2016 NHRA FALLNATIONALS - DALLAS NOTEBOOK
BROWN SAYS HE HAS SERIOUS WORK TO DO BEFORE ANY TOP FUEL CORONATION - Double nitro-winning team owner Don Schumacher, who was about to watch his four Funny Car teams scramble their Countdown picture, had no trouble Sunday all but declaring Antron Brown the winner of a second consecutive and third overall NHRA Top Fuel championship.
And that was by the end of only the second round of the AAA Texas FallNationals.
“That kind of puts the exclamation point on the championship,” Schumacher said after Brown defeated closest Countdown challenger Doug Kalitta in a head-to-head match-up.
But Brown said not so fast, even after nicking Steve Torrence in the final round with a 3.744-second elapsed time at 321.12 mph on the 1,000-foot course at the Texas Motorplex at Ennis, south of Dallas.
Torrence countered with a 3.750, 323.12 but couldn’t derail Brown, who takes a nearly insurmountable 150-point lead into the penultimate race of the season in two weeks at Las Vegas.
For Brown, the $50,000 payout for the Matco Tools / Toyota Dragster team represented his 61st overall victory, his seventh of the season, his fifth victory in 10 races, his third in four 2016 Countdown races, and his sixth in the past 10 playoffs events dating back to last fall. He has reached the semifinals or beyond 14 times in the past 19 races.
He shared the winners circle with Don Schumacher Racing Funny Car colleague Matt Hagan, as well as Drew Skillman (Pro Stock) and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle).
“Nobody’s dominating by four car lengths or more. The only way you win now is by inches,” Brown said. “To win that final was monumental for our team. We needed to do that. We’re going to Vegas with a little bit of a points lead, but it’s still anybody’s game. If we go out first round, it could be under 50 points. So our main focus is to stay humble, keep our heads down, and continue the hard work that got us here. We’re not done working yet. We’ve got two more races left. There’s some more stuff we’ve got to prove.”
Richie Crampton and Clay Millican, the Nos. 9- and 10-ranked drivers in the standings, officially bowed out of contention with first-round losses Sunday. No. 7 JR Todd and No. 8 Leah Pritchett will be eliminated as soon as Brown qualifies at Las Vegas. Shawn Langdon moved from fourth place to third, trading spots with Brittany Force. Torrence moved to fifth place, flip-flopping with Tony Schumacher.
The turning point for Brown’s crew and tuners Brian Corradi and Mark Oswald and assistant Brad Mason came against Kalitta in the quarterfinals. What motivated Brown beyond the obvious points combat was his performance against first-round opponent Chris Karamesines, the No. 16 starter.
“My first-round match-up I missed the tree,” he said. (He had an uncharacteristically sluggish .122-second reaction time.) He said he told himself, “I’ve got to step my game up – a .100 light is not going to beat anybody else out here right now. I got lucky against The Greek.” So he concentrated on the Christmas tree for that edge he knew he would have to have in order to dismiss his closest rival in the standings. With a much-improved .064-second reaction time (to Kalitta’s .076), Brown won by four-hundredths of a second.
In Round 2, he dealt a blow to Doug Kalitta’s championship hopes. His victory margin wasn’t huge – a mere .036 of a second – but the effects of it were.
Said Brown, “That was a monster match-up. If we had lost that round . . .” He shuddered to realize the situation would have been much more desperate.
Kalitta, meanwhile, will continue his pursuit of a first championship as the Countdown intensifies out West with the Oct. 27-30 Toyota Nationals at Las Vegas and the Nov. 10-13 season finale at Pomona, Calif.
“We were hoping to go rounds today, and that was a tough loss,” Kalitta said. But he promised, “The Mac Tools team will continue to fight hard at Toyota's race in Las Vegas."
Now Kalitta will have to deal with Langdon lurking 22 points back.
Actually, after Brown eliminated Karamesines, he had to fend off the one-two Kalitta Motorsports combination punch of Kalitta and Todd, who had qualified No. 4 with a strong-running SealMaster Dragster.
Brown had entered this event 163 points ahead of sixth-place Torrence, one of the last mathematically eligible challengers he had to consider. The never-say-quit Texan from Kilgore made Brown edgy: “He’s a home boy, and he wants that cowboy hat[traditionally awarded to the winners of this event]. I want that cowboy hat, too. I’m going to lasso him so he can’t leave on me at the starting line,” he said before the final round.
But Brown recorded his fourth triumph in the final round over Torrence this season and extended his dominance of Torrence to 20-1. Brown also defeated Torrence in the showdowns at Epping, N.H., Seattle, and the Countdown opener at Charlotte. That ran his ledger in eliminations to 51-15, matching his round-wins from all last season, with two races remaining.
Brown had high praise for Torrence’s Capco Contractors/Rio Ammunition Dragster operation.
“They’re just a remarkable team. They’re the class of the class . . . the crème of the crème. We were close on the tree. It was a tough match-up. They threw out a great run, and we threw out a great run. That race could have gone any way. That’s how all this NHRA drag racing has been going all year long, and we’ve been fortunate to be on the right side,” Brown said.
He said his dream “is coming true today. God gets all the glory. I’m truly blessed to be on this team. We’ve got to give a big shout out to [Funny Car crew chiefs] Jimmy Prock, Chris Cunningham, and John Medlen. After St. Louis, we were a little down and they came over and gave us the boost we needed. After St. Louis, we tested and made some things happen. And that right now is paying big dividends.”
Brown has won three of four Countdown races this season with a round record of 9-1 in these first four of six in the playoffs. He has won six races or more in five of the past six seasons. No other Top Fuel driver has won six races in a season more than once in that span. Langdon and Del Worsham the only other drivers to do so.
Brown has guaranteed he will lead the series in victories for the fourth time in five years. The next-best Top Fuel drivers (Kalitta, Langdon, and Force) have three victories with just two races remaining.
The New Jersey native who lives in Indiana now, teased the crowd on hand to watch him hoist his Wally trophy, “Guess what – I’m going to be a cowboy, baby!”
He wore the black hat after his victory Sunday. But maybe he should have earned a white hat as the high sheriff of the Top Fuel class. Susan Wade
HOLESHOT DOES IT FOR HAGAN IN WINNING DALLAS FUNNY CAR TITLE - Matt Hagan usually muscles his way to victory. But on Sunday, the cattle farmer from Christiansburg, Va, Va., was no bull in a china shop, using his skills instead to finesse a victory via holeshot over point leader Ron Capps in the AAA Texas NHRA Funny Car final.
Hagan used his slowest run of the day, a 3.913, 327.03, to get around Capps, who lost despite running a quicker 3.906, 322.19. The win marked the fourth for Hagan this season and the first in the 2016 Countdown to the Championship.
“That’s a huge round win; unfortunately we faced [Capps] late in the race,” Hagan admitted. “In Reading, I had him in the semis and he left on me -- spanked me on the tree, and I guess this time I got to leave on him. Got a little payback.”
Getting payback can leave a few mixed emotions, as Hagan admitted there were some in beating Capps, a driver whom he respects immensely.
“Ron Capps is a great guy, great individual,” Hagan said. “He’s one of those guys that took me under his wing when I first came out here. I’ve got lots of respect for him. I know he’s digging deep and working hard, but we got a job to do over here.
"We race straight, heads-up, and that’s the way it’s going to be. I think when you earn championships, that’s what makes you feel good about it, is that you earned it. So, I was just keeping the old boy honest and, you know, I love him to death.”
Hagan maintained a steady 3.8-second pace on the road to the final round by taking out John Bojec, Courtney Force and then No. 1 qualifier Robert Hight.
For the third time in four races, Capps has been eliminated by a teammate in a Countdown race. Capps' closest challengers to his point lead are his teammates who entered the event in the No.'s 2 - 4 positions.
Hagan believes it should come as no surprise this season's championship will come down to a Don Schumacher Racing intramural skirmish.
“The thing about Don Schumacher, everybody says, ‘Well why does he have such great cars? Why does he dominate? Why does he do this?"
"We have a bunch of cars but the money that our sponsors put into drag racing, this is not Don’s bread and butter," Hagan continued. "I mean, it all goes back to the race car. It goes to parts, it goes to pieces. So, when something happens, he comes in and he says, ‘Do I not give you everything you need? What’s your excuse for not winning?”.
