Rumor Mill

2017 NHRA ARIZONA NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK

 

 

       

 

SUNDAY

PRITCHETT BEATS FORCE IN TOP FUEL REMATCH - Leah Pritchett said she thinks she and her Papa John’s Pizza Dragster team are “doing pretty OK” in living up to boss Don Schumacher’s standards.

But she’s incorrect.

She and her Todd Okuhara-led crew are doing way more than “pretty OK” so far this year.

In Sunday’s rematch of the 2016 Top Fuel final round of the NHRA Arizona Nationals, Pritchett became the first in the class since Gary Scelzi in 1997 to win the first two races of the season. And she did it on a holeshot against Brittany Force.

Pritchett beat Force off the starting line (.053 seconds to .081) and won in 3.705 seconds at 328.22 mph on the 1,000-foot course at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park. Force, in the Monster Energy Dragster, ran a quicker and faster 3.704, 330.39 mph.

Perfect in the first two races of the season, Pritchett has a 92-point lead over Sunday semifinalist Tony Schumacher as the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series moves to the East Coast for the March 16-19 Amalie Oil Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla.

Matt Hagan’s Funny Car victory gave him and Pritchett back-to-back double-nitro performances for Don Schumacher Racing. This marked the organization’s 57th nitro sweep. (With Pritchett and DSR Funny Car driver Tommy Johnson Jr.

leading their fields Sunday, DSR had its 30th nitro No. 1 sweep.)

Greg Anderson defeated Drew Skillman in the Pro Stock final to join Pritchett and Hagan in the winners circle at Chandler, Ariz., near Phoenix.

“Honestly, I’m trying to keep up with my team for how well they’re doing and make them proud of me as a driver,” Pritchett said after her .0271-second margin of victory. “I’m learning what it takes to get in that extreme, severe mindset of what it takes to do what we’re doing and do the job of what is expected of a Don Schumacher racing team. I think we’re doing pretty OK with that. We’re blessed with the equipment, talent, and capabilities of the people and everyone it takes to do it. I’m happy that I could hold up my end of the bargain.”

She has done that and more.

Her qualifying E.T. of 3.658 seconds made her the quickest drag-racing driver in NHRA history, and it came after she rocketed to the unofficial record of \3.654/331.85 earlier this month here during Nitro Spring Training. She has dominated as top qualifier, winner, and driver with low E.T. at both the Winternationals and the Arizona Nationals.

However, Pritchett said she “stumbled” along the way. Although it wasn’t glaring to most observers, she said she “caught myself flinching on a long tree” against Clay Millican in the quarterfinals. She said she told herself, “Get out of that mindset.” (She said, “This tree, this track, the average lights for Top Fuel cars are about two- or three-hundredths slower than they are at other tracks.”)

It was after her euphoric weekend here last February that Pritchett’s career took an uncertain detour. The team sponsor died unexpectedly and the operation folded, sending her into uber-aggressive mode to patch the rest of her season together. She did, but it was stressful, despite a strong Countdown appearance and seventh-place finish. So she knows it’s too early in the year to start assuming anything, especially happily-ever-after endings every race weekend.

“This sport is extremely humbling, and it can turn at any moment,” Pritchett said. “I like the confidence we have right now, because it’s not too high. We’re double-checking each other’s work in a very positive way. The thing I’m most impressed about is how well [the crew is] working together and how much we enjoy working together. And that’s showing on the track,” she said. “Todd is the unsung hero in all of this. We’ve taken really big steps here. We’re just trying to run a full season and be competitive.”

Two of her three total Wally trophies have come at this racetrack, and last year’s triumph over Force also was on a holeshot.

Pritchett had a first-round bye Sunday because of the short field, then advanced past Millican and surprise-of-the-day Shawn Reed, the newcomer from Washington State.

Force defeated Terry McMillen, Antron Brown, and Schumacher to reach her first final round of the season and first since last October at Reading, Pa. (where she beat Pritchett in the semifinal).

The final two pairings of the opening round provided upsets. Reed earned his first elimination round-win in an engine-blowing effort against traction-troubled Doug Kalitta. And Scott Palmer edged Troy Coughlin Jr. to record his first round-win since last July at Sonoma, when he defeated Shawn Langdon.

The second round was no less surprising, with Force knocking off current class champion and No. 2 qualifier Brown, who won seven times in 11 finals last year but hasn’t reached a final round yet in the season’s two races. Reed eliminated Steve Torrence to make his first semifinal appearance.

HAGAN WINS FUNNY CAR WALLY AT PHOENIX - Matt Hagan’s season couldn’t be off to a better start.

Hagan, a two-time NHRA nitro Funny Car world champion (2011, 2014) won his second race in a row in 2017, the latest coming at the Arizona Nationals Sunday at Wild Horse Motorsports Park.

Hagan, driving his Don Schumacher Racing Dodge Charger, beat reigning world champion and DSR teammate Ron Capps in the final.

