2018 NHRA GATORNATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
CRAMPTON WINS FIRST TITLE SINCE 2015 IN UNLIKELY GATORNATIONALS FINAL - NCAA men’s basketball tournament fans weren’t the only ones who witnessed a bracket-busting win this weekend.
The trend bounced over to the Top Fuel category on Sunday during the 49th annual Amalie NHRA Gatornationals when Richie Crampton, whose last win was in the fall of 2015, defeated part-time racer Shawn Reed for the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series’ Wally Trophy.
A few might have had a vision of Crampton and the Kalitta Air/DHL team with a slight chance of getting to the round. Not many outside of Reed’s and team owner Todd Paton’s families etched his name on a championship round bracket.
And if anyone did, it probably was in pencil.
But that’s why winners aren’t crowned until the end of races.
It is Crampton’s first Top Fuel title since winning more than two years ago with Morgan Lucas Racing. Winning his eighth Mello Yello title was made a little easier when Reed’s car experienced a fuel system malfunction after the burnout and was shut off.
But Crampton recorded a 3.854-second run at 314.90 mph on a bye run for the team led by Connie Kalitta and Rob Flynn.
He defeated teammate Doug Kalitta in the opening round on a holeshot and advanced further by beating Mike Salinas. He eliminated three-time world champion Antron Brown in the semifinals when each lost traction but Crampton recovered quicker to stop Brown’s march to become the fourth Top Fuel driver to 50 event titles.
“I had a couple lucky rounds and then won by default,” said the modest Crampton, who showed why legend Connie Kalitta hired him late in the past season. “Nonetheless, Connie and (crew chief Rob Flynn) gave me a racecar that went 3.85 (in the final round).”
Crampton, an Australian native living near Indianapolis, earned his first win since joining Kalitta Motorsports for last year’s U.S. Nationals over Labor Day Weekend. After completing the season, Crampton accepted a full-time job driving one of two Kalitta dragsters.
“To drive for a legend like Connie is hard to explain,” Crampton said of giving Kalitta his 96th title as an owner. “He’s done so much for the sport and to strap into one of his racecars is lucky for me every weekend.
“All I ever wanted to do was stand in a winner’s circle with Connie Kalitta, and I got to do that today. Not many (drivers) have had that luxury.”
The day was just as memorable for Reed, who had only won two elimination rounds in 18 Mello Yello races.
The five-time drag boat racing champion from Seattle eclipsed that total on Sunday with wins over Pat Dakin, eight-time world champ Tony Schumacher and Gatornationals No. 1 qualifier Clay Millican. Jeff Wolf
BECKMAN CAPS SUPERB WEEKEND WITH GATORS CELEBRATION - These types of weekends never get old for nitro Funny Car driver Jack Beckman.
Beckman, the 2012 NHRA world champion, qualified No. 1 at the Gatornationals and raced away to the national-event win Sunday.
Beckman, the pilot of the Don Schumacher Racing Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge, beat his DSR teammate Matt Hagan in the final round at Gainesville Raceway.
Beckman clocked 4.035-second elapsed time at 323.58 mph to edge Hagan, who had a quicker elapsed time of 4.034 seconds at 322.04 mph. The difference came at the starting line as Beckman had a .051 reaction time, while Hagan, the 2011 and 2014 world champ, had a .062 reaction time.
This is the first time in NHRA history that the first three races of a season have been won by a No. 1 qualifier in nitro Funny Car.
This is Beckman’s 27th career nitro Funny Car national event win and first at the Gatornationals. Beckman defeated Jim Campbell, Del Worsham, Shawn Langdon and Hagan during his victory parade. This was DSR’s 320th national event victory. Beckman moved from sixth to second in NHRA’s Funny Car points standings.
“I never got close (to winning the Gatornationals) and it was such a bucket list thing,” Beckman said. “My job is try to go out there and try not and screw up their tuning. We knew first round was going to be throw at it conditions and then everything after that was going to be a question mark depending on what the clouds did.”
In the post-race session, Beckman also discussed what it was like vying for a Wally with his teammate – Hagan.
“Have you ever seen Matt Hagan?” Beckman said. “It is not hard to get up for Matt Hagan. (Ron) Capps always says it is easier for him to get up for his teammates because he thinks they are three toughest cars out there. I think there’s a lot of validity to that, but there’s a lot of depth and talent in Funny Car this year. Throughout the season the Schumacher cars are going to be right there. It’s not like when you pull up against Tommy Johnson Jr. and think hey they haven’t been running that good or even if they haven’t you know what they are capable of. They have the same machine shop parts, same fabrication shop parts, and the same level of talent over there. That’s one thing Don insures that all seven of his cars have all the best so there are no excuses when you go up there. Then, when he started selling our machine shop parts and the crew chiefs said wait a minute, we helped design a better part and now your selling it and he said yep if they can beat us with our parts we don’t have the right people here. We have to outthink them. I think it is super easy to stay at that level against a Schumacher car.”
And, Beckman couldn’t be prouder to drive the Infinite Hero entry.
