2018 NHRA AUTO CLUB FINALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
TOP FUEL CHAMPION TORRENCE HAS PERFECT DAY AT POMONA - In an Auto Club NHRA Finals at Pomona, Calif., that was packed with plenty of other drama, Top Fuel’s Steve Torrence carved a piece of history for himself and his Capco Contractors Dragster team Sunday.
The Kilgore, Texas, native completed an unprecedented sweep of the six-race Countdown, spoiling Tony Schumacher’s plan to give the U.S. Army a Wally trophy in its final race in the 19-year marketing partnership with Don Schumacher Racing.
Torrence made it six-for-six and perfect record in 11 finals this season.
He joined other first-time champions JR Todd (Funny Car) and Tanner Gray (Pro Stock) and three-time series champion Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) in another rare occurrence – each won both the championship and the event.
Torrence had secured the Top Fuel championship two weeks before, at Las Vegas, but for him the drama was whether he would achieve Countdown perfection. At 3.702 seconds and 330.07 mph on the 1,000-foot course, the Richard Hogan-tuned driver became the lone racer in any class to achieve playoff perfection since the playoff format began in 2007.
“We wanted to set that precedent. No one can beat us. They can only tie us, and that’s a pretty cool stat,” he said. “We’ve been doing stuff nobody’s been doing.
“I’m living a dream,” Torrence said.
Six consecutive victories mean Torrence will return to Auto Club Raceway when the Mello Yellow Drag Racing Series reconvenes Feb. 7-10 to kick off the 2019 season with the Lucas Oil Winternationals with 24 straight round-wins.
“I don’t know how we did it,” Torrence said of the Countdown dominance. “We’ve won some rounds we probably shouldn’t have won, but we’ve been in the right place at the right time.
“I have to credit the Good Lord, Richard Hogan and [assistant crew chief] Bobby Lagana Jr., and the best crew on the planet,” he said. “Richard Hogan, he’s a bad, bad man. That guy probably wasn’t the most confident, but he’s very, very talented. And I’ve believed in him from the time we first hired him in 2011.
“We’ve had a very unique friendship and working relationship, and this is what happens when you hire a man to do his job and stick with him and support him. It’s been a recipe for success,” he said. “The confidence that I have seen build in Richard this year, every round of every race, it’s been neat to watch.”
The victory, which also came at the expense of Cameron Ferre and Blake Alexander, included a quarterfinal victory over his dad, Billy.
“I’m very competitive. I’m very driven,” Steve Torrence, 35, said, “and I get that from my dad, so when we race, we race. It’s for bragging rights. I live across the street and work with that guy every day and the guys at Capco, where we both work, they’re not going to cut me any slack if I get beat by a 60-year-old man.”
His grand achievement was a disappointment for Tony Schumacher, his final-round opponent. Schumacher was making his last pass after 19 years with U.S. Army branding and had hoped to send off Don Schumacher Racing’s 19-year marketing partner with a Wally trophy on Veterans Day.
“He’s the best, and if you want to be the best you have to beat the best,” Torrence said of Schumacher. He said, “I’m living a dream,” and he said, “That’s because of the grace of the good Lord.”
Winning the event, he said, is “why we came here, But it’s a little disturbing to look over and see the winningest driver in Top Fuel history in the other lane. But to be the best, you have to beat the best. It’s truly been unbelievable.”
Schumacher put the outcome in perspective.
“It was a fantastic race,” Schumacher said following the race as he passed Clay Millican in the final standings to take the No. 2 spot.
“He did a great job. Just such a big round for both of us – it was miraculous. We both ran 330 [mph]. The winner of that round was the fans. It was close, just outstanding. I’ve been on both sides of those many, many times, and I plan on being on both sides of them many, many more.
“We won the first race the Army was ever here with us. We won 80 along the way. We wanted to win this one today for them. We gave it everything we had and came up a few inches short. At the end of the day, once you’re part of the Army life that we’ve been blessed to be a part of, you’re always a part of it. People will always say ‘Sarge.’ There won’t be any new nicknames. It’s just what it is. We’ve done a great job for each other. We’ve done miraculous things. We did everything we set out to do together 19 years ago. It’s been a privilege and an honor to represent the greatest men and women in the world.” Susan Wade
TODD FINALLY EARNS ELUSIVE CHAMPIONSHIP, WINS RACE AND TITLE AT NHRA FINALS - It was billed as one of the best battles of the weekend.
Robert Hight vs. J.R. Todd for the Funny Car championship.
But what began as a title fight for the ages ended with a victory parade as Hight smoked the tires in his first-round matchup and Todd went on to earn the win and ultimately the championship Sunday at the 54th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.
After watching his championship opponent bow out in round one, Todd felt a huge sigh of relief as the team finished the weekend playing with house money. And, with all of the pressure lifted from the Kalitta Motorsports team, Todd went four big rounds on Sunday culminating with a win over Tommy Johnson Jr., his sixth of the season.
“People kept asking what we need to do to clinch and I kept saying what we need to do is win the race and not worry about what we need to do to clinch,” Todd said. “Seeing Robert smoke the tires first round, that was like instant relief. You hate to wish bad things on anybody, but seeing that it was a huge relief. I was pretty stressed. I tried not to show it, but it was definitely a stressful time between Vegas and here.”
With the weight lifted, Todd drove to his sixth win of the year and the third of the Countdown with a 3.872-second pass at 329.10 mph in the DHL Toyota Camry Funny Car. Johnson, who had won at the season finale at Pomona the past two years, had a 3.889 at 327.51 mph in the runner-up effort.
But it was the pass in the final that truly put an exclamation mark on an impressive season for the veteran racer in only his second year in Funny Car as the team found its groove at just the right time.
“What can I say, they are great at what they do. Todd Smith and Jon (Oberhofer), they really have a handle on the tuneup and they were almost calling their shots today,” Todd said. “Except for that 88 in the semis where they were trying to run a 90 and actually overachieved, they were spot on. Then in the final I had it way out of the groove driving like an idiot and I thought for sure I was going to smoke the tires and then the win light came on and I was like, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me.’
“To see the 87, that was a big-time run. They just have a really good handle on the car. They are racing smart and the yellow fellas’ do an awesome job preparing this thing. They definitely stayed focused all day long because there were a lot of distractions around our pit area. They did their job and the other Kalitta Motorsports teams chipped in. It is a huge family over there and it is awesome to have that kind of support.”
Todd added wins over Ron Capps, Bob Tasca and Jim Campbell to reach his eighth final round of the year and the fifth of the six-race Countdown. Tasca proved a tough out in round two with a very close 3.952 to a 3.962 and it was relatively smooth sailing from there.
Johnson, in his third final of 2018, had wins over Jack Beckman, Courtney Force and Cruz Pedregon, but came up shy of recording his first win of the season on Sunday.
But it was a stunning first-round result that had the biggest impact on Sunday. Needing to go three additional rounds than Todd and with an opportunity to go head-to-head in round two, Hight shockingly spun the tires in his first-round matchup with Tasca, limping across the line while watching his hopes of a repeat championship - quite literally - go up in smoke.
From there it was all-in for Todd, who dominated the back-half ot the schedule.
Recording just two wins in the season’s first 17 races, Todd concluded 2018 with four wins in the final seven races beginning with a win at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals and ending with the win on Sunday.
“For us, it all changed after Brainerd. Todd and Jon O, they hit on something there in Brainerd in the semifinal and carried that into the Indy test and the car ran really well,” Todd said. “We carried that into Indy, won the race, and really kind of stuck with that setup and did a great job maintaining that momentum.”
For Todd, winning the championship is the culminations of nearly two-decades worth of highs and lows. From the lows of losing his ride multiple times since he made the jump from Junior Dragster to Top Fuel at the age of 18 in 2000, to the highs of winning in both the Top Fuel and Funny Car categories, back-to-back U.S. Nationals victories and, ultimately, a championship.
And to do it in Funny Car, a class that many said he would never succeed, made the win all that more enjoyable for the NHRA veteran.
“I understand (the questions). I questioned myself last year if I could drive one of these things. They are tough. It’s hard to get used to and it comes with time and you just have to tell yourself to be patient,” Todd said. “I didn’t want to give up on it, but I was getting frustrated with myself. I still get mad at myself driving that thing because I feel I can do a better job.
“In my opinion, Funny Car is the toughest category in our sport. You are racing against guys like John Force, I grew up idolizing guys like that. It is surreal to me that I am racing against guys like that, Capps, and getting calls and text messages from guys like Gary Scelzi, Snake, Kenny Bernstein. To me, when you win any of these Funny Car events you feel like you’ve accomplished a major milestone. It’s really cool to do. I am not taking anything away from dragsters, I still feel like I have unfinished business in Top Fuel. In the meantime, I am going to enjoy what I am doing in Funny Car.”
After the race, Todd had a unique opportunity to reach out to the man that made it all possible, team owner Connie Kalitta, who gave Todd an opportunity at a rather unexpected time just two short years ago. Now the two are celebrating a championship.
