2017 NHRA U.S. NATIONALS - TOP FUEL NOTEBOOK
MONDAY - TORRENCE WINS AS INDEPENDENT TEXANS CONVERGE IN TOP FUEL FINALS FROM DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES
The irony was the stuff that the U.S. Nationals is made of. Making his first start at Indianapolis, Kebin Kinsley knocked off semifinal opponent Tony Schumacher, the dominator of this Labor Day classic with 10 victories who reached the final round in his own first event here and his first dragster event ever, in 1996.
Kinsley, who had just a single elimination round-win to his Top Fuel credit in Roger Hennen’s “Road Rage” entry, began his day by upsetting Clay Millican, the No. 1 qualifier. He took out another champion, Shawn Langdon, in the quarterfinals.
But power and might and grit and domination also are the stuff that the U.S. Nationals is made of. And Steve Torrence blew the pixie dust from Kinsley’s fairytale dream Monday in the dragster-class finals at Lucas Oil Raceway.
Torrence flexed his muscles in the final round, reeling off a 3.757-second elapsed time on the 1,000-foot course at a 322.96-mph speed in the Capco Contractors Dragster, while Kinsley lost traction immediately following the launch and finished with a 10.820, 48.47 showing.
Torrence, the independent from Kilgore, Texas, proved to be not only the No. 1 Texas racer, outperforming Kennedale’s Kinsley in the event final and Austin resident Tony Schumacher in the Traxxas Shootout final Staurday. Torrence was the powerhouse of the entire NHRA Top Fuel class.
He bumped three-time and reigning champion Antron Brown from the No. 1 seeding for the six-race Countdown to the Championship that begins with the Sept. 15-17 Carolina Nationals at Concord, N.C.
After that $100,000 payday that was a bonus and prelude to Monday’s fabled “Big Go,” Torrence declared, “Tony Schumacher always says he’s a machine. We dismantled the machine today.”
So Torrence, the privateer who tongue-in-cheek calls his supporters just “old hillbilly pipeliners” and his crew members “outlaws and misfits,” clearly is on a roll with a class-best seven victories.
In addition to becoming just the sixth Top Fuel driver to win a bonus race and an NHRA event in the same weekend (joining Schumacher, Langdon, Gary Scelzi, Joe Amato, and Rod Fuller), Torrence earned an event-high 12 qualifying bonus points here. For the weekend, he was only three points short of claiming every point possible.
But aside from all the fun at the sport’s marquee event, Torrence knows it’s time to knuckle down.
“Our goal was to be No. 1 and get that 30-point advantage going into the Countdown and we did that. But this is no time to pat ourselves on the back. There’s still a lot of work to do,” he said. “It’s real easy to go from hero to zero and zero to hero in those last six races.”
Torrence is well aware he has the three Don Schumacher Racing drivers (Brown, Leah Pritchett, and Tony Schumacher) on his heels in the Nos. 2, 3, and 4 slots, respectively. Doug Kalitta, Brittany Force, and Clay Millican are next in the order. Perennial underdogs and fan favorites Terry McMillen and Scott Palmer locked in Top Fuel Countdown berths at Nos. 8 and 9. And Shawn Langdon, the 2103 champion who’s starting to find his groove with his new teammates at Kalitta Motorsports, moved into the No. 10 and final Countdown position when Troy Coughlin Jr. stepped away from the seat last week.
But he’s happy to erase any conspiracy theories he had before this 63rd edition of the event. The Capco Contractors Dragster driver said Monday he had begun to fear somebody had put a curse on him or “sprayed win-repellant on me” as the race approached.
His victory over surprise finalist Kebin Kinsley erased his fears, as he earned not only his seventh triumph of the season but also the No. 1 seeding for the six-race Countdown to the Championship that starts in two weeks at Charlotte.
Torrence, winner also of Saturday’s $100,000 Traxxas Shootout bonus race jackpot, said, “To be able to do this in the same weekend is surreal. I don’t even know if I know what’s going on right now. Unless you’re in this situation, I don’t know that you can explain it. You’re overjoyed. But it’s a marathon. I’m wore out.”
But he understood the significance of it: “If you win all kinds of championships but you don’t win Indy, you really ain’t got s---.”
Torrence was runner-up to Shawn Langdon in 2013, to Richie Crampton in 2014, and to Tony Schumacher last September. He also was a two-time runner-up in the Traxxas Shootout before Saturday.
“I was glad to get the monkey off my back,” Torrence said, who eliminated Ashley Sanford, Brown, and Pritchett.
Torrence shared the winners circle with three Indiana residents: Lawrenceburg native JR Todd (Funny Car), Bargersville’s Drew Skillman (Pro Stock), and Avon resident and New Jersey transplant Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle). Torrence, Todd, and Skillman all were first time U.S. Nationals winners.
ADDITIONAL NOTES - GOODYEAR TO STUDY SANFORD’S CUT TIRE; CREW MAGIC BRINGS SCHUMACHER BACK TO MIKE AIELLO AWARD GOES TO LAGANAS; RAI TRAVELS LONG WAY FOR DISAPPOINTMENT; PRITCHETT, SCHUMACHER PHILOSOPHIC
GOODYEAR TO ANALYZE SANFORD’S CUT TIRE – When Top Fuel rookie Ashley Sanford heads home to Fullerton, Calif., the left rear tire from her Lagana Brothers-owned K1 Speed/805 Beer Dragster will be heading in the opposite direction, to Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company at Akron, Ohio.
The big slick deflated during her early Saturday qualifying run, and public-relations representative Lee Elder said the tire revealed a cut from an unknown source.
“There was an obvious cut, and it went in the shape of the tire. We are sending it back to Akron to have our research people look at it to determine exactly what it was. But it was a very obvious cut on the sidewall, inside – not inside the tire, but on the inside sidewall of the tire,” he said. “Something got underneath the car and cut it.”
Elder said Goodyear has analysts “looking at every tire after every run on every car in the nitro classes and in Pro Stock. We have seen so many of these that our guys, generally speaking, have a pretty good idea where to look, in terms of what it might be.