“I flew in a day earlier, and on Thursday I went to the Hall of Fame (dinner),” Beckman said. “I got to present Johnny Gray with the Pat Garlits award in honor of Terry Chandler, whose name is still on the side of our car and is the one who made all of this possible. There are 21 of us who have jobs today because of Terry Chandler and how big her heart was, and now her husband Doug wants to carry it on. He’s loving it because he knows Terry is looking down and saying, ‘Alright – my boys did it.” Tracy Renck
TANNER GRAY CLAIMS PRO STOCK GATORS WIN - Prior to the Gatornationals, Tanner Gray’s Pro Stock team was searching for answers about a tough two-race start to the 2018 NHRA season.
The team found its groove at Gainesville, Fla., as Gray reached the winner’s circle in his Gray Motorsports Valvoline Chevy Camaro.
Gray clocked a 6.588-second elapsed time at 210.18 mph to defeat reigning world champion Bo Butner’s 6.605-second lap at 210.34 mph in the final round.
“We’ve been struggling at the beginning of the season,” said Gray, 19. “We made the Phoenix test before Pomona and went to Pomona and lost in the first round and we went back to Phoenix and tested there and went back to the Phoenix race and then went to Darlington, S.C., and tested there and then we went to Bradenton (Fla.) for three days and tested. It has been a lot of testing. We’ve been beating our heads against the wall trying to get things to act right. It really wasn’t responding to the changes we were making and Dave (Connolly, Gray’s crew chief) really sat there last night and looked everything over and obviously found something because it looked like a race car today.”
Gray won NHRA’s 2017 Auto Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award after winning five races and being a runner-up twice and placing fourth in the Pro Stock point standings. Tanner joins family members – grandfather, Johnny Gray (Funny Car 2013) and his dad, Shane (Pro Stock 2017) as Gatornationals winners.
Gray qualified No. 11 at 6.571 seconds at 211.13 mph. Despite starting near the bottom of the ladder, he didn’t blink defeating Deric Kramer, Chris McGaha, the winner of the Arizona Nationals in Phoenix, and Vincent Nobile before ousting Butner at Gainesville Raceway. Gray becomes the first Pro Stock driver to win from the No. 11 qualifying spot since 2015.
“You have the same goal whether the car is fast or slow,” Gray said about his mindset for race day after qualifying No. 11. “Drag racing is so unpredictable, you don’t know what is going to happen.”
The victory against Nobile was a tire shake fest that Gray won with an 8.315-second run.
“When rounds start on Sunday, I really try to put everything out of my head and work on my job, hitting the tree, shifting and getting the thing to the other end and whatever happens, happens,” Gray said. “I trust (my crew) is going to give me a car that’s going to get me some round wins. It’s so tough to go testing that much and get the same results. Today was our first-round win, and I think it is starting to come around. I don’t think we are where we need to be yet, but it is turning in the right direction.”
Gray did do his part on the Christmas tree as he had reaction times of .021, .017, .023 and .026 in his four round wins.
“Personally, I felt like the track came to me today,” he said. “I just went up there and tried to get the best reaction time I could, and I was kind of shocked how consistent it was.”
During his brief Pro Stock career, Gray has never been shy about showing raw emotions and that is something he doesn’t plan on changing.
“I go back and watch some of the (TV) broadcasts and you can see guys doing it for a show and that’s just never been me,” Gray said. “I just show you what I’m doing whether I'm mad or happy. I feel like I’m a perfectionist and I don’t take just being OK as good. I’m always trying to better myself, and when I don’t reach those standards it ticks me off.” Tracy Renck
WIN OVER HARLEY TEAMMATE TIES KRAWIEC WITH SCHULTZ AT 44 TITLES - In sports, intrasquad competition usually pits the first team against the scrubs.
That’s not how it works for Vance & Hines Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson Pro Stock Motorcycle when teammates Eddie Krawiec and Andrew Hines battle each other in an NHRA Mello Yello Pro Stock Motorcycle event.
The dominant duo met for the title Sunday in the 49th annual Amalie NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway in northern Florida for the 22nd time. For the third straight year the Wally Trophy went to reigning world champ Krawiec, who won after starting from a pole for the 40th time.
Krawiec won his 44th event title matching the mark set by the late Dave Schultz, who has been his racing idol.
Wins over L.E. Tonglet, Steve Johnson and Hector Arana Sr., led to a match-up with Hines for the 49th time in their careers with Krawiec holding an all-time edge at 29-20.
After about a minute of starting line games between the drivers that entertained fans as both balked at finally staging their bikes, Hines left the line first before Krawiec pulled around with a time of 6.824 seconds at 198.44 mph. He needed his best run of the day to beat Hines’ 6.853.
The starting line shenanigans hid their dedicated teamwork.
“Andrew calls the shots on a lot of our engine tune-ups,” Krawiec said. “Before the final in the pits he said he was going to try some different things and asked if I was good with that. I said absolutely.”
The duo left Gainesville after the year’s first event with Krawiec atop the points standings with Hines close behind in second. Just the way the past season ended.
