2017 NHRA NATIONALS - LAS VEGAS-1 NOTEBOOK
BROWN DELIVERS 300TH VICTORY FOR DSR, CAPS 67TH DOUBLE-NITRO SWEEP - In a rematch of the Gatornationals Top Fuel final round two weeks ago, Antron Brown evened the score against Tony Schumacher at Sunday’s Denso NHRA Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
But Schumacher moved into the points lead as the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series moves to Houston. He’ll take a six-point edge over another DSR colleague, Leah Pritchett, into the April 21-23 Springnationals at Baytown’s Royal Purple Raceway. Brown is third in the standings, 25 off Schumacher’s pace.
Even after Sunday’s semifinal, team owner Don Schumacher was assured of his fourth Top Fuel victory in as many races. But after Tommy Johnson Jr.’s Funny Car victory over surging Jonnie Lindberg, Brown gave DSR its 300th overall triumph and 67th double-nitro dominating performance.
Brown blanked in the first three races after qualifying no worse than third. But he qualified eighth, his lowest starting position of the season, and achieved his best result. On the 1,000-foot Las Vegas course, Brown got the jump on Schumacher at the light (.038 seconds to .057) and won in 3.747 seconds at 321.04 mph in the Matco Tools/U.S. Army/Toyota Dragster.
Schumacher, the No. 2 qualifier, ran a 3.809, 325.14. But he couldn’t record back-to-back victories for the first time since the 2014 Charlotte-Dallas races (which actually both came at Ennis, Texas). Neither could he improve his haul at Las Vegas to nine victories. He has reached the semifinals or better at all four events this year.
At Gainesville, Fla., Schumacher defeated Brown, 3.703 seconds to 3.764.
This accomplishment was more than just atonement or revenge. It made Brown the only racer in Top Fuel history to claim at least one Wally trophy in 10 consecutive seasons. He had been tied with Schumacher, who earned at least one event title in nine straight (2002-2010). Sunday’s feat put him at 46 Top Fuel victories, just six behind third-place Joe Amato on the all-time Top Fuel list. He has 16 Pro Stock Motorcycle victories for 62 total.000000
Brown moved into his 110th career final round and second in four races this season by beating much-improved Scott Palmer, No. 1 qualifier Steve Torrence, and two-time 2017 winner Leah Pritchett.
“It started out as a very challenging weekend,” Brown said, “because we had something that had been plaguing us. [And] this track is hard to race at. You get different climates every day, and it’s really a crew chief race and a team race. But the Matco Tools/U.S. Army boys just went to work.”
But his third victory at Las Vegas didn’t come easy, he said: “Today, it was tough battles. In the second round against Torrence, in the semis against my teammate Leah – those guys and her are doing a phenomenal job this year. And Tony, those Army boys kicked our tails in Gainesville. When you race two of your teammates, you know you’ve got a battle on your hands because we all have the same quality parts and piece that Don provides for us.
“So when you go up against them, you’ve got to throw everything at it - especially Tony. He hasn’t won eight championships for nothing, believe me. He knows how to race, how to get wins,” Brown said. “But Brian and Mark [co-crew chiefs Corradi and Oswald] and all of our boys, we had to push hard. It’s tough out there this year. We qualified eighth this weekend, and to get that win today was pretty spectacular. I feel like I just won my first race - that’s how tough the competition is this year.”
He said, “When I think about Vegas, it’s like coming home. It has been very good to us. It seems like big things happen here. Vegas has been a crucial turning point at the beginning of the season for us. When we come back for the Toyota Nationals in the fall, the focus is on winning championships, and we’ve been fortunate to clinch here two years in a row.”
Schumacher advanced past Terry Haddock, Terry McMillen, and Doug Kalitta.
“It’s all good – the Army car is running well, the team is feeling good, at the end of the day, everything is fine,” Schumacher said. “You couldn’t ask for too much more. It was another good day for DSR and the U.S. Army.
“Antron and his team did what they had to do to win the races they had today,” he said. “They put the hammer down on that particular run against us and did a great job. They are a good race team. There is never a time that we can take them lightly.
“We’ve been more consistent to start the season than we have been in a while. The Army car is just great. Everybody on the team has confidence. We dropped a cylinder twice today, but that is going to happen. We got away with it in the second round today but not in the final. It happens; it’s OK,” Schumacher said.
“I’m just happy that our car has been going down the track since the very first run at Pomona. I’m excited because that means we can have a great car all year long and that’s how you win championships. It’ll be good to go to Houston, which is now one of my home races. We won’t go there as the winner of the last race like we did here, but we’re going there as the points leader. That’s a big deal,” Schumacher said.
By advancing to the semifinal, Doug Kalitta tied retired Pro Stock icon Bob Glidden for ninth place on the all-time list for total elimination round-wins. Both are at 597. When Kalitta reaches the 600-mark plateau, he’ll become only the ninth driver in NHRA history to do so. The Mac Tools/Toyota Dragster driver, ranked fourth in the Top Fuel standings, is inching toward the 1,000-round milestone. He has raced in 992 rounds. Susan Wade
TOMMY JOHNSON JR. HITS FUNNY CAR JACKPOT IN VEGAS - A year ago, Tommy Johnson Jr. had a career-best finish of second place in NHRA’s nitro Funny Car point standings.
Now, the veteran driver is proving he is going to be a championship contender again in 2017.
Johnson Jr. won his first race of the season, edging rookie Jonnie Lindberg in the finals of the Denso Spark Plugs Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Johnson Jr. clocked a 3.933-second elapsed time at 323.66 mph to best Lindberg’s 4.016-second elapsed at 302.14 mph.
This is Johnson Jr.’s 16th career national event win in 402 career starts.
