Rumor Mill

2017 SUMMIT RACING EQUIPMENT NHRA NATIONALS - NORWALK NOTEBOOK

 

 

       

 

SUNDAY NOTEBOOK

BECKMAN COLLECTS FIERY WIN IN NORWALK - Jack Beckman sure does know how to make a race entertaining.

In the final round of the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals, in the lane that no one wanted, after a less than stellar weekend, Beckman matched up with Robert Hight in his third consecutive Funny Car final and won in dramatic fashion, crossing the finish line sideways and on fire following a spectacular explosion at Summit Motorsports Park.

Hight left first in the matchup of rival teams, but Beckman chased him down and then blew by the John Force Racing driver when Hight’s Auto Club Chevrolet Camaro went up in a cloud of smoke just past the tree. Then, just shy of the scoreboards, Beckman’s car let go in a fiery explosion, dislodging the blower and leaving Beckman battling to get the machine slowed on the top end.

While exciting, Beckman was uninjured in the incident, and was able to breath a sigh of relief and eventually garner a smile in collecting career win No. 26.

“You want to talk about the gamut of emotions in two-tenths of a second. It’s boom, win light, uh oh, fire,” an excited Beckman said moments after cross the stripe with a winning 4.073-second run at 311.85 mph. “There is not enough time to think about it. People say, ‘did you get nervous in there.’ Yeah, right when the engine started I got nervous. When something like that happens, it is not like driving down the freeway and the car spins out next to you and you almost hit them. Because we are so focused here, when something like that happens, I have got a set of emergency procedures. It’s chutes, brake lever, fire bottles, fuel. And you just program yourself to do that.

“After that, you are so relieved that you get out of the car in one piece, there is really not that sense of horror that you would have if you were driving a street vehicle. I don’t to (have an explosion), but it is part of the job.

“If you go swimming with the sharks, every once in awhile, a great white is going to surface.”

While the final was certainly spectacular, the rest of Beckman’s day was far less memorable. Beckman had a less than stellar car throughout the weekend, qualifying ninth while having lane choice only once throughout the afternoon.

Beckman collected wins over DSR teammates Tommy Johnson Jr. and Matt Hagan, along with Cruz Pedregon, recording bracket-like passes of 4.073, 4.074, 4.078 and 4.060 on race day. Hight collected wins over Bob Tasca, Alexis DeJoria and Jim Campbell.

Hagan suffered a similar incident to his teammate in their second-round matchup when Hagan’s engine let go with the lead just past the 660-foot mark, advancing Beckman on the ladder.

With the win, Beckman collects his third career victory at the Norwalk, Ohio-based track. He is the only active nitro driver to win at the track more than once.

“We were consistently a bit off out there,” Beckman said. “The problem is it was swallowing up our tuneup changes. For the semi we threw a different supercharger on it, threw a different short block on it, and it just ate them up. It just didn’t respond to it. So we threw some timing at it for the final round and, the problem is, you don’t have time in 45 minutes to diagnose why our car is not listening to us.

“But we were consistent. And what happens when you start running consistent is the other cars know they have to step up a little. We enjoyed a little bit of that these last couple weekends. We weren’t spectacular, but our car went to the finish line.”

Even more impressive, Beckman got it done all afternoon at Summit Motorsports Park in the left lane, a lane that no team wanted to run.

“It’s amazing. Its 30 foot wide, 1,000 feet long and straight, just like the right lane,” Beckman said. “A lot of times I think it is monkey see, monkey do. People just kind of emulate what the person in front of them has done. We ran left lane first round because we didn’t have lane choice. We had lane choice one time in the second round and we decided to stay there. Fortunately for us, we didn’t have to worry about it the last two rounds because we weren’t the quickest of the two cars.”

With three consecutive finals, Beckman will get a week off before returning to action in two weeks. Between now and then, he hopes to see his current car scrapped, and return in Chicago with a brand new ride.

“What I would like to do, officially, is retire that car now,” Beckman said. “That thing’s got close to 700 runs on the rear end. It’s got 159 on the front half, which is more than we typically go. We’ve got a car upstairs with 30 runs on it. We are going to unload and test it tomorrow and I have a feeling it is going to make a difference.

“We are only a few tenths of a second off of where we would like to be. It’s not even a blink of an eye, but we need to pick that up. I have every confidence that we will pick that up. We want to win more races and win a championship, so by Indy we have to have a combination that listens to us.” Larry Crum

TORRENCE PUTS HEART INTO CLOSE TOP FUEL VICTORY AGAINST FINALIST KALITTA - Grudgingly but sensibly sitting out last year’s Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals following what doctors called a “minor” heart attack only made Top Fuel racer Steve Torrence more resolved to show everyone what they missed.

This time the feeling was simply heartening.

Torrence became the class’ first four-time winner Sunday, edging No. 1 qualifier Doug Kalitta by about two feet (0.0049 seconds) in the final round at Norwalk, Ohio.

The independent Capco Contractors Dragster driver scored a holeshot victory, covering the Summit Motorsports Park 1,000-foot course in 3.743 second at 331.45 mph.

Trumping Kalitta’s quicker 3.736-second effort in the Mac Tools Dragster at 331.36 mph, Torrence maintained his points lead as the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series ends its four race “Eastern Swing” and heads to Joliet, Ill., for the July 6-9 Fallen Patriots Route 66 NHRA Nationals presented by K&N.

“You could hear [Kalitta] the whole way. And when it’s that close, you’re thinking, ‘Don’t drop a hole [cylinder]. Don’t do this. Don’t do anything – just drive as straight as possible and try to get down there [to the finish line],” Torrence said after reaching six final rounds in the past eight events. “I knew I left good on the tree. But I could tell he was right beside me and it was going to be a coin toss who got it.

“You win any races it’s satisfying,” he said. The drama, he said, “just adds a little excitement, a little character, to the story of how you got it.”

Of course, all racers want to win every time they participate. But Torrence said competing at Norwalk is “special,” not the least reason being the tasty and reasonably priced ice cream the Bader family offers.

“I need to be riding a bicycle more and going to the gym, but I show up here and eat ice cream and win the race,”  he said.

His Capco Contractors Dragster, Torrence said, “is doing what Richard [crew chief Hogan] and Bobby [car chief Lagana] are telling it to do. They’ve got a good handle on it. It’s flawless, spot-on every time.”

That’s because he knows he has what he called “an unbelievable opportunity” and has faith in his dargster. He said he knew Sunday that “I hadn’t been the best on the sheet in reaction times. I knew that.” But he said he knuckled down and concentrated – and took advantage of Jack Beckman’s top-end, Funny Car final-round engine explosion and the extra clean-up time to relax and focus. He said he had been “confident and calm” all day.

His plan, he said, is to “keep my head down, keep grinding, stay focused.”

Torrence joined Beckman (Funny Car), Bo Butner (Pro Stock), and L.E. Tonglet (Pro Stock Motorcycle) in the winners circle Sunday.

The Texas racer, who registered back-to-back victories at Charlotte and Atlanta and won at Englishtown, beat Troy Coughlin Jr. Sunday before bursting the bubble of previous and first-time winner Clay Millican, then winning against tire-shaking Brittany Force.

Kalitta defeated Troy Buff, Tony Schumacher (in their 85th career match-up), and three-time winner Leah Pritchett and was hoping to gain significant ground on Round 2 finisher Tony Schumacher. Kalitta is fifth in the standings and trails No. 4 Schumacher by 75 points. He leads Force by 47 points.

“It’s definitely disappointing to come up that close and not get the win for Mac Tools, Toyota, and all of our great supporters,” Kalitta said. “It felt great to run that strong all weekend. We were the No. 1 qualifier and ran the overall quick time in three of the four passes today. We’re headed in the right direction, and I am confident the win is coming soon."

