2018 NHRA MIDWEST NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
TORRENCE SLOUGHS OFF DRAMA, BEATS MILLICAN IN TOP FUEL FINAL - As Steve Torrence sat inside his Capco Contractors Dragster, champing at the bit to grab a seventh Top Fuel trophy this season and 23rd overall, the drama unexpectedly and shockingly became even more intense Sunday at Gateway Motorsports Park.
Directly in front of him, in the same left lane, Funny Car winner Robert Hight’s violent engine explosion and fiery, wall-banging accident ratcheted the tension. Perhaps for Torrence it triggered memories of his own vicious wreck at Dallas last fall, the one that destroyed the best dragster he said he ever had, the crash that helped derail his championship-in-waiting, the one that shaped the very disposition he already had been displaying all weekend.
Torrence already was intense. He had been laser-focused during the entire AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals, even before.
“Like Braveheart, I’m just going in swinging, chopping, trying to kill everybody,” he said only partially joking.
That’s his mentality right now. He came into the Countdown as the No. 1 seed and wanted to wipe out any opposition, anything that stood in his way. That fierceness propelled him to the No. 1 qualifying position, as he grabbed it away from closest rival Clay Millican. And here he was, sitting just a few feet away from Millican and his Parts Plus/Great Clips/Strutmaster Dragster, knowing Millican’s resolve is what earned him six consecutive IHRA Top Fuel titles.
Moreover, Torrence’s longtime crew chief Richard Hogan was just hours away from checking into The Cleveland Clinic for heart surgery Tuesday. Torrence, who suffered a heart attack himself recently as an unwanted side effect to the chemotherapy he underwent in battling cancer as a teenager, understood the gravity of that. So he carried the weight of his world on his shoulders as he climbed from his car during the Safety Safari’s handling of Hight’s incident then back into the cockpit and tried to refocus.
But he was able to push everything from his mind except beating Millican to the finish line. He did that with a better reaction time than Millican’s (.043 seconds to .083) and a 3.770-second elapsed time at 323.66 mph to the happy-but-scrappy Tennessean’s 3.798, 320.28. The margin of victory on the 1,000-foot course at Madison, Ill., officially was 0.0685 seconds, about 32 feet. The more significant gap is the one opened up in the standings. He increased his points lead from 50 over Millican and Tony Schumacher to 70 over Millican and 121 over now-third-seeded Schumacher with four races to play out.
“First and foremost – all the glory goes to God. We ran the table on ‘em. We showed ‘em how it’s done,” Torrence said immediately after recording his second straight Countdown to the Championship triumph in as many playoff races so far.
“This is going to be a really hard-fought war, and I couldn’t have a better group of guys to be backing me up. I put my faith in them, and they give me a race car every time. I’m blessed and fortunate to be part of that team,” he said. “I’m very confident going forward. This is all we could’ve asked for to start the Countdown.
“Clay and Grubby [Millican crew chief Dave Grubnic] are running really hard. And that’s who I think right now we’re going to have to go toe to toe with for this championship,” Torrence said. “Bad’s when you’re capable of beating the baddest, and right now we’re doing pretty good.”
After all, Millican has qualified No. 1 eight times this year, set low elapsed time at nine races, and clocked top speed of the meet at seven events – all class bests.
Torrence said Grubnic and Millican and crew “have turned that car around to where it’s way more consistent than it was. They’re going to be a contender. They’re going to be tough to deal with. We’ve got to get these points early and try to get ahead with the luck of the draw for Pomona. And you get points and half. However that crap works, I mean, you’ve got to get as many of ‘em as possible early.
The Kilgore, Texas, native has led the points for the past 19 races, thanks to victories at Phoenix, Las Vegas, Charlotte, Richmond, Epping, and Reading. But this repeat triumph at the suburban St. Louis racetrack marks the first time all year he has won from the top-qualifying position. It also slides him onto the class’ all-time top-10 winning list.
Torrence dedicated his victory to Hogan – “the lifeblood of this team,” he called him – and said, “Our hearts and prayers are with him. This one’s for Hoagie.” Celebrating on the podium with him Sunday were Tanner Gray (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle).
To reach his 37th career final-round appearance, Torrence eliminated Bill Litton and Mike Salinas, then put Leah Pritchett on the trailer and probably his own clutch man Gary Pritchett – Leah’s husband – on the couch.
“Very seldom do I win races,” Torrence said. “It’s the team and the race car I’m in. I just drive the car. I did my job and took off on time today. My comfort level in the car is very high right now, and I go up there and just drive. You don’t think about anything. When you’re able to drive that car, it makes you look good.”
As for Hight’s situation, Torrence took it in stride. Initially he discussed the long and short of it: “These things blow up, catch on fire, run into things.” A bit later he said he knows what Hight is experiencing because it happened to him in almost the same manner about one year ago. “I’ve been there. I’m thankful The Good Lord has His hand over him and kept him safe. Congrats to Robert for winning. That’s a pretty spectacular way to win: blow up, catch on fire, cross the finish line, and still win. He’s not here to do the interviews, but that’s pretty awesome. But it doesn’t affect you. That’s what we do. We drive Top Fuel cars. They catch on fire, they blow up, stuff falls off, you hit things. It’s just part of it. We know the risk when we get in ‘em, and NHRA has a great safety program. I’d rather have a wreck in this thing than I would in my pick-up, drivin’ down the highway.”
