2017 NHRA HEARTLAND NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
BROWN BREAKS THROUGH WITH FIRST TOPEKA WIN - Antron Brown has done it all.
He has won championships - three to be exact. He has set national records and he has taken home more than 60 Wally trophies.
So what does it say about the state of Top Fuel racing today that just another win on just another weekend feels like conquering the world?
But that is just what it felt like for Brown, who collected his 63rd national event win and snapped Steve Torrence’s two-race winning streak with a win Sunday at the Menards NHRA Heartland Nationals presented by Minties at Heartland Park Topeka.
“It feels really good to win at Topeka. We have wanted to win this race for so long,” Brown said. “We really didn’t think about the fact that we hadn’t won it, we just went out there and attacked like we do every race.
“But it is special. The competition has been so tight. You have to run these cars on the edge every lap. The Funny Cars were running 3.90s and we were still running 3.70s. That’s what it takes to win rounds these days.
“All of these cars are capable of winning and we know it. These crew chiefs are getting smarter every year and everyone is raising the bar. When you can go out there on a 114 degree track and run a 70, that is phenomenal. We used to have to wait until night time and the right air conditions to throw a run like that. Now we are doing it in the middle of the day.”
Brown collected the win on a historic weekend over Steve Torrence in the Top Fuel final. Brown piloted the Matco Tools dragster to a 3.709-second run at 332.75 mph in the final, while Torrence saw his half-track lead go up in a puff of smoke - literally - as his car began to expire just past the eighth-mile mark. Torrence finished with a 3.836 at 256.70 and saw his two-race win streak come to an end.
With the win, Brown also added another notch to his impressive winning streak against Torrence in head-to-head competition, holding a 22-1 career mark against the driver of the Capco Contractors dragster.
“My hats off to the whole team. We kept our heads down, stayed poised and put it all together,” Brown said. “I don’t like to look at stats, people tell me all these different stats all of the time, but I forget about them the next day. I’ll look at the stats when I retire some day. All we can do right now is race as hard as we can every lap. This sport is very humbling and the racing right now is at an all-time high.”
Brown added wins over Kebin Kinsley, Shawn Langdon and teammate Leah Pritchett in reaching his 111th career final round. And he used a small hiccup in the first round to help propel him past his competition.
“I’ve been beat up this last month and a half. When I came to race in the first round, I messed up on the tree a little bit because I was getting upset with the guy I was racing because he was taking a long time to stage. He’s a new guy, he hasn’t been in a lot of race rounds, but I let it get to me,” Brown said. “I can tell you distinctly that I came back in that trailer and my crew chief looked at me and said, ‘Hey B, just do what you do. Why are you worried about it. Just because they take too long, that doesn’t affect you.’
“He kind of slapped me around a little bit. The next three rounds I got back into that old groove that we always get into and we just went out there and raced our hearts out.”
Of course, a big part of this weekend were the records.
While Funny Car stole the show with more than half a dozen record-setting laps over the course of the weekend, Top Fuel saw its own fair share of records broken.
Tony Schumacher set the track elapsed time record, while the speed record was broken by a couple of different drivers - including Brown - until Brittany Force took it for good with a pass of 333.66 mph in the first round on Sunday.
“When we came in here, I was flying from Vegas and I looked at the weather and I saw the weather being cool and I thought, this is going to be fast in Topeka,” Brown said. “Typically, we worry about tornadoes when we come here, but this weekend we had a bunch of hurricanes out there.”
Of course, Brown wasn’t riding alone during this historic weekend. A simple act of kindness led to a big weekend, not only for Brown, but for a local family who had just one wish for a recently deceased family member.
“The coolest part of the weekend, for me, was a family that came out and brought with them the ashes of a gentleman named Bruce who had recently passed away,” Brown said. “They brought out his ashes in a little zipped up bag. He was a huge drag racing fan and all he ever wanted to do was go over 300 mph. So we zip-tied him to the roll cage and he rode with me on that world record mile-per-hour run that the Monster car eventually took back from us.
“He rode with us this entire weekend and when I gave him back to his family, I gave them the timeslips from our runs. He didn’t just get to go down the race track, he made it to the winner’s circle with us today.” Larry Crum
CAPPS MAKES IT FOUR WINS IN A ROW WITH TOPEKA TITLE - Things can’t get much better in the drag racing world right now for Ron Capps.
After winning his first NHRA nitro Funny Car NHRA world championship a year ago, the veteran driver is in the midst of an amazing 2017 season.
Capps won his fourth race in a row Sunday when he captured the title at the Menards NHRA Nationals presented by Minties at Heartland Park in Topeka, Kan.
“Trust me, I’m just the luckiest dude in the world,” Capps said. “I had nothing to do with it. I just stepped on the gas at the right time and held the car together in the right lane and (I’m) just so blessed.”
Capps clocked a 3.924-second time at 321.42 mph in his Don Schumacher Racing NAPA Dodge to defeat his DSR teammate Matt Hagan’s 3.985-second lap at 318.92 mph.
This was Capps’ 54th career NHRA national event win - 53 in Funny Car and one in Top Fuel in 1995 in Seattle while piloting Roger Primm’s dragster. This also was Capps’ fourth career win at Topeka as he now has nitro Funny Car victories at the track in 1998, 2006, 2009 and 2017.
Capps’ current race-victory parade consists of wins at Houston, Charlotte, N.C., Atlanta, and Topeka. Coming into this season, Capps had never won more than two races in a row.
On Sunday Capps beat Cruz Pedregon, Courtney Force, Robert Hight, and Hagan. The same Hagan who set both ends of the national record in nitro Funny Car Saturday, with his 3.802-second elapsed time at 338.85 mph. Hight set the national record for speed in the class at 337.66 mph on Friday before it was broken by Hagan the next day.
