2018 NHRA HEARTLAND NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
MILLICAN GETS SECOND CAREER TF WALLY WITH TOPEKA WIN - It took popular Top Fuel driver Clay Millican 254 NHRA starts before he captured his first Wally at Bristol, Tenn., last June.
The second Wally for Millican came much quicker – eight more races to be exact.
Millican won the rain-postponed Heartland Nationals Monday in Topeka, Kan.
Millican clocked a 3.727-second elapsed time at 332.59 mph in the finals to defeat Terry McMillen, who slowed to 6.169 seconds at 104.47 mph.
“This is incredible,” said Millican, who pilots the Parts Plus/Great Clips/UNOH/Strutmasters sponsored dragster and won for the first time after qualifying in the No. 1 position. “It’s awesome the work Grubby (David Grubnic, Millican’s crew chief) has put in and all the kids who work on this car. They are unbelievable about not making mistakes. This car is really good, and we found some consistency. All year we know we must be consistent and Grubby found it. This was a long weekend, but what a weekend.”
The race was scheduled to be completed Sunday, but that didn’t happen. The start of eliminations was delayed for hours Sunday before racing finally begin. The first two rounds of eliminations were completed in Top Fuel and Funny Car Sunday and then the race was completed Monday.
Millican’s victory march had him collecting wins over Terry Totten, Doug Kalitta, Tony Schumacher and then McMillen. Millican improved to 11-5 in eliminations against McMillen and this was the first time they met in a final round.
“It’s just crazy how good the car was running,” Millican said. “To be honest with you, it pretty much didn’t matter what I did because that car was going to win (Monday). A long, long time ago when I first started Top Fuel Shirley Muldowney told me when it is your day it is easy and at this moment it was kind of easy. Of course, all the hours we spent (Sunday) all the rain that didn’t feel so easy, but I have to tell the truth, it is all the people who work on that car. What a weekend. It is such a team effort, that makes this thing go. There’s no one person who makes this thing go. I have to say my heart goes out to everybody with the horrible tragedy we had in Santa Fe (Texas). That’s a horrible thing. I know what is like to lose a child and I don’t wish that upon anybody. It’s a horrible, horrible thing and it will take a long time for those people to get over it. I know that is off topic, but it certainly was on my heart (Monday), and I was thinking about it.”
Dalton Millican, Clay’s son, was killed in a motorcycle accident in August of 2015. He was 22.
Actually, Grubnic is no stranger to winning at Topeka as he has two career Top Fuel wins at Heartland Park in 2005 and 2012.
“We didn’t even talk about that,” Millican said. “He’s so focused and he’s so fun to work with. When it is time to run that car, it is game face 100 percent. He was really in a hurry to get the data out of the car even when we turned on the win light in the final round. The car just ran so good. It didn’t hurt any parts. Everybody can gripe and complain all they want about this track prep, but this car went 3.67 and it went 330-something mph and it just kept going down this race track. To me, this is the easiest way to level the playing field. It doesn’t cost the teams any money to do it and NHRA is saving a little money spraying glue out there. There’s nothing wrong with the race tracks. It is just tuner, tuner, tuner and right now we have the baddest man on the planet.” Tracy Renck
COURTNEY FORCE CONTINUES HOT STREAK, TAKES THIRD WIN OF SEASON IN TOPEKA - Courtney Force began the weekend on top and stayed there.
And no amount of rain, bad luck, vastly changing conditions, or even an extra day of competition was going to stop her.
Force opened the weekend at Heartland Motorsports Park with the quickest pass out of the gate and never faltered in taking her fifth top qualifier award of the season and followed that up with four round wins spread over two days to earn her third win of the season and second in a row Monday at the rain-delayed Menards NHRA Heartland Nationals presented by Minties.
With two round wins under the lights on Sunday, after heavy rains postponed the start of the annual spring stop in Topeka, Kansas, and two more on Monday, Force outlasted teammate and defending champion Robert Hight in the final to earn her third Wally of the season and 22nd of her career.
Hight got away first in the all-JFR final, but ran into trouble near the 600-foot mark when his tires gave up traction, while Force blasted by with a 3.928-second pass at 329.83 mph in the Advance Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro Funny Car to pick up the win. Hight followed her across the stripe with a 4.087 at 265.90 mph in his third runner-up finish of the season.
“Going in (to the final) we were excited. We knew that, no matter what, it was going to be an all-JFR final,” Force said. “I honestly was a little bit shocked when we turned on that win light because that Auto Club car, Jimmy Prock, all of those guys have been running solid all weekend.