Millican was racing in his third final of the season and 12th in his NHRA career. He advanced to the final past Shawn Reed, Antron Brown, and surprise semifinalist Pat Dakin (who stunned Billy Torrence and Tony Schumacher, relishing his spoiler role).
Using a name Millican often calls himself, Torrence said to his determined foe at the top end of the track, “Good job, Hillbilly.”
But Torrence knows this is just a reprieve. This isn’t the last he’ll see of the Drummonds, Tenn., native who was the back-to-back winner at Topeka and Chicago. He just wants to make sure he won’t be hearing the Tennessee anthem “Rocky Top.” He prefers “The Eyes Of Texas Are Upon You.”
The eyes of Texas will be upon these Mello Yello Drag Racing Series drivers in two weeks at the Texas Motorplex at Ennis, just south of Dallas. Susan Wade
HIGHT SURVIVES EXPLOSIVE FINAL ROUND, WINS ST. LOUIS - This isn’t the way veteran nitro Funny Car driver Robert Hight would have written the script, but in the end, everything worked out for him in St. Louis.
In the finals of the AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals Sunday, Hight clocked a 4.036-second run at 276.29 mph to defeat Tim Wilkerson’s 4.413-second pass at 201.91 mph in the second race of the Countdown to the Championship.
Moments after Hight took the win light, things got scary as his Chevy Camaro suffered an engine explosion that blew the body off the car and then the car hit the retaining wall.
Fortunately, Hight was able to walk away from the crash. He was then transported to a local hospital for further evaluation.
“First, we are happy Robert is Ok,” said John Force in a press release. “He went to a local hospital to be checked out and after being x-rayed and evaluated he was scheduled to be released (Sunday night). I’m glad Robert has the points lead and now we are going to rest and get ready for Dallas.”
There are four races left in the 2018 NHRA season at Dallas, Texas (Oct. 4-7), Carolina Nationals (Oct. 12-14) in Charlotte, Las Vegas (Oct. 25-28) and Pomona, Calif. (Nov. 8-11).
Thanks to winning in St. Louis, Hight, the reigning nitro Funny Car world champion, took over the season points lead. He has a 30-point lead over second-place J.R. Todd.
Hight, who also won the 2009 nitro Funny Car world championship, now has 44 career national event wins, and three this season. It also was Hight’s 10th career Countdown race win and 90th Countdown round win, both are tops in the nitro Funny Car category.
Hight’s victory parade Sunday consisted of wins over Dale Creasy Jr., John Force, Tommy Johnson Jr. and then Wilkerson. Hight won the event from the No. 1 qualifying position with his 3.844-second run at 326.16 mph. He also collected nine bonus points throughout the weekend as he was the quickest in Q1, Q3, and Q4.
Hight left first by a small margin in the finals and then Wilkerson began to haze the tires. Hight blew up in the other lane just past the finish line, but managed to still get the win.
“The track today was a little dicey for me, and I lost control of what I was doing out there, but I really felt like I had it reeled back in for the final,” said Wilkerson in a press release. “Looking at it, it was dead-on what I wanted it to do, but it just came loose out there in the middle. I'm real glad Robert was okay after that. Hopefully, we'll keep going rounds when we get to Dallas. That was the plan coming into this Countdown deal, and we're sticking to it."
Courtney Force, Wilkerson and Ron Capps are in the No. 3 through No. 5 spots in the points standings.
Hight is trying to become just the fifth nitro Funny Car driver to win back-to-back world championships and the first to do so in the Countdown Era. The last to accomplish the feat was John Force whose streak of 10 straight titles ended in 2002. The other back-to-back champions are Don Prudhomme (1975-1978), Raymond Beadle (1979-1981) and Kenny Bernstein (1985-1988). Tracy Renck
PRO STOCK STAR GRAY MAKES IT THREE WINS IN A ROW - Make it a hat trick for Pro Stock standout Tanner Gray.
Gray, who pilots his family-owned Gray Motorsports Valvoline Chevy Camaro, won his third race in a row by capturing the title at the AAA Insurance Midwest Nationals Sunday near St. Louis.
Gray clocked a 6.567-second run at 211.06 mph to defeat Drew Skillman’s 11.409-second lap in the finals.
Gray also remains atop the season points standings as he has a 52-point lead over second-place Vincent Nobile with four races to go in the Countdown to the Championship.
“This is pretty cool,” said Gray, 19. “Throughout qualifying, we didn’t run as well as we should have. When we were making nice runs we just never really got aggressive enough. It was cool to see everybody keep their head on straight and come in today and know that the only day that matters is Sunday and fight back and get a win.”
This was Gray’s class-high sixth win this season and the 11th of his two-year career in only 44 races. Gray’s 11 career wins match the total of legendary of Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins.
Gray’s winning streak consists of victories at Indianapolis, Reading, Pa., and St. Louis. He also had wins at Las Vegas, Sonoma, Calif., and Brainerd, Minn., earlier this season.
During Gray’s victory march, he beat Chris McGaha, Erica Enders, Vincent Nobile and then Skillman.
