2018 NHRA JEGS ROUTE 66 NATS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
20-YEAR ANNIVERSARY FOR MILLICAN, ROUTE 66 MAKE FOR JOYOUS DAY - In 1998, the Route 66 Raceway drag racing stadium opened outside of Chicago and one of the Top Fuel competitors was competing in his first NHRA major event.
Clay Millican’s debut was inauspicious for doing what he calls a “reverse burnout” that resulted for smoking the tires from stomping on the loud pedal when he headed back to the starting line after his accepted burnout.
It was not the best start.
Buster Couch, the late and legendary NHRA starter, was not impressed.
“He’s like, ‘I don’t know what you did before you got your Top Fuel license, but you might think about going back to it.’ He did not like me doing a reverse burnout.
While Couch didn’t know how persistent Millican was and is, Peter Lehman did.
“Peter Lehman was here. Peter Lehman is who gave me my start. He’s the one that took me from forklift driver to Top Fuel driver, and it was pretty cool to have Peter here to watch us win.
“This place is special, I mean it just is. When I first did this, my goal was just to drive one of these things. I never thought about winning to be honest with you. I just wanted to see what it was like to drive one, and Peter Lehman gave me that opportunity. It’s crazy, crazy, crazy for me to win at this track 20 years later.”
The popular Millican, who lives in Tennessee, was dominant in the much smaller International Hot Rod Association before he joined the NHRA Mello Yello Series full time.
He didn’t log his first NHRA Top Fuel title until a year ago at Bristol, Tennessee, and his Parts Plus/Great Clips/Strutmasters team led by crew chief David Grubnic and owned by Doug Stringer has developed this year into a championship contender.
Millican won the JEG’S Route 66 NHRA Nationals at Joliet, Illinois, on Sunday to earn his second consecutive event title and move to within 25 points of leader Steve Torrence, who lost in the first round after earning the No. 1 seed.
“It was such a crazy, crazy thing to win here. I’ve been in the final here once before, I lost to Tony (Schumacher).”
Millican won the last NHRA title two weeks ago at Topeka, Kansas.
“It’s really crazy,” he said. “You know, it took me 19 years to get that first one, and then less than a year to get the second one, and less than two weeks to get the third. I like this trend. This place is really special.”
Millican with crew chief David Grubnic and Doug Stringer’s Top Fuel team defeated Leah Pritchett of Don Schumacher Racing on Sunday in the final round that also moved him to within 25 points of leader Steve Torrence, who was the No. 1 qualifier and upset victim in the opening round of the JEG’S Route 66 Nationals at Joliet, Illinois.
“And we’re second,” Millican said. “So we’ve got to maintain going rounds. I mean obviously we want to keep winning and that’s the game plan and it’s easier to stay in the top-five if you do that. Gotta turn those win lights on. We want to be in the top 5 when they reset the points and as Grubby says, and I can’t do an Australian accent, ‘Last six races we’ll cut her loose.’ Like I said, we’re a small team, limited parts but the last six races, we’ll cut her loose.”
Pritchett also was in the other lane when Millican won the first NHRA title of his career a year ago at Bristol, Tennessee.
“I know we didn’t run fast, I know the (tires were) spinning, I think it put a couple holes out and I probably will get a call from an Australian (Grubnic) tomorrow. They were yelling at me on the radio ‘stop’ because they knew we had it won, and that right foot never let off the gas pedal until it crossed the finish line. I guess Leah must have smoked the tires. But it was a win, it was a win. I hope I didn’t hurt it because I’ll hear even more about it because we are a very small team with very limited budget. But it was pretty cool to win.”
It wasn’t an easy day for Millican and the Stringer team as they had to overcome a couple of odd moments.
In the semifinals against Doug Kalitta, Millican was leading when his parachutes deployed prematurely just before the finish line but Millican was able to hang on to win the race by about 3 feet.
“The chutes just fell out and it’s my fault because I pack ’em,” Millican said.
“Grubby gives me that horsepower and we got it done even when the chutes fell out. When you’re racing Doug Kalitta you just gotta go for it. I kept my foot in it and didn’t know why it was tugging.”
In the previous round after completing burnouts and returning to the starting line with opponent Scott Palmer, both were shut off moments before activating the Christmas tree because an NHRA miscommunication failed to alert the starter that one of the previous dragsters had yet to clear the finish line. After a brief delay to refill fuel, Millican was able to advance.
“Just one of those crazy things. No one did it on purpose.”
Pritchett moved up two sports to third in the standings.
UPSETS: The top-three qualifiers didn’t make it out of the first round.
Chicago native Luigi Novelli, 76, upset points leader and No. 1 qualifier Steve Torrence in the first round before losing in the quarterfinals. The round win was Novelli’s first since 2006 at National Trails Raceway near Columbus, Ohio. …
Nearly as shocking was when Kyle Wurtzel got passed reigning world champion and No. 2 qualifier Brittney Force to open the day …
It might not have been as big of an upset, but Billy Torrence, who qualified No. 14, sidelined eight-time world champ and Chicago native Tony Schumacher, who was seeded No. 3, in the first round. Jeff Wolf
HIGHT EARNS FIRST CAREER CHICAGO WIN - The list of tracks Robert Hight has won at during his illustrious drag racing career is a long one. He has won at Indy. He has won at Pomona. He has checked off Vegas, Denver and Gainesville to name a few more.
But Route 66 Raceway in Chicago, a track he holds fond memories of, is one that had eluded him.