“So, it comes down to the fact that it motivates you to be better. I think it motivates our crew chiefs to be better because he’s not tucking any of this money away and putting it in his pocket. He’s putting it right in the race car. I think that’s why our cars are outperforming these other guys. I mean, yeah, sure, everybody’s got to make a living, but Don puts it all out here. I mean, it’s just his hobby. It’s something that he’s passionate about and loves to do. But it shows on the race track and shows on the race car because he’s sinking the time, money and energy into it.”
The victory moved Hagan into third, 88 points behind Capps with eight rounds of competition remaining in the season worth 20 points apiece. A maximum of 24 bonus qualifying points are available as well.
And if anyone knows how Capps feels after this stinging loss, it's Hagan.
“He came over and shook my hand and said congratulations," Hagan said. "You can tell he’s dejected, as anybody would be. I’ve been there. I’ve been on those championship hunts. And we’re still in this championship hunt. But, you can see that guy. He can taste it. It’s just a matter of two more races. He’s got to do well. He needed to win that race. This guy’s a champion. He’s just not got the ring yet. He’s a champion at heart.
"I’ve got a lot of respect for him. A tremendous amount of respect for him. He makes me bring my 'A' game. You know, just like we had to in the final. I had to beat him on a holeshot. But it was because I wanted it, I know he wanted it over there. It just came down to two good racers that just dig in deep and work hard. You could see up there when he’s sitting there on the top end of the hood of his Funny Car.
“He’s dejected. I’ve been there. I know how bad that hurts. It feels like someone ripped your heart out and ran it over. But, all I can say is I know he’ll put his helmet back on in Vegas when we get there and we’ll both go work at this thing and see what happens.” Bobby Bennett
SKILLMAN GETS THE MONKEY OFF HIS BACK BY WINNING DALLAS PRO STOCK - Drew Skillman finally has the monkey off of his back.
Skillman, who entered the AAA Texas NHRA Fallnationals with a perfect record against the Gas Monkey Garage-sponsored Alex Laughlin, extended his perfect mark to 4-0 by beating the recent St. Louis winner in the Pro Stock final round.
Skillman needed this kind of performance considering he'd only won one Countdown round headed into this weekend's race.
Skillman was quicker on both ends of the track, getting an almost .04 off of the line and extending the advantage at the finish with a 6.661, 209.36 to 6.708, 208.30 decision.
"This was a best case scenario," said Skillman, who along with Laughlin uses horsepower from Gray Motorsports. "We have struggled so much with this race car. We were lost and headed into the Countdown; that's the worst possible time to be lost.
"We had some luck on our side this weekend. I drove decent and the car went. I think we are headed in the right direction and need to do some testing. We have to hit these last two races hard."
Earning his way to the final round, Skillman stopped local favorite Chris McGaha, point leader Jason Line and then engine builder Shane Gray. The victory moves the former sportsman standout into sixth place in the Pro Stock championship standings.
The victory over Line was monumental in his road to the final round. Skillman has beaten Line in their last three meetings using a simple strategy.
"It's simple, I have nothing to lose," Skillman said. "If I go red, I go red. Nothing matters at this point. I know I cannot win the championship, but I can always get better. I'm just going to hang it out there and see what happens."
The Texas Motorplex is Laughlin's home track, so Skillman understood headed into the final round how much winning would mean to his opponent. After all, he had the same thing done to him last year in Indianapolis when he lost to then teammate Erica Enders in the U.S. Nationals final round.
"I told [Alex] immediately after the race, I know how he feels," Skillman admitted. "It's rough. You have your whole family there, and friends, everyone and then it doesn't happen. It takes a little while to get over. I wouldn't blame him if he's bitter about it. He went to the winner's circle and took pictures with us. He's been awesome."
The victory also ensures Skillman as the non-KB Racing team member to win more than one race. Bobby Bennett
KRAWIEC BUCKS SAVOIE’S CHALLENGE TO LASSO BIKE VICTORY, POINTS LEAD - Eddie Krawiec told WFO Radio’s Joe Castello before this weekend’s AAA Texas FallNationals near Dallas that he was sure the NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle championship picture would be pretty clear by the end of this fourth Countdown race.
But he changed his prediction Sunday shortly after defeating final-round opponent Jerry Savoie.
“It just got more confusing,” Krawiec said.
Krawiec’s winning 6.880-second, 196.36 mph final-round holeshot victory (against Savoie’s quicker and faster 6.856, 196.76) on the Texas Motorplex quarter-mile at Ennis pushed him into the points lead with two more races left on the schedule.
He’s 17 points ahead of Vance & Hines Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson teammate Andrew Hines, who had entered this race with a 38-point advantage.
And as the tour heads West to Las Vegas for the Oct. 27-30 Toyota Nationals, Savoie is two positions closer to his first championship, in third place, 49 points off Krawiec’s pace. Angelle Sampey and Chip Ellis each slipped one spot in the order and need to make up 60 and 97 points from fourth and fifth places, respectively. LE Tonglet, who followed Karen Stoffer and Hector Arana as Krawiec victims Sunday, is 137 points back in sixth place.
Krawiec, who was preoccupied with his profile in his brand-new black Dallas-winner cowboy hat, said his tendency is “to try not to focus on points. I’m just trying to stay focused.”
He said he and Hines think and function as a team. For example, after Hines lost to Tonglet in the quarterfinals, he tuned on Krawiec’s bike for the rest of the race and helped him prevail on a 120-degree racetrack in the final.
“Anytime he wins, I win. Anytime I win, he wins,” Krawiec said.
So he indicated he isn’t worried about Hines ambushing him at Las Vegas or the Nov. 10-13 season finale at Pomona, Calif.
In general, he said, “You have to be on your game” against everyone in the class – although he joked that he was surrounded by Cajuns from the semifinal round on (with Louisiana natives Savoie, Sampey, and Tonglet in contention for the victory).
Krawiec earned his fifth triumph of the season in his seventh final round. The victory was his 36th in all and gives him an outstanding 35-9 elimination-round record.
He defeated Savoie in their first six meetings this year, including in the Atlanta final round, then fell to him in the Brainerd semifinal. He denied Savoie and his Tim Kulungian-tuned White Alligator Racing Suzuki a second victory in the past three races, second in five final-round appearances, and his second here at this facility.
Savoie advanced past Joe DeSantis, Matt Smith, and Sampey. Susan Wade
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - FRESH, YOUNG FACE TO JOIN KALITTA MOTORSPORTS
COUGHLIN, KALITTA NATURAL FIT – Jim Oberhofer has seen just about everything in drag racing, and little surprises him.
But the Vice-President of Operations Kalitta Motorsports was pleasantly surprised when he engaged in conversation with Troy Coughlin Jr., the newest Top Fuel driver in the Ypsilanti, Mich.-headquartered organization.
“The thing that I’ve gotten out of talking to T.J. is his professionalism, his desire, his passion for drag racing,” Oberhofer said. “He was telling me a couple weeks ago that when he was a kid he used to, instead of reading books, he’d read the NHRA media guides. He knew more stuff about what we’ve done with Doug Kalitta’s car than I did as far as racing or Scott Kalitta. So he really strikes me as someone who appreciates the history of the sport of NHRA drag racing.”
The idea alone of merging two iconic drag-racing family names, Kalitta and Coughlin, excited Oberhofer, who said he was “very honored and kind of blown away that this could possibly happen” when the 26-year-old former Pro Mod driver approached him.
It’s happening, this association between the families who each have earned shelffuls of trophies and honors – starting in 2017 at selected races. Coughlin will join JR Todd and Doug Kalitta on the team’s Top Fuel side, with Del Worsham, Alexis DeJoria, and Paul Lee in the Funny Cars.
Details of Coughlin’s schedule aren’t complete, and Kalitta Motorsports hasn’t named his crew chief and his sponsor/s yet.
“I think he’s going to be really good,” Overhofer said, “and that’s why I hope that there’s somehow, someway between all the hard work and everybody at Jegs and Kalitta Motorsports, to work together, that we can somehow pull some funding together to run a whole year for him.”
