2018 NHRA SUMMIT RACING EQUIPMENT NATS - NORWALK NOTEBOOK
ALEXANDER SNARES FIRST TOP FUEL WALLY - The wait is over for Blake Alexander.
After competing on a limited basis in the nitro Funny Car and Top Fuel ranks since 2011, Alexander was finally able to celebrate his first national event victory.
Behind the wheel of the Bob Vandergriff Jr.’s Top Fuel dragster, Alexander beat Terry McMillen Sunday in the finals of the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals in Norwalk, Ohio.
Alexander clocked a 4.011-second elapsed time at 297.81 mph to edge McMillen’s 4.155-second lap.
“It felt really good, obviously,” Alexander said. “I got a little emotional because I’ve tried to do this my whole life and come close and lost sponsors and thought I was never going to drive the car again. I’ve basically gone through everything to climb back to the top. I was holding back tears which is not that cool I guess when you drive race cars 300 mph, but my path was a little bit different. It’s a scenic path that I enjoy thoroughly working trying to make things happen, so I can come out here. I have a great team owner who took a chance on me, Bob Vandergriff, and it felt good to reward him.”
In the rain-shortened qualifying of two sessions, Alexander clocked a 3.983-second elapsed time at 306.46 mph to qualify No. 12.
Then, he proceeded to oust world champions Antron Brown, Tony Schumacher and then Leah Pritchett before defeating McMillen.
“We were just trying to be ready throughout the qualifying sequences and also (Sunday) we were trying to improve on the mistakes that we made,” Alexander said. “We had to fix everything because we qualified 12th. I have a car before and lost and been in all different type of situations and didn’t capitalize so I was trying to make sure that we did that (Sunday). We never got ahead of ourselves, never thought about the next steps.”
On May 6, Alexander made it to the final round of the Southern Nationals near Atlanta before losing to Pritchett when he had a red-light start.
“I think when I was in the final in Atlanta I was picturing winning more than I was actually ready to take a hold of the opportunity and be the person who won the race,” he said.
This season, Alexander is competing on a limited schedule and Norwalk was only his fourth event out of 12 this season. Despite his small sample size of races this year he has had a lot of success. His season round record – after Sunday – is 10-3.
“I just think people call us an underdog all the time and if you compare us to a five-car team or whatever, I think we have a really great crew and it is opportunistic for us that we don’t run all the races,” Alexander said. “Some of the greatest crew guys in the United States decided to come work with us in their time away from their families and I really appreciate everything they do because without them none of this possible.”
Alexander did take a moment to discuss the new track surface at Summit Racing Equipment Motorsports Park.
“It is smooth,” Alexander said. “Down track the wind was blowing (Sunday) so that affected you a little bit, but other than that it was pristine. I don’t run all the races, so it took us a little while to adjust to the new track prep and take advantage of opportunities when they presented themselves. We didn’t try to go over center and get aggressive on it. It paid dividends actually because we made fewer mistakes than people when we compete.”
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. Alexander is in selective company in that he has won rounds in Top Fuel and Funny Car not something that many racers have done. Tracy Renck
HAGAN BREAKS THROUGH WITH SECOND WIN OF SEASON, FIRST AT NORWALK - Relief.
That is the only way to describe the mindset of Funny Car veteran Matt Hagan following his win Sunday afternoon at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals at Summit Motorsports Park. After a string of poor finishes that had plagued the team over the last four weeks, Hagan was thrilled to record his first win in the last 10 races and get his team back on the right track.
“It is good to see my guys smile a little bit,” said Hagan, who collected his second win of the season and first at the Norwalk, Ohio-based track. “It has been a grind these last four races and it was good to see them get out here and be able to celebrate a little bit. I am glad we were able to check this trophy off of the checklist.”
And he did so in thrilling fashion.
Hagan defeated this season’s most dominant driver in an exciting final as both Hagan and opponent Courtney Force, who was riding high off of the strength of her eighth No. 1 of the season while holding lane choice over each of her opponents on Sunday, smoked their tires coming across the line in a wild finish. Hagan got away first, but Force chased him down by mid-track before both cars ran into a bit of trouble and slowed at the top end.
But it was Hagan who got to the stripe first, driving the Mopar Express Lane Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car to a 4.094-second pass at 288.21 mph to record his second win of the season and 28th of his career, placing him ninth all-time in the class. Force, in reaching her fifth final of 2018, had a 4.220 at 227.54 mph in the runner-up effort.
“We hazed the tires and I was legging it out, but it is the final. I didn’t really care if I blew the body off of it or what - I just know I didn’t see her beside of me,” Hagan said. “Courtney, I can’t say enough about her. She is a great driver and a great individual. I have a lot of respect for her because of the way she drives and the way she has been bringing her lights. Before, you didn’t really worry about (her lights) and now I have to step my game up. She has got me a few times and made me get up and work hard. They have a great combo and Brian Corradi does a great job over there. I have a lot of respect for them and it should be a good battle down the stretch. I feel like we can throw down with these guys now.”
In picking up his first win since February, Hagan added wins over Tommy Johnson Jr., Jack Beckman and J.R. Todd in one of the toughest paths to a win all season after Hagan nailed down the third spot on the ladder in qualifying. And none of those wins came easy.
In round one, Hagan won by the narrowest of margins over teammate Johnson - a 3.994 to a 3.990 - followed by another close victory in round two over another DSR teammate in Beckman.
In the semifinals, Hagan again led start-to-finish in a close win over Todd, recording a 3.981 to Todd’s 4.031 to reach the 51st final round of his career.
Force, who collected her first runner-up of the season after four previous wins, had wins over John Smith, Shawn Langdon and John Force.
Following the win, Hagan was reflective of the struggles his team has faced adjusting to the new track prep dynamic presented by NHRA earlier this year, a change that Hagan and crew chief Dickie Venables had taken some time to grasp hold of.
“I am super proud of my guys. These cats are working so hard out here,” Hagan said. “In this class, you are not due anything and you have to earn it, but you almost feel like you are due a win when it has been a while since you turned on four win lights. But it is a nitro funny car and you never know what you are going to get.
“We obviously had a track prep change that we had to adapt to and we knew it would just take Dickie a few runs to get there. That is why I love him. That is why I am glad he is in my corner. He figured it out and we had a good, solid car all weekend.
“Our approach this weekend was go down the race track and don’t beat ourselves. We knew we had a good car that qualified No. 3, but you have to put that in perspective with the changes. I think a lot of the crew chiefs, their mindset is faster, faster, and the way things are prepped now they have to change their mindset to just go down the race track.
“We used to run 3.80s out here, but you have to take a step back and rethink how you are doing things. For us, our biggest thing is to get that first qualfiier down and get something to work off of and go from there.
“Today was just one of those things where your confidence grows every run the more laps we get. We have never seen these conditions because the tracks have changed because of the prep. It has taken these crew chiefs multiple runs to get data logged in. We are going back to runs from 2013 to look at stuff and that is just how it has progressed from then to now.”