BUTNER PERFECT IN WIN OVER TEAMMATE AT SUMMIT NATIONALS - Perfection.

It is not very often a driver can use that word to describe a race win, but it is the only word to describe Bo Butner’s win Sunday at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals.

With his KB Racing teammate, Greg Anderson, the class of the field throughout the weekend, Butner swung for the fences and hit a walk-off home run in the ninth inning, recording a perfect triple-zero reaction time and besting his teammate by one thousandth of a second in the finals at Summit Motorsports Park.

Butner left first, and recorded a 6.601-second pass at 210.59 mph to collect a hole shot win over Anderson’s quicker and faster 6.581 at 210.87 mph.

“We made four pretty consistent runs and we were good when we needed to be,” said Butner, who collected his third win of the season on Sunday. “That is my first trip zip light in the final in any class to win, so that is pretty cool. We have a good car and a good combination. We try a lot of different stuff in all three cars. There were eight cars this week that could have won coming in here today.

“It just has to go your way. You have to be good when you need it, you have to get lucky when you need to. We look back at the runs Friday, Saturday and today and he just had a faster car. He was making better runs, and the only shot you have is to leave first. I am not known for that yet, but I am working on it.”

Butner’s perfect light was the fourth of the weekend in the pro categories, an NHRA record. It was also the second week in a row a Pro Stock driver has recorded a .000 reaction time, with Alex Laughlin doing the same, ironically, against Butner one week ago.

On Sunday, Butner had wins over John Gaydosh, Vincent Nobile and Val Smeland to reach his 11th career final round and his first at Norwalk. Anderson had wins over Jason Line, Allen Johnson and Mark Hogan.

After crossing the stripe and pulling off the upset victory, Anderson went over to Butner and had a few laughs with the current points leader.

“He said something about picking his pocket,” Butner said. “They are a good group of guys and they love to win. We can’t do it without them.”

And, more recently, Butner actually couldn’t do it without the help of Line and Anderson, just not the Line and Anderson behind the wheel.

“Jack Line, Jason’s son, has been to all of my races I have won and all but one final this year,” Butner said. “I lost a crew member today and I didn’t have a backhalf guy, so I also recruited Greg Anderson’s son Cody. So I’ve got both of my teammate’s sons, and they are really working on the car between rounds. They helped me out and it worked great. I don’t know how I can keep them, maybe homeschool?”

With the win, Butner extended his points lead to 126 points over Anderson.

He also got to take home a coveted ice cream scoop trophy, awarded special to the winner’s at the Norwalk, Ohio-based track, something that his fiance, racer Randi Lyn Shipp, already has in her collection.

“I had to wake up this morning to be reminded that she has an ice cream scoop and I don’t. Now I can say shut up, what’s next,” Butner said with a laugh. “She’s a great support to me. It takes so many people to do this sport. It is tough, but I have a great group behind me.” Larry Crum

TONGLET GRABS THIRD PSM VICTORY AND TEAM FOURTH FOR STORM-BOUND BOSS IN LOUISIANA - Jerry Savoie, the most recent Pro Stock Motorcycle winner before this weekend’s Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals, knew he wouldn’t make the trip to Norwalk, Ohio. The two-bike team owner opted to stay home at Cutoff, La., to protect his alligator farm business and property in the wake of Tropical Storm Cindy and leave the racing to partner L.E. Tonglet.

But Savoie told crew chief Tim Kulungian, “Put our best stuff in L.E.'s bike and go out there and kick everyone's ass. We've got a good thing going right now, and I want it to continue."

Come havoc and high water, Savoie saw Kulungian and Tonglet win Sunday’s showdown between the top two qualifiers.

Tonglet launched one-thousandth of a second quicker than opponent Matt Smith and won with a 6.824-second elapsed time at 195.76 mph on the NitroFish.com Suzuki. Smith missed his chance at a first 2017 victory with his 6.882-second, 195.31-mph performance on the Summit Motorsports Park quarter-mile astride his Polaris Racing Victory motorcycle.

Tonglet, the No. 2 qualifier, is perfect in three final rounds this season and has moved into the points lead, passing previous leader and first-round loser Eddie Krawiec.

He said Savoie’s absence made “a huge impact. We didn’t have double the data each qualifying session, so it was a lot tougher. We wish he could have been here, but his job comes first.”

Tonglet, a firefighter from Metairie, La., said he was able to enter the event because “it didn’t affect us as much [in the New Orleans suburb], but Jerry’s an hour south of us.”

Savoie said the storm “already cost us about 80 percent of our [alligator] egg production. Once the eggs are underwater for four hours, they're no good. We've been working around the clock for the last three days, trying to get things stabilized. But there's still a lot of work to do.”

That final-round pass, Tonglet said, “was a very good run for us. Tim said the whole weekend we were two-hundredths behind in qualifying. I didn’t see any win lights in qualifying, but I saw it today and that’s the only day that counts.”

He hoisted his 13th Wally trophy alongside fellow pro winners Steve Torrence (Top Fuel), Jack Beckman (Funny Car), and Bo Butner (Pro Stock). The scene was reminiscent of the Charlotte and Atlanta races, where Tonglet stood on the podium both times with Torrence and at Atlanta also with Butner.

Tonglet, the 2010 series champion, eliminated Melissa Surber, Steve Johnson, and Hector Arana Jr. as he sought his third victory and fourth for the White Alligator Racing team in four straight events.

That, he said, has made “a huge statement.”

He said, “Tim’s tuning it, and it’s just flying right now. This is the weather that Tim likes, so hopefully it’s hot like this the rest of the year.”

Smith, the top qualifier and two-time series champion from King, N.C., advanced past Joe DeSantis and Mike Berry before using a perfect reaction time (0.00 seconds) to dispatch Scotty Pollacheck and deny him a sixth shot at his first NHRA victory.

Smith’s perfect light against Pollacheck didn’t concern him, Tonglet said: “I said, ‘He’s not going to do that [in the final]. He’ll be teens or 20 [.020] at best. He cut it way too close. We just try to be a teen or 20 light.”

Before the bike class final round, Shane Molinari erased Smith’s vision of another winners circle celebration with dad Rickie Smith. Molinari defeating him in the semifinals of Pro Modified eliminations. The Smiths shared the podium here in 2013, becoming the first and so-far-only father-son tandem in NHRA history to earn pro-class victories at the same event.  

Tonglet said Smith “slowed down a lot at the end of the semis. He said he missed the shift button or something happened and it didn’t shift. He slowed down, but he never picked back up. I don’t know what his [bike’s] problem is, but I’m just glad we got around him.”

The next race on the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule is the July 6-9 Fallen Patriots Route 66 NHRA Nationals presented by K&N at Joliet, Ill. Susan Wade



SATURDAY NOTEBOOK

TOP FUEL

DOUG #1 - Doug Kalitta knows how to qualify first.

It has just been a while.

Kalitta’s last No. 1 was the second race at Charlotte last year, leaving Kalitta with a string of 16 races since his last spot atop the ladder. But on Saturday, Kalitta placed the Mac Tools dragster first, his first No. 1 of the year and 48th of his career.

He ran a track record 3.709-second pass at 327.43 mph that carried over from Friday.

“It has been a while since we qualified first, but there is no better place than your own backyard for Kalitta Motorsports,” Kalitta said. “I am looking forward to carrying that momentum into tomorrow. Tomorrow we are going to end up with what we had here today and, me personally, I am just hoping for some good, solid runs.

“This place has been so good to me over the years and I am looking forward to taking advantage of that tomorrow.”

THE GOOD OL’ DAYS - The glory days of drag racing.