“I went over and thanked him after first round and he told me good job and that is all he was going to tell me. Seeing him smile and telling me good job, that is what it is all about. It is an honor to drive that Funny Car,” Todd said. “I saw these guys do this in 2015 with Del (Worsham), so I knew that the opportunity was there and I just didn’t want to be the reason for it not to happen. It was pretty special, but we had some help from above from guys like Scott Kalitta and Eric Medlen. Things work out for a reason.” Larry Crum
GRAY FINISHES NHRA CAREER ON TOP WITH WIN, CHAMPIONSHIP AT POMONA - You couldn’t have scripted a better ending to a season than the one Tanner Gray enjoyed on Sunday.
At just 19 years of age, Gray wrapped up his sophomore season behind the wheel in NHRA’s factory hot rod category with a perfect finish, winning the race and ultimately the championship just one year removed from winning Rookie of the Year honors Sunday at the 54th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.
Gray followed up his sensational rookie campaign with an eight-win season culminating with four final rounds in the season’s final six races to earn the first championship for Gray and the Gray Motorsports team. And, with no pressure on the team after securing the title following qualifying on Saturday, Gray went out and capped the near-perfect weekend with a win, the 13th of his career.
“I think for me, I just had no pressure. This was probably the most relaxed Sunday I have had ever,” Gray said. “Even when you are not in the Countdown and you are just racing in the regular season, you still have that pressure because you want to win. For me, coming in here, it was all about trying to enjoy the moment. We wrapped up the championship in qualifying, so I just wanted to enjoy it and not get too wrapped up in winning or losing. We had already won seven races and that is really good and, while we obviously wanted to win more, at the same time I just wanted to enjoy the time with those guys and make the most out of it. Obviously winning the championship and winning the race just added to that.”
Gray capped the 2018 season with a win over Drew Skillman in the finals Sunday in Pomona, easily cruising to the victory after Skillman lit the red bulb by -.002. Gray, known for his lighting-quick reaction times, had a .010 light in the final and ran a 6.519-second pass at 211.86 mph in the Gray Motorsports Valvoline Chevrolet Camaro to pick up the win.
In fact, it was his reaction times that helped carry him throughout the season. With the best reaction-time average in the Pro Stock category, Gray made it a personal goal for himself to have double-zero reaction times throughout the weekend, falling short of that mission by just two.
“That was the goal. Obviously we didn’t get that done, but we got six of them and missed the final one by a thou. I told Dave (Connolly) before we went up there, win or lose, I just want to be double-zero,” Gray said. “It was a really good weekend. I love this track as far as reaction times go. For whatever reason, I am just really good here. The way we setup the clutch is exactly how I want the pedal. I feel like when I am sitting up there I am looking at a practice tree.
“I feel like I can move around and do whatever I want with the clutch and I don’t know what happened when I missed it. The sun was sitting awkward in the tree, but I had already seen that look in qualifying. Either way, we still came out with the win.”
Gray added wins over Jason Line, Erica Enders and Shane Gray to record his eighth victory of the year. Enders gave Gray his closest battle of the afternoon in round two, with Gray earning the holeshot win with a 6.563 to a 6.562, earning the advantage with a dead-on .003 light. In the semifinal, Line tried to get the best of his opponent with a perfect light, but shook the tires and had to abort the run.
Skillman, in his third final round of the year, had wins over Jeg Coughlin, Greg Anderson and Alan Prusiensky.
Gray finishes the year with an impressive run that saw he and his Gray Motorsports team take three wins in the Countdown and seven of the final 15 races of the year. The team started slow with a couple of early exits in the season’s first few races, but gradually found its footing as the season progressed. The team took the lead for good following a huge victory at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals and never looked back.
“Even after we won Gainesville, I feel like we still struggled a little bit,” Gray said. “At the beginning of the season we tested so much before we went to Pomona and we even stayed after Pomona and tested and then we stayed after Phoenix and tested and we were testing in between races during the summer. That is when it is long. All of those back-to-back races and then you are testing in the middle of the week and it just makes it tough.
“To finally see all that pay off there toward the middle of the season was awesome. There for a while we were doing all of this work and not seeing the results that we wanted. For whatever reason, everything switched and we started knocking out some wins and then coming into the Countdown we knew what we had to do. We knew how we had to race the car from the mistakes that we made last year and Dave (Connolly) and all of those guys did it. I was just the monkey behind the wheel.”
And it is Connolly that Gray credits most with his win. After coming up short of the title during his rookie campaign, Connolly helped guide Gray both on the track and off of it, helping keep his emotions in check and focused on the job at hand.
“I’m obviously a pretty emotional guy. I get down on myself and stress about the little things and that is one of the things he has helped me out with a lot is letting it go, moving on, and going up there and focusing on the next run,” Gray said. “I think that really came into effect at Charlotte for me. I ripped the tree all day and then I go up there against Jason (Line) and, for whatever reason, I am 44 and I was pretty mad about that. He sat me down and said, ‘look dude, we’ve got another race to go and we can’t do this if you are all spun out. Get your head together and move on. That really helped put things into perspective.”
Gray concludes, not only the season, but potentially his NHRA career with Sunday’s championship, as Gray looks to make the jump to NASCAR’s K&N East Series in 2019 and beyond.
And if indeed this was the final time NHRA saw Gray behind the wheel, it was the perfect ending to a wonderful season for one of NHRA’s brightest young talents. Larry Crum
SMITH’S 46TH BIRTHDAY PRESENT: PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE TITLE, EVENT VICTORY - Pro Stock Motorcycle leader Matt Smith’s 46th birthday was Sunday.
And he got his wish before blowing out the candles on his combination championship / birthday cake this evening after extinguishing Eddie Krawiec’s challenge in a winner-take-all showdown at the Auto Club NHRA Finals at Pomona, Calif.
Smith clocked a 201.22-mph speed – the fastest in class history – and won with a 6.765-second elapsed time aboard his Stockseth/Denso/Lucas Oil/Elite Victory motorcycle. Krawiec challenged with a 6.812-second, 198.35-mph performance on his Harley-Davidson Street Rod that fell short by .0471 of a second, about 14 feet.
Smith claimed his third title and denied Krawiec his fifth overall and second straight. Smith won in another final-round tug-o-war with Chip Ellis in 2007 and repeated in 2013, when he shared the spotlight with Pro Mod-racing father Rickie Smith.
“I was in the same situation in ’07. I had to win the race to win the championship. History repeated itself, except this time it’s my birthday,” Matt Smith said. “Eddie said he was going to blow the candle out on me. But he didn’t get close enough to blow the candle out.”
Smith’s path to the double triumph wasn’t smooth. His bike broke an air line in the opening round, the transmission broke in Round 2 when he was going across the finish line.
“My guys did their jobs. We fixed all the stupid stuff that broke. We put up three 200-mile-an-hour runs today. In the final we put the fastest ever up again,” Smith said.
“That’s a testament to my team and all the people who work with us behind the scenes. I’d love to call their names, but they have to stay anonymous, because I don’t want all the other teams to try to get them. That’s what happens. You’ve got a lot of big-money teams and they’ll just go and hire them right out from underneath you. I don’t have a lot of money. And to beat the people who’ve ha millions of dollars for the last 18 years and we’re doing it on nickels and dimes, that shows the people I’ve got behind me. We’re having the time of our life right now. Praise the Lord and praise my team,” he said.
The only other time Smith and Krawiec met this year in competition was at the Mickey Thompson Pro Bike Battle at Sonoma, which Smith won for a $25,000 payout. So the stakes have been high for these two multiple-time champions. Sunday Smith earned the $75,000 champion’s share of the purse.
Smith recalled that a broken fuel ended his Countdown-opener at Reading, which likely kept him from clinching the championship sooner. But he said this clash with Krawiec “was just meant to be. It was supposed to be a storybook ending.”
He called Krawiec and the Vance & Hines team and Harley-Davidson “a class act” and said, “They’re why the motorcycles are out here.”
Smith joined first-time champions Steve Torrence (Top Fuel), JR Todd (Funny Car), and Tanner Gray (Pro Stock) – all of whom also won the event.
Krawiec was hoping to bring the Vance & Hines organization its 10th championship in the past 15 years and 13th in 22. He also won in 2008 and went back-to-back in 2011 and 2012.
Five riders entered race day with a chance to win, and Jerry Savoie bowed out as the top four – Smith, Krawiec, L.E. Tonglet, and Hector Arana Jr. – reached the semifinal round. By that time, only Krawiec could overtake Smith.
In one semifinal, Smith eliminated Tonglet, who reportedly was angry that Smith got a solo pass in the first round against his wife, Angie Smith. She performed a crowd-entertaining burnout and word was that something broke on her bike, ensuring her husband a free pass to the quarterfinals. In the other semifinal race, Krawiec beat Arana Jr. Susan Wade
NHRA FINALS – POMONA, CALIF. – SATURDAY NOTEBOOK
GRAY CROWNED PRO STOCK CHAMPION, OTHER CONTENDERS WAIT – Tanner Gray surprised no one by claiming the Pro Stock championship in qualifying Saturday for the Auto Club Finals at Pomona, Calif. But the suspense will continue into Sunday for the Funny Car and Pro Stock Motorcycle classes.