“We were extremely bummed we couldn’t get in there and trade blows Friday and Saturday with the other teams running those big speeds and all the headlines going across the world were about Funny Cars going almost 340 mph,” Capps said. “We were fighting a little bit of an issue in the car and it was in the fuel system and I told you in the media Sunday morning he (his crew chief Rahn Tobler) decided to put a bigger fuel pump on it, which is something you just don’t do. You usually test something like before you go to a race, you don’t do it prior to race day on Sunday morning, but he has the confidence and the NAPA Know How I brag about to do something like that and sure enough it paid off. Those speeds are great and they are great for headlines, but Mello Yello championships are won by ETs, and especially race wins. I would’ve so loved to have been battling those guys and it was so fun to watch as a fan and I’m so proud to be a part of a Funny Car division that went out there and set those records. I’m sure we are going to show up at Epping (N.H., the next race, June 2-4) and there will be a change to our Rev limiters, but it’s OK because I have a crew chief who can adapt to anything. It just shows you what kind of team (we have that) can be OK in qualifying and qualify seventh and show up race day and do what we’ve been doing the last three races and what we did at last year at the end of the year to win the championship.”
In a four-race span, Capps has made winning look easy, but he acknowledged it is a lot harder than it appears to reach the winners circle.
“While it looks like from the outside you’re in a zone, it surely doesn’t feel that way,” Capps said. “You feel like every little round you show up to, every run is an assault against what you’re trying to do to everybody else in the class. I’ve had these great talks with Jimmie Johnson, who is a good friend of mine, and we’ve watched what he has done in NASCAR and I’ve had these talks in the past when I’ve come close to winning championships and I ‘ve gotten these text messages and these talks from him and that’s a guy you think can get into a zone, but he’s the same way. There’s just some days you just don’t feel like you’re going to be sitting here, holding this Wally.”
One of those days was Sunday at Topeka for Capps.
“There’s a little part of me that woke up this morning, going ‘Man we didn’t qualify well and we’re putting a new fuel pump on it,’ and a little part of you was like boy this could go a lot of different ways,” Capps said. “Then, you remind yourself, that we won a championship for a reason and we’ve now won four in a row for a reason because everybody has just come together. You dream about driving and racing a Funny Car, but you can’t even dream big enough to dream about what I have gotten to do and win four Wallys in a row.” Tracy Renck
TANNER GRAY GETS SECOND CAREER PRO STOCK VICTORY - Winning NHRA national events in the Pro Stock class is not easy.
Well, Tanner Gray never received that memo.
In his rookie season, and just over a month after his 18th birthday, Gray already has won two NHRA national events.
Gray’s most recent trip to Victory Lane came Sunday at the Menards NHRA Nationals presented by Minties at Heartland Park in Topeka, Kan.
There was no drama in the final round for Gray as he was handed the win when five-time Pro Stock world champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. recorded a redlight at the starting line.
“I just went up there (with the mindset) to have fun,” said Gray, who pilots the Gray Motorsports Valvoline Chevrolet Camaro for his family. “I felt like I was pretty consistent all day. I was .022, .011, .012 (on lights in the first three rounds), and I felt like I missed it a little bit there in the finals, and I was worried when I let the clutch out and I happened to look up and see my scoreboard was lit, so I was pretty pumped up. Jeg is one of the greatest drivers to come through the sport and my guys gave me a great race car and I wouldn’t be sitting here if it wasn’t for them. They make my job easy.”
In eight career Pro Stock races, Gray has two wins – his first coming at Las Vegas April 2 – and he has compiled an impressive 17-6 round record in eliminations. On Sunday, Gray beat Drew Skillman, four-time world champion Greg Anderson, Vincent Nobile and Coughlin.
Gray won at Topeka while debuting a brand-new Chevrolet Camaro SS built by Jerry Haas. The only runs Gray made in his new Camaro came on May 15-16 at Darlington Dragway in Hartsville, S.C.
In addition to piloting a new Camaro, Tanner also was racing without his teammate and father, Shane Gray. Shane chose to sit out Topeka to support the efforts of his son and fellow Gray Motorsports teammate Skillman.
Tanner did make it three generations of Grays to reach the winner’s circle at Topeka’s national event. Tanner’s father, Shane won at Heartland Park Topeka in Pro Stock in 2011 and his grandfather, Johnny was the nitro Funny Car champion at Topeka in 2013.
“For me, I kind of keep the same mindset whether he (his dad) is there or not,” Shane said. “I know he’s supporting me and has my best interest in mind. I just worry about cracking the tree and hitting my shift points.”
Although the younger Gray is only eight races into his NHRA Pro Stock career, he has believed from the start of the season his team can compete for a world championship.
“We have Dave Connolly (his crew chief) and Craig Hankinson (Gray Motorsports car chief) on occasions and some of the best crew guys in the business,” Tanner said. “We have a great engine shop back home (in Denver, N.C.) and those guys work their butts off, so there’s no doubt that we have a championship-caliber team and so far, I feel like I’ve shown to be able to compete with the best of them. My deal is I just have to get more consistent as a driver and just work on bettering myself. Just because you win a race doesn’t mean you’re the best. I need to go back and continue to hit the practice tree and studying.” Tracy Renck
UNDER THE RADAR - While all eyes were on the Funny Car class this weekend with record performance after record performance, Tony Schumacher cleared his throat and let his 10,000 horsepower Army dragster do some talking of its own on Saturday.
Schumacher rocketed to the top of the Top Fuel charts in the final round of qualifying Saturday at Heartland Park Topeka, earning his 83rd career No. 1 qualifier with a track-record 3.660-second pass at 327.90 mph.