“They were right there with me and I guess he spun the tires a little bit down-track. Overall it was a job well done by their team moving up in points, same with our team. No matter the opponent, you still have to go in there with that fight. He is one of the toughest drivers out here to compete against because he is so great on the line and you really have to be right there with him. I think we had a pretty good side-by-side race at the launch and we were able to turn on that win light.”
With the weekend-sweep going to Force for the third time this year – earning both the top qualifier award and race win in the same event – the struggles of 2017, which saw the Advance Auto Parts team earn seven top qualifier awards with zero wins during the season, are quickly becoming a distant memory.
“Everyone is talking about the fact that we had so many number one qualifiers and I didn’t seal the deal, but to be honest, I had such a great team (last year) and I pretty much have the same team this year,” said Force of her turnaround in the win column. “Ronnie Thompson and Dan Hood were tuning my car (last year) and they did a phenomenal job getting us all those number one qualifiers and we came close to a couple of wins. But this year, with Brian Corradi coming on board and joining with Danny, things just shifted and we were able to get these number one qualifiers and seal it with a win and it feels amazing.
“And being in the points lead right now coming off of back-to-back wins is just insane. I got on the radio and told my guys that they are just unbelievable. It’s so much fun driving this racecar right now.”
Force survived a hectic weekend in Topeka to pick up the win, earning big wins over Matt Hagan and J.R. Todd in the second and third rounds respectively. But it was a first-round matchup against Richard Townsend that almost sent the current Funny Car points leader home early.
After a lengthy rain delay that pushed the start of round one to late in the evening on Sunday, both cars lost traction at the hit, but it was Force who was able to pedal it best, earning the round win with a 5.323 at 176.70 mph to Townsend’s 5.929 at 138.39 mph.
“That was nerve racking. You go up there and the conditions are obviously completely different and I could hear the other drivers smoking the tires and having to pedal, so you have to have that mindset knowing that you might have to do the same,” Force said. “I pedaled it and tried to keep it off the wall. I had to pedal it about three times and the motor finally clicked off right as I was going through the finish line. Luckily, I saw the win light come on and I felt pretty good. Unfortunately, we lost lane choice. But when you have crew chiefs like mine, they figured it out and got it down there for the win.”
Thankfully, the following rounds were much less dramatic as Force earned a win over Matt Hagan in a tremendous drag race – a 3.934 to a 3.936 – before weather once again postponed the race, this time to the following day.
On Monday Force picked right up where she left off, eliminating J.R. Todd in the semifinals with the best pass of the entire weekend, a 3.895 at 330.39 mph, before meeting Hight in the final. Hight had wins over Shawn Langdon, Tommy Johnson Jr. and Cruz Pedregon to reach his third final of the season.
“It was a handful out there all weekend. The conditions changed drastically every single day and I have to give a lot of credit to my crew chiefs and every single guy on my team,” Force said. “It was a Sunday morning race that turned into a Sunday evening race with header fire and a cooler track, and we were able to get it done even with a lucky first round win.
“Having to run on a Monday makes for a long weekend, but it feels good to be in the winner’s circle with my team and being able to celebrate for everyone at Chevy, Peak, Auto Club, Monster Energy and Advance Auto Parts.”
Force also extended her points lead as she looks to continue the momentum setup by a strong start to the 2018 season.
“This is a good spot to be in, but obviously we need to find consistency at the other end of the season as well where it really matters,” Force said. “It feels great right now, but we are trying to stay confident and stay focused in the fact that we have to get this car running like this all season long if we want to end up with the championship trophy.” Larry Crum
KRAMER EARNS FIRST CAREER PRO STOCK VICTORY - As they say in life, good things come to those who wait.
That was certainly the case for longtime racer Deric Kramer who has put in the time, put in the effort, but hasn’t enjoyed the results.
But that all changed on Monday as the 32-year-old out of Sterling, Colorado earned his first career professional class victory behind the wheel of the American Ethanol Chevrolet Camaro in Pro Stock at the 30th annual Menards NHRA Heartland Nationals presented by Minties at Heartland Motorsports Park.
Kramer, who earned his second-career number one qualifier award earlier in the weekend by narrowly edging class veteran Erica Enders, once again matched up with the two-time champion on Monday after a number of rain delays pushed the annual event in Topeka, Kansas to a fourth day.