Often times, when someone talks about the glory days, they are talking about a time before corporate sponsorships and public relations teams ruled the day, a time when drivers could be drivers and if that meant a few choice words, or a punch or two following a disagreement out on the track, that is just how it went.

But those days are long gone. Today, drivers watch every word that comes out of their mouth and they practice, race after race, plugging every sponsor, every crew member, and make sure to congratulate every competitor without missing a beat.

And then there is Steve Torrence.

A throwback to those wild, wild west days, a time when raw emotion and excitement ruled the day, Torrence revels in the opportunity to say exactly how he feels to anyone - and about anyone - at the racetrack.

“A lot of this out here has turned into very corporate, very vanilla,” Torrence said. “Thank this guy, thank that guy. You don’t get any raw emotion. It is not that I am trying to do anything different, or be somebody that I am not. When you jump out of one of these things and they stick a microphone in your face, it is difficult to tone everything down.

“We all race out there with a lot of heart and a lot of passion for what we do. I don’t try to refrain from that or disguise that. When we win, we are excited. When we lose, we are usually pissed off.”

So far, Torrence has taken the opportunity to take little jabs at a number of his competitors, most famously being the driver of the Papa John’s dragster, Leah Pritchett. The two have traded barbs - and the championship lead - and both are enjoying the opportunity to be who they are and try and find that little edge on the track.

“That just encompasses competition, being out here and wanting to beat your opponent. I am not going to act like I am happy. You are out here to win races, win championships,” Torrence said. “We can be buddies some other time, but when we are racing, you are not my buddy.

“That is what is missing, that is what is lacking out here. You can’t believe the amount of feedback and support that I have received just from ruffling the feathers on a few teams. I enjoy doing it. It is fun.”

IN THE SPOTLIGHT - The lines of people. The showering of gifts. The endless parade of media tours.

It is all uncharted territory for Clay Millican.

No stranger to the spotlight, Millican has always attracted attention in his own, special way. But following his stunning victory last weekend in Bristol, the first in his career after nearly two decades behind the wheel in NHRA, Millican has suddenly found himself the toast of the town like never before.

“Am I soaking it up? Absolutely. Has it sunk in? Probably not,” Millican joked. “We have been so busy with media, which is a wonderful thing. It’s been that way since Sunday. I very, very much appreciate that so many people knew how long it has taken me, knew all the things we have been through. The whole thing is just unbelievable.”

On Saturday alone, the lines were neverending. An hour to get an autograph, grab a selfie, or just shake the hand of NHRA’s most recent race winner. Some had him sign a shirt, a hat, a hero card. Some openly wept, describing how Millican’s win was an inspiration in their own lives. Some brought gifts. A dozen donuts. A child’s good luck charm.

All just wanting a moment to shake Millican’s hand and wish him well.

“This tells you how dedicated these NHRA fans are. The majority of them, basically everybody that came through that line today, knew it had been forever for us,” Millican said. “They knew I have won IHRA races and championships. It just tells you how great the fans are in drag racing.

“I am humbled by it all. I still can’t believe this many people care that I finally won my first NHRA race.”

So, after all the fanfare, all the interviews, all the excitement, what was it like when Millican got back behind the wheel for the first time Friday evening?

“I told myself, last week is last week. Now it is time to get back to work,” Millican said. “I honestly don’t see why we couldn’t do two in a row, but I have felt that way for 19 years. We are not planning on taking 19 years again, that is for sure.

“Until then, I am going to enjoy being the latest winning driver at least until the first round on Sunday.”

SUPER TEAMS, CANOPIES AND MORE - Tony Schumacher has a lot on his mind nowadays.

After eight championships and 83 victories, Schumacher finds himself a lot more reflective these days and he isn’t afraid to share what he has learned with the world.

Take, for instance, the canopy debate. Introduced just a few years ago, many of the cars in the Top Fuel category have traded in open air driving for a safer, bullet-proof shell to help protect them during a run. So why haven’t all of the teams adapted with the new technology? Schumacher believes it is perception - and old habits.

“I wouldn’t drive a car without it anymore,” Schumacher admitted. “I think it is more work for teams, but let’s look at it. It’s also won all the championships the last couple of years. So you can’t say you can’t win with it. I think it is partially because my dad had a big influence in the design of it. Some people on the other teams are just going to dislike that.

“The other thing I hear every now and again, what if you are on fire. We’ve never been on fire in a canopy because it keeps it off of us. So I don’t have an answer. We’ve had a lot of explosions, we’ve had little flashes inside, but no burn. Whether you are upside down in a canopy or upside down in a regular car, you aren’t getting out.

“I talked to some drivers last week about coming over and testing and they are all afraid because they know they are going to want one once they get in.”

Another topic on Schumacher’s mind is that of the recent dominance by the Don Schumacher Racing team. Through 12 races this season, DSR cars have won 16 races between Top Fuel and Funny Car.

Thanks to that domination, Schumacher hears all of the time how super teams like that at DSR and John Force Racing hurt the sport and prevent the smaller operations from competing, but the eight-time champion believes people just aren’t looking close enough.

“I think we have great drivers and great crew chiefs and great parts, but there are other teams out there doing the same. (Steve) Torrence is out there winning. Brittany (Force), the Kalitta team, they are all going to win. Clay Millican getting his first win. If people would pull away and see that this isn’t really a team, they would understand,” Schumacher said. “We are just like everybody else. I don’t help Antron (Brown) win, I don’t help Leah (Pritchett) win. All the stuff in my car is different than everybody else. Just because my dad owns it, doesn’t make us teammates. It is my dad’s team, but I win for Army. Antron wins for Matco. Leah wins for Papa John’s.

“It’s a battle amongst us. We are good enough to bring each other up to a different level. The hardest cars to beat are our own cars.”

IF HE CAN DO IT, SO CAN WE - One of the added benefits of Clay Millican’s heartwarming victory one week ago in Bristol is the motivation it provided to others.

Millican is not the only driver in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series to be suffering through a drought on a smaller team. Terry McMillen, another IHRA alumnus who has found himself competitive, but winless, since his switch to the big leagues, said he felt as if he too had won watching Clay hoist the Wally trophy last week and admits that Millican’s win provides an extra boost of confidence.

“There has always been this standing joke between Clay and I that we want to be in the finals together and, it doesn’t really matter who wins, because we obviously both want to win, but just to get there and one of us get it done would be great,” said McMillen, who has been to one final round in 183 races. “To see him go out there and have the day that they had in Bristol was just overwhelming for me. While we didn’t win, we felt like we won.

“To see a single car team go out there and be the best of the day against the Kalitta’s, the Force’s and the Schumacher’s was incredible.”

So what’s next for McMillen? Keep grinding, and one day he feels he too will be rewarded with the ultimate prize in NHRA competition.

“He’s had a good car all year, but we’ve got a good car as well. Do I think our time is going to come? I think it is,” McMillen said. “I think we are going to get that win this year. We just have to keep pushing forward. It is hard to beat those big teams because of all the background they have. So when you do have that opportunity to get into a final, it is a great thing. I believe Rob Wendland and the entire team will get us there.”


FUNNY CAR

ROCKET MAN - Matt Hagan has been good this season.

Just not good enough.

Trying to keep pace with the runaway train that is Ron Capps, Hagan has raced to three wins and four finals in 2017, but still remains several rounds behind his teammate. But Hagan put himself in a good position to make up some more ground on Saturday, racing to his 29th career No. 1 qualifier with a new track record run of 3.865 seconds at 333.33 mph set Friday night.