Until Sunday, that is.
Hight overcame a gauntlet of Funny Car greats to earn his first Chicago win and first victory of the 2018 NHRA Mello Yello season with a win over Ron Capps Sunday at the 21st annual JEGS Route 66 NHRA Nationals.
“As a driver you want to win at every venue you go to and there is really not a better place than Chicago. I remember rolling in here as a crew guy thinking, ‘wow, look at this stadium.’ It’s kind of the first of its kind and it’s still one of the top spots in the country to race,” Hight said. “Overall, this was a great weekend for our team. It is our fourth final of the year and, while we haven’t won any races, last year we won the championship and didn’t win until Denver, so I am way ahead of last year.”
In his fourth final of the year and second in a row, Hight got away cleanly and held that advantage throughout as Capps hazed the tires early in the run to allow Hight to pull away for his 42nd career win. Hight, who reached the final from 12th on the ladder, recorded a 4.073-second pass at 310.63 mph in the Auto Club of Southern California Chevrolet Camaro Funny Car. Capps, in his first final of the year, limped across the line with a 4.310 at 230.21 mph.
“It was a great weekend for the entire team. Qualifying didn’t go so well, we qualified 12th which is not exactly where you want to qualify. I don’t even think I pulled the parachutes before first round. We just weren’t making it down the track,” Hight said. “But when you have a team like this behind you, you never lose faith. I always thought Chicago might have my number because this is my 14th time here and I’ve never won this race. I have been in some finals, but I finally got it done today and that is big for us.”
Hight had to overcome a brutal afternoon with hot, slick conditions and a tricky right lane while facing the likes of Capps, Bob Tasca, Courtney Force and Cruz Pedregon courtesy of his qualifying in the bottom half of the field. But outside of a lucky first-round pedalfest against Pedregon, Hight was quick and confident throughout the day.
“In the first round we spun (the tires), had to pedal it and really dodged a bullet. But once we got by first round we were able to get after it,” Hight said. “We had lane choice in the semis, but then Capps ran better and we were back in the right lane for the final. It was pretty cool to listen in on what (crew chief) Jimmy Prock was talking about. He was making tiny adjustments and I could feel it as a driver. I could feel it slipping and hooking and, I’m telling you, I don’t think there was a lot left.”
While the first round created plenty of excitement, Hight’s closest race of the afternoon came in round two against points leader and three-time race winner this season Force. A very close race came down to the final few feet as Hight collected the holeshot victory with a 4.064 at 316.97 to Force’s 4.058 at 312.42.
Capps had wins over John Force, Shawn Langdon and Justin Schriefer to reach the final
“Welcome to NHRA Mello Yello Funny Car racing,” Hight said. “That is what you are going to get when you win a race. You are going to go up against a lineup like that. There are no easy rounds anymore. We saw a lot of upsets first round. Look at us, I qualified 14th in Topeka and got to the final only to get beat by Courtney and then I qualified 12th here. When you win one of these things, you definitely earned it.”
Hight also noted the added challenge of Chicago’s hot and humid conditions adding an extra layer to a challenging day for the entire team.
“Now it is more important to keep that thing in the middle of the groove. The last few races I have won some rounds by pedaling and you’ve got to be ready for anything,” Hight said. “Traction just isn’t there and when you have a crew chief like Jimmy Prock, Chris Cunningham and when you hold both ends of the national record, these guys swing for the fences and want to be low ET every round. And when you are low ET, even on a greatly prepped track, you are right on the edge. It’s been a big learning curve for us and it’s going to still be a big learning curve. But I think maybe we turned a corner today.”
With the win, Hight leapfrogged Matt Hagan to move into third in the championship standings, 104 points back of Force.
While Hight’s first win in Chicago was certainly a major achievement for his team, it wasn’t the only milestone win for Hight and his family this week.
“One week ago my daughter won her first race in Junior Dragster out in California which was really cool,” Hight said. “She won before dad, so it’s been a cool week. To be honest, I am pretty excited about winning my first race of the year, but I think I was just as excited - maybe even more - having your daughter win her first.” Larry Crum
SMITH COMPLETES COMEBACK FROM DISAPPOINTMENT WITH ROUTE 66 TITLE - Matt Smith was eager for the 2018 NHRA Pro Stock season to open in April at Gainesville, Florida.
He was set for the 15-race season and to start riding for a new team and sponsor.
But the person with the big promises backed out at the last minute, and Smith pulled out his old bike and resumed developing a new engine with Victory motorcycles.
The two-time NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle world champion was undeterred and proved what his team is capable of Sunday when he won the JEG’S Route 66 NHRA Nationals at Joliet, Illinois, for his first title in four events this year and the 20th of his career.
He overcame a stiff crosswind and rider LE Tonglet to claim the NHRA Wally Trophy.
“It’s a testament to my crew,” Smith said. “These guys have stuck with me the last three or four years. We pulled this bike out after that other guy bailed on me at the last minute. We didn’t work on it all winter.”
It didn’t show at Route 66 Raceway when he and his wife, rider Angie Smith, qualified in the top-eight for eliminations.
“It’s a fast hot rod. It’s hateful,” he said of his Victory Magnum. “We proved it today by running (6.78 seconds), .78 and .79. It would have been in the .70s on the last run but the wind pushed me toward the (left) wall. I just about gave up, but I stayed with it. I had to ride it pretty hard in the final. It went left and kept going and going and going.