With the win, Hagan closed the gap on second-place Beckman, actually moving into a tie with his DSR teammate. Now, after a well-deserved victory celebration, Hagan shifts his focus to continuing to master the new track setups and a brand new car as he prepares to debut a brand new Dodge body on Monday.
“As much as I want to celebrate, there is no time to rest as we are debuting a brand new body tomorrow,” Hagan said. “I am super excited about this Mopar body. It is really going to help level the playing field. With the aerodynamics that the Force team has right now with their Chevrolets, they are able to do some stuff with the headers that we are not. So we are excited about this new body and are looking forward to being able to be the first ones to do it.” Larry Crum
GRAY BATTLES TOUGH CONDITIONS TO COLLECT CLASS-LEADING THIRD WIN OF SEASON AT SUMMIT NATS - There was nothing easy about Tanner Gray’s win on Sunday.
Dodging rain showers throughout the weekend leading to just one hit at the track over the first two days of racing, Gray and the rest of the Pro Stock drivers were left playing a guessing game on a brand new surface, on a green race track, on a strip that was, at times, 60 degrees cooler than at their previous race in Bristol.
And at the end of the day, Gray and his Gray Motorsports team adjusted best to the challenging conditions and came out on top Sunday at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals at Summit Motorsports Park.
“I didn’t know if we would ever get here with the way this (weekend) started out. All of the guys at the engine shop, all of the guys that work on this car dug deep down and have put together a very good racecar for me. I couldn’t be more proud of them,” said Gray, who collected his Pro Stock-leading third win of the season on Sunday. “We have tested and we have worked our butts off to get to where we are at and it is finally paying off. I couldn’t be more thankful for this opportunity to come out here and race.
“It speaks volumes for what our guys do over there. Having one hit at a track that just got resurfaced, not really knowing what it is going to throw at you, is pretty big. I can’t complain sitting here in the winner’s circle at the end of the day.”
Gray defeated Erica Enders in the finals on Sunday, posting a holeshot in one of the closest races of the day. Gray left first in his Valvoline Chevrolet Camaro with a .008 light and recorded a 6.615-second pass at 209.62 mph, overcoming Enders’ 6.608 at 208.30 mph.
It was the third time this season that Gray and Enders have met in a final round, with Gray taking the advantage over the Elite Motorsports driver 2-1.
“I felt pretty relaxed going into the final. Final rounds for me, for whatever reason, are always very relaxing,” Gray said. “I had a great racecar, but to be honest I didn’t expect them to run a 60. It kind of blows me away that they ran a 60. That is an awesome run on this track. I figured she would run a 63 or a 64 and all I really needed was to be in the 20s and I had the thing in the bag.
“I went up there and hit the tree and felt like I killed it when I went across. I looked out there in high gear and she wasn’t even in the window which was pretty awesome. She just missed it. That is the only thing I know how to say.
“I felt like I had, not struggled, but been missing it compared to where I should have been the first three rounds. I felt like there was more there and that is what I kept telling Dave (Connolly). I was missing it about a hundredth and right there I finally stepped up.
“Erica and I always step up against each other when we race for whatever reason. I just seem to get up a little more on the wheel against her and I think it showed. The thing I am most proud of is the racecar I have right now and the hard work those guys have put into it. That is the reason I am here.”
Gray added wins over Chris McGaha, Matt Hartford and Drew Skillman to reach his 11th career final round in only 36 races, recording his eighth win in the process.
After easy wins over McGaha and Hartford in the opening rounds, a potentially challenging semifinal matchup with Skillman was cut short when Skillman went red by -.107. Gray, meanwhile, was consistent throughout the afternoon with passes of 6.608, 6.600 and 6.610.
Enders had wins over Alex Laughlin, Jeg Coughllin and Bo Butner to reach her fifth final of the season.
“Everybody from Valvoline, Chevy, I can’t thank them all enough,” Gray said. “It is definitely a huge accomplishment. We struggled a lot at the beginning of the season and did a lot of testing and, from over there, we couldn’t really see where the hard work was because the results weren’t showing. It feels good to finally turn the corner and be able to see the hard work pay off. Davey works his butt off on the car and so do all of the guys over there. It is finally starting to make good, consistent runs and it is showing the same thing every run.”
With the win, Gray also took over the points lead after previous leader Greg Anderson, who had his lowest seeding of the season in the one and only qualifying session for the class, was eliminated in round one by Skillman. Skillman eliminated Anderson on a holeshot - a 6.607 to a 6.603.
“That is cool when you are leading the points, but at the end of the day, you know it is still early,” Gray said. “I don’t want to peak too soon. I just have to keep the momentum rolling and my goal is to be top three going into the Countdown. If we can stay up there like that and do what we need to do that shouldn’t be a problem for us.” Larry Crum
KRAWIEC CAPTURES NORWALK PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE WIN - Eddie Krawiec has taken a liking to Summit Racing Equipment Motorsports Park over the years.
The world champion Pro Stock Motorcycle racer liked it even more Sunday.
Piloting a 2018 Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson Street Rod, Krawiec won for the third time in his career in Norwalk, Ohio.
Krawiec made it a hat trick with a final-round victory over Jerry Savoie when he posted a mark of 6.923-seconds at 195.05 mph to cruise past Savoie, who slowed to 7.071 seconds.
“I have to thank the Bader family for stepping up and investing into the facility,” said Krawiec, who also has won at Norwalk in 2011 and 2016. “Not a lot of people may realize the investment that needs to be made to rip out that whole dragstrip and repave it and go fully concrete. Really, I think it is the wave of the future for the way most tracks have to go. It makes a huge difference and it is nice and smooth. It’s refreshing.”
This season’s trip to Norwalk was one that left Krawiec smiling.
“It was a good one for me,” he said. “I stayed out of the sand this year. Two years ago, when I won, I’m a knucklehead I guess is probably the best way to say it. I drove it into the sand because I had no brakes in the semifinals. Went back to the pits, got it fixed, raced my teammate in the finals and stuck it in the sand again. My crew guys were very happy. It was a good weekend for us.”
Krawiec qualified No. 6 and then proceeded to knock off Cory Reed, Angelle Sampey, LE Tonglet and Savoie. This was Krawiec’s 46th career national event win.
“It was a little bit of a struggle early on trying to dance through the raindrops, that’s never a good situation for anybody,” Krawiec said. “Then, we were trying to get a handle on a new track and understand what we need to do, but we were able to get it done and get this 115th anniversary Street Rod, our blue bike in the winner’s circle.”
With his performance Sunday, Krawiec departed Norwalk in the points lead, five points ahead of his teammate Andrew Hines.