“When our research people get hold of it, with all their experience, all their many years they’ve been looking at things like this, they’ll be able to come to a pretty good determination. They look at it microscopically . . . very, very intently . . . just about every molecule they look to see precisely what it was. This is the same group that looks at street tires and road tires the public gets. We get a huge amount of data about the materials that way. It’s the same people who look at that stuff who look at our racing tires also.”
Sanford qualified 14th and lost to Steve Torrence in the opening round of eliminations.
SCHUMACHER TEAM HAS CAR READY – A broken camshaft was to blame for Tony Schumacher’s late-Sunday engine explosion that destroyed the U.S. Army Dragster at the close of pro qualifying for the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals. But crew chiefs Mike Green and Phil Shuler worked late into the night, directing the repair effort to have the car ready for Schumacher’s first-round meeting against momentum-building Terry McMillen.
Schumacher ran his record to 21-3 against the hard-charging McMillen to advance to the quarterfinals.
After that run, Schumacher praised his crew.
“This isn’t our first time at the drag races. We’ve blown up a lot of cars and parts and pieces. But put 14 gallons of nitromethane in a car for 1,000 feet, it tends to hurt some things” he said. “What a great job by the Army guys. I have to get back in that car and trust that they can do it. Let me tell you how you do that: Hire nine guys who are so good at their jobs you don’t have to second-guess them.”
Schumacher Iost in the semifinal to upstart Kebin Kinsley.
LAGANAS RECEIVE MIKE AIELLO AWARD – Bobby and Dom Lagana accepted 2017 the Mike Aiello "Spirit of Drag Racing" Award during pre-race ceremonies Monday at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis. CompetitionPlus.com owner and publisher Bobby Bennett made the presentation to the Lagana brothers for their longtime dedication to and passion for drag racing and their outreach to the sport’s community. The Mike Aiello Award recipient is someone who has persevered and remained positive despite hardship.
Bennett said, “Big Mike was the greatest drag-racing fan ever. He had all the odds stacked against him, and he never quit smiling.” That’s exactly how the Laganas have operated for more than 25 years.
Bobby Lagana many times has described himself and his brother as “drag-racing gypsies” because the family has a home in Scarsdale, N.Y., but has lived on the road in pursuit of their dreams. And after their nomadic lifestyle and funding struggles, the Laganas have come into their own, not only as celebrated Top Fuel drivers in the U.S. and Australia but also as tuners and consultants.
They work for Top Fuel championship contender Steve Torrence, have played a huge role in the improvement of perennial underdog and current Countdown qualifier Scott Palmer, and field and tune their own Nitro Ninja dragster for rookie Ashley Sanford. . They have served as advisors for Finland’s Anita Mäkelä, the 2016 FIA European Top Fuel champion.
Bobby Lagana, after years of shoestring-budget perseverance that included a serious accident, earned the IHRA Top Fuel series crown in 2010, in his 13th year of competing in the family’s Twilight Zone Dragster. That year he won eight races in 12 final rounds to edge Bruce Litton for the title. He capped that season as Nitro Jam’s Professional Driver of the Year. Bobby Lagana is the car chief for Steve Torrence/Capco Racing.
Dom Lagana has been a standout driver, as well. Just days before he pulled double duty this winter at Nitro Spring Training at Chandler, Ariz.’s Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, he recorded his first Top Fuel victory. In only his fourth race overseas for Rapisarda Autosport International, Lagana defeating Darren Morgan in the final of the 51st ANDRA Nationals at Calder Park Raceway at Melbourne, Victoria.That gave tuner Lee Beard a “sweep,” of sorts, with victories at eastern Australia’s major racetracks (Willowbank, Darwin, Sydney, and Calder Park). Lagana became the 14th driver Beard has guided to victories. Then in May, Dom Lagana beat RAI teammate Damien Harris in the “B Final” at Nitro Thunder at Sydney Dragway.
The Laganas never tire of being at the dragstrip. For example, two separate match races at Martin, Mich., book-ended six straight weeks of events. That included the NHRA Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd, Minn.; testing for the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis; competing in the World Series of Drag Racing at Cordova, Ill.; and qualifying for and racing in the U.S. Nationals.
Both Bobby and Dom Lagana are known for their generosity and their love of the sport that they shared for years with their father, the late Bobby Lagana Sr., and uncle Billy Lagana. In their travels throughout the U.S., they collect toiletries from hotels. They pass them along to John Force Racing track consultant Lanny Miglizzi, who distributes them to hospitals and shelters. Miglizzi this past week distributed the collection to the Richard Roudebush Veterans Administration Medical Center in Indianapolis.
The Mike Aiello Award honors the Houston native and standout college athlete at Texas Tech University who was a longtime drag-racing fan and former National Hot Rod Association Pro Stock crew member. The honor commonly is referred to as "The Spirit of Drag Racing Award.”
Aiello spent his final years confined to a wheelchair after a workplace injury. Despite physical hardship and severe mobility limitations, he not only attended drag races but made dozens of friends among racers, crew members, and media with his positive outlook and unselfish behavior. Aiello passed away December 29, 2006, at age 39, at Santa Monica, California.
John Force Racing crew chief John Medlen received the inaugural Mike Aiello Award in 2007, followed by Funny Car driver Tim Wilkerson (2008), Pro Stock's Mike Edwards (2009), International Hot Rod Association racer and journalist Michael Beard (2010), NHRA Funny Car racer Jack Beckman (2011), and former IHRA President Aaron Polburn (2012). Top Fuel racer Antron Brown and Top Alcohol Dragster’s Shawn Cowie shared the 2013 honor. Steve Johnson was honored in 2014, Don Schumacher in 2015, and Leah Pritchett in 2016.