In the final, Kramer left first with a .009 light against the notoriously quick-on-the-tree Enders and held that advantage throughout to earn career victory number one with a 6.615-second pass at 209.36 mph. Enders, in her third final of 2018, finished with a 7.409 at 143.58 mph after running into trouble early and aborting the run.
“It’s great. I’ve been working a long time for this and I have to thank all of my sponsors and everyone that has helped bring this team together and allow us to do what we do on the weekends,” Kramer said. “This first win leaves me a little speechless, but I am already looking forward to the next one, I can tell you that.”
Kramer, who had one previous final round appearance and one additional top qualifier award in 72 prior starts, finally broke through in one of the more unique and challenging races of his career.
Varying weather conditions left teams scrambling to adjust throughout much of the weekend until heavy rains on Sunday shifted the strategy to a clean track and cool conditions Sunday evening. The Pro Stock competitors got in one round Sunday evening before teams were forced to reset on Monday.
And for Kramer, there were no easy round wins either day on the path to victory.
Kramer barely survived round one against his former car and driver Will Hatcher as both drivers ran into trouble and had to abandon their runs. Kramer drifted out of the groove and was forced to lift, while Hatcher drifted toward the wall, also having to get out of the throttle. Kramer advanced with a 7.594 to Hatcher’s 7.616.
Kramer then had to survive back-to-back holeshots, advancing past Matt Hartford and Jason Line, before meeting up with Enders in the final. Both wins were close, with Kramer edging Hartford in round two with a 6.621 to a 6.604 thanks to a .022 reaction time, followed by an even closer win in the semifinal as Kramer used a .006 light to edge Line – 6.600 to a 6.580 – and advance to the final.
Enders had wins over Greg Anderson, Tanner Gray and Mark Hogan to reach her third final of the season.
“It is always great as a driver to know that you did your part,” Kramer said. “I have been doing that all weekend and that is the best you can really ask for as a driver.”
The weekend was filled with excitement for NHRA’s newest first-time winner as the turbulent finish on Sunday and Monday were preceded by a thrilling two days of qualifying that saw Kramer bounce around the ladder before landing in the No. 1 spot in his final pass of the weekend, giving him a clean sweep of the ladder.
And it was all made possible by the perfect combination of driver and machine.
After watching fellow journeyman Bo Butner do the same last season, Kramer joined forces with KB racing in the offseason and the results have been immediate. With more than half of his career round wins coming this season, Kramer now finds himself a championship contender as he goes from looking for his first win to bigger aspirations as the season unfolds – even if he has to go through his own team to get there.
“Anytime you can put your engine builder on the trailer it is a good time,” Kramer said with a laugh. “It is a little surprising (the start to the season), but at the end of the day there are just five gears between myself and the finish line. I know I’ve got a good team. I know I’ve got good power from the KB guys and right now we are putting that package together. It is really good (for us) right now.” Larry Crum
THE RUN OF THE DAY - Clay Millican was speechless, and his noted tuner David Grubnic was even more shocked.
During Saturday’s Q-3 session, Millican covered the historic Topeka 1,000-foot race course in 3.739-seconds, 331.12 miles per hour to make the quantum leap for No. 16 to the top spot.
“I’m stunned because it wasn’t supposed to go that quick,” Grubnic admitted. “We’ll go back and look at it, and find out why it went that quick. We don’t come up here to run that quick when we are 16th.”
“I didn’t know Grubby was going to turn it up that quick,” Millican added. “We were watching what Audrey [Worm] did because we were No. 16. He told me he would make a change if she didn’t bump us out. If he changed it that much then I am shocked. I was thinking more like an .83, not a .73.”
Millican said Grubnic told his driver he was tuning for two different scenarios. If she bumped them out, the tune-up would be more like that of an A/Fuel Dragster, and if she didn’t he was going to step the combination up a bit.
“I have to admit when I drove past the scoreboard I said to myself, “That’s no .78. It was a .73 and did a double take.”
“Sometimes these cars will give us a run like that, and we know it isn’t supposed to happen. For us, we are all excited because we went from No. 16 to No. 1. It was awesome. I can tell you Grubby is not happy with this kind of scenario. When the car does something he can’t explain, he doesn’t like it. He will spend weeks on end, trying to figure it out. Most of the time it is a bad result, but this was a good one.”
Millican and Grubnic’s follow-up run was not as impressive. He lifted early into the run.
“We were not looking for a .73 on that run, we were looking for more,” Millican said. “It was close to making it on that run. As I was getting out of my fire suit we looked and it was close. It was quicker by a fair amount than the .73 run. Not really concerned with that. It just lets us know tomorrow not to do what we did on that run.