“I glanced over and didn’t see LE. (I thought) screw it. Richard (Freeman of Elite Performance) is buying me a new body for this thing. I was ready to tear it up.”
“I’m was just trying to win a race,” said Smith, who moved up to sixth in Mello Yello points heading to the next Pro Stock Motorcycle event June 21-24 at Norwalk, Ohio.
Smith defeated Steve Johnson, James Underdahl and No. 1 qualifier Andrew Hines to advance to his first championship round of the season and 46th in his career.
Smith, who won NHRA world titles in 2007 and 2013, resides in King, North Carolina.
NOTES: Points leader Eddie Krawiec was upset in the first round when it left 0.003 of a second too early to turn on the redlight. That allowed Vance & Hines teammate Andrew Hines to move into the Mello Yello lead by three points over Krawiec. …
It wasn’t a good weekend for the Liberty Racing team when former world champ Angelle Sampey did not qualify and teammate Cory Reed was unable to start his bike in round one. …
Hector Arana Jr. improved his track speed record in the category by going 200.89 mph, marking his third time over 200 He set the track record speed at 199.02 in the opening round then followed with 200.89 in the next round that is the second fastest ever. Jeff Wolf
MORE FORCE STRUGGLES – After a dreadful start to the 2018 season, 16-time Funny Car champion John Force appeared to have his volatile Funny Car back under control. Or so he thought.
During the Q-4 session Force was on a run when the car inexplicably took a right into the retaining wall, where it bounced off and on multiple times while shooting out a wall of flames. The car came to a stop, and a dazed Force emerged.
Force was checked out by onsite medical personnel and released.
“That was a little strange,” Force said. “I’ve had ‘em blow the tires off a million times and you can cover them. I thought it broke an axle. It made a right turn and stuffed me into the wall. I got it off and it put me right back into it. The body must have went down on the front tire. I couldn’t steer it, I think it hit the wall about three times. Then it took off!
“I reached out and hit the fuel shutoff to kill the engine. I know the routine, I know the drill. I had a handful, but I am in the race. I will be back tomorrow. This race car will never beat me. You understand that? It’s trying. But it ain’t gonna. I’m gonna fight this son of a b**** until I figure it out. Now, that’s a fact.”
TORRENTIAL TORRENCE - Steve Torrence remained No. 1 on the strength of his 3.677 second track record from Friday qualifying. The CAPCO-sponsored driver was also the quickest in Saturday’s sessions with a 3.746.
“I was really surprised (by the 3.677 run),” Torrence said of the sixth quickest run of his career. “Until last year’s win, I never had great success at Route 66 Raceway but now that we got the monkey off our backs we have a lot of confidence as a team that we can keep moving forward.”
Torrence will face veteran Luigi Novelli in the opening round. Although he is the only Top Fuel driver with multiple victories this season (three in eight races), this will be his first No. 1 start since last October when he set the pace at the AAA Texas Fall Nationals at Dallas.
With the 10 points he earned Friday and Saturday, the 35-year-old Texan now has earned at least one qualifying bonus point in 51 of the last 56 Mello Yello tour events. Over the last three years, he has earned a category-best 267 qualifying bonus points and has posted the quickest time in 42 of 220 overall qualifying sessions.
ANDERSON REPEATS THE FEAT - Greg Anderson held onto the top spot in Pro Stock after driving to a 6.546 at 211.03 in his Summit Racing Equipment Chevrolet Camaro during the second round of qualifying on Friday night. He now has 98 career No. 1 qualifiers and five this season, the most in the class.
“To have 98 career No. 1 qualifiers is quite a feather in the cap for this whole KB Racing Team, and to have low E.T. of every session this weekend is a good feeling going into Sunday,” Anderson said. “I’ve had a great qualifying car all year so far but we haven’t been able to get it done on Sunday, which we will try to change tomorrow.”
Anderson will go head-to-head with David River in the first elimination round.
Hagan faces off with Jonnie Lindberg in the opening elimination round. Hagan's teammate Ron Capps qualified second and matches up with Justin Schriefer for Sunday’s first round of eliminations.
A MASTERPIECE OF A PROGRAM - Scott Woodruff, Director of Media and Motorsports for JEGS, knows his role and happily embraces it.
Woodruff is challenged to paint the drag racing world in beautiful hues of yellow and black.
The JEGS All-Stars event is one of his finest masterpieces, a Rembrandt or Picasso of horsepower.
"It’s a really cool program," Woodruff explained. "Our goal from day one was to make it better and better each year, and we’re able to do that with the support from the racers and NHRA with the simple mentality of asking the racers and the competitors what are three things that you would like to see change or what are the three things that you don’t want to see changed and then kind of nitpick from there and try and make it better and better."
Woodruff understands the special race-within-a-race is not his creation. The competition comes from its earliest incarnations as the TRW All-stars and later the Federal-Mogul All-Stars.
JEGS was active in those programs but from a different role.
"The Coughlins all raced in it through the years, and it was always an event that we always liked because not only did it reward the individual accomplishments of the drivers that win, but it also brought a team element to it through the divisions, and that’s pretty unique in this sport," Woodruff explained. "I don’t think we really have kind of like a Ryder Cup format and that’s kind of what it is."
Because Woodruff and the Coughlins had intimate knowledge of the workings of the event, the transition over to sponsor was as seamless as one could hope for in 2001.
"We’re not a company that just slaps their name on things," Woodruff explained. "Our guys do it. They own the company, they’re vested in it, they love the sport, they love to compete. That’s what they like to do.