Hagan clocked a 3.878-second time at 330.88 mph to defeat Capps’ 3.883-second lap at 330.88 mph.

“This is just great,” Hagan said. “We have us a hot rod right now and the car is running strong and my lights are on point and I’m just feeling it, this race car and this team. We’re just digging. Everybody is working hard and Dickie Venables (Hagan’s crew chief), he’s killing it out there. The car is going down the race track every lap and how much more could you ask for? We might as well put an 85 on this thing and bracket race it. It’s just a great feeling to crawl in the car, knowing you have the confidence to go down the race track and it’s going to run strong, and when your lights are good it is real hard combination to beat.”

This is Hagan’s 24th NHRA national event win. He beat Courtney Force in the finals of the season-opening Winternationals Feb. 12 in Pomona, Calif.

“I have a lot of confidence going into play from Pomona into this race, and we hope to carry some of that into the Gators,” Hagan said.

The Gatornationals March 16-19 in Gainesville, Fla., are the next race on the NHRA’s national circuit.

Hagan’s victory parade in Phoenix consisted of wins over Cruz Pedregon, Tim Wilkerson, Tommy Johnson Jr and then Capps.

The race wins for Hagan are coming at a time when Hagan is dealing with the unexpected death of his brother, Kyle Hagan, Jan. 8. Kyle, 33, died of an apparent aneurysm. A month earlier, Matt’s paternal grandfather passed.

“I had a really tough offseason, losing my brother and my grandfather,” Matt said. “It’s just one of those deals, your grandfather is 82 years old and you expect that and prepare for that. My brother was 33 and he went to sleep and he never woke back up. It put it in perspective how every life matters and every day counts. Sometimes you get up and go through the motions and I know I have done that sometimes just getting through the day, but now I look at things a little different. You make every day count because you don’t when it is your last. You still should make good decisions. Everybody says you could go out here and get hit by a semi, but 90 percent of the time you’re not going to and the decisions you make you’re going to have to live with probably another 60 years, so you should make some good decisions. Coming out here and be able to win the first two races and just putting things together, it’s definitely a healing process for me.” Tracy Renck

GREG ANDERSON RACES TO PRO STOCK VICTORY AT PHOENIX - The competition in NHRA’s Pro Stock class may be getting tighter, but the Summit Racing team is still a step ahead.

Reigning world champion Jason Line won the season-opening Winternationals (Feb. 12) and Sunday his teammate, Greg Anderson, was victorious at the Arizona Nationals.

Anderson clocked a 6.547-second elapsed time at 211.43 mph to edge Drew Skillman’s 6.565-second, 210.50 mph lap in the finals.

“It was a brutal day, absolutely brutal, but I knew coming in it was going to be,” Anderson said. “The class is awesome right now. You read the internet stories and people say the class is dying and is going away and losing appeal, but this class is as strong as it ever was and is going to be. We have new blood in the class right now. This is going be a very competitive, very exciting year in Pro Stock.”

This was Anderson’s 87th career NHRA national event victory. He and Line combined for 16 wins last year – eight each – and they finished No. 1 and No. 2 in the point standings.

Anderson beat Kenny Delco, Shane Gray and Tanner Gray before ousting Skillman in the finals.

“I think every race I had (Sunday) was decided by less than a foot,” Anderson said. “It’s just a battle royal every time you stage the car, anybody can win. That’s what the fans like, that’s what’s all about. It’s tough on the drivers obviously, you want to have an advantage when you go up there and we had this much of an advantage and any small mistake and you were going to go home. We didn’t make that small mistake. Rob Downing, my crew chief, did a fantastic job with our race cars (Sunday). We don’t have the advantage like we had last year, we are just right now out racing people. We’re making better decisions on race day by just enough to get the job done. I just thank the Lord he’s on my team. He’s fantastic, a seven-time world champion. He’s the man. Ken Black is the man. My hat’s off to them. They are awesome and I thank the Lord they are on my team.”

Anderson was quick to credit his team for the success of the Summit Racing Camaros.

“It’s just a 100 percent team effort,” Anderson said. “You can’t win a Pro Stock race without having everything go perfectly over the weekend. We’ve just found a way to make less mistakes than the rest and that starts with Ken Black. He handpicked these people and he has the best and they do a great job. It’s not easy. We just somehow race as tough as we can possibly race and some days it is your day and some days it is not. We have more good days than bad lately.” Tracy Renck



SATURDAY - LAST-MINUTE EFFORT WORKS FOR TOP FUEL’S HADDOCK BUT NOT FOR FUNNY CAR’S DIEHL, CAPPS ROCKETS THROUGH FUNNY CAR FIELD, THINK TWICE BEFORE RIPPING OFF PALMER, SEVERAL PROS SET CAREER-BEST TIMES

TOP FUEL
 

DON’T MESS WITH SCOTT PALMER – It’s still the Wild West at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, and with a little vigilante justice, the good guys prevailed once again.