“We’ve been really just trying to refine the whole package we have, and we are getting there slowly but surely. We are making strides in the right direction,” Krawiec said. “The key right here, right now is I think have your stuff ready and get ready for the Countdown because that’s when it gets brutal. You have to make sure you have all your ducks in a row. That’s really what we have been playing with, with our motorcycles. We are just trying to figure out what they want and be ready. Once the Countdown comes you just try to keep steady and keep a good performance level.” Tracy Renck
UNSHAKEABLE - Moments after setting the national elapsed time record for the first time a few years back, in the midst of the celebration by Clay Millican and his crew, a celebration filled with smiles, dancing and plenty of hugs, stood a stoic David Grubnic.
The man responsible for the incredible feat, a feat set by the much smaller and much smaller funded Stringer Performance team, stood in the middle of the celebration and, for a brief moment, cracked a smile.
That was just about as much emotion as you will ever see at the race track from one of the most brilliant tuning minds in the game today.
Whether tuning the car to a national record, taking the No. 1 spot, or powering Millican to one of his now three career wins, Grubnic remains calm, cool and collected. And, from a leadership standpoint, Millican wouldn’t have it any other way.
“He is an absolute anchor. He remains calm all of the time. He knows how to make the car run,” said Millican, who earned the first win of his career last season after 19 years behind the wheel, and added two more this season. “You don’t really see him get excited. When we set the national record for the first time, he smiled. And, to be honest, the reason he doesn’t get excited and start screaming or jumping up and down like the rest of us is because he put that setup in the car and that is what it is supposed to do. He expects it.”
Never was that more evident than in the team’s brilliant pass at Topeka earlier this year. Jumping from 16th on the ladder to first in the final pass of qualifying, Millican put down an impressive 3.739 at 331.12 mph to earn the fourth of his five top qualifier awards this season. While the win had everyone on the team excited, especially with the gap he placed between himself and the rest of the field, for Grubnic, he wasn’t a fan.
Because that is not what the car was supposed to run.
“Grubby had the car set up to run more conservative on that run, so when that number came up on the board, it surprised him. And nothing surprises Grubby,” Millican said. “He is a math guy. If it doesn’t make sense to him through math, he isn’t doing it. If you want to make a change, you need to be able to explain everything about why you would like to make a change.
“In my position, I have no clue how to tune one of these things, so I don’t have to get in those conversations. But the guy is one of the smartest guys I have ever worked with and I have worked with a lot of different crew chiefs. He not only wants to understand how to put a part on the racecar, he wants to understand how it works from top to bottom. When he does something he will be able to explain the theory behind it, the why behind it, how it is put together. He is a rare breed for sure.”
Thanks to that tireless devotion to the craft of tuning a nitro-fueled machine, Grubnic has helped propel Millican to heights he never imagined. After struggling for years to collect his very first NHRA national event victory, Millican finally broke through last season. He added a national record to that amazing season as well.
So what has he done as an encore? Only add two more wins, five No. 1 qualifiers and is currently second in the championship standings.
Not too shabby for a team that, by all accounts, has no business hanging with the super teams of the sport.
“I have never heard him talk about who are are racing. He literally goes out there and tries to put down the best run he thinks we're capable of making in the lane we are in. It is that simple,” Millican said. “It’s always about the run, not who we are running. He fully expects that we are going to beat whoever is in the other lane, that is just how he is.”
To add to Millican’s accomplishments with Grubnic, the team collected their sixth No. 1 qualifier of the season and second in a row with a very quick 3.935-second pass at 327.66 mph in the second of two qualifying sessions for the nitro classes.
TRACTION LEARNING CURVE - One of the hot topics in the pits this season is the decision by NHRA to reduce traction at the national event tracks with the idea being to slow down the cars and increase safety.
While the decision has been met with mixed reactions among the bigger teams, the hope was that the smaller teams would benefit most from the move, creating a more level playing field for all drivers and organizations.
But that hasn’t always been the case.
For small teams like that of Dom Lagana and the CatSpot Top Fuel team, the move has actually been the opposite.
“To be honest, a lot of people think that the new track prep will play into the little guys’ favor. It actually hurts us because you have to make so many last minute changes,” Lagana said. “You can come here in the pit and you are going to say the track prep is going to be this, and then you go up there and you have to make wholesale changes in the lanes. That is tougher for the little teams to do. Really it doesn’t help us all that much. We have been trying different setups and getting closer. As long as we can learn each run, whether or not you make it down, you are gaining something.”
But track prep is far from the only thing on the mind of Lagana this weekend.
Coming to Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk is a special time for Lagana, who has spent a great deal of his life at the northern Ohio track.
“We have home tracks everywhere and this is for sure one of them,” Lagana said. “We still have a shop here. We spent a lot of years here with Big Jim Weinert with IHRA and we raced here at IHRA before the sanctioning switch. We still have a lot of friends and family here, so it is always special returning here.”
Lagana was the last driver to make the field on Saturday, racing to a 5.039 to edge out Scott Palmer for the 16th spot.
NEW TRACK - In addition to the challenge of battling the weather this weekend, race teams were greeted with a brand new race surface to deal with as well.
And so far, the reviews have been positive for the new surface at Summit Motorsports Park.
“It feels good. It seems like both lanes are pretty even, pretty smooth. Hopefully they can keep sucking up the water on the new surface,” said Doug Kalitta, driver of the MacTools Top Fuel dragster. “The Baders know how to do it right. It is always nice coming to this track. It is our home track.”
And of course, there is also still the weather.
For a team like that of Kalitta, it created an interesting dilemma as each qualifying session was approached differently, not knowing if each would be their last of the weekend.
“On Friday, it was whatever it takes. I wasn’t even going to ask anybody about pedaling this thing,” Kalitta said. “But after listening to a few different cars in front of us (Friday), the cars were making it, so you just needed to get it down there to get in the show.”
Kalitta qualified ninth on Saturday with a 3.844 at 320.74 mph.
LESS TRACTION, LESS SHOW? - At this point, it is no surprise that the changes that have come in 2018 to the track prep designed to slow the nitro cars down has come under intense scrutiny.
Just about everyone has had something to say about the NHRA’s new policy of putting less traction compound in the latter part of the drag strip, chief among them being Funny Car driver Matt Hagan.
In May, the former Funny Car champion posted his opinion in a tweet using words such as “embarrassing” and “poor” to describe the show in Charlotte following a number of incidents that he believes is directly linked to the change in track prep.
On Saturday, Hagan echoed that thought again as the team continues to struggle to find the right combination on the new track.
“It is a big learning curve as far as how to apply power. I don’t like it,” said Hagan, who opened the season with a win at the season-opening Winternationals but hasn’t been back in the winner’s circle since. “I grew up on side-by-side, fast racing. That is what Mopar is about. That is what drag racing is about. Coming out with the baddest stuff out there, working hard over the winter making more power, making more steam and applying it to the race track, that is what drag racing is. We are not restrictor plate racing.”
Since the move to the new track prep, overall performance numbers have dropped for the Funny Car teams, while Top Fuel has remained about the same. The move has also seen a slight increase in the number of aborted runs, resulting in what Hagan believes is a poorer show than what NHRA has presented in the past.
