2017 NHRA DODGE NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK

 

 

       

 

SUNDAY

FORCE TAKES BOLD STEP TOWARD FIRST TOP FUEL CHAMPIONSHIP - The Countdown to the Championship started last weekend with “The Shake-up at Charlotte,” as top-ranked Top Fuel racers tumbled from contention early in eliminations.

The NHRA Dodge Nationals, near Reading, Pa., Sunday was “The Redemption At Reading” for Antron Brown, who made the semifinals, and Steve Torrence, who reclaimed the points lead from Doug Kalitta. But for Tony Schumacher and Leah Pritchett, the visit to Maple Grove Raceway, near Reading, Pa., was “The Rerun At Reading.”

Epping, N.H., victor Brittany Force escaped the Charlotte buzz saw without angst and with a semifinal finish. And Sunday she won in the Northeast for the second time this year, defeating Torrence in the final round.

Force used a 3.756-second elapsed time at 326.24 mph on the 1,000-foot course in the Monster Energy Dragster. Torrence drove his Capco Contractors Dragster to a 3.857, 258.76 in pursuit.

Force did more than deliver for crew chief Brian Husen, tuning maestro Alan Johnson, and her team in registering her second victory in three finals this year. She eliminated Charlotte spoiler Wayne Newby, all-time class victories leader Tony Schumacher, and reigning champion Antron Brown to each her third final round at this racetrack.

Moreover, she delivered notice – as the No. 3-ranked driver who has moved halfway through the field in he first two events – that she means business.

“The Monster team, we’re going after the championship,” Force declared following her fifth overall victory. “It was not easy winning today. We did not have an easy ladder, and the Monster team killed it all day long. We turned the corner right at the right time. This is just huge.

“Now that we’re in the Countdown, anything could change. Anything can happen. And if we keep hanging in there they way we have been, we could keep moving up,” she said.

“We had consistent runs all through qualifying and today,” Force said. “Our car went down there every single run. We weren’t No. 1 [qualifier]. We were No. 4. But you don’t need to win from the No. 1 spot.”

Force joined other first-time Reading winners Ron Capps (Funny Car), Bo Butner (Pro Stock), and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) on the podium. And Butner was the lone No. 1 qualifier among them.

As the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series churns into its third straight Countdown event in as many weeks, with the AAA Insurance Midwest Nationals near St. Louis, the Top Fuel standings once again got scrambled.

Doug Kalitta’s points lead was short-lived. Torrence will enter Gateway Motorsports Park at Madison, Ill., this coming Friday with a 22-point advantage over him. Brown, Schumacher, Millican, and Pritchett – in that order – represent the heart of the order. Terry McMillen, Scott Palmer, and Shawn Langdon round out the playoff field.

Torrence regained some of the momentum he had Labor Day at Indianapolis with the U.S. Nationals trophy, the Traxxas Shootout $100,000 winner’s check, and the No. 1 playoff seeding. But Force denied Torrence his eighth victory of the year in 10 finals.

He qualified third and advanced Sunday past Terry Haddock, Leah Pritchett, and Dom Lagana.

Force knows the other frontrunners won’t make it any easier on her in the remaining four races.

For example, Brown, who defeated Force in the showdown her last fall, said, “The one thing is we did win two rounds today and we have three rounds in the Countdown.  It's not where we wanted to be right now. We wanted to win six rounds by now. This isn't where we want to be, but we are going to go into St. Louis with our main focus in qualifying good and hit it hard. Everyone's still right there in front of us. We just have to work hard right now. It's going to be a tough one to pull out, but I like our chances the way our team competes.  We should have been in the final here and competing for a win. We'll take our bumps and bruises right now and move forward.”

Schumacher reminded, too, that “they still award the championship to the team with the most points over the course of six race weekends, not two. If you look back over history the past couple of decades more often than not, the U.S. Army team has been right there until the end of the title hunt. We are two races into this deal and you hear people talking about a couple of drivers that are going to fight it out for the championship. I’m OK that we aren’t one of those names right now. We need to win a race or two to be in that discussion. We have a really good U.S. Army car. If we can qualify inside the top three, our chances of winning increase. We’ve got a little tougher climb than most, but I’m surrounded by some incredibly smart people on the U.S. Army team led by (crew chief) Mike Green and we’ll show up in St. Louis on Friday ready to get after it.” Susan Wade

CAPPS WINS MAPLE GROVE, TAKES POINTS LEAD - This turned to be a fantastic weekend for Ron Capps.

The reigning NHRA nitro Funny Car world champion not only won at Maple Grove Raceway in Reading, Pa., but he also retook the points lead with four races to go in the Countdown to the Championship.

Capps clocked a 3.968-second run at 326.48 mph to edge Courtney Force's 3.993-second run.

"Last year I had to have my car chief Dustin remind before he started the car that I was supposed to be having fun right now ," Capps said. "I've been doing this for a living for 22 years and I'm the luckiest guy in the world, but you get so engrossed in what is going on, especially in the Countdown starts that there's 15 people standing behind your car, including a guy in a red shirt, Don Schumacher, every run and you just don't want to let anybody down. So the pressure is...I can't even tell you. I don't want to complain and I'm not complaining, but you don't sleep, your stomach is twisted, at least for me and I would like to think everybody else is. It is just crazy. Last year we said we had to average semifinal (finishes) which we did and we just beat them with consistency and it was unique that we didn't win a race (in the Countdown). I went out in the second round last weekend (at Charlotte) on a hole shot and it was the worst week ever and the first thing (Rahn) Tobler (Capps' crew chief) said was don't apologize I was apologizing to you Monday in Indy because we should have given you a better car in the finals. That is the kind of guys we have. With that being said. This week, I sleep two hours and wake up in the middle of the night and pick up my phone and look at the points and sat my phone down. It is just crazy stuff. I love the pressure. I'm better under it."

This was Capps seventh win during the 2017 season and the 57th national event win in his career. He left Reading in points lead, eight points in front of Robert Hight.
Capps' victory parade was comprised of wins over Jim Campbell, Tommy Johnson Jr.,  Matt Hagan and Courtney Force.

"What a deal today, we got lucky a little bit in the first round and we feel like we make our luck," Capps said. "There are a lot of the guys running 6-disc (clutches). All the Kalitta cars, Jimmy Prock, our two teammates run it and we still run the 5-disc clutch. We did go to the 6-disc about two years ago and it ran great and we were going to leave it in there and he decided he could fix the problem he thought a 6-disc would bring running a 5-disc. It is not going to run big mph, he might figure out how, but it doesn't matter because ETs win races. It is so fun to see an old-school like that who did it with no money back in the day with Shirley Muldowney to roll up with a 5-disc and go toe-to-toe with these guys and beat them a lot of times. It's going to be a battle."

Capps capitalized and took the points lead after previous points leader Robert Hight lost in the second round.

"I didn't want to know he lost," Capps said. "Then, someone came up and told me he lost and my clutch foot was shaking and I was like here is a chance to go around him. You wouldn't think doing this 22 years that would affect you, but it is like match play in golf you know you have your opponent down and you have to make up some ground and it's about time to hit a 60-foot putt to take the lead. Once we got that round, we just kept grinding. This is 22 years trying to win here so for me I was ecstatic to get this win." Tracy Renck

BUTNER EARNS PRO STOCK WALLY AT DODGE NATIONALS - On Friday and Saturday, NHRA Pro Stock driver Bo Butner had the best car at Maple Grove Raceway.

That didn't change Sunday.

Butner mowed through the competition to capture the title at Dodge Nationals in Reading, Pa.

Butner clocked a 6.613-second time at 209.95 mph to defeat Greg Anderson's 6.660-second lap in the finals.

"Greg is just an animal," Butner said. "This is his life. He wants to win every time. He has taught me a lot and he's the toughest competitor I have out here, period, but he's also one of my biggest fans and I'm his biggest fan. We race for the same guy, (Ken Black), and it is an honor and this is going to be a dogfight. There are five or six of us who can let this deal happen and we need to try and stay ahead."

This was Butner's fourth win this season and the fourth of his career. He left Reading in the season points lead, 41 in front of Anderson and 42 in front of rookie Tanner Gray with four races left in the Countdown to the Championship. Butner became the 17th different Pro Stock winner at Maple Grove over the 33-year history of this race.

"It is kind of hard for me to grasp," said Butner about being in the points lead. "We still have four races left and we just need to do our job."

Managing the hot track conditions at Maple Grove is something Butner took a moment to address.

"You have to make good runs and stage good and actually here you have to do a halfway decent burnout and hit your mark, which a lot of people don't talk about. It worked out good for us. I don't think I made a bad run out of eight and it shows this KB team is strong and we showed it today and through qualifying."

Butner qualified No. 1 in his Chevy Camaro and beat Val Smeland, Erica Enders, Allen Johnson and Anderson to claim the win.

"It's tough, you can win from 16 here," Butner said. "We made four consistent runs in qualifying and four very good runs in eliminations. I didn't do the best job today driving, but I did just good enough."

Butner was campaigning decals on his Camaro that were placed there by American Gold Star Mothers honoring their fallen sons and daughters.

"It is a good cause and I had 27 decals on my car and I needed them all," Butner said.

The state of Pro Stock is also something Butner discussed before leaving the press room.

"For NHRA to think Pro Stock doesn't have the fan appeal, they are way off on that one," he said. "I don't know what numbers their accountants are telling them, but it is off because I can't go anywhere without fans grabbing me and asking to talk. Pro Stock is strong and they need to make it better, and we are here to help them."

KRAWIEC AS HOT AS THE WEATHER, RUNS BIKE WINNING STREAK TO THREE - The weather at Reading, Pa., was startlingly hot this entire weekend, and Pro Stock Motorcycle racer Eddie Krawiec was equally sizzling.

But that wasn’t startling at all.

His final-round victory Sunday over L.E. Tonglet at the NHRA Dodge Nationals was his third in a row, second in the Countdown to the Championship, second straight at Maple Grove Raceway, and fifth in all at this venue. That he heads with the rest of the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series tour to this coming weekend’s race at Gateway Motorsports Park still as the points leader is no surprise at all.

