2018 NHRA SONOMA NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
TOP FUEL PILOT ALEXANDER SNARES SONOMA TITLE - Top Fuel driver Blake Alexander is getting the maximum out of racing a limited schedule for Bob Vandergriff Jr. Racing.
Alexander, who is in his first year driving for Vandergriff, has made it to three final rounds – winning twice while just competing in six of the season’s 15 races so far.
Alexander’s latest victory came Sunday when he took home the crown at the Sonoma (Calif.) Nationals Sunday.
Alexander clocked 4.004-second elapsed time at 287.41 mph to defeat Tony Schumacher’s 4.345-second lap in the final round.
“We will take the silver lining in all this and we will move forward and go to Indy (Aug. 29-Sept. 3),” Alexander said. “I know we are a part-time team, but we come here trying to win every race, and hang out and have fun and most of the time we get to do both. The opportunity that Bob has given me to drive his race car honestly is paramount in my career at this point to take me to higher levels of competition. It is stressful trying to win every weekend, but I’m learning how to do it and I have (crew chief) Ron Douglas to help teach me. I’m trying to do my best.”
This was Alexander’s second career Wally, his first came June 27 in Norwalk, Ohio.
Alexander has clearly paid his dues to enjoy some time in the spotlight.
Prior to making his Top Fuel dragster driving debut last season driving a dragster owned by Del Worsham, Alexander was driving in the nitro Funny Car ranks.
Alexander’s career-best performance in a nitro Funny Car is his runner-up finish at the 2013 spring race at Charlotte, N.C., when he lost to Matt Hagan in the finals.
Alexander made his first career nitro Funny Car start in 2011 at Reading, Pa.
“I was just playing with house money before and now I’m playing with some of the best people in the sport,” he said. “I don’t want to ever let them down and obviously (Sunday) I could have done better, but we have this trophy. I try and do my best and win more races. I don’t know exactly what happened, I need to watch the final round, I know I had 0.157 light and I know everything I’m enjoying right now, ultimately, I’m going to be mad at myself at the end of the day because of my performance, but when you win it erases all that and I’m honestly learning how to do all this. I’m glad (Sunday) while I was learning I have this trophy.”
Alexander took a moment to describe his relationship with Douglas.
“It’s pretty cool,” Alexander said. “He’s hard on me and I’m hard on myself. We are always trying to dig for more and find more and understand more. If the car doesn’t go down the track, he’s dejected, and if I don’t leave well I’m dejected. We are growing together and doing well and he’s someone who has taught me a new level of precision in the sport.”
Although Alexander did cut a poor light, he did regroup and pedal his dragster when it started hazing the tires late in the run.
“Credit to Del Worsham, I used to drive for him and he was pretty awesome at pedaling the race car,” Alexander said. “I always watched him and talked to him about it and he taught me how to do some things that I’m glad I know how to do.” Tracy Renck
HIGHT CONTINUES JFR DOMINANCE OUT WEST, WINS SONOMA FOR SECOND TIME - John Force Racing has been tough to beat this season, and that has proven especially true during the famed Western Swing.
With Courtney Force winning both pole positions, John Force taking the Wally last weekend in Denver and Robert Hight now collecting the trophy in Sonoma, it has been absolute dominance for JFR in the Funny Car ranks during the first two legs of the three-race western stretch.
Hight added yet another trophy to his impressive collection - the 43rd of his career, moving him into a tie for third on the all-time NHRA win list with Tony Pedregon - with a win over Ron Capps Sunday at the 31st annual Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma Raceway.
“This is the time of year you have to get it all together. If you want to win a championship you are looking toward the Countdown because it is only three races away,” Hight said. “You better have your act together and we are really starting to click as a team. There has only been one guy to ever sweep the western swing, and that is my boss, but right now as a team Chevrolet is dominating the swing with two wins. We have one more in Seattle and hopefully one of these Chevrolets can pull it off and we can say we swept the swing.”
Hight won for the second time in 2018, both times besting Don Schumacher Racing ace Ron Capps to get in done. On Sunday, Hight drove from the 11th position on the ladder to once again meet up with Capps in the final, overcoming an uncharacteristically slow reaction time to earn the victory.
Hight ran a 3.984-second pass at 319.75 mph in the Auto Club of Southern California Chevrolet Camaro SS Funny Car to collect the win, while Capps slowed across the stripe with a 4.077 at 296.11 mph.