On Sunday, Johnson Jr. ousted Jim Campbell, Robert Hight, John Force and Lindberg. Lindberg, who drives for Jim Head Racing, made his second consecutive final round appearance. He lost in the finals to John Force at the Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., March 19.
“It started off Friday with a very tricky race track and very few cars went down it,” Johnson Jr. said. “We kind of went into Saturday and said, ‘boy I hope we can figure this thing out,’ and the weather changed a little bit and we’re not used to running in those conditions. The weather changed to a little warmer race track and it came to everybody and we just made the appropriate changes like we normally would to the car and it went right down the race track. (Sunday) also was a pretty trying day as well because it was hot. It is probably the hottest we’ve seen this season yet and we’re at a little bit of altitude so that changes the tune-up and it kind of changes the clutch curve, so the guys really have to work at it and they did a great job.”
Johnson Jr. set the stage for race day with a 3.943-second elapsed time to beat Campbell.
“When we came out first round and was low ET by three hundredths, I thought ‘Oh it is going to be a good day. We dropped a hole second round and we had a decent run in the semis and a nice run in the finals. They figured it out and made some changes in the final.”
Johnson was thrilled to reach the winners circle again, especially at The Strip in Las Vegas.
“This is such a great facility,” he said. “You come in the gate and you have a good feeling because you’ve had some success here. I’ve had one here in Vegas prior to this, but I’ve had two or three runner-ups. Last year wasn’t so good and it was good to come back and redeem myself. I saw John (Collins, Johnson’s crew chief) dive into the box for all the adjustments for the clutch and the timers for ignition and he was confident about it. It’s kind of neat to have chemistry with your crew chief and I can tell by the look on his face and the way he carries himself if he’s confident or if he’s scratching his head a little bit. When I saw him shut the lid in the box, I thought that we were going to be good.” Tracy Renck
TANNER GRAY MAKES HISTORY WITH VEGAS PRO STOCK WIN - It didn't take Pro Stock driver Tanner Gray long to write his name in NHRA's record book.
Gray, in just his fourth career NHRA start, captured his first Wally and at 18 years old became the youngest driver in NHRA history to win a national event in a pro class.
Gray made history by snaring a hole shot victory over Bo Butner Sunday in the finals of the Denso Spark Plugs Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“It’s indescribable, especially since my dad (Shane) did it here last year (in the fall race, Oct. 30),” Tanner said. “It’s really cool to come here and do that, and that’s the same car he won in. I think this car works good with this track and it’s a cool feeling, there’s nothing quite like it. I was pretty pumped up when I won and very excited.”
Gray clocked 6.681-second elapsed time at 206.61 mph to Butner's quicker 6.678-second lap at 206.76 mph. The difference was at the starting line. Gray had a .010 reaction time while Butner had a .088 reaction time.
"I was pretty nervous coming up (to the finals)," Gray said. “This is something I wanted to do since I was real young and finally got the opportunity to do it when I started this deal, and I told my dad (Shane) I wanted to be the youngest Pro Stock winner, and to do that is really cool.”
Tanner is now NHRA’s youngest series champion (pro) at 18 years, 11 months. Tanner turns 19 on April 15. Pro Stock Motorcycle rider LE Tonglet was the youngest pro race winner at 20 years, 11 months in 2010.
This was the second Pro Stock win in as many races for the Gray family. Shane Gray won the Gatornationals March 19 in Gainesville, Fla. Tanner also becomes the first third-generation pro winner in the same family in NHRA history. Johnny Gray, a seven-time NHRA national event pro winner, is Tanner’s grandfather.
“They (his dad, and grandfather) just said they are proud of me,” Tanner said. “I told them thank you for everything and I definitely would not be here without them.”
Tanner’s accomplishment didn’t come easy as he defeated Deric Kramer and Summit Racing world champion drivers Greg Anderson and Jason Line in consecutive rounds before ousting fellow Summit Racing driver Butner in the finals.
“I can’t thank everybody enough,” Tanner said. “There definitely the reason I’m standing here and I do a small part. It feels really cool. I just focus on my job of driving and I let Dave (Connolly, his crew chief) make the calls. I trust those guys, that they are going to give me a good race car and I think they trust me that I’m going to do my job.”
Tanner proved himself in circle track racing before coming onto NHRA’s Pro Stock scene, and he didn’t change his mind set when he started drag racing.
“It’s a different type of racing, obviously, and this racing is just more intense for a short amount of time,” Tanner said. “That racing (circle track) you have to stay calm and have more of strategy to what you are doing. Up here, you’re going up here and you’re trying to crack the tree as best as you can and if the cards fall your way, they fall your way.” Tracy Renck
SATURDAY - TOP FUEL’S PRITCHETT SEEMINGLY EVERYWHERE; WILKERSON, FORCE HOOD SHARE LAS VEGAS MEMORY; HUGGINS BACK ON THE TRACK IN PRO STOCK
PRITCHETT THE PUBLIC FACE OF NHRA DRAG RACING – Leah Pritchett was in the winners circle at the first two races of this Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season. Pretty soon the Top Fuel phenom will be on television commercials for her dragster sponsors, Papa John’s Pizza and Dodge – and she’ll trade her driving shoes for a pair of heels April 14 as she walks the red carpet at the New York premiere of “The Fate of the Furious” action film.
Among Pritchett’s filming gigs away from the dragstrip are promotions for the movie that’s the eighth installment in “The Fast and Furious” franchise. It’s the first since the death of star Paul Walker, and Pritchett will be mingling with such Hollywood notables as Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Charlize Theron, and Helen Mirren.
The Papa John’s national ad, which she participated in last week in sub-freezing wind-chill conditions near Indianapolis with "Papa John" Schnatter, will air this summer.
She said, “I don't look forward to having two weeks away from the track. I love when we race back-to-back weekends. I don't mind the work that it takes and I really miss the atmosphere when we're not racing.”
