in 2014 with that crazy finish to the season. We needed every round, every point, to get it done, and we did it with so much pressure on us. That clinched our first championship and remains the biggest moment of my life. So this place is as special as it gets for me."
INTRIGUING STATS – Greg Anderson has won at this racetrack 11 times, and five of those victories have come in the Finals (six at the Winternationals). His KB/Summit Racing teammate Jason Line has four victories here, none of them in this season-ending race. And although they barged into Pro Stock’s scoop-less new era of electronic fuel injection this year with a combined 15 victories in 23 completed events so far (eight for Line, seven for Anderson), they haven’t ruled the playoff roost.
“We’ve haven’t run as well in the Countdown as we’d hoped, but we’ve outlasted everybody else and that’s all that matters,” Line said. “We’re not satisfied and we want to keep going faster, but it’s going to be a fun weekend no matter what happens.”
The team’s only triumph in the Countdown has been in the September kickoff at Charlotte, where Line beat Anderson in the final round.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
SANDY, SAVVY SAVOIE SEIZES POINTS LEAD – Jerry Savoie shook the sand out of his leathers Friday night from a freakish Q2 trip into the “beach” at the end of the Auto Club Raceway at Pomona quarter-mile track – and shook the Pro Stock Motorcycle standings, taking the lead by a single point on the first day of the Auto Club NHRA Finals.
His White Alligator Racing Suzuki clocked a 6.856-second, 194.38-mph pass (slower than his chart-topping 6.844, 195.93 from earlier in the day). But he couldn’t get it stopped. He saved it from tumbling over and spilling him on the asphalt, but he ended up in the sand.
“I’ve been hit by a train and dragged 350 feet. I’ve crashed an airplane. You think this s--- scares me? You’ve got another think coming,” Savoie said.
He flies helicopters and raises alligators in his revenue-producing job in Cut Off, La. So it seemed perfectly natural for him to say, “We’ll clean it up and come back for more.”
Savoie will need more points if he is to prevent the Vance & Hines organization from earning a 12th championship in the past 20 seasons and a ninth in 13 years. He has one more point than Eddie Krawiec, who has two more points than Andrew Hines. Krawiec and Hines started the day tied for the lead with Savoie three points behind them.
The lanes, Savoie said, aren’t the same: “That left lane is so rough. We got into a bad wobble. It's a tough track. Both of the lanes are not the same. There's a three-quarter-of-an-inch difference from the left to right lane, so your wheelie-bar adjustments are totally different. It takes a little bit of figuring out.”
He said, "In the shutdown, you can clearly see on the slo-mo [camera] that everything went nice and smooth. I'm not picking on anybody or anything. It's so damn rough down there that if your bike is set up not to be really soft and if you hit those bumps, it will get away from you.
"I couldn't hit the brakes, or it would have spit me off. I just rode it out,” Savoie said.
“They had several riders that were upset, more upset than I was. They were struggling, too. I was actually thinking about Scotty Pollacheck, because I saw him do the same thing. The shutdown is really rough in the left lane. Here's the deal, and I told Tim [crew chief Kulungian], 'You're running for a championship, and you crash a motorcycle ... If you look at the film, I did nothing wrong. It was all due to the conditions of the track. They need to address it, do something about it."
Meanwhile, Kulungian and Co. will have some work overnight to be ready for Saturday’s final two qualifying sessions.
"We have the bike totally stripped down, both wheels off of it,” Savoie said, “but this thing is so buttoned up it's tough for any rocks to get inside. It's all apart. We'll clean the wheel bearings, brakes, and everything.”
Savoie’s train accident happened in 1985 in Kenner, La., during his 30-year truck-driving career.
“Dragged 350 feet in reverse. I'm not proud of it," Savoie said.
He said he in an 18-wheeler, sitting three cars back at a red light. The cars started to move. I began shifting when I heard him blow the horn, and he was 100 feet away. None of the lights or the [safety crossing] arms worked at the crossing. We went to court over it, and they lost,” he said. "He hit me and I got hung up in the front grill [of the train], and I stood up to jump out [of the truck] and I quickly realized that wasn't the right thing to do. So I sat down and just rode it out.