“As the day goes on my confidence gets better and better, especially with the way our car was running. But I will be honest, I had my worst light of the day in the final against Capps. If he had just made a good run, he would have probably got us,” Hight said. “That bothers me. I had good lights all day and you have to step it up in the final and I didn’t. Luckily, I got the win. Next final I am not going to let that happen again.”
Hight added wins over Tommy Johnson Jr., Bob Tasca and Tim Wilkerson to collect his second Wally of 2018, having to traverse a much tougher path than usual thanks to a starting position in the bottom half of the field due to a poor two days of qualifying.
“We had three great days of racing and when you put in a night session here, you saw what we did here last year running 338 mph on Friday night. The conditions here are just crazy and this is a fast race track where anything can happen. Unfortunately for us, we missed it (during the night session),” Hight said. “We blew it up at 200 feet and when you do that it puts you behind the rest of the weekend. We went out there and tested a little bit on Saturday because Jimmy Prock and Chris Cunningham haven’t been happy with the setup. They tried some things yesterday and they will both tell you what they tried didn’t work.
“They came into race day with more testing and more things to try, but they just have a good feel for what these cars need. They gave me a lot of confidence going into that first round. Normally as the 11th qualifier you are not very confident, but they told me, ‘this thing is going to be just fine, it is going to run good,’ and it did.”
Hight had relatively easy advances in the first two rounds, before a very close semifinal matchup with Johnson. Both cars left together and stayed together to the stripe, with Hight just edging Johnson with a 3.956 to a 3.990, a run Hight called, “the run of the day in Funny Car.”
Capps had wins over John Force, Matt Hagan and Richard Townsend to reach his fourth final round of the year.
With the win, Hight moves up a spot to third in the championship standings with three races remaining before the cutoff for the Countdown. But even more exciting was the fact that Sunday’s win was the second for Hight at what he considers his home race, last winning here in 2008.
“Sonoma Raceway really knows how to do it right. This is the place you want to bring sponsors and show off your sport and your team,” Hight said. “I have been here at every national event they have held here, starting as a fan in the early 90s, then as a crew member in the 2000s and then in 2005 and beyond as a driver. I am fortunate to get my second win here. I call this my home track and this place has a special meaning to me.” Larry Crum
COUGHLIN CONTINUES RETURN TO PROMINENCE, COLLECTS THIRD WIN OF SEASON - When Jeg Coughlin crossed the stripe first last month at Route 66 Raceway, it marked the first time the hall of fame racer had won an NHRA national event in Pro Stock in more than four years.
Since then, the floodgates have opened and the five-time champion has found himself back at the top of his game.
On Sunday, Coughlin continued that renaissance with his third win in the last seven races over Pro Stock upstart Deric Kramer at the 31st annual Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma Raceway.
“We’ve weathered a pretty good storm the last couple of years. We showed a little bit of brilliance throughout last year, but nothing really stuck the way we wanted it to. We made some transitions under the awning this year and I have really been a threat ever since,” Coughlin said. “It is a testament to Richard Freeman our team owner, Rick and Rickie Jones our head crew chiefs on the two cars and of course Mark Ingersoll and Brian Self round out the crew chief arsenal at Elite Motorsports. This Elite team has been a lot of fun the last couple of years and we keep pinching ourselves that things are going to turn for us.”
Sunday’s final saw Coughlin eliminate the newest member of the KB Racing stable as the 61-time national event winner got away cleanly and never trailed in picking up his third win of 2018. Coughlin had a 6.532-second pass at 212.16 mph in the JEGS Chevrolet Camaro to eliminate Kramer. Kramer had a 6.534 at 210.54 mph in his third final of the year.
“He has always been very tough and this year with KB horsepower under the hood his team, coupled with Rob Downing and that group, they have had a very fast race car,” Coughlin said. “I felt like I needed a couple hundredths to stay in front of him and I only had a couple thousandths head start, so I was pleasantly surprised. We made a great run and went right down that right lane which we hadn’t been in all day. You can’t argue with the results.
“There is a delay. I know when I cross the finish line and the clutch is going in and the parachutes are hitting, you are like, ‘man that feels good.’ I knew it against Deric just like I knew it before with Greg (Anderson). I could hear it, I could feel it, I could see it. We are not supposed to look and that is why we wear these blinders on our helmet, but I am a bracket racer at heart. I just had to check things out and crack the whip on that yellow and black JEGS machine and we were able to cross first.”