“That round win against Vincent was huge,” Gray said. “I feel like all of us did a really good job of just taking it round-by-round and not really looking at the big picture and focusing on what we had to do. I’m just super proud of everybody over there for that because it is pretty tough to do. I figured that out last year. Even coming into the first race (of the Countdown at Reading, Pa.), I went back to the shop and I was sitting down with our manager Kevin, and I told him ‘I’m stressed out. I can’t sleep at night, but everything is coming together, and it is really neat to see. It’s cool to sit back from my point of view because the only thing I do is drive. It’s really gratifying for me to see these guys have the work they put in pay off.”
Gray had one win in the Countdown to the Championship a year ago at Charlotte, N.C., but couldn’t capitalize on that momentum as he finished fourth in the point standings. He lost in the first round in St. Louis in 2017, thanks to a red-light start against Deric Kramer.
“Coming into today, I really had the same mindset as I had last year,” Gray said. “Last year at Charlotte even though I won, I felt like I was racing scared. I felt like I was racing scared at Reading (Pa.) and I was like man, I just can’t do that. You have to lay it all on the line in the Countdown and if it works out in your favor then it works out and if not, you have to know you gave it your best and it just wasn’t meant to be. That’s how I came into this weekend. I felt like it showed as far as my reaction times. I wasn’t quite as quick as I thought I needed to be today, but I was consistent and I’m proud of that.”
There are four races left in the 2018 NHRA season at Dallas, Texas (Oct. 4-7), Carolina Nationals (Oct. 12-14) in Charlotte, Las Vegas (Oct. 25-28) and Pomona, Calif. (Nov. 8-11).
“I’m super happy to be here and really excited to see what the rest of the year holds,” Gray said. “Whether we win the championship or not, at the end of the day, I’m still going to go home and be really proud of everything we have accomplished. I really wouldn’t want to work with any other group of guys. I feel like I really don’t have any interest of driving for anybody else. Obviously, we want to win the championship out here and that’s the main goal, but at the end of the day, there’s more things to life than racing. That’s what our manager Kevin talked to me about and I really think it helped coming in here because I went from stressing and worrying about each round to thinking whatever happens, happens and God has a plan and whatever it is, it is. You might as well roll with it and see where it takes you.
It’s nice to have a week off and reflect on what we have done so far. Six wins in a year is big, especially in this class. I feel like maybe I have matured a little bit more and all in all, I still want to win more than I ever have. That’s the only thing I come here to do.” Tracy Renck
NEW BIKE LEADER SMITH REELS IN NITRO FISH’S TONGLET BY TWO INCHES TO CAP HARD-FOUGHT WEEKEND - Two inches . . . that’s smaller than a golf tee or about the size of somebody’s big toe.
That’s the advantage Matt Smith had over L.E. Tonglet Sunday in the AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals’ Pro Stock Motorcycle final when he crossed the Gateway Motorsports Park finish line with a quarter-mile elapsed time of 6.877 seconds at 198.44 mph.
In the battle for the points lead with four playoff races remaining, Tonglet was quicker with a 6.867-second E.T. (at 196.10 mph) on the Madison, Ill., dragstrip, near St. Louis, but the Nitro Fish Suzuki racer lost out on the spoils by six-10,000ths of a second.
The holeshot victory stoked two-time champion Smith’s seemingly unlikely rise to the top of the class. (“When we left Gainesville, we were 17th in points,” he said, looking back at the bike class March season-opener. “Our goal was to try to get to the top 10, if we could.”)
He encountered a double-crossing business partner along the way.
“We started the year on a Suzuki with that guy. It fell apart. I don’t know what happened. He didn’t want to race no more,” Smith said, declining to name the fellow who swiped his team’s motorcycle in the middle of the night, slipped out of town, and put a kink in Smith’s program. “We’ve been looking for a sponsor all year long, to try to continue this quest. Sometimes that just makes you work harder. We’ve really dug down, and I’ve really worked on these motors - with the help of all the little sponsors that we have.”
After the incident at Charlotte, Smith relied on the bike he calls “Ol’ Blue.” He said, “When we brought Ol’ Blue out at Charlotte, she was fast. Everybody knew we were going to be fast. But man, we got the Red Rocket.” That’s his current bike that the Aranas built for him. “When she debuted at Brainerd, she was hateful. It helps to find a little power, but the Aranas built a great body.”
Faithful blue or hateful red, the colors didn’t matter Sunday. Numbers were what mattered.
Smith leads Tonglet by 21 points and third-place fallen leader Eddie Krawiec by 41 as the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series heads to Texas for the Oct. 4-7 AAA Texas FallNationals at Ennis’ Texas Motorplex, south of Dallas.
So Sunday turned out to be a rewarding ending – “no better feeling,” he said – to the weekend for the sleep-deprived Smith. He and wife Angie, also a Pro Stock Motorcycle racer, had stayed up all night one night, engrossed in the romantic endeavor of repairing a roller bearing in the bike’s crankshaft and changing a motor.
Krawiec had a fragile grip on the points lead coming into this weekend, ahead of Hector Arana Jr. by just three points, Matt Smith by 37, and Tonglet by 40. And Krawiec lost it, fouling out by one-thousandth of a second in the opening round against Joey Gladstone.
Matt Smith took advantage, especially with Arana Jr. eliminated in his match-up against Angelle Sampey also in Round 1. Smith eked out a one-point edge in the standings with his quarterfinal victory over Gladstone. It was the first time since Smith’s 2013 championship that he has owned the points lead. And he wasn’t about to let go of it, even if his Elite Performance / EBR / Lucas Oil / Denso / Mark Stockseth Victory bike wasn’t terribly cooperative.