Krawiec is on a run characteristic of his Vance & Hines Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson team that has won at Reading 10 times in the past 21 years, including seven of the past nine.

“That’s a pretty good stat. That’s an awesome deal,” he said after ran his record in eliminations to 29-7 and earned his 29th Wally statue. “Reading has treated me well over the years. To make this my 41st win is something special.”

The magic likely lies not in the racetrack itself but in his team’s recent chassis changes.

“Ever since we’ve switched back and gone to Plan B, changing our chassis and going back to last year’s rendition of it, it’s been huge for me. It’s been huge for our whole team, right at the right time,” Krawiec said. “There’s no better time to hit your stride than rolling into the Countdown.”

He said, “We didn’t do as good as we thought we were going to off the truck here. Usually we’re a very strong team. We ran well, but going into that fourth [qualifying] session, we were struggling to get hold of the track all day on Saturday. The track was actually really good – we were just missing it.”

Krawiec said he was bummed that qualifying didn’t go as planned, for he found himself having to race teammate Andrew Hines in the seconds round: “When you’re trying to race for a championship, it’s the one thing you don’t want to do. But my guys got it all together today.”

He said Hines “jumped on the tune-up side of my motorcycle” after dropping out and crew chief Matt Hines concentrated on the clutch. “And when I have dedication of those two guys and they’re focusing on each end of our package,” he said, “I believe we become unstoppable.”

In the final round, Krawiec won on his Street Rod in 6.852 seconds at 196.70 mph on the quarter-mile, while Tonglet encountered some sort of mechanical problem and clocked a disappointing 17.593-second elapsed time at 31.71-mph coast on the Nitro Fish Suzuki.

Krawiec, a three-time series champion, started the day from the fourth position and beat Kelly Clontz,  Hines, and top qualifier Scotty Pollacheck on his way to his sixth final-round appearance of the year.

Scoring back-to-back victories here, he said, was a credit to the NHRA and the Maple Grove Raceway track-prep staff. An he would be a qualified judge of that quality. He spent many years as the dragstrip manager at Englishtown’s Old Bridge Township Raceway Park “next door” in New Jersey before the Vance & Hines organization hired him.

“NHRA, honestly, has done a phenomenal job on the dragstrip. A lot of that goes back to the track and everything they do weeks before we even race. To be able to have great racing surfaces is a good thing, too, for all of us in the Countdown,” he said. “I have  a little bit of history in track prep. They do an awesome job here, and it’s fun to come here and run fast.”   

As the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series completes a stretch of three races in three weeks this coming weekend at Gateway Motorsports park near St. Louis, Krawiec owns a 71-point cushion between himslf and No. 2-ranked Tonglet, who started Sunday from the No. 7 slot and eliminated Angie Smith, team owner/teammate Jerry Savoie, and Hector Arana Jr. as he sought his 16th career victory.

Krawiec joined Brittany Force (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car), and Bo Butner (Pro Stock) in the winners circle. Susan Wade

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SATURDAY - LANGDON’S TOP FUEL RECORD AS DURABLE AS DOUGZILLA LORE, HAGAN BATTLES A COLD AND HIGHT, GRAY HITS IT OFF WITH TEAMMATE SKILLMAN, POLLACHECK NOTCHES CAREER FIRST NO. 1 START

TOP FUEL
 

FIVE-YEAR SPEED RECORD STANDS – Shawn Langdon’s 334.15-mph speed from October 2012 remains the track record here at Maple Grove Raceway. It’s also the fastest Top Fuel speed ever. And thanks mainly to the rev limiter imposed on dragsters, that 334.15 wouldn’t make the top-10 list for speediest in the Funny Car class.

The Funny Car class’ top 10 speeds all are from this year, whereas the Top Fuel all-time top 10 speeds include ones that date back to 2012, 2015, and 2016.  

This has been a stellar year for record times, though. All of the top 10 elapsed times in the Funny Car class – from Hight’s national-record 3.793-second pass at Brainerd to Matt Hagan’s 3.821 at Indianapolis – have come this year. And all but one (Langdon’s 3.662 for Alan Johnson Racing from the 2015 Brainerd race) for the Top Fuel class are 2017 clockings.  

Langdon got to make just one run Saturday. His Global Electronic Technology Dragster had a mechanical problem in Q3 that not only was detrimental but a bit malicious, as well. The crew shut the car down before Langdon could do the burnout because it lurched forward for some undetermined reason when it started. Crew chief Rob Flynn said, “It almost ran us over. It bit my ankle.” Flynn said they’d get the issue corrected and return for the final session “and see what we can put down.”

DOUGZILLA STILL FASCINATES – Fifteen years later, Clay Millican still might be overshadowed by Dougzilla.

But he doesn’t seem to mind.

In fact, he’s rather amused by the 2002 incident here at Maple Grove Raceway that transformed happy-go-lucky Doug Herbert into an angry hulk. Following a stubborn staging duel, Herbert stepped from his car and ended a heated discussion with Peter Lehman, Millican’s car owner at the time, by shoving Lehman. It all played out before a TV audience and a houseful of fans who are hopeless suckers for such kind of scrums.    

“He became Dougzilla after that weekend,” Millican said.

Actually, Millican and Herbert since have become close friends, particularly with Millican’s involvement in Herbert’s B.R.A.K.E.S. (Be Responsible And Keep Everybody Safe) program. It’s a powerfully effective teen-driving initiative.

But that’s one inescapable memory of Reading for Millican.

“I can’t ever think about Reading without thinking about Doug Herbert. It’s part of drag-racing history,” he said. “It’s something I always think about when I go there. Fans still talk about it.”

Of course, Millican made another Maple Grove Raceway memory Friday night, taking the provisional No. 1 qualifying position with a 3.699-second elapsed time that edged Doug Kalitta’s 3.704. It raised eyebrows because it came on a hot track that defied that other Reading lore – that the track tucked away in the Eastern Pennsylvania hills produces stellar performance numbers because it’s always starkly cold and overcast. However, as Funny Car record-setter Robert Hight and his crew chief, Jimmy Prock, noticed, perhaps the big numbers come more so from the naturally quick concrete track that’s groomed well, the abundance of oxygen-rich trees that frame the facility, and even the latitude of Reading itself.

Even so, Millican’s 3.699 – an effort that Parts Plus/Great Clips Dragster crew chief sniffed at because it missed his 3.67 goal – wasn’t a track record. That still belonged after Friday qualifying to Antron Brown, with his year-old 3.688-second E.T.

But Millican had called it, and that, too, surprised people. The weather conditions led most folks to expect a parade of incomplete passes and more tire-smoking than record-setting. But drivers such as Millican and early Funny Car leader Hight knew better.

“I always look forward to going to Reading, because it is typically super-fast there. I really have confidence in our car. We can go there and possibly set the national record,” Millican said before the event opened. “This car is running so good whether it’s hot or cold. And a lot of times, conditions do present themselves at Maple Grove and everybody will be going for it. I feel like we have the opportunity to go there and set a new record. I really do.”

He wasn’t far off in his predictions, although Hight turned out to be the only one Friday who rewrote any records.

But speaking of Brown, Millican counted his second-round victory against Brown at Charlotte as almost a victory in itself and a harbinger of a happy Countdown for his Stringer Performance team.

“We’ve had a lot of issues racing Antron. He’s had my number. But I knew when I hit the throttle [last Sunday in the quarterfinals], we were off and running. We beat Antron by point zero, zero, five and turned the win light on. A great drag race for the fans to watch and a great win light for this team,” the No. 6-ranked racer said.  “Now what’s happened in the points is the top three drivers went out early and the bottom of the class moved up. This is going to be an exciting Countdown.”

FAST . . . AGAIN – This edition of the Dodge Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway might have produced yet another Dougzilla. This time he’s Doug Kalitta, not Doug Herbert.

Although Kalitta didn’t get any more for his achievement than the two bonus points he earned for being second-quickest in the session, he matched Brittany Force’s national speed record of 333.66 mph Friday night during qualifying. Then in the early Saturday session, he took the Mac Tools Dragster on a 333.41-mph ride. Friday’s speed is third-fastest in NHRA history, and Saturday’s is fourth-fastest.

Crew chief Jim Oberhofer reacted with his deadpan sarcasm. “That’s cool,” he said nonchalantly. “We’re not Jimmy Prock-fast, but it’s pretty good for a dragster.” He was referring to the John Force crew chief who has tuned Robert Hight this year to the top two Funny Car speeds of all time (339.87, 339.02) and six of the top 10.

Kalitta, who owns a Ypsilanti, Mich.-headquartered airline, knows the feeling of cruising 515 mph – in a Learjet.

As the No.2 starter, he’ll take on debuting racer Audrey Worm. The No. 15 qualifier said she plans to use an aggressive tune-up for her first pass in Top Fuel competition.

NEWBY GETS NEW BUT EQUALLY TOUGH DANCE PARTNER – Rapisarda Autosport International’s Wayne Newby had traction trouble Saturday but took the No. 13 spot in the final order. He said he had been hoping he wouldn’t have to meet Leah Pritchett in the first round for a third straight race. “We’ve raced her for the past two races first round, so it would be good to have someone different,” he said before the final pairings took shape Saturday. He got his wish, but his opponent Sunday will be no less determined to send Newby home to Sydney early. He’ll race Steve Torrence. “All the cars are tough. You’re going to be racing one of them, you know?”

(Terry McMillen leaped from 14th place to 10th in Saturday’s first session and settled for 11th place – and he’ll be the one to line up against Pritchett.”)

His first-round victory against Pritchett at Charlotte, he said, “was good, you know. That was the turning factor for me to come here and do this race. And [team owner Santo Rapisarda] was pretty happy.”

The RAI Dragster is going to St. Louis. Newby is not. “I’m pretty sure the car’s going to St. Louis. I definitely won’t be going to St. Louis. I meant to be gone for two weeks, and I allowed four, and I’ve been here six. Yeah, I’ve got to go.” The shop owner said, “I’m getting too many upset customers at home.” His father was running Newby’s business in his absence but, the son said, “My Dad was meant to go away last week on holiday because I was meant to be back, so he postponed it a week already. I’ll be already shut for a week. I’m busy all year, but yeah. It’s, you need that, I’ve still got to pay my rent and I’ve still got to pay my mortgage. You know, so I need that money.”