“The sun was out today, so we figured it was going to hold. All in all, I feel pretty good,” Hagan said. “Dickie Venables has a good handle on the car and the race track. We really want to catch Capps right now. He has five wins, we have three. We need to put this MOPAR car in the winner’s circle tomorrow. It will be a drivers’ race.”

Hagan will square off with Jeff Diehl in round one on Sunday.

A SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP - You simply can’t come to Summit Motorsports Park and not talk about John Force. You just can’t.

There exists, perhaps unlike any other, a truly special bond that exists between Force and track owner Bill Bader. From special exhibition races to the big stage of the NHRA national event, Force and Bader have a unique relationship as both are entertainers and both live for the stage.

“I know that track well, and so do the rest of my drivers, since we do match races there,” Force said. “The Bader family is among the top one or two promoters in the business. They’re great people, and we’re excited to be back in Norwalk and look forward to putting on a good show.”

Force has competed at all 10 races held at Summit Motorsports Park, with his single national event victory coming in 2014. He has added one additional final and one No. 1 start at the track back in 2013.

“We’re going through a lot of changes, but we’re going to get there. We need a win, but so does the Auto Club car and Advance car. We’ve got a fast hot rod. All of my cars are fast and we’re going to get there.”

Force qualified third on Saturday, placing the Peak Chevrolet Camaro Funny Car well up the ladder with a 3.911 at 319.98 mph.

GOING FOR THREE - The only active nitro driver to win more than once at Summit Motorsports Park is Jack Beckman.

Beckman won at the Norwalk, Ohio-based facility in 2015 and 2009, and would love to add a third win at the track to his resume, especially coming off of two-straight successful races. The Infinite Hero team took home the event title two weeks ago at Englishtown, N.J.’s Summernationals then advanced to the finals last weekend at Bristol at the Thunder Valley Nationals.

“I truly believe that attitude often dictates results. But let me tell you, winning a race is really good for everybody’s attitudes,” Beckman said. “Then coming back, seven days later and going right back into another final and losing by four-thousandths of a second against what’s been the car of the year so far, we know we’re right at the top now.

“We’ve turned a corner with our car. We have crossed our first win off the list. We’ve moved up into third in points. It looks like we’re heading in the right direction.”

‘BEST DRIVER’ - In addition to all of his numerous accolades on the track, Ron Capps is starting to receive a significant amount of attention off it as well.

Just announced earlier this week, Capps, Don Schumacher Racing’s reigning NHRA Funny Car world champion, was nominated to receive an ESPY in the “Best Driver” category at the annual ESPN awards program on July 12.

Capps is being honored for winning the 2016 NHRA Funny Car world championship and five of the first 11 races this season with the NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car.

Other nominees in the category this year include Lewis Hamilton from Formula One, Simon Pagenaud from IndyCar and NASCAR’s Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex Jr.

“What we did with our NAPA Auto Parts team last year was huge after trying to win the championship for about 20 years,” Capps said. “Just to be nominated in that group is unbelievable.”

FROM ONE BAD MONSTER TO ANOTHER - Top Fuel: The pinnacle of modern drag racing. The baddest machines on the planet. The kings of the sport.

But the fastest? That distinction now belongs to the Funny Car camp.

When J.R. Todd made the switch from Top Fuel to Funny Car at the beginning of this year, he knew he was making a big move. But what he didn’t expect was that he would be switching out of the former kings of speed in drag racing to the new fastest ride on the planet.

“I knew going into the class that I was getting involved in the toughest class in drag racing, in my opinion,” Todd said. “What I didn’t expect was just how much the performance would go up. You have to throw down every time you go to the starting line, whether it is a 130 degree track or an 80 degree track. Guys can throw out big numbers and that is what it takes.

“Two years ago this thing would run 3.90s and they were ahead of everybody. Now, 3.90 won’t get you in the top half at most races. We have our work cut out for us this year.”

Through the first half of the 2017 NHRA Mello Yello season, Todd is receiving a passing grade, but just barely. He is holding tight to a spot in the Countdown to the Championship in ninth, but he is only 6-11 in eliminations and has failed to make it out of the first round six times this year. But Todd is hoping that, entering the second half of the year, he will find some momentum and begin moving up the rankings and, hopefully, contend for a win or two.

“As far as being comfortable in the car, people ask me that every week,” Todd said. “We are beyond that. It is time to start winning races and winning rounds. You still learn every run, it was the same with the Top Fuel car. You never have these things mastered and once you think you do, they throw you a curveball. We are still learning different things with the Funny Car, but we are having fun doing it.”

STUNNER - Perhaps the biggest surprise of the weekend came on Saturday when Courtney Force, driver of the Advance Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro SS Funny Car for John Force Racing, failed to make the field.

In her 131st NHRA national event, Force entered the fourth and final round of qualifying in the 17th spot, one spot shy of making the 16-car field. Needing to run at least a 4.561 to make the field and bump out No. 16 qualifier Jeff Diehl, Force once again ran into trouble, shaking the rear tires and limping to a 5.201, leaving her with her first career DNQ.

 


PRO STOCK

 

BACK ON TOP - For the 88th time in his career, Greg Anderson is the No. 1 qualifier at an NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series national event.

Anderson placed his Summit Racing Equipment Chevrolet Camaro in the top spot at his sponsor’s home track Saturday, racing to a 6.584-second pass at 210.24 mph. Amazingly, Saturday’s effort was Anderson’s first top qualifier award of the 2017 season.

“We had a great day yesterday and then came out this morning and it was completely different. I got excited and thought, man, this is going to be exciting,” Anderson said. “We made a mistake in the first round today, thought we screwed it up, but recovered nicely. We didn’t lose any weather conditions and the track stayed great. We made the right changes to the car and were able to snatch that number one spot.”

Anderson slipped to fourth after three rounds, but rebounded with the best past of the weekend in the fourth and final session.

“It means a lot to do it here in front of our home crowd,” Anderson said. “Two days in a row, I am going to go to bed tonight feeling great.”

A BRIEF MOMENT - For about two hours, Drew Skillman was the top qualifier at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals.

Skillman raced to the top spot following session three Saturday afternoon, before slipping to third with a 6.593 at 209.92 mph. He will race John Gaydosh in round one on Sunday.

 

THE STRUGGLE IS REAL - Like many of the drivers in the Pro Stock pits, Bo Butner is worried about the short fields and perceived lack of competitiveness in the class.

Despite a much more competitive season than the class endured a year ago, the reality is that the Pro Stock class just doesn’t have the competition - or competitors - that it has enjoyed in the past.

While rumors continue to circulate as to the future of the class, with whispered changes ranging from more car alterations to a reduction in the number of Pro Stock-contested races similar to the Pro Stock Motorcycle arrangement, one thing is certain, the future is uncertain.

“I just wish they would leave it alone for a little bit,” said current Pro Stock points leader Bo Butner. “It is really competitive right now. Everybody has their favorite drivers and now 10 out of the 16 drivers have a chance to win. It was one sided last year, I understand that. We just have to get a little better jump. Nothing is going to make a guy build a Pro Stock car because it is just too costly, but it is like that with every class.

“We are low on car counts, but Top Fuel and Funny Car are right there with us. The bikes are strong, and they have a shorter season, but going to a shorter season for us might actually hurt us a little bit more.”

When asked specifically about the rumored move to a shortened season, Butner admitted he was concerned how that would be perceived by both the sponsors and the fans, reducing the class to a less-than-full-time eliminator.

“These guys I am with are financed and backed by a real sponsor,” Butner said. “To the old school guys like Greg (Anderson) and them, yeah, it would make it not a fully professional class. Maybe the NHRA should look at doing the whole series less, not just one class. People would get more bang for their buck and travel more.”

For now, Butner says he can’t worry about the future, all he can do is focus on the present, and that includes leading the points at the halfway point of the year.