RAI EXPERIENCES LETDOWN – Reigning Australian Top Fuel champion Wayne Newby and his Rapisarda Autosport International team didn’t come 9,300 miles just to exit with, as the old TV game shows would say, “lovely parting gifts.” Newby did achieve a goal: qualifying at Indianapolis for the first time in three U.S. Nationals appearances. But he was sorely discouraged that he, in essence, defeated himself in his first round against Leah Pritchett (who, if it’s any consolation, did the same thing in her semifinal race against Steve Torrence).
His dragster smoked the tires at the hit, handing Pritchett the easiest of victories.
“The team is very disappointed,” co-tuner Santo Rapisarda Jr. said. “To travel all the way to Indy and then smoke the tires in Round 1 was a major letdown.”
His brother and co-tuner Santino Rapisarda said, “We have struggled since we arrived for pre-meet testing. We initially had braking issues that we had resolved. Today it appears we had too much clutch, and that may have contributed to blowing the tires off . We need to go back to square zero, analyze what happened, and that may mean making dramatic changes. We are never this inconsistent. We can do better and will do better in the future.”
LEARNING EXPERIENCE FOR PRITCHETT – Semifinalist Leah Pritchett had to claw her way into last year’s Countdown and did so by one single point, disappointing Terry McMillen. But this year, she is proving herself worthy of a fulltime ride at Don Schumacher Racing with Papa John’s Pizza sponsorship, nailing down the No. 3 seed for the Countdown, while McMillen also will compete in the six-race playoff as the No. 8 starter.
A four-time winner this year so far, Pritchett had hoped to make it five this weekend, but he said, "We leave here, and our heads are not hung low. To go to the semifinals at the U.S. Nationals is farther than I've ever been at the U.S. Nationals in any category. It's something to be proud of. To lose to the eventual winner and current points leader, that should be a good glimpse into the future of how tight this Countdown to the Championship is going to be.
"I think we had a lot of momentum coming into this race, and we kept it going as long as possible. We experienced some rather unusual circumstances in the semifinals that slowed our momentum but definitely didn't stop it,” she said.
"This race is actually a turning point for us. It's something that we really needed,” Pritchett said. “We hadn't been able to get a grip on a warmer track tune-up, and this race made us dig deep and figure it out. Between yesterday and today in eliminations, we have more confidence going into the Countdown with St. Louis and the warmer tracks than we did four days ago."
SCHUMACHER TAKES DISPPOINTING RESULTS IN STRIDE – This time Tony Schumacher didn’t have the Indy magic. He missed out on the $100-grand Traxxas Shootout paycheck in the final against Steve Torrence, blew up his U.S. Army Dragster, and bowed out of competition altogether Monday with a loss to No. 16 qualifier and fellow Texan Kebin Kinsley in the semifinal.
“We just got beat,” Schumacher said. “I don’t want to take anything away from Kebin and his team. They are all good people over there with that team. I have been in those shoes. My first NHRA race in Top Fuel was the 1996 U.S. Nationals, and I did the same thing. I made the final as the 16 seed. There is something special about this place, for sure.”
He said, “We had a really good U.S. Army car today, and that was just a rough way to end our Indy. I sometimes dislike racing against cars that on paper you should beat. You line up against the Kalitta team or any of our DSR teams and we rarely have any issues. When you have to rise the occasion, it just seems like we do better. It’s crazy to think that we get beat more often by teams that we probably shouldn’t. I’m not making any excuses. We came up short of our goal this weekend. We made a run at the Traxxas Shootout Saturday and then had to deal with a part failure that exploded an engine in yesterday’s final session. The U.S. Army guys worked extremely hard last night to rebuild this U.S. Army machine and it was really good today.
“Indy is always special to us” he said, “and we wanted to leave with the trophy, but they only give one of those out here so we have to wait until next year. We’ll take a breath now, and then it’s off to Charlotte and the start of the Countdown.”
TOP FUEL - SUNDAY
QUICKEST FIELD – Texan Kebin Kinsley anchors the quickest Top Fuel field in class history. He’s on the bump spot with a 3.808-second elapsed time. He has a first-round meeting with No. 1 qualifier Clay Millican awaiting him tomorrow in the first round. Millican has landed Stringer Performance’s Parts Plus / Great Clips Dragster at the top of the order two years in a row.
A victory here at Indianapolis would nearly match his epic victory at Bristol, Tenn., this June.
That victory, monumentally significant to him because it occurred on Fathers Day after he and wife Donna lost son Dalton in a motorcycle accident, was for other reasons just as special to crew chef Dave Grubnic, Millican said.
“As a crew chief, that certainly was a big deal. And to be honest, he talked about us getting our first win more than even I did,” Millican said. “As a team, it was just really very, very important to him. But what a lot of people forget is Grubby had eight runner-ups before he won his first race as a driver. So he knew what it was like to kind of be in my spot, even though it took me more years and took longer.
“What I had said for a long time, the greatest thing about winning, which really it’s not, but what I had said was I couldn’t wait to get it done so people would quit asking me, ‘When are you going to win?’ - which was a question I could not answer. That was a question that I got tired of hearing. And it’s nice coming to every race since Bristol signing the National Dragster cover, or hearing, ‘Congratulations on that win’. That’s been really awesome. And I am still kind of riding the high from winning that thing. You know it took so long and so many runner-ups, and we had so many wins in the IHRA. For years I just said, ‘Well, when I get the opportunity to run NHRA more often, we’ll win, and it certainly took longer than I thought it would.”
However, he reasoned, “It just wasn’t supposed to happen. I mean, you know, the way it was supposed to happen is the way it did. You know, it never ate at me. A lot of people thought, ‘Oh that’s just got to tear you up. You won so much in the IHRA.’ Truth is, we won more than we were supposed to, and I had to give a little payback, I think. But it took a long time, and that made it that much better. If I had won one when we first started, it wouldn’t have been that big a deal.”
McMILLEN SHARES SURPRISING DEBATE – Terry McMillen, wanting to leave nothing to chance after making the Countdown to the Championship in his 11th year of trying, said Sunday morning that he had debated whether to run his car at this event.