“If it is cold tomorrow I like our chances and to be honest, if we can beat the run we made when it was hot today, I’ll like our chances for that too.”
THAT’S NO. 2 – Two times is not a coincidence.
Pro Stock driver Deric Kramer inked his second career No. 1 qualifying behind the wheel of his Pro Stock American Ethanol Chevrolet Camaro.
Kramer’s run came during the final pass of qualifying when he laid down a 6.613, 208.42, collecting three bonus points as well.
“We didn’t really think we were gonna go that fast,” Kramer admitted. “When Greg [Anderson] ran that 6.62, we thought we’d be running right there with him, but we didn’t think we had a 61 in it; we didn’t expect that at all. It was cool when I crossed the finish line and they radioed to me what I ran, and I could hear everyone celebrating. I really gotta thank all the American Ethanol and Poet people and all of our sponsors that help us get here.”
Kramer’s second career No. 1 qualifier gives him lane choice over Will Hatcher, who is making his Pro Stock debut in the American Ethanol Dodge that Kramer ran prior to the 2018 season.
“It’s unfortunate that it shook out that way, but we’ll have an American Ethanol showdown in the first round and an American Ethanol car will no matter what go to the quarterfinals,” he said with a smile.
TAKING IT EASY - Friday at Heartland Park - Topeka, noted tuner/crewchief Tommy DeLago made his way around the pit area. He looked every bit like a soldier without an army.
DeLago was taking in the sights and sounds of the nitro circus minus any responsibilities. He was released from his tuning role at Kalitta Motorsports earlier this week.
"I’ve learned this weekend that I actually have more people that care about me and that have been taking care of me all weekend," DeLago said with a smile. "It’s actually been a pretty good weekend so far."
DeLago struggled to remember the last time he came to an NHRA national event without a racecar to tune.
"I actually came to this race when I worked for Gilbertson’s where we missed this race one year for some reason but I did have a job so I was still getting paid," DeLago said. "But the last time I didn’t actually have a job and had to go to an NHRA race, I want to say it was 18 to 25 years ago."
This weekend's trip to Topeka has enabled DeLago to open up to the life which has always surrounded him, the world of networking and even spending time in the announcer's booth.
"I pretty much enjoy everything," DeLago said. "Maybe in some ways I’m kind of a little like Warren Johnson, obviously I’m not as smart, but I think some people don’t know that I am a pretty fun guy. I do like to enjoy life and I do like to have fun even though sometimes I look like I’m really serious. Sometimes it’s because I’m thinking and I’m pretty intense. But intensity and just being an angry person are two different things and I’m not an angry person, I do get intense with the task at hand. But I do like to have fun."
And fun for the man most everyone calls Tommy D, is being at the drag strip.
"Drag racing for me, it is a job," DeLago explained. "I do have responsibilities at home to pay the bills but if I was independently wealthy I would still do this. I do it with my own car on weekends that I can because it’s not a job to me, it’s who I am. I just have a passion for the sport and I’ve made a lot of friends through the years.
"This weekend I’ve been able to just go see everybody as a friend and not have any stresses of making the sponsor happy or making the owner happy or making sure we do good so I can see my guys smile and help make them some bonus money. It’s kind of been a breath of fresh air this weekend."
THE PRO MODS - Chad Green held on to the No. 1 qualifying position Saturday during the E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by presented by J&A Service portion of the Menards NHRA Heartland Nationals at Heartland Motorsports Park. This weekend’s Pro Mod racing, presented by Summit Racing Equipment, is the fourth of 12 events this season.
Green ran a 5.762-second pass at 250.13 mph in the second qualifying session on Friday, which held up through Saturday’s qualifying.
“We felt pretty confident that yesterday’s pass would stick, and since we got to go last we were able to save the motor by shutting off early,” Green said. “Our early numbers looked really strong for both of our passes today, so we feel very confident headed into tomorrow.”
Green notched his first career No. 1 qualifier in just his fourth career Pro Mod event, and he will face Clint Satterfield in the first round of eliminations on Sunday.
Steven Whiteley is qualified second with a 5.782 at 251.67 and Rickie Smith settles in at third with a 5.800 at 248.43.
HE’S THE HURRICANE - Keith Haney is a very busy man. He's got his hand in a little bit of everything, from running a squadron of successful car businesses, to be part owner in a drag strip, to overseeing a regional Pro Mod Series to campaigning a successful Pro Modified and Radial vs. The World entry.