Newby said he doesn’t know who will drive the car if RAI competes at St. Louis.

“The boys are wanting to go,” he said, referring to crew chief brothers Santo Rapisarda Jr. and Tino Rapisarda.

This has been Newby’s first visit to Reading, and he said, “I quite like it. Normally this is the St. Louis race this weekend, and then [we] have two weeks off and then go to Reading. And last year they came [here] and Larry [Dixon] drove. So that’s why I wanted to come here, because I’ve never been here before. The air’s good here. A full concrete surface track. We haven’t gone bad, but we haven’t gone really any good, either.

He qualified with a weekend-best 3.878-second elapsed time. “We’ve been .87 which isn’t really that good. After what we tested, how we ran last weekend, we run low .80’s all weekend, that was off par a little bit,” Newby said. “But I’m sure the two young fellas will sort it out.”

Dom Lagana is back in his family-owned Nitro Ninja Dragster, competing against the teams he helps at almost every other race. Ashley Sanford made a strong debut at Indianapolis with the car, and Tripp Tatum and Leah Pritchett have taken it for a few spins in the past. Lagana spends most of his time as a crew member for two Countdown drivers. He helps older brother Bobby on Steve Torrence’s Capco Contractors Dragster, as well as Cat Spot Litter / Marck Industries Dragster driver Scott Palmer.

Both Bobby and Dom Lagana are known for their generosity and their love of the sport that they shared for years with their father, the late Bobby Lagana Sr., and uncle Billy Lagana. But their big-heartedness goes beyond the racetrack. In their travels throughout the U.S., they collect toiletries from hotels. They pass them along to John Force Racing track consultant Lanny Miglizzi, who distributes them to hospitals and shelters. Miglizzi recently distributed the collection to the Richard Roudebush Veterans Administration Medical Center in Indianapolis.

“They take the lotions and soaps and shampoos from the hotels, and everything ends up with Lanny. Then Lanny takes to the V.A. centers Lanny spearheads it. That’s just what they do,” Capco Contractors Dragster crew chief Richard Hogan said.

What Dom Lagana (No. 7) will do Sunday in the noon start to eliminations is square off against No. 10 Shawn Langdon.  
 

FUNNY CAR
 

HIGHT LOOKS FOR FIRST-ROUND SUCCESS – Maybe Robert Hight’s luck at Reading is turning. Maybe his luck, in general, is turning. Ranked as far back as 10th in the standings following the Phoenix race in February, the Auto Club Chevy Camaro driver has steadily worked his way to the points lead.

Iconic for his 2009 march through the Countdown from 10th place to the championship, Hight has  continued his surge here in the second event of the six-race playoff.

He lowered the track elapsed-time record Friday by .006 of a second (topping Jack Beckman’s 2016 showing of 3.850 seconds). But he shattered Matt Hagan’s October 2016 speed record. Hagan had posted a 333.99-mph run here last October, and Hight was more than six miles an hour faster in late Friday qualifying (at 339.02 mph).

Now, in his 300th race, Hight is hoping to even the scales when it comes to elimination rounds. First-round opponent Mike Smith, in Paul Weiss’ and Rhea Goodrich’s New Englander Dodge, is hoping Hight doesn’t. But Hight enters race day 5-7 in 12 first-round elimination matchups at Maple Grove Raceway.

WILL FORCE CRACK .500 MARK? – John Force is18-18 elimination rounds this year. Whether he’ll top .500 depends on how he fares Sunday, without lane choice, against surging single-car-team driver Jonnie Lindberg. Force will start from the bottom of the ladder, at No. 13. Lindberg is fourth in the lineup.  Force entered this event ranked No. 8 in the Countdown, while Lindberg missed four races and fell just 63 points short of moving into the playoff field. He’s seeking his 149th victory, best in any pro class in the NHRA, and his first since March at Gainesville, Fla.

 

BUSY LINDBERG FOCUSES – Jonnie Lindberg is busier than a one-armed paper-hanger with poison ivy.

He tunes his own alcohol Funny Car that brother Johan races at selected events. He also tunes Jay Payne’s car in the same class. He even drove that car to the final round in February at Pomona, Calif., as a substitute while Payne recovered from shoulder surgery. And as if driving Jim Head’s Toyota in the Funny Car class weren’t enough for him, the Swede flies to Europe on a regular basis to tune two Pro Modified cars.

But Saturday, Lindberg focused on himself and recorded a career-best 331.53-mph speed to climb from the No. 13th slot on the 16-car grid to fourth. That matched his season-best starting position.

“Hopefully I can do it four times on Sunday,” Head said of his spot-on tuning that bested the better-funded teams.

He’ll meet No. 13 qualifier John Force in the opening round of eliminations Sunday.    

TASCA TALKS AUTONOMOUS TECHNOLOGY – One of the few subjects that intrigue Bob Tasca besides NHRA nitro Funny Car racing is the Ford Motor Company and its product initiatives.  The relatively new executives at Dearborn, Mich., headquarters have signaled their interest in autonomous technology – that is, driverless cars.   

Tasca assures that it isn’t a Buck Rogers-ish notion.
 
“I sit on the Product Committee with Ford, and autonomous technology is here to stay. It’s going to continue to advance at a rapid pace. Clearly, the manufacturers who have positioned themselves to take advantage of it are going to reap the rewards long-term. Its not something you’re going to see in a year or two, but clearly, in the next 10 years. Five years will be a pretty big step [in] what you see on the road.

“There are kids today who’ll never know life without an autonomous vehicle,” Tasca predicted.

“I think where you’ll see autonomous technology really change our way of life is . . . You take the Baby Boomers or older people who can’t drive anymore. Now they can get around, see their kids and grandkids. You’ll see multiple households where parents are working and they’ve got to pick kids up and drop kids off. There’ll be a day where the car can go and pick up the kids and bring them home,” he said. “There’s other [circumstances]. Say you’ve got to go to Baltimore and you’ve got to get on an airplane or a train – or you can get in your car and go to sleep and wake up and you’re in Baltimore.

“There’s vast, vast applications where autonomous technology will enhance our way of life,” Tasca said.

Drag racing, or any kind of auto racing, is another matter.

“I don’t think it will affect racing. Well, it can affect racing. If people want to see cars driving around in circles or down a racetrack with nobody in them, they can do that,” Tasca said. “I would say it’d be pretty hard to get a fuel Funny Car to do it autonomously, but it could be done.”   

What Tasca will do, for sure, is meet No. 8 Courtney Force in the first round. He qualified ninth.

HAGAN BATTLING A COLD, HIGHT – During this race weekend last season, Matt Hagan was dashing about the eastern half of the United States, trying to put his Mopar Express Lane / Rocky Boots Dodge Charger at the top of the field, then flying home to Southwestern Virginia to be present at the birth of his third child, Tucker. He aced both assignments. Hagan led the field, flew home Saturday night, returned Sunday morning to race, and advanced to the semifinals.

“That was such a crazy race here last year,” Hagan said, marveling that “next week my son will be one [year old]. I was up basically two days and running on two hours of sleep. But I wouldn’t trade that for the world. We ended up in the semis against Capps and I got beat on a holeshot. I feel like my guys understand why. I had no sleep and was up watching my kid being born. Win, lose or draw, I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

“To watch him grow and see what my wife’s done and all the work that she’s put in, you know to get him to be a year old almost now, it’s just pretty amazing. So very blessed. He’s healthy, he’s happy, and he’s a fat little chunk right now. He’s just crawling around and trying to walk, and trying to talk - just a handful for my wife.”  

He said son Colby and daughter Penny “help out a little bit. They’re seven and 10, so they kind of, they’ll grab him and slap a new diaper on him and good to go. He wants to keep up with them now. So it really pushes him to kind of grow and do some cool stuff. But it’s been good. Just very, very, very blessed."

For as worn out as he was at this race last season, he actually looked healthier than he does this time. “I got a cold,” he said between sniffles. “Unfortunately our kids started back to school a couple weeks back, and as soon as that happens . . .  I was home for two days, and they were sick, and kids, it just hits you. They’re all over you, you know. And so I was like, ‘Well, I guess I’ll get whatever you guys got.’ That’s just part of having kids. You just deal with it. You just get through it, just a head cold, it ain’t the flu or nothing like that. There’s no replacement driver or nothing when you feel bad, so you just crawl in there and take a little [medicine] and hope for the best. I’m still very blessed to do what I do, whether you’ve got a cold, or you feel good, or you feel bad. It’s just an awesome experience to get in one of those cars and be able to hit the loud pedal.”

Hagan is hitting it loud, all right. He kept the pressure on steamrolling Robert Hight from the John Force Racing camp and landed second on grid, a mere three-hundredths of a second behind Hight. Hagan will race No. 15 Jeff Diehl in the opening round Sunday.  

He’s not taking anyone lightly, but he’s closely following what Hight is doing. (Hight faces Mike Smith to start his day.)

He said he and Hight “were all back and forth trading.He’s got a record right now, and we want to get it back before they lay these headers back, stand them back up and put a rev limiter on us. So we’ve carried a record for like two years now and then they come out here and broke it and threw it down. But that’s just part of drag racing. It pushes you to be better, to work harder. We kind of trade blows back and forth. There’s a couple fast cars out there. And the thing about the Countdown, it’s anybody’s race.”

Hagan is seeded sixth at the moment in the Countdown but said, “Both of my championships have been from the sixth and seventh spots. It’s not really about coming in first or anything like that. It’s just getting hot at the right time and winning a few races. I think both of [the titles] I won, like, two races and went to some semis. This is what it takes. You’ve got to win two or three races out of the six, and then you’ve got to go some rounds, as well. It’s definitely doable from any spot in the Countdown. Everything has to be right for you to do that, though.”