“I’m in [the six-race playoff]. I know I’m in. The decision was whether we were going to run the car here. Why take a chance on an oildown?” McMillen said. “So when I came here, the decision was I’m not good at parking my car. I’m here to race. But when you start looking at it from a business side of it, for the first time I said to myself, ‘Maybe I can’t afford to run my car here, because if I have a couple of oildowns, everybody else can go around me.’ And I can’t take that chance. It was a tough decision, but I’m here to race. That’s what I do.”
The Amalie Oil Xtermigator Dragster owner-driver said, “We’ve had good luck. The car’s staying together well. It’s just come out here and do what we do, and it has paid off.”
He won the fan vote and the Traxxas Shootout lottery for the eighth and final spot in the bonus-race order. In the opening round, he defeated top seed Antron Brown to avenge his final-round loss to Brown at Seattle. He raced Tony Schumacher closely in the semifinal before Schumacher pulled away.
“By half-track we were really close. After that, he started to pull away and we sort of flatlined,” McMillen said. “It’s just learning. We’ve just got to keep making laps like that. If we do that, it’s going to happen.”
“It was pretty awesome to come out here and do it. The craziest thing was how many fans voted.” He said his allotment of ping-pong balls in the lottery hopper “was just incredible. That’s a lot of fan votes. What’s been moving to me, since Sonoma, is the fans. They’re just unbelievable. You pass the stands and they’re screaming louder than the fuel cars running. And that’s been overwhelming. Here was just crazy yesterday, and Seattle was the same. Standing out here [at the rope line by his pit], I usually go through a box and a half of hero cards. I’m on my fourth box today. I wouldn’t be here without the fans.”
Scott Palmer, McMillen’s longtime buddy from their IHRA days, also raised his performance level and realized his dream of making the Countdown elite.
“Our goal, Scott and I, at the beginning of the year, was for both of us just to be in the top 10. We would both do whatever we got to do to help each other get there,” McMillen said. “We’re both fortunate we’re there. Now he’s got a lot of help from Steve [Torrence] and his guys. We don’t have that. But it’s about surrounding yourselves with the right people. That’s what we’ve been able to do. And Rob [crew chief Wendland] has just taken the ball and run with it and worked within the restraints of the budget that we have. We’ve got quality parts, and we’re going out there and running numbers.
“We can run a [3.] 60, probably. I don’t know that we know how to do that totally yet. It’s around the corner. We’re real close to it,” he said. “As a team, you’ve got to be on the same page all the time. You can’t just half-ass do something and expect it to work. It’s got to be 100-percent right or it’s not going anywhere. And that’s the biggest thing [Wendland] has instilled in everybody: how to be organized and how to make sure that you do your job and that the details you give me are 100-percent right. If it varies a tenth, the car’s going to vary, too.”
FLYNN EXPLAINS LANGDON’S ENGINE EXPLOSION – Global Electronic Technology Dragster crew chief Rob Flynn said a valvetrain failure was to blame for Saturday morning’s engine explosion for Shawn Langdon.
“It was running clean, then all of a sudden it wasn’t,” Flynn said as he prepped the car in the Kalitta Motorsports pit for Sunday’s first of two chances to qualify higher in the field for Monday eliminations.
“Everything’s fine. We just need a shutoff run to make sure everything’s OK. We probably still would be doing that for the first run today,” he said.
Langdon was ninth at the close of Saturday qualifying, and that’s where he remained after the fourth overall session.
The crew stayed at the racetrack until about 1 a.m. Sunday, making repairs.
VANDERGRIFF EYEING FUTURE – Bob Vandergriff is beginning to rebound from his unfortunate and awkward exit last spring from the Top Fuel scene. Josh Comstock, his close friend and primary sponsor, passed away suddenly, forcing Vandergriff to dissolve the team that showcased Leah Pritchett and Dave Connolly.
He’s back on track intermittently this season, rekindling his business skills – and making progress toward another thriving operation.
What brought Vandergriff back to the dragstrip, he said, “was a combination of things. One, we had all the stuff sitting here. If I didn’t use it, it was just going to rot. Second of all, Valvoline’s been a good partner of ours, and we put our heads together and came up with a business development program that really benefits both sides. They’ve given me a good incentive plan to really work my butt off and generate some business for them. In return for that, they’re going to support the race team. So this year we’re just kind of getting our feet wet. We’re looking at expanding our schedule next year. So we’re in negotiations to do that right now.”
Vandergriff said choosing this particular venue for this year’s limited schedule was a business decision rather than some sentimental tug: “We’re actually doing a big promotion between Walmart and Valvoline right now, trying to drive people into the Auto Center. On the hero cards is an offer to drive people into any Walmart Auto Center in Indiana and Kentucky right now. But we’re here because it’s part of a program, and obviously it’s U.S. Nationals, so it worked out good for both sides.”
Vandergriff told Competition Plus several years ago he thinks Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis owes him a break. He said this event , which is celebrating its 63rd edition, "has been one of those weird races for me my whole career. We've had some highlights there and some serious lowlights. Been to the final round where I was ahead in the race and had a parachute fall out, and I've been to another final round there where I just got outrun. It's kind of been the highs and the lows here, and I guess it's what you would expect out of our biggest race of the season. I feel like this place owes us one."
He put it a little more in perspective Sunday.
He said this race and this venue are “pretty special obviously. It’s the biggest race of the year. You always want to win this one. We had it in our grasp and unfortunately it slipped out of our fingers in 1995. So yeah, it’d be a culmination of my career to win at Indy obviously. And we’ve got a good car right now, the car’s running great. For being our fourth race of the year, you know I’m pretty proud of the guys and everybody over here doing a great job.”
His poor luck, at times, here has been bothersome, but he understand he has had some positive memories, too.