“We hurt our good motor Friday night. Me and Angie stayed up all last night rebuilding it. It broke a roller bearing in the crankshaft. We fixed it, put the motor back in today,” Smith said. “But when you’re sitting up there and see Hector [Arana] Jr.’s bike doesn’t leave the line, then right in front of us, Eddie red-lit, it was like, ‘Wow – both of them are out. Stay focused. Cut a light. And go down the track and we should be able to win first round.’ Luckily we did. Then we won second round, and they told me I had the points lead after that.”
He had to face Ellis in the semifinals. “Me and Chip are good buddies. We live there in North Carolina, about 30 minutes from each other [Smith at King Mountain, Ellis at China Grove]. Harley’s brought him out as a blocker. They’ve got three bikes out here, trying to whup up on us. Eddie said if they had four bikes, they’d have a fourth bike out here. If I had the money and manpower they had, I’d have four bikes out here, too,” he said. “Right now, I’ve got me and Angie, and we’re trying to knock ‘em over and do the best we can. But we’re going to do our best and try to stay focused and do our job. As long as we don’t have any parts failures or anything like that, we’ll be fine.
“Then I had to run L.E. in the finals. What a tight race. I knew L.E.’s a tough competitor,” Smith said. “My motor’s hurt. It’s not healthy. We limped through the day and got by. We threw the reel out and caught us a big fish today, and we took the win.”
Other winners Sunday were Steve Torrence (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), and Tanner Gray (Pro Stock).
Smith said he didn’t realize until later that his victory margin was razor-thin: “I wear blinders. I don’t pay attention to what’s going on. That’s how you stay focused and get good and tucked. All day today I fought the tune-up. Whatever we’re doing, tune-up-wise, in high gear was working. We turned four win lights on and got by.”
It was Smith’s 20th victory.
“I told people after Indy, ‘We are going into the Countdown strong. They know we’re here.’ I made the comment then: ‘I know we can win three of the six races in this Countdown and run for the championship.’ And honestly, I think we would’ve won Reading, too, if the fuel line wouldn’t have broken in fourth gear. We had the best bike there,” he said. “So all in all, we’ve gone to two finals. In ’13 I went to five finals of the six [playoff] races and we won the championship. That’s my goal right now: keep going to the finals.
“I think if somebody can win three races in this Countdown, they’ll probably win this championship, unless something happens crazy to ’em in the other races. But right now, we’re on par with what we did in ’13. And if we can just keep going to final rounds, and I don’t mess up and just do my job, we’ll be fine,” Smith said after completing his sixth final round this season and 28th overall.
Tonglet defeated Jim Underdahl, Angie Smith (wife of his final-round foe), and White Alligator Racing boss Jerry Savoie in eliminations. Susan Wade
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK – SOLD OUT HOUSE WINESSES A GREAT DAY OF QUALIFYING
NO DISTRACTIONS - There is no distracting Robert Hight in his quest to claim a third career NHRA Funny Car series title.
Hight, who is spearheading a campaign against distracted driving behind the wheel of his AAA Missouri Chevrolet Camaro Funny Car, was the quickest in three of the four sessions in qualifying.
Hight’s 3.844-second pass in the final qualifying session earned him his 60th No. 1 qualifier of his career and netted nine valuable bonus points in the process.
As impressive as his pace-setting run was it was the 3.908-second pass from Saturday afternoon that has him supercharged for Sunday's eliminations.
“To be honest with you I think the most impressive run of the day was that 3.90 in the heat. That impressed me the most,” Hight said. “That is what we are going to be racing with tomorrow. We aren’t going to have Candyland anymore. You have to have a great race set up, and that 3.90 proved that we do. To come out here in the heat and run like that, especially when we only ran 3.92 last night with this AAA Camaro, gives me a lot of confidence.”
Even Jimmy Prock was impressed.
“Jimmy is always pushing. Jimmy loves conditions like this," Hight explained. "This is where he excels. My Camaro went down the track all four runs in qualifying. That gives you confidence on race day. Everybody is bunched up. This championship is going to be a fight right down to Pomona, and I just hope that I am in it.
“Jimmy is happy. You can just tell when he is searching and trying to find a set up you can see he has a different demeanor. We are not there right now. He has confidence. He doesn’t go to the box a lot. You hear him and (co-crew chief) Chris (Cunningham) on the radio and they have a set-up and a game plan which is working. If I wouldn’t have screwed it up last week we had a great shot at winning that race. Tomorrow I have to focus on my driving and doing my best because I have a great race car.”
Hight faces Dale Creasey Jr., a driver with whom he's undefeated in seven prior meetings in Sunday's eliminations.
THE TORRENCE TRAIN ROLLS IN - Losing last season's championship to Brittany Force appears to be still stuck in the craw of regular season champion Steve Torrence as he blasted to the Top Fuel No. 1 position.
Friday night's provisional No. 1 by Clay Millican appeared to present a flashback.
“We let Clay (Millican) make up 10 points in qualifying last week (cutting the lead in half),” Torrence said. “We came in here focused on making sure that didn’t happen this week. They’ve got a real fast race car, but this Capco hot rod ain’t bad either.”