"[When we stopped] I looked up at the top of the train and couldn't see anyone. They were all laying down, hurt,” Savoie said. “I got the better end of the deal.”
As if it just this moment occurred to him, he said reflectively, “I fly helicopters during the summer. It’s dangerous. I fly out of the envelope all day long. We fly 150 feet [from the ground]. If something happened, we cannot recover. Everything I do has some risk to it. You put your faith in God and you go home at the end of the day. If you have to worry every time you take a step, you won't leave this building."
His plane crash was more recent. It happened this May on his way home from the Atlanta race.
"When I left Atlanta, flew back to Louisiana, and a friend of mine begged me to drop him off, 9 o'clock at night. It's a Cessna 206. I landed perfectly, but when the front wheel touched the ground, it took a left-hand turn and never stopped. I couldn't bring it back. As a matter of fact, when it folded everything under, the right pedals were still all the way to the floor,” Savoie said.
"The nose wheel was to the left, folded over and in the grass. A full investigation by the FAA, and my license didn't get suspended,” he said. “A friend of mine with the exact same plane, and his son was filming, it touched down and did the same thing. It never stopped, but his was in the daylight, and he was able to save it."
And Savoie was able Friday evening to save – better yet, enhance – his chance to win the championship.
CALIFORNIA CORPS STEPS FROM SHADOWS – Brownsburg, Ind., has become the hub of the NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle universe, with the Vance & Hines shop that preps engines for many of the racers in the class and at the moment fields the two riders tied for the points lead. And the class is Southeast-strong with four North Carolina-based racers, three from Louisiana, and one each from Alabama and Florida, along with Georgia-headquartered Star Racing. But the California Coalition – Fred Camarena and Aaron Pine from the Los Angeles suburbs and Scott Bottorff, Lance Bonham, Katie Sullivan, and Melissa Surber from the northern part of the state – provide some geographic balance.
Placentia’s Camarena, a 1999 rookie of the year contender who raced at nine of the 14 bike events that year, has concentrated on his bike-racing career after his stint as a scholarship baseball player for California State University - Dominguez Hills. The Suzuki rider is now Dad to 23-year-old daughter Joclyn. Camarena leaped into the top 12 at the provisional No. 10 spot in the opening session. He stayed 10th overnight.
Pine, of La Mirada, is a five-time NMRA/AMA ProStar champion, 2008 Summit ET Track champion, and the 2010 JEGS Sports Nationals winner. He’s a husband and father of two. He didn’t make a pass Friday, although he is entered.
Neither did Sullivan, who was entered but hasn’t competed. Nicknamed “Kalifornia Katie,” Sullivan, of Orland, has made steady progress in her limited appearances and earned a semifinal finish two years ago at the fall Las Vegas race. In 2009, the former Jr. Dragster competitor was the youngest woman in NHRA history ever to qualify and win a round of Pro Stock Motorcycle eliminations.
Bottorff is from Brentwood, in Northern California, the same city from which former Top Fuel racer David Baca hails. Bottorff made his NHRA Pro Stock Bike debut this July at Sonoma. He settled into the No. 21 slot after the first go-’round Friday and stayed there.
Jeff Diehl isn’t the NHRA’s only surfer. Lance Bonham, a grandfather who’ll be 67 years old this Christmas Eve, is a surf-and-turf kind of fellow who also likes to garden at his Sunnyvale home in the Bay Area. He entered nine races last season. He’s a four-time Pro Gas winner in the Harley-Davidson Drag Racing Series at Denver, Seattle, Las Vegas, and Salt Lake City. He was 20th after Q1 Friday and 23 after Q2.
Surber is perhaps the most visible of the California contingent this year. In building a 15-race presence in her rookie-of-the-year effort, the Buell racer on the Junior Pippin bike that’s a mate to Chip Ellis’ scored a first-round upset over LE Tonglet at Atlanta and qualified fourth at Reading. A second-generation competitor, this daughter of James Surber started her racing career at age nine in a Jr. Dragster that Hillary Will used to drive. She turned in a 6.879-second, 193.71-mph pass in her first qualifying chance Friday that put her in the provisional No. 6 position. She ended Friday in seventh place with two Saturday sessions remaining.