Coughlin added wins over Greg Anderson, Alex Laughlin and Fernando Cuadra to reach his 105th career final round. The semifinal matchup was of particular interest as Coughlin and Anderson met up in what has become one of the greatest rivalries in NHRA, with the two meeting more times than any other drivers in the history of the Pro Stock class.
In the matchup, Anderson got a slight jump at the tree, but Coughlin chased him down by half-track and pulled ahead in a close win, winning by just a few inches at the line. Coughlin had a 6.548 at 211.13 mph in the winning effort, while Anderson - Pro Stock’s most recent race winner and No. 1 qualifier for the weekend - settled for a semifinal finish with a 6.554 at 212.43 mph.
“The Greg and Jeg rivalry. We have run each other for 15, 16, 17 years and it feels good to see the win light turn on,” Coughlin said. “And it is even nicer with even footing. There were a lot of years where they had four or five hundredths on us and we still seemed to slip a few in here and there. Today in Pro Stock you have to be on your best behavior. Today wasn’t my best reaction time, but it wasn’t for lack of effort.
“It was the toughest race at the time, it felt like a final round without question. Then you fast forward 65 minutes and here I am next to Deric in the final. I let the clutch go, it felt pretty good and seeing the win light come on was proof we got it done.”
Kramer reached the final with wins over Jason Line, Tanner Gray and Alan Prusiensky.
With the win Coughlin, who spent the first half of the season mostly outside of the Countdown to the Championship, climbed into the top five with three races remaining before the playoffs.
“We’ve got a lot of racing left to do in this 2018 season and just a couple of races left in the regular season,” Coughlin said. “This win certainly helps our case seeding ourselves further in the Countdown. The first six or seven races we found ourselves outside of that top 10 and we just stuck together and decided we were going to give this a run and we certainly have. Things have turned out well for us. On the (western) swing so far we have had a win today, semifinal last week, and now we hope to keep that momentum going heading into Washington.” Larry Crum
PSM STANDOUT TONGLET WINS SOMONA FOR THIRD STRAIGHT YEAR - Former NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle champion L.E. Tonglet came out swinging for eliminations Sunday at the Sonoma (Calif.) Nationals.
Tonglet knocked out all comers, including Harley-Davidson teammates Eddie Krawiec and Andrew Hines in the semifinals and finals as he claimed the 18th win of his career and second this season.
“Anytime you beat them, I say they are the two best bikes in the class,” said Tonglet, the 2010 PSM world champ who drives for Jerry Savoie’s White Alligator Racing team. “It shows, they’ve won a lot of championships so whenever you can beat one it is a good day, and whenever you can beat two, it is just a great day. We were able to beat both. Against Eddie, I had a very good reaction time and we were able to hold him off for a holeshot win and Andrew left on me and Tim (Kulungian, his crew chief) tuned it up and we actually ran our quickest ET of the weekend in the final round and this shows we have the power to run with them and beat them.”
Tonglet clocked a 6.771-second elapsed time 198.09 mph to defeat Hines’ 6.802-second lap.
Tonglet, who pilots the Nitro Fish Suzuki, ousted Cory Reed, and Joey Gladstone in the first two round and then proceeded to upend the powerful Harley duo of Krawiec and Hines. Tonglet has won at Sonoma three years in a row and four times in his career, the first coming in 2011.
“It’s a lot of luck,” Tonglet said about his good fortune at Sonoma. “Some people might not think that, but you need luck to win races and we got lucky in round one, I had a terrible light and we were able to get the round win and from then on my lights were pretty decent and we just kept turning on win lights. Coming from Denver (the last event), you go from the slowest track on the circuit and then you come to one of the fastest. As a rider, you just have to wait on that shift light. The shift light is going to come so fast here, and you just don’t want to get behind because if you get behind, that’s going to ruin the whole run. We’re just able to come off the trailer going fast and kept improving all day.”
Tonglet acknowledged working with Kulungian is a pleasure.
“Tim is a unique guy,” Tonglet said. “He’s very smart. He’s very into the numbers and he tells me never to worry about qualifying because on Sunday he tunes it up and usually we haul butt on Sunday. That’s the biggest adjustment for me is not worrying about qualifying position because in years past that is all I would care about. With him, he says don’t worry about it and I have all the faith in the world in him. Now, my brother GT is out here helping and doing some stuff with Tim, so it is a very good season.” Tracy Renck
MIXING MOUNTAINS WITH MOLEHILLS - NHRA's Pro Stock has been a prime example of parity this season with ten different winners, and it took until the seventh stop on the tour before there was the first two-time winner.