“All I can say is that it is all rolling my way right now,” Butner said. “You look up at that hill and want to reach the top, but now we have reached the top and are rolling over it. Last year I had a good car and should have won a lot more than what I did. Everything is just clicking right now, but it is getting tougher to win now.

“I figured, with the team I am with, knowing the guys over here and what they are doing, giving me as good as stuff as what they run, that we would be good. But being this good for this amount of time is sometime we are enjoying.”

WHEN IT’S YOUR DAY - Coming into the 2017 season, Alex Laughlin knew he was going to race a limited schedule.

After racing to a win, a runner-up and an 11th place finish in the championship last season, Laughlin came into this year planning to run as many as four different classes over the course of the year.

But what the young driver didn’t expect was to come back after a lengthy absence in the Pro Stock class and win in only his third start of the year.

“It is really hard to be able to not run the whole circuit and stay competitive, but with Erica (Enders), Jeg (Coughlin) and Vincent (Nobile) still running all the time, the guys at Elite are still learning new things that they are able to apply to my car,” Laughlin said. “It definitely helps us stay ahead, where just a one-car team that;s part-time really struggles. I am super lucky to be a part of Elite and use their technology. Ultimately, we owe all of our credit to them.”

In two previous starts this year, Laughlin suffered two early defeats before taking another four-race stretch off. Then, out of nowhere, last weekend in Bristol, Laughlin raced to his second career victory with the help of Elite Motorsports power, beating Allen Johnson, Coughlin, Tanner Gray and Bo Butner en route to a win in only his third start of 2017.

“Surprised, of course I was. We struggled in Houston, that was our first time out. We weren’t running great in Charlotte. But it is like it all just came together out there in Bristol,” Laughlin said. “Whenever it is your day, it is just your day.”

TEAMMATE SHOWDOWN - Elite Motorsports teammates Vincent Nobile and Erica Enders have found themselves locked together through much of the 2017 season.

Currently, they are seventh and eighth in the Pro Stock points, they have raced each other four times and will once again square off on Sunday in the first round at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals. Saturday, Nobile qualified seventh with a 6.616, while Enders placed her machine 10th with a 6.623, and they will match up in round one on Sunday. Enders holds a 3-1 edge on her teammate in head-to-head competition so far this season.


PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE

FROM DNQ TO NO. 1 - At the most recent NHRA national event for Pro Stock Motorcycle in Englishtown, Matt Smith failed to make the field.

Two weeks later, and Smith is the No. 1 qualifier at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals at Summit Motorsports Park.

With a season-best qualifying effort of 10th heading into this weekend’s event, including the DNQ in his most recent outing, Smith surprised even himself with 25th top spot of his career with a 6.824-second pass at 196.16 mph.

“Today went well. We didn’t think it was going to be that fast, but we got ahold of the track at 60 feet,” Smith said. “I can’t say enough about my crew, Elite Performance helping us out. We turned the corner here and we are finally making good power. Hopefully this is a turn in the corner for the rest of the year.”

RIDING SOLO - This weekend marks the first time in the career of Hector Arana Jr. that his father, Hector Arana Sr., was not by his side.

Through a long and successful career, Arana has always had his dad to fall back on, whether it being sound race advice or just a quick pick-me-up, the rare father-son racing duo made the best of every situation. But just this past week, Arana Sr. underwent surgery to repair an injured left shoulder suffered in a non-racing accident.

Now, for the first time in his career, it is Arana Jr. alone out on the racetrack.

“It’s unfortunate, but there’s nothing we can do about it,” Arana said. “He had surgery right away so he can get healed as quickly as possible, and hopefully he can be a blocker for me in the playoffs.

“He’s here in Norwalk and he’s going to be helping with my bike. It has certainly been different not seeing his bike beside mine in the staging lanes, but we’ll get through it together.”

Arana Jr. has seen some success at the famous Norwalk facility. He was the runner-up finisher in 2012 and qualified No. 1 for the event in 2015. He added a spot inside the top three on Saturday, placing his machine third with a 6.886 at 194.63 mph.

This time, though, he will be racing on Sunday without the other red, white, and blue-clad Lucas Oil Buell on the track.

“We’re very confident and excited for tomorrow. In the past, there were times when I’ve lost and nothing seems to be going right as far as power or new things to try, but now we’ve hit on something good,” Arana Jr. said. “We’ve found some new power and there’s a lot of good energy on our team going into tomorrow that hopefully carries for the rest of the season.”

MICKEY THOMPSON BIKE BATTLE - Mickey Thompson Tires has been named the official sponsor of the Pro Bike Battle event held at Sonoma Raceway, NHRA officials announced. The multi-year agreement will feature the top motorcycle competitors in the country battling for a lucrative purse.

The Mickey Thompson Tires Pro Bike Battle will take place June 29 during the Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals with the eight best riders in the two wheel category. Riders earn points into the specialty event based upon points awarded for final qualifying positions at each Pro Stock Motorcycle event.

For 2017, the winner will take home $10,000 and in 2018 and 2019 the winner will receive $25,000 and $10,000 for the runner-up with a total purse of $61,000. Starting at the event in Sonoma, the low qualifier at each event will receive $1,000 for a No. 1 qualifying position.

 

RISING THROUGH THE RANKS - Joey Gladstone has the looks. He has the personality. Heck, he has the name. Now Gladstone is ready to put the whole package together and start being competitive.

Joining San Marino racing on the San Marino Excavating Suzuki for the 2017 season, Gladstone checked one item off of his racing dream bucket list earlier this year. Now, he is ready to add his first career final and, eventually, that first Wally.

“This has been a dream of mine, probably since I was 12,” Gladstone said. “To finally be out here doing this, it is an awesome experience. It’s not cheap and it’s not easy, and this is a really difficult level of competition, but I am enjoying it and I feel like this is where I am supposed to be. It is humbling. Hopefully I can come up with some sponsors for next year and be able to do it and have more fun.”

Coming over the from the other side of the world in motorcycle racing, driving a 700 horsepower, turbocharged, Pro Street Suzuki, Gladstone admits that the competition in NHRA is much greater than he ever expected. So far in 2017, Gladstone has managed one semifinal and sits seventh in the championship standings. But the big surprise to the young competitor is just how serious his opponents take their racing.

“It is a different vibe out here. I come from an all-motorcycle racing community where everybody is really tight-knit and goes from trailer to trailer, hanging out until three in the morning,” Gladstone said. “Here, everybody kind of stays to themselves. If they do venture out they have that one person they go and talk to. Everything is very secretive, people holding rags over their motorcycles so nobody can see it.

“All it is is a naturally aspirated engine with a wheelie bar and a slick tire, there ain’t much to them. That was surprising to me, but whatever makes them feel good. We are going to do our own thing and it will come around.”

Gladstone qualified fourth on Saturday with a 6.904 at 193.65 mph, keeping up his streak of qualifying in the top half of the field in every race so far this season.

NORWALK’S WINNINGEST MAN - Andrew Hines is the winningest pro in the decade-long history of Summit Motorsports Park.

With four wins at the track - in 2014, 2012, 2009 and 2007 - Hines will look to make it five Wally trophies on Sunday, starting from the sixth position on the ladder with a 6.916 at 193.49. Despite the lower start, Hines actually led his Vance & Hines team, with teammate and current points leader Eddie Krawiec struggling to a 13th place spot on the ladder, his lowest qualifying effort of the year.

 

PRO MOD

 

STEVE MATUSEK OKAY AFTER NHRA PRO MOD INCIDENT - NHRA J&A Services Pro Mod Drag Racing Series driver Steve Matusek was uninjured after an incident during the first round of eliminations for the category. Matusek’s car went out of control during his run and made contact with the retaining wall near the finish line. Matusek exited the car under his own power and was responsive to commands from Safety Safari.