All Coughlin – a true racer who also has competed and excelled in Jr. Dragsters and the Super Comp, Super Gas, and Top Dragster classes – wants is everything. He said his rookie-season goals depend on what his schedule turns out to be – “but if we can get to all of [the races], my goal would be rookie of the year and to win a Mello Yello world championship.”
If Oberhofer had to guess, he wouldn’t rule that out.
“I compare him a lot to Doug Kalitta from the aspect of very quiet, methodical, passionate. I believe he’s going to be a great Top Fuel driver,” he said. “The great thing is that he has driven pro mod cars which, as we’ve all seen over the last few years, they are the craziest things out there racing on the drag strip these days. Having that experience he’ll be able to react off certain situations that they had in those cars. It’ll definitely help him in these cars. This kid impresses me so much in so many ways.”
Worsham, who has a both a Top Fuel and Funny Car series crown to his credit, also has spoken highly of Coughlin, especially after providing the dragster in which the class newcomer made his first passes.
Said Worsham, “Man, this kid is awesome. He’s going to be really, really good when he gets that opportunity.”
The notion of driving in a Top Fuel dragster is something Coughlin said “kind of faded in and out. As a young kid, I would have said ‘Yeah, absolutely, that’s a goal.’ We’ve always just had a Pro Stock car and a Pro Mod car out there, so I just kind of fell into that. My grandfather stopped me one day [they work together at the family automotive mail-order giant at Delaware,Ohio] and said, ‘What do you think about a Top Fuel license?” I said, ‘OK. Cool. Let’s do it.’ ”
Grandpa Jeg Coughlin Sr., patriarch of the family that collectively has earned 111 NHRA national-event victories, raced dragsters in the 1970s as part of his versatile career.
“It’s a lot safer now, in my opinion at least. [Dragsters] are far safer than what he had,” Troy Coughlin Jr. said.
Selling himself to Oberhofer was relatively easy, but part of Coughlin’s appeal is his youth.
Said Oberhofer, “We need fresh blood in this sport. We need new faces. We need excitement.”
The boss is especially excited because, he said, “When I was a kid, I used to watch his grandfather race his Top Fuel cars, and it was always really cool to me. So to have the Jegs family, the Coughlin family, back in a Top Fuel car is so cool. I think it just adds so many things, because obviously Jegs has a company that supports NHRA drag racing on a tremendous level, not only with what they just do for the racers but how they come out and compete as a family. I just think it’s awesome to get all of this in one package.”
Coughlin, too, was sold on the family atmosphere at Kalitta Motorsports.
“I think No. 1 is the family feel. When you walk in you can just feel the family atmosphere. It’s very comforting and yet competitive,” he said. “It’s very history-rich, and I’ve always been a big fan of drag racing history. This is the place to enjoy that along with some competition. It’s the best choice.”
Oberhofer said his current drivers will help him learn the driving craft: “Once you’re part of the Kalitta racing family, it’s like you’re part of the mafia. They take care of you. That’s the way it goes.”
LAST TIME’S THE CHARM – Kebin Kinsley had some problems getting his Road Rage Fuel Dragster to cooperate this weekend.
First it experienced a mishap in the pit that burned all the pushrods.
“At least it did it here instead of on the track,” the native of nearby Kennedale, Texas, said.
So the team missed the first qualifying session Friday.
His John “Bode” Smith-led crew changed motors but, Kinsley said, “We had a couple of issues with the way we had it set up and we went out there and blew the tires off.”
Saturday proved better, although he cut off the engine early in the run when he lost traction. But Q4 proved lucky for him. He made the field at No. 14 with a 3.921-second elapsed time and will meet No. 2 qualifier Tony Schumacher in Round 1 Sunday.
TOP FUEL TIDBITS – Terry Haddock, who adopted Texas as his home and owns an engine-repair shop at Temple, is the lone driver not to make the field of 16. Troy Buff, another Texan, from Spring, is the No. 13 qualifier and will take on No. 3 JR Todd to begineliminations. . . . Doug Kalitta will meet Lucas Oil Dragster driver Richie Crampton in Sunday’s opening round, and the Mac Tools Dragster said, “Plenty of racing still left for the Mac Tools team and we are downf or the fight.” Kalitta is the No. 2-ranked driver in the standings. He’s trying to slice Antron Brown’s lead. . . . Meanwhile, with his track-record 3.682-second pass that earned him the No.1 qualifying position, Brown extended his lead to 90 over Kalitta. He earned a total of nine qualifying bonus points. “That was a crucial point right there for us in this run for a championship. It got us some more quality points and it put us in the No. 1 spot,” Brown said. “That car never stopped pulling. It was a little edgy in the beginning, and then it was just hauling the mail.”
FORCE LOVES TEXAS MOTORPLEX – Perhaps ironically, John Force said he has “a special love” for the Texas Motorplex.
He has won here six times at this annual fall event that today is known as the AAA Texas FallNationals. In 2000, he won the spring event here, as well as the FallNationals.
That’s not really why winning here for a seventh time would mean so much to him. The real motivation is winning here for the first time since 2007, when he suffered multiple serious injuries in a crash and spent weeks at Dallas’ Baylor Medical Center. There he recovered and started his long rehab process. Through that unsolicited experience, Force came to appreciate the Lone Star State.
“In 2007, when I left the track in a helicopter after my big crash, my life changed. Basically it was a wake-up call that you are not Superman. It shows you what your real values on life are family and your children. Mainly the thought of not being able to race showed me how much I really loved drag racing,” Force said.
“I set goals in life of what I want to accomplish. I have won every race on the circuit. I had won the four-wide at zMax Dragway, but I never won the Carolina Nationals in the fall until this year,” he said, referring to the event that lifted him from eighth place in the standings to third.
“The other [goal] is to win the AAA Texas FallNationals again,” Force said. “I have won it before but not since the crash. There are a lot of memories at that track, a lot of scars, a lot of pain, but it is a track that I truly do love. Who doesn’t love the great state of Texas?
“I love going to Dallas. I love all the racetracks, but there is something about Ennis and maybe it is because I spent more time in Texas because I was in the hospital for two months after my crash. I reinvent myself every race,” he said.
In what way depends on what musical mood Force happens to be in.
“Every race I have a new attitude and a different song,” Force said. “It is Elvis one week, then it is the Beach Boys, the next it’s Merle Haggard, and then it might be Eminem. You have to find the mus,ic then I find the burnout, then I find the winning. It may sound corny but that is how I do it. Everyone has their own style. My deal is to go in there [with] guns a-blazing.”
ANOTHER DEJORIA TEAM MEMBER GOING ON DISABLED LIST – First the Tequila Patron Toyota Camry team was missing its driver at Sonoma and Seattle: Alexis DeJoria was recovering from a broken pelvis.
Now, at the final two races of the season, DeJoria will be missing the right hand of her right-hand man, crew chief Tommy DeLago. He’ll be recovering from surgery this next week for a torn bicep (a similar injury for which DeLago’s co-crew chief, Glen Huszar, underwent surgery last year after hurting himself while picking up a piece of equipment).
DeLago’s injury came not at the racetrack but rather two weeks ago at a bowling alley.
“I didn’t have my own ball, and I was trying to palm it. It was too heavy, and I’m too old,” DeLago, 47, said. “It just snapped my bicep tendon off the bone. Tuesday I’m going to go have surgery. For two weeks I’ve been practicing how to use my left hand. It’s awkward.”
He said he’ll have his arm immobilized in a brace for six weeks.” But it doesn’t sound like it’s too terrible of a recovery. I’ll go back [to the doctor] every week, and they’ll keep changing the brace so I get a little more range of motion in six weeks. It’s not too bad.”
He got a headstart on the left-handed practice: “I finished bowling that night left-handed,” DeLago said, lamenting his sub-100 score.
Don Schumacher Racing qualified its Dodge Chargers in three of the top-four spots.
Points leader Ron Capps, who’ll start No.7 in the NAPA entry, claimed four bonus points in two of the four sessions, including three for being the quickest in Friday's first session.
DSR mate Tommy Johnson Jr., driver of the Make-A-Wish car, qualified third, four spots better than Capps. But the No. 2-seeded Johnson was unable to gain ground on Capps and will remain 24 points behind Capps when eliminations begin Sunday.