"We’ve had a lot of people say that racing the event, or have tried to get in the event, how good it feels to win the event," Coughlin explained. "They talk about how prestigious they feel about winning the event. We’ve had some racers tell us that they’re not sure what event they would rather win, whether it’s the JEGS All-Stars or the U.S. Nationals, and that’s a pretty bold statement to make in our sport.
"I think just the fact that you’ve got truly the best of the best from around the country in all seven divisions, all four regions, 10 classes. You know, there’s a lot of racers that don’t get a chance to race guys in Division 7 normally, guys or gals. So it makes it pretty fun."
Division 4 emerged as the big winner of the JEGS All-Star team title. The Western Region won the Top Alcohol crown.
PROFESSOR TASCA GIVES GOOD MARKS - Bob Tasca III says he would have bet his house and everything he owns that his Motorcraft Ford Funny Car would have won more than one eliminations round when the team arrived to compete in the ninth Mello Yello event of the year.
Fortunately, no one took the bet or the winner of four NHRA event titles would be homeless this weekend.
Tasca returned to full-time Funny Car racing with a new car and new team. He will start eliminations Sunday with a 1-8 record and ranked 13th in championship points.
“You have to look at our program in a couple of facets; we’re a start-up team with a lot of new parts and pieces,” he said.
But he didn’t return to racing after a brief respite with short-term goals as his priority so he is not disappointed how his team has done through eight of 24 Mello Yello races. He issued stellar marks at the end of the trimester.
“I give the team an A for effort because of how we’ve worked together and an A for just how much progressed with the racecar and how well we have qualified.”
His Ford Mustang has qualified in the top-five twice, most recently two weeks ago at Topeka, Kansas.
Tasca will start eliminations ranked 8th for Sunday’s eliminations in the JEG’S Route 66 Nationals at Joliet, Illinois, after posting his best run of the weekend in Saturday night’s last qualifying session with a time of 3.981 seconds to earn lane choice for the opening round.
“Clearly, I don’t have a very good grade for Sundays,” he said.
“For a lot of reasons, the ball has not bounced our way on Sunday. We’ve had some real oddball things happen like at Topeka when we threw a blower belt in the first round.
“We were the only car that made four full pulls in qualifying at Topeka and the weather was different for each one. At Charlotte in the Four-Wide we led the other three by a car length and a half when it blew up due to a mechanical failure. There have been two or three races when we could have beaten 10 or 12 other cars in the first round but we couldn’t beat the one we were racing.
“Sunday will come to us. I’m not happy with only one round win coming to Chicago. That’s what makes drag racing so gut-wrenching and winning so sweet.
“No one will be surprised when we leave with the trophy.”
‘GREEK’ IS HIP ON RETURN - It wouldn’t be a REAL nitro drag race in the Chicago area without having Chris “The Greek” Karamesines in the field of Top Fuel drag racers.
Karamesines wasn’t about to even let hip replacement surgery three months ago stop him from trying to qualify for this weekend’s JEG’S Route 66 Nationals in Joliet, Illinois.
The 86-year-old Chicagoan made his season debut on Friday when he was the 14th quickest qualifier, but was bumped from Sunday’s 16-car eliminations field on Saturday.
It was a victory just for him to be able to climb into the cockpit.
“I feel great,” he said before Saturday’s opening session. “I can get in and out of the car and that’s all that matters.”
He has continued to race part-time nationally through support from Don Schumacher Racing, Strange Axles and Lucas Oil.
But every little bit helps. He is the only NHRA driver offering T-shirts from the back of his relic fifth-wheel trailer hooked to a crew-cab dually pick-up that stands out from his competitors’ 18-wheel transporters and technical centers.
“I’m not supposed to,” he said of the souvenir distribution. “Fans make a donation for me to run this car, and I give them a shirt.”
Karamesines was one of the nation’s best match racers after starting his career in 1952.
In 1960, he became the first drag racer to break the 200-mph barrier at an event in Alton, Ill.
THE LEGEND OF BO AND THE ROD MAN - Bo Butner understands the importance of a great conversational piece.
Lately, folks are talking about Butner's hero card stand more commonly known as Rod Man and his dog, works of art created out of used connecting rods.
Make no mistake about it; this is art created by his crewchief Darrell Herron.
"Everybody wants them," Butner admitted. "I’ve been offered retarded money for the dog. As a matter of fact, Jonathan Gray took it hostage for half a season. It was hiding in the trailer, which I actually bought his trailer so there it was."
Before you laugh, Butner averages selling two of the Rod Dogs per event from the Nitro Fish apparel trailer.
"He just keeps making them when he goes home," Butner explained. "If anybody knows where he can find some rods and pistons he’s looking for more all the time. It’s a cool deal."
Right now, the Rod Man is not for sell but the dogs retail for $400.
FOUR-WEEK RUN A CRUISE FOR PEDREGON - Two-time NHRA Funny Car world champion Cruz Pedregon isn’t dreading the “June swoon” on the Mello Yello tour that features four events on each weekend of this month that starts with the JEG’S Route 66 NHRA Nationals near Chicago.
The series follows with races at Richmond, Virginia then travels to Bristol, Tennessee, before ending in Norwalk, Ohio.
It’s the longest string of races in the 18-race regular season.
“The car owners, drivers and crew chiefs fly to the races so we’re not putting in extra time,” he said. “But I like to be busy. The start of the year is harder for me when we only race every two or three weeks.
