2017 NHRA SONOMA NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
TORRENCE DOWNS FAMILIAR FOE - Entering the NHRA Sonoma Nationals, defending Top Fuel world champion Antron Brown had a record of 22-3 against Steve Torrence.
Judging from Sunday, Torrence has exorcised that hex.
With a final round pass of 3.784 seconds at 329.42, Torrence gained a measure of revenge by defeating Brown in the finals. Brown ran a 3.974 at 281.83.
Counting Sunday’s conquest, Torrence has been victorious in three of the four final round battles this season against Brown and his Don Schumacher Racing juggernaut.
Torrence, who has also won three of the past four races, took special delight in his latest victory.
It’s huge,” he said. “I love beating the butts of the Schumacher cars. Not so much when it’s AB (Antron Brown,) but some of those other ones.”
Torrence took the lead with a reaction time of .051 to Brown’s .063. It was the eighth final of the season for Brown and Torrence.
According to Torrence, his team has found the perfect blend of tuning, strategy and speed.
“It’s basically been just a dream season. There’s no other way to say it,” said Torrence, who has 14 career wins. “I’ve got a team of guys that have been together for 5-6 years and everybody has jelled really well.”
Despite his victory, Torrence said his final round pass was anything but routine.
“The thing was shaking all the way through there,” he said. “It’s either got a tire out of balance or hell, I don’t know what I was doing. I think Antron put a hole out or something. I heard him beside me for a little bit and then the car shut off.”
Torrence drives for one of the few remaining single-car family teams remaining in the Top Fuel or Funny Car classes. Veteran Richard Hogan serves as crew chief with Bobby Lagana Jr. in the car chief position for the Capco Contractors dragster.
The low-key Hogan spends weekdays at his home in Montana while Lagana manages the race shop.
“You can come into our pits and there is a whole lot of chaos, but there’s no talking,” Torrence said. “Everybody just gets things done. The confidence among every member of our team is higher than it’s ever been before, and I think that shows at the starting line. I know that I’ve got a car that can beat anybody at any time, so I drive well. It’s truly been an unforgettable season. I don’t want it to stop now, so we will continue to keep marching on."
Torrence admitted to taking pride in beating the superpowers in the sport.
“I’ve had a couple of opportunities in the past to join some of those multi-car teams, and I just got of the way by saying it wouldn’t work out,” Torrence said. “We ended up doing our own team. “It’s much more difficult this way. You’re on an island by yourself and you’re figuring things out by yourself. We have some relationship with other guys, but you just can’t go over to get help. With all that being said, it’s way more gratifying to get these wins as a family-run team.”
The track temperature for the first round of eliminations was 101 degrees. After many drivers struggled with the heat, the track temp went down to the 75-degree mark by the finals.
The 34-year-old Torrence was smooth all day, posting elapsed times of 3.760, 3.750, 3.753 and 3.784 seconds with each run at 327 mph or better.
“These Capco guys are bad ass,” Torrence said. “I’ve said all along I wouldn’t trade them for anyone else and I think people are starting to see what I mean. They are great at making adjustments to the conditions so that I know when I go up there that I’ve got a race car under me that can do the job. All I can do is screw it up and, thankfully, I’ve managed not to do that – at least not a whole lot.”
Entering the Aug. 4-6 NHRA Northwest Nationals in Seattle, Torrence leads Schumacher Racing teammates Brown and Leah Pritchett in points with three races remaining before the NHRA’s Countdown to the Championship.
Torrence said now is not the time to experiment with a proven package.
“No, we’re not going to change anything,” he said. “We’re just going to keep doing what we’ve been doing. Hogan’s been spot-on making adjustments and that’s what this game is all about. You have to be able to adapt and these guys do that every weekend. I love them.”
On Sunday night, the focus for Torrence was fun.
“We’re definitely gonna celebrate this one," he said. Allen Gregory
TODD CAPS HISTORICAL WEEKEND IN SONOMA WITH FIRST FUNNY CAR WIN - The fastest pass in NHRA history. The youngest professional winner in Sonoma history. The first African American winner in Funny Car history.
It is safe to say that history was made at Sonoma Raceway.
J.R. Todd capped what will go down as one of the more memorable races in NHRA history by becoming the first African American to win a race in Funny Car competition when he bested Tim Wilkerson Sunday at the 30th annual Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals.
Oh, and he also became the first Junior Dragster graduate to win in Funny Car, the second driver in Sonoma history to win in both nitro categories and the 16th different driver overall to win in both Top Fuel and Funny Car.
Not bad for a day’s work.
“To me, it doesn’t matter if you are black, white, purple, or a man or a woman, you go out there and race as hard as you can,” said Todd, who collected his 10th career NHRA victory on Sunday. “People don’t know what I look like when I have that helmet on. It was cool when I did it in Denver (to be the first African American to win in Top Fuel), but I was just happy to win my first Top Fuel event. And now I am happy to win my first Funny Car race. I won here last year in Top Fuel and to come back here in Funny Car and do it again is pretty special.”
Todd, who has struggled throughout the year in making the transition from Top Fuel to Funny Car, finally put the pieces together on Sunday.
After qualifying 10th, Todd raced to wins over teammate Alexis DeJoria, John Force and Jack Beckman before meeting Tim Wilkerson in the final. In the deciding round, both cars were separated by just .002 at the hit and were welded together to halftrack when Wilkerson began to smoke the tires. That stutter allowed Todd to cruise to his very first Funny Car victory with a 4.049-second pass at 323.27 mph.
“Back in the pit area, we made some changes to slow the car down after blowing the tires off (in the semifinal). The track, when it gets to a certain temperature, it is hard to get ahold of it,” Todd said. “We thought we just need to get down the track, so we backed her off pretty good. If he was going to outrun us, then he would be holding the trophy. He ended up having problems over there in the right lane and it just worked out for us.”
But Todd’s day wasn’t without drama.
After barely beating his teammate in round one, Todd faced his biggest hurdle in the semifinal round against Don Schumacher Racing’s Jack Beckman. With a trip to the finals on the line, Beckman got away cleanly and opened up a massive lead as Todd smoked the tires just after taking the green light. But as Beckman’s car passed the 660-foot mark, it went silent, leaving an opening for the driver of the DHL Toyota Camry, who got back in the throttle and blasted by Beckman to earn his ticket to the trophy round.
Todd won the round with a 5.741-second pass at 283.73 mph, powering past Beckman’s 5.920 at 118.43 mph with a speed advantage of more than 165 mph at the finish line.
“I felt like I let one get away earlier this year in Englishtown when I blew the tires off like that and didn’t get back on the gas. The guys were pretty upset after that race, so on that run, I thought I am not lifting until I see the finish line,” Todd said. “It was like bracket racing. You are sitting there at the startling line spotting somebody and you have to run them down. Thankfully we were able to catch him and get by.
“I feel like every race you win you have to have at least one lucky round. That was my lucky round.”
With the wild win against Beckman out of the way, Todd went back to work preparing for the final knowing that, while a Wally was certainly within reach, his best race of the year already marked a turning point in his season.