While point leader Greg Anderson sometimes wonders what else a class can do to be exciting with unpredictability in the winner's circle, he understands many believe its still not enough.
A rumor has been making the rounds first in Denver, and more prevalent at the Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals, suggesting NHRA plans to follow through on their plan to handicap mountain motor Pro Stock into their 500-inch arena.
Anderson says he's not opposed to the latest idea aimed at generating excitement for the factory hot rod division.
"We’re trying to figure out the best way to get some Fords and some Chryslers back in this game, and that happens to be what most of the big motor cars are," Anderson explained. "That would be the quickest way to get Fords and Chryslers back in here and shake things up a little bit. Even if it comes out and they were to have an advantage, whatever, we’re not happy with that but it still shakes things up, and it makes a new challenge. Makes it more interesting, so we’re not against it.
"We’re kind of in favor of it and if that’s the direction [NHRA] wants to go, we’re not going to fight it. Bring it on. I don’t know where it’s at with the talks. But there’s been talks, and we’ve all said as a group here, we wouldn’t mind it."
Currently, mountain motor Pro Stock runs under the PDRA sanction, first raced on the big stage of national event drag racing in 1977 under the direction of Ted Jones and the IHRA.
These cars usually run in the 4.0-second range in the eighth-mile and in limited quarter-mile competition have run as quick as 6.2-seconds.
These cars run with engines with displacements as large as 830-cubic inches, while tipping the scales at 2,425 pounds.
Sources indicate NHRA has begun steps to secure an exhibition of the mountain motor cars during the NHRA U.S. Nationals. Whether the cars will run at their standard weight or carrying the proposed extra 200 pounds to even the playing field remains to be seen.
Chris McGaha, one the two-time winners this season, is not a fan of the proposal at all.
"It’s completely ass-backward from what everybody wants," McGaha explained. "Everybody wants the factories back involved, and that’s not a way to do it. I’m more in favor of probably running a COPO blown motor in one of these before I am that by a long shot. That’s completely a 180 from where I think the class needs to go."
McGaha is with Anderson in the belief the racing is the best of all the professional categories. He wonders aloud why when something needs to be fixed, Pro Stock becomes the scapegoat.
"I think the entire NHRA does [need to be fixed]," McGaha continued. "But for some reason, they keep picking on Pro Stock. I think the whole deal is screwed up and when the upper management decides that they’ve screwed it up and they want to fix it maybe they will."
LEADERBOARD UNCHANGED - Top Fuel’s Clay Millican scored his seventh No. 1 qualifier of 2018 and first at Sonoma Raceway, as his pass of 3.700 at 327.98 from Friday held up.
In Funny Car, points leader Courtney Force secured her 10th No. 1 qualifier of the season thanks to her run of 3.910 at 326.16 mph on Friday in her Chevrolet Camaro.
Pro Stock’s Greg Anderson grabbed his 102nd career top qualifier and ninth in 2018 as his 6.515 at 211.16 from Friday remained the category leader.
Defending Pro Stock Motorcycle world champion Eddie Krawiec raced to the No. 1 position for the second straight race with a run of 6.757 at 199.94.
A LOGISTICAL NIGHTMARE - Caleb Cox's Facebook post told the story.
"I can’t do this anymore ...," Cox wrote just moments after Cruz Pedregon exploded an engine, destroying the new Toyota Camry body during the Q-1 session at the Dodge Mile High Nationals outside of Denver.
Two hours later, the team manager for Cruz Pedregon Racing posted to Facebook again.
"All the hours we put into that new body, the long nights getting it wrapped ... I’m just about over it."
An hour later, Cox was doing what he does in the face of adversity. He was making stuff happen.
The real work for Cox would begin the moment the race was over. This logistic nightmare was apparently not his first rodeo in the arena of Missions Impossible.
"You’ve got to go back and get another body especially since we’ve had body trouble all year," Cox explained. "We’ve wrecked three or four cars. We’re down to our two show cars."
The body turned to confetti in Denver was yet another new body rendered useless.
"You start planning on how to get another car out there," Cox said. "Used that show car all through the rest of the weekend."
As much as Cox can carry himself as a one-man gang in some situations, this was not one of them.
"I called the guy who works on Cruz’s California Charger, Nick Holm. He’s worked for Jeff Diehl; he’s worked for Tony Pedregon. He helps us out on the West Coast stuff. I said, 'Hey man, could you fly to Indy and load this car and bring it?”
The body the team planned to put into action this weekend in Sonoma was not done.