When Johnny Gray was driving in the NHRA Pro Stock class, he carried a small sticker on his car that read, “SKI.” He said it stood for “Spending Kids’ Inheritance.”
But he couldn’t spend it fast enough. And his grandson, Tanner Gray, provided the inheritance for the Gray Motorsports empire Grandpa and dad Shane built.
For the organization, “it’s been a long, hard road, 10 years of trying at it,” the newest Mello Yello Drag Racing Series champion said Saturday after qualifying No. 6 on the Auto Club Raceway quarter-mile. For Gray himself, it hardly was long or all that difficult. He earned rookie-of-the-year honors last season on the strength of five victories in seven final rounds and a 46-19 round-win record. With the season final Sunday looming, Gray already is a seven-time winner in 10 finals and has a 51-16 mark in eliminations.
Simply by making the 16-car field in his Camaro, Gray became the NHRA’s youngest champion in any class. That eclipsed the 2010 record Pro Stock Motorcycle rookie L.E. Tonglet set at age 20 years and 11 months. Gray replaced 1976 champion Larry Lombardo (27 years and seven months) as the youngest Pro Stock titlist.
Gray was home-schooled at the race shop at Denver, N.C., along with brothers Bryce and Taylor. He received his high-school diploma on Fathers Day on the starting line at Bristol Dragway. His life is steeped in drag racing: business, performance, engine-building, driving, and history. But what makes this achievement even more special is that it might be his last chance ever to do it. Gray is leaving the straightline sport and moving to NASCAR’s DGR-Crosley team that Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series veteran David Gilliland and Crosley Radio CEO Bo LeMastus own.
“Happy to do it my final season. It’ll be the last time I work with these guys,” the normally nonchalant but clearly nervous and emotional Gray said after earning the $250,000 champion’s payout. “I haven’t been this nervous in qualifying since my first race here [his pro debut, in February 2017]. I wasn’t quite sure we were going to be in this position at midseason. Everything started coming together . . . and we executed well on race day. We had some lucky rounds, too."
But he said, “None of us would have this opportunity if it wasn’t for my grandma and grandpa. They have definitely supported us a lot and got us where we are today. All the guys at the engine shop, all the guys on this car, they have done phenomenal this season, and I can’t say enough about them. My mom and dad, they have stuck with me through the good and the bad times. It feels good to be here.”
The accomplishment, he said, is “pretty special, pretty surreal.” Moreover, Gray will meet dad Shane Gray in the first round of eliminations Sunday.
Funny Car and Pro Stock Motorcycle will crown their champions Sunday.
In Funny Car, points leader JR Todd topped nemesis Robert Hight but will take a 74-point edge over Hight going into Sunday – the same as when the weekend began.
Todd’s 74-point margin is the equivalent of more than two rounds. He can clinch the title by advancing to the semifinals or beyond Sunday.
“Nothing’s changed for our DHL Toyota,” Todd said. “We’re going to go out there and run hard. We’re not going to let up. Our goal for tomorrow is to win the race.”
The two contenders, if they advance out of the first round Sunday, would face off against each other in the quarterfinals. No. 2 qualifier Todd will start against No. 13 starter Jim Campbell, and No. 4 Hight drew No. 12 Bob Tasca III as his first-round foe. Todd is seeking his first championship, current champion Hight his third.
Pro Stock Motorcycle leader Matt Smith holds the best hand heading into eliminations. He secured the No. 1 qualifying position Saturday with a 6.754-second elapsed time and a 201.10-mph speed that set the national record (bettering Hector Arana Jr.’s 201.01 mph from March at Gainesville, Fla.) as the fastest in class history. Better yet, he faces wife Angie Smith, the No. 16 qualifier, in the opening round of runoffs.
Other No. 1 qualifiers Saturday were Leah Pritchett (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car), and Jeg Coughlin (Pro Stock).
FLAMES OUT – The engine in Mike Salinas’s Scrappers Dragster erupted in a ball of flames Saturday, and he said after exiting the car, “I was just moseying along, minding my own business. We don’t know what the heck happened, but we’re going to find out. Not a big deal.” He said, “I didn’t expect it to be that big. I wouldn’t mind sacrificing for a .64 like Leah,” he said, referring to the 3.649-second elapsed time that Leah Pritchett used to lead the Top Fuel order. “It wasn’t there,” he deadpanned. Salinas will start from the No. 12 slot and race No. 5 Blake Alexander in the first round Sunday.
Terry McMillen had a spectacular explosion in the next pairing. The Amalie Oil Dragster driver will go against No. 4 Clay Millican.
In Funny Car Q3 action, Jonnie Lindberg made it about two-thirds the way down the 1,000-foot course before his engine let go and caught fire, as well. Lindberg remained unqualified with that run. Despite posting his best run of the weekend at 4.452 seconds, he ended up missing the cut, along with Terry Haddock and Jeff Diehl.
SUPER SCARY – Super Gas racers Randy Bowers, of Riverside, Calif., and Travis Salter, of Baytown, Texas, were involved in an on-track incident during the second round of eliminations Saturday. Salter was uninjured. Bowers, awake and alert, was transported to a local hospital for evaluation. Bowers was racing his Ragan Enterprises ’69 Camaro in the left lane and hit the wall hard several times after he crossed the finish line at 152.26 mph. His car clipped Salter’s Salterracing.com ’67 Camaro before it stopped in the safety net. Salter earned the double-breakout victory but was unable to take advantage of a Round 3 solo pass, his car evidently damaged too much to return to the starting line.
KALITTA LIKES IT, TOO – Doug Kalitta won’t be able to shed that ridiculous title of driver with the most victories but no series titles for at least another year. But the 44-time winner (who’s fifth on the all-time Top Fuel list) has three Wally trophies from Pomona. His only one at this season finale came in 2016, although he was runner-up in 1999 and 2013. The Mac Tools Dragster driver won the Winternationals here this February. “We started off the year with a win in Pomona, and I can't think of a better way to close out the season than another win here. It's a track we feel very comfortable competing at, and a strong showing here would be a great way to kick off next season,” Kalitta said. “This has been a bit of an up and down weekend for the MAC Tools team, but we feel like we have a good handle on the track heading into race day. Our goal is to end the season like we started it – with a win in Pomona.”
GLAD HE’S BACK – Joey Gladstone is back on his Yellow Corn Suzuki for Team Liberty Racing. Team owner Cory Reed filled in for Gladstone at Las Vegas while Gladstone recovered from a jet-skiing accident. Gladstone had his bike in the tentative No. 10 spot with one more chance to improve Saturday. He actually fell back a spot to 11th place and will meet No. 6 Jerry Savoie.
PRO STOCK SCHEDULE PARED BACK TO 18 RACES – As expected, the NHRA announced Saturday an 18-race 2019 schedule for the Pro Stock class, saying “competitors believe [that’s] the “sweet spot” for the category.
Josh Peterson, NHRA vice-president of racing administration, said, “We think the new schedule will increase participation by relieving the economic burden and time commitment that comes with 24 events, which will ignite more intense competition. All of that should make for compelling action and drive fan interest.”
The NHRA Pro Stock class will compete at the first four Mello Yello Drag Racing Series (the Winternationals at Pomona, Calif.; Phoenix, Gainesville, Fla.; Las Vegas), then take a hiatus until the May 17-19 Virginia Nationals near Richmond. The Pro Stock racers will compete through the summer at Chicago; Norwalk, Ohio; Denver; Sonoma, Calif.; Seattle; Brainerd, Minn.; and Indianapolis. They’re included at every Countdown to the Championship event (at Reading, Pa.; St. Louis; Charlotte; Dallas; Las Vegas; and Pomona, Calif.).
The full schedule is:
NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Pro Stock Schedule
Feb. 7-10 Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals Pomona, Calif.
Feb. 22-24 NHRA Arizona Nationals Phoenix
March 14-17 Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals Gainesville, Fla.
April 5-7 DENSO Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals Las Vegas
May 17-19 Virginia NHRA Nationals Richmond, Va.
May 30-June 2 Route 66 NHRA Nationals Chicago
June 20-23 Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals Norwalk, Ohio
July 19-21 Dodge Mile-High NHRA Nationals Denver
July 26-28 NHRA Sonoma Nationals Sonoma, Calif.
Aug. 2-4 NHRA Northwest Nationals Seattle
Aug. 15-18 Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals Brainerd, Minn.
Aug. 28-Sept. 2 Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals Indianapolis
NHRA Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship
Sept. 12-15 Dodge NHRA Nationals Reading, Pa.
Sept. 27-29 AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals St. Louis
Oct. 11-13 NHRA Carolina Nationals Charlotte, N.C.
Oct. 17-20 AAA Texas NHRA Fall Nationals Dallas
Oct. 31-Nov. 3 NHRA Nevada Nationals Las Vegas
Nov. 14-17 Auto Club NHRA Finals Pomona, Calif.