Pritchett and the rest of the NHRA pro drivers will have 19 days after this race before they fire up their engines again. The next stop on the tour is the April 21-23 Springnationals at the Houston suburb of Baytown, Texas – followed in successive weekends with races at Concord, N.C., and Commerce, Ga.
She started this weekend with a visit to a North Las Vegas Papa John’s Pizza store, signing free posters.
Pritchett, who said this facility “has a hometown feel for me,” got back in the groove Friday and continued Saturday to be a top-five racer. She settled into the No. 5 position and is set for a first-round meeting in Sunday eliminations with No. 12 qualifier Troy Buff, last year’s runner-up to Antron Brown.
She blamed herself for her victory streak ending. “I'll take the hit on that, but it's not like I'm getting super, super down about it,” she said. “I did the best job that I thought that I could do [at Gainesville] and the car is obviously there. So I'm personally taking on how to improve and become an even better race car driver.”
TORRENCE STAYS NO. 1 – Steve Torrence might have to wait until the quarterfinals Sunday to find out if he has his top-performing Capco Contractors Dragster back completely. He’ll start his march toward back-to-back Las Vegas victories with a bye round, out-qualifying a short field of 14 other competitors.
“I think we have our race car back,” he said Saturday after securing his 14th career No. 1 qualifying position with Friday’s 3.720-second, 327.03-mph pass. “I don’t want to speak too soon.”
The winner here last October and the No. 1 starter at this event last spring, Torrence said he and his team “seem to have a handle on the conditions here and . . . run well out of the trailer.” However, he said, that’s a result of making “the right decisions initially.”
As Torrence spoke, his team plane already was on its way to Montana to fetch crew chief Richard Hogan, who is recuperating from illness. Torrence said he has been communicating all weekend with Hogan by phone. He said key crew member Bobby Lagana, a seasoned racer and tuner himself, has stepped up in Hogan’s absence.
“He’s been nervous, on edge. I’m proud of the way he’s handling it,” Torrence said. As for Hogan, he said, “We’ll get him here. We’ll sit him down and tie him to a chair.”
McMILLEN ELATED – Terry McMillen said before Saturday qualifying began that he was aiming for a 3.7-second pass in the final qualifying session. He didn’t dip into the 3.7s, but he wasn’t far off the mark. He already had improved from his Friday-best elapsed time of 4.472 seconds with a 3.962 in the third overall session. He closed qualifying with a 3.825-second pass at 319.82 mph, his top speed for the weekend. That was good enough for a No. 10 berth in the line-up and a Round 1 meeting with No. 7 starter Troy Coughlin Jr.
“We’ve got a real good car. This weekend we’re in full test mode,” McMillen said. “We have something we think is going to help us make our car more consistent than it already has been. So while we were struggling the first two sessions, we believe we’ll go out there and pick it up a little bit more and hopefully in Q4 we can get it back in the 70s where it belongs.”
That part didn’t go to script but McMillen said he’s optimistic, especially after Friday qualifying. No matter. McMillen said, “If it doesn’t work, we can put our old system back on and make it work. We know it can run a mid-70 all day long.”
As for yesterday’s qualifying, he said, “The track got really tight. But there were some things that happened on our run last night when we were able to do some stuff and drive through some tire shake and all that where others couldn’t. And it’s all because of what we’re trying to do here.”
McMillen said crew chief Rob Wendland “has been busting his butt” making the Don Schumacher Motorsports-built Amalie Oil Dragster run competitively and repeat. Veteran tuner Johnny West has been on board all season long “as another set of eyes for Rob.”
The owner-driver said, “I’m excited about our opportunities. I’ve never had the opportunities we’ve had this year. Don Schumacher certainly has helped us. Now we’re trying to take what we have a step farther. It may work and it may not. But I’m pretty confident that we’re heading in a direction that’s going to be a benefit. I truly believe in Rob and that this is the direction we need to go.
“We’ve always had flashes where we have brilliant moments, then we have a disastrous moment. But this year we went to Pomona – never tested the car or anything – and ran [3.]75 right off the bat, first time in a brand-new car,” McMillen said. “It’s because of Rob, the leadership and the expectation he has put on the guys.”
Without a real turnover in personnel, Wendland is freed up, in McMillen’s words, “to concentrate on what the car needs. He’s been able to put a program together that’s given us a consistent car. We’re not hurting the car – and we’re running faster. I can’t express my excitement for where we’re heading.”
OTHER PAIRINGS – Terry Haddock (15th) will take on Tony Schumacher (second) in Round 1. No. 13 Steve Faria’s first opponent will be No. 4 Brittany Force. Scott Palmer, the No. 9 qualifier, drew No. 8 Antron Brown.
WILKERSON, FORCE HOOD SHARE MEMORY – Tim Wilkerson and the rest of the Mello Yello Series racers just completed the Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla., two weeks ago. But for Wilkerson, that marked the start of his third decade in the Funny Car class. (He debuted there in 1996.) And by the time he gets to the next race after this one, at Baytown, Texas, the Levi, Ray & Shoup Ford Shelby Mustang owner-tuner-driver will have competed at 450 events.
Though he insists he isn’t underfunded and he nearly won the 2008 championship, the independent racer remains “the underdog” and “the little guy,” the working man’s hero. And that 2008 run at the title, after which he finished second in the standings with six victories in seven rounds, took fire here at Las Vegas.
"I started my '08 onslaught here in Vegas, and I beat Ashley Force [Hood] in the final," Wilkerson said. "That's still a great memory for us, because Ashley is such a great kid. We were happy to be in the finals together, but I didn't want to be in the record book as the first person she ever beat for the trophy.