He now has an equal number of wins as poles in his career with 83 apiece.
“I think it’s fantastic. We are typically a hot track car most of the time and we haven’t had that much success in conditions like this,” Schumacher said. “It makes me comfortable knowing we can go out and win when it’s hot out and to do that today is a big boost.”
Just behind Schumacher on the charts is teammates Leah Pritchett and Antron Brown, while streaking Steve Torrence, who is seeking his third consecutive win this weekend, qualified in fifth.
“That Torrence car is hot right now and we need to slow him down. This is our 27th time here at Topkea and today the conditions were beautiful,” Schumacher said. “This is exactly what people dream about in a racecar. Cool, tight conditions, these guys can turn options they have never turned before. To watch three of the four cars run 66 was impressive. It is not going to be an easy race to win tomorrow.”
Schumacher will race Pat Dakin in round one on Sunday.
SIDE-BY-SIDE - In the next-to-last pass of qualifying on Saturday, Tony Schumacher and Leah Pritchett ran impressive side-by-side 3.66s, with Schumacher taking the top spot at 3.660 and Pritchett qualifying second with a 3.667.
BUCKET LIST - There aren’t many tracks left that Antron Brown hasn’t won at during his career.
Brown had a runner-up finish at Heartland Park Topeka last season, but a win at the famed track still eludes the three-time and defending Top Fuel world champion.
“Topeka is still on our to-do list,” Brown said. “We haven’t got a win here yet and we’d like to change that. I’m excited to get that opportunity.”
Two weeks ago in the NHRA Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway, the team elected to pull out a new chassis built by the fabrication shop managed by Joe Fitzpatrick at Don Schumacher Racing headquarters.
“The bumpy race track at Atlanta put some stress on the chassis we were running, Brad (Mason) saw something he didn’t like and we switched chassis,” Brown said. “The boys in the fab shop do incredible work and we pulled out that new chassis for Sunday and had no issues. Hats off to them for doing such an incredible job.”
On Saturday, Brown continued that success with an impressive run, resetting the national speed record and qualifying third with a 3.671 at 333.16 mph.
Incredibly, Don Schumacher Racing cars have won 11 out of 14 nitro races this season, giving Brown as good a chance as any to collect the win on Sunday.
“It’s Topeka, and these conditions are just stellar,” Brown said. “A lot of guys didn’t get a hit last night and a lot of them made safe runs today to get in the show, while me and Steve had another go at it. We have mutual respect for one another and we want to get that win equally as bad.
“We are just marching right now. Everybody has been talking about Tony, Leah and Steve, and I think all of the Matco boys are ready to get back in this mix.”
THE PEOPLE’S CHAMP - No one loves their fans more than Clay Millican. And no fanbase loves their driver more than his.
Millican, the seven-time world champion with the International Hot Rod Association, has developed a dedicated and cult-like following over his lengthy career, driven further by his gut-wrenching winless streak dating back to his first full-time NHRA season, sitting 0-for-8 in his career.
His fans love his personality. They love his accessibility. And they love his commitment to them.
And one of the ways Millican keeps up with his fans and makes them a part of his extended racing family is through social media. In addition to daily interaction and insights into his day-to-day, Millican has been taking it a step farther in 2017.
Throughout the year, Millican has been leaving Fan Appreciation Packs at gas stations and rest stops around the U.S. as he travels to meet up with the Parts Plus/Great Clips/University of Northwestern Ohio Top Fuel dragster team.
“The whole idea was my wife Donna’s. We drive to lots of the races and it gives us something fun to do as we’re headed down the highway,” Millican said. “We put a variety of things in the packages: hats, t-shirts, bobbleheads, key chains, hero cards, bracelets; you name it. We never leave the exact same thing. The majority of stuff in there I have signed.”
These little scavenger hunts have increased in popularity with each race, and he always makes sure to interact with those fans personally.
“It’s enjoyable knowing people are actually out going after these things. I love all the replies I have been getting,” Millican said. “As I’m rolling along, Donna reads me the comments. I got a kick out of a fan this week who said, ‘Swing by Connecticut and leave one.’ We already have fans making plans for future races asking us what races we’re driving to.
“It’s been 19 years since I became a professional - but I’m still a fan. I still remember what it’s like to be a fan and wanting a t-shirt, a hat, or an autograph. While I get some help on my social media, every reply is from me. I personally return messages to my fans.”
Millican qualified eighth Saturday and will face Dough Kalitta in round one Sunday.
BACK IN THE SADDLE - Shawn Langdon is slowly getting back in the groove.
After seeing his Don Schumacher Racing ride parked at the beginning of the season and missing the first four races due to lack of sponsorship, Langdon joined Kalitta Motorsports as part of a third entry for the team in the Global Electronic Technology dragster in Houston.
Since then, Langdon, a 14-time race winner, has been learning his new car and making gradual gains. He has improved his qualifying position a spot at a time, and earned his first round win of the season two weeks ago at Atlanta. And Langdon feels a breakthrough is right around the corner.
“After Atlanta, we feel good about the Global Electronic Technology team. We have turned a corner and have a good handle on the car,” Langdon said. “Team Kalitta has a great track record at Topeka so we have a lot of confidence this weekend. We are focused on making good runs. The weather is going to be a challenge throughout the weekend, but now is as good a time as any to get the car in the winners circle.”
On Saturday, Langon continued that gradual climb, improving his qualifying spot for the fourth consecutive race with a 3.700-second pass at 328.14 mph, good enough for sixth on the charts. He will face Troy Coughlin Jr. in round one on Sunday.