NHRA FINALS – POMONA, CALIF. – FRIDAY NOTEBOOK
TITLE-CLINCHING SCENARIOS THE BUZZ OF THE WEEKEND, ‘EVOLUTION’ CLAIMS MILLICAN-GRUBNIC COMBO, TORRENCE’S FORMULA SIMPLE BUT RESULTS HARD TO PULL OFF, TOP FUEL ACE’S HAND NOT DEFORMED, NEITHER DRIVER HURT IN Q1 ACCIDENTS, FORCE COULD HIT MILESTONE 150TH THIS WEEKEND
CALCULATING SCENARIOS – This is the time of the year to pull out the calculator and use every ounce of mathematical skills and logic. It’s championship scenario time.
Steve Torrence made it easy on everybody this weekend. He took care of Top Fuel business two weeks ago. The Capco Contractors Dragster driver never has been a fan of the Countdown format, so it’s fitting he would defy the whole purpose of it – suspense – by earning his title two weeks ago at Las Vegas.
But in the other three pro classes, the six-race playoff is doing what is designed to do. NHRA made matters a little more complicated or juicy, whichever you prefer, by awarding points and a half at this weekend’s Auto Club Finals at Pomona, Calif. The most any racer can earn at this event is 191 points. Let the calculating begin.
The only no-brainer among the Funny Car, Pro Stock, and Pro Stock Motorcycle chases is that Tanner Gray will parlay his 140-point advantage over closest competitor Jeg Coughlin for the Pro Stock crown before he bolts for NASCAR. All that’s left to figure out is whether he’ll do it in qualifying Saturday or make it official Sunday. Smart money is on Saturday.
So Gray needs to make the 16-car field to become the youngest Pro Stock champion. In doing so, he will beat Larry Lombardo’s 1976 mark of 27 years and seven months by a long shot. Gray also will become the youngest NHRA pro series champion. Right now that mark belongs to Pro Stock Motorcycle’s L.E. Tonglet, who was 20 years and 11 months old when he was crowned as a rookie in 2010.
The real action is in the Funny Car class, with a half-million-dollar winner’s share of the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series purse at stake. Current champion Robert Hight won back-to-back Countdown races at St. Louis and Dallas and underwent surgery for a broken collarbone between the two events. But his momentum fizzled and his noble, play-through-pain effort became even more painful with a first-round loss at Las Vegas. That left him with a 74-point deficit to JR Todd on the eve of this final battle.
Ron Capps (165 points off the pace in third place) and Tim Wilkerson (186 points back) mathematically are still in the Funny Car hunt, but they’re unrealistic longshots. If Todd qualifies, even last among the 16 starters, Capps and Wilkerson are out of contention.
The Countdown fields were set Labor Day at Indianapolis with the showcase U.S. Nationals. Todd won that. Since then, he has compiled a sparkling 16-3 elimination-round mark by reaching four final rounds in the first five playoff races.
Hight can try to pick up 15 more bonus points than Todd in time trials Friday and Saturday – but Todd has raced to the top five in 12 of the past 14 qualifying sessions. Even if Hight stood on his head in qualifying, he would have to last two more rounds than Todd Sunday.
On the flip side, as National Dragster sorted it out, “Todd can earn his first championship as early as the semifinals if he does not lose more than 14 points to Hight during qualifying OR if Hight loses in the same round or earlier than Todd at any point during [eliminations].”
Hight is trying to repeat his championship and earn title No. 3. He’s hoping to score back-to-back Funny Car championships for the first time since boss John Force did it with 10 in a row from 1993-2002.
BIKE CLASS HAS STRONG KNOT AT TOP – In the Pro Stock Motorcycle scramble, just 113 separate the first six racers in the standings. And No. 6 is five-time champion Andrew Hines. The leader is two-time champion Matt Smith. Behind him are, in order, Eddie Krawiec (-4), L.E. Tonglet (-61), Hector Arana Jr. (-64), Jerry Savoie (-101), and Hines (-113).
BIKER SMITH TOPS 200 MPH TO TAKE TOP SPOT – Matt Smith still doesn't know what a 200 mile per hour run feels like.
This is kind of odd considering Smith raced through the traps aboard his Buell at the Auto Club NHRA Finals at 200.56 miles per hour to become the third-fastest Pro Stock Motorcycle rider in NHRA history and rewrite the track speed record. His 6.774 elapsed time was the provisional No. 1 qualifying position.
"That run didn't feel really any different than the four 199-mile per hour runs I've made before," Smith admitted. "I'm glad to finally be able to mark that off of my bucket list. I wanted to do this before I finally retire from this deal."
Although Smith failed to improve with a 6.799, 199.67 in Q-2, he believes there's more left in his bike.
"I think there is," Smith admitted. "I got over toward the centerline and it was spinning the tire a little bit. There's more left in it. We have, I believe, a 201 left in it. It's really dry here, and that makes it fast here.
"At first I thought because it was so dry, our weather station was broken."
Smith joins Hector Arana Jr. and Eddie Krawiec as the only riders who officially have posted runs in excess of 200 miles per hour. – Bobby Bennett
SIMPLE APPROACH, HARD-TO-DO RESULTS – It’s so hard, in one sense, yet in another sense, it’s so simple.
Steve Torrence clinched the 2018 Top Fuel championship two weekends ago at Las Vegas, and he did it by continuing his Countdown streak to five victories. The Capco Contractors Dragster driver is hoping to extend his unprecedented mark and become the first ever in the NHRA’s Countdown era to sweep all six playoff triumphs.
“Every round that we go is history, and you don’t have an opportunity very often to make history,” Torrence said at Las Vegas. “I’ve said that if you win ‘em all, the points will take care of themselves. I didn’t really mean it, but here we are with a chance to do something no one else has ever done, and that is sweep the Countdown.”
In addition to being the only driver to earn both Top Fuel and Top Alcohol Dragster series crowns, he is the first driver not affiliated with one of the sport’s mega-teams to claim a Top Fuel title since the Countdown format began in 2007. (Seven have gone to Don Schumacher Racing, three to Alan Johnson Racing, and one to John Force Racing.)
What Torrence, 35, has made appear so effortless is winning 30 percent of the races he’s run during the past three seasons (21 of 70) while compiling a 149-49 record. He brings a 54-13 record into this race that includes 10 victories in as many final-round appearances. No one has won 10 races since Larry Dixon won 12 times en route to the 2010 championship, and no one has won five consecutive races since Tony Schumacher won seven straight in 2008.
With a confidence he described as “through the roof.” Torrence said, “Every time I roll up there, I know I’ve got a car that can win, no matter the weather, no matter the track, no matter what’s going on.”
And the key to it all, for him and his Richard Hogan-/Bobby Lagana-led team, is a formula that’s pretty basic.
“We’ve just tried to break it down to its simplest form. One round at a time, one race at a time,” Torrence said. “That’s how we’ll approach the Finals, too – just keep doing what we’ve been doing.”
Umm . . . that’s with one exception . . . In 10 starts at the Auto Club Finals here at the Los Angeles County Fairplex, Torrence has no victories, not even a final-round appearance or a No. 1 qualifying position. He did win the February 2016 Lucas Oil Winternationals here. But in this event, Torrence never has started better than fifth or lasted past the second round, and his elimination record is 4-10. So he wants to change that.
Coca-Cola representatives Al Rondon and Mike Adams unveiled Torrence’s new Mello Yello-themed livery before the newly crowned Top Fuel champion made his first qualifying run Friday. He smoked the tires and was 16th on the list but blasted back to the top spot in his night run.
STRINGER, GARDNER SHED LIGHT ON GRUBNIC DEPARTURE – Doug Stringer, owner of the Parts Plus / Great Clips / Strutmaster Dragster that Clay Millican drives, attributed crew chief Dave Grubnic’s departure from the team after this race to “evolution.” He and race team partner Scott Gardner said they don’t know what team Grubnic is headed to, and no announcement has emerged following news of the change last week.
With all kinds of speculation about why Grubnic is leaving and the circumstances under which Mike Kloeber is replacing him, Stringer said, “Well, nothing happened. Evolution, life.
“So basically we hired David four years ago, and he started out as a crew chief for us. At the time he wasn’t working, so we were very fortunate to hire him on here and to help develop and build a system to operate our race car. He had aspirations of being a fulltime NHRA Top Fuel crew chief. We had aspirations of being an NHRA Top Fuel race team. And so it was actually Donna’s [Clay Millican’s wife’s], one of her recommendations. We had a list of people and we’re very family based. We’re based out of Southern Illinois where I live. It all fit together very well,” Stringer said.
“We didn’t buy a tune-up from anybody. We developed this model and a tune up for this race car as an individual race team on our own,” he said. “It has been really successful. David’s been really successful with the backing of Parts Plus and Great Clips and myself and these guys. It’s all about people. So we rallied together a bunch of young guys and put them to work.