El Guapo, which had spent time at Aerodyne after hitting the wall in Las Vegas, was far from being in race-ready status.
"It was sitting at the shop with half a wrap on it, no interior because we used that for the El Chicano body," Cox said. "Aaron and Glen got home Sunday night, started working. I got home Monday and Nick flew in on Monday. So all four of us, Monday and Tuesday, fire painted that thing. Tried to get a ten in as best we could and get it out there.
"We got Nick, and then Sioux City who’s one of our sponsors got a truck driver who was in Omaha, so Nick started in Cruz’s Duallie with a little trailer out there. Picked up [crew guy] Taco and then boogied over here for 35 straight hours. They left at 8 pm on Tuesday and arrived at the racetrack at 6:30 am on Thursday."
"So that allowed the team to keep putting it together and then I also had to get a wrap team to put that brand new Own It paint scheme back onto that car, so two days of nonstop wrapping and decaling and getting the doghouse and everything set and we got done at 1 o’clock Friday.
Understanding the overwhelming journey, and the will to succeed, Cox believes should shed some light into his immediate social media reaction.
"When something like that happens it’s a logistical nightmare, but you figure out a way to make it happen because we’ve got to race," Cox said. There’s no other question, even if we’ve got to get the California Charger body and throw it on there, we’ll make it race somehow. Where there’s a will, there’s a way."
HIGH ALTITUDE FUNDRAISING - There's no doubt Jack Beckman began his challenge coin program to benefit the Infinite Hero foundation with the intention of taking it to new heights. This weekend he's taken the challenge coins to an altitude never expected.
Beckman, a former sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, and U.S.A.F. U-2 pilot James ‘Crash’ Diroff have teamed up this weekend for the fundraising program.
On July 19, 2018 ‘Crash’ brought 20 Terry Chandler challenge coins for a ride along in a 9th RW U-2 Dragon Lady plane which exceeded altitudes of up to 70,000-feet. The 9th RW is the Department of Defense’s sole wing dedicated to providing reconnaissance and is home to one of our nation’s premier high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft, the U-2.
The coins then went for a ride in Beckman’s Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car. Between ‘Crash’ and ‘Fast,’ the goal was to get the coins to 70,000-feet and 300-mph. Beckman took five coins with him during each Sonoma qualifying session. Coins are available on a first come, first serve basis for a $250 donation to the Infinite Hero Foundation.
Coins can be purchased at Beckman’s Funny Car pit during the NHRA Sonoma Nationals, or by emailing [email protected]
AB DELIVERS FOR TOYOTA - Antron Brown was third-quickest in Top Fuel, and best in qualifying amongst the Toyota drivers for Sunday’s Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma Raceway. A Toyota driver has won in nitro competition each of the last nine years at the northern California track, with Brown having won at Sonoma on three previous occasions in 2015, 2012 and 2011.
The three-time world champion was second in the weekend’s opening session and then placed third in Friday’s evening session to earn three bonus points on the weekend. It marks Brown’s third top-five qualifying effort in the last five races.
“Our Matco Tools/Toyota team had two strong runs on Friday and we’ve put ourselves into a good position for race day,” said Brown, who matches up with Jim Maroney to open eliminations. “We just need to back it down a little more tomorrow. We're staying aggressive. I'm just proud of our guys. We're in our best qualifying position in a while. So we're going to go into race day and keep on pushing. I'm really happy. It's good to be here at the Toyota-sponsored race and we're going to see what we can make happen on race day.”
HIS TIME, HIS PLACE - There's something about Sonoma Raceway that still gets two-time Funny Car champion Robert Hight giddy about racing here.
Hight first visited the track as a fan, and then a crew guy and eventually as a driver.
“I still consider Sonoma my home track because it is the closest racetrack to where I grew up. I have been to every single NHRA national event they have had there. I have seen races there as a fan, a crewman, and a driver,” explained Hight.
Hight credits last year's championship run when he set the national speed record at 339.87 mph during qualifying.
“Setting the speed record there last year was pretty special but I have only won this race one time, and I want to get another win there,” added Hight.
If you ask Hight, he will tell you this is the best time of the demanding 24-race schedule for him.
“We are using the Western Swing to get ready for another championship run," Hight explained. "If everything comes together we will pick up some wins along the way, I feel just as good this year as I did last year without a doubt. This is the time when you really start looking towards the Countdown, and these races will set us up for success.”
MOMENTS OF MAGIC - J.R. Todd scored his first career Funny Car win last year here in Sonoma.