As if Haney's plate isn't full enough, he added yet another gargantuan time-consumer - NHRA Pro Modified.
Haney appears to be rolling through his bucket-list like a Category Five Hurricane.
"Well it was something I always wanted to do," said Haney, who made his NHRA Pro Modified debut at the NHRA Heartland Nationals in Topeka, Kan. "For the last 20 years that I’ve been racing, I always watched all the pros. I know I’m still racing on a pro level even at eight-mile racing and then a Radial versus The World. I know I’m on a pro level, but the show’s a little different.
"NHRA basically started drag racing so when you start looking at the history and then I started looking at the fields."
The telltale sign which stood out to Haney, is the NHRA needs more characters, whether its good guys or bad guys, baby faces or heels like they have in wrestling.
Haney is convinced he can fill the bill.
"They don’t have any character over here," Haney declared. "If it wasn’t for John Force they probably wouldn’t have any character at all. I don’t mean that in a bad way but it’s just the truth. There’s not many willing to stick their neck out there and their mouth out there without getting a foot put in it.
"With me, whether I do good or I do bad, I still like to create the atmosphere that I enjoy, and that is a rivalry. It doesn’t matter who’s next to me; they’re my rival."
Haney unveiled on Friday, a Rickie Smith-prepared Camaro sponsored by Summit. For a man used to plying his trade to the eighth-mile, the quarter-mile is a real eye-opener.
"From the 330 to the 660 to the quarter-mile here, it’s totally different once you pass that eighth-mile," Haney explained. "I said it today, I did a little ride up today by myself, and I didn’t really understand the difference until after the eighth-mile. I went quarter-mile racing before; I’ve been 215 on a 105-inch wheelbase car. I went 246 yesterday, and I got lucky. I should have driven better. The difference of wheeling the car, the steering wheel, everything is totally different."
Haney missed the field, posting a best 5.900, 245.90. He's not the least bit discouraged.
"I definitely got three this year, and I can drive more but it’s not cheap to do this, and I’m lucky that I have good marketing partners to back me and say, "let’s go try it," Haney said. "Everything that has happened has been great so far."
NOT HIS KIND OF WEEKEND – Robert Hight has experienced a weekend unbecoming of a defending world champion. Hight could only muster the No. 14 best qualifying run with a 4.163 best. He races Cruz Pedregon in Sunday’s first round.
If past performance is indicative of the future, Hight could have a breakout Sunday.
Heartland Park Topeka has been good to Hight in his 13-year career. He has had at least a semifinal finish eight times. His two wins at the facility came back to back in 2010 and 2011.
“This is a track with a lot of history,” Hight said. “When I won in 2010 it was my third win in a row that season. I would love to get a win streak started this season and this would be a great place to pick up the first win,” said Hight. The competition is so tough now you have to do everything right all weekend. You need to make a great run in the first qualifying session or you are behind the eight ball all weekend. You want to be back of the pack for Friday night so you can get aggressive and run low. There is a lot of strategy.”
CAPPS RUNS STRONG - Defending event champion Ron Capps made 'top three' runs in both Q3 and Q4, earning three bonus points.
Capps ended up seventh quickest, and will race Shawn Langdon in Sunday's first round.
“Tomorrow is going to be a totally different day than today," Capps said. "We have a 4.02 baseline to work off. Wilkie (first-round opponent Tim Wilkerson) is a great competitor in the heat. He can get down some tricky racetracks, but we can too. It’s nice to have lane choice. I think the left lane is better than the right; it’s just driving better in the left lane. (Crew chief) Dickie (Venables) will have to look at the track and see what’s better. Hopefully, we can stay over there, be shallow most of the day and keep lane choice.
"All in all, I think we have a car that we can race and we have some data to work off. Topeka’s been kind to me. I’ve had a lot of good luck, we’ve set world records here, won races here. Qualifying is over, and we have to look and focus towards race day. We have just as good a shot as any to turn four win lights on tomorrow.”
ALL ABOUT THE NOW – Erica Enders lost her spot above the atop the Pro Stock field, but she’s not the least bit down about it. In her words, she now has a car that can win.
“Confidence is huge,” Enders explained. “We have radios in our car so I feed off of my crew chiefs and I can hear the confidence back in their voice which in turn gives me confidence. I worry about less because we were at a point where every time I let the clutch out I had no idea what was going to happen if we were going to shake, if we were going to jump the guard wall, if I was going to run over the Christmas tree. We didn’t know what was going to happen. We had struggled for so long. To have the confidence back it’s going to take a little bit of time to get it like it was in 2014 and 2015 but it’s awesome. It’s a big step in the right direction.”