BED, BOX, AND CANDLE – Tommy Johnson Jr. made his bed. Yes, his mother would be proud, but it’s not like he just tidied up the sheets. The dude made the bed, with his hands, from scratch, last winter in the offseason. “It turned out pretty good,” he said modestly. He built finacee Amy an herb garden – “whipped it up in about two hours,” he said.

And now he and Amy have a thriving start-up candle business, turning wine bottles and pistons into romantic works of art. “It was a hobby that turned into a candle business. We do it at home in the kitchen,” he said. TA Candles (for Tommy and Amy) sells its creations via the www.etsy.com website and has wineries, including racing legend A.J. Foyt’s cellar and NAPA Valley’s Christopher Creek, among its growing list of clients. He doesn’t waste anything. With the leftover parts of the bottles he has made wind chimes and tiki torches.

“I’m busy 24/7. I’m always building something,” Johnson said.

That includes a reputation as a capable, championship-caliber racer. He and his John Collins-and-Rip-Reynolds-led team beat eventual series champ Ron Capps in the final round here last year.

“It's always been a great race for me," Johnson said of the Dodge Nationals. "I won my first Funny Car race there in '99. Then to do it again last season, it went on to set our championship charge.” He finished second to Capps in the final standings, after a pair of third-place finishes. “It’s such a great race, performance-wise, so to be able to win the race twice now, it's been a lot of fun."

"It's great to have Dodge in the sport,” the Make-A-Wish Charger driver said. “I've been involved with Mopar for so many years and then to take our Charger and go on to win the Dodge race was big. It's just one of those special events you want to do well at."

He found the positives after his second-round loss last week at Charlotte: "We've moved up in points [from fifth to fourth], and we want to continue doing that. We started the Countdown in a positive manner instead of a negative one."

His quest for an even better showing will start by giving lane choice to No. 6 Alexis DeJoria, Johnson qualified 11th.
 

PRO STOCK
 

GRAY, SKILLMAN BONDING – Points leader Tanner Gray has combined with Gray Motorsports teammate Drew Skillman to win the past seven races, with Skillman’s four victories coming in that span.

“Drew and I are pretty close,” Gray said. “We talk after qualifying and in between every round about what the car did, what we did as drivers, and how to continually improve. We are also each other’s biggest competition. When we race each other, we both know what each has because it’s the exact same thing. There isn’t room for error. Knowing that I have a teammate like Drew helps my confidence. It is our goal to meet in the final every race day.”

The two could meet in the final round if they sail through their own segments of the ladder. Gray, as the No. 3 starter, must tackle wily veteran Larry Morgan first. Skillman, who took the No. 5 berth, will go against No. 12 Jeg Coughlin Jr.

“It is really important to stay focused,” Gray said. “This is what we race for all year, the opportunity to race in the Countdown and ultimately to contend and win the championship. My team is in the driver’s seat. They have a great handle on the car, our dynamic as a team is on point and we are all having a lot of fun. Coming off of a win in Charlotte increases the focus and proves that our team has what it takes to be champions. There is a lot of racing left and this class is so competitive, we have to continue to collect round wins to make this championship possible.”

PRUSIENSKY OPTIMISTIC – No. 15 qualifier Alan Prusiensky has been at every national event since the Chicago race in July 2016, racing his Dodge Dart with his company (ARCRACEENGINES.com) as his primary sponsor. And he weighed in on what he sees as the state of the Pro Stock class, which has come under some undue fire this season.

“It just comes down to power,” Prusiensky, who’ll face No. 2 starter Jason Line in Sunday’s first round of eliminations, said. “It has nothing to do with the changes [that the NHRA mandated]. We’ve got to get better. We’ve got to make more power. I only raced carburetors for one year, so it wasn’t like I had a big history with carburetors and then I switched over (to fuel-injection). I like the fuel injection. So we just need to make more power and better runs.”

Prusiensky failed to qualify at the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis, but did bounce back last weekend at Charlotte, N.C., and qualified No. 15 before losing to Greg Anderson in round one.  His top highlight this season came when he beat reigning champion Jason Line in the first round at Englishtown, N.J., in June.

“I do the engines myself at the engine shop in Rockaway, N.J.,” Prusiensky said. “I’ve raced my whole life, so I always try to race one class higher than I should and just kept pushing myself. I figured I could go to four or five races in 2015, and I’ve been to about every race I can go to since 2015. So we’ll see how long we can keep doing it.”

As for the health of the Pro Stock class, Prusiensky said, “I don’t think it’s as bad as what everybody says. The five guys who are on the Internet who say they hate it are still watching. I love Pro Stock. I can’t afford another change, and a lot of the other small teams would be gone, too, if they think they can just say we’ve got to build a new car. We’re not going to be here. NHRA has to help a little bit. The big teams probably don’t care if they get the $5,000 check but for me, Kenny Delco, John Gaydosh, we’re waiting for that check to come in the mail so we can go to the next race. Somehow or another they need to raise that to maybe $7,000 or $8,000, anything. Anything would be better than $5,000 qualifying check, if we could raise that up a little. I think two or three more cars would be here. As far as doing wheel stands and all that stuff, taking the wheelie bars off, none of that stuff is going to help. For two weeks people would be interested and then it would go back to the same thing.”

The make of Pro Stock cars competing also is something Prusiensky addressed.

“We need to definitely have more competitive Dodges, and more competitive Fords would probably help,” Prusiensky said. “Me and Allen (Johnson) are trying our butts off. Allen is doing better. If we can get us Dodges running good and then someone’s going to come out with a Ford. I think that’s probably the biggest thing. I wouldn’t watch factory Super Stock cars. Racing in general is down, so Pro Stock is going to take a bigger hit than any, because it’s probably the toughest class to do it.

“It’s expensive, and there’s not many guys that will do everything themselves. Me, my wife, my father, we do everything ourselves. There’s nobody else who helps us except when we get to the shop. We have two guys that help us. It’s a full-time job and not many people can do that. Then to come out here and just pay $50,000 for an engine, who’s going to do that for any length of time? Or $40,000 or $30,000, whatever these guys are paying. You can’t sustain that. Most people can’t sustain that,” he said. “I don’t know all the answers but I don’t think making any changes to the cars [is the right answer] because the little guys can’t afford another change.”

He said, “Larry Morgan coming back. That’s a huge help to Pro Stock. We need that kind of star power. No one is really going to be rooting for Alan Prusiensky in the stands, so they want to see Larry Morgan do good. And that’s fine with us. Larry coming back is huge. That’ll fill the 16 or 17 cars at every race, and that would be great.”

Prusiensky said he’s optimistic he will be competing in Pro Stock next season: “I’m hoping -if nothing changes, which I don’t think anything will change because they would have had it already. I would say 2018 is going to stay the same, and then I guess we’ll just wait and see what happens. But I can’t afford any kind of change.” – Tracy Renck

ODD MAN OUT – John Gaydosh, who worked feverishly to return to action at this race after missing last week’s Charlotte event, was the lone non-qualifier. Val Smeland claimed the 16th and final position and will face No. 1 Bo Butner, who held onto his Friday provisional top spot.

 

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
 

POLLACHECK STUNS SAVOIE – The announced sell-out crowd at Maple Grove Raceway and the live-TV audience barely had caught their breath after Jerry Savoie’s 6.824-second, 196.76-mph pass that knocked Hector Arana from the top qualifying position when Scotty Pollacheck went even quicker to lead the field for tomorrow’s eliminations.

Pollacheck reeled off a 6.824-second elapsed time at an identical speed as Savoie’s and held on through one more pairing for his first No. 1 start in a 93-race career.

His wife, Susan, jumped up and down and hugged the crew and celebrated so animatedly that public-address announcer Alan Reinhart said, “She hasn’t been that happy since her honeymoon.”

Pollacheck got a classy response from Savoie, who missed out on his 11th overall top-qualifying spot. Savoie said, “He deserved it. He works hard.”

Still sitting on his Jim Underdahl-tuned bike, Pollacheck’s first response was “I can’t believe we knocked Jerry off.” He probably couldn’t believe he made it to the starting line. He had to change a motor for the final qualifying session and barely got a chance to warm it up before heading to the track.

Even a few minutes later, he said, “I knew it was a good run, but I didn’t know how good.”

He called reaching this goal “a huge deal.” He’ll race Andi Rawlings, who anchors the field, in the opening round.

FRIDAY - BROKEN STEERING ARM SPOILS WORM’S TOP FUEL DEBUT, DISENCHANTED FROM CHARLOTTE ALL VOW TO BOUNCE BACK, HIGHT ITCHING TO GO 340 MPH, PRO STOCK’S JOHNSON MARKS 500TH RACE, GLADSTONE AMONG THOSE COMFORTABLE AT MAPLE GROVE, UNUSUALLY WARM WEATHER SHOCKS RACERS
 

TOP FUEL

MILLICAN TAKES FRIDAY LEAD – Clay Millican claimed the provisional No. 1 spot, using a 3.699-second elapsed time that, surprisingly, caused Parts Plus / Great Clips Dragster crew chief Dave Grubnic to wrinkle up his nose.

“Grubby was highly disappointed with that run,” Millican said afterward, explaining that Grubnic had been shooting for a 3.67-second pass. “He’d be a good bracket racer.”

Millican said, “Our car is going to be pushed every single lap. We’re goin gto push the ,imits of the racetrack every single run.” He said his team will “be swinging for the fences.”

 

KALITTA STILL GOING STRONG - Charlotte winner and new points leader Doug Kalitta picked up where he left off – at the top of the order. After Scott Palmer posted a 3.805-second pass and enjoyed the tentative No. 1 spot in the weekend’s first session for a few minutes, Tony Schumacher passed him with a 3.747-second elapsed time. Just when it looked like the U.S. Army Dragster driver was in the catbird seat, fending off Brittany Force (3.758) and Antron Brown (3.766), Kalitta impressed the strong crowd with a 3.725-second E.T. at a class-fastest 330.31 mph. But Clay Millican ambushed him in the evening session. The Mac Tools Dragster driver  right now is five-thousandths off the pace.