HAIL MARYS AT THE O.K. CORRAL – John Force vaulted from eighth place to third by winning at Charlotte to start the Countdown and is shaking off a dip in performance to dedicate himself to his bid for a 17th title.
“I feel I owe more of myself to this championship run. You have to have a good race car. You have to have a team that works together. We are going to take this championship Countdown to the next level. I am looking for one of us to come out of Dallas with the win, and hopefully it will be me. I have to root for Courtney and Robert but I am also rooting for myself. This will be the O.K. Corral right to the end from Dallas to Las Vegas to Pomona. We won’t stop until we walk into the banquet and we know where we stand.”
Force will face Alexis DeJoria in Sunday’s opening round. Top qualifier Robert Hight will face No. 16 Brandon Welch, and Courtney Force will line up against Cruz Pedregon.
Said John Force, “When I race the last race of the season in Pomona, I will still be racing for the championship in my mind. I may be defending it for myself or for one of my teammates. That has to be the mindset, because even if you can’t win the championship you want to win that race because you want to move up as high as you can in the points. I was feeling pretty shiny coming out of Charlotte with that big win. Then all our Funny Cars nosedived in St. Louis and Reading.
“I have a lot of confidence in these Chevrolet Camaros, and I have said it before that we are turning the corner. I am still positive about winning this year,” he said. “I know Courtney and Robert are positive, too. Maybe it will take a Hail Mary, but that is what we shoot for. I shot a Hail Mary in my opening game in high school and won the [exhibition] game. I have watched [Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron] Rodgers throw a Hail Mary last year to win games. I watched Tennessee in college throw a Hail Mary in the last few seconds. I know all about Hail Marys.”
PRO STOCK SCOOP – No. 11 starter Shane Tucker secured his highest qualifying spot of the season and will square off against No. 6 Vincent Nobile in the first round of eliminations. Both get their engines from Elite Motorsports. . . . No. 15 starter Erica Enders is optimistic. "Three races left on the schedule so that's three chances to win," she said. "Realistically, it'll be tough, and we didn't do ourselves any favors here during qualifying. But that won't stop us from giving our all tomorrow. We've seen crazier things happen in the past. We have three cars racing out of Elite Motorsports between myself, Jeg (Coughlin) and Vincent (Nobile). Vincent is still very much in the mix for the championship this year so at our last team meeting Jeg and I told him we'd do all we could to help him get there. The best thing we can do is knock off those cars he's battling, so we'll give it hell."
HECTOR VS. HECTOR . . . AGAIN – A heck of a thing happened to Hector and Hector. The Arana father-son team of Lucas Oil-sponsored Buell riders wound up bracketed against each other in Sunday eliminations for the second straight race and sixth time this season.
COMEBACK KID – Steve Johnson was back on the racetrack Saturday for the final qualifying session after he said late Friday that he had broken his motors and was out of resources. He got some help Saturday, although he missed the third overall session earlier in the day. Johnson explained his mechanical problems then concluded, “When you want to get rid of money, get a Pro Stock Motorcycle.” For all his drama, Johnson will start from the No. 10 position and meet Sonoma winner LE Tonglet in the opening round of eliminations.
PRO STOCK BIKE BYTES – The class continues to flirt with the 200-mph speed mark. Jerry Savoie, who eased Friday leader Andrew Hines from the top spot in the order in Saturday’s opening session, came closest with a class-best 197.31 mph. . . . John Hall entered the final qualifying session on the bump with a 7.011-second elapsed time at 189.39 mph. He couldn’t hold onto it as Joey Gladstone improved from the tentative 21st place to 15th. Joe DeSantis ended up with the 16th and final spot, at 6.961, 192.69. . . . Missing the field besides Hall were Angie Smith, Mike Berry, David Hope, Lance Bonham and Gunner Courtney.
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - RACERS CONVENE AT DALLAS GEARED UP FOR COUNTDOWN HOME STRETCH
GIMME ALL YOUR POINTS - Every point is crucial when you're defending a championship, just ask Antron Brown.
The defending NHRA Top Fuel champion snagged four bonus points Friday during first-day qualifying for the AAA Texas NHRA Fallnationals by driving his Matco Tools-sponsored dragster to a Texas Motorplex track record of 3.682 seconds at 330.55. If the run holds, it will be the second No. 1 of the season and No. 47 of his career.
"That was an incredible run," Brown said. "When you make a run like that, that was a crucial point for us right there in the run for this championship. Because it’s got some more qualifying points, and puts us in the number one spot so far. And just to go down the track. I mean, that car never stopped pulling. And it was a little edgy in the beginning, and made it through it, and then it was just hauling the mail."
Brown was third quickest in the first session led by Richie Crampton, but his momentous run came after he'd been bumped down to seventh spot on the qualifying grid.
"We saw the weather coming in, it was going to be cool, calm, and brisk tonight," Brown said. "And you have to go out there with a bang. And the thing about it is, everybody had their stuff set on kill. And we saw, we went from the number three spot, and by the time we ran we were down to seventh. That just shows you the quality of cars that we have out here and how tough it’s getting."
Brown entered the weekend with a 77-point lead over second place Doug Kalitta and was able to net three points over the Mac Tools-sponsored driver. Even though he's up by four rounds, the equivalent of an event over Kalitta with only three races to go, Brown isn't counting any chickens before they hatch.
"It would be nice if it was [out of reach], but it’s not," Brown said. "Even though we’ve got a little bit of a points lead, it could be gone at the end of this weekend. And that’s what’s so crucial about it right now. If we lose first round, and let’s say Dougie goes and wins the race, now we’re back at ground zero again with two races left to race in, with eight rounds of racing." - Bobby Bennett
KALITTA HAPPY TO RETURN TO TEXAS – Doug Kalitta, still ranked second in the standings but 64 points farther behind leader Antron Brown than he was after the St. Louis race, admittedly “lost a little bit of ground in Reading.”
However, the two-time Dallas Top Fuel winner and victor in two of the last three races in Texas (2015 and 2016 Houston events) said, “I know this Mac Tools team has what it takes to get it done. Dallas has been good for the Kalitta team as a whole recently. We will use that data to hopefully have another solid race this weekend."
Kalitta earned the Wally trophy and cowboy hat twice at the Texas Motorplex, in 2002 and 2013, and appeared in three other finals here (2001, 1999, 1998). He was No.1 qualifier in 2004.
KEEPING POSITIVE - Even the Torrence Racing spinmeister conceded that Steve Torrence’s championship chances have gone from “achievable to possible to improbable” and that “Torrence too often has been a wrong place, wrong time guy in a right place, right time sport.”
But the Kilgore, Texas, native who drives the Capco Contractors/Rio Ammunition Dragster likes to say, “You can’t win anything without overcoming some adversity.” That’s what he has right now, adversity. He has a 163-point gap between himself and leader Antron Brown – and Tony Schumacher, Shawn Langdon, Brittany Force, and Doug Kalitta to leapfrog before he could begin to take on No. 1-seeded Antron Brown.
Despite a first-round defeat at St. Louis and quarterfinal finishes at Charlotte and Reading in the first half of the Countdown, Torrence said as his home-track race opened, “We’re still marching forward. We’re going to do the best we can to finish strong in what has been our best season as a team and my best season as a driver.”
LOOKING FOR BIG LEAP – It has come down to 12 elimination rounds, this 2016 Mello Yello Drag Racing Series title chase. And Tony Schumacher and the U.S. Army Dragster outfit – the most successful driver and team at the Texas Motorplex, with six victories here since 1999 – is hoping to parlay his comfort with the track in his adopted home state into a pivotal triumph. He’s in fifth place, a daunting 141 points behind leader and Don Schumacher Racing mate Antron Brown. But little ever rattles Schumacher, the eight-time series champion who twice came from behind on the final run of the final day of the season to top the competition.
“It goes without saying that it would be incredible to wipe out the entire deficit at Dallas and then hit Vegas and Pomona on equal ground. It’s not exactly mathematically possible, but, like we did at St. Louis, we could certainly take a big chunk of it back,” Schumacher said.