NECK AND NECK – Points leaders and Vance & Hines Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson teammates Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec were mid-packers in the first qualifying session Friday. Hines, who ran a 195-mph flat for seventh place, and Krawiec, who clocked a speed of 194.66 mph for eighth, had identical elapsed times of 6.872 seconds. Krawiec improved to third with two more qualifying sessions (and chances to accumulate bonus points). Hines will start Saturday from the No. 8 spot.
ALLIGATOR FARMER HAS BIGGEST BITE – Two-time champion Matt Smith said St. Louis and Las Vegas winner Jerry Savoie is the racer to beat. "Right now, nobody is going to touch Jerry," he said. "He's got way too fast a bike, and until NHRA does something about it and puts some weight on him, nobody's going to mess with him unless he messes up. He was .031 on the tree [against Smith in the semifinal at Las Vegas], so he didn't mess up. He didn't give me a shot.” Smith, who fouled out there, said, “All in all, we had a good weekend. We qualified fourth. We got to the semifinals, which is where we're supposed to be if we qualified fourth, so we did our job. We have our game and our ground and [here at Pomona] and hopefully do the same thing. Maybe we can go one more round and see if we can have a fight to win a race."
BID GOODBYE TO THE BACHELOR – Hector Arana Jr. is jazzed about this race. It’s another – and final – chance for the 11-time Pro Stock Motorcycle winner to earn his first victory of the season. But as he tries to coax that kind of performance from his Lucas Oil Racing TV Buell, Arana is probably even more excited that he has a wedding coming up – his. He and fiancée Nicole Nobile will marry Dec. 10 in New York.
"It's my last race as an unmarried guy, and that's exciting," Arana, 27, said. "I'm super thrilled to be getting married. I'm marrying my best friend, Nicole Nobile. She won't be Nicole Nobile for long, though -- she'll be Nicole Arana soon. But she'll also always be a Nobile, and I love her for that. I'm excited that my family is growing. I can't wait."
Arana Jr. was second in the order Friday following early qualifying, .013 of a second slower than Jerry Savoie and exactly .013 of a second quicker than his own father, Hector Arana Sr.
HINES DIGGING TO FIND EDGE – Andrew Hines said he has a slight natural advantage here but still worked in the nearly two-week interval between the Las Vegas race and this one to find a way to keep Jerry Savoie at bay.
“Pomona is a little bit different,” Hines said. “We have a downhill racing surface here, so that'll benefit the heavier bikes. It'll be easier to accelerate them than like Vegas, where it's slightly uphill. That'll help us out a little bit. Obviously ,with being a V-twin without a fairing, we're at an a aerodynamic disadvantage, so it's still going to be tough on that aspect of it, but we've had a pretty decent track record here. I think Eddie has been to eight straight finals [here] and won a handful of them. We've got good notes for [this] track. We ran decent there last year, and our engine package is getting better and better by the day.
“I think we can find a little bit more of an edge, and hopefully if we can find another one or two hundredths, it'll get us closer to Jerry, where hopefully he doesn't gobble up all the little bonus points in qualifying, and we need to keep him behind us going into Sunday, that way we don't have to go around past him,” he said.
So far Savoie is doing exactly what Hines was hoping he wouldn’t.
PERSONAL BEST – Texan Gunner Courtney, of Springtown, recorded his career-best elapsed time and speed at 7.080 seconds and 186.36 mph in the first qualifying session. However, it earned him 19th place, off the grid so far.