“Now I guess the thing to put it in perspective when you say what happened . . . Four years is a long time in the motorsports arena. We all got older and a lot of us fine-tuned our skills to become really good. So David’s got a lot of opportunities out there, as do Mac and a few other crew guys, where they can take what they’ve learned here and the experience that they’ve gained here and help mold more of a future for themselves,” he said. “And with that is economics. We strongly believe that every individual that ever works for us should better themselves at any opportunity there is in life. And so he has an opportunity to better his position, to better himself as an individual by progressing in the sport to a larger opportunity.”
Stringer said Grubnic “actually has refused one [offer] last year to stay with us for a year, and we’ve talked numerous times about ‘Don’t do that again, because it’s about your individual life, too.’ So it’s just time. It’s time for us to evolve into another program, another team with new people. We’ve taken on two business partners with J.J. Koehler and Scott Gardner, and it’s time for this program to grow, and for life to go on.
“So we’re excited for what the future holds for us,” Stringer said. “As you know, there’s a long relationship between Mike [Kloeber] and Clay, so there’s a huge comfort level there. Mike’s got some unfinished business out here, as does Clay. People say, ‘Wow, they’re changing crew chiefs, their direction.’ Yes, people are moving on and people are moving in, but our direction is to win the championship next year. We’re fighting for second right now.”
Gardner said new Top Fuel champion Torrence was a hard competitor to rein in.
“It’s hard to race against somebody like that, that obviously paid their dues last year with what happened. Really, hat’s off to those guys. And if we don’t win this weekend, I hope to God he does, because then we can say we finished second to a car that won every Countdown race. That’s probably never going to happen again. So it’s a good excuse.”
According to Stringer, the parting was cordial: “It was a mutual agreement. Everything was mutual.”
Gardner said the proof is that “Mike’s here this weekend and David’s here. I mean, obviously you would never have, if there was a problem there wouldn’t be the two guys here at the same time. I think Doug said it perfectly and eloquently that it was an opportunity for David. And what’s really important for us. Doug alluded to it was we want to build people. Every business that I’ve owned, whether it was my racetracks or when I was at the IHRA, we built teams of people. And sometimes people would go somewhere and you would miss them, but you knew it was better for them and that’s really what we’re about. Yeah, we want to win the championship, but we want our people to succeed. I don’t care if that’s the crew, one of the crew people or a hospitality person, or the crew chief, everybody’s got in life the things they want to do and how they might be able to do things better. The last thing we want to do is stop or hold people from their opportunities. So I think it’s great for us. We feel very happy with what we have going on. It’s some exciting stuff and I think it’s going to be great for David and the guys that are going to leave with him.”
The key word for Gardner is respect: “The bottom line of the deal is it’s about people and people respecting each other. So we have to respect when somebody wants to change or do something different. It might not be in our minds a move up but it’s something they want to do in another arena. And I don’t know what David’s going to do, but if it’s with a multi-car team, we don’t have that.”
Said Stringer, “No, we don’t know. That’s the norm in this industry. It’s Silly Season. You know, when I started out, I said it’s about evolution. Life happens. You know, I was in NASCAR for 16 years and owned various Xfinity teams there. And the biggest thrill that I get is taking this Top Fuel car to the races in Charlotte and all the employees that moved on, ones that I hired as kids that started with me, they all moved on, went through the Cup series, and now they come back with their children grown, championship rings from working for Jimmie Johnson as a tire changer or gas man. But they all come back to the pits to support us during those Charlotte weekends. And what my goal is for anybody that leaves our organization is that we embrace that in years to come and that they come back and we’re able to see how they evolved as humans and how their life went on and how their various successes be it racing, be it family, or be it faith, those are the rewards. That’s all I’m here for.”
Stringer Performance and the racing team, Gardner said, “is really a faith-based company. Faith and family are one and two on our list. Business is third. It’s important, but faith and family have to go first, and that’s for all three, our ownership group, our partners and our wives. It’s very important. And to what Doug said there, I’ve got three guys that worked for me at my racetracks that are out here on other crews. They work for John Force’s team. One of them worked for me at IHRA. They grew up – they worked at my racetrack when they were 12. They’re out here working on these other cars. And they’re not going to come to our team. We know that. They’ve got great jobs. But I’m happy for them. And the point is they come over here all the time and visit us, and we go over there and visit them. It’s just part of life. That’s the way we want to be. We don’t know how other people want to be, but that’s how we want to be.”
Promised Stringer, “No hurt feelings. No hard feelings anywhere. But that’s from me personally, Scott personally. My feelings aren’t hurt. I’m excited for their successes. I’m excited to see where they go in life.
“I hired one of these guys that’s going to leave, he was 17 years old, not even drinking age. You have family, you find love, you want to see other parts of the country, everybody has their different reasons for moving around in this industry. Some people leave the industry completely because they have other things they want to do.
“So it goes with our partnerships, too. Great Clips has been with me for 16 years. They’re leaving motorsports as a whole this year. This is their final year in racing be it NASCAR or NHRA. And so with that, we have other partners that have come on board with us. Strutmasters has come on board for next year in a co-primary position with the car. Parts Plus remains with us well into the future. So our partnerships also evolve. Companies like Great Clips management changes. The management that was there before all retired, so we have new management, new thoughts, new processes, new theories on where they want to spend their ad dollars. Racing just happens to be not one of them.”
It's a natural development, Gardner said. “That’s just the way it is. Look at the Army. Look how long they’ve been here and with Schumacher and now they’re going another direction. Just the way it is.”
MUTANT TOP FUEL DRIVER?? – No, no, it isn’t true. Tony Schumacher does NOT have six fingers on his right hand.
In an otherwise enlightening and well-written column, National Dragster Editor Phil Burgess had a genuinely rare typo in the Nov. 2 issue. The topic is drivers who continue to compete despite being roughed up by their cars (or in once case, a fellow racer’s tow vehicle). Burgess correctly points out an alarming number of them for whom 2018 has been painfully disappointing.
However, he said that Schumacher, when his dragster hurled him over the guard wall at Memphis in 2000, “suffered multiple fractures of his left leg, six dislocated fingers in his right hand, a chip in his right ankle, four cracked teeth, a bruised and swollen eye, and bruised ribs, yet played.”
In Burgess’ defense – and he almost never needs any defending – all writers edit sentences and occasionally forget to erase the parts of it they don’t want to use. That’s likely what happened in his case.
No matter. The article was informative and well-written. And Schumacher said he enjoyed it, an extra appendage for him notwithstanding.
“I liked it,” he said of the column. “My kids read it actually and they’re like, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool.’ In a world where everyone gets a trophy anymore to read that there were men back in the day, it was a good article. I mean, we play injured. We don’t want to always. We’re hurt. I get it. I watch football players. I’m an avid hockey fan. I watch them take a puck in the mouth and skate anyway. Love it. And I watch soccer and I understand it. Because I picked on it a long time. They fall down and hockey players get beat up. But the truth is, a soccer game never ends. Hockey, they make a play, whistle. Those guys drop to slow the game down. They’re not really faking it. For a long time. I watched the World Cup this year and I studied it. Man, they’re hurt all the time. No, they’re not. They’re on the ground to slow it down, to catch some oxygen because it is a brutal game. It’s nonstop. There’s no whistle, there’s nothing. It just goes.”
Just for the record, here are some statistics about Schumacher:
5 – Fingers on his right hand
7 – Top Fuel championships (of his eight total) with U.S. Army sponsorship
80 – Event victories (of his 84 total) with U.S. Army sponsorship
86 – No. 1 qualifying positions (all but one) in a U.S. Army-branded dragster
745 – Elimination round-wins carrying the U.S. Army banner
HELLO TO HOMETOWN, FAREWELL TO ARMY – Leah Pritchett, the No. 4-ranked Top Fuel driver and newly crowned Factory Stock Showdown champion, is home again this weekend. The Redlands, Calif., native raced Jr. Dragsters on this track and has graduated to sport’s headliner class, where in 117 races, she has seven victories and 10 top-qualifying starts.
Although Steve Torrence already has settled the championship question, Pritchett said, “There is still so much on the line for our Mopar team with the potential to finish second in the world. Coming off of a very consistent performance in Vegas, we know the chances and confidence are high as we look forward to soaring our momentum at my official home track. Qualifying will be key, as it always is.” Like her Don Schumacher Racing mates, Pritchett has carried the U.S. Army logo and said she wants to soak in the significance of the sponsorship for one final weekend before the Army leaves drag racing after nearly two decades.
"We began the season with the incredible opportunity to represent the men and women of the U.S. Army and their recruiting efforts with an emphasis on STEM. We have grown in this short time as a team from the values they represent and resilience to be the best in everything they do. As this chapter closes on the official partnership, we will forever continue to be proud of our service men and women and pursue wins on the track in their honor. There are no words to describe how humbled and proud I am to have carried the star all season long, and I look forward to being one of the final panelists at the last YES program, especially in my hometown community."
A REAL SCRAPPER – Top Fuel racer Mike Salinas has promised on a number of occasions that he and his Scrappers Dragster team are “not here to mess around.”