338.85 MPH - Faster than anyone. Ever. In any class. At any distance.
That was the milestone Matt Hagan achieved Saturday afternoon at Heartland Park Topeka when Hagan drove his Mopar Express Lane Dodge Charger Funny Car to the top of the charts at the Menards Heartland Nationals with a blistering 3.802-second pass at 338.85 mph - good enough for the national record in both categories.
That’s right - 338.85 mph. Faster than any Funny Car or Top Fuel machine ever, including Tony Schumacher’s memorable 337.58 mph run on the quarter-mile back in 2005 at Brainerd.
“We were the first-ever in the 3s, the first-ever in the 3.80s, and that run was almost in the 3.70s,” Hagan said. “Dickie Venables, this whole gang, they are working so hard right now, it is unbelievable. Before that run, I crawled in there and they just said to hold on. That is pretty darn cool.”
Hagan finished the weekend with the two fastest runs in Funny Car history to earn his 28th career No. 1 qualifier during a milestone weekend as the Virginia native makes his 200th career start. Still, Hagan was visibly disappointed that he wasn’t able to make up those few thousandths of a second and record that very first 3.70.
“If I could have been a little thinner, who knows what we could have done,” Hagan said with a laugh. “We were so close. The conditions are there, my wife and kids told me to get back in there and get the record. It was one of those things, you get that close, you want so bad to be the first.
“But we are very blessed. We still have something to work toward. All-in-all we are really happy right now.”
This is not the first major milestone set at the Topeka, Kansas-based track. In fact, it’s just the next in a long line of first-time achievements at the track.
Chuck Etchells ran the very first 4-second Funny Car run here back in 1993, while Jim Epler posted the first-ever 300+ mph Funny Car run, also in 1993. And, famously, Hagan recorded the previous speed record for the flopper class here last year when he posted a 335.57 mph pass, and on Friday Hight did the same with a pass of 337.66 mph.
More than anything, Hagan’s crew chief Dickie Venables says that Topeka gives teams a chance to prove who is the baddest of them all.
“The car has been really predictable lately,” Venables said. “Every time we come to Topeka it is such a great facility, the track is so good. This place gives you a chance to see what you’ve got.”
Hagan will face Jack Wyatt in round one on Sunday.
RECORD-SETTING WEEKEND - It’s not very often you see a race weekend quite like the one we are currently experiencing.
Through the first two days of the NHRA Heartland Nationals at Heartland Park Topeka, several records have fallen and the performances just keep getting better.
So far this weekend, the national speed record in both Top Fuel and Funny Car has been eclipsed, while the elapsed time record in the FC class also went by the wayside on Saturday.
But just how impressive has it been for the Funny Car teams?
The top five fastest speeds in Funny Car history now belong to Heartland Park Topeka. Matt Hagan’s record-setting 335.57 mph pass from this race last year is now only the fifth fastest time in NHRA history. Seven different drivers were faster than 330 mph, two quicker quicker than 337 mph.
Now that is some impressive performance.
Just ask Jack Beckman, whose 3.844-second pass at 331.77 mph would be big news anywhere else in the country. Here, it’s just fourth.
“A 3.84 anywhere else in the country and you are a hero,” Beckman said. “Here you are middle of the pack.”
ON TOP OF THE WORLD FOR LESS THAN 24 HOURS - For a few brief hours, Robert Hight was the talk of the town.
His 3.826-second pass at 337.66 mph Friday night was briefly the fastest pass in NHRA history, faster than any racer had ever gone in NHRA competition.
But that is all ancient history now as Matt Hagan bested Hight’s speed record less than 24 hours later by a whopping 1.19 mph - light years in the world of drag racing.
As for Hight? He was still thrilled to be able to achieve what he did on Friday, despite losing the mark right back to Hagan.
“I know how hard it is to make a run that is that fast. It really set in last night when we came back (to the pits) and you sign all of the autographs for the the fans and they all want you to write down that speed under your signature,” Hight said.
So what was it like going that fast?
“It was awesome. It never quit pulling. This Auto Club Chevy, right out of the gate, it was pulling, straight as can be and right down the groove,” Hight said. “This Topeka race track, I have been a part of a lot of records here, a lot of first times for me, but 337 is pretty awesome. Great job to Jimmy Prock and the team, and great job to Matt Hagan today.
“You don’t get a lot of practice at running in conditions like this. We were trying out there, trust me, it just didn’t work out.”
Hight, who equalled his Friday night performance with another 337 mph run in qualifying on Saturday, couldn’t better his elapsed time and will start from the third position on Sunday.
A FORCE TO BE RECKONED WITH - This weekend, 16-time Funny Car champion John Force is seeking his 10th career victory at Heartland Park Topeka.
The driver of the PEAK Coolant and Motor Oil Chevrolet Camaro currently has nine victories at the track, and a 10th would be a big boost for the team that currently sits third in the championship standings.
“We’re trying to get these cars consistent. My crew chiefs and I have been going through a lot of change, but we’re getting closer. We’ll see what happens,” Force said.
In his career, Force is 73-24 in 97 elimination rounds at Heartland Park Topeka. A semifinal appearance this weekend would give him 100 elimination rounds run at the track, the second most at any track for Force.
But he had to sweat it out on Saturday.
Force had to abandon his first two runs of the weekend, leaving the winning driver in Funny Car history outside of the field entering the final qualifying session of the weekend.
Facing missing only his 19th race in more than 700 starts, Force went right down the groove with a 3.850-second pass at 332.59 mph in his last chance to get into the field, good enough for sixth on the ladder.
“I can’t believe my guys made me sweat it out. I was a bit aggravated, but then the ‘ole hot rod went right down the track,” Force said.
FUNNY CAR TAG TEAM - Only three full-time drivers on the NHRA Mello Yello tour have yet to win a round this season entering Topeka - Pro Stock drivers Allen Johnson and Alan Prusiensky and Funny Car veteran Cruz Pedregon.