A man tried to make off in the pits with a golf cart that belongs to Scott Palmer, the Marck/Cat Spot/Lucas Oil Drag Boat Series Dragster owner-driver. Palmer’s team was having none of that.

His crew members tracked down the cart and identified the cart thief. They roughed up the perpetrator and saw to it that the police took him to jail in handcuffs. Justice served.

UNCOOPERATIVE DRAGSTER – If it weren’t for bad luck this weekend at Phoenix, Top Fuel independent owner-driver Terry Haddock might have none at all. He didn’t make a run in the first session Friday, then tried to get a baseline established in Q2. That ended in frustration, as his car wouldn’t stop during the burnout. In his next chance, early Saturday, his dragster wouldn’t start.

He struggled while Steve Faria made his burnout and backed up. Haddock finally fired his engine and staged the car so he could have a time on the board. He had tires smoke at the hit of the throttle – and, consequently, no time. To make thing worse, officials tossed out the attempt, saying Haddock had been told not to start the car.

Haddock retuned to the starting line for his last-ditch effort – which worked. The car didn’t behave well enough for a full pass on the 1,000-foot course, but Haddock clocked a 4.292-second E.T. at 190.43 mph, good enough for the No. 14 position. His opening-round opponent will be No. 3 qualifier Tony Schumacher.

SOME MOVES IN Q3 – In the third overall qualifying session Saturday, Steve Torrence moved up from sixth place to fourth, Brittany Force made a huge leap from 13th to seventh and picked up a bonus point, Troy Buff shook off two poor attempts Friday and jumped into the lineup at No. 9, Terry McMillen slid in at No. 10, and Steve Faria (with a career-best E.T. and speed of 3.905 seconds and 311.56 mph) and Shawn Reed leapfrogged Steve Chrisman.
 

FUNNY CAR
 

NO DIEHL – Jeff Diehl was the only one who could bump Phil Burkart from the field in the fourth and final qualifying session.
But Burkhart was safe, for Diehl lost traction about a third of the way through his run and missed the cut.
Burkart held onto his 16th-place starting spot with a 5.352 E.T. and will go against top qualifier Tommy Johnson Jr., who swiped the No. 1 qualifying from Courtney Force in his last pass of the day by one-thousandth of a point with his track-record 3.837-second run.   

 

TODD CLOCKS HIS BEST FUNNY CAR TIME - JR Todd helped scramble the middle of the order in Q3, just by improving from eighth place to seventh in the DHL Toyota Camry. He did it with his best elapsed time in a Funny Car, 3.889 seconds (at 326.63 mph). He stayed seventh, two-hundredths slower than Jack Beckman. Todd will race Kalitta Motorsports mate Alexis DeJoria in Sunday’s Round 1 of eliminations.

 

"I am still learning how to drive the DHL Toyota Camry,” Todd said, “but we made a good run there in Q3. It stinks that we have to run our teammate, but that's the way it goes sometimes. So we will go out there and try to beat her in the first round."

DeJoria, driver of the Tequila Patrón Toyota Camry, said, “We're racing JR, so it should be exciting. One of these Kalitta Funny Cars is going to the second round.”

She said, “We got two good runs out of qualifying. They weren't what we wanted, but we did get some good information and have something to build on for tomorrow. I'm not worried at all. These guys always give me a really good race car come Sunday.”

DeJoria made the field at No. 10.  

MOVE ASIDE - COMING THROUGH - Ron Capps soared from 13th place to third in early Saturday qualifying.

Then the NAPA Dodge Charger driver and reigning champion nosed in front of Don Schumacher Racing colleague Matt Hagan in the final session. Capps matched Hagan’s elapsed time – 3.839 seconds – but captured the No. 3 spot because his track-record 333.58-mph speed beat Hagan’s 333.33. That 3.839-second blast was eighth-quickest in class history.

Capps will run against No. 14 Jeff Arend.

 

WILKERSON AMONG TOP 5 – Tim Wilkerson’s 3.852-second E.T. from Friday night proved to be his best in qualifying, and it put him and his Levi, Ray & Shoup Mustang in the No. 5 starting slot. His prize: a first-round date Sunday with No. 12 John Force.

That run was his best, but it didn’t exactly satisfy him, because it dropped a cylinder down-track on that run.

"I still can't get it to run on eight cylinders down there, but I'm working on it," he said. “It amazes me how you can park your car in the fall, get it out in the spring, and it's like it's not the same car. There is something I don't understand, and I'm not as smart as I think I am 99 percent of the time. If I could get it to run on eight holes, it would probably run 3.83 and 332 mph or so. But it's pretty fast, it's a good car, and it's smooth. We just made a mistake the first run, corrected it, and it muscled right down there."
 