“I’m very confident and its’s great to carry that confidence through the winter and then roll into the first race (with it.)
“We came here with the mentality of not changing too much stuff. There are too many qualify motorcycles out here to not know what you have.
“I have a great motorcycle underneath me and a great team behind.” Jeff Wolf
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - FAST FRIDAY RUNS HOLD OVER INTO SATURDAY QUALIFYING FINALS
FAST FRIDAY NUMBERS HOLD FOR FAST JACK - Three times this season, Jack Beckman raced to the No. 1 spot during Friday qualifying. Two times he raced from another spot other than No. 1.
The third time was the charm for Beckman before a sellout crowd at the 49th annual NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville, Florida. His 3.911, 332.18 during Friday's Q-2 session held throughout Saturday's two sessions.
"We just got to get our car used to the National Anthem," Beckman said. "It just seems Sundays haven’t been our day lately. I think it’s just going back to data and making good calls when you unload the car out of the trailer. You don’t have to run good Q1 to win the race, but man does it set you up for a nice weekend. And if you get in the show solidly on Friday, you can push on Saturday.
"I would much rather smoke the tires Saturday than Friday because that means you knew what you were doing and you stepped too far, not you unloaded and now you’re trying to find your footing."
THE GREAT WILKERSON SPIN - Tim Wilkerson had two choices, and with the sandtrap rapidly approaching he knew he had to decide quickly.
Wilkerson lost an engine in the lights, and his Ford Cobra Mustang caught fire. He got the parachutes out yet the car was moving pretty fast.
"Once it started spinning I thought, 'Well I could either let off the brake and crash into the wall or just let it spin all the way around, so I just let it spin all the way around. I got lucky really."
There were no visions of being spectacular. Just the negative of his wallet getting dinged.
"I came out of the car thinking, ‘Gosh darn it, there’s more money down the drain," Wilkerson admitted. "Unfortunately. That’s the only thing I think about. Unfortunately, that was a bad move. Wasn’t anybody’s fault."
So what exactly happened to create the moment of mayhem?
"It stuck a piston in the burnout, and on shutdown," Wilkerson explained. "Then what happened is the fire come up in there and then the fire went out, I thought, ‘Well, it’s good to go."
"Right when I was getting to the turnoff to turn the corner, the gas tank blew up in it. I was hard on the brake trying to turn and spun it right around."
The concussion of the fuel tank explosion bent one of the bars on the chassis, and Wilkerson decided while the car was still raceable to put it back in the hauler and bring out the back-up car.
Wilkerson spent much of Saturday morning building spare engines with his crew.
"Unfortunately, that’s part of it," Wilkerson said. "Try to get all our junk in a pile so we can get in their hair a little bit maybe on Sunday I’m hoping."
PAPA JOHN'S EXTENDS - Papa John’s International, Inc. (NASDAQ: PZZA), the world’s third largest pizza delivery company, has extended its sponsorship agreement to be the Official Pizza sponsor of the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) for the 2018 drag racing season.
Papa John’s involvement in NHRA drag racing began in 2016 with its sponsorship of Top Fuel drag racer Leah Pritchett and Don Schumacher Racing (DSR). The brand will continue its sponsorship of Pritchett’s Top Fuel dragster in 2018 as she and her team build on the success of their 2017 season. Papa John’s and Leah Pritchett will also continue to participate in the Charity Challenge racing series to raise money for returning military heroes and their families.
LET THE RECORD REFLECT - The first centerline/cone violation was Stock Eliminator racer Eddie Longhany Jr, who lost control of his Camaro in Friday's first round following a big wheelstand. The car spun and ended up getting into the wall. He was uninjured. The first professional violation belonged to Pro Stock Bike rider Andie Rawlings during the Q-2 session when she clipped a cone.
LOOKING FOR ONE IN THE WIN COLUMN - There are ten drivers who have been at the first three events without a round win. Hoping to get their first wins on Sunday are [Top Fuel] Richie Crampton, Terry McMillen, Steve Chrisman, Mike Salinas, [Funny car] Jim Campbell, Bob Tasca, Del Worsham. [Pro Stock] Kenny Delco, Tanner Gray, Alan Prusiensky,
REED IN TF FIELD - Former drag boat racer Shawn Reed made his 2018 Top Fuel debut behind the wheel of the Hughes Oilfield Transportation dragster fielded by Paton Motorsports.
“Last season was a great year for our team,” said Todd Paton, co-owner (and self-proclaimed occasional team driver). “We came out showing we could run low 3.80’s right off the bat and then went on to our first ever Top Fuel semi-final at the Phoenix event. We struggled a bit during the Western Swing, but learned every step of the way. Our crew and our friends figured out the problem, and we quickly got our hot rod back.”
The team is running the same car from last season, with a new front half and other updates it received at Morgan Lucas Racing over the winter.
Besides coming off a career-best finish in the NHRA’s Top Fuel standings in 2017, Shawn Reed also won his third Pro Mod Championship in the Lucas Oil Drag Boat Series.