   


FRIDAY NOTEBOOK

TOP FUEL

#POWPOW - NHRA Top Fuel driver Clay Millican is one happy guy. You will always find him smiling, laughing and interacting with his numerous fans in a way rare in this day and age of restrictive fan-competitor interaction.

But for a man who is legendarily upbeat and positive, an event last week in Bristol, Tennessee left Millican even more peppy than usual. And it is safe to say that it will be a long time before this grin is wiped from his face.

In what will go down as the feel-good moment of the year on the NHRA Mello Yello Tour, Millican’s win last weekend in Bristol, snapping a 15-year winless streak for the wily veteran who had carved a path of destruction a mile wide with the IHRA decades earlier, is something that fans - and Millican - won’t soon forget.

“I love what I do, whether I ever won one of these or not,” Millican said. “There’s no such thing as coincidence. This was supposed to happen, and when the time was right this was going to happen. When it’s your day, it’s going to happen. It took a family and (team owner) Doug (Stringer) put together a heck of a group and a heck of a family.”

In his ninth career final, Millican finally got it done with a win over Leah Pritchett, proving to all that perseverance and hard work do eventually pay off.

“I never questioned myself,” Millican said. “All I did was I just started working harder. I’ve been working harder right now than I’ve ever worked. Age doesn’t have a factor in driving a Top Fuel car, but these kids are awesome out here, and when it’s hot and sweaty I want to be able to sit in that car and it not bother me. Guess what, I sat in that car and it didn’t bother me.”

So what has life been like for Millican since that win?

“I’ve been so overwhelmed with all the messages and congrats I’ve received since Sunday night. My phone and social media has just blown up. I’m just so grateful,” Millican said. “I’ve always been confident that Grubby (crew chief David Grubnic) and the crew would get us in the winner’s circle. We’re just a small single-car team, but we showed the big guys that we can get the job done.”

And in a season that has been dominated by super teams, including an incredible 16 wins in the nitro classes by Don Schumacher Racing, it is refreshing to see a smaller team come out on top. Unlike most professional Top Fuel teams, the Stringer Performance team is based out of the small town of McLeansboro, Illinois. The crew is relatively young and there are no high-tech frills in their shop.

In fact, the team shop is a barn and it’s located in car owner Doug Stringer’s backyard.

“We are really a family team. That is something we really value and appreciate,” Stringer said. “I just can’t tell you how proud I am of everyone after our win in Bristol. They all worked their tails off to compete against the multi-car teams and bring home a win. I know they’ll do it again soon.”

DUCK, DUCK, GOOSE - Thus far in 2017, the battle for the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Top Fuel title has been a fascinating one.

Antron Brown, Steve Torrence and Leah Pritchett have played leapfrog over much of the first-half of the year, with the trio of drivers collecting a combined seven wins through the season’s first 12 races.

At the halfway point of the year, Torrence and Pritchett are tied with three wins apiece, while Brown has two wins. That tight competition has led to a three-car runaway in the championship, with the three drivers taking turns at the top of the standings and, currently, only 20 points separating the top three in points.

“It’s a battle each and every week for the top spot. Last week, we had it, this week we don’t. But we’re close. We’re digging. We just have to keep our heads down and keep pushing,” Brown said. “The competition out here is just so tough. I say that every year and it just keeps getting tougher.

Brown, with two event titles in four final round appearances, in on par with this championship winning-performance from a year ago and looks forward to a chance to retake the lead at this weekend’s event, which he won back in 2014.

“Norwalk closes out four in a row for our boys and we just want to end it on a high note,” Brown said. “Getting the win would be incredible, but we just need to take it one round at a time and race the racetrack.”

KALITTA GOES NO. 1 - Top Fuel veteran Doug Kalitta broke up the “big three” of Steve Torrence, Leah Pritchett and Antron Brown on Friday with a track-record run of 3.709 seconds at 327.43 mph to lead qualifying after two sessions at Summit Motorsports Park.

Kalitta, who hasn’t qualified first since the second race at Charlotte late last year, will try for his 48th career top qualifying spot if he can hold on to the top spot on Saturday.

 

SAY WHAT? - One of the most famous elements to a race weekend at Summit Motorsports Park is the ice cream.

It comes in a bucket. It weighs in at a full pound. And it is all just a buck. That’s right, a single $1. Heck, even the trophy the drivers receive after a hard fought victory is in the shape of an ice cream scoop.

So what happens when you don’t like ice cream? It can make for a long weekend.

“I’m sorry to let you all down, but I’m not an ice cream fan,” said Brittany Force, driver of the Monster Energy Top Fuel dragster. “I’ve never been an ice cream fan, so I always skip the stand. I’m more of a frozen yogurt fan. But my mom and my sisters all stand in that line all day long to get their bucket of ice cream - and so will my team. Norwalk is a fun one just because they do special stuff like that.”

 

TORRENCE HAS HIS HEART BACK IN IT - At this race one year ago, Steve Torrence had one of the biggest scares of his life.

Stricken with angina pain after his daily workout, the 34-year-old drove himself to the hospital in Kilgore, Texas where he was told he had suffered a minor heart attack that likely was an unwanted byproduct of the radiation treatments he endured years earlier to treat Hodgkins lymphoma.

Nevertheless, two days before the start of qualifying, after undergoing a corrective procedure, he was given clearance to resume normal activities - until doctors became aware of exactly what it is Torrence was fixing to do.

Informed that such activity routinely subjected the Texan to pressures equal to five Gs acceleration on and a negative five Gs up deployment of the twin braking parachutes, the medics strongly suggested that he take the weekend off.

Now, one year after being forced to watch this race from home, Torrence returns to Norwalk ready to tackle the track in 2017 - this time as the points leader in the class. But he isn’t too concerened with his current status as points leader.

“The only time it matters anything to be No. 1 is after the last car goes down the track at Pomona,” Torrence said. “The first time (after winning the 2016 season-opener) was a milestone. Now being No. 1 is just a means to an end. All it does is give you a little head start when you get to the Countdown.”
 

FUNNY CAR

REPEAT HISTORY - Last season Ron Capps generated one of the most heartwarming stories in the NHRA in quite some time when he finally broke through for his first-ever championship following a thrilling season for the driver of the NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car.

But this year, coming off of the high of winning that championship, Capps has only added to his successes with one amazing start in the ultra-competitive Funny Car class.

Consider this. At this point a year ago in Capps’ championship season, the NAPA team had three wins and ended with five; so far, the team has five wins. A year ago, their record in Sundays’ elimination rounds was 20-6; now it is 30-6. His points total was 841 after 11 races; now it is 1,044.

And it only gets better - Capps is the defending race winner of the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals. He has also won five races in a season for the sixth time in his career, and No. 6 would blaze a new trail.

But despite all of his successes, the thing that is most rewarding for him so far this year was the opportunity to win on Father’s Day just one week ago.

“I was blessed with a dad who took me to the drag races every weekend,” Capps said. “Whether we raced or not, we were at a drag race somewhere. Those were my weekends and I was OK with it. Getting to send that trophy home to my dad was fun.”

INSIDE SCOOP - In the world of drag racing, drivers would give just about anything for an edge. A little advantage over the competition can go a long way in helping a driver come out on top in the ruthless world of high speed, straight line racing.

And that is where John Force Racing comes into play.

Each year, JFR has the distinct advantage of taking a few extra trips down the quarter-mile at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio. In addition to the traditional summer national event, the Force racing team also partakes in the annual Night Under Fire exhibition event held at the track each August.