He referred to other tuners in saying, "I'm much happier with a slick, greasy racetrack, because it keeps the heroes from spinning the knobs backwards and throwing down those E.T.s. I'm happy with that run, though. I've still got some work to do on it – and I'm not happy when it comes back and the motor isn't happy. If I get that fixed and it'll keep running that good, I'll be excited about it."

Wilkerson was the highest-qualified Funny Car racer not in the 3.83-second range. The four ahead of him were – the three Don Schumacher Racing Dodges of Tommy Johnson Jr., Ron Capps, and Matt Hagan.
 

PRO STOCK
 

LITTLE CHANGE IN Q3 – Little changed in the Pro Stock lineup from Friday’s second qualifying session through Saturday’s first session (third overall), except Chris McGaha improved from ninth place to seventh, Drew Skillman rose from 15th place to 10th, and Alan Prusiensky and Val Smeland lowered their elapsed times. Skillman continued to improve, stepping up one more position, to No. 9, the event’s final qualifying session.

WORKIN’ 9 TO 5 – Jeg Coughlin made a bold leap Saturday, driving his JEGS.com Chevy Camaro for Elite Motorsports from ninth place to fifth in his last qualifying chance.

"We've shown extremely strong speed and back-half numbers all weekend," Coughlin said. "We're just trying to get the car, the chassis, the tune-up and everything else to work as one when we start the run. In drag racing, if you mess up any part on the track you want to mess up at the top end, not the launch. I'm not saying we're messing up, but we are trying to dial-in a newer combination this weekend.

"We know the JEGS.com car is extremely strong. We are able to capitalize on a three-car team here with Erica (Enders), Vincent (Nobile) and myself and really analyze the data between the three cars,” he said. “So we'll trying to just keep pecking away at this set-up, because as we could see the horsepower numbers were great.

"That run wasn't any kind of a prize, as the folks on FOX Sports will see,” he said. “The car launched and I could feel the front end come up pretty high, which got me driving left toward the center line. I got second gear about that time and the front end was coming down, hitting third gear. I was trying to get it back in the groove as quickly and efficiently as possible and not scrub off any E.T. I figured at best we'd run probably a high .55 or a .56, and we ran a .54 (6.541). The beauty is we turned out a nice elapsed time with a good speed again and had some left. We'll see if we can't become a little more efficient for tomorrow and pick up the pace."

Coughlin is aiming for his third Pro Stock victory here and hoping to advance past first-round opponent Allen Johnson.

Coughlin, with 587 round-wins, is closing in on the mark of 10-time Pro Stock champion Bob Glidden, who closed his career with 597.

ENGINE PUTS QUESTION MARK IN JOHNSON’S MIND – Allen Johnson will meet Jeg Coughlin in the opening round of eliminations Sunday. And he has been around long enough to know he’ll have his hands full with the resurgent fellow champion, who will start from the No. 5 berth.

“Jeg is always tough competition,” Johnson said. “We’ll have to make our best run, and I’ll make sure to be on my game to give our Marathon Petroleum team a shot at the win tomorrow.”

But his mind will on the engine in his Marathon Petroleum/J&J Racing Dodge Dart. Engine troubles marred a smooth, clean run in the third overall (first Saturday) session. Johnson cut off the power and had to rely on his 6.583-second pass from late Friday.

“When we hurt the engine in the third session, we had to put in a new one right before the final run,” Johnson said. “We missed the tune-up a little bit when we went up there, but luckily, we’ve still got a little left in it. We’ll keep digging.”

BY A SPLIT SECOND – By one-thousandth of a point, Alan Prusiensky traded places with Kenny Delco, relegating Delco to 15th. Prusiensky posted a personal-best 6.599-second elapsed time, while Delco’s top effort was a 6.000. As a result, Prusiensky will face No. 2 Greg Anderson in the first round Sunday, and Delco will line up against No. 3 Tanner Gray.

FRIDAY - LEE’S ILLNESS THROWS UNCERTAINTY TO PART OF KALITTA FUNNY CAR PROGRAM, PRITCHETT TOPS TORRENCE AGAIN, PAST AND PRESENT DHL FUNNY CAR DRIVERS FARE WELL, YOUNGER GRAY SHOWS WELL IN PRO STOCK LINEUP, ENDERS AHEAD OF 2016 PERFORMANCE AND HAS NEW MARKETING PARTNER


TOP FUEL



WOW! - Top Fuel driver Leah Pritchett has been living the dream since qualifying No. 1 and winning the season-opening Winternationals (Feb. 12) and she has yet to wake up.

Pritchett, who is part of the Don Schumacher Racing stable, made history at the Arizona Nationals Friday.

Pritchett drove her Papa John’s-sponsored dragster to the fastest 1,000-foot time in NHRA Top Fuel history with a 3.658-second run at 329.34 mph at Wild Horse Motorsports Park.