Enders admits it took a bit of success before she could really feel confident that the thunderstorms of 2016 and 2017 were a thing of the past.
“It definitely still haunts a little bit,” Enders admitted. “It rears its ugly head at times. After our win in Charlotte we went to the next race and I lost first round to my teammate, Jeg. It’s just one of those deals that the field is so tight and so competitive. Every week when we show up at a race track there are ten cars that are capable of being in the winner’s circle.
“The success that we had for those two years made those two years’ worth of valleys really excruciating but the climb back, as challenging as it was, was full of a lot of lessons. The coolest one was that I learned how strong we actually are. I have my same core group of guys. Do you know how many people quit when it gets as tough as what we went through? I got my people and that’s what matters the most.”
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK – IT’S NOT A RECORD-SETTER, BUT A GOOD FRIDAY INDEED
BABY GIRL REIGNS SUPREME - Courtney Force, the youngest of the four Force daughters, thundered to the top of the Funny Car division Friday at Topeka.
Force pounded out a 3.911-second elapsed time at 321.73 mph during Friday's Q-2 session. If her run holds through Saturday's two sessions, it will mark her fifth No. 1 qualifier of the 2018 campaign and her third in a row.
“We had a decent run in the first qualifying round but I knew we had more with this crew tuning my car and we were able to get that top spot back,” Force said. “It’s definitely a big deal to be running consistently, but there are still plenty of runs tomorrow where we will have to hold onto that number one position.”
Having the quickest runs of each session earned Force, who led the points standings heading into the weekend, six bonus points.
“It is amazing to have a car this good. When we went into the three in a row we said we wanted to come out on top and hopefully start moving up in the points. We have the points lead and we know it isn’t by much but it is important. We picked up three bonus points in Q1 and three more that round. It is a big deal to be running consistently like this. A job well done by every single guy on this Advance Auto Parts team. This is a good start in Kansas. We have a lot of good memories here and hopefully we can make a lot more.”
Force has qualified top five at four out of six appearances at Heartland Motorsports Park, including doubling up with sister Brittany Force in 2014, a feat the pair have repeated twice more including the 2018 Charlotte four-wide race. Courtney Force went on to win the 2014 Heartland Nationals, marking the 100th NHRA national event victory by a woman.
“This has been a good track for us,” added Force. “When I come up here I think about the time I was up here with my sister Brittany as No. 1 qualifiers. We are hoping to seal the deal here and wind up in the winner’s circle together. We tried to do that a few years ago. This is a good start for us but we will have a long day tomorrow.”
SHE'S BACK - Erica Enders had two seasons where she could do no wrong. Then she followed those title campaigns with two where she couldn't catch a break.
After three consecutive good showings, Erica has found her groove again.
The two-time champion Enders drove her Melling Performance/Elite Motorsports Camaro to the top spot in Saturday's qualifying with a 6.625 elapsed time at 207.59 miles per hour during Friday's second session. If the run holds, it will be her first top qualifying effort of the season, and her first since 2015.
“The more time I have with this car the more comfortable I get, and I’m really just thrilled to have a car that is competitive that you are able to drive to the winner’s circle on Sunday,” Enders said. “I can hear the confidence back in my crew chief’s voice which gives me a ton of confidence every time I hit the track.”
REBOUND COMPLETED - Three races ago, NHRA Pro Modified racer Chad Green did an impression of a human pinball during the semifinals of the NHRA Gatornationals. He was uninjured, but his Corvette Pro Modified was a lot worse for wear.
Since then Green has taken delivery of a Jerry Bickel-built Camaro and he has been flawless ever since.
During Friday's Q-2 session, he drove to the top of the 16-car field with a 5.762-second, 250.13 miles per hour lap.
"This feels awesome. We figured if we could get the car down the track, it would do well. This is a pleasant surprise. I have a great team, and they are always surprising me. This is a great feeling, and I hope we can hold them off tomorrow."
RIDING THE WAVE - Vincent Nobile became the first two-time 2018 winner when he captured the Pro Stock title two weeks ago at the NHRA Southern Nationals. Now he's not looking ahead to winning a championship, but he is counting his blessings after a frustrating 2017 season where he and team owner Nick Mitsos ended their season early to regroup for 2018.