“Last year was a special day and one I won’t forget,” said Todd, who came into the weekend sixth in Funny Car points. “There were so many things tied into that weekend, getting my first Funny Car win at a Toyota-sponsored event and that kind of kick-started our performance the rest of the year. It’s another unique track we go to and the facility is always top-shelf. It’s a place where I won early in my career (Top Fuel in 2006)."
Todd is just 47 points out of third, with everyone chasing points leader Courtney Force, who has four wins this season, and Matt Hagan, who has posted back-to-back victories. But Todd has enjoyed good fortune in Sonoma, included a memorable semifinal race last year against Jack Beckman. After early tire shake, Todd recovered and went roaring past Beckman at the finish line, providing one of the ultimate highlights of the 2017 season. It’s a run that still has people talking, and Todd expects to hear plenty about it from fans when he returns to Sonoma.
“There’s still people talking about it like it happened last week,” Todd said. “It’s one of those runs that stick out in people’s mind. Things just lined up and it was one of those things that made for great TV.”
THAT GIRL'S ON FIRE - Courtney Force has been in control of the Funny Car class for much of the 15-races of the 2018 season. She came into this weekend's event in Sonoma sporting a 210-point lead with four event wins, nine No. 1 qualifiers, one runner-up finish and four semifinal finishes and there’s still ten races left in 2018.
The bad news for the competition is there's more drag racing left.
Force jumped atop Funny Car with a pass of 3.910-seconds at 326.16 mph in her Advance Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro SS recorded during her second qualifying run of the day. She currently leads all NHRA competitors with nine No. 1 qualifiers on the year as she also has a category-best four wins at this point in the season.
“I knew that with these conditions during the second pass our team could really shine, so we pushed the car pretty hard and made our way to the top spot,” Force said. “That run felt great so I was really excited to do that for our sponsors, and even though we still have that pass tomorrow it feels great to be on top at the end of night one in Sonoma.”
THE MOTHER NATURE FACTOR - Greg Anderson wheeled his way to the provisional pole on the first day of qualifying at Sonoma Raceway, and he is well in the hunt for his ninth No. 1 of the season.
Anderson was fifth quickest after the opening session but as conditions cooled considerably for the second session, he took full advantage and raced to a 6.515, 211.16 to snatch Friday's pole. Just behind him in the No. 2 spot was his Summit Racing counterpart, Jason Line, with a 6.517, 211.03. Teammate Bo Butner was No. 4 on a 6.538, 211.89 that currently stands as top speed of the meet.
"What a great day out here," said Anderson, who is looking for the 102nd No. 1 of his 20-year-long Pro Stock career. "I love racing in Sonoma, and I knew coming here that the cars were going to be fast. These conditions just bring the engines to life. We're on the top of the heap for the day, and we get to go back and celebrate tonight, then try again tomorrow. You just don't know what the weather's going to bring here, but I love it like this – and I hope it stays like this all weekend."
"If the weather stays like it was today, you'll have great, side-by-side racing, the pack will snug up, and it will be a dogfight for the No. 1 position. It's fun when it's like that. Every spot out there will be decided by thousandths, and you can bring everything you have to the starting line. So far, this weekend is living up to the billing."
LIVING UP TO THE STANDARDS - When you have 90 national event wins to your credit, winning becomes second nature. However, when you have those 90 wins, and you go 14 races without visiting the winner's circle, all the while qualifying No. 1 eight times, questions get asked and second-guessing begins.
This was the territory Greg Anderson found himself in last weekend headed into final eliminations for the Doge Mile High Nationals. Anderson broke through with his first win of 2018, stopping teammate Jason Line in the finals.
"Until last week, it was like we had forgotten how to win, but maybe this reminded us," Anderson said. "The thing is, nobody in the class is going to do it by dominance this year. Nobody is going to roll into the Countdown to the Championship with a huge point lead. Everybody is able to win right now, and nobody is safe.
"You better learn how to get knocked in the nose and get back up off the mat, because that’s going to happen a lot for the rest of the season. If you want to win, you have to get up and get back in the game; you can't quit, no matter how bloody your nose gets."
If misery loves company, Anderson's fellow Denver finalist and teammate Line has been in the midst of a forgettable season with seven first-round losses, a stat unbecoming of a two-time NHRA Pro Stock champion.
Line appears to have shaken the less than stellar streak with the final round appearance in Denver, his third of the season.