Torrence saved his best for last with a qualifying run of 3.675-seconds at 327.19 mph to secure his third No. 1 qualifier of the 2018 season and 19th of his career. The 3.675 is his quickest since February when he ran 3.655 in qualifying for the Arizona Nationals at Phoenix.
“It was a good qualifying effort on our part,” Torrence state. “Today’s track conditions were the best of the season thus far. We were trying to run harder on Billy’s (Torrence) car but ended up being able to do it with my car taking the No.1 spot. We are feeling confident going into tomorrow.”
Torrence earned qualifying bonus points in all four sessions and added a total of nine points to his total going into Sunday eliminations.
Torrence will race Bill Litton to open eliminations.
PERFECT TIMING - If there's an ideal time to get hot, it's the NHRA Countdown to the Championship and Jeggie Coughlin know this all too well. Saturday in St. Louis, Coughlin secured his third No. 1 qualifier of the season.
"This is the Countdown," said Coughlin, a three-time winner this season and a five-time victor at Gateway Motorsports Park. "All the stops have been pulled, and we are really being aggressive in qualifying, much more so than we have been all season."
Coughlin's best run of the weekend, a 6.496, 211.76 mph sealed the deal.
"It was close to Disneyland conditions for Pro Stock cars," Coughlin said. "We were here almost 24 hours in the same position with the 6.516 (from Q2 Friday) and really felt like today if the forecast was accurate, we could improve.
"Today we had a higher barometer, which is more pressure for the engine and also lower vapor pressure, which is less moisture in the air. Those two things alone we knew we were going to make more power and likely improve. I think we are one of the first to run in the 6.40s this entire season and to use that pass to get the No.1 spot feels great.
"That 6.49 was quite a shot. We felt really good about it. From inside the cockpit, I let the clutch out, the front wheels were up as I was dropping it into second gear, then third, fourth, fifth, about that quick, and it was just screaming the whole way. When Rickie Jones, my crew chief, came on and said we ran a 6.49 it made us all really happy and proud in front of this great crowd. Now we head into Sunday with great momentum."
Coughlin races Mark Hogan in Sunday's opening round of eliminations.
"Sunday is game day," Coughlin said. "That's what we are here for. Qualifying is fantastic. It's a great show and positions us for Sunday's race, and there's no better place to start than first. So, we will be on our best behavior, drive aggressive and I'm sure Rickie has his aggressive pants on too."
ALL HAIL MR. 500 - Any way you slice it, 500 races is an impressive feat.
For Tony Schumacher, the accolade is a dream come true.
“As a 16-year old, I never imagined I’d be able to do this for so many years,” said Schumacher, the winningest Top Fuel driver in NHRA history.
Schumacher began his Top Fuel career with a runner-up finish at the 1996 NHRA U.S. Nationals. 22 years, 499 events, eight world titles, 84 event wins and soon-to-be 20 consecutive Top 10 finishes later, Schumacher’s career is one jam-packed highlight reel.
“People expect me to say it was ‘The Run,’ but that wasn’t it,” he said when asked what one moment stands out the most over the course of his Top Fuel career. “It was the moment before ‘The Run.’ It was that moment when we were sitting on the line, looking at the mountains in Pomona knowing we had the biggest task ahead of us, but knowing we had nine guys capable of accomplishing that task. To this day, it is one of my favorite memories. Before every huge accomplishment, there’s a moment, and that one was just awesome.”
Schumacher becomes just the eighth driver among the NHRA’s four professional categories to compete in 500 events or more, and is first in Top Fuel. The most recent driver to reach the 500-race mark is retired Pro Stock racer Allen Johnson, who met the milestone during the 2017 season. Schumacher’s teammate Ron Capps is also among the first seven to reach 500, with this weekend’s race marking event No. 527 for the 2016 Funny Car world champion.
“That fact that we’ve lived this for so many races, 499 of them, is incredible," remarked Schumacher. "This is a sport where it’s hard to stay relevant. So many teams have come and gone over the years. We had a beautiful sponsorship for a long time, we have a championship contending car every year. It’s been an awesome array of people, from Dan Olson, my first crew chief at DSR, to Alan Johnson, Mike Green and now Mike Neff; all of these incredible people helping to produce wins and championships. That’s what helps us stay alive in this sport. We’re constantly fighting to be No. 1; you can only be average for so long. If you’re just average, you’re not going to survive out here. You need to win championships.
“I get it has been three years, and trust me, it seems like a drought,” added Schumacher, referring to his team’s last championship title which was won during the 2014 season. “But when you think about it, we’ve had an amazing record, and we’ll keep adding to it.”
NHRA LUCAS OIL DRAG RACER INVOLVED IN INCIDENT - Super Gas racer Wayne Kelley, Mount Vernon, Ind., was involved in an incident during the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series portion of the AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals. At the completion of his run, Kelly made contact with the left retaining wall and came to a rest near the end of the track. He exited the car under his own power. “I went to hit the brakes at the finish line, and she went straight left, like something broke or something. I don’t know what happened, but there was no way to get her off the wall. I just brushed the wall and tore up a little fiberglass; I’m fine.”
COURTNEY FALLS TO THIRD - Courtney Force has been the shining example of qualifying efficiency this season and after running a 3.881 elapsed time and appeared to be on her way to her twelfth No. 1.
Force couldn't improve on Saturday while teammate Robert Hight did and as a result fell short, dropping two spots to third.