With his surface-to-surface-missile gaze, the San Jose-area businessman looks people straight in the eye, and it’s clear he isn’t just talking. He has a plan, and at the moment, he’s being hard on himself for not accomplishing everything in this first fulltime season and in just 37 overall races. He’s not especially impressed that he qualified for the elite Countdown to the Championship in far fewer chances than any other Top Fuel racer. He wants to win, and he’s frustrated that he hasn’t recorded his first victory yet.
“I’m very competitive and do not like losing, so it’s hard to take,” Salinas said.
He’s seventh in the standings entering this season finale, and his goal is to score a top-five finish. And he won’t be satisfied with anything less than a victory to punctuate what anyone else who’s relatively fresh to the class would consider a strong season.
“For us, we need to win this race,” Salinas said. “I know what we need to do for next year, so a win in Pomona would help us hit the off-season hard to make sure what we come out strong in 2019.”
He has an ambitious blueprint for next season, but right now and right here is where his head is as he vowed, “I expect to come out swinging in Pomona and have things ready for next year.” He called Auto Club Raceway at Pomona “an awesome place” and said, “We’ve got a very good fan base there, so we want to give them an experience they won’t forget.”
Salinas indicated he’d like to forget part of this campaign, despite advancing to his first final-round appearance in June at Bristol, Tenn., and with some inspiration from the late Tom McEwen, he earned had a coming-out party of sorts at Indianapolis, earning his first career No. 1 qualifying position and owning it for all five sessions of the NRA showcase U.S. Nationals.
“I’m a little disappointed in the whole year, and I expected better for what we put in,” he said. “We had some failures as a whole, but we’ve done some really good things, too. I learned how to be a better driver. But we have a whole list of stuff we’ve done wrong, and it outweighs the stuff we’ve done well this year. We’re never going to make those mistakes again, and we will make sure it will not happen again.”
Still, he said, he’s excited to race one more time this year. But he can’t help looking forward to next season, when two of his four daughters, Jasmine and Jianna, will join him on the track. Jasmine, who works on her dad’s Top Fuel dragster, will compete in the Top Alcohol Dragster class, and sister Jianna will race a Pro Stock Motorcycle in 2019. His and wife Monica’s other two daughters, Jacqueline and Janae, also expect to race in the future.
“Our whole family, we’re very competitive,” Salinas said. “We work together and help each other, and we’re a pretty tight family. It’s amazing to have everyone involved in the sport. Where else can you spend time with family and all do something you love? This off-season, we’re going to hit it hard and make sure we all come out strong next year.”
His veteran crew chief, Doug Kuch, receives input from Alan Johnson, who has won NHRA Top Fuel titles with Gary Scelzi, Tony Schumacher, Larry Dixon, Del Worsham, Shawn Langdon, and Brittany Force. And Salinas wants to be next in line – although, curiously, he has received almost as much advice from Funny Car drivers (Robert Hight, Jack Beckman, and Ron Capps) as he has from Antron Brown and their fellow Top Fuel colleagues.
ACCIDENTS IN OPENING SESSION – Pro Stock’s Joey Grose and Funny Car’s Terry Haddock were unhurt in separate first-session accidents, but their cars wound up with considerable damage.
Grose and his Railroad Remedies Camaro Pro Stock team had a lot of work to do after his first qualifying attempt Friday. He got credit for his 6.738-second, 196.36-mph run, because his car hit the guard wall after the finish line, but a parachute failure triggered the crash.
“When I pulled the ‘chute, I didn’t feel like the ‘chute opened. I hit the brakes, didn’t seem like I had any brakes. It blew the front tires out,” Grose, of Lodi, Calif., said.
“We’ll be able to get it fixed,” he said. “Probably put on some tires, assess all the other damage. But I’m sure we’ll be back, maybe not next round but for sure tomorrow.”
In Friday’s first session of Funny Car qualifying, Terry Haddock’s Lone Star Block Repair Ford Mustang caught fire as he approached the finish line, and Haddock drove it into the sand. The car suffered considerable damage, and the incident prompted a lengthy clean-up.
“I’ve been through enough of these that I know what to do,” Haddock said after collecting himself. “I apologize for the delay in the show for all the fans. We always come out here and give it 110 percent. Some days we come up short. Hopefully my dragster [which Cameron Ferre is racing this weekend] does OK.
“I’ve been doing this for 20-some years now, and I don’t come from the easy way. I’ve been taught to never give up on anything. And a lot of times you hear, ‘Why do you keep going? Why do you keep trying?’ I never learned to quit,” he said. “I’m going to get there. Maybe not today. If you give up and you’re home watching this on the couch, you’re never going to get there. That sponsor’s not going to happen. The big deal isn’t going to come. And you don’t learn anything. Again, I apologize for the mess. That’s not how we wanted to start the weekend.”
Haddock said, “I love driving Funny Cars more than anything. We’ll go home and fix it. That’s all we can do.”
HIGHT, TODD HAVE ONE LAST TUG-O-WAR – John Force Racing President and 2009 Funny Car champion Robert Hight knows that “no one has won back-to-back championships since John Force back in the 2000s.” And the Auto Club Chevy Camaro driver said if he could overcome his 74-point deficit to Kalitta Motorsports’ JR Todd, “this would be big. It really shows how competitive this Funny Car class is. We are behind, but we are going to go in there very aggressive and try to gobble up every point we can get. All we can do is what we can do. We can’t control what JR Todd does unless we race him. We’ve already won both AAA races this year, and we need to win the third. That’s going to give us the best possible chance to win two championships in a row.”
“With points and a half, it is a whole new ballgame,” Hight said. “We can cut into the lead in qualifying and hopefully get within two rounds going into race day. It won’t be easy, but it is doable. On race day we just need to do our job. That is what we have done all season. This Auto Club team has won championships before, and we would love to win again in front of all our Auto Club supporters.”
Hey, not so fast, Todd would say. The DHL Toyota Camry racer took advantage of Hight’s first-round loss at Las Vegas that broke Hight’s remarkable momentum (with back-to-back victories book-ending his broken collarbone that required surgery between the St. Louis and Dallas races) and cost him the Funny Car lead.
Todd wasted no time in the Countdown, either. After winning at Indianapolis, he reached four final rounds in the first five playoff races and racked up a sparkling 16-3 elimination-round mark to position himself in the lead. This points-and-a-half event is all that’s left for him and Hight to duke it out.
“I said earlier this year if we could win four Countdown races, we would have a shot at the championship,” Todd said. “We haven't won four, but we've gone to four finals. And that's what it takes, along with getting some help. We were 50 [points] back going into Charlotte, and we were thinking we need some help now to make up some ground. And we got some. Then to cap it off in Vegas with a win, it was nice to get all the points we could and take that into Pomona. Points and a half will make it interesting. We just need to maintain what we've been doing and go to the later rounds.
“If you ask me, you don't change a thing,” Todd, a five-time winner in 2018, said of strategy. “I'm not going to change the way I drive, and I don't think that [crew chiefs] Jon O. [Oberhofer] or Todd [Smith] are going to change the way they are running the car. We just need to keep making consistent runs. Step one is getting qualified there in Pomona and try to put it in the top half. Then we take it one round at a time. It's not over yet. We still have a lot of work to do in Pomona. We just need to keep after it and not let up.”
But Hight, with three final rounds to his credit at this event. is just as determined.
He said, “At the beginning of the Countdown, I felt like you would need to win three races and not have any first-round losses if you wanted to win the championship. We stumbled in Las Vegas but we are still in it. I love how [crew chiefs] Jimmy [Prock] and Chris [Cunningham) have this Auto Club Chevrolet Camaro running after some testing in Las Vegas. I need to be at the top of my game, too. This is going to be an exciting weekend.”
IN CASE YOU WONDERED – Funny Car reigning champion and current contender Robert Hight entered this event with the potential to gain 23 points on leader JR Todd. By not making the provisional order (winding up 17th) in the first session Friday, Hight lost out on four of those potential points. That left him with the chance to make up 19 on Todd during the remaining three sessions. Hight’s goal was to trim Todd’s lead to 60 points by the end of qualifying. Todd opened qualifying in the tentative seventh place.
Ironically, if this weekend’s points-and-a-half program had been the norm all season long, would have earned 19 more points in qualifying than Todd at the Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd, Minn. If Hight could do that here, he would slice Todd’s margin to two rounds. Five times this year Hight raced two rounds farther than Todd in eliminations.
FORCE EYES 150TH AND A TITLE FOR HIGHT – John Force started the season here in February with a bang, one that sent him to the hospital. But he’s still the man to beat at this venue, where he has won an NHRA-best eight times at this race alone and 16 times in all.
Force, ranked ninth in standings and out of contention for a 17th title, said his mission this weekend is to ruin the hopes of points leader JR Todd, and longshots Ron Capps and and Tim Wilkerson. “My job now is to take out as many as I can and help Robert get the championship for John Force Racing, Auto Club, PEAK, Advance Auto, Chevrolet, and the rest of our sponsors,” he said.
Surely at least in the back of his mind is the desire to earn that milestone and record 150th Wally trophy. He claimed his 149th at Denver this July to bring to 31 the number of seasons in which he has won at least one tour event. This is the Yorba Linda, Calif., resident’s 76th career appearance at his home track, and he’s seeking his 17th overall victory here.