"The first thing I told her when we got out was, 'You're the last person I ever wanted to race here, because I didn't want to lose to you. I didn't want to be that stat. But at the same time, I would have been so happy if you'd have won,' " he said. "She's the sweetest kid in the world, and she gave me a big hug and said, 'I'm so happy you won.' I was lucky enough to win that race, but I don't think I would have cared either way, to tell you the truth. Ashley is just a special person. That's my Las Vegas memory I'll never forget."
Today she’s a mother of sons Jacob and Noah. She has her license up to date but prefers to focus on her family while husband Dan Hood tunes her sister Courtney’s Funny Car at John Force Racing.
“I wouldn’t be surprised at all if my boys somehow ended up in the sport, just because it’s such a huge part of our family. Our lives are definitely intertwined with the sport. It’ll be whatever they want to do, and I will support them, just as my parents did for me.”
“[Jacob] loves pretending to work on cars. I’d be more thinking he’d end up on that side of it, the mechanics of it. I don’t know if he’d be interested in driving. It’s so early; it’s so hard to tell. [Noah’s] the outgoing one. Maybe someday little Noah will race and Jacob will tune the car. It’s so far away,” she said, recalling her childhood days with pal Steven Densham, racer Gary Densham’s son and a racer today himself. She and Steven would play on the playground, Steven pushing her in a swing as they pretended she was the driver of their race car and he was the crew chief.
So maybe that brings back memories for Wilkerson, whose sons Dan and Kevin have been involved with his racing team, too.
“The crew guys are great. My boys absolutely adore the crew guys. They’re all so good to them. It could be different. They could say, ‘These kids are in our way! They spilled milk in the tow van! They went to the bathroom in their diaper in the tow van!’ They could complain if they wanted to. But they’re totally understanding. We usually ride in my dad’s tow van because there’s more room for us,” she said last summer, adding that last year’s crew, at least, had a pre-run ritual of passing chewing gum around and high-fiving. She said they always have included her sons.
“It’s a crazy-competitive sport, and we’re so happy to have it still be a family environment – that they’re able to put up with a three-and four-year-old racing their cars on the tops of their heads when they’re sitting in the tow van, going up for the final round. That’s a lot to put up with, but it’s a good group,” she said.
Wilkerson’s sons are adults, as is daughter Rachel. But he and wife Krista can speak Force Hood’s language. They’ve been there, making memories through the years.
And Wilkerson will be looking for more moments here this weekend that will live in his memory: maybe a 21st victory in a 38th final-round appearance.
He’ll start his quest Sunday as No. 3 qualifier with a match-up against No. 14 Robert Hight.
OTHER MATCH-UPS – Alexis DeJoria, who earned her lone 2016 victory at this event, took eighth place in the order and will race No. 9-qualified Kalitta Motorsports teammate JR Todd in Round 1 of this year’s runoffs.
“That'll be fun,” she said. “We've always got something on race day. You never know what will happen. This track has been good to us in the past and hopefully it will be good to us again tomorrow.”
It will be two battles between champions when No. 2 Matt Hagan meets No. 15 Del Worsham and No. 5 Jack Beckman faces No. 12 Cruz Pedregon. Ron Capps, the No. 4 starter, will race No. 13 Jonnie Lindberg. Other pairings include No. 7 John Force versus No. 10 Phil Burkart Jr. and No. 6 Tommy Johnson Jr. versus No. 11 Jim Campbell. Missing the cut were Jeff Arend, Bob Bode, and John Hale.
MANY HAPPY RETURNS – Tom Huggins, making his first appearance since his Dodge Dart plowed into the sand at the season-opening Winternationals, showed how much he wants to dwell on that incident that damaged the car and left him with a DNQ. He made a mock-horrified face and playfully stuck out his tongue as if to say, “Bleeeech!”
Jeff Perley, who guides the mostly volunteer crew, said Huggins had planned to compete at both Las Vegas races and the July event at Sonoma but missed the Phoenix race because of the mishap.
He said the trouble at Pomona was the parachutes.
“The ‘chutes malfunctioned and didn’t open correctly. There’s an air trigger to open the ‘chutes, and that didn’t work. Manually it wouldn’t open, either. Tom was on the handle, trying to get it open, and it wouldn’t. Matter of fact, when it was in the dirt and it was all done, NHRA couldn’t get them to open,” Perley said. “So whatever it was, it was something big.”
Consequently, he said, “It knocked the front end off of it. Chassis-wise, everything was fine. The car was pretty much intact. The only thing that really got hurt was . . . just the actual bodywork. Nothing [was bent] to speak of,” he said.
“The way the front end was, we probably could’ve pieced it together and tried to do something. He didn’t want to give up. But it’s a very different mindset when you do it for fun and when you do it for a living,” he said. In the latter case, Perley said, “there is no option of missing a run. You know that you have to get things ready. It’s automatic. When you do it for fun, there is the option: I don’t have to be at the next event. I don’t have anybody I have to represent other than myself. I can do it at my pace. I can enjoy it.”
Perley said Huggins even “enjoyed the repair on the car, not that you want to fix your race car. But it’s all a learning experience. It helps you get better in the interest of being more competitive.”
The bottom line, he said is that Huggins is back in business.
“Tom got a brand-new front end, and they did all the mounting and lay-up themselves. So it’s ready to go again.”
MATCHES FOR SUNDAY – No. 1 Jason Line will enjoy a bye run in the first round of eliminations Sunday. No. 2 Jeg Coughlin will square off against No. 15 Tom Huggins, and No. 3 Bo Butner will race No. 14 Alan Prusiensky. The rest of the pairings are K&N Horsepower Challenge winner and No. 4 starter Greg Anderson versus No. 13 Allen Johnson, Tanner Gray (5) vs. Derek Kremer (12), Vincent Nobile (6) vs. Erica Enders (11), Chris McGaha (7) vs. Matt Hartford (10), and Drew Skillman (8) and Shane Gray (9).