“It’s one of those things, like we were lucky. It was our first race back with a brand-new team. And to come do what we did to get to the final round was amazing. We were behind every run, trying to get our car up to the starting line, just because it was new guys, new service, and the biggest race of the year. So to even make it up for the final round was a challenge, because we’d had a problem and we had guys that were riding on the car, tightening things up as we were [moving], and I was already strapped in the car on the way up there. So just one of those things, somebody must have hit a line, or kinked, whatever. It was just one of those things. Unfortunate but still a good weekend. I mean, to debut a brand-new sponsor, first time they’d ever even been to a race and go to the finals at the U.S. Nationals, it was still a pretty cool weekend.”
Many might recall that Vandergriff had been marking time until he could step away from the seat of his dragster that he was regarding as a money pit. He promised he isn’t “un-retired” and said if he expands his schedule, he’s looking at 12 to 15 races next year –
but that he still has no desire to run 12-15 races. He said he’ll “put somebody back in the car. It just made sense on a limited schedule right now based on what we’re doing budget-wise, where it would be more effective to spend the money. It just made more sense for me just to drive it right now. But if we expand our schedule to 12 to 15 races next year, there’ll be somebody else in the car.”
Eventually that could be his nephew, Jordan Vandergriff. But he said the plan is to “start him out slow. We’re going to put him, if we do this next year and expand the schedule, we’ll put him in a A/Fuel car for a year or so, maybe even two years. We need to get him some laps and seat time, see how he progresses, and then we’ll look at moving him up into this. If we come back with a Top Fuel car next year, we’ll have somebody else, you know, that’s driven one before, in the seat.”
SPECTATORS – Ike Maier and Kyle Wurtzel ended up with the only DNQs of the field.
TOP FUEL - SATURDAY
TORRENCE CLAIMS $100,000 TRAXXAS VICTORY – Steve Torrence shed his bridesmaid role in the Traxxas Shootout for Top Fuel.
The five-time qualifier for the lucrative bonus race that takes place during qualifying at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals was a two-time runner-up in his previous four starts.
But Saturday night at Lucas Oil Raceway belonged to Torrence in a showdown of Texans.
The Capco Contractors Dragster driver avenged his loss in the event final here last September to Tony Schumacher and the steamrolling U.S. Army car.
Torrence pocketed the $100,000 payout and denied Schumacher his second straight Traxxas Shootout triumph and third in the past four years.
“Closing the deal in the Traxxas Shootout was on my bucket list for drag racing,” he said, adding he was “tired of being on the ‘L’ side” in the final round, that “being on the ‘W’ side is more gratifying.”
TIRE TROUBLE FOR SANFORD – Ashley Sanford knows she has a lot of lessons ahead of her as her brand-new Top Fuel career develops. But she hadn’t quite anticipated what she encountered in Saturday’s first session – her second side-by-side pass in class competition. The left rear tire went flat in the middle of her pass opposite Wayne Newby, and she brought the K1 Speed/805 Beer Dragster to a halt on the track.
“Wow! Wasn’t expecting that! I’d never quite experienced that before,” she said, yet acknowledging, “It’s a crazy thing we’re doing.”
She said one of her crew members told her, “Welcome to Top Fuel racing. Anything can happen out here.”
Calling her debut weekend “a roller coaster,” Sanford said she was confident her team would fix the problem and have her ready for the evening session.
Goodyear technicians took the deflated tire for analysis and haven’t pronounced any cause for the mishap.
UNDERDOG NO MORE? – Terry McMillen had a stretch in which he seemed not to be able to make any progress. Now it seems his perseverance is paying off. With the arrival of crew chief Rob Wendland and Bob Peck winning the Best Supporting Actor award for the Amalie Oil Xtermigator Dragster team, McMillen has turned his luck around in a big way. This weekend’s performance alone is proof.
He secured a long-sought berth in the Countdown to the Championship field of 10 Friday, along with fellow improved underdog Scott Palmer in the Cat Spot Litter / Marck Industries Dragster. And McMillen didn’t squeeze in because of someone else’s stumble. He did it with an impressive improvement that included a runner-up finish at Seattle. That was good enough for the No. 8 spot after being in the top 10 virtually all year.
This past Wednesday, McMillen won the fan-vote lottery for the eight and final slot in the Traxxas Shootout for Top Fuel for the second consecutive year. So he got the chance to race again for the $100,000 grand prize – and he made the most of that chance. He advanced to the semifinal, eliminating Traxxas Shootout top seed and Top Fuel points leader Antron Brown. McMillen fell to Tony Schumacher but is getting comfortable both as a fan favorite and a front-door player.
With one more day of qualifying to go, McMillen is 12th in the order.
So McMillen is shedding his underdog image. He isn’t top dog yet. But in the dog-eat-dog Top Fuel competition, he’s definitely barking up the right tree.
TOP FUEL - FRIDAY
PRITCHETT SETS TRACK RECORD E.T. – Saying her mentality was to “stab the gas till your heart bleeds,” Leah Pritchett slammed her Papa John’s Pizza Dragster to a Lucas Oil Raceway elapsed-time record 3.667 seconds at 329.50 mph Friday to take the early Top Fuel lead.
“Now, when we say we’re shooting for a mid-.60, technically, that is our new normal. But that’s because we are doing abnormal things all of the time,” she said. “It’s humbling. I couldn’t be more proud and blown away. If I get blown away any more, I won’t be here.”
She had a two-hundredths-of-a-second advantage over tentative No. 2 qualifier Doug Kalitta in the Mac Tools Dragster. Kalitta posted a 3.682-second E.T., and points leader and reigning series champion Antron Brown was third-quickest Friday at 3.689 second at a class-fastest 329.75 mph. Clay Millican matched Brown’s E.T., but his speed was slightly slower, at 327.59 mph. Steve Torrence, the six-time 2017 winner, is fifth overnight at 3.712, 326.71. Tony Schumacher followed with a
TOP FUEL OVERVIEW – Points leader Antron Brown, No. 2 Steve Torrence, and No. 3 Leah Pritchett have accounted for 14 of this year’s 17 victories. Clay Millican, Brittany Force, and Tony Schumacher have the other three.