“To be honest with you, I was just happy we were winning rounds,” said Todd, who entered Sunday’s race having failed to make it out of the first two rounds in 13 of 14 races this season. “We have struggled so bad this season, we were definitely overdue for a win. Funny Car is just so brutal. The last two years it has become one of the most competitive classes in the sport. From top to bottom, anybody can win in any position on Sunday.
“I was pretty nervous coming into Funny Car. It is a different driving style, unlike anything I have driven before, and it took a while to get a handle on that. Now, I am beyond comfortable in the car, but we are still not performing like we should. It was trying my patience and the guys patience for a while.
“They have won races. They have won championships before. And they had a badass driver here before me in Del Worsham. I am not trying to live up to what he did, but I just didn’t want to let them down. I feel like I have given away a lot of runs this year, but they stuck with me. It is nice to be able to pay them back.”
Todd’s victory capped a wild weekend in the Funny Car category as the return to sea-level air produced a slew of jaw-dropping runs, none bigger than Robert Hight’s record-setting pole lap set Friday night. Hight obliterated the previous speed record, set earlier this year by Matt Hagan, with a stout 339.87 mph pass attached to a 3.807-second elapsed time.
As for Todd, the most rewarding part of getting his first career Funny Car win was that it came at Sonoma Raceway. Todd won at this track one year ago - his last victory in NHRA competition - in a Kalitta-backed Top Fuel machine, and to do it again at the same track, with the same team, but in a Funny Car, was pretty special.
But he did have a little bit of a good luck charm with him on race day.
“It is always special coming back here with the history we have with Eric (Medlen). We won together here in 2006 and they honor him every time we come here,” Todd said. “Last year Mimi Medlen, Eric’s mom, had a Kenny Youngblood drawing of our dragster that said, ‘win one for Eric’ that she gave to me before the final round. I had it in my firesuit that day and we won with it.
“She came by last night with this, another drawing, this time of our Funny Car. I had this with me every round today. Something is going on here. Things just lined up perfectly for us on race day. I guess when it is your day, it is just your day.” Larry Crum
GRAY CONTINUES DREAM SEASON WITH THIRD WIN OF ROOKIE CAMPAIGN IN SONOMA - Every year, the winners of NHRA’s annual stop in northern California celebrate with a goblet of wine from Sonoma’s world-renowned wine country.
Unless, that is, you are not old enough to drink.
And, unfortunately, that was the case for NHRA rookie sensation Tanner Gray, who continued his dream season in the Pro Stock category with a victory at the 30th annual Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals Sunday at Sonoma Raceway as the 19-year-old had to sit out on a few of the post-race festivities.
“It was just Mello Yello for me,” said Gray, who was on the receiving end of a champagne shower - even if he couldn’t have a sip. “Everyone ganged up on me after the race. I think I was the only one who was sober.”
Gray bested points leader Bo Butner in recording his third career NHRA Pro Stock victory, winning by one of the closest margins of the season. Butner had a tick advantage on the startling line, but the pair were dead-even by the 60-foot mark. From there Gray pulled away ever-so-slightly, crossing the stripe with a 6.572-second pass at 210.05 mph with a margin of victory of only .004 at the finish line. Butner, in his seventh final of the year, had a 6.577 at 210.93 mph.
“To be honest, I was more nervous going up against Drew (Skillman) in the semis for whatever reason. I felt really calm in the final. It seems like the car spun pretty hard in low and I think I held it out in low long enough and, when I put it up in high gear, I saw Bo right there with us and thought, ‘this doesn’t look good,’” Gray said. “I look back over and I thought he had won going across the finish line. I pushed the clutch in and saw our win light was on. I really thought he had us on that one.”
Gray was relatively consistent throughout the afternoon in the Gray Motorsports Valvoline Chevrolet, getting past Alan Prusiensky and Jason Line in the first two rounds with big starting line advantages, but a .036 light in the semifinals against Skillman almost cost the rookie a chance at the win.
“I am not real happy that I was 30-something in the semis,” Gray said. “It would have been better if I could have taken that 30 out and replaced it with something better. But all that matters at the end of the day is we are holding the trophy.
“I am really proud of my guys, it was probably the best I have seen them run the car. The car was throwing some curveballs, but we put a Band-Aid on it to fix it. We haven’t necessarily got it completely fixed, but we made it work for the track conditions today.”
Butner had wins over Erica Enders, Chris McGaha and Greg Anderson.
With a third win and fourth final in his pocket, the young driver who entered the year just hoping to contend for a win, is now thinking championship as the NHRA Mello Yello series enters the final two races before the Countdown to the Championship.
“It’s definitely crazy. I am very competitive, so I don’t expect anything less from myself, but it definitely feels really good,” said Gray, who is third in the championship standings. “At the same time, we have to go back and keep working. I can’t let the highs get too high or the lows get too low, as Jason Line would say. Just because we won today doesn’t mean we were outstanding.
“It is just as important that we go back and keep working. It was nice to gain on Bo, and if I can go into the Countdown in the top three, we will have a legitimate chance. We won at Vegas, got that first win out of the way, and after that I said, ‘let’s go get the championship now.’ We will keep striving for that and see where we end up.” Larry Crum
TONGLET ADDS CHAPTER TO DREAM SEASON - LE Tonglet expected to have success when he joined defending world champion Jerry Savoie on the White Alligator Racing team this season.
But the professional firefighter from Metairie, Louisiana, said he never dreamed that he would dominate the Pro Stock Motorcycle class in his Nitro Fish Racing Suzuki.
“Not in a million years,” said Tonglet, who brought 10 career wins to the Savoie operation. “We knew that we would be competitive, but not this competitive.”
Tonglet earned his fifth win in seven races and recorded his second straight NHRA Sonoma Nationals Wally Sunday after defeating Matt Smith in the finals by a .0002 second margin.
Tonglet posted a time of 6.783 at 197.02 while Smith followed with a 6.790 run at 196.67.
“I could hear Matt the whole way and I knew it was really close,” Tonglet said. “I wanted to look over very bad but I just stay tucked and stared at the win light, and it lit. That was exciting.”
The latest conquest extended the points lead for Tonglet to 74 over Eddie Krawiec.
Tonglet, the 2010 Pro Stock Motorcycle champ as a rookie, passed the credit around to his team, starting with mechanical wizard and crew chief Tim Kulungian.
“Tim is really doing a fantastic job tuning, we’ve got a great group of guys behind us between rounds, my dad is lining me up dead-straight, and this bike is just flying,” Tonglet said.
While the bay breeze in scenic wine country cooled down the track late Sunday, it also created some serious crosswinds.
Smith actually had a quicker reaction time of .032, but was forced to correct his bike when it veered out of the groove.
“The wind or something got me,” said Smith, who felt that he actually won the race. “It jerked us to the center line at half-track and I had to lay off the bike. That cost us the race.”
Smith has lost three straight finals since his last win.
“We’ve got a fast Victory motorcycle,” Smith said. “We’re gonna win one win soon. I promise you that.”
Tonglet also won Saturday’s Mickey Thompson Pro Bike Battle, an experience that Tonglet said helped him Sunday.
“It’s a big benefit,” Tonglet said. “Winning the Battle builds your confidence. We didn’t match up with Matt, but we did race Hector (Arana) Jr. and then ended up racing him again today. To be able to beat him twice in one weekend is pretty cool.”
Cool would be a fitting description of the partnership between Tonglet and Savoie.