“It’s only really hard when there’s a lot of damage (to the racecar). It’s the crew guys and guys who drive these trucks who put in the extra time. It’s nice to reward them with some round wins so they can share in the prize money.”
Pedregon was able to share his winner’s share when he snapped a 92-race non-winning streak in late April by winning the Four-Wide Nationals near Charlotte.
“If you’re around long enough you’ll go through what I did. It’s hard when you go into a dry spell, and everyone is asking you what’s wrong.
“You have to weather the storm and fight through it. The Four Wide (win) put us on a different level. I get up in the morning and I’m excited.”
He qualified fifth at Route 66 in his Snap-on Toyota with a time of 3.969 seconds. He has started in the top five at four of the last five events and in the top half of the 16-car field in six consecutive races.
He believes his performance has been helped by allowing crew chief Aaron Brooks to make more of the calls and has added Glen Huszar as an assistant and team manager.
“My job now is easier than it has been the past five or six years with Aaron Brooks is making the calls and having Glen manage the team. That’s let me float around and be more of the owner.”
And Pedregon needed that freedom Saturday when he was joined at the race by Snap-on Tools chairman and chief executive Nick Pinchuk and Snap-on Tools Group president Tom Kassouf.
BRITTANY HEADS INTO SUNDAY NO. 2 - The defending Top Fuel world champion Brittany Force qualified second for the weekend with a 3.721 at 329.34 in her Advance Auto Parts/Monster Energy dragster on Friday, as she will face off against Kyle Wurtzel in eliminations.
HECTOR HAMMERS NEARLY TO THE TOP - Hector Arana Jr. secured the second qualifying spot after a 6.852 at 197.45 in the final qualifying pass on Saturday, as he prepares for Marc Ingwersen on Sunday.
THE CAT IS SPOT ON - Top Fuel driver Scott Palmer drove his CatSpot Organic Cat Litter dragster to a steady 3.839-second pass at 326.24 mph to secure a mid-pack starting spot.
As he predicted, the Top Fuel race day grid is packed with great cars, with positions 3-13 separated by less than a tenth of a second.
"We added Jason (McCulloch, championship-winning tuner) to the team this weekend and because he's new to our operation we are taking measured steps together," Palmer said. "We've got to see some runs with Jason's ideas mixed in there. It'll take a little time but we knew that.
"Basically, there was one really good qualifying session here (on Friday night) and we couldn't be as aggressive as we wanted because we haven't been getting the 60-foot times we need to run the bigger numbers. They're prepping the track differently lately and its thrown everyone a little bit of a curve ball.
"We were actually trying to run a 3.79-3.82 and it ran a 3.83 so we didn't miss it by much. Once we get the 60-foot figured out, we'll run mid-3.70s all day."
"Today, we got up there and it was hot so we tried to repeat the 3.83, which we did," he said. "It ran exactly like it was supposed to in Q3. In the last session, we tried some things to improve the 60-foot numbers and ran it out there to the eighth mile before we put a cylinder out and the guys shut me off. The good news is with the 60-foot and 330-foot numbers we ran right there, we would have put a 3.76 on the scoreboard, so that's what we wanted to know. We got our short numbers back where they should be.
"The cooler weather will help everyone, so we'll need to be ready to run. We've been a little too cautious in the clutch system but we put it back where it's supposed to be and that proved out this afternoon. You don't ever want to change everything at one time, because if it doesn't fix what you're working on you've got to start all over again."
As the No. 12 qualifier, Palmer will open racing against fifth-ranked T.J. Zizzo, a local favorite who is racing for the first time this year. Zizzo posted a best pass of 3.771 at 326.48 mph.
KILLING THEM WITH CONSISTENCY – Blake Alexander wasn’t the quickest and the fastest all weekend, but what he was, was able to run it to the finish line under power all four sessions. Alexander, driving for Bob Vandergriff Racing, recorded a 3.843, 3.781, 3.897 and a 3.836 to end up sixth in the field. He races Richie Crampton in Sunday’s first round.
SWEET SPOT – Terry McMillen bookended his best performances in qualifying. His ended qualifying with a 3.796, 323.97 to end up ninth. He races Doug Kalitta in the first round.
Crew chief Rob Wendlend revealed the tip which put the Amalie Oil team on the right path. “We put more cowbell in it,” he offered.
MAKING PROGRESS - Shawn Langdon qualified in the top three in both of Saturday’s sessions – earning bonus points for the first time since moving over to Funny Car after last season. Overall, the 2013 Top Fuel champion registered his best qualifying performance since Gainesville with a seventh. He will race Tommy Johnson Jr. in eliminations.
ANTRON'S BEST IN Q4 - In Top Fuel, Antron Brown saved his best run for last with a 3.781-second pass to jump into the top half of the field in qualifying seventh. He will face Leah Pritchett in the first round on Sunday.
NOT A STELLAR DAY - J.R. Todd struggled in Friday’s key final qualifying session which set most of the top half of the field, but bounced back to run his two best passes of the weekend on Saturday. Todd was the quickest Funny Car in Saturday’s first session, earning three bonus points. It marked the eighth time in nine races that he has earned bonus points for placing in the top three of a qualifying session.
Todd races Bob Tasca in round one of eliminations.
"We are going down the track, just not with the times we would like to," Todd explained. "We are not going to have lane choice going into tomorrow, but I am not sure that matters here at Route 66 Raceway. If we keep going down the track like we did today, this DHL/WIX Filters team will be in really good shape."