“I think we are finding the consistency we have been lacking,” said Force, who was quickest of Q1 and picked up three points. “Even though we aren’t going into race day in the No. 1 spot we still managed to pick up some bonus points. I feel really confident with this Advance Auto Parts Camaro going into race day.
"We will be starting from the No. 3 spot and we have a really consistent race car. We are going to have to push hard tomorrow and go some rounds. We are in a great position to get back to the top of the point standings.”
Force races Jim Campbell, an opponent she is 10-3 against overall, in the first round. Force has defeated Campbell each of the four times they have met this year.
MOVING ON UP - Tim Wilkerson jumped all the way up from No. 10 in the Funny Car standings to No. 6 last weekend in Reading, and the driver of the Levi, Ray and Shoup Ford Shelby Mustang is in prime position to make another good move on Sunday. He will be starting from the No. 6 position and faces Matt Hagan in the first round.
Wilkerson, who lives in Springfield, Ill., produced his best time on Friday night with a 3.924-second pass at 325.53 mph. His most impressive pass, though, was a 3.924, 321.96 on Saturday afternoon the second of three passes in the 3-second zone.
"This place is so good it makes us look like a hero," said Wilkerson, who considers Gateway Motorsports Park to be his home track. "That third qualifying session, I was proud of that run. I found some stuff last night after we went that 3.92. I thought I should have went faster than that, so I messed and chased and played and looked, and I found some stuff I didn't like. I changed it for Q3."
Wilkerson was plotting his course for another quantum leap in the points standings by studying Sunday's eliminations bracket.
"We need to get J.R. Todd and Courtney Force out early in order for anyone else to have a chance at the championship, and tomorrow we have Matt Hagan first round, and he's a guy you need to get out early, too. He'll be tough at the end of the year," said Wilkerson. "I think it'll be a pretty tight racing field. These last five races are going to be fun for the fans, and we have a good shot. The guys are doing a good job, and you see how flawless the car is running. We'll see, but I'm pretty excited."
DRAGGING THE LINE - Three-time NHRA Pro Stock world champion Jason Line drove the blue Summit Racing Chevrolet Camaro to a series of strong passes during qualifying and picked up a handful of bonus points during this critical race.
Line, of Mooresville, N.C., has yet to win at Gateway Motorsports Park, although he has been to the final round there three times previous. This season's rendition of the annual event held in the shadow of the St. Louis arch gives Line the opportunity to seal the deal finally, and to gain momentum in the Countdown with just five race days remaining before the champion is determined.
"Qualifying was good for the blue Summit Racing Chevy," said Line, who will start from the No. 3 position and race Val Smeland in round one. "We could always be better, but it felt good to see an increase in performance. Right now, I'm just focused on every run down the racetrack – but it didn't hurt to get a few bonus points."
Line's best time in qualifying came in the third session when he recorded a 6.513-second pass at 212.79 mph that came with a bonus point and would stand as top speed. He gathered three more bonus points in the final session with the quickest run of the round, a 6.514, 211.89.
"I think our biggest challenge tomorrow will be making sure my teammate and I each have a car that can win the race," said Line, referring to the red Summit Racing Chevrolet Camaro driven by Greg Anderson. Anderson is qualified on the opposite side of the ladder and in the top half of the field – in the No. 8 spot – but had more than his fair share of challenges in qualifying, including an engine that simply wouldn't fire in the final qualifying round due to what the team described simply as human error."
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK – FAMILIAR FACES END UP ATOP LEADERBOARD
COURTNEY LEADS THEM ALL - Courtney Force continued her qualifying dominance Friday night in claiming the provisional No. 1 qualifying position at Gateway Motorsports Park.
Force, in her second qualifying attempt, stopped the clocks with a 3.881-second, 331.04 mph pass in her Advance Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro SS.
“I definitely thought there would be teams that would run around us," Force said. "The conditions were so good. Obviously, we didn’t have a great run in Q1 when we dropped some holes. Since we were one of the first cars out for Q2 you kind of show the rest of the teams what the track can do,”
If Force's run holds, it will mark the first No. 1 qualifier at Gateway International for the youngest of the three racing Force daughters. It will also be her 12th No. 1 qualifier of the 2018 season.
“Laying down that number honestly, I wasn’t sure if it was going to hold," Force said. "My crew chief Brian Corradi told me he thought we had a little more in it. That is great to know for the kind of hot rod we have this weekend. For our Advance Auto Parts team to pick up those three bonus points, we have to make up for our early exit in Reading. For us, it is a great way to start the first day out here at Gateway Motorsports Park.”
In the first qualifying session, Force, currently third in the Funny Car points standings, and her Advance Auto Parts machine ran a 4.120-second pass at 309.20 mph with cylinders out.
LOCKED AND LOADED - If this season has proven one thing, Millican has the assets to make a run for the 2018 NHRA Top Fuel championship.
“It’s still really wide open at this point, but by the end of Dallas there’s a better picture of things,” said Millican, who was 50 points behind point leader Steve Torrence headed into the weekend. “We obviously have a car capable of racing at the front every single session, and our game plan is to try to take advantage. From my perspective, I love (the Countdown). I think it’s fantastic and it certainly creates a lot of excitement for the fans. For me, I love what I get to do, and I love driving the car. It’s still my favorite thing I get to do.”