“We knew Jerry had some fast motorcycles and Tim is a very smart guy,” Tonglet said. “We just didn’t things would be this good early. The Harleys are kind of struggling right now. Once they get back up, they will start winning more rounds. It will be harder to get these race wins, so we just have to collect as many as we can while the Harleys are down.”
In Sunday’s semifinals, Tonglet used a reaction time of .030 to defeat Hector Arana Jr. in the semifinals. Smith enjoyed a reaction time advantage of .011 to .061 to edge Savoie in his semifinal hole shot victory.
“Going up to the final, I was talking with my dad and Tim about how Matt kind of revved up the engine against Jerry,” Tonglet said. “They just said for me to stay focused and cut a good reaction time and we should be able to win. I staged right away and I was waiting for Matt to kind of rev it up and try to throw me off, but he really didn’t.”
The other story in PSM involved the pursuit of the 200-mph barrier. In the first round of eliminations, Smith became the third rider to hit the 199.88 mark. Allen Gregory
NO. 1 QUALIFIER – Leah Pritchett earned her fifth No. 1 qualifier of the year and sixth of her career Saturday at the Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals.
Her new track-record pass of 3.669-seconds at 304.80 mph, set Friday night, held against two more sessions on Saturday. Ironically, her chart-topping run from Friday could have been even better, but her engine began to shed parts about 100 feet from the finish line, shaving off a good deal of time and speed on the tail end of the run.
She will face Terry Haddock in round one on Saturday.
“We are definitely on a role. This is probably the highest confidence we could have entering Sunday, also keeping in mind that anything can happen on Sunday no matter who you are racing,” Pritchett said. “Today we took the track very seriously, trying to get down it in light conditions for tomorrow and I think we are prepared for anything it throws at us on Sunday.”
Coming off of a runner-up finish last weekend in Denver, Pritchett will be looking for her fourth win of the season, and first since April, when the teams take to the track on Sunday. So is this starting to become a habit for the young driver?
“If there is any habit to have, this would be the second best one,” Pritchett said. “The best would be getting that yellow hat on Sunday. We are trying to make that as much a habit as possible.”
RISE TO GREATNESS - The Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals will always hold a special place in the heart of Steve Torrence.
The five-time race winner in 2017 and current points leader, put a stamp on his ascension into the upper echelon of the Top Fuel category one year ago with his first national record as he covered the 1,000 foot distance in 3.671 seconds at 331.06 mph, a record which stood until Leah Pritchett bettered it with a 3.658-second pass in February.
But nothing will take away the joy of setting a national record in a true stand-up-and-take-notice moment for the 34-year old who was elevated to a legitimate contender for the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series championship.
“That was a big moment,” Torrence said of the national record run. “That made a statement. It was our first time to run in the 60s and our first time over 330. We already knew we had a championship-caliber team, but that was kind of a moment that said to everybody else that we weren’t just out here just to go through the motions.”
And make a statement they have.
Since setting the national record, Torrence has won six times in the last 24 races - including three of the last four races overall - as Torrence has comfortably propelled the Capco Contractors dragster into the top spot in the Top Fuel championship standings.
“To be able to come out and do this as a family-run operation and have the success that we’re having makes you proud of what you are and where you come from,” Torrence said. “Owning the team and being part of the day-to-day operation, working with a crew that I wouldn’t trade for any other out there, is very gratifying.”
NO NEW CAR BLUES - Most drivers dread the thought of a backup car.
They get used to the ins-and-outs of their primary ride, what works, what doesn’t, how it feels, and what to do when it begins to get out of line. But, sometimes, being forced to turn to a new car can be a good thing. A fresh start in a new ride. A chance at turning things around.
And that is exactly what Tony Schumacher is hoping for this weekend in Sonoma as the driver of the U.S. Army dragster is campaigning a car he didn’t expect to be in for this weekend’s Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals.
Schumacher’s primary car was injured last weekend in Denver during the fourth round of qualifying when the front end of the car lifted off the track and slammed back onto the racing surface, resulting in the decision to pull out the backup car for race day.
From there Schumacher disposed of both his first-and-second round opponents and had a slightly faster run in his semifinal against Leah Pritchett, but lost on the tree.
Still, Schumacher and the U.S. Army team feel confident that their backup car being pushed into service as the primary car this weekend and at next week’s third leg of the Western Swing will be up for the task.
“We’ll be competing in a different primary car than the one we left the shop with to start this Western Swing. But this U.S. Army team showed its ability to adapt and we had a car that was certainly capable of winning in Denver for the second year in a row,” Schumacher said. “Staying up until 1:30 a.m. on race day and making sure everything was just right with our backup car showed just what this U.S. Army team is made of. Mike (Green) and Phil (Shuler) were on their game big time.
“This weekend, we are back at sea level and the guys are pushing it to the limit to see if we can continue building some momentum toward the Countdown and getting us where we need to be by the time these races matter most.”
Schumacher qualified fifth on Saturday with a weekend-best 3.709-second pass at 328.30 mph. He will match up with Scott Palmer in round one.
MILLICAN/MCMILLEN - Their names are often confused, but there is no confusing that their rivalry is very real.
Terry McMillen and Clay Millican have been facing each other for decades, dating back to their rivalries in the old IHRA days, and once again the pair will square off on the dragstrip in round one on Saturday. This year Millican, who is having one his best seasons ever in NHRA competition, holds a 3-1 advantage over his opponent. McMillen, meanwhile, is clinging to a spot in the top 10 as he seeks his very first appearance in the Countdown to the Championship.
CLOSE, BUT NO CIGAR - Brittany Force has been good.
Just not good enough.
The driver of the Monster Energy Top Fuel dragster has won first-round matchups in seven NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing series races. She has qualified No. 1 or No. 2 in three of those races. And she has advanced to the semifinals in four of the last six races, winning at Epping, N.H.
In two of the other three semifinals appearances, including last weekend’s Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway, she fell to the eventual race winner. In other words, Force hasn’t been bad, she has been unlucky.
“I feel like we’re all in a really good place, so we just keep moving forward, keep pushing and we’ll be in the winner’s circle before we know it,” said Force, who is sixth in the Top Fuel points standings. “I love Sonoma. It is one of my favorite tracks on the circuit. It’s close to home. I’ve always wanted to win there and get that big goblet at the end of the race track. Courtney’s won there. My dad has won there. And I have a lot of memories there with Eric Medlen.
“To win there would be outstanding. Love the track, so hopefully we can get everything figured out so we can win there.”
On Saturday, Force added yet another No. 2 qualifying spot, her fourth top two of the year, with a 3.689 at 330.63. She will face Steve Chrisman in round one Sunday.
339.87 MPH – The numbers, simply unbelievable. The reaction among the drag racing community, astonishing.
On a cool, crisp May evening in Topeka earlier this year, NHRA fans saw run after run in the Funny Car division that far exceeded the current world records - speeds that many thought impossible, or even illogical, just a few years ago.
But here we are, just two months later, once again putting up numbers never-before-seen in the history of the sport.
Friday night, with temperatures, track prep and weather all coming together to create a perfect storm of conditions for the nitro classes, Robert Hight once again put up a number many thought could never before be done, or, at least, maybe shouldn’t be done.