“To be behind the wheel of this machine that’s constantly putting out time and time again, fast numbers, quick numbers, to be honest is a little bit difficult to comprehend all the success this car is putting out,” Pritchett said. “This is everything that dreams that are made of. It’s almost too good to be true.”

Pritchett clocked her world’s fastest ET on the second qualifying session. Crew chief Todd Okuhara and assistant Joe Barlam are calling the shots for Pritchett.

“I’m seeing an extra attention to detail that I’ve never seen before, and I've been around a lot of crews in my life,” Pritchett said. “It’s paying off so well. It’s nice to say that we’re officially the quickest in the world, but other guys are not far off us, we know that. The confidence in this car between Todd and Joe is unbelievable. I’m in a confident place that I’ve never been before.”

Pritchett acknowledged a 3.70 run is completely different than a 3.65.

“It’s a total world of difference,” she said. “It is like the car gets lighter (on the 3.65). I was thinking when we ran that 65 in testing, that was fast, but now that we went that fast again that it is a real sensation. Now that I know time and time again what those fast times feel like, it’s fun. That’s why I do this. I’m the luckiest person in the world to be able to be here and doing this. I do give the glory to God for all these opportunities He has placed me in right now. He has some type of plan. He had some type of plan last year, and we’re just going to keep working really hard because we can’t lift up.”

Pritchett finished seventh in the season points a year ago. She won her inaugural Top Fuel NHRA national event last season at Phoenix while driving for Bob Vandergriff Racing. - Tracy Renck

KALITTA TEAM IN LIMBO WITH LEE’S ILLNESS – Top Fuel racer Doug Kalitta lamented the surprise retirement of Kalitta Motorsports Funny Car colleague Paul Lee, who retired this month following disclosure of a severe heart attack.

“We had a setback with Paul Lee,” Kalitta said of the team's Funny Car program that includes Alexis DeJoria and JR Todd.

“I’m not certain exactly what we’re going to do. I know we’re going to run the car at a couple races, just to support some of the sponsors that he had,” Kalitta said. “We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.

“You know, you take your health for granted most of the time, then you realize how vulnerable you are,” he said.

Kalitta owns an airline that offers cargo, private passenger, and air ambulance service. He’s also a pilot who flies himself to the races, among other places. And he said he’s subject to a medical evaluation every six months.

“I have to admit – my family always kind of has had high blood pressure. I’m been fortunate not to follow the path,” he said. His blood -pressure readings, he said, are “pretty low. I should last for a long time.”

GOOD DAY-WEIRD DAY FOR TORRENCE – Friday was a bit of a mixed bag for Top Fuel’s Steve Torrence, driver of the Capco Contractors Dragster. Overall, his day was positive. After two qualifying chances, he has the tentative No. 6 spot in the order for Sunday’s eliminations. And he won a tug-o-war for that with Clay Millican. Both recorded 3.751-second elapsed times.

Torrence’s 326.48-mph speed trumped Millican’s 316.30, so Millican took the No. 7 slot with two more qualifying sessions set for Saturday.

But Torrence saw his national E.T. record (set last July at Sonoma) evaporate in the final pass of the day, when points leader Leah Pritchett continued her Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park exploits with a 3.658-second blast down the 1,000-foot course. He had owned the mark with a 3.671.

She is becoming his nemesis, topping his testing times here at Chandler, Ariz., three weeks ago with E.T.s that unofficially were the quickest ever. Then two weeks ago, she denied his bid for a repeat victory at the Winternationals in Round 2 on her way to the winners circle.

Now she has eclipsed his national record.

With a strong hint that his record would not last past this weekend, Torrence was braced for the almost inevitable. And because her husband, Gary Pritchett, is Torrence’s clutch tech, he joked, “We don’t want to ruin the family dynamic.” But he certainly isn’t going to feel terrible if he and his dragster outperform her and hers.

JUMPS IN AT 12TH – Steve Faria didn’t make a qualifying attempt in his first opportunity, but he landed in the No. 12 spot tentatively with a 5.295-seocnd pass, despite losing traction early in this run. He had been paired with Terry Haddock, the other Top Fuel racer among the 15 entrants not to venture to the starting line during Q1. Haddock couldn’t get his car stopped on the burnout and coasted down his lane, while Faria waited to go. So Haddock still has no time, with just a pair of qualifying chances remain Saturday in an already unfilled field.aption

 

MID-PACKERS IMPROVE NEVERTHELESS – The improving Terry McMillen put his Amalie Oil Dragster in seventh place to start Friday’s action with and ended the day ninth with a 3.768-second, 322.11-mph performance. BME Dragster driver Troy Buff, who had trouble from the launch in the opening session, overcame that with a provisional No. 8 effort at 3.764, 321.96.