Millican has recorded two wins and eight No. 1 qualifiers, including at the playoff opener last weekend at Maple Grove Raceway. Millican advanced to the semifinals there but lost on a small holeshot to Torrence, who claimed his sixth victory of the year.
“That was probably the best racecar we’ve had all year, and plain and simple, I let the team down,” said Millican, who lost by a mere seven inches to Torrence in the Reading semifinals. “I didn’t necessarily do anything wrong, but I didn’t do as good a job as I needed to do. In this case, I simply didn’t leave as quickly as I should have. But it’s over and done with, and it’s hard to argue with what the car did. There’s certainly no reason to think we can’t do that again.”
JEG ENDS UP ON TOP - Jeggie Coughlin saved his best for last on Friday, jumping to the top of the provisional Pro Stock ladder with a 6.516, 210.54, which if it holds through Saturday's two remaining sessions would mark his third No. 1 qualifier this season and 26th of his career.
“As the night came in and the track got cooler, the Pro Stock cars really thrived on that,” Coughlin, currently seeded No. 6 in the points, said. said. “Ricky Jones (crew chief) was able to get really aggressive with it, and he said that before we went up that this was probably the most aggressive he had been. The car felt amazing and was traveling extremely well.”
Coughlin, a five-time champion, appears to be peaking at the right time as he qualified second overall last weekend in Reading.
"It's a very exciting time," Coughlin said. "We have a great hot rod on our hands. We were very quick every single round in Reading, qualified second by just a fraction to my teammate Erica Enders, and definitely had a car that could have won the race.
"Pro Stock is a zero-tolerance world. The preparation during the week, the calls you make during the day, driving down the track -- it all has to be perfect. There's no room for error because any one of the ten cars in the Countdown are capable of winning, and even a few outside the top 10 have a chance to strike."
Coughlin has had plenty of success at the race track in the shadow of the Arch with five Gateway trophies. He previously won here in 2002 and 2009 in Pro Stock, 1997 and 2003 in Super Stock, and 2010 in Top Dragster.
"St. Louis, like many of the tracks on tour, is a place where we've had great success in the past," Coughlin said. "That always pumps you up because those memories are all positive. It's performance time, plain and simple, and we plan to continue what we did in Reading and win more rounds on Sunday."
SECOND-GUESSING GONE RIGHT - The plan seemed to be solid, Vincent Nobile and the Mountainview Racing team were going to park their car for a while. Two early-season wins had them second-guessing the plan.
A win last weekend at the Countdown opener in Reading left them wondering why they even considered taking time off.
Nobile trails point leader Tanner Gray by just 18 points with five races remaining, a long way from where Nobile possibly could have been in 2018.
“Earlier this year, Vegas was going to be my last race for a little while,” Nobile said. “We won that race, and that just solidified my whole season there. It was definitely a clutch win, and then we won Atlanta, and that just showed us we had a good car. We kind of fell off after Atlanta, but we were trying some things, and here we are now. We just have to keep moving forward. We have a pretty good race car, but as long as we can be in the top six in qualifying, I think we can get the job done.”
Nobile's Reading final round was his first since May, but the timing couldn’t have been better to get back on track. The team ran well initially on qualifying and then put together a number of strong, consistent performances in eliminations to beat Erica Enders, Greg Anderson and then Drew Skillman in the finals.
“Once Saturday was over, we found a few things we wanted to change for Sunday, not knowing for sure if it would be okay or not, but we were confident with it, and obviously it turned out okay,” Nobile said. “All in all, what a great way to start the Countdown with a win.”
Nobile became one of nine different winners in the class and will have to keep up an impressive pace to try and track down Gray, as well as hold off the likes of Anderson, who trails Nobile by just 12 points.
“If you really look at it, every single team out here can win the race,” Nobile said. “It’s just who has their stuff together the best that weekend. There’s been so many different winners, so the parity’s there, and it can’t be any better. You just have to try to do the best you can. The championship could be won by one point. Last year, it went down to the final round. Every little point counts and we really need to do our best in qualifying. That’s going to be critical in the Countdown.”
ALL HAIL THE FIVE-DISC - Ron Capps is second after the first day of qualifying, going 3.909 at 323.89 in his NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger R/T,
Capps came into the event as the defending Funny Car champions, with four total victories here. A semifinal finish and this strong qualifying effort set him up for a championship run.
“You can certainly tell it's the playoffs, NHRA Countdown time, by looking around the pit area last weekend at the opening race in Pennsylvania," said Capps, who won his first career Funny Car race here back in 1997. "We had said that while you can't win the championship the first couple of races of the Countdown, you can certainly put yourself in a position to lose a chance at the championship. Our NAPA team did a great job of getting off on the right foot; a semifinal finish gave us a good start.
“We talk about how important momentum is in the Countdown. (Crew chief Rahn) Tobler and our NAPA AutoCare team has worked very hard to make sure that we are ready for anything thrown at us in the six-race playoffs. I'm looking forward to getting on the track and continuing the momentum that we started in Pennsylvania last weekend and trying to repeat our win from last year at Gateway Motorsports Park.”
THROWBACK - In another day and time, Jeremy Ray would have been just one of the boys. Well, except the big-honkin' supercharger sticking out of the hood of his basic-looking 1963 Corvette. Most of the cars back in those days were nitrous-injected.