“I live for winning,” Force said. “I’m up against all these young guns, but so far I’m holding my own. We’ve got a pretty good hot rod right now. It’s not the quickest, but it’ll go down through there and, early in the year, it wouldn’t do that but we battled back. These kids, my crew, led by Jon Schaffer, Ronnie Thompson and Joe Veyette, they’ve worked hard to get it right.”
Force hasn’t won the finale since 2010 but has been the Funny Car runner-up three times in the past five years. As for his chances this weekend, here’s a statistic that might be telling: Force is 20-9 at Pomona against current Countdown drivers, not including his teammates (daughter Courtney Force, the regular season champion, and Hight, who owns both ends of the national performance record at 3.793 seconds and 339.87 mph).
OUTSTANDING STATS – Tim Wilkerson can say he was in the Funny Car championship chase in the final weekend of the season. But his chances are slim, and he knows that. However, the Levi, Ray & Shoup Ford Mustang owner-tuner-driver can count on registering a 14th top-10 finish in his 22-year pro career. That’s especially outstanding for a privateer. Wilkerson was one of just two drivers from a single-car team last year to land in the top 10. He hasn’t won a race here, although he was runner-up here to Ron Capps . . . yes . . . 20 years ago. Time flies when you’re zooming in on 500 races – this is No. 493 for him. The Springfield, Ill., crowd favorite (who has his own traveling cheering section with “Wilk’s Warriors”) earned eight divisional victories and one national-event triumph in his early racing days in the sportsman-level Top Alcohol Funny Car category.
“We need to do some good at Pomona,” Wilkerson said. “I thought we’d really do well in Las Vegas [ta the most recent race, two weeks ago], but we didn’t get as far as we’d hoped. I was optimistic about how our car performed on every run, though, so we’ll take that. Everyone is going to have the same game plan here, though, so it’s going to be a battle. All these cars in the top six or seven are going to be tough. JR [points leader Todd] is making it interesting, and I think it’s going to be a pretty cool weekend.”
REALLY? WHO KNEW? – Here’s an odd tidbit: Sixty-time Funny Car winner Ron Capps never has won this season finale. He was runner-up in 2008 and No. 1 qualifier three times (1999, 2012, 2015). Maybe this weekend will see him break thee winless streak here. “We have a race car that's really running well. I can't say enough about what [crew chief] Rahn Tobler's done these last few races. He put the five-disc [clutch system] back in and really put the performance back in the car in Charlotte, and we went on to win that race. The conditions in Pomona are always great, especially with the time change and it getting darker earlier. It'll be a fast racetrack,” Capps said before qualifying began Friday. “The NAPA AutoCare team continues to give me a great car, and if I can do my job driving, we'll have a great weekend. We'd love to finish up the year with another win."
WHILE WE’RE TALKING WEIRD STATS – For many years, the Don Schumacher Racing Top Fuel contingent has dominated the competition. This season, the three DSR dragster drivers – Tony Schumacher, Antron Brown, and Leah Pritchett – have combined to equal the cumulative victories of part-timers Billy Torrence and Blake Alexander and Indianapolis winner Terry McMillen.
ARMY EXITING BUT NHRA’S MILITARY PRESENCE STRONG – Dodge Charger Funny Car driver Jack Beckman has been the perfect representative for the Infinite Hero Foundation with his Don Schumacher Racing entry that Terry Chandler established and her widower, Doug Chandler, continues to fund.
The Army’s exit from drag racing and Don Schumacher Racing after Sunday – Veterans Day - doesn’t mean the end of association with the military. Beckman is a former Air Force Sergeant who was wowed by drag racing since he was a schoolkid in Southern California. He reached back to his military ties a decade ago when his Funny Car sponsor was Mail Terminal Services CEO Rodger Comstock and wife Karen Comstock. Together Beckman, the Comstocks, and DSR helped link NHRA fans with overseas troops with MTS’ “Mail from Home” program. That provided fans the chance to show their love and support for servicemen and servicewomen stationed on the front lines by sending signed notes of encouragement. Beckman also flew with the U.S. Air Force’s Thunderbirds in 2009.
Today Beckman drives the Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge Charger Funny Car. Beckman has used autographed challenge coins to help raise upwards of $400,000 for veterans and their families who need help with service-related mental and physical injuries.
“It’s not a sponsor. The definition of a sponsor typically is a company that provides funding for a race team in exchange for exposure,” he said as a guest on The Caruso and Wade Podcast episode that will be posted online Sunday at anchor.fm and its affiliated platforms. “Infinite Hero was put on our car simply because one lady had a huge heart. Terry Chandler wanted to change lives and provided every penny of funding – basically gave the car to Infinite Hero to raise funding awareness to the injured vets. Every run in our car, we take 20 of these military-style challenge coins with us, and they’ve become great souvenirs for the fans. If anybody wants to donate $100 [to the Infinite Hero Foundation], I’ll sign it. We started this program in late 2104, and so far, over 4,000 NHRA fans have been part of this. That means that just this coin program alone through our Infinite Hero car has raised over $400,000 to change the lives of injured veterans.
“The nice thing with Infinite Hero,” Beckman said, “is we get to pick where the money goes. Whenever I talk to people who donate, I tell them, ‘If you ever walk a 5K to raise money for a charity or you send 20 bucks in online, you feel good because you’ve done something nice. The reality is you have no idea how your money is going to get spent. It could buy a pen and pencil set for the desk of somebody who doesn’t need it at that charity. Infinite Hero [Foundation] is so transparent and above-board. We have an all-volunteer grant committee. So all of the funds we raise go into the grant cycle. This grant committee looks at programs that have the best history of changing injured veterans’ lives for the better.
“We don’t need the credit for starting a program. Starting a program has all these immense costs that go with it and the risk that it might not work. Why would we want to do that? We want to make a difference,” he said. “So all the money that we grant to these programs is audited. That program has to show that it spent 100 percent of our money directly on the cause. It can’t cover overhead or things like that.”
Another thing Beckman, who will be making his 300th NHRA pro start Sunday, said he doesn’t need is a thank-you for his four years in the Air Force.
“I don’t need to be thanked for my military service. I really don’t. I think it has provided its on rewards,” Beckman said. “I didn’t serve in combat. I didn’t do anything heroic when I was in the military, and I got a paycheck for being in there. And I voluntarily went in there.”
One thing he does need, he said, is that abiding and voluntary commitment to be respectful of the national anthem.
“It’s a time when you remove yourself from anything you were thinking about and be thankful, no matter what,” Beckman told Competition Plus years ago. “When I hear the Star-Spangled Banner, I know within 30 minutes I am going to jump in a Funny Car. But I can still walk, and I have two arms, two legs, and both eyes. There’s a lot of people who served who didn’t come back that way. There are some who didn’t come back at all. To me, it’s very important to be thankful on Veterans Day and reverent on Memorial Day.”
The big gold or black lettering saluting the “U.S. Army” won’t be on Tony Schumacher’s Top Fuel dragster anymore. “Infinite Hero” still will shine on Jack Beckman’s Funny Car. But the NHRA’s genuine commitment to our military forces will endure.
BEING PRAGMATIC – Friday’s provisional No. 1 qualifier Jeg Coughlin hadn’t conceded the Pro Stock championship to Tanner Gray as they entered this weekend’s season finale. But No. 2-ranked Coughlin, driver of the JEGS.com Elite Performance Chevy Camaro, is smart enough to understand that even with the points-and-a-half distribution here, his 140-point deficit isn’t helpful.
The more realistic Coughlin called this event “an important race for us as a team” and said, "It's a big positioning race for us to figure out really who will finish two through seven. It's very open right now. Not only do we want to qualify well and win four rounds on Sunday, we would like to finish as high as No. 2 in the point standings. Even though we're there going in, it's going to be a fight to stay there. We are just going to focus on that."
He's a three-time top qualifier in the first five races of the Countdown to the Championship but has advanced to the final round only once, at Dallas. Overall this season, he has won three times (Joliet, Bristol Sonoma) and was runner-up twice, including at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis. He has led the field five time this year.
"It's Pomona, the final race of the season, and emotions are high," Coughlin said. "I'm excited on many levels and for many reasons. We're excited to crown all of the new champions, not only in the Mello Yello series, but also the Lucas Oil classes. There's just a lot of neat stuff going on, and we still have some ambitions of our own at a track where we've had great successes in the past. It's going to be a big race for us as a team as we try to continue some great momentum and end the year in style."
Indeed, this racetrack has been a happy one for six-time winner Coughlin. He won this Finals event in 1999, 2005, and 2007; the summer-special 50th anniversary race in 2001, and the Winternationals in 1999 and 2000.
McGAHA KEEPS EYE ON PRO STOCK CHANGES – The NHRA is expected to announce shortly that the Pro Stock class is headed for an 18-race schedule in 2019, and some racers have said they’d welcome that.
A shorter schedule seems to work for the Pro Stock Motorcycle and Pro Modified classes. So it might be a blessing for the beleaguered class, which has undergone several radical and expensive changes lately.