"It was a great weekend, and we were able to leave that track knowing that we did a good job," Line said. "The challenges are different in Sonoma; we go back to sea level, and my car isn't always the happiest at sea level. But we're on the right track, for sure, and it was pretty darn happy last weekend. It felt good to have a weekend like we did there, and hopefully, we can repeat that in these different conditions."
CLINCHED INTO THE COUNTDOWN - With his Friday provisional No. 1, Eddie Krawiec became the third competitor, although it was unofficial as of press time Friday evening.
Officially, Steve Torrence (Top Fuel) and Courtney Force (Funny Car) clinched their spots following last weekend's event in Denver.
FINDING HIS GROOVE - Last year, at this point in the season, there was little doubt who was going to win the NHRA Rookie of the Year award.
Tanner Gray picked up five wins in his first season, including last year's title from this event. This season has provided moments of good and bad.
"We’ve been struggling with staying consistent with the race car," Gray admitted. "We need to do a little better job with that, so I’m looking forward to this weekend and keep trying to get more consistent.”
The first 14 races of the season have provided plenty of highlights for Gray, including two wins in June that put him in the points lead, but as a driver with championship aspirations, there are areas where he hopes to see improvement on the Western Swing. Following his win in Norwalk, Gray fell in the first round at the next race and he lost in the second round last weekend in Denver. Those are bumps he hopes to avoid the rest of this season, starting this weekend in Sonoma.
“We’ve won three times but we want to have a car that’s capable of winning every race and that’s kind of where we’ve struggled,” Gray said. “At times we’ve had a good car, put it all together and won. It’s a matter of working out all the bugs and getting more consistent. I think we definitely can. Everyone on this team works together great and we’re more than capable of winning a championship. But it’s going to come down to who’s going to be the most consistent.”
MOVING ON UP - There was a time when Top Fuel's Scott Palmer was on a Ramen noodle budget. These days he's clearly living in the world of the cheeseburger.
Successful businessman Tommy Thompson can be attributed for the culinary upgrade. That and sponsorship from CatSpot Organic Litter has made all of the difference.
"When I was running part-time all those years I had to run defensively," Palmer said. "I liken it to the way my grandparents said it was here in America during the Great Depression because we had to save everything we could. We'd take parts and pieces others were throwing away and make them work. We really didn't have a choice if we wanted to race.
"Now CatSpot and Tommy Thompson gives us everything we need to go fast," Palmer said. "We're no longer happy just to make the field. Now we come into every race expecting to run well, and I think our record is showing everyone we're a legitimate team. When we race the big guys now, they don't take us for chumps. They run us hard because they know we can beat them, and this is just our second full year with a true race budget."
Even when Palmer was dining on a budget, he was no pushover. He knew how to push the edge of the envelope on less than stellar racing surfaces.
Palmer learned how to get the most out of his parts. In other words, he learned how to make the most with the least.
"We've got all the parts we need now," Palmer said. "We've got Jason (McCulloch, top-flight crew chief). We're running the six-disc clutch now. We've finally got all the stuff to go fast and the NHRA turns around and takes the track prep away.
"Now we have all the problems the big teams have trying to tip-toe down a lot of these tracks. But in Sonoma, the track's always so good that we can try to go fast again. I can't wait to get to the racetrack."
Fresh off an upset win over three-time world champ Antron Brown, Palmer is now solely focused on this weekend's 31st annual Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals.
"It takes a different mindset to say, let's go win, for real," Palmer said. "It takes more time than people think. To win you need to have balls. And it's definitely cool to know you are capable of winning races by beating people, not just wishing for luck."
JOHN FORCE, MR. MILESTONE - When John Force and his PEAK Coolant and Motor Oil Chevrolet Camaro SS took the light for his first qualifying pass at the 39th annual Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals it marked an incredible 750 race starts for the legendary driver. The sixteen-time world champion has officially participated in 750 NHRA Nationals events in his 42-year career.
Force has raced with seven different presidents having occupied the White House, under five different NHRA presidents. He has won championships under the Winston, Powerade, Full Throttle and Mello Yello banners and he’s raced with a dozen different crew chiefs including Larry Frazier, Steve Plueger, Henry Velasco, Austin Coil, Mike Neff, Dean Antonelli, Jimmy Prock, Ronnie Thompson and Jon Schaffer.
During his career, the series has grown from nine races to 24 and the course has shrunk by 320 feet. He won races at tracks no longer part of the Mello Yello series, many of them unfamiliar to an entire generation of racers and race fans, like those at Baton Rouge, La., Montreal, Canada, Columbus, Ohio, Memphis, Tenn., Ontario, Calif., and Irvine, Calif.