Still, despite the additional laps, amazingly John Force Racing has only one win at the Norwalk national event in the 10-year history of the race.

But Robert Hight hopes to change that this weekend.

With one final round at the track in his career, coming way back in 2008, Hight is looking forward to a return to the famed northern Ohio facility, especially with crew chief Mike Neff calling the shots who, himself, is a two-time winner of the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals.

“Each year, we come out and put on a special show for the fans. It’s always a great time and an opportunity to have some fun. But it’s also a chance to get some track time there and more experience,” Hight said. “This is a great facility, and we’re close to winning. Obviously, I’d like to really come out and end this stretch on a high note - not just for me, but for my crew, which has given me a great car during this stretch.”

That stretch, a four-race swing on the east coast which concludes this weekend, has included a handful of really good qualifying efforts, including one No. 1 and two No. 2 starts and an even 3-3 round record, good enough to place the driver of the Auto Club Chevrolet fourth in the championship standings.

SO CLOSE, YET SO FAR AWAY - Matt Hagan is trying, desperately, to keep pace with his teammate.

He started the year off strong, with two wins in the season’s first two races, and added another Wally three weeks ago in Epping. But that early championship lead seems like light years ago thanks to a dominant run by Ron Capps that has included five total wins, including four-straight, opening up a gap of 163 points over Hagan.

While Hagan has seen his own success this season, it seems like it is all for naught as Capps continues to pull away in the class

“We’re trying to catch Capps, but man, they’re making it tough racking up these wins,” Hagan said. “So we’re just focusing on us and getting a good hot weather tune-up and we’re getting closer each weekend. Bristol was the hottest track we’ve seen all year and it challenged us and everyone else. But we went rounds and made it to the semis and Dickie (Venables) is getting ahold of it.”

This weekend’s Mello Yello event marks the fourth and final consecutive event of the June Swing that kicked off in Epping, N.H. with a win by the Mopar team.

“We opened up this month with a win and that’s the way we want to close it. If we could bookend this deal, it would mean a lot to us. These guys have been working so hard and they got to go back to the shop for a couple days this week and hit reset, which is good,” Hagan said. “They’re going over all the parts and pieces and getting set up for this weekend and they got some time at home as well.”

Hagan got his weekend off on the right foot on Friday, racing to the provisional No. 1 with a new track record pass of 3.865 seconds at 333.33 mph.

FAST ON SATURDAY - There is no arguing that Courtney Force has been fast this season.

The driver of the Advance Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro SS Funny Car has recorded five No. 1 qualifiers this season, but amazingly has yet to put her machine in the winner’s circle. To add to that frustration, she has come up just short in a pair of runner-up finishes in Pomona and Epping earlier this year. And, to continue the hard-luck run for the young driver, Force has visited the finals of this weekend’s Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals the past two years, coming away empty handed both times.

So what is it going to take for Force to finally break through? She hopes to find that out this weekend.

“Norwalk’s always been a pretty great track for us,” Force said. “We’re hoping to finish off the last of these four races strong. Being in the final round the last two years definitely gives our team a boost of confidence knowing we’ve been successful here before. We hope to seal the deal.”

But it won’t be easy. Minus John Force’s win in Gainesville, Don Schumacher Racing has won the other 10 races this season, including five by defending event winner, points leader and reigning world champ Ron Capps. But Force is still confident her team can carry her through.

“Our team, all my guys - Dan Hood, Ronnie Thompson - we’re going to fight hard to end this streak on a high note,” said Force, who is currently fifth in Funny Car points.

GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH? - It is said, each and every year, when the schedule rolls around to summer and the teams of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series head to northern Ohio, that the circus is back in town.

That is because the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals brings with it a certain aura, just a little something extra that makes it a special place for all of the racers.

“We sure have a great time there,” said Tim Wilkerson, a 20-time national event winner. “Summit Motorsports Park has a great, old-school atmosphere. It’s just a fun race, and to me, the place is Barnum & Bailey from top to bottom. Bill Bader and the Bader family do a terrific job of making sure that everyone in the Cleveland area knows that this is where they need to be. They put on such a great show with every event. Everyone wants to be there, and it’s a blast to race here.”

And when you’ve had a chance to win at the track so famed for its festive and almost cult-like following, it means even more.

“I’ll never be forgetting that,” said Wilkerson, who won the event back in 2010 when he bested John Force for the title. “It seems like a decade ago. It was hot and humid, and there was a bit storm in the forecast. Nobody was making it down the track. But sometimes you get it figured out. We made a real good run in the final against him, and it ended up being a good day. It’s fun to look back on it, but we’re pretty focused on what we have to do this time around.”

Currently eighth in the Funny Car standings, Wilkerson has visited one final round so far this year back in Atlanta and grabbed the No. 1 qualifier award last weekend in Bristol.
 

PRO STOCK

A LITTLE EXTRA PRESSURE - Greg Anderson has done it all.

With four championships, 88 wins and 143 final rounds, there is little that gets in the head of the second-most winning driver in the Pro Stock category.

But when it comes to one of the races backed by Summit Racing Equipment, sponsor of Anderson’s dark red Chevrolet Camaro, he admits that, even for him, the pressure can be a bit more intense.

“There is certainly more on the line at this particular race because we have all of the folks from Summit Racing in attendance, and we want nothing more than to be able to hand them the trophy when it’s all said and done,” Anderson said. “That’s what we aim to do at the Summit Racing Equipment Nationals: get that trophy for Summit Racing.”

Anderson, the winningest Pro Stock driver at the Norwalk-based track with three wins, enters the weekend second in points, 110 points back of class leader Bo Butner.

“We like the pressure to perform that we have here; we thrive on that,” Anderson said. “There is always a certain amount of pressure that we put on ourselves, but there is a little more pressure because you want to see those folks from Summit Racing smiling at the end of the weekend, and it does give you a little extra kick.

“The class is tough right now, but we’ve got that home-field advantage and we know we can still beat these guys. We proved it in Englishtown.”

Anderson started the weekend off right in trying to give that his sponsors that win with the provisional top spot following Friday’s first two sessions with a 6.608 at 208.62 mph.

SUPER ROOKIE - Rookie? There is simply no way that Tanner Gray is a rookie.

He doesn’t talk like a rookie. He doesn’t act like a rookie. But despite all indications to the contrary, Gray, the youngest driver in NHRA history, is indeed a rookie driver in one of NHRA’s most cutthroat classes.

Only 11 races into his first season of professional driving, Gray is already having the kind of season most veterans only dream of. Two wins, three finals, a number one qualifier and a spot firmly inside the top three of the championship standings. Not too bad for a driver who just graduated high school.

“We are out to win races, and compete for the championship,” Gray said. “This weekend we are looking at every opportunity to gain points, qualifying especially. Our team has struggled the last two races in qualifying. We have been adjusting and testing new things to prepare for race day that have not been successful. Luckily, in Bristol, we were able to go some rounds on race day to continue for the championship.”

Does that sound like a kid to you?

“This weekend’s race is always one I look forward to,” Gray said. “We make it a family affair, and enjoy a lot of ice cream. Getting the opportunity to race the NHRA Summit Racing Equipment Nationals for the first time is pretty exciting.”

A weekend of ice cream? Now that sounds more like an 18-year-old.

ELITE POWER - Don’t look now, but Elite Motorsports is starting to find its footing.

After winning the championship in the Pro Stock class in 2014 and 2015 with Erica Enders, the Elite team nosedived in 2016 after struggling to find their way following a new rules package in the class. But this season the team is starting to slowly find its way in this new era of Pro Stock racing, with Enders breaking through with a win three weeks ago in Epping and both her and teammates Jeg Coughlin Jr. and Vincent Nobile sitting well inside the top 10 in the championship standings. The team also powered Alex Laughlin to a win in his return one week ago in Bristol.