“In Bristol we are running what Alcohol Funny Car would run back in the day. It is crazy,” Hagan said. “In Bristol we beat ourselves. We should have gone down the race track instead of trying to run a number. It is little things like that. The biggest thing is that Dickie (Venables) has to get some runs in those conditions to go off of something.
“I think a lot of these guys out here are struggling. There has not been a whole lot of side-by-side racing for our fans and the show has kinda stunk. But, at the end of the day, we will get it figured out and it will be what it is going to be. It looks like this is going to stay unless the fans have a different opinion of it and tell NHRA to change it.”
Hagan also discussed the driveability of the cars on the new tracks and the need to relearn the speeds of the car.
“By the time we get to half-track, the run should be over,” Hagan said. “But I still have a ways to go. It is definitely slow inside that racecar. I guess you just have to get used to that time adjustment because, a lot of times, your body is so used to 3.8 seconds and click it off and now we are running 4.20s and thinking, are we going to get there? You can see the finish line and it should have already been over.”
At least for now, it appears that the changes are here to stay and Hagan’s Don Schumacher Racing team is doing what it can to close the gap and find that missing performance.
“We are actually going to debut a new body in testing on Monday that is going to have a lot more downforce so hopefully that will help us out a lot,” Hagan said. “The Force cars, they have been able to do some stuff with headers and stuff like that because their bodies are narrower so they are able to make a little more downforce which has been an advantage for them and why Courtney is running so well. They can be a little more aggressive on a hot track with no glue.
“We are really hoping to see some big changes with this new body coming in. But looking at what we have right now, it is still going to take some work.”
BIG DAY FOR BOB - Through the first part of the season, Bob Tasca III wondered if his fulltime return to the big show was such a good idea.
And then the team picked up a round win. And then another and another. Until, finally, the team reached their first final round since 2013 one week ago at Bristol.
Now Tasca believes that he may have one of the best cars in the field.
“We needed that. We needed that weekend,” Tasca said. “I told my guys on Saturday night that our whole season had built up to that day. We needed the points. We needed a win and we did everything but win the race. But we did what we had to do. We beat everyone we ran that was ahead of us. We took out Cruz (Pedregon), (Tim) Wilkerson, the two cars that we had to go around in the points. So I am very confident. We are coming in here with a lot of momentum if you take our performances over the last four or five races.
“Most people don’t realize we had six weeks from the time Ford said go to the time we had guys on payroll. Six weeks to field a car like we have now.
“We are one of the better cars out here. We just need to keep building on that and continue to move up in points.”
Thanks to that runner-up finish to Ron Capps, Tasca jumped from 13th in the championship standings up to 10th with hopes of remaining in the Countdown to the Championship and, perhaps, climbing even higher.
“We are within striking distance in the Countdown to the Championship,” Tasca said. “We are 100 points out of seventh. We are focused on moving up in points and I would like to be in the top five going into the Countdown. That is the goal we have set for ourselves and we are going to work hard to do it.”
Tasca qualified 10th after two runs in Norwalk with a 4.065 at 318.92 mph. He will race J.R. Todd in round one.
FAN FAVORITE LOOKING FOR MORE - After a string of poor performances for fan-favorite Tim Wilkerson, the Springfield, Illinois native saw a bit of light during a gloomy season with a qualifying run of sixth on Saturday.
Struggling to a 13th place spot in the championship standings with only six round wins through 11 races, Wilkerson finds himself qualifying in the top half of the field for only the fourth time all year, equaling his best qualifying position of the season.
“I really think that the amount of power we have versus the amount of traction we have is the culprit,” Wilkerson said. “I know what the problem is, but putting my finger on being able to slow down my car and be a contender? I’m still working on that. I’ve made some good runs the last few races, we’ve just had a couple of small issues that really made us look bad. But we’re going to get through that.”
ANOTHER FIRST FOR HIGHT - Earlier this year, Robert Hight checked off his list one of the few tracks remaining on his list of facilities he has never won at, winning at Route 66 Raceway in Chicago earlier this month.
This weekend, Hight hopes to add Summit Motorsports Park to that list.
Amazingly, Hight has never won at the Norwalk, Ohio-based race track despite coming close on more than one occasion. With two final round appearances to his credit, including a runner-up finish last year, the crewman turned world champion is ready to get into the winner’s circle at the famed track.
“We had a great race car last year in Norwalk and just needed one more win light,” Hight said. “We were in the 3.90s all day and then just didn’t get a good run in the final. We have one of the fastest cars out here now and we are looking for just a little more consistency this Sunday.”
This year, John Force Racing and in particular Hight’s Auto Club Camaro, have been beasts on the performance side, stacking up five top speeds and two low ETs of the race through 11 races. Hight also has four trips to the final round, including his Chicago win earlier this month.
“We went back-to-back with finals a couple of races ago. We were runner-up in Kansas and then got our first win of the season in Chicago. That was huge for us,” Hight said. “Everyone is battling the same track, but when you get the win you know you have accomplished something. The past couple of races have been tough, but we know where we are headed.”
At Norwalk in particular, Higth has three career No. 1 qualifiers and has qualified in the top three nine times.
But Hight and the Auto Club team, led by crew chiefs Jimmy Prock and Chris Cunningham, have been fine tuning Hight’s Camaro Funny Car in an effort to manage the conditions of the various tracks the team has encountered.
“Jimmy and Chris are constantly trying to bring out the best from this Auto Club Camaro. You have to be aggressive, but you also have to be smart about the tune-up,” Hight said. “There are times when you can really try and throw down a great number and then there are times you have to take what the track gives you. I have a lot of confidence in my crew chiefs and my crew guys heading into Sunday.”
Hight qualified fifth on Saturday with a 4.017 at 322.27 mph.
A NEW PRO STOCK LANDSCAPE - Just one year ago, Bo Butner couldn’t be beat.
The veteran racer had five wins in 11 finals and qualified at the top of the charts on five occasions on his way to collecting his first career NHRA Pro Stock championship. One year later, Butner is reeling from a 10-race winless streak after opening the season with a win, combined with a stretch of three first round losses in his last four races, slipping from first in the standings just five races ago to eighth.
So what is the problem? Well, it is less with Butner’s KB Racing team and more with the other teams closing the gap.
“We definitely lost our advantage if we had one,” said Butner, who has six career wins. “I like that it is more competitive, that is why I am in this class. You don’t know who is going to win and when they are going to do it. Don’t get me wrong, it was fun to have the big advantage on the field, now you have to drive and that is the way it should be.”
Among the reasons Butner believes the gap in the field has shrunk is that the changes to the class from a few years ago, changes that KB Racing was quick to pick up on and dominate, have finally been mastered by many of the other teams in the field.
“They worked hard and they got their EFI system down which is a big learning curve for anyone,” Butner said. “Now it is just who can make their best runs. You have to have luck on your side now more than ever.”
But as the other teams quickly close the gap, KB Racing is not sitting idly by. The team added a fourth driver in the offseason and the team is seeing the benefits of more minds working together, especially in an attempt to keep Pro Stock alive and well.