With all but just a handful of cars unable to conquer the near-perfect track, Hight, in the Auto Club of Southern California/California Highway Patrol Chevy Camaro, blasted down the track at Sonoma Raceway with the fastest pass in NHRA Funny Car history, accompanied by the third quickest time ever recorded in the category. His 3.807-second pass at 339.87 was good enough to place Hight squarely atop the charts by a wide margin as the race winner from one week ago looks to conquer the second leg of the Western Swing this weekend at the Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals.
“It’s unbelievable. We were actually on a great first run and weren’t able to get away with it. Sometimes you think, back it off a little bit and just get down the track, but not Jimmy Prock,” Hight said. “Prock goes up there and tries to give everything he’s got to every run. It’s the coolest noise when you hear that nitro engine running up that kind of RPM; it’s music to your years.”
To put the run into perspective, Matt Hagan held the previous record of 3.802 seconds at 338.85 mph set back in May, but Hight was a full mile-per-hour faster on Friday. In fact, to add to the jaw-dropping stats from the run, Hight was at nearly 300 mph by halftrack, something unheard of in any class.
“We knew this thing could put up numbers like that, honestly we’ve said these things will go 340,” Hight said. “If you put the first part of a run together with a back part of a run, it will run 340. And we were pretty close Friday night.”
Consistently one of the most talented minds in all of drag racing and innovator of numerous runs such as this, Prock, who moved to John Force Racing from Don Schumacher Racing at the beginning of this year, was his usual to-the-point self following the run.
“We got our half-track speed up a little bit. We had never run better than 282 to half-track, and tonight we went 292,” said Prock, whose race machine was one of only seven cars to make it down the track and into the 3-second zone in the near-perfect conditions. “That little bit extra was all we needed.”
Hight earned his 52nd No. 1 qualifier with Friday night’s pass.
FIRST ROUND LOSS = GOOD LUCK CHARM? - It is not very often that you will hear a driver say that they are thankful for a first round loss.
And while you probably won’t find anyone on the NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car team actually mutter those words, you have to think that, after only their second first-round exit of the year last week in Denver, the team has high hopes that a repeat performance is in hand.
Because the last time that Ron Capps lost in the first round, way back at Las Vegas in March, the team fired off four-straight wins to propel Capps into the championship lead. And the time before that? Capps’ only first round loss of 2016 was followed by a similar run of three wins in four races.
Does that mean another run is in store following last weekend’s result? Only time will tell.
“I can’t say enough about our NAPA AutoCare Center guys,” said Capps, who is seeking career win No. 57 this weekend. “They put together the car for Denver that we replaced in Bristol, and thanks to the DSR fab shop, they put a new front half on the chassis. (Rahn) Tobler decided to go to Denver and run that car to make sure that it was good enough to go upstairs in one of our transporters for us to have a backup. I brag about his NAPA Know How and being ready for anything.”
Before leaving Denver for Sonoma, the team prepared their primary NAPA Dodge for racing back at sea level at a place he was won at four times.
“I’ve gotten a lot of win lights at Sonoma and taken four (NHRA Wally trophies) home from Sonoma,” Capps said. “So we always look forward to this race.”
But if Capps hopes to light the fire of another win streak, he will have his hands full. Capps struggled during qualifying, placing the NAPA Dodge 12th on the charts, leaving him matched up with Tommy Johnson Jr. in round one - the same man who eliminated him in round one a week ago.
GIVING BACK - In addition to his duties on the track, Jack Beckman was busy earlier in the week as he served as emcee for the 11th annual Eric Medlen Nitro Night Charity Dinner to benefit Speedway Children’s Charities.
The special event at StoneTree Golf Club in Novato, Calif., is dedicated to the memory of Eric Medlen, the former Funny Car driver who grew up in the San Joaquin Valley not far from his home track.
Beckman has only missed attending one of the dinners and has been the emcee the past few years. This year was the second event since John Medlen, whose son Eric succumbed to injuries sustained in a testing accident in 2007, became his crew chief.
“Eric Medlen Nitro Night always has been special for me, but it has meant even more since I started working with John,” Beckman said. “Everybody loved Eric and this night is how we show that, and thanks to Eric we get to help a lot of kids programs through Speedway Charities.”
Beckman, who lives in Southern California, is no stranger to giving back. Other charities, such as the Infinite Hero Foundation, which adorns the side of his car, are important to Beckman as he tries to make a difference any way he can. Just last week, Antron Brown donated his Denver NHRA Wally Trophy he had just received to an Infinite Hero event, raising more than $8,000 for the charity.
“We were disappointed that we didn’t win that trophy at Denver, but when something like that happens, it really puts it into a proper perspective,” Beckman said. “That tent was full of supporters of Infinite Hero who understand the mission. There were several heroes there who have benefitted from how Infinite Hero changes the lives of our injured veterans.
“We wouldn’t be able to have a night like that were it not for Terry Chandler.”
Chander, who has funded the Don Schumacher Racing Funny Cars driven by Beckman and the Make-A-Wish team with Tommy Johnson Jr., passed away on July 4 after a bout with brain cancer.
“Terry keeps on giving,” Beckman said.
CALIFORNIA DREAMIN’ - John Force likes Sonoma Raceway.
And Sonoma Raceway seems to like John Force.
While the 16-time champ hasn’t been as consistent as he has been in the past, the racetrack on the California coast just outside of San Francisco, remains one of those facilities that keeps on feeding the Force legend.
With a record eight wins at the facility, Force has continued that success right into the past few seasons with three final round appearances in the past four races, including a win here last year.
And, while he will not be able to contend for the famed Western Swing, something he has done multiple times in his career capped off with the lone Funny Car sweep occurring back in 1994, he takes solace in the fact that this track, perhaps more than any other over recent years, continues to be an old friend.
“It’s a great track. It’s a Bruton Smith track, and they promote it well. They’ll pack in the grandstands like we did in Denver,” Force said.
Force earned his eighth win at the track last season, beating Alexis DeJoria, JFR teammate Robert Hight, daughter Courtney Force and current Funny Car points leader Ron Capps en route to his second consecutive victory to start the Western Swing.
Force qualified No. 2 this weekend as things continue to evolve for Force’s team, as crew chief Mike Neff and co-crew chief Jon Schaffer of nearby Discovery Bay, advance the PEAK team.
“I’m ready to keep fighting this fight,” Force said. “That’s what we’re going to do. We made some changes, and we’re heading in the right direction.”
FOND MEMORIES - J.R. Todd could really use some momentum.
The former Top Fuel pilot who switched to Funny Car for the 2017 season has had his hands full in the DHL Toyota Camry for Kalitta Motorsports, recording just one semifinal finish and seven first round defeats.
But Todd is hoping a little bit of momentum is on his side this weekend at the Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals, home to Todd’s last win one year ago. And, although last year’s win was in a dragster, he is looking forward to racing at a track he has such a positive memory of, and in a Toyota nonetheless.
“Sonoma’s a big race for us as a Toyota-sponsored event. It’s a beautiful place to race. It’s one of my favorite tracks,” Todd said. “I’ve won there a couple of times in the past, including in the Top Fuel car that Shawn Langdon is in this year. It’s a special place. I got my first win there with my buddy Eric Medlen in 2006. It would be really awesome to go back and win there in a Funny Car where he had one of his last wins.”