 

WORM’S TOP FUEL DEBUT DELAYED – Before Audrey Worm came along, the fastest creature in Grantville, Pa., was one of the Thoroughbreds at Penn National Race Course. Worm was born 20 years after the horse-racing track opened, but the 25-year-old (who, incidentally, used to work in security at the Penn National casino) has the stronger horsepower now, 10,000 strong.

She was set to make her professional debut, and her only appearance this year, in the Leverich Family-owned dragster that Smax Smith has been racing at selected events. Smith loaned her the Top Fuel car with at least one lucky round on it – he defeated Tony Schumacher at Epping, N.H., in June. And Worm, fresh from her licensing process, had intended to make the most of the opportunity.

After she passed up the first qualifying session and performed the burnout in her evening chance, something definitely was amiss with the front suspension on the car. The telltale sign was the misalignment of the front wheels. So her team pushed her off the stating line, and she’ll have two more opportunities to make the less-than-full field. Late word was that she broke a steering arm on the run.

With a lot of encouragement and driving advice from Top Fuel Countdown racer Scott Palmer and 2010 Funny Car champion and 2017 title contender Jack Beckman, Worm officially joined the Top Fuel ranks 20 days ago, during the Labor Day weekend – nearly one year after she began it. Rain interfered at least four times, but she stuck with her dream and made her final licensing run at Toronto Motorsports Park the first Saturday in September.

“So we drove down to Indianapolis to get Scott Palmer to sign off on it on Sunday,” Worm said, the pride and spunk in her voice laced with giggles. “Then I turned it in to Graham Light (NHRA senior vice-president of racing operations) Monday afternoon. And he hand-delivered it to Glendora [the sanctioning body’s California headquarters].” Canadian Funny Car veteran Paul Noakes was the other signee for her license.

She had wanted to debut here at Maple Grove Raceway, for it’s her home track that’s just 45 minutes away from her house. “It was just perfect timing,” Worm said. “Charlotte [site of last week’s race] was a little far, and we weren’t quite ready to go with parts and everything. It just worked out perfectly. I have a whole bunch of friends and co-workers and my grandma and all my family members here. So it’s a lot of fun.”

Helping her try to post respectable numbers this weekend are her father, her fiancé Grant, Bob and Gary Leverich, cylinder-head specialist Dan Fairies, and bottom end servicer Jake Royston. She skipped the first session Friday, as did Terry Haddock.

Beckman urged her to have fun, and she promised before her first qualifying run Friday that she would – when the time is appropriate.

“I’m sure I’m going to be all amped up and excited,” Worm said. “I do want to enjoy it and soak it all in. But when I get behind the wheel, I have a job to do.”

It has been a labor of love she has been enjoying with her father, John Worm, who owns Slingshot Dragsters LLC.  Together they pack her parachutes, and she says he does “everything!” to help her prepare for each run. (He pays attention to safety matters, applies decals, and provides moral support. She said, “He gives me my pep talk. He keeps me sane.” Reminded that her dad might not have to worry about that last task, for no one who does this is sane, Worm laughed with glee.)

Worm logged her experience driving one of the 160 front-engine dragsters her father has built throughout the years.

“I drove our shop car, that was our exhibition dragster, for eight or nine years,” she said, sheepishly owning up to racing, at age 15, a Jr. Dragster “for literally two days” before deciding she wanted a bigger and faster car.

This entry into Top Fuel competition marks Worm’s return to racing. She had served as NHRA Funny Car pioneer and champion Bruce Larson’s back-up girl. “My dad had built a tribute Funny Car for Bruce,” Worm said. “So we ran it with him for two seasons. At Englishtown, for the Night Of Fire, I was backing him up and I fell and broke my leg. So that kind of put an end to my racing for a couple of years.”

She never gave up her desire to square off against the cream of the sport’s crop.

“Dad and I just decided we could afford it now and we were just going to Top Fuel. It worked out that Gary and Bob [Leverich] had a car, and we worked out a deal that I could drive for them. Worm’s fiancé, Aaron Grant, works at an Ontario shop that Smax Smith frequents, so that’s how she met Smith. Worm’s grandfather used to tune the dragster for Canadian racer Barry Paton (Todd Paton’s father), so he knew the Leveriches from their association at the racetrack.

Worm said her goal this weekend is to qualify – once presumably guaranteed, with only 15 entrants, fewer than a full field – “and at least go one round.” She fantasized, “We talked about that: ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we qualify No. 1 and get a first-round bye?’” Now she’ll have to think about using her final two qualifying chances to make the lineup.  

What was particularly nice was that avid autocross racer Carrie Willhoff and her California-based Racechick Apparel brand gave Worm a boost this past Monday evening, partnering with her for at least this weekend’s event. Worm is sporting a hat that flashes one of Racechick’s clever sayings: “Helmet Hair – Don’t Care.”    

Worm said she and the Leveriches and Smith haven’t had any discussions about how the two racers might share the dragster in 2018. (“We didn’t get tat far yet,” Worm said. “We’re just going to see what happens at Maple Grove and see what happens over the wintertime.”)

But she said she would like to enter six-eight races next season: Epping, Englishtown, maybe Norwalk, Bristol, Charlotte, St. Louis, and perhaps, with proper funding, Indianapolis.

Whenever and wherever Worm is racing, she plans to be raising awareness of Parkinson’s disease and raising money for the Michael J. Fox Foundation, whose mission is “accelerating breakthroughs patients can feel in their everyday lives” while dedicating itself to “finding a cure for Parkinson's disease through an aggressively funded research agenda.”

Worm said, “I’m lucky to be in the position I’m in. The Top Fuel ranks is such an exclusive group. People try and sometimes they don’t make it in or they don’t have money to do it. I want people to know I’m grateful to be out here, being where I am. A lot of people have helped me get to where I am, and I just wanted to be able to give back to other people.”

Worm and her father chose the cause because they are living it.

“My grandfather had Parkinson’s. He passed away in 2010. And my dad got diagnosed when he was 40. He’s 52 now,” she said. “So Parkinson’s played a big part in my childhood, as well as my young-adult life. It has had a big impact on my family.

The plan for next season is to wrap the dragster with Michael J. Fox Foundation livery. She’s still trying to finalize her vision of doing something like Antron Brown did to honor breast-cancer survivors and victims with his Don Schumacher Racing-owned Matco Tools/Toyota/U.S. Army Dragster. She’s leaning toward fans making a donation to the Michael J. Fox Foundation and then being rewarded with the opportunity to write the name of a loved one on the car. But all that still is in the planning stages, Worm said.

“The goal,” Worm said, “is to be able to write them [the Michael J. Fox Foundation] a $1 million check next season when we’re done racing.”

SCHUMACHER ‘LOCKED AND LOADED’ – The buzzword this weekend is weather. But for U.S. Army Dragster driver Tony Schumacher, it is what it is, and he knows he has to deal with it. He isn’t that worried about it.

“The weather can be a difficult opponent, and over the past five years we’ve dealt with rainy and colder conditions more often than we’d like to at Reading. By changing the date, maybe the chances of weather not being such a major factor will help. It’s a Countdown race, and when championships are being earned, everyone wants all four qualifying runs and good racing conditions on Sunday.

“We can’t control a lot of things like the weather, but I do know we have a really good program for a hot track,” Schumacher said. “I know we made two good runs in the heat both Saturday and Sunday in Charlotte. I hope we do have to run in some heat this weekend, as well. We have a really good car, and we’re going to come out and do the best we can, whatever conditions are. We’ll adapt to whatever we have in front of us.”

He made a statement that was meant more as a declaration than a warning. But it probably should be a warning to those who know his history well enough to recognize that he loves the huge moments, seemingly impossible assignments.

“This U.S. Army team is locked and loaded,” Schumacher said. “The Countdown just ramps things up to another level. I’ve been involved in this sport for a long time and have been fortunate to be part of some amazing things. It’s no secret that we haven’t had the kind of year we were hoping for. But everything is still on the table, and we have an opportunity to reach our ultimate goal.”

For those who think he’s just giving himself a pep talk, he isn’t. “It’s not always just the numbers that tell the whole story. It’s been a building process throughout the year for this team. I know Mike [crew chief Green] and Phil [assistant crew chief Shuler] and all the guys have been working to get the U.S. Army Dragster to be the best it can be. And I can tell you we are getting there,” he said.

This Reading weekend always has a vibe all of its own. “Maple Grove is such a unique facility. Old school. Throwback to the early days of drag racing. And we just want to be able to go out there and have a great race for all of the fans. They pack the place and you can certainly feel the energy. We’re hoping it all works out and we have a great weekend.”

He said, “After the race in Charlotte, I sat there and thought about it all. We’re close. Yes, we got beat by Kalitta. He goes on to win the deal and leaves on top. We were that close to doing it ourselves. That was the one we let get away, and now we have to be in attack mode. You have to win in the Countdown if you want to win the championship. It’s a proven fact. We have to find a way to win this weekend. That’s it. Plain and simple. Now we have to go.”

STUNG BUT STILL STANDING – Steve Torrence, the only independent racer to lead the Top Fuel field into the Countdown to the Championship, finds himself being the hunter instead of the hunted after the first of six playoff races. A second-round exit at Charlotte this past Sunday left him in second place in the standings, 14 points behind new leader Doug Kalitta.

The Capco Contractors Dragster driver, consoled by the fact that the three rivals behind him had surprisingly short appearances in eliminations at zMAX Dragway, too.

“Like I’ve said before, it’s a new season. It doesn’t make any difference what happened before. It’s all about these last six races,” he said. “Timing is everything. Doug hadn’t won all year – now he’s leading the points. That stings a little bit, but it’s just motivation for me and my guys.”

Seven of Torrence’s 15 career victories have come this season.

SHAKING OFF CHARLOTTE – Antron Brown won the opening event in the six-race Countdown in the previous two years and went on to earn the Top Fuel series championship. But this time, his chance to do the same thing for a third time fizzled in the quarterfinals at Charlotte. Clay Millican, someone he had beaten in 22 of their 23 previous meetings, nicked him by .0054 of a second, or about three feet. His one consolation is that his keenest rivals had a rough day last Sunday, too: Leah Pritchett was a first-round victim, and Steve Torrence and Tony Schumacher dropped out in Round 2 just like he did. That was yesterday’s news. Brown knows today’s news has enough grim prospects he and his Matco Tools/Toyota/U.S. Army Dragster team need to be ready to counter.