“The way the U.S. Army team has been performing down the stretch of the regular season and the first half of the Countdown, anything is possible. You never know what’s going to go down on any given weekend, so the way we approach it is to take care of what we can control, and that is to go out and try to be fastest in every qualifying session, then run the table on Sunday. That’s the best we can do,” he said. “The rest is out of our control, because you never know what’s going to happen with those guys and girls in the other lane and the other matchups on Sunday. It’s all about being in the right place at the right time and, if that happens, odds are we can at least take significant chunks out of the points deficit over these last three race weekends.”
History is his motivator.
“The U.S. Army team has an excellent history at all three of these remaining tracks, and we’ve obviously had the privilege of being a part of some really historic moments over the years,” Schumacher said. “With that, I can honestly say that we’ve always been a team that has raced for wins, regardless of the points, whether we’ve got a huge lead, fighting to overcome a huge deficit, or anything in-between. Like we always say, we can only be the best at what we have control over. Points are something that we have absolutely no control over, other than eliminating that car in the other lane each and every time we pull up to the starting line.”
Schumacher, who lost in the first round of the Countdown opener after a $200,000 weekend at Indianapolis, entered the St. Louis race in late September 127 points behind Brown and left only 54 points off the pace. The most recent race, at Reading, Pa., was a disappointment, because he clocked the second-best run of the opening round but saw his 3.700-second, 325.85-mph effort fall short to Steve Torrence’s 3.691, 326.08.
PRITCHETT: DALLAS COWBOYS CHEERLEADER? – Seventh-place Leah Pritchett trails Top Fuel leader Antron Brown by 189 points, but a number of her rivals would love to have been in her place this past Sunday. She and her Papa John's Pizza Dragster were guests of the Dallas Cowboys. She watched the Cowboys defeat the Cincinnati Bengals with John Schnatter, founder and chairman of Papa John's Pizza, and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
"Being at the game with John and the Jones family set the tone for us this week in Dallas. It meant so much to me, our team, Don Schumacher Racing, and the sport of NHRA for the Cowboys to invite us and treat us so well. I never imagined I'd be watching a game with John and Jerry," Pritchett said.
She is as big a cheerleader for her own Todd Okuhara/Joe Baram-led crew, who helped her qualify No. 1 at Reading and improve her career-best elapsed time (3.701 seconds) during eliminations there en route to a semifinal finish.
"We're going back to Dallas with a lot of momentum after a fantastic weekend at Maple Grove," Pritchett said. "Maple Grove laid the groundwork for these last three Countdown races. The conditions at Dallas will be a lot different [hotter] at Dallas, and I don't expect any career-best elapsed times but we expect to be able to challenge for another No. 1 position with everything our Papa John's team has learned. Our confidence level as a team has never been higher."
She said, "We're in this Countdown sprint, going as hard and fast as we can. We haven't run out of breath yet. The way to sustain our momentum and go even higher is to get a race win and keep moving up in the standings."
FIRST CHAMPIONSHIP EXPERIENCE – Brittany Force, in her fourth season behind the wheel of the Monster Energy Dragster, is starting to realize the energy and the angst her father always has experienced as he buckled down for his championship runs in the Funny Car class.
But the No. 3-ranked Top Fuel racer said, “I just try and not think about the pressure. My job is to just do what my crew chiefs tell me to do and not try and do anything different. This whole season has been a new experience for me, and I am still learning. I still get butterflies, but I think everyone does when you get into situations like this. This season I have learned to just relax and focus on doing the little things. My Monster Energy teammates have been very supportive all season, and we are really working well together down this home stretch.”
Force said, “I am confident in this Monster Energy team. This is a new experience for me, but I am surrounded by teammates and crew chiefs that have won championships, and that gives me a lot of confidence. We have had a great season so far, and I have reached a lot of my goals. But I still have goals I want to achieve this season.”
She said she wants to build on her runner-up finish to Antron Brown two weeks ago at Reading, Pa.
“With two races left, that is what we need to keep doing, winning rounds. If we keep having success on Sunday, then this championship is not out of our reach,” Force said.
A victory here would be her first.
WHILE HIS RIVALS RESTED . . . – Three consecutive events to start the six-race Countdown to the Championship didn’t tire Top Fuel driver Shawn Landon. He took to the Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis dragstrip with his Super Comp dragster this past weekend to stay sharp on the Christmas tree and keep his racing edge. It’s not the first time he has done something like that – and he said it isn’t going to be the last during this year’s playoff.
"I took my Super Comp dragster out to Indy to run in the JEGS Super Quick Series. It was a good decision,” he said. “I made it to the quarterfinals. It was more about trying to keep my mindset in race mode. I'll be doing a few bracket races in between the last couple of races of the year. At this point in the year with how much is on the line, with the championship and all of the big money bracket races, I didn't feel like it was a good idea to take any time off. I want to keep getting hits at the tree and keeping my mindset in race mode."
Langdon, driver of the Sandvik Coromant/Red Fuel Powered by Schumacher Dragster, is fourth in the standings, 119 points away from catching leader Antron Brown.
TOP FUEL TIDBITS – JR Todd is competing in his 150th NHRA career event. The SealMaster Toyotadriver for Kalitta Motorsports has 29 round-wins, a career-high and so far nine more than he earned in 2015. Todd has posted seven semifinal or better finishes in the past 10 races. . . . In one combination or another, Doug Kalitta and Antron Brown have been 1-2 in the Top Fuel standings since mid-May. Kalitta led in points from his Atlanta victory until the conclusion of the Chicago race. Brown switched places with him and has led from the Chicago event to today. . . . Antron Brown has won five of the past nine Countdown races, dating back to last year’s playoffs, when he won three of the six events. . . . Scott Palmer experienced a massive explosion in his Friday night that caused a clean-up of about 15 minutes.
WE'RE GONNA DO WHAT? - You would think Robert Hight would have known to take Mike Neff at his word. But for one brief moment, Hight, driver of the Auto Club of Southern California-sponsored Funny Car, second-guessed his championship tuner.
When Hight stomped the pedal of his Chevrolet Camaro, Neff's words resonated louder than the 10,000-horses screaming and belching fire all the way down the Texas Motorplex concrete quarter-mile. He posted a 3.839-second pass at 332.02 mph to take not only the provisional No. 1 but also the third-quickest Funny Car pass in NHRA history during first-day qualifying at the AAA Texas NHRA Fallnationals. The run also established a new Texas Motorplex track record.
"Going up for that run, Mike told me that he thought we could run 3.84," Hight explained. "And you know, to me, looking at that, you think 'well, we’ve never run 3.84, so how do you go about doing that? How are you so confident that it’s going to go up there and run 3.84 when we’ve never done that. And to go up there and run just a little quicker, that 3.83 shows he’s got a really good handle on it. And I’m not going to question him."
Hight, a two-time Dallas winner, won earlier this year in Gainesville, Fla., and entered the event eighth in points, and is all but eliminated in the championship battle with this weekend being the first of three races remaining.
"We got five points today on our competitors, and I think that moved me around Tim Wilkerson and into seventh," said Hight, who won the 2009 NHRA championship after starting the season as the tenth seed. "So far, so good. Some of these new parts we put on the car, I think it’s showing a lot of potential. And to say you ran the third quickest run in history, and we’re just getting started, I think the future’s bright for the AAA Camaro." - Bobby Bennett
SPEED RECORDS FALL – Matt Hagan set the track speed record at 330.23 mph Friday afternoon in the opening qualifying session. Jack Beckman upstaged him in the night session, rewriting that record at 333.66 mph.
WANTS VICTORY FOR SEVERAL REASONS – Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge driver Jack Beckman said, “Me and Dallas have a ton of history. I went to the very first NHRA national event there in 1986. My buddy from the Air Force and I drove 500 miles one way to see that race. My dad, who was a contractor and traveled the country, had settled in Dallas just prior to that. I raced my first national event there in Super Comp in 1998, then I raced my first Nitro Funny Car race in Dallas in 2006. And with all of that, I've had zero success there. I have never left there with a trophy.”
Never mind that he’s third in the standings, 93 points from the lead, with this weekend’s race and only two more remaining in the season. Beckman said, “Now, maybe more so than ever, it is the race that I want on my resume. My dad is 79 years old, and he lives 45 minutes from the track. And I want to have him in the winners circle and present him with that cowboy hat, which is the token of winning the national event there. That is high on my priority list."