FRIDAY - DSR APPROACHING MILESTONE BUT TORRENCE STEALS SPOTLIGHT, TODD HOSTS IMPRESSED RALLYCROSS STAR, K&N HORSEPOWER TO HIGHLIGHT SATURDAY ACTION
300TH ON HORIZON FOR DSR – Don Schumacher Racing, which has won all three Top Fuel finals and No. 1 qualifying positions this season, earned its 298th title at Gainesville with Tony Schumacher’s victory. If DSR is able this weekend to win multiple titles at the same event for the 67th time since 2003, it will reach 300 NHRA Wally trophies.
KALITTA MOVING TOWARD MILESTONES – Doug Kalitta’s next victory will push him past Pro Stock icon Bob Glidden for ninth place on the all-time list for total elimination round-wins. Kalitta has 594, Glidden 597. He expects to reach the 600-mark plateau, and when he does, he’ll become only the ninth driver in NHRA history to do so.
The Mac Tools Dragster driver, ranked fourth in the Top Fuel standings, also is hoping to close in on the 1,000-round milestone. He’s at 989. And surely he’ll make these goals, if Leah Pritchett’s endorsement counts.
Pritchett beat him in the final at Pomona but lost to him in Round 2 at Gainesville. After her victory mini-streak ended at the Gatornationals, she said, "I would say that Doug is one of the most intimidating cars right now. That car is incredibly intimidating, and we brought everything we had to that party.”
Kalitta said he’s confident in his Jim Oberhofer-stamped tune-up and in his chances to win this weekend. He has two Wally trophies from here, but both came at the fall race. However, he has reached the final round at this event three times and has led the field twice, but not since 2005.
TORRENCE WANTS 36TH STRAIGHT START – Steve Torrence leads the active Top Fuel class in a qualifying streak: he has driven his Capco Contractors Dragster to the top half of the starting lineup at 35 straight races. Ranked sixth in the standings, he’s trying to break Don Schumacher Racing’s control. Leah Pritchett won the first two races (at Pomona, Calif., and Phoenix) from the No. 1 qualifying position, and Tony Schumacher followed suit at Gainesville, Fla.
“The DSR cars have been kicking our butts so far. Maybe we can start giving them some payback,” Torrence said. He said his performances haven’t been as consistent as they were last October, when he won the race here, “but I think we’re getting there. We’ll see if we have something for them this week.”
He did, indeed. Torrence held onto the No. 1 position he staked himself to in the day’s first session with his 3.720-second elapsed time at a class-fastest 327.03 mph.
Motivated to perform well for crew chief Richard Hogan – who’s home at Ennis, Mont., mending from an appendectomy – Torrence seized the early Friday lead with a pass of 3.720 seconds at 327.03 mph.
“We love racing with that guy,” Bobby Lagana said of Hogan. “We’d do anything for him.”
Hogan is expected to be at the track by Sunday’s eliminations.
Torrence’ experience so far in Top Fuel, he said, is a little bit surreal,” to go “from a kid who raced Super Comp with his dad to the driver for a Top Fuel team that can contend for the championship. We’ve been super-blessed. We just have to keep working hard and keep trying to get better, because we know everyone else is doing the same.”
Torrence said, “Racing is like the shooting sports. To succeed you need hand-eye coordination, focus, and consistency. In shooting, whether it’s with firearms or the bow and arrow, the goal is to fire tight shot groups and consistently place those groups in the same location. That’s also our goal with the race car. We want the car to perform the same way in either lane in all conditions. And while we don’t expect to always run 3.60s, we do always expect to run as quickly as whoever else is in contention.”
TODD HOSTS RALLYCROSS STAR – JR Todd began the weekend fifth among the 18 Funny Car entrants with a 3.949-second elapsed time at 318.84 mph (the better of his two passes Friday). What made that run even more satisfying was that he got to host Red Bull Global Rallycross (GRC) Lite racer Alex Keyes for a first-time up-close-and-personal drag-racing experience.
Top Fuel-experienced Todd, almost as new inside the DHL Toyota Camry Funny Car as Keyes is at standing behind these 10,000-horsepower beasts, will have a chance next week to try out Keyes’ 300-horsepower Dreyer and Reinbold Racing modified production car. Keyes will tutor Todd before he takes a few laps this coming Tuesday, April 4, in a GRC test at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis. Then Keyes will take Todd for a ride-along in a two-seater to complete the crossover promotion arranged through their mutual sponsor, WIX Filters.
The saying that March comes in like a lion and out like a lamb simply wasn’t true Friday, the final day of the month and the first day of Keyes’ drag-racing indoctrination. With a backdrop of unseasonably chilly temperatures, a brisk wind, and threatening skies, the massive roar of Todd’s DHL Camry – and that of the other Funny Car drivers – captured Keyes’ attention.
“I watched about 10 passes. When the first car ran, I wasn’t looking. I was just kind of like talking and looking at the stands. And I jumped. I jumped pretty big,” Keyes said after being jolted by the startling roar and ingesting a massive dose of nitromethane. “Then I figured out the light sequence so I could anticipate it.”
John Procida, of Toyota, had warned him about what drag-racing regulars call “sensory overload,” and Keyes said he was grateful: “Otherwise I would have been out there, saying, ‘Help! There’s something wrong with me! Medic!’”
“I’ve watched it on TV, and I didn’t realize how fast they actually are going. TV doesn’t do it justice, that’s for sure,” he said. “On TV it’s still interesting to watch. When you come here and you see it firsthand, you realize how crazy it is. If someone hasn’t seen it in person, they need to. On TV it’s cool, but to come here and feel it is something totally different.”