“This thing is such a battle. Charlotte was an indicator that anything can happen. You saw some of the best cars out here go out early. It’s anyone’s game right now. One slip-up can change everything,” Brown said. “When you lose a close race, it makes you hungry. You know there are going to be a lot of races like that in the Countdown. These Matco Tools/Toyota/U.S. Army boys are working hard. The Countdown is so tough. The competition is tough. You can’t take any round lightly, and that includes qualifying. So we just have to go out there and take it one run at a time and give it our best each time. We know there is a lot of work to be done, and we still have a great shot.”

Although Old Bridge Township Raceway Park at Englishtown, N.J., definitely is his home track, the Chesterfield, M.J., native counts Maple Grove Raceway as a home track, as well. “Reading is a big race for us. It’s a hometown race for me. Winning there the past couple of years has been great and really helped our runs to the championship,” he said.

But he said he’s especially glad to be here this weekend because “we don’t have to wait long to get back on this horse after last week.”

Tempering the excitement, he said, is the fact “we know this year it’s going to be just as tough, if not tougher. It all starts with qualifying. We haven’t been able to be where we wanted to in qualifying the last two events and it’s hurt us.” Since qualifying first at Seattle, Brown has started seventh at Brainerd, sixth at Indianapolis, and a much-better fourth at Charlotte. “We are all going to step up and be better as a team. We are all going to do it together. I’m just excited to get out there and get after it.”

PRITCHETT RESILIENT – Results at Charlotte in eliminations last Sunday scrambled the Top Fuel points race but probably more so for Leah Pritchett than anyone else. When she followed her 3.640-second national elapsed-time-record from Brainerd with a 3.667 for the Friday provisional lead at Indianapolis, she said, “We are doing abnormal things all of the time now.” She meant that in a good way, but it has its flip side. And that side showed up at Charlotte, when Wayne Newby knocked her out of contention in the first round. That loss cost her dearly, dropping her from third place to seventh in the standings.

“Timing is everything and our second first-round loss of the year wasn't how we expected to start the Countdown," Pritchett said. "It was nothing you'd want to write to Mom about."

But the Mopar / Pennzoil / Papa John’s Pizza Dragster driver from the Don Schumacher Racing organization hardly is fragile.              

 "It takes a lot to get this Mopar / Pennzoil team down, and how Charlotte ended isn't going to do it," she said. "We are confident we will bounce back at Maple Grove. The definition of confidence is something you believe to be true, and at the bottom of my heart I know we will come back at Reading. It's a new beginning for us. One thing this team is very good at is bouncing back."

She said she isn’t crazy about that other surprise – the weather. "That won't be ideal for us," Pritchett said. "We were looking for it be cool like it was at Brainerd [Minn.] last month, when we set the world record [3.640 seconds] and ran my fastest lap [331.53 mph].” Again, though, she has reason to believe her team can overcome that. Todd Okuhara and Joe Barlam are experienced in all kinds of conditions. And no one on the team regards the 65-point gap between Pritchett and new points leader Doug Kalitta as a done deal.
 

FUNNY CAR
 

HIGHT JONESING FOR 340 MPH – Robert Hight is anticipating making his 300th start this Sunday, but the number that’s uppermost in his mind is 340 – as in 340 miles an hour. The Auto Club Chevy Camaro driver has won three of the past six races and led the field five times since the start of June. Hight qualified third or better in the past 11 races. The streak ended with a No. 6 starting position at Charlotte. Hight knows that might cost a few qualifying bonus points, but he earned a whole lot more by winning the event. And he’s aware that becoming the first to register a 340-mph run produces nothing but personal satisfaction. But that’s what he’d like to do.

“You know that elusive 340-miles-an-hour run is out there,” Hight said. “I know we can get it. “It’d be cool to get that barrier. We were the first in the 3.70s this year, so to be the first in the 340s, that’s one that will stick for a long, long time. Maple Grove is a perfect place to do that.”

His prophecy nearly came true Friday evening. He swiped the provisional No. 1 slot with a 3.844-second effort at 339.02 mph that set both ends of the track record. His speed was the second-fastest in NHRA history.

“It wasn’t like you had to come in here and make major changes,” he said.

That might sound delusional, for the usual cool conditions have given way to unseasonably warm temperatures that might seem to nix any notions of record runs. But Hight has his logic.

“We’ve made the first part of a run and different parts of the second half of a run. If you put them together, it’ll run over 340. You just have to have the conditions,” he said. “We’ve had a great race car over the last 15 races – in hot or cold conditions.”

The hot track Friday didn’t bring that 340-mph speed. Beckman topped the Q1 chart at 330.55, and Hight, who was No. 2 after that session, ran a 329.02. However, after settling for a No. 6 start last weekend, Hight said Friday after the first session, “The weather is kind of like what we had in Charlotte. But we didn’t do as well in qualifying [there]. We’re off to a better start here.”

Hight, who has a 44-point cushion between himself and No. 2 Ron Capps, said, “We’ve been collecting a lot of those little bonus points along the way, and I think that’s what you’re going to have to do in this Countdown. It’s almost impossible to have six great races, so if you have one bad one but collect a lot of qualifying points, that can make up for a bad race.”

He owns the already has set the national record for elapsed time (3.793 seconds) and speed (339.87 mph) and was the first Funny Car driver in the 3.7-second range. But he has just one victory in 12 starts at Maple Grove Raceway, in 2011 (against finalist Johnny Gray). In 2015, Hight was top qualifier.

IS THIS READING?! – Ron Capps said he thinks of Maple Grove Raceway in terms of last year’s weather, which saw Friday’s qualifying washed out with 50-degree rains. It’s 30 degrees warmer this time. Not only did this weekend’s weather forecast goof up his suitcase-packing routine, but it just might goof up data that crew chiefs have counted on here.

"Fans are used to going to Maple Grove with heavy jackets, sweatshirts, and gloves like they're going skiing," Capps said. "I don't remember weather like we're supposed to get this weekend more than a couple times in the 20 years I've been racing here. We expect record runs when we get there, because the track is great and usually right on the edge of being too cold. This will be something very different. I doubt any crew chief has records going far enough back to show what the track is like when it's hot."

The NAPA Dodge driver for Don Schumacher Racing wants to reclaim the points lead Robert Hight swiped from him last weekend at Charlotte. So he hopes crew chief Rahn Tobler with assistant crew chief Eric Lane find the right combination with little trouble this weekend. He’s in second place, 44 points behind Hight.

"Winning those six races and holding the points lead for so long just put a bigger target on our backs. And it raised the bar for everyone in our class. But that's part of the Countdown and what makes it so exciting,” Capps, the reigning Funny Car champion said.

Maple Grove Raceway, no matter what the weather, is a place where Capps has come close with three runner-up finishes, including last year’s to Tommy Johnson Jr., but hasn’t won. The only other venue where he hasn’t scored a victory is Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis, where he was runner-up three weeks ago in his first U.S. Nationals final-round chance.

"Getting to the final round [here] last year was a big moment for us and we know we can again. We just need to get one more win than a year ago, when we lost to our DSR teammate Tommy Johnson Jr."

TIME FOR GOOD DECISIONS – Tim Wilkerson, owner-driver-tuner of the Levi, Ray & Shoup Ford Shelby Mustang, knows if he is to improve from his No. 9 ranking in the Funny Car standings he must “make good decisions this weekend."

He said he thought that’s what he was doing last weekend in the Countdown opener at Charlotte. But a first-round loss to lower-qualified Ron Capps told him otherwise.

"I had a really good car last week in Charlotte, and I made some big moves there to try to change the car around and get it to act a little better – but it didn't quite work out,” Wilkerson said.

“As soon as I leave one place, though, I don't worry about it anymore – I just go on to the next one and try to do better. I like Maple Grove, and I really like the area. It's an old, nostalgic place, straight out of the ‘70s or ‘80s. It's a cool place, and the track is usually pretty good. Heck, we'll take it any way we can get it. We just have to make good decisions this weekend."  

Wilkerson is perfect in Reading final-round appearances. The 20-time winner defeated Cruz Pedregon in his only one, in 2003.

FORCE TONING IT DOWN THIS WEEKEND? – John Force’s statistics at Maple Grove Raceway are impressive. He has competed in 32 consecutive races at Maple Grove Raceway since 1985, and he has seven victories here in 14 final-round appearances (1989, 1990, 1993, 1994, 1997, 2001, 2013). His elimination-round record here is 59-25. Moreover, he has been top qualifier at Reading eight times (1990, 1992, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2013) and has won four times from the No. 1 position (1990, 1994, 2001, 2013 – all championship seasons). In his 32 previous visits here, he has started in the top half of the field 28 times (in all but 1988, 2006, 2007, and 2016).

Yet the Peak Chevy Camaro driver, the 16-time series champion, is guarded this this year about his prospects.

Usually not a man of few words, Force volunteered only this: “I know Reading well. I think we’re going to go into [the race] motivated. We tested at Charlotte earlier this week, so we’ll see what happens.”

What happened in his first on-track appearance this weekend was 6.253-second, 107.79-mph pass for Force that put him 13th provisionally.

THREES ARE WILD FOR DE JORIA – Alexis DeJoria had the distinction of leaving Charlotte as the lone Funny Car team to produce the three-second runs the entire Countdown-kickoff weekend. She said she was proud of her semifinal finish. “We were up against Courtney Force and she beat us, but we would’ve beat any other team that ran in the semis. It’s just the luck of the draw,” De Joria said. “We made seven full runs this weekend, all in the threes, and we were the only team out here to do so. We did a great job and we’re excited about Reading.”

 

READING HAS TO BE PIVOTAL FOR BECKMAN – Jack Beckman made an excellent point, that “historically, Reading has always been a pivotal race mainly because it was always a little later in the Countdown.”