Reed made his best run of the weekend during Friday's Q-4 session with a 4.128 elapsed time.
TASCA HOPPIN' WITH HOP - Bob Tasca III's memorable run of the weekend wasn't his quickest run, nor was it one to have the pits buzzing.
Tasca and tuner Eric "Hop" Lane are finding their groove.
"He has this car going down a hot race track," Tasca said. "I even have the same body throughout qualifying. Life is looking up for this Motorcraft team. I'm excited. I'm excited abo0ut being here. It's been a while but we still know how to win here."
Tasca announced a return to full-time status in the off-season, and while he's an accomplished driver having won here in 2009, the road to routine has been a challenging one with already two Mustang Cobra bodies tossed into the scrap heap.
Tasca exploded an engine during the first-day of testing in Phoenix during the Nitro Spring Training in February. Three weekends ago he ruined another one in Phoenix during the NHRA Arizona Nationals.
Tasca enters Sunday's final eliminations as tenth quickest with a 3.989 best in four qualifying sessions.
“We’re going to see some heat tomorrow," Tasca said. "I think the first round will be the best chance to take a big shot at it. Second, third and fourth rounds, you better go out there and run 3.98 to win the race. We just have to get through the first round. We’re focused on a good pass.
"I feel like we’re one of the three best cars in the field tomorrow with (Ron) Capps and (Jack) Beckman. The way that the ladder fell, we run Capps first round. We have good data. I have a lot of confidence in our team. Our car made four flawless runs from a mechanical standpoint. We smoked the tires Friday night. But all the things that we’ve been working on with this Motorcraft Funny car is coming together.”
OEHLER IS ALL IN. WHO? - Two-time American Motorcycle Racing Association (AMRA) Pro Modified champion "Flyin" Ryan Oehler tried his hand on the NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle tour last season at a select number of events. This season he's selected the entire season to compete and challenge for Rookie of The Year accolades.
Oehler is a graduate of George Bryce’s racing school and was a finalist in the Star Racing Challenge in 2015, his first exposure to Pro Stock Motorcycle.
Oehler and his father Brad run a busy HVAC business, so test days for them are frequently redeye flights followed by late night return flights and back on the job first thing in the morning.
“We’re getting comfortable with the bike,” Oehler said, referring to the S&S-powered Buell he acquired from Star Racing—the one Angelle Sampey rode in 2015.
Oehler qualified twice last season, first at his home track in St. Louis last year and again in Pomona, and missed the show by one spot at his other two events.
Oehler finished qualifying as eighth quickest with a 6.881, and as fate has it, he races Sampey in Sunday's first round.
LOOKING FOR THE MAGIC - For the second national event in a row, Jeg Coughlin Jr. will face reigning Pro Stock champion Bo Butner in the opening round of eliminations. Without question, he'll be hoping for the same result as last time, when he upset Butner on a holeshot
The scene here in Florida is nearly the same. In Arizona, Coughlin was the No. 11 qualifier. This time Coughlin is the No. 12 qualifier. Once again, Coughlin could likely benefit from a great start as his best run of 6.581 at 209.75 mph is slightly behind Butner's best run of 6.534 at 212.53 mph.
"We have a championship-caliber team here," Coughlin said. "We have a race-winning car and race-winning team. Sometimes that doesn't show every single run like you would like but that .58 we ran just now (in Q4) was a nice run, probably in the top five for that last session, so that's what we will build off of for E1 tomorrow.
"It's never an easy road in Pro Stock and tomorrow will be no different, but I can promise you this team is working hard to be the last one standing at the end of the day and that's our goal tomorrow."
It's been an up-and-down performance so far from Coughlin's JEGS.com/Elite Performance Chevrolet Camaro. The team encountered tire shake in qualifying sessions 1 and 3 but ran decent numbers in Q2 and Q4.
"Quite honestly, the team had done some pretty extensive testing coming in and were really pleased with the car prior to the race," Coughlin said. "That started our confidence levels off right and had everybody fired up for the weekend but when we started racing we just struggled. We struggled getting the car down either one of the lanes, really in the first three sessions, and the guys started second-guessing everything.
"I got with (crew chief) Rickie Jones, we were talking and I said, 'Hey, you gotta be confident in every move you're making. You've got a little bit of data to go from and you know what each and every adjustment you want to make looks like, so just be confident in your decisions and stick with it. Let's keep our chins up.'
"That sentiment certainly showed up in Q4 there, and now we feel much better about race day."
Coughlin won the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals in 2001 and 2008. He also was runner-up here in 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2013, and was top qualifier in 2008.
HOMETOWN GATOR BYTES - Terry McMillen has raised expectations for the 2018 season. Winning in Gainesville would qualify as another step forward, and McMillen heads into Sunday seeded No. 8. He races Scott Palmer in the first round.
“We’re able to go up there and put our best foot forward,” McMillen said. “All the years we went there and never qualified, and now the car is pretty consistent. It’s an unbelievable feeling to have the success after all the hardships and AMALIE has been with us from day one. We’re giving it everything we have, and hopefully give them something to cheer about. We want to make sure everything is right and everything is perfect. It’s an extremely busy time, but I love every minute of it.”