Entering this weekend, Coughlin sits fourth in the NHRA Mello Yello standings, while Enders sits sixth and Nobile seventh. But it is Enders who carries the momentum.

“I really think Epping was just the tip of the iceberg for us,” Enders said. “I didn’t execute property in Bristol, but going into Norwalk it’s go time. I’m ready to win again. We did get a team win in Bristol when Alex (Laughlin) got the victory, so we’re firing on all cylinders. I actually won Norwalk in 2014, and I have a really cool ice cream scoop they gave me that sits proudly on my trophy shelf.”

BACK IN THE SADDLE - After a four-race break following the NHRA national event in Atlanta back in May, Chris McGaha returns to the seat of his Harlow Sammons Chevrolet Camaro this weekend in Norwalk.

While the break allowed the veteran racer to recharge, refocus and spend a little time with his family, McGaha admits that he didn’t completely take a break from racing. McGaha spent some of his time off working on his team’s in-house engine program and breaking in the new Goodyear slicks.

And, as an added bonus, despite taking four races off, McGaha - a race winner already this season - retained a spot in the top 10 in the championship standings, sitting 10th, 25 points up on Allen Johnson.

“I’m out on the road at least 24 weekends a year racing Pro Stock and it doesn’t allow a lot of time to go racing with my kids. I made the decision to run a limited schedule this season to prepare for years to come racing with my family,” McGaha said in an interview with Competition Plus earlier this week. “I’m really excited to be back racing in Norwalk. I’m really motivated to come back out here and win again like we did a few months ago in Charlotte. Our team hopes we’ll be right back where we left off.”

MISSING THE SCOOP - Winning the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals at Summit Motorsports Park means a lot of things.

It means you won at one of the most popular tracks on the circuit. It means you bested the summer heat and held it together following a brutal end to the Eastern Swing. And it means one really cool trophy.

In addition to the traditional fanfare and awards, winners of the NHRA national event at Bill Bader’s track get a special ice cream scoop trophy, in honor of the track’s most famous fare - the $1 pound of ice cream.

But for Ohio’s own Jeg Coughlin, that scoop has eluded the the 46-year-old veteran. Coughlin has won at 24 different national event tracks with the NHRA, but Norwalk is not one of them. And he hopes to break that streak this weekend.

“We’ve had great success at the Spring Nationals when it was out at Kirkersville for nearly 40 years and won that race a couple of times, but we have yet to win the race at Norwalk,” Coughlin said. “We won the $50,000 at the K&N Horsepower Challenge in 2009, so we know what it’s like to win there. I’ve won bracket races there over the years. We just haven’t broken through on a national stage.”

It also doesn’t hurt that the event this weekend is sponsored by Summit Racing Equipment, a fact not lost on Coughlin should he put the black and yellow JEGS Performance machine in the winner’s circle.

“It’s going to be a lot of fun racing in the state of Ohio because it’s home,” Coughlin said. “We have a lot of JEGS associates that make the trip up to Norwalk to cheer us on and check out the drag races. That makes it fun for us, without question, but also the fan base we’ve been able to build over the years at that facility. It’s always great to be able to perform in front of your home state crowd.”
 

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE

BACK ON TOP - Matt Smith, a previous two-time winner of the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals, raced to the provisional top spot Friday in Norwalk, Ohio.

Smith, who last qualified No. 1 one year ago at Chicago, will look for his 25th career top qualifier award if he can keep his bike on top on Saturday.

 

NEW DOG, ER, ALLIGATOR IN TOWN - Over the past few seasons, the Vance & Hines team of Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec have been the class of the field in Pro Stock Motorcycle.

With two championships and 30 wins over the past three-plus seasons, the field has been relentlessly chasing the boys in orange and black, but that dynamic might be shifting.

After snatching a stunning championship away from the Vance & Hines boys last season, Jerry Savoie has turned a corner in 2017 with the addition of longtime two-wheel veteran LE Tonglet. Together, the White Alligator Racing duo, aboard a pair of Vance & Hines-powered Suzukis, have dominated the early part of the new season, with Tonglet taking a pair of wins in Charlotte and Atlanta and Savoie adding a win in Englishtown two weeks ago.

“I knew we could win races and be very fast, but I didn’t think it would happen this early,” Tonglet said. “I thought about midway through the season is where we would start doing well. For it to come this year, it’s awesome. It builds a lot of confidence on the team. I’ve been extremely satisfied and the whole team is just doing a great job.”

Thanks to that stretch, Tonglet has climbed up to second in the NHRA Mello Yello standings, two points back of Krawiec, while Savoie sits third. Hines, with championships in 2014 and 2015, currently sits fourth in the championship.

But joining a team has taken some burden off Tonglet’s shoulders, allowing him to focus almost solely on riding.

“It took me the longest to get used to not having to work on the bike,” Tonglet said. “That took a lot of stress off me and I feel like it’s helped out. Jerry and I work together very well. We drive each other to do better. If I see him make a good pass, I try to be perfect on mine. It’s just a good team and we’re excited for Norwalk. I enjoy this race a lot and there’s always a huge turnout of fans.

Could it be a two-team race to the championship in 2017?

BIG STRIDES - This time last year, Cory Reed was just getting his feet wet in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class.

As a rookie, Reed had spent the first part of 2016 getting his bearings and adjusting to life in one of NHRA’s most exciting classes.

And then came Norwalk.

At this race last year, Reed, the 2016 Rookie of the Year, qualified in the top half of the field for the very first time and also recorded his very first round win in NHRA competition. It was a big moment for the young rider who went on to make the Countdown to the Championship and finish ninth in the standings.

“No wonder I like Norwalk so much,” Reed said. “Coming back a year later, I think people don’t look at me as a new rider anymore and they definitely know every time me or my team comes to the line, we’re there to race. I’m excited to get back to Norwalk since this is where I finally started gaining momentum in my rookie season last year.”

And Reed could certainly use the boost as he currently sits 15th in the championship standings, having failed to record a round win yet this season.

THIS ONE’S FOR THE GIRLS - When we last left off in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class, we witnessed a first - the first time five women qualified for a race in the motorcycle class.

When Angie Smith, Karen Stoffer, Angelle Sampey, Melissa Surber and Kelly Clontz all placed their bikes among the 16 quickest bikes of the weekend, it marked the first time that has happened in the history of the class.

And in a category that has been at the forefront for females in racing, it was yet another milestone for the popular group.

Adding to the female surge, entering this weekend’s Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals, two of those women sit in the top 10 in the standings, firmly in the championship hunt. Stoffer currently sits eighth, while Smith is 10th. Sampey, another popular rider, currently sits 12th.

Two years ago, Stoffer and Sampey met in the Norwalk finals, with Stoffer taking the win. Will we see another breakthrough for the women this weekend?

SHORT A FORMER WINNER - Hector Arana Sr., a former winner at Norwalk and former world champion, underwent major shoulder surgery on Tuesday and will miss at least three months of competition - including this weekend’s Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals.

Arana, traveling from the race in Englishtown, N.J. two weeks ago, suffered a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder while repairing a blown tire on his team’s race trailer. While the eldest of the Arana clan is expected to be away from the seat for at least three months, he will still be visible at the track as he shifts his focus to helping his son, Hector Arana Jr., who currently sits sixth in the championship standings.

“We’re hoping I can be back on the bike in time for the Countdown to the Championship, but we’ll see when it gets closer,” Arana Sr. said. “I had one tendon completely torn off and two more that had bad tears. I had surgery as soon as possible to get the healing process started.”

Arana won the Norwalk national event back in 2008.
 

 

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