The Don Schumacher Racing quartet of Ron Capps, Tommy Johnson Jr., Beckman, and Matt Hagan – in that order – lead the Funny Car standings, and only 110 points separate Capps and Hagan.
So Beckman knows that “points-wise, it's a must-win for us. Not only is it a must-win for the Infinite Hero team, but we have hope that NAPA (Capps) and Make-A-Wish (Johnson) go out early. And the way those teams have been running, that's probably not likely.
"I know a lot of people will say, 'Well how can you wish that on your teammates?' Well, if the tables were turned, like they were last year, they were all wishing it on us,” he said. “We're teammates [only] in certain areas. When it comes down to the points chase, when it comes down to the Countdown, when it comes down to the last three races, I think everybody would tell you from burnout to turnout, you don't have any teammates out there."
Beckman came close to winning this race in 2015, but lost to eventual series champion Del Worsham.
LOOKING TO MOVE UP – Tim Wilkerson said he thinks he and his Levi, Ray & Shoup Mustang Funny Car can move higher than his current seventh-place spot in the order.
“Even though we had a couple [of] tragedies with the car this season [freakish crashes at Topeka and Denver], my team never slowed down,” Wilkerson said. “If it wasn’t for those two incidents, I believe we would be even higher up in the points battle.”
Those troubles are in the past and he can’t do anything about them. But he has a spare car from Murf McKinney’s shop if he needs one in these final three events of the year.
JOHNSON NO LONGER STEALTH CONTENDER – Reading winner Tommy Johnson Jr. blew his cover. The Make-A-Wish Dodge Charger driver has been to the finals in each of the first three Countdown races, improving from seventh place at the start of the Countdown to second, 24 points out of first.
"The only thing that has changed is that we probably have a target on us now, whereas previously, we've always flown under the radar,” Johnson said.
Eager to keep his momentum rolling, Johnson said, “We certainly made all the right moves and made a big stride in the points. Not having won in Dallas before, it would definitely be great year to win there for the first time."
The Don Schumacher Racing driver naturally gives his team, with crew chief John Collins and assistant Rip Reynolds at the helm, high marks.
"I'd have to give the team an A for the Countdown so far - not quite an A-plus. It would have been an A-plus if we won all three but being in all three finals and winning the last one has been great,” he said.
"The biggest thing we'll have to concentrate on is staying focused and continue to do what we've been doing. It wouldn't be very smart to try and force something right now. The way the car has been running gives me a lot of confidence going to Dallas this weekend. The car has run well no matter what the weather conditions have been. That may come into play this weekend,” Johnson said.
"We have plenty of motivation no matter the points but because we've come this far and we don't want to quit now. That's our focus for the next three. We've put ourselves in position and we need to take advance of that."
CAN CAPPS REEL IN DALLAS VICTORY? – Some of Ron Capps’ championship bids could be classified as “the ones that got away.” But this past week off the coast of Maui, the Funny Car points leader caught a four-foot ono that weighed more than 20 pounds. His visit to the island came as part of his annual visit he and wife Shelley enjoy with his NAPA Auto Parts family, and his fishing feat came aboard the Luckey Strike Charters boat with buddy Ed Fujinaka.
Capps, who has led the standings since the 10th race of the year, is seeking his first victory at the Texas Motorplex since 1998. He was runner-up here in 2011. But with his runner-up finish to Don Schumacher Racing colleague Tommy Johnson at Reading two weeks ago, Capps knows he needs another strong showing to keep his competition at bay.
“We would have loved to win at Maple Grove, but we were happy to get to the final round," Capps said. "Even though Tommy gained another 20 points on our NAPA Dodge, we were able to extend our lead over the other Countdown teams. The prognosis before the Countdown started was that a team needed to average finishing in the semifinals of the six races, and we're a little ahead of that pace."
Capps has been to two semifinals and one final in the first three Countdown races. However, Johnson has been to all three final rounds and has gained 60 points in eliminations, slicing Capps' lead to 24 points. Bearing down on Capps, as well, are the other two DSR Funny Car racers, Jack Beckman and Matt Hagan. After his own mates are Del Worsham, John Force, Tim Wilkerson, Robert Hight, and Courtney Force with chances to pull off miracles down the stretch.
Surely Capps knows the story about Funny Car icon and his longtime rival John Force firing at least one employee years ago for bringing a fishing pole to the shop. Force told the young mechanic, “We don’t take time off. We’re not going for bass – we’re going for a championship.”
But Capps said he’s confident in crew chief Rahn Tobler’s strategy: “We'll stay on Tobler's game plan and work to gain points in qualifying and then go rounds on Sunday." Capps leads the Funny Car class with 28 qualifying bonus points.
HIGHT THREATENING WITH BACK-UP CAR – Robert Hight has won this AAA Texas FallNationals race twice, including in his 2009 championship season. “But we need to win this weekend,” the John Force Racing driver of the AAA Texas Camaro said.
“There are three races left, and I feel like we have a Funny Car that can win all three. It will be tough, but we have been running really good numbers and my guys have been busting their butts since the U.S. Nationals. We blew up a race car and then brought out the back-up, which I think is actually a little quicker. We have made some adjustments and we are using some new parts, so our performance has picked up. I think you have to just throw out Reading and focus on these last three races,” Hight, a first-round finisher two weeks ago, said.
Hight was just six-thousandths of a second behind track-record-setting Ron Capps in the first qualifying session Friday. But he stormed back in the night session and claimed the tentative No. 1 position.
“We’ve been waiting for this performance for a long time. It was pretty impressive. My team’s on the right rack – a little too late, but at least we’re on the right track,” he said after clocking the third-quickest run in class history at 3.839 seconds at a 332.02-mph speed. “Things are turning around.”
Since Hight joined JFR in the mid-1990s, he has been coming to the Texas Motorplex every year as either a crew member or a driver. And he still marvels at this track that he said he thinks favors Funny Cars.
“The Texas Motorplex is the first super track. Billy Meyer was a Funny Car racer, so I think this track is built for Funny Car performance with the all-concrete race track. Billy Meyer was way ahead of his time,” he said. “It might be a little warm, but this track can handle a lot of horsepower. If the conditions hold up, I think you could for sure see some track records and possibly national records. This championship will be in play every round of qualifying. In St. Louis, we got qualifying bonus points every round of qualifying, and we need to start doing that again here in Ennis. These next three races will be about focusing on the little things and just going out and not making mistakes.”
LAST SHOT FOR COURTNEY FORCE - Houston Funny Car winner and two-time runner-up Courtney Force said, “Going into the third to the last race of the season, this is one of the most important races for our Traxxas Chevrolet Camaro team. This race will most likely be our last shot to stay in contention for the championship. We realize that and we are going to handle that pressure as best we can. If we want to make a difference in this Countdown, we are going to need to perform this weekend. Since the Countdown started, we have been struggling and we haven’t been doing as well as we would have liked. We haven’t been going rounds, and it has really hurt us. We have shuffled down the point standings when all season long we were in a great position.”
She and her two JFR teammates, dad John Force and team president Robert Hight, all exited in the first round two weeks ago at Reading – for the second time in three years. But Courtney Force has a clear vision.
“We all have one goal with our team at John Force Racing, and that is to have someone win that Funny Car championship. Right now, I am not in the best position, but I am sure going to give it all I have. I am still going for it because all our teams still have a shot. It definitely helps when you can share information with each other. We are focused on getting that championship for Traxxas.”
She was fourth in the order after Friday’s first qualifying session.
The fifth-year driver, whose last flash of fortune came Labor Day weekend at Indianapolis as she won the $100,000 winner’s Traxxas Shootout jackpot, wants a stellar showing in front of representatives for her sponsor, Traxxas.
“This is an important race for us for the Mello Yello Funny Car championship but also because it is the home track for our sponsor, Traxxas. There are a lot of people from Traxxas coming out, and we want to really show them what we can do. We want to give them a good race, because I know everybody from Traxxas headquarters will be watching and cheering us on. We want to keep showing them what our team is capable of. We have won at this track before, and we will just have to try and do it again.”