McMillen’s been strong early on in qualifying in his AMALIE Motor Oil XTERMIGATOR dragster, qualifying seventh in Pomona with a solid 3.727 at 327.03 mph. McMillen has back-to-back opening round losses in the loaded Top Fuel class, but the team, led by crew chief Rob Wendland, continues to make strides, buoyed by last year’s success.
“We’re going in the right direction, doing things right,” McMillen said. “The car has been running extremely good numbers and we’ve got a real consistent car. It’s the crew guys being the same people and Rob’s leadership that has led us to that direction. Before we had to wait on luck and today we are able to create our own luck. Now that we’re doing well, it’s an exciting time and you can feel that within the team.”
McMillen is also closing in on his first career run in the 3.60s, a mark he wasn’t even thinking about years ago. Of course, a win at the legendary Gainesville Raceway would be a massive achievement as well for McMillen, who lost in the final round to defending world champion Brittany Force in 2016. Force will be a top challenger this year, as well as defending event winner Schumacher, Phoenix winner Steve Torrence, Pomona winner Doug Kalitta and Antron Brown. But McMillen is now included on that list of top challengers, leading him to believe that anything can happen in Gainesville.
“We can win on any given day,” McMillen said. “We went to the finals here two years ago and nothing is stopping us from going back. If we get our opportunities, we want to make the most of it. The car has been running extremely good numbers, we’ve just been struggling a little bit on raceday. But we’re so pumped to get to (Gainesville).”
KALITTA VS. KALITTA - The weekend hasn't exactly been a stellar one for the two-car Kalitta Top Fuel operation. Neither Doug Kalitta or Richie Crampton made representative passes of their potential on Friday, and only on Saturday did they make runs which put them in a good light.
Kalitta leaped into the No. 7 spot with a 3.827, 327.19 pass while Crampton climbed to No. 10 with a 3.942, 305.49.
For all the headaches of qualifying, the teammates were rewarded with a first round match-up.
“Solid recovery for the Mac Tools team after a tough first day of qualifying on Friday here at the Gatornationals," Kalitta said. "Not happy to draw our teammate in the first round tomorrow, but we will get ready and make a great race out of it."
"It has been a challenging qualifying session out here for all of the teams," Crampton added. "It is not the ideal situation to be racing Doug in the first round tomorrow, but big picture, one of these Kalitta Toyota dragsters will be in the second round. That is the important part."
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - A FAST DAY, AND A MILESTONE TO BOOT
WE KNOW JACK, AND HE'S FAST - Jack Beckman led Funny Car qualifying on Friday at the Gatornationals.
Beckman is ‘three for three’ in 2018, having finished Friday from the top spot at every event of the year so far. After running low E.T. in the opening qualifying round of the weekend, Beckman followed up his session-best run with another class-best effort powered by Pennzoil. His 3.911-second Q2 pass secured his third provisional No. 1 qualifier of 2018 and brought his year's bonus point total to 16.
“I actually thought today was going to be quicker,” said Beckman of the Friday Funny Car field. “When we rolled up for Q1, and low E.T. at that point was a 3.96, I thought ‘well, everybody just must be missing it.’ Then we ran a 3.95. I don’t know if that was a reflex reaction, slowing our car down after watching everyone spin out there.”
“I truly thought someone was going to run in the 80s during session one, and no one did it all day Friday. Gainesville is typically crazy good; it’s sea level, not hot out, it’s a good race track, so I’m surprised Funny Cars didn’t run quicker today.”
“We know the weather is good; I think we were just tip-toeing because we didn’t want to overpower the race track. Everything points to, as long as we don’t have intense sunshine, people being able to lean on it a little harder tomorrow.”
MILESTONE - A major milestone fell during first day qualifying at the NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla, when second-generation rider Hector Arana Jr. blasted through a coveted barrier sought after for the last four seasons.
Arana ran 200.23 on a run he didn't deem initially as historic.
"I didn't even think it was a good run," Arana admitted. "I was just getting down the track because we needed data. I would never have guessed this was 200 miles per hour. We've been wanting this since we went 199 in 2015."
Earlier in the day, DENSO Auto Parts announced a program to honor the first four racers in the Pro Stock Motorcycle division who surpass the 200-mph barrier.
Arana earned $10,000 for the feat.
An additional $10,000 will be split amongst the following three riders that join this exclusive club. Bonuses will also be provided to the first four Pro Stock Motorcycle racers if they eclipse the 200-mph barrier while using DENSO spark plugs.
“The individuals who first break the 200-mph barrier in Pro Stock Motorcycle will lead the category into a new era of competition,” said Lisa Michler, marketing communications manager for DENSO. “We are excited to be a part of such a milestone moment in NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle history.”
NOT TO BE FORGOTTEN - Twenty-six years ago, Kenny Bernstein sealed the deal on another speed milestone when he became the first nitro racer to exceed 300 miles per hour with a 301.70-mph pass during the 1992 NHRA Gatornationals.