MADE IT, BARELY - Jonnie Lindberg didn't have the best of qualifying sessions. He never made it to the finish line under power throughout qualifying. He almost did, running a 4.463, 263.36 to land him in the No. 16 spot. He races Matt Hagan on Sunday.
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK – SHOWCASING PERFORMANCE UNDER THE LIGHTS
BRIDGING THE GAP - Matt Hagan jumped atop the Funny Car category with a run of 3.917 at 326.79 in his Mopar Express Lane Dodge Charger R/T recorded during his second qualifying pass on Friday.
The two-time world champion is on the hunt for his second No. 1 qualifier of the year and first since the season-opening event in Pomona, where he also earned his lone victory of the season.
“This was a great run for us, and I think we have started to close the gap on some of the cars that we’re chasing in the standings,” Hagan said.
“I feel like we have everything dialed in and I’m very confident with the direction we are headed.”
RADICAL CHANGE PAYS OFF FOR CAPPS, TOBLER - A year ago at the ninth event of the Mello Yello season, Ron Capps and the NAPA AUTO PARTS Dodge Charger R/T led by crew chief Rahn Tobler arrived having won four of the first eight events including four straight en route to collecting eight trophies in 24 Mello Yello races but fell one round short of winning a second consecutive world title.
The NAPA Dodge also won the 13th race of the year when it was held in July at Route 66 Raceway near Chicago.
And Tobler did it with a five-disc clutch configuration and as one of the few top teams to shun the six-disc setup.
Toward the end of last year, Tobler began using six discs and continued with it until the team arrived at Chicago this weekend when it was moved up from July to the first weekend in June.
After a disappointing start to this season that has produced only two semifinals and being mired 7th in points, Tobler switched back to his proven clutch system and it paid off Friday night with a time of 3.921 seconds at 325.92 mph that ranks second to teammate Matt Hagan’s 3.917 heading to Saturday’s last two qualifying sessions.
The NAPA team rallied from a body-killing engine explosion in the opening session.
“We’ve had so many little things get in the way this year, and some were related to the six-disc,” Capps said.
“Tobler was one of the first crew chiefs to have success with six discs a few years ago but he went back to five discs when we won the 2017 world championship and almost repeated last year. But he just wasn’t feeling comfortable with it and decided to go back to what won for us.
“With the way NHRA started to change track prep it made sense, and it showed last night.”
Capps referred to NHRA cutting from a 75- to 65-percent mixture of traction compound to alcohol.
PLAYING A HOME GAME - T.J. Zizzo was at the track Friday by Noon, and by his estimation was five hours too late. Friday’s qualifying wasn’t scheduled until 5 PM.
“We’re getting everyone back into the swing of things,” Zizzo admitted. “We always are working on this race car, every Tuesday, every Sunday, all year long no matter how many races we go to. There’s always something to do on these race cars. But we’re getting re-familiar with awnings, extension cords, air hoses and pit mats. We’re kind of getting organized and up to speed and trying to just get last minute details taken care of before we fire this thing at 4:30.”
Zizzo learned a long time ago; the devil is in the detail when it comes to Top Fuel racing.
“A couple of years ago I took a different approach to this deal,” Zizzo admitted. “My approach was always appearance. My approach was always fans first. It was always making sure everything was clean and tidy. It was always making sure that everyone was organized in our pit area, everyone had the right stuff. The past couple of years I’ve taken a different approach. My hands are more on this race car every day.”
Make no mistake about it, Zizzo wants to win, and rolls through the gates at any race not just hoping to qualify or win a round, he wants to win the whole thing and believes he can.
“That’s our goal,” Zizzo said. “That is absolutely our goal. It’s been our goal for the past three years. Yeah, we run on a limited basis, I get it and I understand that. I understand that I haven’t driven this car for eight months, but we work our ass off on this thing and we come here with all the correct parts. Period. Probably more than Matt Hagan next to us. We have what it takes to win.
“I think years past it may have been a fantasy, but I think what’s going on in this sport right now, things are coming to us, so we’re not underfunded when we come here period. I never complain about that. Sure, we don’t have the knowledge of going down the race track like other people do surrounding us. But we learn a lot of stuff not being here.
“Sometimes when you go to a race track, you lose track and focus on what it really takes to do this. And when you sit back a little bit, you watch it on All Access, you get a good understanding of what this car needs. And we have a lot of good friends in this pit area, that are always showing us the correct direction of what to do.”
Zizzo might not race a full schedule, but his per race budget, he counsels, can rank right up there with the leading teams.
Oh, to run a full 24-race schedule.
“You hear me swallow in my throat?” Zizzo asked. “You hear that? I would love to have the opportunity. Someday I would love the opportunity to race a full schedule..John Force, I think he was in his 40’s or something the first time he won. I’m in my 40’s now. So It is attainable, it just has to be the right decision, right thought process, right guys. Right now, I would just like to win with who we have. Because some of these guys that have surrounded me for the past 26 years, 15 years in our pit area, they’re the guys who have stood behind this car for a long period of time. To win with these guys would mean the world to me.”
And winning would be worth arriving at 6 AM, for a 5 PM start.
MILLICAN LOOKS FOR TWO-RACE WIN STREAK - This weekend is sort of a homecoming for Tennessean Clay Millican and the Illinois-based Stringer Performance Top Fuel team located about 300 miles south of Chicago and Route 66 Raceway.