She and Top Fuel-driving sister Brittany Force will join other racers in participating in a track walk Sunday morning with fans as they walk down the famed Texas Motorplex race track.
FASCINATING FUNNY CAR FACTS – With his semifinal appearance two weeks ago at Maple Grove Raceway near Reading, Pa., Ron Capps pushed his season elimination record to 46 round-wins, the most he ever has won in a season. Because he advanced to the final round for the ninth time this season, Capps ran his race-day record to 48-18, another career best. . . . Look for a new twist on the iconic Moon Eyes Funny Car design for Jim Dunn Racing at the season finale at Pomona, Calif. Circle K’s logo will be on the John Hale-driven Dodge Charger at this race and at Las Vegas. A special sticker on the fender of Hale’s car wishes a Happy 19th Birthday to Johnna Dunn, daughter of crew chief Jon Dunn and granddaughter of team owner “Big Jim” Dunn. . . . Robert Hight won the Gatornationals in March and was runner-up to teammate Courtney Force in the $100,000-to-win Traxxas Shootout bonus race during the U.S. Nationals last month. Every season since Hight began his career in 2005, he was won at least two NHRA national events. No other driver has ever started their career with such an impressive streak like. He, of course, has three more chances to keep that streak going. . . . Brandon Welch, driving the AutoAnything Monte Carlo, is making his sixth appearance of the season and second of the Countdown. His most recent appearance came at St. Louis. In both Friday qualifying runs, he cut the engine off early. . . . Starting with a clean slate Saturday in qualifying will be John Bojec, John Hale, Dave Richards, Brandon Welch, and Todd Simpson.
DRAGGING THE LINE - Jason Line wasted no time in expressing his intentions.
During the first session of Pro Stock qualifying at the AAA Texas NHRA Fallnationals, the two-time Pro Stock champion established himself as the driver to beat as he put his Summit-sponsored Camaro at the top of the provisional qualifying list with a 6.568 elapsed time at 210.34 miles per hour.
"We didn't expect to run any faster than that one," Line, who was second quickest in the Q-2 session, admitted. "We probably could have. But we just weren't willing to be aggressive enough to make that happen. We felt reasonably safe with the first run - it was a good one. All in all, it was a good day for us."
Line ran a 6.581, 209.98 pass to close out the day, which was only bettered by the 6.579, 210.11 performance of his teammate Greg Anderson. For his part, Line scored five bonus qualifying points for Friday's sessions.
"I think [on Saturday] we will prepare for Sunday eliminations," Line said. "I think the air is going to get a little worse tomorrow. These two runs today were very important for us."
Unlike the first 14 races where he qualified no worse than third, Line said the three-car KB Racing team's qualifying performances have not been what they hoped for. Thus far he has two No. 2 starts and a No. 6 in the first-half of the playoffs.
"We've done a really bad job of qualifying during the Countdown," Line admitted. "Hopefully this will hold up. This will be good for us because then we can have a better chance at being on opposite sides of the ladder."
Ironically, all three of Line's Countdown losses have come to his teammates Anderson and Bo Butner.
"If I can avoid those two, we will be doing fine," Line said. "They are definitely my worst enemies. They really aren't my enemies, but I do need to avoid them at all costs."
Line entered this weekend’s race with a 45 point lead over Anderson, and 83 over third place Vincent Nobile. - Bobby Bennett
TEXAS VICTORY STILL MEANS SOMETHING – Erica Enders, of Houston, called herself “a Texas girl through and through" and said repeating her victory at this event would make up for some of the frustration this season has brought. In each of the past two years, she has been on the verge of earning the Pro Stock championship. This year she realistically is out of contention for a third consecutive series title, but she said she had extra incentive to win here at the track she calls her “second home track.”
Said Enders, “I loved getting the cowboy hat and belt buckle they give the winners also. That had always been on my drag racing bucket list."
She still is seeking her first victory of this season, with only three chances to earn it: this race and the ones at Las Vegas (Oct. 27-30) and Pomona, Calif. (Nov. 11-13).
"The nature of this sport is full of peaks and valleys," Enders said. "Believe me, I've experienced it all out here, and compared to years I've had in the past, this season hasn't been that bad. Certainly you get used to winning and even dominating at times. That's why we all work so hard. But every driver, every champion out here has experienced years like this. The good news is our team hasn't fallen apart, and I know we'll come back better than ever. Right now, we're just focused on finishing the year strong."
She will have to open Saturday qualifying with no recorded time. She missed the cut Friday for the top 12, along with Jeg Coughlin, Aaron Strong, and Alan Prusiensky.
LAUGHLIN RACING IN TWO CLASSES – As if his hometown race weren’t hectic enough with family and friends attending and wishing luck to him and his Dallas-based Gas Monkey Garage sponsor, Alex Laughlin has the added challenge of racing in both the Pro Stock and Top Alcohol Dragster classes.
Moments after racing to the provisional No. 19 slot in sportsman-level Top Alcohol Dragster action, Laughlin scored an early third-place position in Pro Stock with a 6.588-second elapsed time at a session-fastest 210.73 mph.
Laughlin, of Bluff Dale, Texas, northwest of the Texas Motorplex, said it has been tricky “trying to turn on the A/Fuel switch then turn on the Pro Stock switch.”
In the dragster, Laughlin made a 5.585-second, 265.38-mph run, .081 of a second slower than Dave Brounkowski’s 5.504-second bump time in a crowded field of 30 entrants who include former Top Fuel racer Spencer Massey and Woodburn (Ore.) Dragstrip owner Jay Livingston. (If it makes him feel any better, class veteran Dave Hirata was just ahead of him, unqualified, as well, in 18th place overnight.
But Laughlin can cut himself some slack. He earned his Top Alcohol Dragster license just eight days ago in Anthony Dicero’s car at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis. He clocked a 5.351-second E.T. at 271.90 mph and a 5.451, 271.95 before Top Fuel driver Richie Crampton – Friday’s early leader – signed his license. Crampton, of Brownsburg, Ind.-based Morgan Lucas Racing, also loaned Laughlin his firesuit.
“The car’s awesome. It’s fast,” Laughlin said of the dragster, the same one in which he earned his license – the same one, too, that Don Schumacher Racing Vice-President Mike Lewis qualified at Reading, Pa.’s Maple Grove Raceway two weeks ago and drove to a first-round finish. The dragster carries Gas Monkey Garage and Advance Auto Parts branding this weekend.
Laughlin isn’t the only Pro Stock driver to be pulling double duty. Jeg Coughlin is racing a JEGS.com-branded Super Comp dragster alongside nephew Troy Coughlin Jr., who also will compete in Super Gas in the JEGS.com Corvette Roadster.
MOTORPLEX SPECAL TO TEXAS NATIVE – Odessa, in West Texas, is about 350 miles from Ennis, in East Texas. But Pro Stock owner-driver Chris McGaha, from Odessa, regards Ennis’ Texas Motorplex as his home track, and he said he would savor the Wally trophy from this facility this weekend as much as he did the one he earned at the U.S. Nationals last month.
“My family has been racing in Dallas for so many years, and I got my first round-win [five years ago] at this race,” McGaha said. “Our Harlow Sammons team has come a long way since that first round-win, and I want to bring home that trophy this weekend for everyone that has supported us. Dallas is just one of those races we’ve always wanted to win.”
He has been a steady sixth-place driver through the first half of the Countdown to the Championship, with a trio of second-round finishes in his Harlow Sammons Camaro.
ADOPTED DALLAS RESIDENT AT ‘HOME’ – Australian Shane Tucker maintains a residence at Dallas when he comes to the U.S. for business. So this is a hometown race, of sorts, for the Auzmet Architectural Chevrolet Camaro racer.
“Dallas is probably one of the biggest races on tour for us,” Tucker said. “My company, Auzmet Architectural, is stationed in Dallas, and we’d like to run really well here. We want to run well for our sponsors but also our friends and family.”
This is Tucker’s fourth race of the season.
“After testing last week, I think we’re in a lot better place than we’ve been all season,” he said. “We made some big improvements. We haven’t shown our potential this year, but I do think we are capable of winning a race this year.”