And Pedregon is hoping to get that monkey off of his back this weekend.
Pedregon and the Snap-on team have rigorously tested their Toyota Camry Funny Car this season, including a bout of testing prior to this weekend’s event in Topeka. But there was something different about this most recent round of testing.
Cruz’ brother, NHRA driver turned FOX Sports commentator Tony Pedregon, filled in behind the wheel following the Atlanta race and helped propel the machine to a 3.97, a career best for Tony.
“It was important to Aaron (Brooks) to try out some of the changes we made before we loaded the car for Kansas, and it worked out well to have Tony available, approved and ready to drive the Snap-on Toyota for us while testing near the shop in Indy. I wouldn’t let just anyone drive my race car,” Pedregon said. “Every run this season we’ve been collecting data, and we’re going to be ready to see the winning results we’ve been working towards.”
Friday night, Pedregon took a minor step forward, making a full pull right off the trailer during Q1 with a 3.922 at 324.28 mph, placing his machine temporarily fifth on the charts. He ended up bettering that number on Saturday and will start from the 10th position on Sunday with a weekend-best 3.886 at 326.24 mph.
“I am very satisfied. We tested two weeks ago with Tony driving it and that helped. We have made quite a few test runs this season trying to find that sweet spot,” said Pedregon following that Friday run. “I know we are really close, and boy does it feel good to get this Snap-on Toyota down the track, especially the first time out.”
Meanwhile, Pedregon’s crew chief, Aaron Brooks, was a little more blunt in his assessment of the run.
“I honestly didn’t care what it did, as long as it made it past the Christmas tree,” Brooks said. “Maybe there is some mojo going on here.”
FOND MEMORIES - Tommy Johnson Jr. has a lot of love for Heartland Park Topeka.
First, the Kansas-based track is only a short three hours drive from his hometown of Ottumwa, Iowa. Second, Johnson has a pole award and two previous finals at the track. Third, and most importantly, Topeka is home to a rather meaningful achievement in his illustrious career - joining the four second club.
The milestone was achieved in 1990, when Cragar wheels saluted the first 16 Top Fuel drivers to crack into the 4-second range over a quarter-mile.
“It’s kind of like going home for me,” Johnson said. “It’s so close to Iowa, so a lot of people I used to race with show up. I’ve also had a lot of different accomplishments at Heartland Park. I got into the ‘Four Second Club’ there back in the day.
“It’s just a place I always look forward to going back to each year.”
This weekend, Johnson is looking forward to getting back into the groove after three-straight races that essentially served as test sessions for the team.
“After we won, we had to go a different direction tuning the car. We had to sacrifice a couple of races, but it was needed. And with a win in our pocket, we felt now was the perfect time to try out a few things,” Johnson said. “The car just keeps getting quicker and quicker and quicker. I think this setup is getting pretty close. We can definitely race this.”
Johnson was one of seven different drivers to eclipse the 330 mph mark on Saturday, earning the fifth spot on a stacked ladder with a 3.847 at 331.61 mph.
BONUS - Think bonus points don’t matter?
With the quickest pass of the night Friday in Topeka, and then again in the final pass on Saturday, Bo Butner took over the Pro Stock points lead, surpassing Greg Anderson while becoming the first driver outside of Anderson and Jason Line to lead the points this far into the season since 2015.
Butner placed the Butner Auto Sales Chevrolet Camaro first on the charts with a 6.540-second pass at 210.70, good enough for his fifth career No. 1 qualifier and second in a row.
“It’s probably just on the right side of the ball right now,” Butner said. “We have always had a good, fast car, but now it’s starting to shine. We are not making big swings or big changes. I mean, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Butner, who has won two of the last three races with two straight pole starts, will face Mark Hogan in round one on Sunday, with the winner of that race getting a bye into the semifinals with only 14 Pro Stock cars on the property.
BABY STEPS - For two years, Erica Enders was on top of the Pro Stock world.
Back-to-back titles left Enders and the Elite Motorsports team riding a high that seemed like they would never come down from.
And then, NHRA shook things up.
A change to the class, highlighted by the change to electronic fuel injection, shuffled the field, with none taking it harder than the two-time champion.
After recording 15 wins over the previous two seasons, Enders barely contented in 2016, failing to reach a final, recording a 12-23 round win-loss record and a season finish of ninth in the standings.
But this year, the team is making baby steps back toward the top. While not having recorded a win yet this season, Elite Motorsports has visited two finals in 2017, including Enders’ first final since Las Vegas in 2015 two weeks ago in Atlanta.
“We are going to do our best to carry the momentum we picked up in Atlanta in Topeka this weekend,” Enders said. “We had a great day there in our Elite Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro. All we need to do is get one step beyond that this weekend and we’ll be back in the winner’s circle.”
One of Enders’ 21 national event victories came at Heartland Park in 2015. Topeka was also the home of Enders’ first career No. 1 qualifier back in 2006 where she became the first woman to win a Pro Stock pole.
She will start seventh on Sunday, facing teammate Vincent Nobile in round one.
A UNIQUE PERSPECTIVE – When it comes to the sport of drag racing, perhaps no one has a more unique perspective than Scott Gardner.
Gardner, current President and General Manager at Heartland Park Topeka, site of this weekend’s Menards NHRA Heartland Nationals, has seen it all in a sport where anything can, and usually does, happen.
In his decades-long career, Gardner has seen both the inner workings of a national drag racing sanctioning body and the behind-the-scenes efforts that go into hosting a major national event. He served as a track operator at a handful of facilities prior to coming to Topeka, most recently having been owner and operator at Cordova Dragway Park in Cordova, Illinois for nearly 20 years, before taking over as President of the International Hot Rod Association in 2014. In 2016, he returned to his roots, once again taking a spot at the helm of a major motorsports facility when he took the position at Heartland Park.