“KB, Elite, McGaha, everybody is trying to keep the field full,” Butner said. “We want to show that everyone wants to be out here. It is the best class out here in my eyes and a lot of the fans feel the same way. We are just out here trying to make the class grow and it is very hard. Three cars was tough last year, you throw in Deric, it’s a lot of work, but we are up to the challenge.”
Butner qualified fourth in Norwalk with a 6.630 at 207.72 mph.
ODD HOBBY - As it turns out, racing isn’t the only hobby of race drivers.
Many NHRA competitors have hobbies outside of the fast life, from outdoor recreation to various other sports that don’t involve a steering wheel and a Christmas tree.
But perhaps the most unique of the hobbies of NHRA’s professional drivers is that of young Pro Stock competitor Deric Kramer. Kramer, who recorded his first professional victory earlier this year in Topeka, counts among his many hobbies away from the track the competitive world of fencing.
“I do historical fencing. It is less Olympic sabre and more three musketeers type of swords,” Kramer said. “It is a fun little hobby I get to do when I am not out here racing. I started in 2004 just out of high school. There are tournaments and competitions that I attend when I am not out here.”
When he is not fencing, Kramer counts himself among the best young drivers on the tour, collecting that first win and holding tight to a top 10 spot in the NHRA championship standings. Not a bad year for the newest addition to the KB Racing Pro Stock team.
“We are really happy with the partnerships that we have made this year. I think our results have shown that,” Kramer said. “Ultimately, we just decided we wanted to step up with KB. It is as simple as that. Those guys know how to win and we have some relationships in that my crew chief has worked with Greg Anderson in the past, so we started there.
“It is awesome working with those guys. They know how to win. There is stuff that we just didn’t know we didn’t know and now that we have had the opportunity to see them race and understand some of the things that they do, it has definitely helped us out as well.”
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
SETBACKS LEAD TO COMEBACKS - It was one of the lowest moments of Angelle Sampey’s storied racing career.
After more than 22 years of racing, Sampey had failed to record a single DNQ. Sure, she did have a DNQ on the books, but that is largely not recognized due to the fact that it came following an injury. So for the official record, Sampey had a perfect mark in races entered and races run.
But when the dust finally settled earlier this month following a hectic round of qualifying at Chicago in the competitive Pro Stock Motorcycle category, Sampey found herself in a position she had never been in before.
On the outside looking in.
One week later - the same thing.
After more than 200 races run over a career spanning two decades, Sampey went from perfect in the races run versus races attempted category to back-to-back DNQs. And, needless to say, she didn’t take it well.
“After 22 years of never having a DNQ, it was completely and utterly devastating,” said Sampey, who has 42 career wins to go with the 228 races qualified for. “A lot of people don’t understand why it was such a big deal. They said, ‘everybody has done it.’ No, I had not. I had a DNQ on my record because of a laceration in my tendon, but I did not count that. Nobody counted that. NHRA would even remind people that, only because of injury, she could not finish.
“It was devastating to me. I don’t apologize for taking it as bad as I did. But coming here, I had gotten to the point where I had prepared myself mentally that, if it happens a third time, I don’t really know if I want to continue.
“I don’t come here to hope we qualify. I come here to hopefully win the race.”
Facing tremendous adversity in the face of the back-to-back DNQs, Sampey responded in an impressive way Friday night at Summit Motorsports Park, riding the Liberty Racing Buell to second on the PSM charts, a massive improvement from 19th and 20th the previous two races.
“I was pretty defeated coming here. We had done some testing the day before and that was a complete turnaround. We decided to change our tuneup,” Sampey said. “We went back to the way (crew chiefs) Ken Johnson and Derrell Mullis wanted to run the bike. And we found out after a dyno of the engine for the first time last week, we were tuning it completely wrong. So they started going in a different direction and, as you can see, that is what the problem was.
“Now we could use some more horsepower. We think we are getting just about all that we have. What you saw on Friday is almost everything we have. We do think we can pick up a tiny little bit, but not a whole bunch more. We know we can get in the show now, how competitive we can be on Sunday, that is the question.”
But Sunday feels like forever away for Sampey. For now, she and her team are celebrating just making the show - something she never would have dreamed she would be doing this far into her career.
“There was a lot of freaking excitement. I kept telling myself with the two DNQs that my new motto was, ‘setbacks lead to comebacks.’ But at the time I didn’t want to hear that because I was pissed that I didn’t qualify. But man it is so freaking true,” Sampey said. “After not qualifying at two races in a row and struggling and not knowing what to do, then we go out there and figure it out, it felt like we won the whole damn race.
“I know we are going to get passed and bumped down, but I don’t care. It felt so good to be number two and run fast. There are a lot of bikes that have more horsepower than me, but we did a better job than everybody else except for one person on Friday.”
At the end of the day, Sampey only dropped one spot to third with a 6.899 at 193.24 mph holding up well on Saturday.
CLOSING THE GAP - One of the most exciting developments in the Pro Stock Motorcycle category over the past couple of seasons has been the closing of the gap between the bigger teams and the rest of the field.
While the class has always proven competitive at the midfield, the top has typically belonged to a select few. But that is not the case anymore.
“Everybody is getting faster and the field, before you didn’t really have to worry about qualifying, and now anybody can qualify and, on Sunday, anybody can win,” said Hector Arana Jr., who currently sits fifth in the championship standings. “You definitely have to bring your A game now.”
Through five races, four different riders have hoisted a Wally, but Arana is still searching for his first of the season. Still, it has been a successful year in terms of achievements. The team became the first in the category to surpass the 200 mph barrier and is riding a string of three-straight semifinal appearances, good enough to help the team climb into the top five in points.
“We have had great accomplishments,” Arana said. “We broke the 200 mph barrier - the first to do that - and that was a weight off our shoulders to be able to achieve that. We really have fast bikes that are making really great horsepower. Now we are focused on dialing in these bikes and figuring out how to get them to leave the starting line consistently every run. We are getting there. We just have to figure out how to tame the bike a little bit, dial it in for Sunday and once we get that settled and figured out, we should be good to go.”
FAST FORCE - With the threat of rain fast approaching, the nitro classes shifted into overdrive on Friday and at the end of the day it was a pair of Force’s left standing.
Brittany and Courtney Force both qualified first in their respective classes after one session Friday at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals at Summit Motorsports Park, with Brittany topping all drivers with a Friday-best 3.776-second pass at 324.44 mph.
Force held off most recent race winner Tony Schumacher who qualified second with 3.792 at 330.63 mph.
“It was an awesome run. We knew we had the car and we knew the conditions would be great, but we were excited about that run,” Force said. “That was very important. We don’t know how many laps we are going to get going into race day so each run we need to make the most of. To put a 77 on the board was pretty cool.”
While taking the top spot - potentially her second No. 1 of the season if her time holds - was exciting, she is most excited to be sharing the top of the charts with her sister. And she has even higher hopes for the rest of the weekend.