Todd qualified 10th on Saturday and will square off with teammate Alexis DeJoria in round one.
BOY ON FIRE – Drew Skillman.
When listing all of the names in the Pro Stock category that had the highest odds of making a run at a potential Western Swing sweep, names such as Anderson, Line, Butner, Gray, Enders, and Coughlin immediately come to mind.
But Drew Skillman? The No. 7 man in points with only five wins to his name? Not a chance.
But here he is, the No. 1 qualifier for the second race in a row, and owner of a two-race win streak, once again topping the charts Saturday at the Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma Raceway.
Skillman placed the Ray Skillman Chevrolet in the No. 1 spot Saturday with a 6.538-second pass at 211.36 mph, topping multiple sessions and looking, once again, like the favorite entering Sunday with a rare chance to take leg two of the Swing.
“Momentum is the word of the weekend for us,” Skillman said. “The team is really positive, the engine is really strong, our Chevrolet Camaro is running really well right now. We are just really happy.
“Tomorrow is all about watching weather. This racetrack will change a ton from first round to fourth round. We just have to keep an eye on it all day.”
RED LIGHT BLUES - Sometimes the track beats you. Sometimes an opponent beats you. And sometimes, well, you just beat yourself.
That was the case for Erica Enders one week ago in Denver when a red-light foul in the semifinals cost her a shot at her second national event victory of the season.
“You know, there’s a saying in baseball that essentially says if you don’t get caught stealing a base sometimes then you’re not trying hard enough,” said Enders, who has rebounded nicely from a disastrous 2016 season with one win and two runner-up finishes in 2017. “I completely agree. The Pro Stock class is the most competitive class in the NHRA. Sometimes you push it just a little too much and that bright red bulb comes on.
“We’ve obviously got our Melling Performance/Elite Motorsports Chevy Camaro running very well. Our performances lately attest to that. We just need to seal the deal and get more Wallys. I’m always a pretty optimistic person, but right now I have the highest amount of confidence in Richard (Freeman), Rick and Ricky Jones and our team to get the job done.”
But that performance is in question this weekend as Enders finds herself dead last on the 15-car ladder after four struggling hits at the track. Her 6.946-second pass at 211.89 mph, made during session three on Saturday, is her worst qualifying performance since posting an identical 15th spot at Dallas in 2016.
NOOB - Sometimes, it is easy to forget just how young and inexperienced Tanner Gray really is.
Despite carrying himself like a seasoned veteran, racing to two wins and a runner-up finish already in his rookie campaign, good enough to place the driver of the Valvoline/Nova Services Chevrolet third in the championship standings, Gray is still a first-year player and that means adjusting to a lot of things.
And that includes facing a rude awakening at the hands of the famed Western Swing.
With only one first round defeat heading into race one of the Swing, Gray brought with him plenty of confidence on the mountain at Bandimere Speedway, but the poor air and all-new conditions led to his second worst qualifying session of the season and a second round one defeat at the hands of Jason Line.
But as Gray continues to get acclimated to life on the NHRA Mello Yello circuit, he is confident that his team can turn things around this weekend with a return to much more familiar conditions at the sea-level facility in Sonoma, Calif.
“My crew chief Dave Connolly obtains the skill to race anywhere,” Gray said. “I am confident that the drastic change in racing conditions from Denver to Sonoma will not affect our performance because of the experience we have on our side. Racing the Western Swing for the first time, I have already learned that this far into the season, both the car and the driver need to align. I am very fortunate and blessed to have the guys back at Gray Motorsports that are continually searching for ways to create more power so that my car has the capability to be the fastest at the track.”
Gray will roll off fifth on the Pro Stock ladder on Sunday, his first top-five spot since Norwalk. He will face Alan Prusiensky in round one.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
SURPRISE – Matt Smith earned his 26th career No. 1 qualifier and second of the season Saturday at the Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma Raceway.
Smith, who struggled in the earlier sessions and entered the fourth and final qualifier of the day in 13th, rocketed to the top of the charts with a 6.771-second pass at 198.70 mph to lay claim to the top spot. Smith also has the distinction of being the top qualifier of the quickest field in Pro Stock Motorcycle history, with the bump spot holding steady at 6.908 seconds.
“We feel good going into tomorrow,” Smith said. “We struggled all weekend. We were blowing the tire away at the 60 foot, we were running big speed all weekend, but we just couldn’t get off the line. I worked with my wife on the tires before that last pass and it got us the pole.
“We are excited about tomorrow. All three of our bikes are in the top eight, so that leaves us feeling good.”
PRO BIKE BATTLE - L.E. Tonglet earned his very first all-star victory over Eddie Krawiec in the finals of the Mickey Thompson Tires Pro Bike Battle, a specialty race held in conjunction with the Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma Raceway.
Tonglet, who entered the weekend as the points leader with a class-leading four wins, bested three-time winner Krawiec, who crossed the centerline and took out a few timing blocks in the process. Tonglet, meanwhile, went right down broadway with a 6.827-second pass at 196.07 mph to collect the big pay day and bragging rights within the Pro Stock Motorcycle category.
“This means a lot. It is the first time we have been in the Battle and to be able to win it in the first go-round is pretty amazing,” Tonglet said. “My brother won the Battle back in 2005 and to be able to follow in his footsteps means a lot to me. Hopefully we can get in it again next year and do the same thing.”
Tonglet, who earned the No. 3 seed on the ladder based on qualifying results, bested Angelle Sampey in round one and Andrew Hines in round two, as Tonglet bested the top two seeds and continued his amazing season.
“Anytime that you can win rounds and win events just builds more and more confidence. And right now, we are very confident,” Tonglet said.
Krawiec, the No. 1 overall seed in the two-wheel specialty race, bested Chip Ellis and Jerry Savoie to reach his third consecutive final in the race. Tonglet’s victory snapped a 10-race win streak by the Harley Davidson camp in the Pro Bike Battle, a monumental feat for the young rider.
“We were just lucky to get the win away from the Harleys,” Tonglet said. “Ten in a row for those guys is impressive and to be the guy that breaks that long run of winning is just amazing.
“They are struggling right now, which is pretty surprising, but eventually they are going to figure it out. Until then, hopefully they struggle just a little bit longer.”
CENTER STAGE - There is nothing quite like taking center stage at a race.
But that is exactly what the Pro Stock Motorcycle class enjoys at Sonoma Raceway as the boys and girls of the two-wheel category step up and put on their biggest event of the year with a two-in-one weekend featuring both the Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals and Mickey Thompson Tires Pro Bike Battle.
And that extra attention is of particular importance to those who call the class home, including former Sonoma winner Hector Arana Jr.
Arana, hailing from the other side of the nation in East Northport, N.Y., looks forward to this race each year, not only for a chance at extra cash, but for the fan support, as Sonoma Raceway hosts some of the biggest Pro Stock Motorcycle fans each summer.
“It’s a great racetrack and a big weekend with the Battle going on as well as the national event,” Arana said. “It’s our all-star weekend. It’s huge to be involved.
“It’s also really good to have fans that support you. There are a lot of fans that like the bikes, but they really support the cars and dragsters, so when you get out there and you’ve got a lot of bike fans really supporting you, it’s awesome. It makes you feel good. You just get a real good feeling out here when you’ve got a bunch of people rooting for you.”