 

PALMER IN 10TH – Scott Palmer, in his Marck/Lucas Oil Boat Drag Racing Series Dragster, started his day in an enviable No. 7 position but closed Friday in a still-respectable 10th. His 3.971-second elapsed time was the last in the three-second range. Steve Chrisman, Steve Faria, Brittany Force, and Shawn Reed brought up the rear of the field with slower E.T.s. Force’s best was a 6.377-second pass at 93.04 mph in the first session.

SPECIAL ALOHA AND MAHALO TO OKUHARA – PunishUM Motorsports will begin its 17th season on Hawaii’s KFVE-TV with tonight’s 9:30 (HST) broadcast and replay at 4 p.m. Saturday. Show host Tracy Arakaki is leading a movement to revive Oahu’s Hawaii Raceway Park, and helping him are Don Schumacher Racing crew chief Todd Okuhara, a Honolulu native; current Funny Car champion Ron Capps, whose sponsor, NAPA Hawaii, is a PunishUM Motorsports TV show sponsor; and Pro Stock Motorcycle veteran Steve Johnson.

This August, following the NHRA’s Western Swing, Okuhara will be Hawaii again for a PunishUM Motorsports promotion. One PunishUM on KFVE viewer will have a chance to sit down one-on-one and have lunch and some drag-racing conversation with Okuhara, who is crew chief for the points-leading 'Papa John's Pizza' Top Fuel team.

Kalitta Air is a PunishUM Motorsports marketing partner, as are TOYO Tires, Lex Brodie’s, Virtual Tax Accountant, Prymis, and PacMediaPro. PunishUM Motorsports is online at www.punishum.com.

 

A-GAME ALL THE TIME – Tony Schumacher is the most successful Top Fuel racer at this dragstrip with five victories, but he said, “That doesn’t mean anything this weekend if we don’t bring an A-plus effort. There is only one winner, and with the level of competition in the NHRA right now you can’t bring anything but your best.”

He said the reason for his performance here is simple: “It’s about having a great team around you. It takes everyone one of us to have a chance on Sundays. From all the people at DSR working on building pieces that my guys use to put these race cars together to all the personnel of the U.S. Army backing us for all of these years, it takes everyone and everything working together. Being surrounded by a group of people capable of the moment is what I live for. Over preparing and going with the flow, that’s what we do. Racing in Phoenix has always been fun for me. The last several years it’s an early-season race and everyone wants to get that first win. I know Mike (Green) has a plan and we’re going to do everything we can to execute it this weekend.”

Still sporting a beard for the first time, Schumacher is ready for something new, including winning again and dominating. The U.S. Army Dragster driver grabbed the early qualifying lead with a track-record elapsed time of 3.703 seconds (at 322.96 mph) on the 1,000-foot course.

Schumacher and U.S. Army Dragster teammate Antron Brown entered the Arizona Nationals having won the previous four races here. Schumacher had won in the odd years, Brown in even years.

 

3.60s HERE TO STAY, CHAMP SAYS – Much like Jason Line, his three-time champion counterpart in Pro Stock, Top Fuel’s Antron Brown never is satisfied with his performances.

“Celebrating a championship is nice,” Brown said, “but you have to keep your focus on the big picture or you won’t be the champ long. Just look at Pomona, where we saw a lot of 3.6-second runs. That level is here to stay. We'll just have to keep pushing hard. If you want to win, you have to run in the .60s.

“I know the guys I have in my corner are driven to stay on top. Our plan is to outwork everyone,” he said. “We put in the work three weeks ago, with our preseason testing in Phoenix before we went to Pomona. Conditions always change, but we have accumulated a lot of data. We know that we could have a totally different racetrack from what we saw in testing out there these next couple of days, but that’s part of the challenge. I felt like we had the car to win in Pomona. We made it to the semifinals, so we are looking forward to getting the job done this weekend.”

A tire-smoking run early Friday left Brown 11th in the initial lineup. But he slipped in front of early No. 3 qualifier Troy Coughlin Jr. Brown used a 3.689-second E.T. at 326.56 mph. Coughlin ended his day with a best run of 3.696, 326.48.
 

FUNNY CAR



On Friday's first run of the weekend, Courtney Force’s Advance Auto Parts nitro Funny Car was blistering fast.

The run – 3.838-seconds at 332.67 mph – which was a track record for elapsed time and mph at Wild Horse Motorsports Park.

“It’s always that first run of the weekend that you're most nervous about, so to be able lay down a number like that for a track record for the Advance Auto Parts team,” Force said. “We ran killer numbers during testing here (before the season-opening Winternationals), and that’s going to be our goal to try and do it again this weekend.”

During preseason testing at Phoenix, Force clocked a 3.804-second run, which was unofficially the fastest 1,000-foot nitro Funny Car time in NHRA history.