Greg Anderson isn’t convinced, based on his terse reaction at the recent Las Vegas race. But he elaborated earlier this week: “It’s still my belief that it’s the class with the best competition. This year was the best competition we’ve ever had. It was off the charts this year. You can’t make any mistakes if you want to win, and it’s harder than ever to win a race. But I love that. The taller the challenge, the better I like it. It’s why I race in the class. When people ask why I race Pro Stock, it’s for the competition. No matter what happens, the class is still going to have great competition.”
With Mountain Motor Pro Stock racers not being integrated into the class and NHRA (partly through no fault of its own) unable to contain costs significantly for any category, more racers might find the arrangement more affordable with a slightly shorter schedule. Matt Hartford, Vincent Nobile, and Elite Performance team owner and occasional driver Richard Freeman are on board.
The debate about the health of Pro Stock surely will continue in the off-season about this latest tweak to the Pro Stock class that is losing 2017 champion Bo Butner, heir-apparent Tanner Gray, rising star Drew Skillman, and grinder John Gaydosh for a variety of reasons.
Chris McGaha, one of the class’ most outspoken owner-drivers, has his ideas about the state of Pro Stock and its future – which he shared before the second version of NHRA’s 16-race (now 18-race) proposal became public fodder.
The Harlow Sammons Camaro driver from Odessa, Texas, had announced earlier this season that he was planning to pare back his schedule. So his blueprint of “probably about 15 or 16” appearances might work nicely for him.
“That’s all I’d planned on the whole time,” McGaha said. “I did a little more in ’17, but yeah, it’s probably 15 or 16 - especially since they ain’t going to screw it up too bad with the Mountain Motor.”
The notion that the sanctioning body would invite the Mountain Motor contingent to blend into the class was confusing, considering it had forced Pro Stock teams to trade their carburetors for electronic fuel injection systems and remove their telltale hood scoops – at tremendous cost increases and time investments.
“Trust me, we told them the same thing,” McGaha said. “We did – I don’t know if anybody else in Pro Stock did, but we did.”
His suggestion to the Powers That Be sounded like a move toward possibly combining the best qualities of the Pro Stock and increasingly popular Factory Stock Showdown classes.
“Well, what they need to do is, is what we keep – Harlow Sammons keeps – telling them to do, is do the COPO motors, DragPak all that. They need to put those motors in these cars,” he said. “If they want to try to change it for the better and get the factories back involved, that’s the only step they can take right now.”
He dismissed an official merging of the classes, saying, “I read all the crap people put on the Internet. People talk about how this-over-here rule crap: ‘Oh well a little more aero body, a little more this, a little more of that to get the cars to go faster.’ If you’re not going to allow Factory Showdown the rule creep, they’re going to be as fast as they are right now. They may get to 7.70’s one day, but they ain’t going to ever get to the 6s, unless you let them rule creep, like we did.”
He indicated the issue isn’t that the average fan is concerned about cars going fast or cars looking more like what they have in their driveways.
“I think the average fan doesn’t know what they want,” McGaha said.
“And that’s the honest-to-God truth,” he said, “because I have tons of people come up to the rope: ‘I miss the scoop.’ I have tons of people walk up, ‘I love it without the scoop on there.’ I have tons of people walk up: ‘Well we need Fords out here.’ ‘OK, yes, we probably do.’ I hear people all the time, ‘Well, I hate Pro Stock.’ Good for you. Other people walk up and say they love Pro Stock. That’s the beauty of living in America.
“But what is real bad is how much influence a lot of people who have no skin in the game seem to have - who have no investment, who have nothing to lose or gain from this,” McGaha said.
Every change to class rules has cost a huge chunk of change. And McGaha said he has calculated that his team averages “$10,000 a race, just in expenses moving the rig around – moving the rig here, getting hotels, flying everybody. That’s just that expense. That’s not paying people. I mean, it costs a lot of money and that’s what people don’t understand. The car is the least expensive thing. It’s the people it takes to run 24 races. It’s moving your truck and trailer around for 24 races. That’s what costs the money. The car is cheap. Relatively speaking, the car is cheap. It really is. That’s like third or fourth down the list of line items of expense. I’m the most trimmed back team out here and we know for a fact we average $10,000 a race.”
Compounding the problem for McGaha in particular is the fact he does not live close to most racetracks. Royal Purple Raceway, near Houston, and Texas Motorplex, at Ennis, near Dallas, is a full day’s drive. Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park on the southern outskirts of Phoenix, at Chandler, Ariz., is slightly farther away from Odessa than Houston is. So of the 21 different racetracks, only three are geographically quick to travel to, and they don’t include the three venues the Mello Yello Series visits twice (Pomona, Las Vegas, and Charlotte).
At the mention of money, he said, “That’s all it all’s about. It’s all about cost in the end. It really is. It doesn’t matter if it’s Pro Stock or Top Fuel or Super Gas, it’s all about the money in the end.”
Money is the primary reason Gaydosh has called it quits. But in his absence and those of Butner, Gray, and Skillman, others are set to fill the void, including Matt Smith and Fernando Cuadra’s son(s). And for the Mike Edwardses, the Allen Johnsons, the Ron Krishers, the Warren Johnsons and Kurt Johnsons, the Larry Morgans, the Shane Grays, the V Gaineses, the Greg Stanfields, the Rodger Brogdons, and the Steve Kents – fulltime racers who have left the class in the past five years or so – a 16-race schedule might ensure that the Alan Prusienskys, the Val Smelands, the Kenny Delcos, the Fernando Cuadras, the Matt Hartfords, and the John Gaydoshes stay out there.
“You’re going to have a few people leaving. You’re going to have a few people come. And that’s the problem,” McGaha said. “Again, something I’ve stated on the Internet, even Pro Mod and some of the others, Pro Stock’s had a changeover and when we had a changeover of people, we didn’t have enough people come back in return. I seen the same thing on Pro Mod. In 2008– there was only one guy that was racing in 2008 that’s racing today.”
He said Danny Rowe is the lone racer who was in the mix as far back as 2008.
“If you go look at the list from Gainesville 2008 to this year at Gainesville, he’s the only guy that was on both lists. And there’s guys on that list that I was like, ‘I forgot about that guy. What ever happened to that guy?’ There was a ton of them on that list that I had totally, as soon as I read their name, I’m like ‘I wonder what happened to that guy.’ So they have a changeover. Is their changeover going to be like ours and get nobody coming back in?” McGaha asked. “You know, we had a lot of people leave around 2011 to ’13 and we just didn’t have enough people come back.”
The time investment for a team is substantial, too.
“That’s what people don’t understand about doing this,” McGaha said. “A guy like myself, I have to spend 48 days a year in an airport. I spend Thursday and I spend the Monday in the airport – 48 days a year in the airport. You lose 48 days of your life in an airport a year racing this.”
For McGaha, his suspicion about any technical funny-business has added to his budget. He volunteered to purchase all the racing fuel for the entire class at every race this year.
As the season wound down, he said he “absolutely” thinks it was worth it and is not at all sorry: “Absolutely was the best thing we ever did.”
He estimated the cost was “close to a grand a race. It’s like a drum a race, maybe a drum and a half. It may be less. When they put injection on them, they don’t burn near as much gas when they’re sitting idling. Ours doesn’t, at least. Some of the others may. Ours doesn’t.” Then, rather tongue-in-cheek, he said, “Maybe that’s what NHRA knew – they were trying to save us money because they knew we weren’t going to burn as much fuel.”
McGaha said he’s undecided whether he’ll continue to buy fuel for the entire class next season.
“I don’t know. We’re going to talk about that. We may. I mean, we’re going to finish the year up, but we may talk about it next year. I don’t know,” he said.
Given the expenses and the occasional aggravation, it’s hard, in a sense, to justify why he subjects himself to it. So why does Chris McGaha race?
“That is a really good question at this point,” he said. “Originally, I loved doing it, loved the competition. And I guess that’s the only thing that keeps me out here. It sure ain’t the money, never was. Never was.
“But at the same time, you got to stop the bleeding somehow,” he said.
SCHEDULE-CHANGE ALERT – Anyone planning to attend the last few 2019 Countdown races should be aware that the NHRA did some schedule shuffling this week. Officials announced Tuesday that three dates on the schedule have been changed to streamline travel across the country. The Dallas and Charlotte races will trade spots, with date changes for the final three.
The AAA Texas Fall Nationals will be Oct. 17-20 at the Texas Motorplex, at Ennis. The NHRA Nevada Nationals will move to Oct. 31-Nov. 3 at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season-ender will return to Pomona Calif., Nov. 14-17 with the Auto Club Finals.
The Countdown will begin, as scheduled, at Maple Grove Raceway at Reading, Pa., Sept. 12-15, then move to Gateway Motorsports Park, near St. Louis, Sept. 27-29 for the AAA Insurance Midwest Nationals. The Sept. 12-15 Dodge Nationals at zMAX Dragway at Concord, N.C., near Charlotte, will be Playoff Race No. 3.