By way of comparison Keyes said of Funny Cars, “At 1,000 feet, them going more than 300 is crazy. A Supercar in GRC has a turbocharged, four-cylinder engine. It goes from zero to 60 in about 1.9 seconds. These things [Funny Cars] blow it away. They go from zero to 300 in two seconds. Everything here is accelerated, times 100.”
Keyes said he was amazed that the entire Funny Car blast is done in less than four seconds. While his Rallycross car also has a standing-still start on a course that customarily features 10 turns, he said, “Within our first four seconds, we probably would make it to the first corner. With our cars, we have to slip the clutch. Otherwise they’ll stall. We don’t even have enough power to spin the wheels. It’s an all-wheel-drive car.” He said he’s confident that against Funny Cars, “we definitely would beat ‘em in the corners.”
He said tire pressure “is a big deal for us. We definitely run a lot higher pressure. If you took a corner with the amount of pressure they run in these cars, it’d be a little scary. You probably would fold the tire off the rim.”
It’s not likely Keyes will ditch Rallycross for NHRA drag racing. “I love so much what I’m doing. I think I’d be nervous about going 300 miles an hour,” he said. “Oh yeah – that’s fast. It’s pretty crazy. They get going quickly.”
However, he said, “This is something I can see myself being a fan of.”
Perhaps Todd will take just as easily to Global Rallycross.
“I think it’s going to be totally different,” Keyes said. “What I do is all about brake pressure. In my car, you have to be smooth and gentle on the throttle. This thing [the Funny Car], as soon as it goes, it’s gone. The speed’s not going to be what he’s used to, so that part won’t be a challenge. The challenge is going to be more like breaking points and downshifting. [In the Funny Car], there’s a lot going on in there. When you’re going that fast, it just makes it 10-times harder. He’s had plenty of driving experience, so I think it’s going to be fun.”
Todd, a Funny Car newcomer, still is trying to master his Camry.
"I'm getting there," Todd, who slipped to the provisional sixth-place spot overnight, said. "The more races we have, the more comfortable I get. We went back to the shop after Gainesville to adjust my seat and some other things in the car to get me a little more comfortable, and the car has shown progress. The last few races, we've just had dumb mechanical things happen that have plagued us, and once we get all that sorted out, I think we'll be a threat come Sunday."
SWEET MELODY FOR FORCE – John Force, the most recent Funny Car winner, is hearing things. “The music,” he calls it. That’s his term for a hard-to-define vibe, some deep-in-your-soul satisfaction, some Muse-inspired message of hope and encouragement. It’s another of his buzz-phrases, like “evolving” and “B2B” and “My wife loves me – she just don’t like me.” But it’s clear he is humming to “the music,” which started when he decided to flip-flop crews and crew chiefs with teammate Robert Hight just a week before the Gatornationals two weeks ago.
“I got all wound up and crazy because I won,” said Force, who’s on points leader Matt Hagan’s heels, just 70 points off the pace in second place. “I never thought it would come together so quickly; I thought it was going to take time. But Neff and Jimmy Prock – they’re unbelievable. We got the win, and the rest is history.”
Ah, but he wants to make more history. And what would be more Las Vegas-ish than earning his seventh victory at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend? It would be his third spring-race victory.
He’s ninth with two final qualifying sessions set for Saturday.
“We’ve got a lot of work cut out for us this weekend,” Force said. “One, you got to qualify. Two, you got to race. Three, got a test on Monday. And we look forward to all those things. But it will be great. We look forward to the fans there; they’re great. And who doesn’t love Las Vegas?”
He won here last October, defeating daughter Courtney Force for his 147th victory and setting the track speed record at 331.94 mph. “I’ve had a lot of big wins here,” Force said. “We’re hearing the music and excited to be back. All of John Force’s cars are hearing the music. Viva Las Vegas.”
HAS IT REALLY BEEN 10 YEARS?! – A decade has gone by since Jack Beckman scored his first Funny Car victory – his first in the nitro ranks – here at Las Vegas. The Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge Charger driver for Don Schumacher Racing said, “Frankly, I'm frustrated that I bagged a win there in 2006 and haven't been able to close the deal since then. It's the track on the NHRA tour where I have the most seat time because of all the Sportsman racing I did there. I have a lot of history with that facility and it's one of the three tracks on tour when we have two shots a year to get a win."
Beckman was No. 1 qualifier her at both races last season but fell in the second round at both of those races.
So far he’s in the top half of the order at No. 8.
CAPPS IS CHARITY KARTING CHAMP AGAIN – Ron Capps is not just the NHRA Funny Car champion. He’s not just one of the class leaders in career victories at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with five (2012, 2011, 2009, 2005, 2001). He’s also King of the Track at Sonoma Raceway.
For the fourth year in a row, Capps was the top NHRA racer this past weekend at the Tour de Charity at the Sonoma Raceway Karting Center. It was a fan-racer fundraiser event that helped the Sonoma Chapter of Speedway Children’s Charities raise more than $17,500. The 15th annual classic, which pitted fans against NHRA racers for a day of karting at the facility’s challenging kart track, raised $12,445 for Speedway Children’s Charities. That brought total for the event to more than $163,000.
Fellow Funny Car champion Jack Beckman and Pro Stock Motorcycle racer Scotty Pollacheck, rider of the Petrolhead Buell, also participated.
“A lot of these people come to the NHRA races at Sonoma, but we don’t get to spend a lot of time with them,” Beckman said. He said it was a “chance I get to bond with them and talk about stuff you don’t get to at the drag races. It’s a chance to be a normal guy hanging out with people who want to do something good for their communities.”
Capps clocked the best lap on the 16-turn, three-quarter-mile circuit at one minute, 3.853 seconds. Dave Dave Shively, a fan from Fairfield, Calif., took top honors in one minute, 2.09 seconds.