“I was back in the staging lanes when I heard that she went right to the top and it is pretty exciting to share the number one with her,” Force said. “We are hoping to hang in there all weekend and go for the win. One thing we would both love to do would be to double-up, especially since I am carrying Advance Auto Parts this weekend. To have matching cars in the winner’s circle would be pretty awesome.”
WINNER, WINNER – Can you name the winningest nitro driver over the last season and a half?
Is it Ron Capps? How about defending Funny Car champion Robert Hight? Or maybe Brittany Force, Antron Brown or Matt Hagan?
Not even close.
The most successful nitro drivers in terms of Wallys since the start of the 2017 season has been Steve Torrence, who has collected a dozen wins in the last 30 races. And one of those wins was this very race in 2017 where Torrence eliminated Doug Kalitta in the final.
Now, the Top Fuel points leader returns to Norwalk with an opportunity to extend his sizable lead over Clay Millican as he seeks a maybe not-so-unlucky 13th win since the start of last year.
“As a whole, the season has gone very well for us,” said Torrence, who has four wins already this year. “We faltered in Chicago, but we turned right around and got a win (in Richmond). We’ve recovered very well and I’m proud of that. It’s really neat to go somewhere as the defending event winner, but it’s something you only think briefly about going into the race. After Friday, that goes out the window, but we won this race last year and we will try to do it again. We would like to leave our mark there again if possible.”
No Top Fuel driver has more than two wins at Summit Racing Equipment Motorsports Park, so back-to-back wins at the facility would put Torrence with Larry Dixon for the most in the class. But doing so won’t be easy.
“We’re optimistic going into Norwalk,” Torrence said. “We’ve had success there in the past and it’s always a fun race. It’s a pretty neat place and there’s a ton of fans there.”
Torrence is currently third on the charts following one session on Friday with a 3.792 at 327.82 mph.
AND THE AWARD GOES TO… – Every year at this time ESPN releases its list of nominees for the annual ESPY awards handed out during the ESPYS on July 18 and, as has become a regular occurrence, an NHRA driver has made their way onto the ballot.
Brittany Force, the 2017 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Top Fuel world champion has been nominated for the ESPYS Best Driver Award. It is the eighth time a John Force Racing driver has been nominated for the award and a first-time nomination for Brittany Force. Her father John Force has been nominated for the ESPY Best Driver Award six times and sister Ashley Force was a nominee in 2008.
Brittany Force, driver of the Advance Auto Parts Monster Energy Top Fuel dragster, finished the 2017 season in dramatic fashion by clinching the championship on the last day of the season after racing to four final rounds with three wins during the Countdown to the Championship playoffs. She also won the season ending Auto Club Finals after qualifying No. 1 and holding off veteran Top Fuel racer Steve Torrence for the championship crown.
“It’s an honor to be nominated as Best Driver with my Monster Energy team after our 2017 NHRA Championship season,” Force said. “It’s incredible to just be recognized alongside some of motorsports greatest drivers like my dad, Josef Newgarden, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson. It would be amazing to be the first female and NHRA driver to win this award, but I’m proud just to be nominated. It really goes to show what this Monster Energy team accomplished last year.”
Joining Force on the 2018 ESPY Best Driver ballot are NASCAR driver Martin Truex Jr., IndyCar driver Josef Newgarden, who is a teammate of sorts of Force’s with Big Machine Records, and Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton.
Past ESPY Best Driver winners include Hamilton, last year’s winner, three-time winner Tony Stewart, four-time winner Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Bobby Labonte, Dale Jarrett, Jimmy Vasser, Al Unser Jr., Nigel Mansell, and Michael Schumacher.
In addition to Force, her sister, who was nominated in 2008, and her father, nominated in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2011 and 2014, other NHRA drivers who have been nominated for ESPY awards include Ron Capps (2016), Erica Enders Stevens (2015), Del Worsham (2012), Tony Schumacher (2007-2010), Melanie Troxel (2006), Tony Pedregon (2004) and Greg Anderson (2005 and 2011). No NHRA driver has ever won an ESPY Award.
THE (U.S. ARMY) BOYS ARE BACK IN TOWN – These days, wins don’t come as often as they used to for Tony Schumacher.
An 84-time national event winner in Top Fuel, only seven of those wins have occurred in the past three-and-a-half years for the driver of the U.S. Army dragster. So when Schumacher does find his way to the winner’s circle nowadays, as he did last weekend in Bristol, he relishes in the achievement and remains a confident as ever that he and his team can still get the job done.
“I’ve had season’s where we’ve won 15 races before. I think my legacy will be when people ask me later in life what was it that helped you get through all that. It’s that I was good at adversity,” Schumacher said. “We’ve talked about this so many times. We’re going to win races and we are going to go through dry spells while you are learning. But you don’t fire people or point fingers. You rise to the occasion. You lead the team. You keep their confidence up.
“We’ve been saying for weeks, ‘guys we’ve got a great car. When the time comes, we’ll be there. We’re always in the fight at the end of the year, let’s just get through this.’ You can sit there and complain and come up with excuses why we weren’t winning rounds and ultimately races, but the bottom line is we just had to figure it out. We needed to be patient. We needed to use all the brainpower that DSR has and we needed to figure out how to get the job done.
“We did it. And we did it having a great final round. We figured out how to get down a slippery race track and we are going to be hard to beat for a long time.”
Schumacher’s win over surprise finalist Mike Salinas last weekend in Bristol helped launch the eight-time champion back into the top three in points after falling a spot to fourth a few weeks prior. It was also his first win in the last 31 races – one of the longest stretches of his career – as he steers his Don Schumacher Racing team back in the right direction entering the second half of the season.
“I would not want to race against us for the next bunch of races. We have a great U.S. Army car. Seriously, I’m calm and cool. And I know how to drive a race car, but (crew chiefs) Mike (Neff) and Phil (Shuler) just got what they needed in Bristol.
“If you have ever talked with Mike, he’s just chill, but when he gets what he needs we’ll just continue to rise. We all know that when we figure it out, we are going to go on a tear and we’re going to win some races. We got Bristol and now we want Norwalk.”
Schumacher got his Norwalk adventure off to a great start on Friday with the second quickest pass off the trailer with a 3.792 at 330.63 mph on Friday.
LUCKY NO. 8 - Hot weather. Cold weather. Overcast, sunny, rainy - it doesn’t matter what the forecast holds - Courtney Force can get it done anywhere.
Seeking her third No. 1 in a row and sixth in the last seven races, Force once again was quickest of them all Friday at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals at Summit Motorsports Park with a Friday-best pass of 3.776 at 324.44 mph.
“Honestly, going up there I was a little surprised that we were going to lay down a number like that,” Force said. “With the rain coming in I was looking for a clean run from A to B. I think having crew chief’s like I have, they saw the numbers being put on the board and I could see the look in their eyes that they were going to go for it. I went straight down the track, hit the parachutes and they told me it went to the top spot which is awesome.”