Seven Top Fuel racers are locked into the Countdown at the start of the race. Besides the six winners, Doug Kalitta has secured a berth. That leaves the final three playoff spots open. Poised to qualify for the six-race runoff are two first-timers and popular underdogs, Terry McMillen and Scott Palmer. They’re currently eighth and ninth in the standings.
Filling the final position looked to be a battle between current No. 10 Troy Coughlin Jr. and 2013 champion Shawn Langdon. Coughlin earned his license in Langdon’s car when the latter represented Don Schumacher Racing. Then they became teammates at Kalitta Motorsports and found themselves in a tug-o-war for the final Countdown spot. But Coughlin abruptly announced after pre-race testing last week that he was stepping away from his role as the SealMaster Dragster driver. He’s competing in the Super Comp class this weekend. Coughlin has won the U.S. Nationals in both Super Comp (2010) and Super Gas (2014). Langdon trailed Coughlin by a mere 12 points, and especially with the points-and-a-half system in play at this event, Langdon and his Global Electronic Technology Dragster should be able to make that up with a single qualifying attempt (which is worth 15 points rather than the customary 10).
The points scale for the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals will award the winner 150, the runner-up 120, semifinal finishers 90, quarterfinal finishers 60, first-round finishers 30. All drivers making one qualifying attempt will receive 15 points. Setting a national elapsed-time record once again will carry a reward: 20 points. Qualifying position points (1-8) and qualifying-round bonus points (1-3 per session) will remain the same.
At other national events the distribution is as follows: winner 100, runner-up 80, semifinal finisher 60, quarterfinal finisher 40, first-round finisher 20; one qualifying attempt 10.
TOP FUEL COUNTDOWN FIELD FILLED – Terry McMillen, Scott Palmer, and Shawn Langdon secured spots in the Top Fuel class’ Countdown to the Championship fields Friday. Palmer sits seventh after clocking what he called “the best run of my life – and the hardest ever”: a 3.754-second effort at 328.54 mph. Fiancee and Cat Spot Litter/Marck Dragster crew chief Ashley Fye was absent, tending to a family emergency. Langdon needed to do no more than make a qualifying pass to ensure he would move into the No. 10 and final spot. He took advantage of the fact previous No. 10 driver Troy Coughlin Jr. stepped away from the seat of the SealMaster Dragster last Thursday.
LANGDON’S INNER FAN EMERGES – No. 8 Terry McMillen and No. 9 Scott Palmer, perhaps trendy tuna in a sea of sharks, appear to be headed to their first Countdown appearances. And 2013 series champion Shawn Langdon, who’s chasing them after sitting out the first four races of the season without a ride, is one of their most vocal cheerleaders.
“Their cars have proven themselves of being worthy of the top 10. They’ve both made excellent runs this year. They’ve both beaten some very tough teams along the way. They’re not in the top 10 because there’s only x-amount of cars. They’re in the top 10 because they’ve got really good race cars.” Langdon volunteered.
“Both of their teams have improved immensely. Palmer’s working with Torrence’s team. And McMillen’s got ties here and there, but [crew chief] Rob Wendland has definitely headed that whole team. They’ve done a good job, which is exciting. It’s not exciting when there’s only a couple of teams that can go out there and win. It’s exciting when there’s a lot of teams that have cars capable of winning,” he said. “So seeing McMillen go to the final round [at Seattle] and seeing Palmer go rounds, it’s neat, even though I’m competing against these guys.
“It’s neat because being a fan for so many years, I like to root for the underdogs and ‘underfunded’ teams. It’s definitely cool to see single-car teams [excel] – and the powerhouse teams are competing for the same thing. We’re all running pretty close E.T.s now.”
SANFORD AMPED FOR HER DEBUT – Ashley Sanford hadn’t been in the Lagana Brothers’ Nitro Ninja Dragster since May 1. The car refreshed her memory in a kick-butt way last week in testing at Lucas Oil Raceway with a 3.848-second, 302.48-mph blast on the 1,000-foot course. It was enough to make her the sixth-quickest among the much more experienced racers participating in the shakedown exercises. “Talk about getting those butterflies out of my system!” the 23-year-old Fullerton, Calif., said.
She told Joe Castello of WFO Radio the pass “was a little rough” but that she had been “looking forward to getting back in a car and hitting that throttle” and that “getting back in the seat was a comfortable thing.” Sanford cut the engine off a bit early in that first full pass ever in a dragster for her, because she said she felt it skating a little toward the center line near the top end. “It’s been awhile since I remember that feeling of when the clutch engages and you’re really getting shot off. It definitely took me for a ride. I’m still learning. I’m so lucky to have this seat time before the big race.”
The plan, Sanford said, was to aim for an elapsed time in the mid- to high-3.70-second range in Friday’s opening qualifying session. That Q1 can set the field.” She knew temperatures were supposed to dip a bit. “Once it’s about 8:45-9 o’clock, those cars are going to be flying,” she said, anticipating that the stiff competition would require a 3.70. “We need that to get into the field. We’re really going to go for it in Q1. If we can pull that off, we can pull it off on Race Day.” She said she wants to register consistent numbers, because “a consistent race car is a winning race car.”
After her 3.796-second run at 322.04 mph Friday night, Sanford said, “I am so stoked. It felt amazing. It was smooth. It went A to B, just what we wanted. I couldn’t have done it without the Lagana Brothers. I love them so much! Because of them, I’m really getting to make my dream come true. I’m so grateful for them and my sponsors. This is a day I’ll never forget.”
Sanford has acquired sponsorship for this weekend’s event from go-karting’s K1 Speed and 805 Beer/ Firestone Walker Brewing Company. She hosted a meet-and-greet for NHRA fans Thursday night at the K1 Speed facility in the Indianapolis suburb of Fishers.
NEWBY IMPROVING AT INDIANAPOLIS – Wayne Newby said his first goal in this third appearance at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals is simply to qualify. The Sydney native, who just earned the 400 Thunder Australian Professional Drag Racing Series Top Fuel championship, missed last year’s cut by just two-thousandths of a second as Terry McMillen took the final starting position. In his first crack at the NHRA’s oldest and most prestigious event, Newby struggled and was the 20th-place driver.