Never mind how anyone else regards it this year, with its moved-up date on the calendar, the Infinite Hero Dodge driver from Don Schumacher Racing is going to do everything in his power to make it significant – because he has to.

Still wincing from his first-round loss to the lower-qualified Jim Campbell a week ago, Beckman said, “For us, it's going to be a pivotal race, because we've dug a big hole in the first race of the Countdown. Coming off a gut-punch loss like that, it would be really easy as a team to get down and get discouraged. But that's not what we're about.”

Even Dean “Guido” Antonelli, one of three crew chiefs for Beckman’s team, said, “We really messed up” [at Charlotte] and said they would be going after as many qualifying bonus points as they could grab.

The NHRA flip-flopped the date of this race with the originally schedule St. Louis race date to avoid nasty weather. So this race became the second of six Countdown. In the past several years, weather conditions have been cold and almost always rainy. (One year the finals ran at Las Vegas.) The chilly temperatures, though, have been part of Maple Grove’s appeal, because such conditions yield stellar times. That’s terrific news for some racers, not-so-swell for others.

Seventh-ranked Beckman, who’s 102 points off the pace, is concentrating only on his team and what it has to do.

"You just can't go out early multiple times in the Countdown and hope to win the championship," Beckman, the 2012 Funny Car champion who has won twice at Maple Grove Raceway. "If you look at the last couple of seasons, it takes 14 to 15 round-wins in the Countdown to have a legitimate shot at the championship. Right now, that would mean us averaging a final-round finish. So I think we need to take all four round-wins at Maple Grove to get right back in the hunt. It's possible that cars in front us could all go out early the next few races – but it's not likely. You sure can't depend on your opponents failing for you to succeed."

"I think it's imperative for us to unload with a good run,” he said before time trials started Friday. “And really, that preparation started right after we lost at Charlotte. It's the three crew chiefs [John Medlen, Neal Strausbaugh, and Antonelli] digging into the data and looking at the hard parts. We think we have some horsepower-consistency issues that we're going to address. And it's me getting into that mind set of winning."

Whatever the driver and crew did, it worked. Beckman posted low elapsed time and top speed for the class in Friday’s first session: 3.914 second seconds at 330.55 mph.

BENCHING THEMSELVES – Mike Smith (in the New Englander Dodge), Jeff Diehl (in his JDR Toyota), and Jim Campbell (in the Jim Dunn / Oberto / 7-Eleven Dodge) opted out of Friday’s evening qualifying session.
 

PRO STOCK
 

BUTNER DOWNPLAYS HIS STATUS – A bunch of Pro Stock racers would love to be in Bo Butner’s position. He’s second in the standings, lurking within 25 points of Tanner Gray with this race and four more possibly to overtake the rookie. Still, Butner said, "We'll have our work cut out for us, and we've got some catching up to do to some of the other teams that have gone rounds. But we have three good Chevy Camaros over here in the KB Racing camp, and like I said last week, that's keeping us in striking distance. I've had some success in Reading before with wins in Stock Eliminator and Comp.” Butner has 60 races and three 2017 victories (Houston, Atlanta, Norwalk) under his belt.

He opened qualifying as the provisional leader with a 6.554-second elapsed time. Drew Skillman recorded top speed of the session at 211-mph flat.

Butner couldn’t top his first-session E.T., and neither could anyone else. So Butner leads the order overnight.

“That was even surprising for me,” he said. “ We made a pretty good run, compared to the rest of the field. I had a very fast car last week in Charlotte, so it shouldn’t surprise us. But we have room for improvement.”

NOBILE SETS THE RECORD STRAIGHT – John Nobile prefers to let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Nobile, the father of Pro Stock driver Vincent Nobile, would like to clear the air on banter surrounding his son's unexpected departure from the 2017 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.

"Vincent should be doing the talking right now, but he doesn't feel like talking to anyone at this moment," Nobile said. "Nick [team owner Mitsos] decided to pull the plug. It had nothing to do with Vincent. Nick was just unhappy with the performance of the car and decided he didn't want to go to the rest of the races."

Nobile reiterated the team is not done for good, just for this season.

"We've already ordered a new car from Jerry Haas," Nobile said. "We are not done at all. My phone has blown up in the last hour. I know what it looks like, but what it looks like is not true at all.

"Nick had given Elite until Charlotte for a good performance from the car. He told them if we didn't do good in Charlotte, we were done [this season]. This was told months in advance. In the past few months, we haven't really done well as a team. It's been terrible. The first two runs in Charlotte we didn't get down the track. We saw the writing on the wall that we weren't going anywhere this season."

 Nobile revealed that Mitsos sold back the car he had owned to Freeman, who is running the car this weekend with Brian Self driving.

Nobile added the team plans to be back next year with Elite Performance and to run whatever full schedule is offered by the NHRA.

"A 24-race schedule is grueling when you do this as a hobby," Nobile said. "Nick will save $250,000 by sitting out the rest of this season.

"We are by no means finished racing. We plan to be back in Pomona next February, and we plan to race next year a full schedule. As soon as the new car is finished, late 2017, we will be out testing somewhere." – Bobby Bennett  

SELF NO LUMP – Brian Self, well-known for his tuning prowess, didn’t live up to his nickname – “Lump” – as he jumped into the mix of Elite Motorsports drivers Friday. Self has found himself inside the car rather than just  under the hood in the aftermath of Vincent Nobile’s hiatus. Self’s 6.656-second pass was good enough for the provisional 10th-place spot in the early lineup.  

 

GAYDOSH RETURNS AFTER SCRAMBLE – The Pro Stock class has a full field this week, and the NHRA can give a special thank-you to Gary Stropko. He might not be well-known to all the NHRA fans, but racer John Gaydosh never will forget him. Thanks to Stropko’s efficient, and furiously fast, work, Gaydosh is back in action after unfortunate circumstances forced him to the sidelines last weekend.

The Pypes Performance Exhaust Chevy Camaro driver had to scramble to assemble an engine after he suddenly parted ways with Gray Motorsports.

“I’ve spent the last two weeks working on my own projects and getting my Camaro ready to run in Maple Grove,” Gaydosh said. “I have to thank Gary Stropko for helping me put my motor together. It’s been a busy few days for us, finishing everything up for Reading.”

And Gaydosh was unusually eager Friday to get back on the racetrack.

“This is the home race for Pypes Performance Exhaust, and we love racing in front of our sponsor. We’re proud to have their logo on our car,” he said.

Moreover, he’s excited about the surprisingly warm conditions. He said he has been “looking forward to the hot weather in Reading. No one can run with us when temps go up. This car runs great in the heat. When everyone is slowing down in the heat, we are picking up.”

But here in the cold last year, Gaydosh earned the second round-win of his career.

“I always look forward to racing in Maple Grove,” he said. “It has always been good to us.”

JOHNSON COMPETING IN 500TH RACE – Time is a weird commodity right now for Allen Johnson. This race marks the 500th in his championship career. On the other hand, time is running out, for he announced he retirement that will be effective at the close of this season.

So the Marathon Petroleum/J&J Racing Dodge Dart owner-driver said he has decided, because he’s No. 9 in the Countdown standings, that “we may have to go on the offense a little bit. That’s what we got to concentrate on this weekend. We really do have a good car right now, and we just need to get some breaks. We’ll keep digging, and I hope we can make up some ground.”

Twenty-two years after Johnson recorded his first NHRA start at Phoenix in 1996, he said, “In no way did I think we would’ve raced this long, but it’s been a great ride. It’s been a lot of fun doing this with my family, and it’s been well worth it.” His first victory came in his native Southeast, at Richmond, in 1999. The 2012 class champion has 27 victories in all.

COUGHLINS COMFORTABLE HERE – Jeg Coughlin Jr. said his whole family is comfortable at this facility.

He has won four Pro Stock trophies (1999, 2008, 2009, 2014) and the 1996 Super Gas Wally, as well.

But he meant all of the Coughlins: "This was one of the tracks where Dad used to race when my brothers and I were kids, and we all raced here quite a bit ourselves, especially in our Sportsman days. I know T.J. (Troy Jr.) can tell the same stories, because he used to come help his dad and the rest of us when he was a kid and now he's racing here [in the Super Comp class this season]. It's a very familiar, and therefore comfortable, place to race for all of us in the Coughlin family."

But one things is a little bit unfamiliar – the weather conditions – for Jeg Coughlin Jr. said he had been “excited about the change of seasons and a move back up north to what typically are cooler conditions. He said, “Without question, the Pro Stock cars run better in cooler climates, but the forecast is showing unseasonably warm conditions. So we’ll have to wait and see."

No matter what, he said he’s ready to get behind the wheel of his JEGS.com / Elite Performance Chevy Camaro that got a workout in testing following Sunday's race (and his second-round exit against Bo Butner) at Charlotte.

"I think the guys will have this thing ready to run down a gravel road," Coughlin said. "We tested a bunch in the last month and brought in some help just before Charlotte to have a fresh look at what we were doing. The changes we made before Charlotte definitely worked, but we weren't able to implement too many changes with the start of the Countdown. This latest test allowed us to delve even deeper into a better set-up.

"I have all of the faith in the world in this Elite Motorsports group. They are such a fun bunch to race with, and we are really anxious to climb into the winner's circle this season. There's no better time to win than during the Countdown at a track like Maple Grove Raceway."

Surprisingly, Coughlin hasn’t won a Pro Stock event since the 2014 Englishtown, N.J., race.

WANTS TO GOBBLE UP ROUNDS – Jason Line spoke for most of his Pro Stock colleagues in appreciating Maple Grove Raceway: “I've always enjoyed racing at Maple Grove. Folks sure love Pro Stock there, and it's always cool to look up in the stands and see so many fans of the class. The track itself is just a fun place to go, especially at this time of year.”

He indicated he wasn’t so sure, though, what to think of the uncharacteristically toasty weather. “It should be interesting,” he said before the start of Friday qualifying.

Hot or cold, it didn’t matter to Line. “Right now, the focus is just to try to win the race. That's all you can do,” he said. He’s ranked No. 4 at the moment and is 74 points behind leader Tanner Gray and 39 points out of third. “I don't worry about the championship at this point, because if you don't win enough rounds, it won't matter. You have to win races."