Arana, currently third in the championship standings after seven PSM races, temporarily held the top spot on Saturday, before being bumped to second in the fourth and final qualifying session with a 6.773-second pass at 197.91 mph. It is Arana’s third consecutive No. 2 qualifying position and fourth in the last five races.
BROOM ON STANDBY – There is no denying it – Antron Brown is ready to break out the broom.
It has been nearly a decade since a driver pulled off the seemingly impossible. But as the most recent driver to pull off a sweep of NHRA’s famed Western Swing way back in 2009, and one of only seven drivers to ever pull off the impressive feat, Brown enters this weekend’s Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals with plenty of momentum and, dare we say it, a bit of swagger, coming off of a big win last weekend in Denver.
“It’s tough. The conditions and the changes that these crew chiefs have to make in three weeks is what makes it so difficult,” Brown said. “Brian (Corradi) and Mark (Oswald) are the best of the best and we’ve done it before and we’d love to do it again. It’s getting tougher every year to win one race, let alone three in a row. We’re having a good season, but there’s a lot more racing left to do and we just want to continue to get better every weekend.”
And get better they have, but the numbers remain daunting.
Brown and Tony Schumacher are the most recent drivers to lay claim to the Western sweep, doing so in 2009 and 2008 respectively. Before the pilot of the Matco Tools dragster brought out the broom, you have to go back to 2004 to find the most recent sweep. That honor went to KB Racing driver Greg Anderson, the only Pro Stock competitor to take all three Wallys in a row. John Force is the only Funny Car driver to sweep the Western Swing, doing so back in 1994.
But the numbers don’t lie, and the odds are massively stacked in favor of the house when it comes to completing the most famed triple-threat in all of drag racing – the races in Denver, Sonoma, and Seattle. But Brown is confident that, with a proven and successful team behind him, he can once again conquer the odds.
“We’re where we’re at because we never quit,” Brown said. “Everybody wants to work together to beat each other. When you motivate each other to beat each other, you raise it to a different bar. We elevate each other to a new level.
“All the other teams have elevated themselves and it’s anybody’s race. You’ve got cars out here that can win and set world records every weekend. We’ve got to set up and try to go to another level.”
THREE’S COMPANY – The ebb and flow of the 2017 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season in the Top Fuel category has been nothing short of fascinating.
Three drivers have run away with the early season lead in the Top Fuel standings, with the trio having won 11 of the first 14 races, and all three drivers having already clinched a spot in the Countdown to the Championship.
But it has been the back-and-fourth that has been the real highlight.
Leah Pritchett opened up the season with the hot hand, winning three of the season’s first five races. But since, she has gone cold. In her wake, Antron Brown has fired off three wins – including the most recent race in Denver – while Steve Torrence has provided the muscle over the back half of the schedule, winning three of the last five races and five total to take over the points lead.
All three drivers are separated by just 70 points – with the trio clear of fourth place Tony Schumacher by more than 200 points – and all three are looking be next in line to grab that momentum and put themselves at the top of the championship battle.
Pritchett, who hasn’t won since April, feels it is her turn atop the ladder, qualifying first and having narrowly missed out on her fourth win of the season last weekend in a loss to Brown. But she is confident that she and the Papa John’s/Mopar team can regain that momentum this weekend with the car running the best it has all year.
“It’s hard to be disappointed with a weekend like we just had,” Pritchett said. “We had success all the way around with a few ups and downs.
“We experienced a little bit of carnage in the thin mile-high air to start off the weekend, but Todd backed off the power a little and that helped. Our Mopar power really came through on our last qualifying run when we got the pole. We got it with a 3.733-second run and the quickest anyone had ever gone on the mountain was a (3.767). We’re fairly confident our record will stick for a number of years.”
SONOMA’S BEST – Nobody in Top Fuel history has been better historically at Sonoma Raceway than Doug Kalitta.
Kalitta is a five-time winner at the California track with four No. 1 qualifiers. He is also one of only two drivers to ever three-peat at the track, doing so from 1998-2000. But it has been a while for Kalitta, with his last win at Sonoma coming in 2005, and he would love nothing more than to break his current winless streak and get his first win of the season this weekend.
“Historically, Sonoma has been a great place for me,” said Kalitta, who is fifth all-time in the Top Fuel category with 42 wins. “I scored my first win there, but it has been a while since we have celebrated a victory at this awesome track. I would love to get this Mac Tools Toyota in the winner’s circle at Toyota’s event this weekend.”
Kalitta enter this weekend’s race fifth in the championship standings with two final round appearances.
HUNGRY FOR MORE – Always one of the most anticipated weeks of the year, this past week the Discovery Channel has aired round-the-clock coverage of one of the most fascinating creatures on earth during its annual Shark Week, which airs through Sunday, July 30.
And as part of that promotion, Top Fuel driver Clay Millican has showcased a special Shark Week design on the side of his dragster during the past two weekends.
And, not unlike the deadly creatures featured on the show, Millican is very hungry to continue his recent wave of success when the NHRA Mello Yello Tour rolls into Sonoma this weekend for the Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals.
Millican is riding a wave of success that has seen him accumulate the fourth most points in the Top Fuel category over the past four races, just behind the top three drivers in the standings. Since earning his first career win in Bristol a little over a month ago, Millican has accumulated 306 points with an 8-3 round record and consistent passes each and every week.
And he continued that consistent run last weekend in Denver.
“We ran a 3.79 three times in a row. We were one of the only cars who made consistent passes all three days,” Millican said. “Friday, I actually turned off early twice. We had no smoking tire issues and we were on a roll until a parts break in the second round Sunday.”
Millican is also happy to be headed towards the second leg of the Western Swing, returning to more familiar territory for the Parts Plus/Great Clips/University of Northwestern Ohio dragster.
“The high altitude of Denver as so tricky for everyone,” Millican said. “We’ll be back at sea level in Sonoma and back to what we are comfortable with.”
Thanks to that run of success, Millican has made up considerable ground on the cars ahead of him and now sits just 47 points back of a spot in the top five.
WHEELS UP – Last weekend in Denver, Tim Wilkerson and the Levi, Ray and Shoup Ford Shelby Mustang Funny Car went wheels up – twice.
The unintentional wheelstands caused damage to both of the chassis that the team brought for their Western Swing run, and after Denver, Wilkerson’s crew had to travel halfway across the country to pick up a new Murf McKinney car in order to continue racing. They will debut that new chassis this weekend at the NHRA Sonoma Nationals.
“We had such a good car last weekend, and with what happened, I learned some things I shouldn’t do there,” Wilkerson said. “I’ll remember that for next year, but right now we’re just focused on Sonoma.”
After the disappointing results in Denver, the team split up in their effort to have the car ready by this weekend. Some headed to McKinney’s shop in Indiana to exchange the broken chassis for a new one, while others went west to get the remainder of the equipment to Sonoma.
“Everyone really pulled together,” Wilkerson said. “We’re a team, and even though we were disappointed with what happened, we regrouped. Hopefully, we can win some rounds these last two races of the Western Swing. We’ll see how things go, but we aren’t going to miss a qualifying session if we can help it.”