“We obviously were pushing it on Q2, but we pushed it a little bit too hard and it didn’t take it,” Force said. “We will have to try again (Saturday), but at least we were able to stay in the No. 1 spot after today. You kind of feel like after running a number like that in testing, I’m sure a lot of people are expecting our Advance Auto Parts Chevy to get down there and run that number again, and that’s what we expect. That’s the whole reason we are back out here pushing the car hard, really trying to replicate what we did in testing and to see if can keep this Chevy Camaro running consistently. That’s what we want most importantly on race day. I don’t care if go out and lay down a killer number, I just want to make sure we have a consistent race car for Sunday.”

On her second qualifying attempt, Force slowed to an 8.672-second lap.

Force, who has eight career NHRA national event victories, is coming off a runner-up performance at the Winternationals, losing in the finals to Matt Hagan.

Couple that with her testing success in Phoenix and Force arrived at Wild Horse Motorsports Park with lofty expectations.

“I obviously would love to make that number (3.804 seconds) real and make it a national ET record, and I would be pretty bummed if we left this race track without securing it, but it definitely feels great with the first pass out to lay down a 3.83. It’s dang close and we’re going to keep pushing it, and we will try again (Saturday) and see if we can get it there. Everyone wants to start off the season on a high note and going to the final round was huge for us with a new sponsor on board, Advance Auto Parts and trying to impress them and make them happy with joining our team. I have extra pressure on myself as a driver to really perform and I just want to make them proud.” - Tracy Renck

 

OVERALL, PRETTY DARN GOOD – Gary Densham’s day was a good-news/bad-news affair. He clocked his first three-second pass at 3.938 with another career-best – a 320.36-mph speed – to kick off Friday’s Funny Car competition. That topped his 4.036 from last August at Seattle and his 311.41 at the fall 2015 Las Vegas race. Densham scored the personal-best E.T. even despite losing his blower belt as he approached the finish line. What bad news? The NHRA charged him 10 points for his second oildown of the season.

 

BACKWARD, THEN FORWARD – Tim Wilkerson had to go a little bit backward to move a little bit forward Friday. After a bit of a wheelstand in a race that was a bit of a mess with out-of-the-groove wiggling and some tire smoke for extra dramatic effect, he vaulted from 12th place to third in the Levi, Ray, & Shoup Shelby Ford Mustang. In his second run, Wilkerson posted a 3.852, 329.42 that bettered his two-week-old career-best E.T. by five-thousandths of a second.

 

INDEPENDENTS MAKE NOISE – Del Worsham, striking off on his own from the security of Kalitta Motorsports to rejoin dad Chuck Worsham in a revival of their early decade-and-a-half team, struck a blow for the independents Friday. He hovered in his Toyota Camry around mid-pack, first seventh then sixth, with a day’s best of 3.896 seconds. That was one-thousandth of a second quicker than Robert Hight’s 3.897.

 

PROBLEM GONE, TODD HERE IN STYLE – Former Top Fuel racer JR Todd said before time trials started Friday at Phoenix that he anticipated a “great weekend.” The DHL Toyota Camry driver for Kalitta Motorsports said, “I am really excited to see what we have now after we found a problem that plagued us all through testing and qualifying.” Whatever that problem was, it seems to be gone now, for Todd has established himself as a Funny Car contender. He was fifth in the lineup Friday in the first qualifying session but had to settle for eighth place overnight with the Q2 improvement of Tim Wilkerson, Robert Hight, and Del Worsham.

 

SILENT 17TH ENTRANT – Jeff Diehl is the lone Funny Car driver not to attempt a pass Friday. His entry brings the class’ total number to 17. Diehl and the other racers have two sessions Saturday before the field is set for Sunday runoffs. Phil Burkart is the tentative No. 16 qualifier. Tire smoke and tire shake bit him Friday in the Schwab Dodge.
 

PRO STOCK



The word in NHRA’s Pro Stock circles in the offseason was teams were going to be on even ground with Summit Racing teammates Jason Line, Greg Anderson and Bo Butner when the 2017 season started. That hasn’t happened.

Line, qualified No. 1 and beat Anderson in the finals of the season-opening Winternationals, and then Friday Line grabbed the provisional No. 1 spot in qualifying with a 6.509-second lap at 212.19 mph at the NHRA Arizona Nationals.

For good measure, Anderson is second on the qualifying ladder with a 6.522-second run. Butner is fifth at 6.542 seconds.

Line’s run was the quickest since NHRA adopted wholesale EFI changes in the Pro Stock class.

“This offseason was much different than last offseason,” Line said. “We had to come up with a whole package. This offseason was more about refining the recipe and just chiseling it, and we did, and obviously, it’s paying dividends for us right now. That’s good. That’s what we are paid to do and fortunate that it worked out. I think the other two cars have still some left, but that was a really nice run (6.509).”

Line said his team didn’t do any testing before the end of the Winternationals Feb. 12 in Pomona, Calif., and arriving in Phoenix.

“I knew we could make it worse, but I wasn’t sure we could make it better, so there was no sense on working on it,” Line said. “We will work on it next week.”