Since then, Gardner has helped enhance the experience for both the fans and the racers, using his unique background in both hosting national events and putting them on to better relate to his customers.
But even he is taken aback by the size of the NHRA events compared to his previous experiences.
“Both have unique challenges. From what we have here at Heartland Park Topeka and the NHRA national event facilities I’ve been to, the physical size seems to be the biggest difference,” Gardner said. “Both the size of the facilities as well as the size of the race transporters, midway, special feature attractions. As most are aware, almost every professional nitro team has more than one semi and several of the teams have multiple, so parking logistics is a challenge. Also with NHRA, the television production is much different. Overall, for me, it’s like taking the scale that I was used to and multiplying it several times over.”
For just this one event, Gardner admits that it is a time crunch to get the facility ready to host hundreds of racers and thousands of fans over a weekend.
“It’s unbelievable the amount of work to be done in a very short time frame,” Gardner said. “We are somewhat unique as we have five major road courses, of which all require attention and detail. The mowing acreage alone is over 400 and that, coupled with the fact that we are continually doing facility upgrades, presents a challenge. We are always striving to have the best facility we can for the fans and racers.”
So with the pinnacle weekend of his year well underway, what does Gardner enjoy most about the race weekend?
“Monday,” Gardner said with a laugh. “Actually, I really like when the crowd comes in and the racing is good. That is real satisfaction for myself and the team. We put so much time and effort into getting things the best we can. There are several things that can work against us to achieve the result we want, with the weather being the biggest factor, but I guess the challenge is what makes it all worthwhile.”
STREAKING – Ron Capps is not the only driver looking to do a little streaking this weekend.
While the defending Funny Car champion will look for his fourth consecutive win at the Menards NHRA Heartland Nationals this weekend, Top Fuel ace Steve Torrence will look to make it three-in-a-row.
Coming off arguably the best three-week stretch in his Top Fuel career, Torrence has advanced to three straight final rounds and has posted back-to-back victories in the Capco Contractors dragster to make it an even 10 wins for his career.
“We’re going to try to continue to do what we’ve been doing at the same pace and not slack off,” Torrence said. “If you get out of that routine and get into a different regimen, you may lose momentum. We want to continue with that same intensity. Everything we do is based on confidence and I know the car is going to be on point. We’ve made some changes to the entire setup and the car is responding well. The race car that I have right now is the best race car I’ve ever had in my life.”
Ironically, the last driver to win three-straight in Top Fuel – Doug Kalitta last year – recorded that third victory at this very race. Now Torrence will try to equal that mark against a tough field, including a handful of DSR cars that won the first five races of the year before Torrence took over.
“I’m having a blast,” Torrence said. “I’m having more fun than I probably ever have. Those guys, they want to beat me just as bad as I want to beat them, and sometimes I think you have to add a little flavor and a little color into what’s going on. Topeka was my first national event win in Top Alcohol Dragster 12 years ago and it’s a pretty neat place to race. I would love to be able to win in a (Top) Fuel car. It would be one to check off the list.”
FROM SPECTATOR TO POINTS LEADER – Sometimes, not even Leah Pritchett can believe how much things have changed in a year.
This time last year, Pritchett was a spectator when the NHRA Mello Yello series traveled to Heartland Park Topeka, using the weekends to help secure sponsorship and prove that she deserved a seat at the highest level of the sport.
One year later, Pritchett is looking for win number four on the season, holds the national elapsed time record and enters the weekend leading the Top Fuel championship standings behind the wheel of Don Schumacher Racing’s Papa John’s Pizza dragster.
While her meteoric rise up the rankings is of particular importance entering the Menards NHRA Heartland Nationals, Pritchett is not focusing on the past. She is ready to get on track and continue her incredible season.
“I’m very familiar with the Topeka race track event if I was a spectator last year,” Pritchett said. “I raced there the three years before that with Dote Racing, and in 2013 made it to the semifinals when I lost to Tony Schumacher, who’s now one of my DSR teammates.
“Going back to Topeka, I feel like after our first qualifying run on Friday, I’ll be way ahead of where I was a year ago.”
In amassing her Top Fuel best eliminations record of 19-4, the only driver to beat her more than once has been Steve Torrence. They are tied at 2-2 on the year.
Ironically, her husband of four years, Gary Pritchett, is Torrence’s clutch specialist.
“We’re ready to elevate our track performance,” Pritchett said. “We are ready to do whatever it takes to stop Steve from winning again after he took the Wally at the last two races. It’s hard not to feel like this is my biggest rivalry because it is an interesting dynamic. It’s the epitome of competition.”
BACK TO HER OLD SELF – There is nothing worse than being stuck a slump.
And that frustration is only compounded when you can’t quite find what the problem is. But after three-straight first round exits and a slide to seventh in the standings, Brittany Force is confident that the team has found the problem and are ready to get back on track this weekend.
“I’m positive that we have this bug out of our car. We’ve been struggling, and after Atlanta, my crew chiefs sat me down and said, ‘We figured out what the problem is. Now, it’s correcting it and getting better from here.’”
Force’s team installed a new front half to her car following the race in Charlotte, but rain wiped out two qualifying sessions at the following race in Atlanta, and she fell in the first round there.
But crew chief Brian Husen and tuning consultant Alan Johnson knew in Atlanta that another issue with the clutch had been found, and that was confirmed with a solid test at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis last week.
“We knew we had to come out and do some testing,” Force said. “They knew it was a problem in the clutch, and they figured it out. They knew before we got out here to test (at Indy), and we fixed it. We made four runs right down the race track, so we’re excited and ready to get to the next one. I think we’ve got our old car back.”