TJ TAKES A WILD RIDE - Funny Car racer Tommy Johnson Jr. Avon, Ind., was uninjured when his Make-A-Wish Dodge Charger R/T lost control after losing a wheel and made contact with the right retaining wall during the first session of Friday qualifying. There was no damage to the chassis and he returned in Q-2 with the same car.
JFR BREAKTHROUGH – For only the second time this season, a non-Don Schumacher Racing car won in Funny Car when Robert Hight defeated Tommy Johnson Jr. last weekend in Denver.
With the win Hight, who joined team boss John Force as the only other non-DSR cars to visit a winner’s circle this year, moved from fourth to third in the championship standings and, hopefully, will also follow in Force’s footsteps in an attempt to become only the second driver in Funny Car history to complete a sweep of the Western Swing.
“You can’t sweep it unless you win Denver,” said Hight, who recorded win No. 38 last weekend in ending a 34-race drought. “We’re pretty happy with where we’re at, especially where we’ve been qualifying every week. We have a good combination, a fast car – it’s pretty stout with what we’ve done in qualifying. It shows we have good performance. Once we get consistency on race day, I think we’re there.”
Hight will look to continue that momentum this weekend at a track he last won at back in 2008. The team has also been on fire in qualifying, putting the Auto Club of Southern California Chevy Camaro inside the top three on the charts in seven consecutive races.
In addition, Hight will pilot a special California Highway Patrol paint-scheme, which he also contested in the season-opener at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona. He is also sporting a special CHP helmet, which will be auctioned off by the Auto Club of Southern California later this year.
“I’m excited about going to Sonoma,” High said. “This is the first race I ever attended as a fan. I’ve won it once and want to win it again. The Western Swing is my favorite time of the year. I remember being a crew member on the Western Swing and how much work it was, but at the same time how much fun it was.”
RACETRACK INDIGESTION – Sometimes, a racetrack and a race car just don’t mix.
And that can cause a lot of headaches for the driver and crew caught in the middle.
Take, for instance, the mile-high city of Denver, home to last weekend’s Mopar Mile-High Nationals.
For Matt Hagan, holder of NHRA’s quickest and fastest passes ever in a Funny Car, the oxygen-deprived racetrack in Denver and Hagan’s 11,000-horsepower Mopar/Express Lane Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car just didn’t mix. And the result – catastrophic.
“Well, we went to the mountain and the mountain did not agree with us,” Hagan said. “It was just a struggle from the moment we unloaded there. We had a pretty decent boomer there in the first round of qualifying and we just struggled all weekend after that. We hurt a lot of stuff, a lot of parts, and we hate that. That’s not like us, that’s not what we do.”
After falling in the second round last weekend, Hagan travels to much more familiar territory this weekend with a trip to Sonoma Raceway, which will be a breath of fresh sea-level air for crew chief Dickie Venables and the Mopar team.
“The great thing is, Denver is a one-off race. We won’t see those conditions until next year,” Hagan said. “So we switched everything back over to what we normally have on the car and we’ll have all the confidence in the world that we’ll be just fine this weekend.”
Still, despite the confidence, Hagan has never quite agreed with the Western Swing portion of the schedule. In 206 career races and 25 wins, Hagan has just one win at the trio of tracks in Denver, Sonoma and Seattle, occurring back in 2013. But he is ready to change that narrative this weekend.
“We’re ready to see what we can do in Sonoma,” Hagan said. “It’s just a relief to return to what we know and we’re ready to get after it this weekend. It’s a beautiful place to go and they just pack the fans in there. So we’ll do our best to try and put on a show for everyone.”
MUCH NEEDED MOMENTUM – Finally.
In the midst of a historic drought for the two-time NHRA Funny Car world champion, Cruz Pedregon made it out of the first two rounds and into the semifinals for only the second time in the past two years last weekend in Denver with round wins over Del Worsham and Matt Hagan, before falling to eventual race winner Robert Hight.
Pedregon came into the Mopar Mile-High Nationals with only two round wins in 13 races, and eight round wins in his last 37 races, but finally found a little momentum on his side with the semifinal run.
“Our trip to the semifinals last weekend demonstrates that things are coming together for the Snap-on Toyota. It’s really exciting for us to be in a playoff spot, and we’re good with the plan we have for returning to sea level this weekend,” said Pedregon, whose last NHRA Mello Yello victory game back in 2014 in Englishtown.
In addition to gearing up for this weekend’s Toyota Sonoma Nationals, Pedregon will also take the opportunity to visit the team camp for his beloved Oakland Raiders while in California, ahead of unveiling a new Raiders helmet later this year.
“I am excited about visiting the Oakland Raiders Team Camp after this weekend’s race,” Pedregon said. “We’d love it if some of those guys would come out to the track and watch the pros in our sport before heading out to the practice field. We have a lot of fun when the NHRA works with us to pay a visit to the team camp each year.”
UNCHARTED WATERS – Drew Skillman is in uncharted waters.
Prior to this year, Skillman had never won two races in a row. He had never won a race on the Western Swing. He had never been in contention for the championship.
But, as they say, there is a first time for everything.
Skillman checked off two of those items last weekend in Denver, winning for the second time in as many races, and will look to make it three-in-a-row this weekend and keep in contention to become only the second driver in Pro Stock history to complete a sweep of the Western Swing.
The irony of Skillman’s recent run of eight consecutive round wins split between Chicago and Denver, is that his season had been a collection of extreme highs and painful lows.
Prior to Chicago, the driver of the Ray Skillman Auto Group Chevy Camaro had lost in the first round three races in a row. In fact, he has lost in the first round eight times in 14 races, but has three finals and two wins sprinkled in the middle.
Is it good enough to put him in contention for the famed sweep and, on a larger scale, into championship contention come time for the Countdown?
Only time will tell.
BO KNOWS SUPER STOCK - Bo knows how to do No. 1 qualifier, regardless of which steering wheel he turns.
After three sessions of Super Stock qualifying, Bo Butner, the fan favorite drag racer from Floyd's Knob, Ind., added to his bulging resume with yet another superior performance.
Butner drove Bill Skillman's FSS/C Mustang to the top of the 37-car Super Stock qualifying with an 8.647 elapsed time, -1.003 under the index.
"It's always an exciting experience," said Butner, who also drove the Mustang last year at the Las Vegas Division 7 LODRS event. "It's a freaking awesome car."
Butner said he was asked to drive the car last week when it became apparent Skillman couldn't attend the event.
"I really didn't expect it to be as fast as it was," admitted Skillman, who led qualifying from the first run. "It's a cool car and definitely capable of winning."
Butner has proven versatile behind the wheel and uses a simple technique of differentiating the full-tree from a professional tree.
"I use a blinder so I can just focus on the bottom yellow bulb," Butner explained. "I know the set-ups in these Mustangs like the back of my hand. The both react the way they are supposed to. I think we should be able to go some rounds with the sportsman car."
Butner will receive a first round bye run in Saturday's Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series competition scheduled to begin Saturday morning.
YOU CAN’T SPELL WINE WITHOUT WIN – To some, Sonoma Raceway elicits memories of hard-fought battles waged in the midst of the famed Western Swing. To others, Sonoma Raceway is a return to the sport’s roots and a chance to win one in NHRA’s backyard. But for veteran racer Jeg Coughlin Jr., Sonoma is a vacation.