RAIN, RAIN GO AWAY - Weather always creates an interesting dilemma for drivers, teams and, more importantly, crew chiefs.
And with the threat of rain throughout the next three days in Norwalk this weekend, teams are left playing the guessing game as to when each run will come and how much to throw at the track with the threat always present that this run may be their last.
“It makes you a little more conservative. You can’t go out there and swing for the fence because you have to go down,” said Tommy Johnson Jr., who finds himself 15th after his one and only hit at the track on Friday. “Even tonight, I heard John say that we are going to back it down from what we were going to try and do. You just have to race smarter.”
Each of the nitro classes got in one hit at the track on Friday before rain cut the rest of the evening short.
SUCCESSFUL STRUGGLES – Jack Beckman loves coming to Norwalk.
And for good reason.
He is the winningest Funny Car class winner at Norwalk. He is the defending race winner. And he is currently second in the championship standings entering this weekend’ race.
So you would think that Beckman would be riding high entering the weekend, right?
Despite being second in the championship standings, right now the team is light years behind Courtney Force and the John Force Racing stable thanks to an ill-handling racecar and just plain bad luck. After racing to the championship lead with one win and two finals in the season’s first four races, Beckman has been 8-7 in round wins and has only qualified inside the top five three times in the last seven races.
While the team is still right in the thick of the championship picture, it doesn’t feel like it to Beckman.
“Not only will Norwalk mark the halfway point in the season, but we’re in that ‘summer swing’ where the races go by super-fast. It’s not the time to be struggling with the tune-up,” Beckman said. “Yet we’ve been wrestling with the Infinite Hero Dodge for the last five races. After a brand-new clutch, a brand-new race car, as well as the changes to the track preparation, we have struggled to find our consistency from earlier in the year.
“That being said, I totally know that our guys will figure this thing out quickly and hopefully get us back in the winner’s circle in Ohio.”
A DIFFERENT KIND OF FIREWORKS - John Force has been making headlines at Summit Motorsports Park for more than three decades.
Since the early 1990s, even before this very national event became a popular destination on the summer portion of the NHRA tour, Force has been wowing crowds with eye-catching burnouts and and lighting-quick passes on the Norwalk, Ohio-based track during exhibition races, most notably the Night Under Fire.
But while Force has become synonymous with excitement and thrills at Summit Motorsports Park, Force himself is hoping for a nice, quiet weekend void of any drama or any fireworks.
That is because, so far this season, Force has been putting on his own Night Under Fire-type show with explosions and fires that have kept the 16-time champion focused on his team and also on safety. As recent as the Chicago race three weeks ago, Force was involved in a tough wall scrape that had him bruised, but not defeated.
The day after the encounter with the Route 66 Dragway guardwall, Force raced to a semifinal finish and into the top 10 in the NHRA Mello Yello points standings. The next week, Force raced to the final round in Richmond where he lost to his youngest daughter and points leader Courtney Force.
With a string of successful runs free of trouble, Force is looking for another uneventful race this weekend as he tries to claw back into championship contention.
“We have had our struggles this year for sure. I never gave up on my team or myself,” Force said. “I have been on fire from here to Australia, but never like this. We had some problems and we have fixed them. I have the fire in my belly for sure and I am not going to give up. I am a fighter and will keep fighting.”
Aside from the crashes and explosions, Force has two runner-up finishes and two additional semifinal finishes this season as consistency is finally starting to show for the PEAK Anitfreeze and Motor Oil Chevrolet at just the right time with seven races remaining in the NHRA regular season.
“The main goal every season is to make the Countdown and you have to be in the top 10,” Force said. “We are No. 8 now, but we definitely want to move up. The young guys have been working hard for three weeks straight and we are just about done with June. It would be great to get another win in Norwalk.”
ACCEPTING THE CHALLENGE - Never one to shy away from a challenge, first-year Funny Car driver Shawn Langdon has a big one in front of him heading to this weekend’s 12th annual Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals at Summit Racing Equipment Motorsports Park.
Langdon, a former Top Fuel world champion, has jumped into the loaded Funny Car class for the first time and finds himself in the midst of a talent-filled duel. Six drivers from eighth to 13th in the points standings are separated by just 94 points, with Langdon currently sitting 11th in his 10,000-horsepower Global Electronic Technology Toyota Camry. With only 10 drivers qualifying for the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Countdown to the Championship, it’s a pressure-packed time for Langdon. But that also seems to bring out the best in the talented driver.
“There’s six cars fighting for three spots and there’s some pretty big names in that group,” said Langdon, who has 14 career wins. “These are all cars that can potentially run really well and you’re getting to that part of the season where you have to get your stuff together. You can’t afford to have 2-3 bad races because you could easily fall out of the race. For our team, it’s important to get a good handle on the hotter tracks because we’re going to see those until the Countdown. It’s important to keep going rounds and continuously trying to get the car better.”
He has posted three semifinal appearances but it hasn’t satisfied the talented driver or a team that recently added Kurt Elliott to serve as assistant crew chief alongside crew chief Nicky Boninfante. It continues to be a learning process for Langdon, but he doesn’t mind the added pressure. He thrived in those moments during his Top Fuel championship season in 2013, and Langdon will rely on that ability to rise to the occasion in Norwalk and beyond.
“It’s a very competitive class, but I take that as a challenge,” Langdon said. “That’s one of the reasons why I went to Funny Car. I enjoy a challenge and it makes me thrive more. I like having that pressure on my shoulders where I’m expected to perform. Some of these pressure situations, I don’t really feel like it’s anything new. I’ve learned throughout the years how to block out situations where they could potentially be a distraction.”
SIT AND WAIT - The Pro Stock class was the only category not to make a single pass on Friday, as rain entered the area moments before the first pair was set to fire.
The poor weather compresses the Pro Stock session to two rounds on Saturday, with more weather in the forecast for day two.
A LONG, LONG, LONG TIME – Pop quiz.
When was the last time that both Greg Anderson and Jason Line were winless this far into a season?
We will give you a hint – the Summer Olympics were going strong in Australia, Academy Award-winning movie Gladiator hit theatres and George W. Bush was president.
Give up? The answer is 2000.
In the year 2000 Anderson was just getting his feet wet in NHRA Pro Stock competition and Jason Line had yet to make his national event debut. But from that point forward, at least one of those two drivers had won at least one race by the halfway point of every season since.
That is, until this year.
Through 11 races in 2018, the combined seven-time world champs have yet to grace the winner’s circle. They have been fast, with Anderson leading the way with seven No. 1 starts this season, but they have yet to put it all together when it matters most.
And that, they will be quick to tell you, just isn’t going to cut it.
“We just haven’t made the perfect calls on Sunday,” Anderson said. “We have to do a better job of managing the race track. We’ve been great this year in qualifying, but just a little off the mark on Sunday. That’s what we’ve got to fix. Qualifying has been great and I can’t complain about our power, but we have to change things on Sunday. Our theory here for success has been to win races. That’s how we judge ourselves.”