And Millican couldn’t imagine a better race than this weekend’s Jeg’s Route 66 NHRA Nationals to post the first back-to-back wins of his career.
Millican won the second title of his career two weeks ago at Topeka, Kansas.
“Nothing will top my win last year at Bristol, but winning this weekend would come close,” said Millican, who ranks second in Mello Yello points with four No. 1 qualifying efforts and three semifinals finishes.
“Grubby and our team has worked to get us away from being one-hit wonders,” Millican said. “Last year we had a lot of good runs but weren’t putting them together. At Topeka, we made good runs every time out and the conditions seemed to be different every time.
“That’s what is making us a top-five team. We’ve been consistent and that wins races.”
HINES LEADS THE WAY - The Pro Stock Motorcycle class was paced by Andrew Hines, who used a 6.862 at 193.90 on his Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson from his first qualifying run to lead the pack. He is aiming for his second No. 1 qualifier of the season and first since Gainesville in March.
“This weather is really strange out here, it’s not our typical conditions in Chicago but we will take it because we have our street rod No. 1,” Hines said. “We’re happy all around and my guys are eager to come out here tomorrow to try and get some quicker times.”
His teammate and the category points leader Eddie Krawiec currently sits second with an identical 6.862 at 193.24 during the second round.
MCCULLOCH JOINS PALMER - A recent shake-up at John Force Racing opened a door for a new opportunity for second generation crew chief Jason McCulloch.
McCulloch, whose father Ed “Ace” McCulloch is a true legend in the sport, arrived at Route 66 Raceway on Thursday as the new crew chief for Scott Palmer’s CatSpot Organic Cat Litter Top Fuel Dragster.
Before joining JFR, the younger McCulloch had won world titles with Al-Anabi Racing and Don Schumacher Racing before last year combining with Brian Husen on JFR’s Top Fuel dragster driven by Brittany Force to win another world title.
“It wasn’t just his resume but his bloodline isn’t too bad either,” said Palmer, who was runner-up near Phoenix in this season’s second event but has dropped out of the top-10 in Mello Yello points.
JFR moved Ronnie Thompson to become co-crew chief with Jon Schaffer on John Force’s Peak Camaro Funny Car to fill the void left by McCulloch’s departure.
McCulloch has many years of experience working with Top Fuel guru Alan Johnson and Richard Hogan, who is the crew chief at Torrence Racing that supports the CatSpot team.
“Adding Jason to the mix shows we’re serious about what we’re doing,” Palmer said of the Tommy Thompson Motorsports team. “He knows how to go fast and since we basically run a slightly more conservative version of Steve (Torrence’s) tune-up, which Jason already knows from all his time with Richard and Alan Johnson. We’re very hopeful this is going to enhance our program.”
Palmer also said the addition of McCulloch will take some of the strain off Torrence’s CAPCO team and enhance the collective IQ of its brain trust.
CAT'S IN THE CRADLE AND VICE VERSA -One of the biggest chores in preparation for defending a title is to scope out the toughest competition, even if you came forth from their loins. Over the course of the last few events on the 24-race NHRA Top Fuel schedule, one of the most intense challenges to Steve Torrence's bids to win has been from Billy Torrence, his father.
“We’re both real competitive,” Steve said.
“He wants to beat me as bad as I want to beat him,” Billy added.
They first opposed one another in Super Comp before Steve moved up to the Top Alcohol Dragster class where he won the 2005 NHRA championship. Now they have renewed their rivalry in the sport’s ultimate category.
“It’s a big deal, whether it’s getting off the starting line first or getting to the finish line first," Billy explained. You lose and you don’t only hear about it at work (both are active in the family-owned oil pipeline business) but you hear about it at dinner, too”
So far, to his great relief, the Mello Yello point leader has had his say at dinner, winning all three times he has raced his dad including in the opening quad of the inaugural Denso 4Wide Nationals at Las Vegas this year where he advanced but his dad did not even though they recorded identical 3.811 second times.
The cornerstone of the rivalry, however, was a semifinal meeting at the Arizona Nationals last February in which Steve emerged the winner in 3.722 seconds at 328.86 mph over Billy’s 3.726 at 328.54 mph.
“The only thing that would have been better was if it was in the final round,” mused the younger Torrence, who has finished third and second in Top Fuel points the last two seasons while winning a category-best 11 times.
SISTER ACT - For the first time since they raced in the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series divisions, NHRA Top Fuel champion Brittany Force and current Funny Car point leader Courtney Force will share a common major sponsor.
“I am so excited Brittany and I will both be in red Advance Auto Parts race cars this weekend,” said Courtney Force. “We don’t get to race in the same class so this is a fun opportunity for us to do something together. We have been No. 1 qualifiers together and we have had the chance to double up on wins, we can hope we can seal the deal in our matching Advance Auto Parts cars.”
It isn't like the siblings haven't done significant things together before. While they have never shared a winner’s circle, the Forces have on three occasions qualified No. 1 including earlier this season at the Charlotte Four-Wide Nationals and twice in 2014 in Topeka, Kan. and then again in Sonoma, Calif.
Brittany Force was second quickest after Friday’s qualifying with a 3.721 at 329.34 in her Advance Auto Parts / Monster Energy dragster.
JOHNSON LANDS LOCAL DEAL - Two-time U.S. Nationals champ Steve Johnson is racing this weekend with the support of Joliet-based business Mac Rak, a warehouse storage rack safety specialist..
Mac Rak's owners Shawn and Pam MacDonald have watched drag racing for a long time.