It's hard not to think about championships when you are leading the point standings.
“It’s so early in the year we’re really not looking at points,” Nobile said. “Don’t get me wrong, I want to win every race, but in Pro Stock, that’s not going to happen. That’s too hard with the talent here. But we just want to concentrate on winning rounds and keep doing what we’re doing. I’m happy to have a car that’s really good. It’s one of the first times in my career I have a car that can be the fastest car each session. I’ve never had a car like that before. It’s a whole new standard for us.”
Nobile has two wins, one runner-up and a semifinal appearance over the past five races, with Elite Motorsports teammates Erica Enders and Matt Hartford also winning in that span. It’s a great feeling for Nobile, whose confidence has increased tremendously this year. It’s been that way for Nobile’s entire team, which is led by crew chief Brian “Lump” Self, and that has translated into consistent performances from the car and from Nobile on the starting line.
“Between the new car and the new engine stuff, it’s been a great combination,” said Nobile, who has 12 career Pro Stock wins. “The car does everything we tell it to, and we’re making the right adjustments and the right calls. You have to pay attention to the fine details. That’s what separates winning and losing in Pro Stock. We just have to keep paying attention to every single little detail. It’s still early in the year, so we can’t focus on where we’re at. We know other teams are going to get better, so we have to keep trying new things, keep trying to get better.”
A TALE OF TWO QUARTERS - In the first four races of the 2018 season, there was a lot of specutaion that John Force, the most prolific driver in Funny Car racing, was cursed. In his own words, "I spent more time in the ambulance going to the hospital than I did on the race track."
Force destroyed three $75,000 bodies in as many races and one race car in a two-car crash in Phoenix with Jonnie Lindberg. Starting in Las Vegas, Force began to pull himself out of the carnage pit.
At the NHRA Southern Nationals, two weekends ago outside of Atlanta, Force began to make amends with his operating budget as he steadily climbed the ladder and ended up with the fifth qualifying spot. Tricky track conditions on Sunday race day handed him a first-round exit, but at least none of his Camaro bodies were relegated to confetti.
“We had to start over with this tune up,” explained Force. “The brain trust got together, and we worked as a team like we always do. Have to thank Jimmy Prock, Brian Corradi and Danny Hood for working with Jon Schaffer and Jason McCulloch. Jon and Jason are sharp guys, and we have been getting better the last couple of races. Atlanta was a good event for us even though we didn’t get the win. Courtney put that Advance Auto Parts hot rod in the winner’s circle, but we were OK.”
The 16-time world champion has gone from blown-up to runner-up and now is looking for his first win of the season at a familiar track where he’s had success after a trying time before. Following his infamous 2007 crash in Dallas, Force defied all odds and proved doctors wrong when he climbed back into his Funny Car after being told he would never walk again. The resilient drag racer picked up his first win after the life-threatening incident at the NHRA Heartland Nationals.
“The doctors told me I was nuts to think I could race in 2008. I did the physical therapy and got better,” said Force. “I wasn’t 100% but I was good enough to drive. That win in Topeka was awesome. I hopped out of the race car and jumped a fence. I just wanted to be with the fans. They kept me going then and they are keeping me going now. I try and get out on the ropes as much as possible and they are all cheering for me. How can I not stay motivated no matter how many trips to the hospital I have to take. Hopefully that stuff is over and we can just keep racing.”
HATCHER IN THE RIDE - Competition Eliminator, by its very nature, is a developmental division for Pro Stock competition. This weekend, one of its finest players has jumped into the major league.
Kansas-native and Competition Eliminator front-runner Will Hatcher will make his debut this weekend during the NHRA Heartland Nationals. He will drive Deric Kramer's American Ethanol 2017 Dodge Dart; the car Kramer parked in favor of a KB Racing-powered Camaro.
This opportunity, Hatcher believes, is a prime example of preparation meeting opportunity.
“I’ve dreamed of driving a Pro Stock car as far back as I can remember,” said Hatcher. “It feels a little surreal. I can’t wait to get out there and give it my all. There are so many people supporting me and making this opportunity possible. I’m beyond grateful and blessed by God. Hopefully, we can make them proud and have a lot of fun out there. It’s especially cool that I’ll get to work on the car side-by-side with my dad. Racing has always been a family sport for us.”
Heartland Motorsports Park holds special significance for Hatcher as the setting for his first victory in Junior Dragster as well as his first event win in Comp Eliminator. It feels almost serendipitous that his first competitive pass in Pro Stock should take place at this historic track."