In Topeka, Force has earned two No. 1 qualifiers – including matching No. 1s with her sister Courtney Force in Funny Car in 2014 – and has raced to the semifinals twice in her four races. Force’s career-best elapsed time of 3.676 seconds was set here in 2016 – and matched at Phoenix earlier this season.
“Topeka is a good race track for us,” Force said. “We’ve qualified No. 1 there, but we’ve never won the thing. Topeka would be an awesome first win to the season.”
RED HOT CAPPS – Ron Capps is on fire.
Coming off of his first career NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series championship last season, Capps has kicked off his 2017 campaign in the most productive way possible, racing to four finals, three wins and an early 94-point lead over his teammate in the standings.
But it’s not just the wins and finals that are making headlines this season, it is how he is winning. Capps hasn’t lost a round since March, firing off three-straight wins in the ultracompetitive Funny Car class, while gradually climbing from fourth up into the championship lead.
In fact, in a class known for its parity, Capps is doing something that doesn’t happen very often. In the last 10 years, only three drivers have strung together a trio of wins, Robert Hight (’14, ’12, ’10), John Force (’13) and Cruz Pedregon (’08). In fact, Capps is the first non-JFR driver to pull off that feat since Pedregon in 2008.
This weekend, Capps will try to make it four straight – a feat last accomplished by Hight in 2012 – when he travels to Topeka, a track he has won at three times in his career.
“Funny Car is just getting tougher and tougher,” Capps said. “In the past, you’ve had people say you don’t want to peak too soon, but I don’t think it matters anymore. What you’re seeing is Rahn Tobler and his preparation. He is like that all the time. I’ve seen it and I’ve been with him, so I’ve known it, and it’s just cool to see it all come to fruition. When he gets a handle on something, I wouldn’t want to race against the NAPA car, I know that.”
FOND TOPEKA MEMORIES – This weekend, Robert Hight returns to where it all started: Heartland Park Topeka.
Hight’s first race with John Force Racing as a crew member was here in 1995, and he earned his Funny Car license at the track in 2004. Now, he comes back with a vengeance for the NHRA Menards Heartland Nationals, trying to put the Auto Club of Southern California Chevrolet Camaro SS in Heartland Park’s winner’s circle.
“When first started with John Force Racing in 1995, Topeka is where I started,” Hight said. “I flew into Topeka, met (crew chiefs) Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly and got started. And I got my Funny Car license in Topeka, too, in 2004. Love that place.”
Hight’s first race behind the wheel at Topeka was in 2005, and he raced to the semifinals. Hight has been to the semis in seven of his 12 races there, with victories in 2010 and 2011. The 2011 win was historic for JFR, as Hight scored the 200th victory for the team by beating teammate Mike Neff in the final round.
Adding another race victory is possibility this weekend, as crew chief Jimmy Prock, co-crew chief Chris Cunningham and the Auto Club crew has Hight’s Camaro running well. He qualified No. 4 and went to the final in Houston, qualified No. 2 in Charlotte and raced to the semifinals in Atlanta.
The surge has moved Hight to fourth in the Funny Car points standings – but he’s looking for more.
“We’re ready to get the monkey off our back and get a win,” Hight said. “Topeka’s going to be a good place to do it. We’re right there. The car is running really good. I can’t wait.”
FULL SPEED AHEAD – For the third consecutive race, Chad Head will serve as the interim driver of the Tequila Patron Funny Car for Alexis DeJoria.
Head, who was appointed the role of fill-in by DeJoria just prior to the Four-Wide Nationals, will continue to work with co-crew chiefs Nicky Boninfante and Tommy DeLago. DeJoria is hoping for a return to racing soon, but no official timetable has been given.
Since taking over, Head has suffered two-straight first round defeats.
DEJA VU – In the past five years, perhaps no track has been as difficult to repeat at than Heartland Park Topeka.
In fact, only two drivers have recorded multiple victories at the track since 2012 – Jack Beckman and Allen Johnson. And for Beckman, both of those seasons hold special places in his heart.
In 2015, Beckman had a career year with seven wins and a handful of national records – including the spring showdown in Topeka – en route to finishing second in the NHRA Mello Yello standings. In 2012, Beckman picked up his first win of the year in Topeka and went on to win the Funny Car championship.
Not a bad track record for the 24-time national event winner – and it all seems to hinge on Heartland Park success.
“Topeka has been a very pivotal race for me. In 2012, it was the first race I won (that year) and it put us on the path to eventually win the championship,” Beckman said. “Weather is a factor here and that’s what makes winning there so special. It’s a very tough track to tame because the weather changes continually. We don’t know what it has in store for us this weekend.”
And it stands to be even more critical to do well this weekend after a sluggish start that includes a nearly .500 round win-loss record and only one final round appearance for the Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge Funny Car team.
“This year our results haven’t quite met our expectations,” Beckman said. “I do think we’ve been doing all the things I think we need to do. In other words, we’ve been making changes to the car, we’ve been listening to the car and we’ve been making it a more consistent car. We’re still dealing with new parts in the bellhousing.
“We got good data on it in Atlanta two weeks ago and made it to the second round. We’re still not where we need to be, but we’re getting a lot closer.”
GOOD AND BAD ANNIVERSARY – This weekend’s NHRA Heartland Nationals will mark the 23rd anniversary of Tim Wilkerson’s very first NHRA national event win.
It is also site of Wilkerson’s still mysterious wall-slapper from one year ago that left his car broken and his ego bruised.
Wilkerson, driver of the Levi, Ray & Shoup Ford Shelby Mustang, scored his first national event victory behind the wheel of an alcohol Funny Car at Heartland Park Topeka in 1994. Since then, he has twice been runner-up at the event in a nitro-powered ride.