“First and foremost, Pam and I really enjoy NHRA with the speed and the ground pounding excitement,” said MacDonald. “Then we met Steve Johnson (Pro Stock Motorcycle racer) who we have watched for years. The more we chatted the more things just started to jell. We thought, ‘let’s share the NHRA experience with our employees as a thank you and a sign of appreciation for their work and loyalty to Mac Rak.”
“It might be a little corny, but I’m proud to celebrate 20 years of NHRA here in Joliet," added Johnson. "As a team owner, I have an idea of the challenges business owners (like the track) go through to stay afloat. However this weekend our role increases because beyond trying to win the event, we also want to support our sponsor Mac Rak.
On the racer’s side of things, winning in your sponsor’s hometown is pretty cool. Imagine coming home and surprising your spouse with the info you got a huge promotion that you had been working on for years. That feeling translates perfectly to what it would feel like Monday after the race walking into Mac Rak with the Jegs Route 66 Nationals trophy. I will tell you that I am truly grateful for this opportunity.”
BRING ON THE RAPID FIRE - Robert Hight enjoys the rapid-fire portion of the NHRA Mello Drag Racing Series, the part in the 24-race schedule when there are four weeks of consecutive racing. The avid trap shooter has learned to cross-pollinate the two worlds he has become so proficient at.
Hight scored an improbable final round finish two weeks ago in Topeka when he worked his way to the final round from the No. 14 seed in the 16-car field.
“We learned a lot in Topeka with that runner-up finish,” said Hight. “I am ready to get four in a row going. I like the month of June when we are racing every single weekend. Chicago is on my bucket list for race tracks where I want to get a win. I haven’t been able to check off that box yet. I feel like our Auto Club Camaro is good enough and I have a lot of confidence in my driving.”
Hight has three runner-up finishes so far this season, so performance is not an issue.
“We have been to three finals in eight races," Hight explained. "We haven’t gotten a win yet but we have a lot of new parts on this race car and we have a new engine combination, We are learning now and it shows a lot of potential. The new track prep makes it a little tougher for a car like us because we are out there trying to run low ET every run. We are going to adapt and we will be right there in the mix throughout the summer and into the Countdown.”
MILESTONE STILL IN PLAY - A Kalitta Motorsports sweep of Top Fuel and Funny Car this weekend would give team owner Connie Kalitta his 99th and 100th victories as a team owner. The team has four wins to date this season and has registered five previous wins at Route 66 Raceway, including three by Doug Kalitta (2002, 2004 and 2006).
THE MEMORIES OF DAYS GONE BY - Tim Wilkerson's first national event win in a nitro Funny Car came at Route 66 Raceway in 1999, when he defeated John Force for the title.
"Definitely my favorite memory," Wilkerson said. "Up until that point of the year, either him or Tony Pedregon had won every race. We were real lucky to beat him that day, and it was really a lot of fun. We were so excited. I will never forget Force coming up to me and saying, 'I told [crew chief, Austin] Coil, remember when it was fun to win?' It was a great day, and one we'd sure like to repeat."
Route 66 Raceway is considered a home game for Wilkerson, who lives in Springfield, Ill.
FINDING THEIR GROOVE - Team Liberty's riders Cory Reed and Angelle Sampey haven't been bad this season, but clearly not as good as they would have liked to be.
But this weekend, things appear to be on an upward trajectory.
“We’re starting to feel more like a team,” Reed said. “I think everybody is happier since we switched over to the Buell body and our performance has definitely picked up; it was a good move for our team overall. We made a lot of new changes and it seems like everyone on the team is happy with those changes and it’s already starting to pay off for us; our operation feels more like a package than ever now.”
“Since Atlanta, I’ve been in Ohio at Larry Morgan’s shop and we’ve gone through the whole bike and Ken [Johnson] has been able to do the same with Angelle’s bike back at our shop in Cordele. Our Team Liberty Racing group is only getting started and I think the future is bright.”
Sampey reached the semi-finals last month in Atlanta, the most recent event for the bikes.
“I told Cory and the rest of the guys on my PSE/Team Liberty Racing team that after switching back to the Buells and my semifinal performance in Atlanta, I finally have my fire back,” Sampey said. “I’m ready to win. Last year, we were excited when we could get a round win and now I’m heading to each race knowing I have a chance to win it and that feels great.”
FINALLY! - Coming off his first win in the Top Alcohol Dragster class in the JEGS.com McPhillips Racing racecar, Troy Coughlin Jr. managed to make the field of the prestigious Allstars race for the first time in his young career.
"I've been wanting to be a part of this race since childhood," Troy Jr. said. "This is a huge honor for me. Racing as a team for our division and region is so exciting by itself. To think about winning the JEGS Allstars is beyond any dream I've ever had but after the last race we certainly know it's possible for this McPhillips team. We'll hold nothing back."
THERE FROM THE START - Tony Schumacher remains the driver with the most wins in Route 66 Raceway history. He scored victories in 2003, 2005, 2008, 2013 and 2015
“I was there when they built (Route 66 Raceway), and at the time for me to have a big track like that being built, and watching it going up was awesome. Chicago is filled with iconic sports facilities and figures. The list is long and distinguished and you just have so much pride trying to live up to what those legendary athletes have done.
“We’ve won that race five times and had some great runs there. When you have a track that you’re successful at, you like going back there. And not to mention, for so many years it was my home, and my friends were there. It was always a pressure cooker, because you’re racing in front of your buddies."