On his 6.509-second lap, Line said his team was eyeing a lightning quick lap. “They kind of had it loaded up and we were trying to go 949 (to the 60-foot timer), just because nobody has ever been that fast, but it was a nice run and I’m pretty darn happy,” Line said. “These Summit Chevy Camaros are super-fast right now and no matter what (Saturday) brings, I’m going to have fun driving it.” - Tracy Renck

SON SHINES – Maybe Shane Gray shouldn’t have swapped Valvoline Chevrolet Camaros with rookie son Tanner Gray.

The younger Gray was third in the provisional order after the first qualifying session Friday with a 6.538-second quarter-mile run at a class-fastest 211.79 mph. Dad ended up seventh at 6.576, 210.31. Tanner Gray’s time was just seven-thousandths of a second behind tentative No. 2 driver Jason Line, the three-time and current champion, points leader, and Pomona winner. Greg Anderson emerged as the early leader with a 6.529-second that was the fourth-quickest pass in Pro Stock’s EFI era and the second-quickest of the season.

Shane Gray moved up to sixth place overnight, and Tanner Gray remained third.

ENDERS ALREADY AHEAD OF 2016 – The season is really young, but two-time champion Erica Enders can say she is ranked higher now in the standings than she was all last season. She’s in fourth place following a semifinal finish at the season-opener at Pomona, Calif. Enders advanced to just three semifinals last year, and it took her four races into the schedule to score that. So she already is ahead of where she was in 2016.

She said Elite Motorsports owner Richard Freeman “made a big decision, a very expensive decision, in the off-season to switch back to GM horsepower and Chevrolet Camaros. That's the brand we had when we did all our winning, and it has already made such a difference. We are back in competitive form and come into this race knowing we have a darn good chance to win. It's been more than a year since we've been able to say that."

At Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, Enders won in 2013 and was runner-up in 2015, when she was No. 1 qualifier.

"It's a really unique setting and a place where I really like to visit because I have family here," the 21-time winner said. "The track can be good, depending on the weather, and it can also be tricky if the dust gets stirred up. We already tested here a lot this year, so we're ready for anything.”

Enders began qualifying with a No. 6 effort at 6.558 seconds, 211.53 mph on the quarter-mile course. Her E.T. was only two-thousandths of a second behind that of No. 5 Bo Butner.

Reflected on Enders’ Camaro is her newest marketing partner, Emblem Healthcare and its Emblem Foundation, which – according to spokesperson Reginald Simmons – “simply exists to provide free end-of-life care or provisions to those in need.”

He said, “There are many people either uninsured or under-insured who journey through the latter part of life without having their basic needs met. That's where the Emblem Foundation steps in to help. We believe Erica is very passionate about what we do and will represent us in an amazing way. We're here to greatly affect our communities and help change people's lives in a positive way as well as support Erica in her third championship run."

Enders and Simmons met at a recent Barrett-Jackson car auction and immediately realized they shared a love of racing. Simmons is from North Carolina and grew up around motorsports.

"Personally speaking,” he said “I couldn't be more excited to be involved in NHRA drag racing. I feel this is a perfect match of bringing awareness to the Emblem Foundation and doing what we both love in the sport."

Said Enders, “These people are awesome and they really help families in need through what can be a very difficult time. There are things that aren't so much fun to talk about but they are very important. There are special times when people need to be treated with the greatest dignity, and to have an organization like the Emblem Foundation around to help is so vital."

IN FOR SURE – Camaro driver Val Smeland, of Shirley, N.Y., is on the bump spot overnight. But the provisional No. 16 qualifier doesn’t have to worry about making the show. This event drew barely enough to fill a field. All 16 entrants will race Sunday.

 

COUGHLIN MOVES UP – Jeg Coughlin moved up to the top half of the provisional ladder Friday afternoon, climbing from 12th place to eighth with a 6.561-second, 211.73-mph quarter-mile effort.

He had said he was coming “fully prepared to race” having left Pomona two weeks ago – in his words – “knowing there were a few minor things we could do get the car a little more efficient.” He said his Elite Motorsports crew made those changes.

"Testing at Wild Horse Pass went extremely well, even though for me it was the first time I'd ever been in this brand-new Rick Jones-built Camaro. Prior to that, my teammate Erica Enders and one of our talented crew chiefs, Lump (Brian Self), had made all the test passes,” Coughlin said. “So my 2017 journey truly began in Phoenix. I'd love to add a win there to the equation, and I feel we have every chance to do that.”

Coughlin has won the Pro Stock trophy twice in Phoenix but not since 2009, when he beat Kurt Johnson. The first times was in 2000, when he defeated Mark Pawuk in the final. In the sportsman ranks, though, Coughlin won here in the Super Stock class in 1995. Two years later he claimed the Comp Eliminator victory at the track's Division 7 Lucas Oil Series event. In 16 previous appearances at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, he has a 20-14 win-loss record in Pro Stock.

 

 

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