Through the first 11 events of the season, eight different winners have hoisted a Wally, making for one of the more competitive seasons in recent memory. But entering the team’s home race in Norwalk, just a stone’s throw from sponsor Summit Racing Equipment’s home in Tallmadge, Ohio, Anderson knows it is time to step it up.
“There’s a lot on the line with this race, but we’re good with that,” Anderson said. “I like that extra pressure and often that’s when we’re able to up our game. I don’t know why, but it’s happened many, many times. For some reason, I remember past years coming into Norwalk in a little bit of a lull, and somehow, some way this race falls our way. It’s fixed a lot of seasons for us and it needs to do that again this year.
“The bright spot is we’re leading the points, so the season can’t be too bad, but it’s disappointing we haven’t won. I felt like we’ve underachieved. There’s a lot of great cars and there may be 12-13 different winners this season, but we want to make sure we win one. If we win this weekend, it turns the season into a success instantly. It’s the biggest race of the year because of Summit and the fact it’s their 50th anniversary makes it even bigger.”
FROM THE SIDELINE TO THE HEADLINES – Over the past four years, Jeg Coughlin Jr. has become more of an afterthought.
Four years removed from his last professional class national event victory, the Pro Stock class had shifted its focus to others.
But at the JEGS Route 66 NHRA Nationals in Chicago earlier this month, Coughlin proved why he is still one of the best in the business by breaking a four-year winless streak in the class in taking his first victory since June of 2014.
Now the man can’t slow down.
Since awakening the beast with the win in Chicago, Coughlin has fired off three-straight wins – two in Pro Stock and one in Super Comp – to rise from outside the top 10 in points to sixth where he will enter this weekend.
“When you’ve gone as long as we had without winning, you reach a point where you take whatever you can get,” Coughlin said. “The last couple years were a little tiring at times and although we had our chances here and there, we never capitalized on them.
“Suddenly, we find our way and the entire mood changes. For five or six races now we’ve had a great racecar and we know it. When you feel that confidence in every corner of your racecar you know you have an opportunity to make a real impact. It’s put everyone at Elite on a party wagon, so to speak, but I’m just going to stay focused. However, I’m certainly enjoying this feeling because you can never take it for granted.
Being a home race for Coughlin, with the Norwalk track located just a few hours from their home base, Coughlin’s entire family will be in town, with nearly half a dozen of them competing over the weekend. And with favorable conditions slated for the race weekend, Coughlin feels confident he can make it four national event wins in a row while taking three-out-of-four in Pro Stock during this four-race stretch.
“We’re seeing temperatures in the 70s and 80s, which is a refreshing change after some really hot weekends,” Coughlin said. “It’s great to race in front of a home state crowd that will certainly be giving us some extra energy, and we have a full complement of family racing with us, which we love. On top of it all, my good luck charm from the last few races, Jeg Sr., will be with us so we’re excited.”
THE BIG 5-0 - Jason Line will be going for a special milestone this weekend in Norwalk.
If he can visit the winner’s circle for the first time this year, Line will collect his 50th career national event win, doing so at his sponsor’s home track all while celebrating the 50th anniversary of Summit Racing Equipment.
“I’ve been excited to get to the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals all year. This is a race we always look forward to, but this year it’s even more special for me because I have an opportunity to reach a pretty significant milestone,” said Line, who has recorded 47 national event wins in Pro Stock and two more in Stock Eliminator during his storied career. To get the 50th win of my career at Summit Motorsports Park during the 50th anniversary of Summit Racing Equipment would be something I would never forget.
“I’m super motivated to make that happen at Summit’s home race. We really want to do something good for them to thank them for all they’ve done for us through the years. This is a tough game; it certainly isn’t easy to win, but that’s what makes it special when you do - that would be especially true this weekend.”
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
ALMOST THERE - Matt Smith feels he is just a step or two away from being the best bike in the field.
And he showed as much Friday night at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals at Summit Motorsports Park.
The veteran rider raced to the provisional top spot Friday with a 6.866-second pass at 195.39 mph to best Angelle Sampey in the one and only qualifying session of the day.
“It was a good first run. We have a top three bike every weekend, I just have to do my job,” Smith said. “I messed up at Atlanta and a few others, but the bike is doing its job. The bike has been hateful since we pulled it out at Charlotte, but the team is doing a great job and I couldn’t ask for a better group.
“We still need a major sponsor. Hopefully someone will step up and allow us to run the rest of the year. We have a new body coming after this race. If we get that, we might really get it done out here.”
SEARCHING FOR THAT W - Everything about Andrew Hines’ season has gone completely according to plan.
He has been the fastest bike on the property several times. He has made a handful of finals. And he is currently leading the Pro Stock Motorcycle points.
So what’s the problem?
He has yet to win a race.
In fact, dating back to last season, Hines has only one win in the past season-and-a-half, coming at the season finale of the 2017 season. So while Hines continues to tick off round wins and continues to be one of the fastest bikes in the world, wins are proving a lot harder to come by.
“It definitely grates on you a little bit, but I am not hanging my head or anything because it’s been good,” said Hines, who is currently leading the championship standings with three runner-up finishes this season. “It’s just bad time on a lot of it. A lot of racers say, ‘you have to have that one lucky round to get that race win’ and a lot of my lucky rounds come at the wrong time.
“I will get a lucky round maybe when the other person breaks or something like that. I just haven’t been able to get the whole package together on race day. We are getting closer this year. I’m still happy to run well and it’s going to happen.
“It is one of those things where sometimes I have to carry the bike and sometimes the bike carries me and when it all comes together and we get on the same page it is going to happen again.”
And the biggest factor in closing that gap and getting back in the winner’s circle is the fact that the Pro Stock Motorcycle class has seen a tremendous bump in parity this year, with the separation from the top half of the field to the bottom shrinking race by race.
“Everyone has made it really, really tough out here,” Hines said. “The field is stacking up in qualifying with a tenth-of-a-second or less. The first round you are matched up with someone you race in the final not too long ago. I guess it is what it is and it makes it exciting, we just have to find our groove and put it all together.”
GRIT AND DETERMINATION – Just two years ago, Cory Reed looked like the future of the NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle category.
Racing to his first career final round and racking up a bunch of round wins, Reed collected the 2016 AAA Road to the Future Rookie of the Year Award that same season.
Let’s just say things have been a bit different.
Since his attention-grabbing rookie season, Reed has had just three round wins and has struggled to be competitive just about everywhere they have gone.
But after hitting the reset button following a disappointing 2017, Reed is as determined as ever to turn things around this year. Currently, Reed sits ninth in the championship standings and, following a couple weeks off testing some new parts and pieces, Reed is ready to turn a corner this weekend aboard the FireAde/Team Liberty Racing Buell.
“We’ve taken the two weeks off and hit the dyno pretty hard,” Reed said. “We also went testing this week and I think once all the right components fall in place at the same time, we could contend for a win.”