Last year, however, Wilkerson had a rather bizarre incident when his car lost traction just past the tree, spun around, and nosed into the wall.
But Wilkerson is ready to move on from last year’s mishap and is looking forward to turning things around this weekend.
“Topeka is kind of an anomaly, and because the air isn’t very good, the track is a lot better than the power you have,” said Wilkerson, who bumped his way into the top 10 in the standings in eighth after visiting the final round at Atlanta two weeks ago. “I had a really good day, and I thought we had a good car there last year until we had our little mishap. But we’re over that, and everybody knows we’re in it for the long haul. We don’t ever give up. If we get beat in the first round three races in a row, you know that we could come back and look like (Ron) Capps the next weekend and go on to win the next three. Everybody out here knows that’s our goal.”
WHAT A DIFFERENCE A YEAR CAN MAKE – As hard as it is to believe, at this time last year, one question and one question only was circulating the garage area – is Pro Stock racing dead?
Following a change to electronic fuel injection at the beginning of last season, some teams immediately took to the new power plant rules, while others struggled mightily with the new setups. One team in particular, the KB Racing duo of Greg Anderson and Jason Line, used this advantage to essentially school the competition, leaving in their wake very little parity in the class.
In fact, at this time last year, Anderson and Line had a combined 44-7 round win-loss record, seven wins in seven races, six top qualifier awards and 11 total finals.
This year? Things are looking much, much different.
With only the pair of Summit Racing Equipment Chevrolet Camaros having had won a race to this point a year ago, this season six different drivers have visited victory lane, including a couple of first timers.
As for Anderson and Line, they are much more human in 2017. While still impressive – and still good enough for first and third in the championship standings – only two wins and a 26-12 record fill their resume.
Still, Line is the defending race winner in Topeka, and the drivers are looking to keep hold of the class lead this weekend.
“Last year, Topeka became one of my new favorite places,” said reigning and three-time Pro Stock world champion Line. “It was an exciting weekend last time around, but the challenge will be to try to repeat. It’s always a good feeling to finally win someplace where you haven’t done well, but that’s in the past. Right now, we’re looking forward. The KB Racing team has been working hard since the last race, and we’re focused on what we can do to put a Summit Racing Chevy Camaro in the winner’s circle this year.”
As for talks of the demise of the class, those have quieted a bit in 2017.
NEW CAR SMELL – Rookie Pro Stock driver Tanner Gray premiered his new 2017 Chevrolet Camaro SS in the first round of qualifying Friday in Topeka.
Gray and company spent the early part of the week testing at Darlington Dragway preparing for this weekend’s race.
“Jerry Haas builds great race cars,” Gray said. “Partnering his chassis with the new Chevrolet Camaro SS body that minimizes aerodynamic drag should translate into an increase in competitive performance for our Gray Motorsports team. I’m excited to run it.”
Gray currently sits fourth in the NHRA Mello Yello standings with one win.
“It is fun getting the opportunity to travel the country and explore new race tracks,” said Gray, the youngest driver to win a national event in NHRA history. “I look forward to making adjustments due to different conditions.”
National event winner Shane Gray will park his ride during this weekend’s event to focus on supporting the efforts of son Tanner and teammate Drew Skillman.
NEXT BEST – Everyone knows Allen Johnson is great at Denver.
Seven victories at the mile-high track since 2007 attests to that fact. But do you know what Johnson’s best track is aside from Denver?
Topeka. Well, Topeka and Las Vegas, but for today, we will focus on the former.
Since 2009, Johnson has recorded three victories at Heartland Park, site of this weekend’s Menards Heartland Nationals, which is the most wins by any one driver at the track during that span. And for a man who hasn’t had a winless season since 2008, Johnson is hoping some of that Heartland magic comes his way this weekend.
“It’s getting to the part of the season where it’s very important to do well,” said Johnson, who currently sits 11th in the standings without a single round win to his credit this season. “We’ve made a few more gains this past week on the dyno, so we’re hoping our performance may be just a little better than it was in Atlanta. It’d be nice to get lane choice for first round and start winning some rounds.”
It hasn’t been Johnson’s best season to date, sitting 0-for-7 in round wins and a season-best start of ninth in qualifying, but the driver of the Marathon Petroleum/J&J Racing Dodge Dart hopes a turnaround is near.
“Point are important and we have to start paying attention to them because we’re not in the top ten right now,” Johnson said. “You know, we’re just going to take it round-by-round like we always do and try to get better. We have to get better to get points and win rounds.”
MY TURN – It’s tough watching everyone else having fun out on the playground while you are stuck sitting on the sideline.
That is why Drew Skillman is so excited about this weekend.
To Skillman, every weekend is another opportunity to go some rounds and, hopefully, walk away a winner.
And in a season where it seems like everyone around him is taking home Wally’s, Skillman feels it is finally his turn to taste victory.
“We know we are going to win this year and we just have to keep plugging away,” said Skillman, a three-time winner in the Pro Stock class. “We got off track, had a little bad luck, but the car’s driving a lot better. We know we can win and we’ve won before, and we’ve got as good a chance as anyone. We just have to do the best we can, keep moving forward and keep everyone on the same page.”
Through seven races this season, six different drivers have taken home a win. Skillman reached a final in only the second race of the year in Phoenix, but followed that up with a string of frustrating first-round losses. He was in the final foursome at the Four-Wide Nationals and then qualified second in Atlanta, showing signs that the team is returning to form.
“It wasn’t just the car because I wasn’t driving well,” Skillman said. “We went back to a basic setup and, for me, it was just taking a breath. I’ve done this enough and have made enough runs in my career to know what to do. It was just going back to the basic things and having fun again.”