After not even sitting in this particular Rapisarda Autosport International dragster since last November’s NHRA Finals at Pomona, Calif., Newby cranked out a 3.840-second elapsed time that held up as fifth-best in last week’s two days of testing (but left Newby expecting more in terms of E.T.). “Last year we had a few little [mechanical] issues” but resolved them, Newby said. “After Indy, the car turned around. The car was on a good run when we left it last year.”
Newby ran several Countdown races and fared well. At Charlotte, he qualified 12th and advanced to the semifinals before losing to Doug Kalitta. He was No. 10 qualifier at St. Louis. At Las Vegas as the No. 12 starter, he beat Tony Schumacher before falling out against Antron Brown. Then in the finale, he landed the No. 11 spot but couldn’t topple Steve Torrence.
So Newby continues to improve his performance here. He made history this summer, becoming the first racer in Australia to earn titles in the Top Alcohol and Top Fuel classes. So he’s hoping he’s on a roll.
An upgraded clutch package could give RAI the boost it needs this year. With some advice from Don Schumacher Racing’s Todd Okuhara last week, the Rapisarda team tried for a second time to master the six-disc clutch. And they made progress. “We tested twice with it last year, and we didn’t have any success. So we went back to what we knew,” Newby said. “We put it back in, and we’ll see what we can do and hope for the best.”
“A 3.80 was a good run,” Newby said after claiming the provisional No. 10 spot in the order Friday with a 3.803-second, 321.88-mph performance. “I think there is room for improvement. We had a small problem on the run. I thought we had dropped a cylinder, but what we discovered was a brake caliper was dragging on the right hand side and holding the car up. I had my hands full keeping the car off the wall. Tomorrow we get two runs and hope to get into the 3.70s and move up the ladder.”
Longtime NHRA crew member Mike Domagala, who recently worked in Australia on Mark Mariani’s car, has joined RAI for this event as the cylinder-head specialist. Domagala worked in the past with a handful of top-tier drivers and organizations, such as Chuck Etchells, Kenny Bernstein, Don Schumacher Racing, and David Powers Motorsports.
YOUNGEST GRAY EYES DRAGSTER CAREER – While eyes are on the Pro Stock trio that represents three generations of Grays – Johnny, Shane, and Tanner – one more Gray Family member is coming up through the drag-racing ranks . . . in Top Fuel. Taylor Gray has made himself welcome and useful in Steve Torrence’s Capco Contractors Dragster pit. The youngest Gray in the clan, 12-year-old Taylor, handles supercharger maintenance and said it isn’t all that demanding: “You just have to pay attention to what you’re doing. You can’t screw up.”
Curiosity is what attracted Taylor Gray to the Kings of the Sport after watching his family race factory hot rods (and grandpa Johnny compete also in Funny Car). “I’ve known Steve since I was five or six,” he said. “I kind of just came over here last year at Denver and started checking out what all these guys are doing and started hanging out with Steve a little bit more. And then finally I started coming in the pits and kind of helping out. Then it turned into me being the blower guy.
“It’s pretty cool,” he said. It’s weird coming from over there [in the Pro Stock pits] to over here. It’s a lot different over here. We’re thrashing, and over there it’s kind of calmed-down. It’s a lot more fun over here,” Gray said.
Tanner Gray, the 18-year-old Pro Stock phenom who appears headed to earning NHRA rookie-of-the-year honors, and Taylor Gray are über-competitive individuals. But Taylor said he has no desire to compete on the racetrack in Pro Stock against his older brother; he just doesn’t want to drive a Pro Stock car. “I don’t, actually,” he said. “If I drag race, this dragster will be the one I drag race. If I do drag race, I’m looking for a Top Fuel car.”
Dad Shane Gray encouraged Tanner’s switch from his circle-track experience to drag racing in the family-owned Pro Stock car. But will he support Taylor’s urge to zip nearly 340 miles an hour? “I don’t know,” Taylor Gray said. “I don’t know if Grandpa’s behind it. I’ve still got to work on him.” He said Tanner doesn’t show any keen interest in dragsters, although he’s buddies with Top Fuel champion Shawn Langdon. “Sometimes he’ll ask me a few things about it. But mostly, no. We kind of try to get away from racing when we’re done [with an event]. Sometimes it’ll be too much. We’ve got to enjoy our free time.”
The aggressive brothers, though, find a way to compete in the sport. “I always give him crap,” Taylor Gray said. “I say, ‘We’ve won six races. You’ve won three. You’ve got three to go.’ He just laughs.”
TORRENCE PIT BRIMS WITH CAPABLE CREW MEMBERS – During testing here last week for this race, one of the more intriguing pits was that of Capco Contractors Dragster driver Steve Torrence. It was full of intriguing characters, none of them Steve Torrence himself.
The six-time winner was home at Kilgore, Texas, but he certainly was preparing for his trip to Indianapolis. His father, Billy Torrence was making passes at the testing opportunity, and he wasn’t planning to attend this race. Dad, who hasn’t announced whether he’ll make some Countdown appearances this season, was keeping his Top Fuel license fresh.
Scrambling were ever-busy Bobby and Dom Lagana, who have been helping Scott Palmer race toward his first Countdown to the Championship berth and former Top Alcohol Dragster driver Ashley Sanford as she prepped for her Top Fuel debut. They had been at Brainerd, Minn., for the previous NHRA race.
Living a life of quiet satisfaction in one corner of the eclectic workspace was Ben Patterson. He’s not yet a well-known name in American drag racing, but for the better part of a decade he has been a celebrated marvel in the Australian and New Zealand drag-racing community. One of the sport’s Under-30 wunderkinder, Patterson is here in the U.S. on a temporary basis for work experience. In other visits here, he has worked with such NHRA drivers as Clay Millican and Richie Crampton. Patterson still could be considered a kid, but he isn’t wet behind the ears. He tuned Darren Morgan to three consecutive ANDRA series Top Fuel championships (2011, 2012, 2013).