Ray, who lives in Lugoff, South Carolina, races with the same intensity and approach as the founding fathers of the Pro Modified division.
Pro Modified evolved from the Top Sportsman division, which fueled the excitement through its Quick Eight events contested on eighth-mile tracks not far from where Ray calls home.
Ray had simple goals at the start of the season to just finish in the NHRA Pro Modified top ten of point earners. The driver of the “Carolina Kingpin” entry appears to be on his way.
“My goal this year is to finish in the top five,” said Ray, who has one runner-up to his credit this season. “I probably won’t be satisfied unless it’s a top-five finish. I’ve got the least amount of experience out here when it comes to NHRA racing, but I’m just going to keep working hard and believe in myself. We’ve been learning at every race, and if we keep qualifying, we’ll have a chance.”
Ray has been impressively consistent, qualifying at every race, including a top qualifier spot at Richmond. He raced to his first final round just weeks later in Norwalk and won a round at the most recent race, the prestigious Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals in Indy. It’s that success as of late that has Ray confident he can continue to make big moves later in the season. He sits just two points out of eighth, 97 out of fifth and 113 out of third, giving the talented racer something big to shoot for over the final four races.
“I had no experience on an NHRA track prior to this year, and the only way you’re going to learn is to be here and just make runs,” Ray said. “The more runs I make, the more I can get a handle on my tune-up and get it all working together. I’m very satisfied with what we’ve done considering it’s our first year running quarter-mile. I do all the tuning and then drive, so that makes it a little more difficult, but that’s just how I have always raced.”
Growing up in South Carolina, Ray was a big fan of the likes of Rickie Smith, the three-time world champion who has three wins in 2018 and holds a share of the points lead with Mike Janis, and Todd Tutterow, another standout in the class,
“This is something I’ve always wanted to do, and it’s an honor to race some of these guys,” Ray said. “I consider it the highest level of Pro Mod. You come to the race, and there’s thousands of people in the stands. It’s just a good deal. Everybody enjoys Pro Mod racing, the fans have been great, and it’s just steadily getting better. Everyone is working hard and getting better all the time. You can’t just show up and be competitive in this class.”
AT THE RIGHT TIME - If there's a perfect time to end a winless streak, the first race of the Countdown might be as good as any time. The last time Hector Arana Jr. won an NHRA national event was 2015, which just so happens to be where the tour is at this weekend in St. Louis.
Arana's victory last weekend at Maple Grove Raceway pulled him to within three points of leader and defending world champion Eddie Krawiec.
“All the wins (in the regular season) are great, but what matters are wins in the Countdown, and that’s what we’re working on,” said Arana Jr., who has 13 career victories in the class. “We’re working on consistency, and that’s what we’ve been working on all year. I think we definitely have a bike to beat this year and we are a strong championship contender.”
Arana roared to a historic 200-mph milestone pass at the opening race of the year in Gainesville but knows there is plenty of work left to do. He’s focused on closing the season strong.
“I definitely have been fortunate enough to have a lot of great accomplishments in my career,” Arana Jr. said. “I think the only thing that’s lacking now is a championship. We’re definitely working really hard for that, and I think my team is capable of that.”
YOU GOTTA GIVE HIM CREDIT - Steve Johnson might be the Don Quixote of Pro Stock Motorcycle, kinda sorta in that he's often tilting at windmills disguised as his better-funded adversaries in the class.
While most teams have multiple crewmembers, Johnson has one ... Ervin “Jock” Allen.
Most have 80-foot tractor-trailer rigs ... he'a got a 24-foot enclosed trailer.
Johnson has forgone the amenities for competitiveness, and the move netted him a spot in the Countdown, the fifth time since 2007 he's made it to the big dance.
“I am so excited and proud to be racing for a Championship,” said Johnson, who entered the playoffs No. 8. “But this weekend, we are focused on points and finishing the race, not maintaining a huge tractor trailer. You don’t get points for the biggest and flashiest rig. Right now it’s refreshing because we just have a small trailer packed to the gills: tools, a compressor, pit bike, awnings and as many spare parts that will fit in there as possible.
"Don’t get me wrong; the big trailer is a great resource and part of my bigger plans for racing and marketing with a sponsor. However having spares like clutches, wheelie bars, tires and rims, a vise, more specialized tools, carbon fiber repair equipment, a welder and even a lounge and hospitality area with a bathroom is the right way to compete going forward. The 80-foot billboard and the professional image of a sponsor’s corporate identity is really where big-time racing is these days.”
Johnson basks in the proclamation that he's the only independent Pro Stock Motorcycle rider in the Countdown to the Championship.
“Our motorcycle is running almost as fast as my emotions rights now," Johnson said. "So coming down to reality the obvious thing is to win the Championship. But I’m still all about making great runs, qualifying as high as we can and getting to the semifinals at each race. Once you get to the semis, anything can happen. As a small team, I’ll withdraw what I can from the ‘Good Luck Bank.
“This dream season is possible because of the many sponsors who believe in me, and how we use racing to promote the skilled trades as an exciting career path.”
Johnson’s support comes from Slick 50, Tull Plumbing, MacRak, CCAR, and Vintco.biz. He also has the backing of High-Performance Oil, Alpha Graphics, EBC Brakes, NGK Spark Plugs, Worldwide Bearings, ISC, and Mickey Thompson.