While all that was memorable, the task for Capps this weekend is to forget. He needs not to dwell on the fact he red-lit at Pomona in the first race of the year or the fact he crossed the center line at Gainesville in them lost recent race when he had an easy victory against tire-smoking Matt Hagan. Capps needs to erase any memories of his two failures in the past five years to qualify at this event.
"That weekend was one of the most important of the year to us winning the championship,” Capps said. “We learned more about what the car wanted and even more about ourselves. After a couple more races it started to improve, and then we really got hot. I truly believe Las Vegas in the spring last year is why we did so well after that. But I don't plan to not qualify this weekend so we can completely replay last year."
He started the weekend in the No. 4 position, so he can relax a little.
NO WHEELIES IN THE PLAN – Cruz Pedregon is looking for his first top-half starting position by Saturday and his first round-win of 2017 Sunday. After a test session following the most recent race, at Gainesville, Fla., the Snap-on Toyota Camry owner-driver said he is “continuing to build a good database of runs for Aaron [crew chief Brooks] to work from." Pedregon ran a 3.98-second elapsed time at 316 mph among his test passes, which were comparable but not as quick or fast as two of his three qualifying performances so far this season. But he said, “We're getting the Funny Car where we want it to be."
He’s just aiming not to gain the kind of attention he had at his previous visit here at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with his 700-foot wheelstand that gave him a first-round victory against Robert Hight but damaged his chassis when it slammed down and sidelined him the rest of that day.
That car was the now-retired “El Chingon,” so Pedregon will race “El Guapo, “the handsome one,” this weekend.
Brooks said, “We've been purposeful with testing, and we're seeing good information we can use,” adding that he hopes this visit will result in a “wheelie-less Las Vegas race."
Pedregon landed in the No. 7 spot after two qualifying sessions Friday.
BUT SOMETHING’S STILL MISSING – Points leader Matt Hagan has two championships, 24 victories, the current Funny Car national records for elapsed time (3.822 seconds) and speed (335.57 mph), and two triumphs and the points lead after three races this season. However, he never has won at Las Vegas. He lamented, "Vegas is something that has kind of eluded me for a while. Ten years of my career and I've never won there. Been to the final three times, the semis a lot, but have never won Vegas."
He still is a bit irked about his first-round loss two weeks ago at the Gatornationals: “I thought we had a good enough car to win Gainesville, but we got stuck over in that [less preferred] right lane and we just couldn't get down it." As for this weekend, he said before qualifying began, “I think we definitely have a good enough car to win. I'm excited about Vegas, not so much about the bells and whistles and all that but I'm excited to get focused and try to turn on some win lights on Sunday."
He’s off to a strong start, leaping in the second session Friday from the No. 18 spot in the order to No. 2, only one-thousandth of a second slower than provisional leader Courtney Force.
HIGHT READY FOR VEGAS CHALLENGE – Robert Hight was the No. 2 qualifier at the most recent race, showing signs of improvement with the team swap that gave him Jimmy Prock back as his crew chief. So his momentum is reaching a crescendo, he indicated. And why not?
“Jimmy and I have won Las Vegas quite a few times, and I’m the winningest Funny Car driver in this race at Las Vegas [with three victories]. We’ve gotten it done before, and we know how to do it.”
Hight has advanced to the final round five times at this Las Vegas event and three time here in the NHRA’s fall return. In 2015, he reached the final round at both races here. The Auto Club Camaro driver is 24-9 in elimination rounds in this spring event and 38-18 in elimination rounds at this facility.
However, he said, “Vegas is challenging, because you’re halfway to Denver [in elevation]. You’re at 2,000 feet, so it’s challenging to make power. But we’re up for it.”
Hight is 12th heading into Saturday’s two qualifying sessions that will set the field for Sunday eliminations.
HEADING IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION – Del Worsham, determined to qualify higher on the ladder than 16th like he did at Gainesville two weeks ago, said, “We’re getting tough first-round draws.” Moreover, he said, “We want to improve on just making good, clean runs down the track. We’re smoking the tires right now, and that’s not the kind of racing that we set out to do. We set out to have a car that was consistent on the track, even if it wasn’t the fastest car. I really wasn’t hoping for back-to-back first round losses, but it’s so early in the season and there’s still a lot of opportunity out there.”
He said he thinks the mechanical gremlins, such as the stuck clutch valve that caused him to smoke the tires in the first round of the Gatornationals, are behind him and his Lucas Oil Toyota Camry team after a Monday test at the Florida racetrack.
“I wouldn’t say we’re in a position where I feel desperate at this point, but we definitely need to turn it around and start putting down some good runs,” he said.
Worsham is a single point out of the top 10.
Even though he’s operating on a more measured budget than he has been used to in recent years, Worsham said, “I have the same goals: qualifying for every single event, trying to compete to win an event, and if everything works out perfectly, I would want nothing more than to race for a championship and make the Countdown.”
Right now he’s 15th in the lineup with two more chances Saturday to improve.
K&N HORSEPOWER CHALLENGE SET FOR SATURDAY – No. 1 seed Jason Line and points leader Greg Anderson and will headline the K&N Horsepower Challenge, a bonus race that’s built into Saturday qualifying here at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
The race pits the eight Pro Stock drivers who have accumulated the most qualifying points during at events since the 2016 Denso Spark Plugs NHRA Nationals through this year’s recently completed Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals. The top seven drivers clinch a berth in the challenge, and the eighth spot is awarded to the winner of an online fan vote.
The winner of the K&N Horsepower Challenge will earn $50,000, and the runner- up will receive $10,000. The two semifinalists take home $3,000 each, and the four first-round finishers earn $2,500 each. (The No. 1 qualifier in at each national event is awarded a $3,000 bonus, as well.)