THEY SAID IT:
“Pomona has been truly amazing for us over the years. To me, so many times, it’s been what every single American boy dreams of – you’re up to bat in the bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, full count. Whether you end up winning it or not, you’ve had that experience, you’ve lived that dream and, later in life, when you’re chatting about great moments you’d like to relive if you’re given the chance, Pomona is going to come up more than any of the others.” – Tony Schumacher
“Pomona is one of my favorite tracks on the tour. There's always a different feeling when you pull in the gates there. That place packs a lot of history, and finishing off the 2016 season with a win will for sure help the winter go by easier. It's good to keep everybody's morale up going into the offseason and what better way than to win? And we definitely have a car right now that is capable.” – JR Todd
"The season begins and ends almost in my backyard. I'm 30 miles from the racetrack [at Norco, Calif.]. Pomona is the track where I have spent the most time. For 10 years, I stood on the starting line, flipping the switch for the students we were teaching at the Frank Hawley School. I have a deep, personal relationship with that track, and it goes back to my childhood. Going theToddre as an eight-year-old to watch the races. What I haven't done there is win in a nitro car. I've taken two Super Comp trophies from Pomona, but neither of those was at the Finals." – Jack Beckman
“I am focusing on finishing the season with a win and then starting to get ready for 2017. This has been a good season but not a great season. We led the points and I want to race for the championship. My team has given me a championship-caliber Funny Car, and I think we will continue to get better. I have to thank my crew chiefs Dan Hood and Ronnie Thompson for all their efforts, as well as the rest of this Traxxas team.” - Courtney Force
"Smiles have come pretty easy this past week. We're a pretty happy group anyway, but it was extra fun to get one in the books for the crew guys and all of our friends and family that have been so supportive. We've had a great car for most of the season, really ever since Dave Connolly came on board as crew chief back in Atlanta. We've been racing to the semifinals with regularity . . . but wins were elusive until last weekend. To finally get it done was a big relief, a lot of fun and a great way to lead us into the offseason. There's no reason to change anything we've been doing. I feel like if we take care of what we can control in our pit with our car, then everything will finish as it should. I'm not spending any time thinking about it, because until we get in the car and start racing, there's nothing any of us can do. No matter where we finish, I'm extremely proud of the team and what we've been able to accomplish this year. The atmosphere we have in our pit, the times we spend together, that's what makes racing fun for me. I get to spend a bunch of time with [wife] Amber and our three boys. Having my mom and dad [Johnny and Terry Gray] around at a number of events was pretty special, too. I'm a lucky guy." – Shane Gray
“If we [he and teammate Jason Line] can make our way through competition on Sunday, qualify well, and on opposite sides of the ladder make our way through the rounds and match up in the final round for all the marbles, that would be a dream come true, just to have that opportunity. If it were to happen, that would be the best scenario ever and may the best man win. Looking forward to this weekend and hopefully we can execute and make it a dream race.” – Greg Anderson
“It's a great racetrack for me. It's a feel-good racetrack for me. I love come Sunday and trying to make your way through the rounds and come final round when that sun goes down and it's dusk and you've got lights shining and the grandstand packed. I love it. It's where drag racing started, and it's just got so much history.” - Greg Anderson
“You go through some of these moments and these high-pressure situations and hopefully everything you learned prepares you for this moment. It comes down to doing the best we can and enjoying the fact that we’re in this situation. I want to go win the race. If I do that, I’ll feel good. We’ve never won here in the fall. It’s always eluded me, and it would be nice to do it this year.” – Jason Line
“We both have the desire to win this race, so [Eddie and I are] going to do whatever we can to try and take out the alligator that's chasing us.” - Andrew Hines said, alluding to Jerry Savoie, a Louisiana alligator farmer.
BOWLING FOR CHARITY – Once again, Riley Hospital for Children will benefit from the Don Schumacher Racing-initiated Bowling For Riley night Dec. 7 at Western Bowl, 6441 West Washington Street, Indianapolis. Individual bowlers may enter for $40 and teams for $150 for the three-game program. Lane sponsorships are available for $300, and a $400 corporate package includes a four-bowler team and lane sponsorship. All bowlers have what’s billed as VIP access: entry into Hall of Fame Sports Bar and Grill, dinner and refreshments (no alcohol), and the chance to mingle with NHRA racers and seek autographs and photographs. A cash bar is open throughout the 6:30-10:30 p.m. event. Spectators will be admitted for $10, $5 if he or she is a PRI Show credential holder. Children 12 and under are admitted free with a paying adult. Doors will open and dinner will be served at 6:30 p.m. Driver introductions will start at 7:30. Bowling will begin at 7:40 p.m. All bowlers will receive an event T-shirt. All proceeds will benefit the Riley Children’s Foundation. Registration with payment is accepted at Western Bowl.