OF MUMBLING, AND RULES - Sixteen-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force doesn't deny he has critics; some of them both on and off the record in the nitro pits.
This week the NHRA announced point penalties for all categories where drivers either strike the timing blocks or cross the centerline. In the nitro divisions, this penalty extends to the quarter-mile mark.
Force also understands there are those calling this new regulation, "The John Force Rule" following criticism late last season and intensified following his two-car crash with Johnny Lindberg at Wild Horse Motorsports Park when the sixteen-time champion exploded the engine and his car drifted over into Lindberg's lane where the two became entangled and came to a stop in the shutdown area.
"Well, they can do what they want," Force responded, in response to the John Force Rule banter.
"You know, I’ve made statements on TV that I drove on the edge, and I’d drive ’til I crash, and I don’t mean that, that’s great theatrics. The truth is I drive my race car because I don’t want to get hurt and I sure don’t want to hurt nobody else.
"With what I went through in the last year with these cars steering, and the headers, and some of the stuff that’s crazy, I have gone over the centerline. But so have a lot (of other drivers), they’re just pointing me out for whatever reason. But at the end of the day, they passed a rule; they can call it what they want to call it. What’s important to me is to keep people safe.
"NHRA’s going to fine us if we cross over. But if it will save somebody’s life, then it’s a good idea."
The problem with the rule, Force adds, there are variables which sometimes can be unavoidable. For instance, when Force exploded his engine in Phoenix, the concussion of the blast rendered him unconscious.
"I don’t make rules," Force said. "Look, they complained, they wanted rules, now they got rules, and it will bite somebody that’ll get thrown out, and they’ll be furious, ‘Why are you throwing me out?"
"I don’t make the rules; I abide by them. What people say about me, that doesn’t bother me. Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me. God bless them. They’re the only ones I’ve got to race."
NHRA Vice President Graham Light said the NHRA had looked into this rule following the first event of the season when 40 minutes of downtime was attributed to the striking and replacement of cones during the NHRA Winternationals.
"The rule applies to every category, including sportsman and motorcycles," Light said. "Too many times we see cars, and I was a racer, and I know what they are going through. If the car is headed towards the wall, the driver says I need to get out of it because it is going to hurt and they get out of it.
"When the car is headed toward the centerline, they say, 'I think I can avoid it. I think I can. I can't."
"We have far more centerline violations than we have in drivers tagging the walls. We have a lot in Alcohol Funny Car, a hard car to drive. Pro Mod. Not putting any blame on drivers. It was time out of safety, we don't need the cars coming together. The time constraints, we spent 40 minutes in Pomona over the course of the four days cleaning up broken foam block. It's not a John Force rule, it's a rule for those who continually cross the centerline."
THREE FOR THREE - John Force has an obvious mechanical issue, and the proof is three shredded Funny Cars in as many races.
During Friday's Q-2 session, Force grenaded an engine, sending carbon fiber shrapnel all over. He safely brought the wounded race car to a stop.
"Everybody on our teams is giving their input to solve what is going on here," Force said. of what happened in Pomona, Phoenix, Phoenix testing and I thought we had it figured out. We drove it to 500 feet in the first session today and it looked good. We had a lifter problem.
"On this run we were going to 800 feet. The bottom line is I lost another body, and that hurts. I'm going on a Million."
Force, always the media opportunist, revealed the television crew of HBO's Real Sports was on hand, filming the racing family for an episode to air March 27, 2018.
"I know the guys filming are all in shock," Force said with a laugh. "It'd be cool if they got footage of that. Boys you got it, I'm going to the bar."
IT'S GONNA BE A CELEBRATION - “Big Daddy” Don Garlits helped NHRA announce the launch of a momentous celebration on Friday at the NHRA Gatornationals, leading up to the 50th year of this iconic event in 2019. The NHRA Legends Tour will feature some of NHRA’s most beloved figures from the early days of drag racing including Garlits, Shirley Muldowney, Kenny Bernstein, Tom “Mongoose” McEwen, Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, Joe Amato, Ed “The Ace” McCulloch, “The Bounty Hunter” Connie Kalitta, and “Big” Jim Dunn, as well as a host of local drag racing heroes.
At each stop on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series circuit, the NHRA Legends Tour will provide fans with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to interact with a few of the most renowned names in drag racing at meet-and-greets, autograph sessions and a variety of other activities. The tour wraps up next year in Gainesville, Fla. as all of the biggest stars in drag racing come together for one colossal blowout to celebrate the 50th annual Gatornationals. Never before have so many NHRA legends been gathered in one place.
“The 50th annual Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals will be a ‘bucket-list’ event for any devoted drag racing fan,” said NHRA president Glen Cromwell. “All of NHRA’s fan favorites will be there to celebrate the rich history of this event.”
“Gainesville Raceway is one of the most iconic tracks in the country,” said Garlits. “We want to celebrate by bringing all of the NHRA legends together in one place. You won’t want to miss this!”
The NHRA Legends Tour will take place at each stop on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series leading up to the 50th annual Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals, currently scheduled to take place March 14-17, 2019.