Line, the three-time Pro Stock champion, won the season-opening Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., and hasn’t won or been atop the standings since. He began the Countdown with a semifinal finish at the Charlotte track that’s practically in his backyard. It was his fifth semifinal showing in the past eight races for KB / Summit Racing.

FLUMMOXED? – Greg Anderson sounds a little uncertain these days. Normally he’s licking his chops to run here, where mineshaft conditions nearly guarantee quick elapsed times and fast speeds. But the weather threw everyone a curveball this September, and Anderson is hoping, perhaps against hope, that typical autumn chills will swoop in before the NHRA leaves town. “You hope for those cooler temperatures at some point this weekend, because we're racers, and we like to go fast. That's our M.O. at KB Racing.

“This is the second race of the Countdown, and again you're going to have to race as hard as you can every qualifying run and every round on Sunday. You're going to need every point you can find,” the KB / Summit Racing driver said. “This deal is absolutely the toughest and most unpredictable Countdown we've ever had. You could have six different winners in the playoffs, and every round of qualifying with those bonus points up for grabs is going to be immensely important. We'll have to be sharp."
 

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
 

ARANA STILL SOLOING BUT ON A ROLL – Lucas Oil Racing TV rider Hector Arana Jr. said he and his team “seem to be hitting our stride at the right time. Jim [crew chief Yates] and my dad [surgery-sidelined teammate and team owner] have really been getting the best out of the [bike]. It's been fun to be in contention to win every time we get to another track.”

Arana Jr. has started no farther down the order than fourth at the past nine events. He has three runner-up finishes this season (at Englishtown, N.J.; Joliet, Ill.; and Indianapolis). He’s third in the standings, trailing No. 2 L.E. Tonglet by a mere four points, and is 52 points from Eddie Krawiec’s lead.

And Friday he vaulted from No. 16 in the first qualifying session to the provisional No. 1 position with a 6.834-second run.

“The first run was probably going to be a really good run, as well. I made a rookie mistake. I forgot to pull the clip off the shifter.”

Arana Jr. said, "I'm proud to be representing Lucas Oil and Lucas Oil Racing TV so well this year, and it's been extra-important to go rounds with Dad on the sidelines [since the Englishtown event]. I miss racing with him on the track, but it's been cool to have him working all this time on my bike. I think it's made a big difference.

“We just have to keep up with the other championship contenders. We are on a roll and doing well. Reaching the latter rounds is vital,” he said.

He noticed the traditional cool temperature and rainy conditions have given way to an 80-degree heat wave. He said before qualifying began Friday, “Hopefully it's cooler by the time we start racing,” he said. “If it is, there's a chance to go 200 mph. We will see what others do. Everyone wants to be the first to go 200 and we are just going to do everything we can. We always watch the weather really close, so we will just keep an eye on that and see what happens."

He also is keeping an eye on the post-Hurricane Irma situation in Puerto Rico, for he has a grandmother, uncles, cousins, and lots of family members in the north coastal city of Arecibo.

“I’m just hoping to get in touch with them. They lost all power on the whole island. We can’t even make a phone call over there to at least make sure they’re OK,” Arana Jr. said. “So God willing, everything’s OK. I believe they had strong houses to withstand the storm. But now they’ve got to go without power and water, and they’re limited to some food sources. It’s going to be tough.”

GLADSTONE RETURNS TO ROOTS – Suzuki rider Joey Gladstone said his goal this weekend “is to step up, make some good decisions, and make every lap count.” And what better place to do that than this racetrack, where he said he has been attending races “my entire life”? Gladstone calls Townsend, Del., his home now, but he’s from West Chester, Pa.

“I have great memories at Maple Grove, watching my dad in Super Stock and Top Alcohol,” the racer of the San Marino Excavating / TrimTex entry said.

“I went the first year I was born with my parents back when it was the Keystone Nationals. We’ve been going pretty much every year since unless the weekend was a total rainout. My dad raced in Top Alcohol Funny Car in 1997 and then Top Alcohol Dragster in 1998. He was one of the first people to race the nitro-injected dragsters when they first came out. We’re from Pennsylvania, so this track and this race mean a lot to our family.”

Officially, Gladstone (an eight-time champion on his Pro Street Suzuki Hayabusa that he nicknamed “Maggie May,” after his beloved chihuahua) is an NHRA rookie. But this event was one of four in which he competed last season (along with Indianapolis, Dallas, and Las Vegas). Rain limited the class to a single qualifying session, and he started No. 14 because his vacuum pump gave out immediately after his burnout. This year, he said, “we’ve got two motors, spare parts, and a lot more experience. By the looks of the weather, we’re going to get all four runs in before race day and I expect a better performance out of us.”

Incidentally, Joey and dad Skip Gladstone sold “Maggie May” recently – not to just anybody, but to Geno Scali. The 2003 NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle champion told Jack Korpela of Cycledrag.com that he hadn’t returned to racing because in 2004, a few months after being crowned champion he suffered lasting effects of a testing accident that slammed him into the catch-net at the top end of the track. A severe concussion left him with balance problems, nerve damage, and a shoulder injury he’s finally starting to shake.

HINES STILL KING OF MAPLE GROVE – Eddie Krawiec, from “next door” in New Jersey, won this event last season for the fourth time. However, Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson teammate Andrew Hines owns both ends of the Maple Grove Raceway performance record – and has, amazingly, for the past five years. He’s quickest and fastest on two wheels with his 6.728-second pass that doubles as the class’ national elapsed-time record and fastest at 198.73 mph. He set both in October 2012.

The record books have a “however” to that, too – Andrew Hines’ brother and tuner, Matt Hines, has won this race three times. Andrew has won it twice.

That means that the Vance & Hines team has won at Reading nine times in the past 20 years, including six of the past eight. Hector Arana Jr. in 2011 and two-time winner Matt Hines in 2013 have broken the spell.    

VICTORY LEADER NOT HERE – The class’ most successful bike racer at Maple Grove Raceway isn’t among the 16 entrants here this year. Angelle Sampey, the six-time winner, and Team Liberty owner Cory Reed opted out of this event to allow Ken Johnson and Chris Rivas time to prep their engines at their Cordele, Ga., shop for a return to action late next month at Las Vegas. Neither Sampey nor Reed qualified for the Countdown. Sampey is second only to Funny Car’s John Force in victories here. He has seven. (Top Fuel’s Tony Schumacher has five. Warren Johnson and Jeg Coughlin lead the Pro Stock class in triumphs here with four apiece.)

 

SMITHS SHINE DESPITE UNHAPPY NEWS – Matt and Angie Smith, the only husband-wife team on the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series tour, continue to pursue their Countdown goals in spite of having to devote extra time these days to finding a marketing partner for 2018. Two-time series champion Matt Smith entered this race in sixth place, just 97 points off leader Eddie Krawiec’s pace, and Angie Smith is 10th in the standings. Polaris Industries, which is dropping its Victory Motorcycle brand, did not renew its partnership after three years.

“We have better parts and better pieces now than we have ever had,” Matt Smith said, “and it’s time to take the next steps and do some R&D to make us an even better team. I am very thankful to the people at Polaris for all of their support. It has allowed both me and my wife to continue to do what we love and compete in the highest caliber of drag racing.”

Smith told Competition Plus’ Tracy Renck that he will continue to compete with a Victory Mangum body and Victory engine-powered motorcycle in 2018. Smith said, “I’ve built a small arsenal right now of these Victory motors, and we have six of them done. And they are lasting, and they are dependable.”

But while they’re trying to move up in the Countdown order, the Smiths have to steer some of their attention toward marketing and the future.

“Both Angie and I see ourselves as liaisons of our sponsors,” Matt Smith said. “We pride ourselves on representing them to the best of our ability and are determined to give the best return on investment that we can. Our team success is our sponsor’s success.”

Any sponsorship inquiries, he said, should be directed to Matt Smith Racing at [email protected]

TONGLET VOWS NOT TO REPEAT PLAYOFF OPENER RESULTS – Just about every scenario that L.E. Tonglet wanted to avoid came flying his way last weekend at the Countdown opener at Charlotte. He qualified sixth – not horrible but, as he put it, “We didn’t qualify to the best of our abilities.” That set him up on a collision course with teammate Jerry Savoie in the quarterfinals. “And you never want to meet your teammate in the second round,” Tonglet said, finishing his thought. The result was that, despite his class-leading five victories that came in a seven-race regular-season stretch, Tonglet tumbled from first place in the standings. So the Nitro Fish Racing Suzuki rider and 2010 series champion entered this race chasing reinstated leader Eddie Krawiec by 48 points.

Tonglet said his strategy is simple: “It’s just getting back on track. Every weekend in the Countdown is a very important one, and we go into every race with the same mentality – and that’s to go rounds and try to win the race. We’re hungrier than ever, and we’re going to give it our best shot. We’ve got two bikes capable of winning every race and the championship.”

What happened at Charlotte, he said, “is good for our competition and bad for us. I know Andrew [Hines] and Eddie were happy to see us meet up. They’ve really turned the corner, but I know we can beat them. It’s a matter of getting our ducks in a row. I feel like we can outrun them and we just have to focus on making good, clean passes.”

Both he and team owner Savoie, the reigning champion, won their titles as independent racers. Together they’re extra-formidable. And Tonglet said,  “I have all the confidence in the world in Tim [crew chief Kulungian] and everyone on the team. They are great at what they do, and Tim’s a hell of a tuner. I go to every race and feel confident, and that’s huge as a rider. Anytime you can take any jobs or stresses away from the rider, it can really help. Jerry and I bring out the best in each other.”

POLLACHECK MAKES TRIP WORTH IT – Except for maybe Sunnyvale, California’s Charlie Sullivan, Oregon businessman  Scotty Pollacheck came the farthest this week to race a Pro Stock Motorcycle. And he made the most of his effort in the first qualifying session. He took the tentative lead, clocking a 6.850-second elapsed time. He fared no worse than third by the end of the second session Friday.

 

 

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