As monumental as the 750 number is, Force is also chasing another milestone, his 150th event victory. Force is beginning his campaign for 150 with a 4.086-second pass at 314.17 mph during the first qualifying session at Sonoma Raceway. The run originally landed him in the No. 4 spot but a second session under the lights and in the cool of the night pushed the PEAK team down the ladder. When they took their turn at improvement, they overpowered the track and coasted across the finish line with and eight-second run.
“It just didn’t go during that second run. You don’t get conditions like this,” explained Force. “Courtney ran 3.91 and (Jack) Beckman ran 3.92, so it was out there. We just missed it with our PEAK Coolant and Motor Oil Chevy. The only good thing is we went down the track on the first run, so we got some data there for race day. We’ll try to move up tomorrow but we’ll have to do it in the heat.”
THIRD TIME'S THE CHARM? - Twice Jerry Savoie has reached the finals in Sonoma. Twice he's left the Wine Country as the second place finisher.
The alligator farmer from Louisiana is banking on the third time being the charm. Last weekend in Denver, Savoie made the most of a few lucky breaks aboard an underperforming motorcycle,
“We struggled a little in Denver and had a lot of luck, and we went further than we expected, but we know we’re going to Sonoma and we can really fly there,” said Savoie, currently fifth in Pro Stock Motorcycle points. “Once you do (well) at a place, it gives you hope, and we’ve got a good handle on Sonoma. Anytime we come to a track at sea level I think we have a good shot, and that gives you confidence as well.”
Savoie won the Pro Stock Motorcycle championship in 2016, essentially racing to win week in and week out. The nine-time national event winner has changed up his approach since the monumental accomplishment under the leadership of crew chief Tim Kulungian.
Savoie and his team are still trying to win, but have learned the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing tour is a marathon and not a sprint.
“We’ve never really had a strategy and just went out and raced the best we could,” Savoie admitted. “Last year we had some mechanical issues and were underpowered, and once we got to the Countdown, we were sitting ducks. We didn’t have anything. We’ve worked hard, and this year we’ve got some strategy. Tim is working on some things, and hopefully, once the Countdown starts, we’ll be able to put it all together.”
WHEN YOU'RE HOT - Tim Wilkerson knows the importance of getting hot at the right time, at least when it comes to earning a place in the NHRA's version of the playoffs - the Countdown to the Championship.
Wilkerson came into this weekend ranked No. 11, a mere two points outside of the Top 10.
"We all know that you shouldn't ever brag about your kid or your car, but we're going to go there and do the same thing we've been doing the last two or three races, and hopefully we'll shine," Wilkerson said. "By the time we get to Indy and the U.S. Nationals, we're hoping that we'll be far enough ahead that the points and a half deal won't make a difference.
"But oh gosh, what a nice car we have right now. You saw, first round of Denver – we were low e.t. of the round. I had a good car up there, and the train is coming. It's a tight battle right now, but that doesn't bother me a bit."
Wilkerson has finished in the top 10 in 13 of his 22 years as a nitro Funny Car driver, including the last decade. To his credit, Wilkerson is one of just four Funny Car drivers to have more than one win at Sonoma Raceway. He's won here twice, in 2004 and 2009.
MORE #HEADERGATE – Beckman took the opportunity to address the header controversy making the rounds two races ago, with John Force Racing bearing much of the brunt of those accusations of unfair enforcement of header angle rules.
“Hat’s off to all of the Force guys, we are all on the same level playing field,” Beckman said. “Brian Corradi is showing why he has all of those No. 1 qualifiers this year.”
CERTIFIABLY HOT - Robert Hight, who set the national speed record at Sonoma Raceway last year with his 339.87 mph Friday night pass, is ninth off the efforts of his first session 4.051-second pass at 318.24 mph. The reigning world champion’s Auto Club of Southern California Chevrolet Camaro suffered an engine explosion during the night session that will make for a late night for his crew.
“It kind of rattled where John’s rattled. Mine went through it and I thought, ‘All right we’re home free.’ But then, at about 200 feet it just went boom,” Hight recalled. “It burned No. 1 piston to a crisp and then somehow it tried lifting the cylinder head off and cross fired between one and three and that’s what blew the blower off. We don’t know why. Maybe a plugged nozzle. We haven’t gone through everything yet but somehow, No. 1 (cylinder) was running really lean.”