FINDING HIS GROOVE AGAIN - A year ago, Pro Stock driver Tanner Gray made a sudden impact in the NHRA.
The rookie won five races and finished fourth in the points standings.
That momentum didn’t carry over for Gray so far in 2018 as he lost in the first round at the Winternationals and Arizona Nationals.
Dave Connolly, Gray’s crew chief, is upbeat the tables will turn for Gray at the Gatornationals Friday through Sunday, especially after his team’s test session earlier this week at Bradenton (Fla.) Motorsports Park.
During a test run March 14, Connolly said Gray clocked a 6.492-second elapsed time. According to Connolly, Gray was just a touch quicker than Vincent Nobile (6.493 seconds) and Chris McGaha (6.495 seconds).
“We were in Bradenton with cool conditions and we are optimistic that at least we can run with McGaha, who won (the Arizona Nationals) and Vincent who was the No. 1 qualifier at Pomona,” Connolly said. “Those are capable cars so for us to go out there and run 49(2), a little bit quicker than them makes us feel like we have a car that can gout there and compete especially after the first two races of the year where we hit some stumbling blocks. We are hoping that is behind us and obviously going into Gainesville it is supposed to be a little bit warmer up there and I don’t foresee 40s up there, but you never know.”
Connolly said Gray tested March 12-14 at Bradenton, making a total of 15 runs.0
THE BUSY LIFE OF LEAH - Leah Pritchett has proven her versatility throughout her drag racing career in driving everything from Nostalgia Funny Car to Pro Modified to Top Fuel.
This weekend she's set to showcase her skills running three different cars in three different platforms. Two of the three cars will be active NHRA competition with a third for charity.
In addition to racing her Top Fuel dragster, she's also scheduled to race in the Factory Stock Showdown and participate in the Papa John’s Charity Challenge, a side-by-side winner takes all race with Papa John’s Pizza founder ‘Papa’ John Schnatter to benefit the Infinite Hero Foundation and Overcome Academy.
“I always dig doing things differently, and to their maximum capabilities,” said Pritchett, a five-time Top Fuel national event winner.
“This weekend is more about three cars and three events. It represents three important aspects of my passion for drag racing- Top Fuel competition, grassroots racing, and charity involvement,” said Pritchett.
“The Top Fuel competition is a passion to be the quickest and the fastest at the ultimate level. Factory Stock Showdown has brought me back to my Sportsman roots. The program is ‘heads up’ and delivers the opportunity to make the combination of what is available from the factory faster than anyone else through tuning and ingenuity within set limitations. It’s all about who can make their hot rod faster, which is something everyone can be a part of without having to be at the Top Fuel level.
"The Charity Challenge, for me, represents growth and integration of a partner who loves this sport and can face off for a great cause while telling an All American story and raising money for returning military heroes and their families.”
Both Top Fuel and Factory Stock Showdown competitions span the entirety of the three-day Gatornationals event.
DENSHAM GETS IN THE HALL - How Funny Car veteran owner-driver Gary Densham ended up in Gainesville, Fla., this weekend is a bit of a mystery – at least to him.
His wife, Joanne, understands it. So do his army of fans and the racers who have lined up against him since he broke onto the NHRA scene in 1971. The same goes for the selection panel for the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame, which named Densham to its 2018 class.
But Densham, 71, said he had no clue he would find himself Thursday night at the Hilton University of Florida Conference Center Gainesville, listening while “a bunch of old farts tell stories” – and, what’s more, that he would be one of them.
The former high-school shop teacher from suburban Los Angeles was inducted into the Don Garlits Museum’s elite, along with fellow Californians Jeb Allen, Kelly Brown, Roy Fjastad, and Greg Sharp; Jim Oddy; and the late Ollie Riley.
Densham said he’s “impressed” but “can’t figure out why” he was chosen.
“It never crossed my mind. I never thought there would ever be a chance that I’d be lucky enough to be one of the people that get to be on that granite marble statue outside of Garlits’ museum [at nearby Ocala, Fla.]. It never crossed my mind,” he said.
“I went to the inductee ceremonies with Henry Velasco, super-close friend of mine, [who] was inducted in 2004,” he said, “and I kind of looked at the whole thing and the people that were there, and what they had contributed to our sport of drag racing. I thought, ‘Man, geez, I’m sitting here in the hall of all the people that have done so much for our sport.’ And to think that I was lucky enough to ever be part of that is just incredible.”
Densham offered a random-sounding resume as an explanation: “Like I always said, ‘What have I been famous for? Winning Indy and the Skoal Showdown and dragging John Force back to America from Australia so he doesn’t get killed down there’. All those NHRA national events, IHRA, you know, AHRA, Australian National Championship, you know, all the way back to Division 7 championship when we used to run Fuel cars in divisional races. I don’t know what, if any of those, is the reason that I got inducted to the Hall of Fame. But you want to think that all of them work that way somehow or another.” - Susan Wade
LINDBERG RETURNS WITH A NEW HORSE - Jonnie Lindberg and the Head Inc. team spent the two weeks between Phoenix and Gainesville thrashing to get a car ready to race at the third stop on the 24-race, NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing tour.