Hatcher, a second-generation Competition Eliminator racer, has been active on the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series since 2003. He ascended through the ranks from Junior Dragster to Comp, winning last year's NHRA Div. 5 title.
Hatcher earned his Pro Stock license in 2012 and was approached by the Kramer Family about driving their parked car.
DOING HIS SHARE - Richard Freeman has been steady in his support of the need to get more cars out to race Pro Stock. This weekend he's returned to driving even though he prefers to watch the drag races from behind the car as a team owner.
This weekend he's driving for V. Gaines, one of the former Pro Srock regulars who decided to park his operation back in 2016.
"V Gaines and I have been talking and he’s got some business stuff to take care of," Freeman explained. "We need to get him back out here, that’s the main thing. He gave me an opportunity to drive his car so we’re going to go out here and have some fun and see what we can do."
Just like a Geico commercial would read, "if you are Richard Freeman, you go the extra mile for Pro Stock, it's what you do."
"I think we’ve definitely done our part, my entire group, but we love Pro Stock and we want to keep rolling," Freeman added.
Freeman believes Pro Stock has turned a corner to get out of the hot seat, posting full fields in every event this season.
"I’m sitting over here at the table with Matt Hartford and they’re talking about wanting to go to more," Freeman said. "I’ve got several phone calls in the past two or three months of people talking about wanting to do something and we just need to make it available to them. I can tell you that all my guys at Elite Motorsports and RJ Racecars, Quartermax, everybody that’s involved with our program were dedicated to that.
"I think Pro Stock is fine. I think it is as fine as anything else is out there and really what it comes down to is that it doesn’t matter what NHRA does, it doesn’t matter what you do. What matters is the people that are involved doing their part and if we can all hang in there and stick together I think it’s going to be just fine."
CONNIE ON THE CUSP - Just two more. That's how many wins Connie Kalitta needs to reach a significant milestone as a team owner.
Kalitta and his four-car nitro team have 98 career victories to their credit.
What better place to seal his 100th victory than Heartland Park Topeka, a facility where his teams have taken home the trophy ten times before.
For Kalitta, all ten of those trophies have come from his Top Fuel teams.
“The Mac Tools team is firing on all cylinders, and we have proven that we have a strong setup for the heat of the summer months,” Kalitta said. “We have been consistent, which is very important. The Mac Tools team is working hard and together, and we are motivated for season-long success. We are ready and are focused on picking up many more round wins and victories and getting Connie to win 100 here very soon."
If Kalitta is to seal the deal, he's going to need some help from his Funny Cars.
J.R. Todd, driver of the DHL Toyota, campaigned in honor of the late Scott Kalitta, has won twice this season. And although Scott won at Topeka an incredible six times, none of those victories were in a Funny Car.
“We have the right people in the right places with talented drivers and teams,” Kalitta said. “All of the teams work well together, and with the incredible support of Toyota Racing and Toyota Racing Development (TRD) we have the knowledge and support to go far.”
RACING FOR A CAUSE - Antron Brown is showcasing a redesigned scheme on his Matco Tools-sponsored dragster.
On the side of the dragster is the Matco's Tools for the Cause livery to benefit the Fisher House Foundation. The 330-mph rocket highlights the names of over 700 active duty military members and veterans submitted by Matco Distributors
The multi-time champion unveiled the new look during the NHRA Southern Nationals and will promote the cause through the end of June.
For its part, Matco will donate 15% of sales of the Tools for the Cause merchandise to Fisher House Foundation. Fans can also support the cause by visiting https://donate.fisherhouse.org/matcotools t
Since launching the Tools for the Cause program in 2012, Matco Tools has donated nearly $800,000 to research and community-based organizations.
AH LEAH - Last season, at this point in the year, few drivers had as much momentum on their side as Leah Pritchett. At this point last season, Pritchett was the point leader with three wins.
Pritchett is getting a later start than she did in 2017, but a win two weekends ago in Atlanta has the tide turning in her favor.
Compared to last season, Pritchett only has nine round wins and ranks fifth in the title chase. She is taking it all in stride, however.
"This sport is super humbling," Pritchett said. "The setup for Topeka is significantly different than the setup for Atlanta. We went into Atlanta just trying to make it down one pass at a time, and that cultivated a win, so we're going to keep that mindset. If anything, (winning Atlanta) just let us know what we already knew- that we're capable of doing it. There's a bit of confidence instilled in us, but our actions aren't going to be any different."