Anderson was last year’s winner for a record fifth time, despite the fact he lost traction on the launch, because his Summit Racing Equipment teammate Jason Line’s Camaro broke on the starting line.
He’ll square off in the first round Saturday against two-time winner Allen Johnson. Other opening-round pairings pit Line and fan-vote winner Erica Enders, Bo Butner versus Drew Skillman, and Shane Gray against Vincent Nobile.
Jeg Coughlin, the second-most successful in the K&N Horsepower Challenge among active drivers with three triumphs, didn’t qualify this time. But he supported Elite Motorsports teammate Enders.
"Way to go Erica!" Coughlin said. "I'm glad the vote worked out for our race team, and we'll be supporting Erica all the way. A huge 'thank-you' to everyone that voted for me and for all my friends that reached out and supported us. Next time we'll do it the old-fashioned way and earn one of the top seven spots."
Enders said. "I feel so blessed and I am so thankful for [the fans’] incredible support. We will do everything we can to show our appreciation by running the wheels off this Elite Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro to try and win this year's K&N Horsepower Challenge."
(From 2013 on, Enders has been a nearly unstoppable force at this racetrack. She was runner-up at the '13 K&N Horsepower Challenge, then recorded a streak of 23 elimination-round wins at The Strip. The run included victories at the spring and fall national events and the K&N Challenge in both 2014 and 2015. It finally ended in the semifinals of last year's Challenge.)
"We had a dream run, for sure," Enders said. "That's pretty darn rare for drag racers, because we all know that only one person wins on a given weekend. All the credit in the world goes to [team owner] Richard Freeman and this crew. We've been through the highs and lows as an unbreakable family. It may have looked easy but I assure you it wasn't. That was some of the toughest racing ever, but we came out on top every time."
For Johnson, who’s making his 14th appearance since the K&N Horsepower Challenge began in 1985, the opportunity is as much for his manufacturer as it is for himself and his team.
“Being the only Mopar in the K&N Horsepower Challenge and the only full-time Mopar in Pro Stock, it motivates our whole Marathon Petroleum/J&J Racing team to get our car competitive so we can stand out in this bonus race,” Johnson said. “Standing out among the other manufactures always is extra motivation. When we started out, it was the same way. We were the only Mopar out there from ’96 to ’98.
“That 2013 double-up was real exciting. Another double-up would be great but just to be in a competitive position to win either race right now would be a very big plus.”
Johnson is tied with Matt Hartford for 11th place in the Mello Yello Series standings.
Idle racer Kurt Johnson won the K&N bonus race four times; Bob Glidden, Warren Johnson, and Larry Morgan each won three times; Enders and Johnson joined Jim Yates and Bruce Allen as two-time winners.
“Vegas is a big, big race," Anderson said. "it's one of the biggest of the year, because you have that chance to double up and win twice in one weekend. There's a lot on the line.”
Speaking of Line, Jason Line never has won but has finished as runner-up four times.
"The K&N Horsepower Challenge has lived up to its name for me – it's been a challenge. But it's one I look forward to," Line said. "One of these years, I'm going to win that thing, and I'm doing my best to make that happen this year. There have been many times I've had a good car and just couldn't make it happen, whether I haven't driven well or I've had some bad luck, but that's just racing. It's just not easy, but it's not supposed to be. That's what makes it special when you do win that K&N trophy."
Said Anderson, "I love that K&N Horsepower Challenge race. It's all about prestige and that fantastic trophy. I look forward to it all year long. I missed it for two years, and it killed me. Now that I'm back and qualified, I have a chance to win it again. I love it, and I can't wait. It's the biggest race of the year as far as I'm concerned."
COUGHLIN CONFIDENT – Jeg Coughlin has a pair of quarterfinal finishes and a semifinal appearance in three races this year, and he said, “I guess people could look at what we've accomplished and say we've done 'OK,' but behind the scenes, I can tell you, we've made so much progress with our entire program and our engines are making great horsepower. It's been very encouraging. We've had a really good season so far, in my estimation."
Following an exhaustive Monday test session at Gainesville in which he made more than 20 passes, Coughlin said, “We made some incredible strides in the right direction. This time I really feel good about our chances. Probably for the first time in this young season, I think we have a race car capable of not only qualifying No. 1 but of winning the race on Sunday."
He’s a six-time winner at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway – five times in Pro Stock (2000, 2001, 2002, 2008, 2009) and once in Super Comp (2012). This weekend, he’s in the bonus round, with a second chance to earn a Wally. He’s racing his JEGS.com Corvette Roadster in the Super Gas class.
PERFORM FLAWLESSLY – Summit Racing Equipment Camaro driver Greg Anderson has won seven times at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway – including in last year’s K&N Horsepower Challenge. But the 87-time overall winner and four-time class champion said that doesn’t really matter this weekend.
"We have something special in Vegas, no doubt about it. But we had something special in Gainesville, too, and we should have come away with the Wally," he said. "The bottom line is you have to execute perfectly, no matter where you are. We're going to a happy racetrack for KB Racing, and everybody will be smiling because we love racing in [team owner] Ken Black's hometown. But we're still going to have to perform, and none of us forgets that. The competition is tough right now, and anybody can win. If you don't perform flawlessly, you will not win."
WILL JOHNNY GRAY RETURN? – If son Shane and grandson Tanner have any say in the matter, NHRA fans could see Johnny Gray back on the racetrack – competing and not just spraying down water in the water box.
Gray has been enjoying fishing and relaxing and watching his family’s younger generations race.
“The kids are trying to talk me into the Four-Wides [at the upcoming event at Concord, N.C.],” he said Friday, quickly saying his decision “depends if the fish are biting.”