PRO STOCK SNIPPETS – Shane Gray, runner-up here at the Texas Motorplex in 2013 and 2014 and top qualifier in 2014, has three semifinals finishes in the past four races and eight overall. . . . After what he characterized as “a lot of bad luck in the first three races of the Countdown,” Marathon Petroleum Dodge Dart driver Allen Johnson took to the dyno at his shop at Greeneville, Tenn. “Hopefully,” he said, “we’ve gotten rid of the bad luck and we can finish up the last three on a really strong note.” He won this event in 2012, and he said, “Getting that custom cowboy hat in Dallas after the win will always be a top memory. I’d like to get another one this year.” . . . KB/Summit Racing has regained its early-season form, with Jason Line leading the tentative field Friday and second-place going to Greg Anderson and fourth place to Bo Butner.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
TESTING MAKES PERFECT - Andrew Hines was ready to break away from the pack the moment the Countdown started. Four races into the six-event Countdown to the Championship, the defending Pro Stock Motorcycle Champion hasn't wavered in his objective.
Hines came out of the trailer firing bullets and rode his way to the quickest run of both Friday sessions during the AAA Texas NHRA Fallnationals at the Texas Motorplex. His 6.812 second pass at 195.42 miles per hour is almost a full second ahead of teammate Krawiec, who is second with a 6.821.
"We were hoping to improve [in the second session], and I thought I could see a .79 out there potentially in our lane," Krawiec admitted. "But, I think what ultimately happened was it cooled off and then the water grains came up with it. And it just took the performance out of the motorcycle. It makes it harder to go through the air because it’s a little bit thicker, and it makes the engine a little more unhappy."
Hines and Krawiec tested on Monday in Indianapolis before headed south to the all-concrete facility located outside of Dallas.
"Made six runs with each motorcycle," Hines explained. "I think it paid big dividends for us. We figured out, a couple of races ago, some consistency problems we were having with our bikes. We just don’t have enough laps on our new setup yet to figure out how to go and make them a little bit faster every time.
"Obviously we want to be better every single time. So, it’s just a learning curve. It’s a learning curve every race right now because we don’t have enough laps on our current setup." - Bobby Bennett
JOHNSON DOWN, OUT SO FAR – Despite closing the day in the tentative 10th place, veteran racer Steve Johnson was bummed Friday after his second qualifying attempt.
“I’m out of resources,” he said. “We broke all our engines.”
He said, “A good attitude helps the soul, but I don’t a good attitude right now. My soul is going to have a meeting with my attitude, and hopefully we’ll get in this race.”
NOT GETTING OVERWHELMED - Precision Service Equipment/Star Racing Buell racer Angelle Sampey has three Pro Stock Motorcycle championships but so far no Texas Motorplex victories (although she has been to the finals twice, most recently 16 years ago, in 2000). She’s in third place in the standings, 52 points behind leader Andrew Hines and 14 behind second-place Eddie Krawiec. So as she chases the Harley-Davidson duo, an outstanding result this weekend is crucial for her fourth-title hopes.
However, she spoke on the eve of the Texas AAA FallNationals not about Countdown status but rather simply winning the race – a race.
“I want to win for sure one more time,” Sampey, the winner in June at Englishtown, N.J., said. “I go to every race wanting to win, but now that I only have three chances left this year, I’m really hoping to win at least one more. Beyond that, it’s really important that I stick with the basics and stay focused. I’m trying my best to not look at the points and just take it one round at a time.”
SO THAT WAS THE PROBLEM! – Angie Smith said she’s excited this weekend because she has come here optimistic. She’s almost always smiling and upbeat, but it wasn’t until her husband-crew chief Matt Smith tested just before the most recent event, at Reading, Pa., and discovered what was wrong with her Victory Gunner motorcycle.
"We have finally figured out what's been holding us back," Angie Smith said. "He felt something just kind of choking the bike's horsepower. We ended up changing out the entire fuel system, and it made an immediate impact.”
However, because they and all the other NHRA racers were on a tight schedule, they didn’t have much time to fine-tune the changes.
“We were doing a lot of work right there at the track, so now that we've had a chance to get back home and rework this thing from front to back, we should be much better," she said. "We know what these Victory Gunners can do with what Matt's been able to show us at times, and now we'll have two bikes running strong for these final three races."
She isn’t in Countdown contention, but Matt Smith is. Angie Smith said she’ll try to run interference We'll just race as hard as we can and if I can help him advance through the field, I'll do all I can for him.
“We’re counting points," she said. "Matt could move up three or four spots this weekend alone and could break into the top five in Vegas. If we can just get him close to the top riders, then we may have a shot.”
At Reading, the first round of eliminations featured Smith versus Smith, but Angie Smith shrugged off the unfortunate draw and said, “The bottom line is we need to bring attention to Victory Motorcycles, Lucas Oil, Mark Stockseth Racing, and the rest of our sponsors. And Matt has a better chance of doing that right now.”
ROOKIE REALLY WANTS THAT FIRST WALLY – Reading runner-up Cory Reed, a candidate for the AAA of Southern California Road to the Future Award for top NHRA rookie, has set a couple of goals for himself before year’s end. The Precision Service Equipment / Star Racing Buell rider is ranked seventh in the Countdown order, and he said, “My biggest goal is to win a race before the end of this year. My mom [Top Alcohol Funny Car driver Annie Whiteley] and dad [Pro Mod racer Jim Whiteley] have always been big on sportsmanship my whole life. So I try not to be too hard on myself. But I really want to get that win before the season is over.
“My other goal for the final three races,” he said, “is to make it to the semifinals or better every race. I feel if I make it to the semifinals, I’m doing my job or the bike is hauling the mail or it’s a combination of both. I think it’s a doable goal.”
BIKE BYTES – Buell rider Melissa Surber squeaked into the top 12 Friday with a 6.914-second elapsed time at a 190.14 speed. . . . The racers having their Friday elapsed times wiped off the slate (by not qualifying 12th or better) are (in order) Karen Stoffer, Shawn Gann, Angie Smith, Joey Gladstone, David Hope, Joe DeSantis, John Hall, Mike Berry, Lance Bonham, and Gunner Courtney.
THEY SAID IT
"I don't see many career-best runs happening at Dallas with the weather we expect to see, but that's what makes Dallas so much fun and so challenging. Teams outside the top-five will take big chances.” – Ron Capps
“We just want to get everything that we can get right now, because it's still a dogfight. All it takes is one bad race and you're back in the same predicament that we were in after St. Louis." – Antron Brown
“There isn’t any extra pressure [competing at a sponsor-sponsored race] because we have always been focused on trying to win the championship again. The only pressure is two of the last three races are sponsored by AAA Texas and the Automobile Club of Southern California. I love racing at sponsor races because I feel like you have all this extra support and people are really pulling for you to win.
“I’ll be spending a lot of time over at the AAA Texas stage on Saturday and even some time on Sunday. They are doing a really neat promotion called Drags versus Checkered Flags, and I am in a contest with Joey Logano from the NASCAR side. We are neck and neck to see which series the fans like better. I’ll be trying to get as many votes as possible from the fans at the AAA Texas Fall Nationals and then I’ll be back in Texas in November for the NASCAR race trying to get more votes there. It has been a fun promotion.” – Robert Hight, who received votes Friday from NHRA President Peter Clifford and Vice-President of Racing Operations Graham Light, among dozens of others.
"I am so thrilled to debut the new colors of our Traxxas Chevy Camaro body, and this is my favorite one of the season. We’re running a pink breast cancer awareness scheme starting at Taxes' home track in Dallas. I think the fans will love this pink version that Traxxas designed, because it is so different from any of our other pink bodies in the past. We will run these colors for the rest of the season, along with the pink ribbon. I hope this Funny Car body is a reminder that we still need to help bring awareness to and find a cure for breast cancer. This pink car can be a reminder to those battling breast cancer and those who are survivors. We are all fighting together to search for a cure, and I hope by running these colors, those who are currently battling feel a little bit stronger and confident, knowing they are not alone." – Courtney Force
"Vincent [Nobile] is getting hot at the perfect time. He's coming off a big win in Reading, and if there's a way to help him out by knocking off the front-runners, then we'll sure give it our best effort. At the same time, we'll continue to race as hard as possible to get some glory for our car and our supporters as we finish out the season." - Jeg Coughlin