Once the team arrived at Gainesville Raceway for the NHRA Gatornationals, there was still plenty of work to get done.
"John Force helped us front-half the car, so our back half was okay, so that saved us a ton of work," Lindberg explained. "I spent the last two weeks up at Head’s shop in Ohio. I worked with the team."
Additionally, Lindberg and the team made a transition in Funny Car bodies since their best Toyota body was destroyed. Their repaired Funny Car rolled out of the team's hauler on Friday sporting Ford Mustang bodies.
Lindberg is pretty confident the Head Inc. team has as good of a chance to do as well as they did last year when the rookie nitro drive reached the final round.
"Last year I never sat in this car here in Gainesville, and we went to the finals," Lindberg explained. So I don’t know. I think we can do pretty good this weekend with what we’ve got right now."
Adjusting to the Mustang hasn't been much of a challenge.
"I like the Mustang better because you see so much more like the dog house over the injector is lower, so you see the track better, and that helps you keep it in the groove," Lindberg added.
Getting past the traumatic experience of his first racing accident wasn't overwhelming Lindberg admitted.
"Luckily both John and me walked away from it," Lindberg said. "It could have been worse, I guess. But that just proves that they’re safe cars, really safe. I’m glad I’m driving for Jim Head because he always, he’s all about safety. He wouldn’t put me in a car that wasn’t safe."
The initial incident wasn't as scary as realizing afterward what happened.
"The thing that I thought about afterwards was like I saw the wheelie bar barely miss my roll cage and if that would be in the cockpit, that would be really bad," Lindberg recalled. "I would probably not be standing here now. But I don’t know, I had some guardian angels around me, so that was good.
Lindberg has further proof of the divine intervention in the shape of a tire mark across his helmet.
"I didn’t really notice it at first -- like it was close and I saw the tire come close to my head. But then when I cleaned the tow vehicle out and put my helmet back in the trailer, I saw a tire mark on top of my helmet."
COURTNEY, HIGHT HOLDING THEIR OWN - Currently in the No. 2 spot, Courtney Force leads John Force Racing with teammate and reigning Funny Car champion Robert Hight in the No. 3 position.
Courtney Force and her Advance Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro SS laid down a 3.914-second pass at 327.66 mph in the second session of qualifying to land her in the second position. Coming off a win and a No. 1 qualifier at the most recent NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series event, the NHRA Arizona Nationals, Force is competing for her first No. 1 and win at legendary Gainesville Raceway.
“It has been a good day for our Advance Auto Parts team,” Force said. “Our first run wasn’t where we wanted it to be but we fixed the problem. I’m really proud of my team. I heard (crew chiefs) Brian (Corradi) and Danny (Hood) weren’t pleased with the run because they thought it could run quicker. That is why I am so proud to have these crew chiefs and this team behind me. They work so hard to strive to be the best. We are trying to get that No. 1 spot, and we’ll fight tomorrow to get it.”
Hight, who is chasing his third No. 1 and fourth NHRA Gatornationals win, raced his Auto Club of Southern California Chevrolet Camaro to a 3.917 pass at 333.66 during the second qualifying session. The effort puts him in the third spot heading into Saturday.
“That was a good run for this Auto Club Camaro,” Hight said. “It was smooth, and we can improve on that tomorrow and even on race day. This is a great race track, and we can definitely step up the performance. We set the track record here last year, and I think there is definitely more out there. Jimmy and Chris will look at the data and continue to improve.”
THAT'LL WORK - Five consecutive unsuccessful runs in Phoenix? Forget about it. One good run followed by more tire smoke in Pomona? Never happened. Del Worsham came into the NHRA Gatornationals with more confidence after a solid testing session after the Phoenix race, but he couldn’t help but sense the nagging “What if?” questions swirling in his head. After two qualifying runs in Gainesville, he’s got a whole new outlook.
“Going into Q1 all I cared about was going down the track,” Worsham said. “It didn’t really matter what the ET was, within reason, I just wanted it to get all the way down there without doing anything weird. I just wanted it to make it. We actually broke a part on the run, about 2.5 seconds into it, so the 4.05 was trying to be a 3.99, I think. Even with that, it gave us the confidence and the baseline we needed.
“We had some delays before we ran Q4, and the sun was setting too. The track was changing really quickly as we sat in the water box while they cleaned up down track, and I was thinking ‘Now I just want to run a 3. Any flavor of 3 would be fine. Let’s get down there and run a 3. We’re not trying to bite off too much. I’m really happy with what we did."
The earlier 4.056 was surprisingly good enough for the No. 5 spot after one. He needed the 3.979 to land in the No. 9 spot overnight.
The solid run more than likely will allow Worsham to implement his plan with Cory Lee, who will probably now make a run (most likely in Q4) in a backup car, to see if Worsham & Fink Racing can land two cars in the field. Had Worsham not been comfortably in the field, he might have concentrated on only his own car.