Another prodigy, 12-year-old Taylor Gray – son of Pro Stock’s Shane Gray and brother of rookie ace Tanner Gray – dutifully tended to supercharger servicing.
So it was no wonder crew chief Richard Hogan stood back contentedly, an almost day-dreamy smile creasing his face. Just as it has been through six victories.
MILLICAN OK WITH BEING MID-PACK FOR NOW – Clay Millican was No. 1 qualifier here last September. But he said his “game plan coming into the season was to win a race and be in the top five. Well, we won a race [Bristol, Tenn.], and we’re not horribly far out of the top five. But if we go into the Countdown in the sixth or seventh spot, we’re in good shape. Robert Hight proved a few years ago, you can be in 10th place and win this thing.”
The Parts Plus/Great Clips Dragster driver is in seventh place, 499 behind Antron Brown but just 24 behind No. 6 Doug Kalitta. He has a 292-point advantage over eighth-place Terry McMillen.
“We want to peak starting after Indy. That’s when we really want to peak. There’s a lot of times that this team is doing some things during qualifying for the end of the year. We don’t have the budget to go out and test as much as some of these guys do. You know, the testing we’ve done this year was Norwalk. We tested for Goodyear, so that wasn’t really testing for us. And we did preseason testing. We just can’t go out and run the wheels off this thing. So we’ll get some testing information in during qualifying,” Millican said.
“We never mention that. We don’t talk about it, because it’s nobody’s business what we’re doing. But we try to just do that, get ourselves qualified solidly on Friday, and then Saturday that gives us the opportunity to try a few things, and we do that from time to time,” he said. “We’re getting ready for those last six races. We really are.”
Millican, grateful to be in the Countdown he has missed by such narrow margins in the past, said he isn’t too worried about points at the moment.
“Steve Torrence has been on fire,” Millican said of the six-time winner. So have points leader Antron Brown and Leah Pritchett who have four victories each.
“But it all changes after Indy. What happens in those last six races are what determines the championship,” Millican said. “But goals are still at the moment: top five going into the Countdown – and win some more races.”
CLARIFYING A COMMENT – Frustration pushed Jim Oberhofer’s button during qualifying Saturday at the most recent race, at Brainerd, Minn. Following Doug Kalitta’s outstanding pass in the Mac Tools Dragster that was quickest of the session. Oberhofer acknowledged Kalitta’s achievement, then took a swipe at the performances from the dragsters of Shawn Langdon and Troy Coughlin Jr.: “That was a good run for the Mac Tools team. It's a shame that we look like a bunch of ass-clowns with our other two dragsters."
Four days later, Oberhofer’s passion for excelling was just as evident, but he explained what triggered his sarcasm the Saturday before.
“We were really frustrated with our cars. We expect a lot out of ourselves at Kalitta Motorsports. Connie gives us everything we need to go out there and perform at a top level,” Oberhofer said. “[Against] the Schumacher cars or the Force car or the Torrence car, we looked kind of stupid up there, in my opinion.
“We’ve had all sorts of trouble with the SealMaster car, one thing or another,” he said. “The Global car, they had their problems at Brainerd, too. It’s just frustrating because we expect a lot out of ourselves. We want to compete for a championship. We want to run good.
“When we go out and do something stupid, I’m the first one to blame myself,” he said.
Referring to Langdon’s car, Oberhofer said, “I know there’s some missed opportunities those guys had that they’re disappointed in. Both cars, the Global [Electronic Technology] car and the SealMaster car, have had a ton of missed opportunities.”
Langdon didn’t disagree. “We’ve had plenty of opportunities. We’ve just run into a string of bad luck and some parts issues and some other issues. We’ve been fighting a lot of gremlins along the way. We’re really not in the position we’re in because we missed four races. Had we made the other four races, yeah, we would be in the top 10. We’ve had a few opportunities . . . some crucial ones we felt we should have capitalized on. We ran into some snags this year. We had a string of bad luck, and at times you can’t beat out bad luck.”
Coughlin Jr. departed the team late last Thursday, but Oberhofer’s comment at Brainerd wasn’t his impetus for leaving.
“Drag racing, competition in general, is very emotional. And anybody in the stands or anybody listening who took offense at that, if they were in his shoes, they would have said the same thing. It’s just something that’s in your heart. When you’re a competitive individual, some of those things come to mind. Sometimes Monday you wish you have said something different. We have to be the best we can be 100 percent of the time. He puts a lot of pressure on himself. This operation is a lot, let alone being crew chief of two cars – an insane amount of mental and physical responsibility. If that helps him to get the frustration out, I love it. I love what he said – it’s emotion . . . it’s real. Jim O loves this so much that he’s that passionate about it. So it’s an honor just to drive for him. It’s pretty damn cool.”
DROPPING OUT – The Top Fuel field experienced attrition a week before the race began, paring its entry list from 21 drivers to 18. According to his granddaughter, sportsman racer Krista Baldwin, Chris Karamesines withdrew from this race “because he's making some adjustments to the car. So he didn't want to rush the process in order to make it for Indy.” She said a traditionally high car count was a factor for him, as well. “But he will be there watching on Saturday and Sunday,” said Baldwin, who is helping Alex Laughlin with Anthony Dicero’s Top Alcohol Dragster car. Californian Steve Faria and Chicago-area racer Luigi Novelli also changed their minds about competing here this weekend.
The field is missing a few racers who started last year’s race. Tripp Tatum is taking his chances in an A/Fuel car this weekend. He was the No. 13 qualifier who lost in the first round to Tony Schumacher on his march in the U.S. Army Dragster to his NHRA-record 10th U.S. Nationals victory. Bruce Litton, the No. 15 qualifier here last season, opted not to haul his car from literally across the street because he’s busy right now with his trailer-sales business. T.J. Zizzo is gearing up for a trip West during the Countdown, so he’s absent. And Morgan Lucas stepped from his seat after an attempt to score back-to-back victories here at the racetrack that bears the name of his family business.