Yes, you read that right.
The five-time Pro Stock world champion admits he has a long-standing love for northern California’s famed wine country. The fact he gets to race his JEGS.com/Elite Performance Chevrolet Camaro during this weekend’s visit to Sonoma is simply a bonus.
“We’re fortunate to roll into damn-near every place we race and feel a great vibe because we’ve had awesome experiences at most of the racetracks on tour at one time or another in our careers,” Coughlin said. “Sonoma Raceway certainly fits that bill. It’s such a special place where I’ve built so many family memories, but at the racetrack and out in wine country.
“The NHRA has this three-race Western Swing every year and we’ve typically made a family vacation out if it by spending the time between races in Sonoma and Seattle right here in wine country. We have a couple spots we like to stay in Yountville and Napa and we love being regular tourists, playing some golf and visiting the wineries. When I think about Sonoma from that aspect, I just kind of step back and enjoy all the memories we’ve made over the years.”
Coughlin, a two-time winner in Sonoma, has yet to win in 2017, but feels confident entering this weekend, currently sitting fifth in the Pro Stock championship standings.
“I’ll be the first to admit that I get excited about most of the places we go, but Sonoma is one of the most picturesque racetracks in the country,” Coughlin said. “We are really looking forward to being back at sea level with these 500 cubic inch Chevys breathing some fresh air. I’m so ready to make some competitive runs again.”
FAMILIAR WITH THE BROOM – In the history of the famed Western Swing, only one driver has ever complete a sweep of the trio of races in Denver, Sonoma and Seattle in the same year.
And that driver is Greg Anderson.
You have to go all the way back to 2004 to find that west coast sweep, but it is a moment that has a special place in Anderson’s heart among the hundreds of accolades accomplished by the driver of the Summit Racing Equipment Chevy Camaro.
And while Anderson will not have an opportunity to contend for the sweep, he does enter this weekend’s Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals with the distinction of five previous victories, including winning this race one year ago.
“We’ve been learning a lot lately, and being in the middle of this three-race Western Swing is another chance for us to continue to learn, to continue to get better, and to set ourselves up for an even better future,” Anderson said. “We were challenged in Denver last weekend, but we learned. We didn’t win the race, so we lost the opportunity to sweep the Swing, but you’ve got to keep getting better if you want to be among the best when the Countdown gets here.”
Anderson enters this weekend’s event second in the championship standings, 174-points back of his KB Racing teammate Bo Butner. His other teammate, Jason Line, is fourth in the standings. Between the group, KB Racing has won eight times in Sonoma.
“We’re going back to a racetrack that we love. Racing there has just been fantastic for this team, both Jason and I, for a lot of years,” said Anderson, who is seeking career win No. 89. “When we go there, we always feel like we have the ability to do really well, and that’s true again this year. I feel great going out there, because we can run well, we can race well, and we have a chance to win again in wine country.”
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
RACE WITHIN A RACE – Just like the movie Inception, this weekend’s Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals will feature a special race-within-a-race as the best of the Pro Stock Motorcycle category battle it out in the Mickey Thompson Tires Pro Bike Battle at Sonoma Raceway.
The specialty race, rejuvenated earlier this year when Mickey Thompson Tires stepped in as title sponsor, features the eight best riders in the two-wheel category based on points awarded for final qualifying positions at each Pro Stock Motorcycle event.
For 2017, the winner will take home $10,000, with that number set to increase to $25,000 for the 2018 and 2019 seasons.
Eddie Krawiec, winner at last weekend’s Mopar Mile-High Nationals in Denver, will enter this weekend’s specialty race in the No. 1 spot and will face Chip Ellis in round one. Defending Pro Bike Battle winner Andrew Hines, No. 2 in the Pro Bike standings, will face Matt Smith, while current points leader and four-time winner in 2017 L.E. Tonglet is No. 3 on the ladder and will face Angelle Sampey in round one. Finally, Hector Arana Jr. and defending Pro Stock Motorcycle world champion Jerry Savoie will meet in the final matchup.
“There’s no easy bikes, especially going into that battle,” Kraweic said. “To be quite honest, we haven’t run like we should at sea level yet. Hopefully what we’re learning (in Denver) translates down there (in Sonoma). It’s a huge difference going from Denver, a mile high, to going somewhere that can actually be negative altitude. We’ll do our homework and we’re going to really have to keep after it.”
The Mickey Thompson Tires Pro Bike Battle will take place on Saturday, with the final currently slated for 5:30 p.m.
TONGLET ON TOP – Current points leader and four-time race winner in 2017 L.E. Tonglet enters this weekend as the hands-on favorite to win the NHRA Sonoma Nationals in the Nitro Fish Suzuki.
Tonglet is the defending winner of this race, defeating Andrew Hines last year, and feels good about his chances in both the NHRA national event and the Mickey Thompson Tires Pro Bike Battle, also taking place this weekend. Tonglet is the No. 3 seed in that specialty race and will face Angelle Sampey in round one on Saturday.
In addition, Tonglet is the first – and currently only – Pro Stock Motorcycle rider to have clinched a spot in the NHRA Countdown to the Championship, earning the spot last weekend in Denver.
“It’s been a dream season so far,” Tonglet said in an interview with Competition Plus earlier this week. “We’ve had a lot of success. It’s a fun year. A lot less work being put on me and my dad. We knew we would be fast, but not this early in the season. We figured around Chicago and now we can start turning around and running good, but to come out the second race and win, it is just a huge statement, then we want to win another one. The team has won the last five races. We’ve only lost one race so far. So that’s a pretty cool stat for us and it’s been a lot of fun.”
NEXT IN LINE – Who is next in line to record their first career win in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series?
Clay Millican was the most recent driver to cross “win a Wally” off of their career goals checklist back in June, preceded by Tanner Gray who did the same in March.
All indications point to Scotty Pollacheck being next.
Switching to a Suzuki for the 2017, Pollacheck is off to one of the best starts of his career, appearing in four semifinals with zero first round losses through the first seven races of the Pro Stock Motorcycle season, placing him right in the thick of the world championship hunt.
With five runner-up finishes in his 88-race career, Pollacheck is ready to add a victory to his resume.
“There’s obviously a lot of pieces to the puzzle, but performance-wise, I think we’re really close,” Pollacheck said. “In Denver (last weekend), the bike was right there. Even with that, there’s room for improvement. We can look at everything and know we’re not getting every last thing out of it. It’s about making progress and there’s some things I’m trying to do to make the package better. We just have to keep going the direction we are.”
Pollacheck has qualified in the top half of the field in four consecutive races and reached the final four in over half of the national events he has run this season. He is fourth in the PSM championship standings atop the Suzuki Extended Protection bike, 203 points back of leader LE Tonglet.
"It’s been good and really encouraging with everything basically new,” Pollacheck said. “It’s all flowed together really well. Greg (Underdahl) is doing a great job of keeping it all together. The bike is consistent, we’re not tearing stuff up and it’s a good spot to be in.
“I knew with the changes we were making the bike would be fast. It took me a while to get used to what the Suzuki wants, but we’re in a competitive groove. I have no complaints other than I haven’t won.”